In Good Faith: Extending the Joy

My latest “In Good Faith” column reminds us that it’s okay to keep downing Peeps — the advantage of living into the 50-days of Eastertide.

Extending the Joy

peepsFear not. For behold, I bring you tidings of great joy: Easter is not just a single day but a 50-day season of resurrection glory! Thus, you can keep the jelly bean sugar high going with reckless abandon. Grab those Peeps (which taste better when they’re slightly stale anyway). Finish the giant chocolate bunny you’ve already decapitated. Live into the joy without guilt.

You can always start the diet the day after Pentecost (June 8th this year), the last day of the Easter season. The wise reader, or the one studying for the SATs, will make the connection between 50 and the pente root of Pentecost (think pentagon — five sided). Pentecost literally means fiftieth day in Greek.

Etymology lesson aside, the Church has celebrated Easter as a 50-day season for generations. This tends to be forgotten in our Hallmark skip-ahead-to-the-next-holiday culture, but it’s important to take some time to bask in the warm glow of the resurrection. After all, it’s the seminal event in the Christian faith so what’s the rush?

Plus, living in the Boston area, we could use that extra dose of joy. I was particularly struck this year that the Boston Marathon took place the day after Easter. To varying degrees we were all affected by last year’s tragedy and Patriots Day 2014 turned into one long day of regional catharsis, which we all needed. I ran the race in 2008 and at one level I couldn’t even imagine what last week’s event was like. The crowds, the emotion, the global news coverage were all unprecedented.

But at another level, I knew exactly what it was like. Not because I once turned that corner onto Boylston Street and dragged myself the last four blocks to the finish line amid throngs of cheering spectators — I barely remember that. But because the 118th running of the Boston Marathon was a tangible sign of resurrection. Each footstep, each cheer allowed the finish line in Copley Square to be reclaimed as a place not of tragedy but of triumph.

And as Christians will tell you, we know something about transformation and new life. On Easter, the cross is transformed from an implement of torture and death into an instrument of resurrection glory. Hope and meaning emerge out of chaos and we are transported into a new, life-giving relationship with God.

But we also know something about death — faith doesn’t make us immune to the painful realities of life. We lose someone close to us and the pain can be searing; a relationship fractures and it leaves us reeling; we lose a job and we’re left seeking an identity; an institution we’ve always loved closes and it leaves a void; we feel betrayed by a friend and it stings.

When we talk about resurrection, we first must confront death since you can’t share in resurrection joy without first experiencing grief. Indeed, the road to Easter goes straight through Good Friday. And yet Easter reminds us that despite the tragedies and trials we all face in this life, death doesn’t get the last word. We don’t remain on Heartbreak Hill; death doesn’t win.

Life does. Because when Jesus emerges from that tomb life wins out over death and that false boundary between life and death is breached once and for all. That’s what the celebration is all about.

As people who have come through a dark period in our collective civic lives, we have earned the right to extend the celebration. So grab a handful of jelly beans. If you’re like me you’ll want to avoid that horrid buttered popcorn-flavored Jelly Belly. But enjoy the rest of them. It’s okay to let the joy sink in for awhile.

The Devil’s Music

Leo "Bud" Welch

Leo “Bud” Welch

In this month’s In Good Faith column I sing, or at least write about, the blues. I’ve long been a blues fan and it’s what I’ve been studying ever since I started taking guitar lessons for the first time since high school a year and a half ago. So it was great to go hear some live blues in a local church last week, meet Bud Welch, hear his story, and most importantly listen to him get his “mojo workin’.”

The Devil’s Music

“The devil’s music.” That’s how the blues has long been characterized. So what was I doing siting in a church listening to the blues last Sunday afternoon? Well, I’ll get to that in a minute but first it’s interesting to reflect on why the blues acquired this reputation.

It may be because temptation is a recurring theme in many blues songs. It’s said that you can’t really sing the blues unless you’ve first “danced with the devil.” That doesn’t literally mean doing the fox trot with a guy in a red suit but it’s a recognition that evil is alive, well, and thriving in our midst. There are also classic blues standards with titles like “Hell Hound on my Trail,” “Devil’s Got the Blues,” and “Devil Sent the Rain.”

