All Holy Week, I've been listening to Hozier's “Take Me to Church” — an odd sort of spiritual exercise, I suppose.
At first it was the hauntingly catchy refrain: “Take Me to Church” — and after all I would be going to church all week this week, the holiest of weeks in the Christian calendar. Maundy, or Holy, Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil, Easter Sunday.
The refrain was jarring against the artist's desired impact of the song, that in fact no one would be taken to church, that no one would trust the institutional church that has proven so dogmatic, divisive, violent, and decidedly un-Christlike in its practice as to become "a fresh poison each week."
“Take Me to Church” is about sexuality, about dogma, about prayer, about worship, about heaven, hell, life, death, sacrifice, sin, confession, and absolution. It’s about Catholicism and Protestantism and Jesus and atheism and fear and hope and love.
We each see pieces of it. Many American viewers saw Hozier's music video and wrongly assumed he was gay — that the sum of his message was about the church's persecution of homosexuality. And even though Hozier is not gay, he did mean to indict the church for its horrible treatment of the LGBTQ community — but the message of his song goes beyond sexuality.
Hozier is an Irish singer, a man who grew up with the deadly legacy of Catholic-Protestant war, a man whose national church was beset by sexual abuse scandals and pews full of dogmatic believers who had never read the Bible. Masses in many cases were dominated by ritual and women and babies sent away to church-run facilities, like the one where the bodies of nearly 800 infants were recently found in an unmarked mass grave.
Americans can look on the Irish church with judgment, yet our own church scandals and hypocrisy can fill even more pages.
As a pastor looking toward Easter Sunday 2015, I see something else in these lyrics. I see and hear a deep longing. Not only for sex. But a longing for the God who came to earth in Jesus, who died and rose again because of love.
I asked colleagues and friends about their responses to this song, as it dominates airwaves during Holy Week, and no one seemed to want to broach the topic. Too sexual, some said. Another, that "it could not be redeemed." Another, that "people would be too offended."
Peaceful Neighbor: Discovering the Countercultural Mister Rogers by Michael G. Long / The Mask You Live In by Representation Project / Undivided: A Muslim Daughter, Her Christian Mother, Their Path to Peace by Patricia Raybon / Leave Some Things Behind by the Steel Wheels
When Christ Went to the Temple
LLANGLOFFAN 126.96.36.199 D (“Rejoice, Rejoice, Believers”)
When Christ went to the Temple to worship God one day,
He entered through the courtyard where anyone could pray.
That court was for the nations--and all could enter in.
But Jesus found a market, a shameful robbers’ den.
There, cattle, sheep, and pigeons were sold for sacrifice,
And moneychangers shouted of quality and price.
Outsiders could not enter the inner courts for prayer.
Their only place to worship was in the courtyard there.
St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch stood at the podium three nights before Thanksgiving and announced the St. Louis grand jury would not indict police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. Moments after the announcement, Ferguson exploded in protests, then rage, then flames. Spontaneous protests also broke out in cities and towns across the country and carried on through the Thanksgiving holiday.
The morning after the announcement I received an email from friend and colleague David Bailey, who shared this song, “Don’t Shoot.” It was written and performed by students at Berklee College of Music, who go by the name Fleeceboi. They were so grieved by the announcement that they stayed up all night writing the song. I listened and wept.
The folk trio Peter, Paul, and Mary had almost 50 years together until Mary Travers’ death in 2009. Peter Yarrow and Noel Paul Stookey continue as musicians and activists, and have reflected on their experiences in a new a photo-filled book Peter, Paul and Mary: 50 Years in Life and Song (Imagine/Charlesbridge). A just-released album, DISCOVERED: Live in Concert, includes 12 live songs never before heard on their albums. And on Dec. 1 (check local listings), PBS will air 50 Years with Peter, Paul and Mary — a new documentary with rare and previously unseen television footage and many of the trio’s best performances and most popular songs.
I spoke with Yarrow and Stookey this week about music, movements, and the spiritual aspects of both. (Stookey had what he describes as a “deep reborn experience” as a Christian around 1969 or 1970; Yarrow doesn’t affiliate with a specific religious institution, but describes much of what motivates him in spiritual terms.)
Stookey describes how all three of them were drawn to carrying on the precedent of folk forebears such as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger to make music “in the interest of, and love of, community.” Their appearance at the 1963 March on Washington was, he says, “the galvanizing moment” for their activism, the beginning of a trajectory that would engage them in the civil rights, peace, anti-nuclear, environment, and immigration movements, and “less media-covered causes and events — a rainbow of concerns that we were inevitably and naturally drawn into.”
Radical Spirituality: Repentance, Resistance, Revoluton by Jason Storbakken / Dorothy Day for Armchair Theologians by Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty / Rich Hill directed and produced by Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo / Black Bear by Andrew Belle
Sunday evening I did something I haven't done in close to 30 years: I went to an actual record store and bought a brand-new U2 album on vinyl, took it home, pulled out the turntable, put on my headphones, sat on the floor, and stayed up way too late reading the liner notes and listening to the songs over and over again.
Lord, how I've missed this particular ritual.
When I was a teenager, late Sunday nights were when I indulged my secret pleasure by listening in bed (clandestinely so as not to incur the wrath of my parents for being awake well past my bedtime) to the "King Biscuit Flower Hour" on WPLR, the classic rock station in New Haven that was one of two (the other being a horrendous pop-40 station) that came in clearly on the FM stereo in my upstairs bedroom.