One of the main reasons, however, is the well-known myth surrounding blues great Robert Johnson who died in 1938 at the age of 27. One of the first blues JOHNSONartists to be recorded, he was a major influence on musicians such as Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger, and Bob Dylan. It’s said that his extraordinary talent, with no formal training, was a result of a meeting with the devil at the crossroads of Highways 61 and 49 in Clarksdale, Mississippi, where he sold his soul in exchange for guitar-playing prowess.

As a big fan of the blues and a Christian, I naturally don’t subscribe to the idea that it’s the “devil’s music.” This is why I was delighted that the Hingham Congregational Church recently held a concert featuring 82-year-old Mississippi bluesman Leo “Bud” Welch. His is a remarkable story: Born in Sabougla, Mississippi, in 1932 he first picked picked up a guitar in 1945 — his older cousin’s instrument that he was expressly forbidden to touch. Eventually he was caught but his cousin was impressed by his ability and let him continue to play.

By the age of 15 Bud was playing publicly but for most of his life he made his living as a logger, hauling a chain saw up and down the hills of North Mississippi. He remained an undiscovered talent for years until recording his first album, Sabougla Voices, this January, two month’s shy of his 82nd birthday.

As I sat enthralled listening to Bud Welch’s playing and singing, I started thinking about the season of Lent. We’re in the midst of the Church’s 40-day season of penitence and self-examination that serves as preparation for Easter. Lent is based on Jesus’ experience in the wilderness that followed his baptism in the Jordan River and preceded the start of his public ministry. During this time, we read in Scripture, he was tempted by the devil yet did not sin. So perhaps listening to the blues in a church is particularly poignant during Lent. Jesus can relate to us and understand our own struggles because he knew them first-hand. And even when we give in to temptation, as we inevitably do, Jesus still loves us despite our weakness.

Bud Welch doesn’t think of the blues as the devil’s music but rather as “a way of expressing the highs and lows of one’s life through song.” I couldn’t agree more and this is precisely why I’m so drawn to the music. I don’t think of the blues as depressing — indeed there are moments of joy and triumph in the genre along with heartache and pain. In a word, the blues is life. Our lives are full of hills and valleys leading to a rich topography of experience. If you aren’t familiar with the blues, I encourage you to give them a listen. Reflecting on the tough times and temptations of our own lives always makes the resurrection on Easter Day that much more powerful.

In Good Faith: Talkin’ ’bout my Generation

clip_image002In my February In Good Faith column I write about generational divides and generational unity in the context of officially having two teenagers in our household (and so far living to tell about it.

Talkin’ ’bout My Generation

My household now contains two teenagers. Well, maybe three since Mimi, our pet ferret, is four-years-old and I have no idea how old that is in ferret years. But with our second, and youngest, child turning thirteen this month and our oldest holding steady at 14 1/2, we have two teenage boys in our domestic stable.

seegerMaybe it was the death of famed folk singer Peter Seeger last week or the reality that my wife and I are now officially graduates of the “tween” years, but I’ve been thinking a lot about generations.

Generation is the one designation in life that transcends race, culture, nationality, religion, ethnicity, and any other label you could possibly come up with. You can’t control when you’re born, of course, and so your birth year determines your generation. As much as I might admire those in what we call the Greatest Generation — people who grew up during the Depression and fought in World War II — I can’t become a convert from my own Generation X. And I could take computer classes and play XBox until my eyes fell out but I’d still never be a Millennial, as we call the first generation born into our hyper-connected world.

Generationally, we’re stuck which is generally not a problem because we all think our generation is the best generation. The generation before us is full of out of touch dinosaurs and the generation after us is populated by entitled young whipper snappers. It’s the generational circle of life.

There’s nothing like having a couple of teenagers around to remind you of your incompetence, poor fashion sense, lousy cooking, inability to help with homework, and general cluelessness. Such is this stage of intergenerational living, which is all perfectly normal, of course. It’s part of the teenage “job description” as they grow, mature, and start seeking their own identity in the world. Fortunately, my entire self-worth isn’t based on their teenaged perception of me — if so I’d be spending most of my time on a therapist’s couch.

What’s too bad, though, is that in many ways we live in a generationally segregated society. Multiple generations used to live under the same roof but advances in transportation changed this as families scattered all over the country. Today, there are very few truly intergenerational places left. For instance if you live in a retirement community you may not see a child running around for days at a time and if you’re a young stay-at-home mom you may go all week without interacting with anyone over the age of 55.

One of the things I love about the Church in general and my own parish in particular is that it’s one of the last places in society where different generations gather and interact on a regular basis. I love looking out on a Sunday morning and seeing every generation imaginable out in the congregation. It’s a sign of the fullness of God’s kingdom here on earth as we all gather to pray and sing and give thanks to our Creator before mixing it up over coffee and conversation afterward.

serving-handsI also love watching the whole congregation come up to receive communion with outstretched hands. There are small hands still awash in colorful paint from the latest Church School project; arthritic, wrinkled hands; rough hands that have worked hard all week; lotion-smooth hands adorned with rings; nondescript middle-aged hands that might have a paper cut from shuffling papers; hands I recognize and hands of visitors and newcomers. Yet everyone is reaching out to receive the same thing: divine relationship through Jesus Christ.

I encourage you to be intentional about reaching over the generational divide in your own life — you’ll be richer for it.  And in the meantime, for any parents of teenagers out there, maybe introduce them to the Pete Seeger song “Be Kind to Your Parents.” It ends with these words: “So treat them with patience and kind understanding, in spite of the foolish things they do. Some day you might wake up and find you’re a parent too.”

In Good Faith: “New Year, New You!”

1387573806_stretchCouldn’t avoid the topic of New Year’s in my latest In Good Faith column.

New Year, New You!”

“New Year, New You!” That was the tagline on an ad for a health club I saw recently. While I already belong to a gym, I admit I paused for a moment after reading that. I mean, I’m pretty good with the “old” me but a whole “new” one? Well, that’s pretty enticing.

What would the new me look like? I guess I’d start with the growth spurt that never really materialized in high school. 5’8” isn’t exactly gnome-like but when your 14-year-old son looks down on you by a full three inches you could use a slight boost.

I could also use some help with the hair that’s starting to thin just a bit on the crown of my head — that would be nice. And don’t even get me started on my personality. Fork over a few hilarious stories I could regale people with at cocktail parties and maybe just a few points on the old IQ? I don’t need to be MENSA level but I’d love to wow friends and family with my ability to finish the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle in record time.

Hey, as long as this is heading in the direction of a hybrid genie/Santa, I’ll be frank. I could use some extra cash. My life would be so much better if I could trade in the family mini-van for a Hummer. And I’ve always wanted a pied-a-terre in Paris.

It’s amazing to think a health club will be able to deliver a brand new me. Whatever the monthly fee, it’s surely worth it and, with my newfound wealth, I won’t even notice it.

This whole notion is, of course, ludicrous. It’s so easy to fall into the annual New Year’s trap: “I resolve that this will be the year everything changes and I become a better, more successful, healthier, wealthier person.” Yet every year, by about mid-January, you realize that you’re stuck with the same old you. Sure you might give up eating ice cream every night or maybe you’ve finally signed up for that ballroom dancing class you’ve always talked about. But when you look in the mirror, guess what? Same old you.

This isn’t meant to suck the resolve out of your resolutions. After all, New Year’s is a time brimming with opportunity and041812_obit_clarkvogel_640 expectation. Maybe it’s the free-flowing champagne or the overpriced New Year’s Eve meal packages every restaurant seems to offer. Or perhaps it’s those annoying noise-makers or the ghost of Dick Clark (has he actually died yet? I can’t remember). But whatever the reason, the New Year feels different because it offers a fresh start, an opportunity for a new beginning, a clean break. Whatever the past has been, once that calendar switches over to January 1st, we can start anew. Right?