I listened, religiously, every Sunday night for years, hoping to hear a song by one of the British New Wave bands of which I was fond, or, if I was particularly lucky, by my favorite band on the planet: U2.
Sometimes weeks would go by without hearing a U2 song on those late Sunday nights, my ear pressed to the transistor radio secreted next to the pillow on my twin bed. But then, like a bolt of lightning — I'd hear Bono's voice or Edge's guitar begin to keen. It was a wee bit magical, although in retrospect today I might call it sacred.
All the waiting and listening was worth it. Always.
He’s been crowned the “new hip-hop king” and his newest album, “Anomaly,” topped iTunes and Amazon charts the day of its Sept. 9 release. He’s been invited to birthday parties for both Billy Graham and Michael Jordan and riffed on NBC’s “Tonight Show” with host Jimmy Fallon.
It’s the kind of mainstream success that has eluded most Christian rappers. Then again, some people are still trying to decide if hip-hop star Lecrae is a Christian rapper, or a rapper who happens to be Christian.
It depends who you ask, including Lecrae himself.
“God has also raised up lowly, kind of insignificant individuals to do miraculous and incredible things,” Lecrae, 34, said in an interview. “We’re the Gideons, we’re the Davids. Even Jesus himself made himself of no reputation. It’s when you can link it back to God doing it, I think that’s what he loves. He’s not a megalomaniac, he’s deserving of glory and honor, and to use individuals that demonstrate that it was him, and him alone, it accomplishes his mission and that’s success.”
A Hymn for This Sunday
This hymn by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette asks the question what does it mean to be a Christian, a church? Whom do we serve? How shall we respond to those in need? It is based on the lectionary passage Matthew 21:23-32 (September 28, 2014). The United Methodist Worship Office has formatted the hymn with the music as a free download.
Once a Father Told His Children
NETTLETON 188.8.131.52 D (“Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing”)
Once a father told his children,
“Go and do your daily chores.
Go and work out in my vineyard;
All that’s mine will soon be yours.”
One responded, “I won’t do it!”
Then he changed his mind and went.
One said, “Yes! Just send me to it!”
But he went back home again.
By now you have heard that Apple gave you music. Free music. From U2. Now, they paid U2 a lot of money for those tunes and it's pretty clear that it's not the first time that someone paid a U2 a lot of money for their music so that you could have it for free as long as you were a loyal customer.
Some of us are rather peevish customers, it would seem. There have been numerous articles on the betrayal by either U2 or Apple. Don't they know that our iDevices are private property? Don't they know that we have put a fence around our little corner of the cloud?
Sadly the tech doesn't really work that way and the agreement you checked - we all checked, really - makes it pretty clear that they own the cloud and you merely lease space there. Your iDevice is a portal, no more, no less.
Perhaps you heard. U2 has a new album. You can download it from iTunes for free right now. Go. I'll wait. It's free.
Yes, free. This is what has my mind spinning right now. Bono wrote:
"It’s also free to everyone on iTunes thanks to Apple. To celebrate the ten year anniversary of our iPod commercial, they bought it as a gift to give to all their music customers."
So, free to us thanks to the largesse of Apple. Why would that be? Well:
"We’re collaborating with Apple on some cool stuff over the next couple of years, innovations that will transform the way music is listened to and viewed. We’ll keep you posted. If you like Songs of Innocence, stay with us for Songs of Experience. It should be ready soon enough … although I know I’ve said that before …"
No abundant bright bloom of flowers on the CD cover or obscure Latin in the title or gentle dance of cursive font describing the song list, nothing can hide that this is not your light-and-breezy summer release of cruising-with-the-top-down jams, but rather, a full-blown concept album of folk hymns about the art of dying.
The Art of Dying (officially Ars Moriendi) represents a brave and risky move for the make-it or break-it breakout album of an up-and-coming band. The Collection’s courageous collection of orchestral pop hymns chart and curate the grieving heart of a gifted songwriter and the community of bandmates and fans that surround him.
At a time when the flame of the alternative folk explosion still burns bright despite much backlash, this North Carolina ensemble shows up as the son of Mumford and Sons, married to Edward Sharpe’s second cousin, with too many members to pack the tiny stages of clubs and bars, with a sound fit for mountaintop vistas, and songs as mystic visions that pierce the veil between life and death.
Despite the heavy earnestness of the entire package, it’s exactly the grief-support-group that my ears need, and I imagine a rendering of fragile faith and hope against hope that our world craves. The Collection manage to sing about Jesus and Thomas and the prodigal son without getting pushy, dancing on the fringe of explicit CCM, exploring sacred-meets-secular crossover paths and gritty crossroads that groups like Needtobreathe, Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors, and Gungor have already traveled.
Death remains that earthly finality to render our denial mute — and our religious musings about whether it represents cosmic reunion, bodily resurrection, or eternal rest are powerless when we admit that the mysterious premonitions of the “heaven is real” crowd are but passing glimpses and not bulletproof facts. The Christians that remain relevant in our world have invested in the Kingdom here, now, and all around us, and they don’t shove tracts that guarantee afterlife fantasies in our faces on the same street corners where tramps and hobos sleep and sometimes starve.