The problem is buying into this mentality means we view ourselves as essentially flawed. We forget that we have been created in God’s image and that God loves us for who we are — blemishes and all. Sure, we’re all works in progress; human beings always are. But God loves the unfinished product. God loves the striving we do to live into our full potential as creatures of God.

So forget about the idea of an entirely “new you.” It’s important to remember we’re not trying to hide from the past but rather building upon it. The past, for better or worse, is a large part of who we are in the present. But we stand, with God’s help, ready to move on and to grow in new and exciting ways. Each day we are offered time with God, time with friends, and time with family. By treating each day with the spirit of New Year’s we can recapture the sense of excitement and wonder that comes from time spent in this holy and fruitful way.

Oh, and I just Googled it: Dick Clark died in April, 2012, in case you were wondering. In any case, Happy New Year!

In Good Faith: Ghoulish Grin

blogger-image--1606360413In my latest In Good Faith column I write about Halloween and its Christian roots. Now pass the candy corn!

Ghoulish Grin

I have pumpkin carving issues. It’s gotten to the point where my family lets me carve the eyes, the nose, and the hole in the top but I’m not allowed to get within a Butterfinger’s length of the mouth. The scary grin is off limits because for the last couple of years I’ve mistakenly cut off the teeth and we’ve ended up with a toothless, geriatric Jack-O-Lantern. It’s not exactly spooky looking unless you’re hoping for a set of dentures in your Halloween candy bag or you have an irrational fear of Bart Simpson’s grandfather.

I actually like Halloween but I know some Christians don’t share my attitude — something about it being satanic in nature. I think it’s a lot of fun and not just because free candy is the best kind. Plus how can you say something is evil with so many devilishly cute kids running around with such joy?

But beyond the mounds of candy corn and fake spider webs, All Hallow’s Eve has Christian roots and is thus a great teaching opportunity. The day we dress up and trick-or-treat is steeped in the ancient Christian feasts of All Saints’ and All Souls Day. There’s a great tradition of mocking death — hence the ghoulish costumes — as we stand in sure and certain hope of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

On All Saints’ Day (November 1) we remember the great saints of the church who have come before us in the faith and continue to inspire us — those “Big S” saints like St. Francis and St. Mary. On All Souls Day (November 2) we remember those whom we have loved and lost in our own lives — those “small s” saints like Uncle Frank and our sister Mary.

So whether you’re dressed up as Miley Cyrus or Ted Cruz, you’re participating in a ritual that transcends the surface plane of life, speaks to something deeper, and reminds us that we are all connected to one another in what Christians call the “communion of saints.” In other words, it’s mostly about our faith in God but the sugar high can’t help but contribute to the joy of the human-divine connection.

My boys are at the age where they’re torn between participating in a “childish” ritual and the allure of free candy. Whether they go out trick-or-treating on Halloween will likely be a game time decision based on what their friends are doing.

Unfortunately they’re now much too old for me to engage in one of the greatest scams going — trick-or-treating with an infant. I remember my eldest son’s first Halloween – he was four months old. We put him in a homemade strawberry hat someone had given us and I dressed all in white; together we were strawberries and cream. People thought Ben was so cute (they ignored me) they would fill up his bag with candy. Of course, since he was too young to eat it, I was forced to keep it for myself which meant that I was literally stealing candy from a baby.

As for me, sometimes after the rush of trick-or-treaters dies down I stand in the doorway with my toothless Jack-O-Lantern burning bright, reflecting on what was behind all those costumes that traipsed up the front steps. If you took away the masks and hoods and dyed green hair you’d find something greatly resembling a saint. I don’t mean that the saints we honor in stained glass ever rubbed soap on car windows or engaged in other ghoulish pranks, but they were all human beings just like you and me. They weren’t super-human, they were simply super humans who put  their faith at the very center of their lives.

I hope you enjoy the festivities this year and avoid the house I best remember as a kid — the neighborhood dentist who handed out toothbrushes instead of Twizzlers.

In Good Faith: Chance Encounters

last-chanceMy latest In Good Faith Column takes us to Kentucky where I recently spent some time with Bishop Doug Hahn and 45 priests and deacons from the Episcopal Diocese of Lexington. Leading a clergy conference on creativity in ministry was great but not being able to sit in the back and Tweet snark was surreal. Fortunately for me, the lack of WiFi meant karma couldn’t bite me back. With Laurie Brock in attendance, I dodged a bullet! (that’s a wild west reference for those keeping score).

Chance Encounters

I traveled to Kentucky for the first time in 21 years last week. I was invited to lead a clergy conference in the Diocese of Lexington and suddenly found myself on a mountain in Eastern Kentucky surrounded by Episcopal priests. While that may sound like a nightmare scenario of Dante-esque proportions to you, take comfort in knowing that I was also surrounded by good bourbon.

Being in the Blue Grass State reminded me of my last encounter with Kentucky. After college, where I served in the Army’s ROTC program, I spent four months at Fort Knox training to be a tank platoon leader. Some days I swear this was better training for parish ministry than studying theology but that’s another matter.

Anyway, Route 31 in Kentucky connects the city of Louisville to Fort Knox and I traveled this road on a regular basis whenever we’d have weekends off. Route 31 was nothing if not nondescript but I distinctly remember passing one particular business establishment. It was a liquor store placed just outside the county line between dry Bullit County, where the sale of alcohol was prohibited, and wet Hardin County, where alcohol sales were legal.

Driving down Route 31 through the dry county and approaching the wet one, the liquor store’s giant neon sign read “Benny’s First Chance.” But when you traveled the opposite way on Route 31, through the wet county approaching the dry one, the giant neon sign read “Benny’s Last Chance.” A clever marketing ploy that has probably served Benny well over the years and it’s certainly stuck in my mind.

From a spiritual perspective, we’re offered a number of first chances and last chances. Every day in every moment, we’re offered a first chance to turn our hearts to God. The door is always open, the arms are always wide, the welcoming embrace is always offered, the invitation always stands. Sometimes that first step into genuine relationship feels like stepping off a cliff — it’s called a leap of faith, after all. But that letting go is part of living into that first chance to be with the divine — a chance we’re asked to take again and again and again.

Last chances are trickier. A last chance feels like an ultimatum: “Turn to God or else…” Preachers have fed off the fear of the last chance for generations and, while it’s occasionally effective in keeping people in line or coming through the doors, I don’t believe it gets to the heart of God. Coming face-to-face with the last chance of God’s judgment is always within the context of God’s loving mercy. The merciful judgment of God demands that we take God up on the first chances we’re continually offered to serve God and one another. Regardless, whether it’s a first chance or a last chance, we’re always encouraged to take a chance on God’s love.

I had a good time in Kentucky and I hope it won’t be another 21 years until I make it there. A clergy friend of mine in Lexington set me up with a riding lesson — I was eight the last time I rode a horse. There I was sitting atop a docile beast named Jack circling the ring along with five other riders, all elementary school-aged girls. The smile plastered on my face the whole time had nothing to do with the bourbon I knew I’d be sipping later. 559432_10202158374871607_316601748_n

In Good Faith: Routine Matters

Smashing an Alarm ClockThat giant sucking sound you hear is the post-Labor Day return back to the normal routine. Not only is it loud and annoying, the transition itself can be quite jarring. In my latest In Good Faith column, I write about that which we both crave and fear: routine.

Routine Matters

A Youtube video of a mom doing the “happy dance” after putting her children on the bus for the first day of school went viral this week. The school bus pulls up, the kids hop on, N’SYNC’s “Bye, Bye, Bye” is cued up, and the Framingham mother starts dancing wildly on the curb.

I think it resonates because it captures the swirl of emotions this time of year — overjoyed, wistful, excited, anxious. Sure, this mom may have gone back into her house and poured herself an Irish coffee to celebrate her renewed freedom but we can laugh at her exuberance because that’s likely not what happened. She probably took a moment to reflect on the fleeting nature of childhood and the joys of unscheduled time with her family over the summer. And then poured herself that drink.

Whether you found yourself weeping, leaping for joy, or experiencing a combination of emotions, we tend to have mixed feelings about the return of the fall routine. So long mid-afternoon margaritas, hello late-afternoon homework harangue. Good bye beach umbrellas, hello alarm clocks.

There’s just something in the air that changes the whole tenor of our being once the calendar flips to September and it can be a jarring transition. Whether or not you have school-aged children at home, no one is immune to the post-Labor Day metamorphosis from lazy to crazy.

The reality is that we both fear and crave routine. At one level it pushes against our innate Jack Kerouac-esque wanderlust. If we’re tied to the routine of our daily lives and responsibilities, how can we go on that spur of the moment road trip to Atlantic City? Then again, how would we explain said trip to our boss, spouse, children, et al?

Yet, routine orders the chaos of life and provides comfort in the midst of that which we cannot control. And there is a lot we can’t control in life.

This is the reason so many are drawn to faiths that embrace the liturgical tradition. There is comfort in the routine of worship that speaks to the soul. While there are seasonal and musical changes and different messages depending on the sacred readings, the structure of the service itself doesn’t vary from week to week. Parishioners know what’s coming; there’s a liturgical arc to everything that happens. While some find this “boring” or “rote,” those who embrace the liturgical tradition find that the divine experience transcends words and meets worshippers in the familiarity of the liturgy.

Many congregations hold post-Labor Day services titled “Back to Church” Sunday or “Homecoming Sunday.” Some even call it “Rally Sunday,” which to me always sounds like a demolition derby will be involved. Here at St. John’s in Hingham, we do something similar on the weekend after Labor Day — the choir returns, Church School kicks off, we have a barbecue after church, and our Saturday 5:00 pm service starts up again that weekend. It’s all a recognition that many of us have gotten out of the routine and are seeking to get back into it.

Of course when it comes to the tension between freedom and routine, the proverbial grass is always greener. In the midst of routine we seek freedom and in the midst of freedom we crave routine. When we’re mired in the rut of being over-scheduled we want to toss our iPhone into Hingham Harbor and fly to “St. Somewhere.” Yet when the hot, humid days of late August start piling up, we dream about having a plan on a crisp fall day.

The solution is to enjoy each moment as it comes without looking ahead or behind. Living in the present is an ongoing spiritual challenge but it’s one that we can engage right here right now. So jump on in! It’s time.

In Good Faith: Ladies Man

SSM.w250What songs do you listen to when you drive down to meet a bunch of nuns? This was my dilemma last month as I went to visit the Sisters of St. Margaret in Duxbury, an issue I write about in my latest In Good Faith column. Read on to discover my soundtrack and prepare to meet some pretty special ladies.

Ladies Man

I’ve been hanging out with a bunch of single women recently. It’s okay, you can tell my wife — they’re nuns. A number of the Sisters of St. Margaret have been attending services at St. John’s the past few months and they recently invited me down to visit their convent on the South Shore.

This may come as a surprise on several fronts. First, there are indeed Episcopal nuns — Roman Catholics don’t have a monopoly on religious orders. In fact there are many Episcopal monasteries and convents throughout this country and the world. They don’t fit the Nun-zilla image portrayed in movies such as Sister Act or the Blues Brothers and I’ve yet to see one of them sneak a ruler into church.

The second thing that may surprise you is that their convent is located on a large parcel of waterfront property in Duxbury. Any developer would surely drool over their location, imagining several mansions and lots of money exchanging hands. Don’t get your hopes up — they’ve owned the property since 1903.

As I began my drive down to meet with the order’s Superior and her right hand nun, I had an important decision to make, namely what soundtrack would accompany me on my 35 minute drive? I decided on a mix of Twisted Sister, anything by Sister Sledge, and “Sister Christian” by Night Ranger. I decided against Billy Joel’s “Only the Good Die Young” and Elvis’ “Little Sister.”

So what are a group of habited nuns doing in an upscale suburb on Boston’s South Shore? I’ll tell you what they’re not doing: lounging around on the beach having mai tais delivered by the novices. Though headquartered in Duxbury, they have Sisters serving in Dorchester, New York City, and Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

They’ve long been engaged in mission work in Haiti, arguably the poorest country in the world. Indeed, they’re currently set up in temporary housing as their convent in Port-au-Prince was destroyed by the devastating 2010 earthquake. Much of their ministry is focused on the needs of children and the elderly. In particular they administer a scholarship program for children unable to afford the basic supplies needed to attend school or whose families cannot pay the minimum fees required.

As with many monastic orders, the sisters also offer a ministry of hospitality, hosting groups and individuals at their newly-built residence in Duxbury. They are available for spiritual counseling, run retreats and quiet days, and offer a respite for those seeking some time to attend to their spiritual lives.

I guess the last thing that might surprise you about the sisters is their demeanor. They’re neither dour nor sanctimonious and, believe it or not, they don’t bite! In fact they are delightful, warm, compassionate, dedicated, and, yes, funny.

If you’re interested in finding out more about the sisters, check out their website at (yes, modern nuns have websites). I encourage you to contact them for a visit to the convent or even to donate money to support their ministries — all of which you can do via their web page. I guarantee your life will be transformed by the encounter.


Rock n’ Roll Fantasy

220px-Take_It_on_the_Run_coverThe good news about  getting dragged to an REO Speedwagon concert by you wife? You can usually squeeze out one of your monthly In Good Faith columns out of the ordeal.

Rock n’ Roll Fantasy

I went to see the 1980’s superband REO Speedwagon a couple of weeks ago at an outdoor music venue on Boston’s South Shore. Yes, this feels like a public confession — I still can’t believe I allowed my wife to drag me out to see them on what turned out to be the evening of game five of the Stanley Cup finals. If I had no desire to see the band that brought us “Can’t fight this feeling anymore” when I was in high school, the idea hadn’t grown on me in the intervening years.

A few things surprised me about the evening other than my own presence. First of all, I was shocked/horrified to learn they were still alive and touring. Long live the cheesy love ballad! Unlike a lot of these retread bands that tour small, outdoor venues every summer, REO Speedwagon was still together after 40 years. They weren’t touring in name only like many bands that have, say, one original member (I’m looking at you Foreigner, Bad Company, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Foghat, et al).

Sure, each member of the band was, in his own unique way, a caricature of the aging rock star. The bass player still had long flowing locks (extensions?), the lead guitarist was balding and slightly hunched over, the lead singer had that crazed energetic look of a man who had seen it and done it all before, and the keyboard player wore a skull cap and literally didn’t look up for the entire show.

What really stunned me, though, was that I thoroughly enjoyed myself. It wasn’t just the good company (as opposed to Bad Company) I was with. These guys were crack musicians who weren’t just phoning it in — they could rock. They also brought a sly sense of humor that basically said “We know some of our big hits were cheesy and we know we have to play them so we might as well have fun along the way and anyway as long as we’re here we’re still going to play some actual rock ‘n roll so hang onto your hats.” Or something to that effect.

Perhaps the popularity of these nostalgia acts shouldn’t come as a surprise. Each summer middle-aged folks flock to such concerts. Maybe we’re trying to recapture a spark from our past — a time before children and mortgages and the burden of life’s responsibilities. A time when our emotions rollicked to the beat of our favorite bands and our identities were wrapped up in the intensity of our friendships.

These bands will always serve as the soundtrack to an earlier stage of our lives. That’s the power of music, after all, and it’s what draws us back year after year. The good news of faith is that while tastes in music change and evolve, God’s love for us remains the one constant in our lives. In other words, the acts may change but the stage remains the same.

Of course life does, and should, move on. There’s a fine line between nostalgia and living in the past and I was grateful for the pre-concert dinner out with good friends and a bottle of Pinot Noir rather than a post-concert meal of pizza and Schlitz of a previous era.

For me, the highlight of the show had nothing to with any of the hits that made the band famous — I still change the radio station whenever they come on — it was their very last number. They left us with the old Van Morrison song (popularized by The Doors) Gloria – G.L.O.R.I.A. I may have been the only one thinking about the words Gloria in excelsis Deo (Glory to God in the Highest) but much to my surprise, REO Speedwagon brought down the house. And that was worth the price of admission.

Divine Comedy

divine_comedy_logoLast week I wrote about The Often Overlooked Humor of Jesus. I’ve adapted this idea into my latest monthly “In Good Faith” column. This version is shorter and more suitable for my column — the point of which is to bring faith into everyday life and reach out to people who don’t necessarily attend church.

Divine Comedy

Jesus is hilarious.

Okay, that’s not a sentiment you hear very often. You won’t see a Comedy Central special called “Joking with Jesus!” And too many of us have encountered humorless Christians over the years. You know the type — tight lipped, judgmental, unsmiling, puritanical. People who view frivolity as sacrilege and humor as heresy.

But this understanding of the Christian life is incomplete. A more nuanced reading of Scripture leads us away from an attitude of holier-than-thou solemnity and Jesus himself points the way. Jesus uses humor to teach, heal, convert and, ultimately, redeem. Seriously. And he does this while modeling the fact that laughter and profundity are not mutually exclusive.

The humor of Jesus is subtle, nearly imperceptible at first glance. The Sermon on the Mount, for instance, doesn’t begin with a joke to warm up the crowd. But throughout his ministry Jesus displays great wit, command of the language, a gift for irony and word plays, and impeccable timing — all hallmarks of great comedians.

The gospels aren’t funny in the traditional sense. It’s not slapstick comedy; there are no pratfalls. They’re passion narratives, not anthologies of “The Wit and Wisdom of Jesus Christ.”

Yet when you dig a little, you start to see that Jesus had a wicked sense of humor. Which makes sense — a master storyteller would never forsake humor as a means to reach an audience. Jesus, who spent much of his ministry breaking down barriers between people, knew that humor does exactly this. Humor disarms and unites; it sets people at ease and leaves them receptive to the speaker’s message. He understood that laughter is simply good for the soul and that humor allows us to confront the darker sides of life with grace and composure.

The examples of Jesus’ irony and wit are plentiful. Perhaps we can view the humorless Pharisees as the ultimate straight men for Jesus. Throughout the four gospels the joke, it seems, is on them. Their somber rigidity is paralyzing; their hypocrisy and self-righteousness keep them from true relationship with the divine. They are the perfect foils to Jesus’ message of love as he continually meets their scorn and contempt with quick wit and perfect timing.

The encounters with the Pharisees are full of brilliant one-liners. “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mt 22:21) is a perfect response dripping with irony. The blind leading the blind is, of course, a comical visual image and a pointed commentary on the religious leaders of the day (Mt 15:14). And think about the hilarious image of straining out a gnat while eating a camel (Mt 23:24). His hearers certainly chuckled at this purposefully ludicrous image. And it invariably stuck with them.

There are hosts of other wonderfully amusing moments in the gospel accounts. There is irony and humorous exaggeration, phrases that would have brought smiles to the lips of his hearers, if not full belly laughs. Explaining the efficacy of prayer he asks the Apostles, “What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If your son asks for an egg, will you give him a scorpion?” (Lk 11:11-12) “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (Mk 10:25). That’s a memorable image.

Unfortunately we lose the facial expressions and tone of voice so crucial to successful comedy. David Letterman can make us laugh with a smirk or the inflection of his voice. A manuscript of his show wouldn’t be nearly as amusing as seeing it live. So it’s a shame the gospels have been handed down to us as manuscripts and not YouTube videos.

The point here is not to place Jesus in the Comedy Hall of Fame. Rather it is to encourage us to see and hear the message of our Lord with fresh eyes and ears, to discover a new aspect of his divine brilliance and to meet him with renewed joy and laughter in our hearts. Above all, Jesus encourages us to take our faith but not ourselves too seriously.