Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Random Chance or Work of Art

One of this day's blessings was a phone call from a friend, Ben Siburt. Ben and his wife are preparing for the arrival of their first child and he chronicles the sojourn on his website His reflections reminded me of an article that I wrote after the birth of my second son. So, in honor of Ben, his wife, and child I want to spin this old classic from the fall of 1998 . . .!

I have often thought it would be a real kick to approach the parents of a newborn, look at their baby and say, “Wow, that’s the cutest random assemblage of molecules I've ever seen. A baby like that can only come from the hard work of protein slime, amoebae, walking fish, and primates over millions of years. You must be proud.” At that point the parents would likely call the police.

Of course, I am being ridiculous. No, I have never thought about doing that. But do you see the point I am trying to make? Perhaps I am biased or I have developed the eyes of faith, but seeing a newborn hardly elicits thoughts of random generation. Rather, I am drawn to thoughts of the creative genius of God. Every new life and every birth calls us to consider the miracle of human existence. The very fact that we are here is some proof of the existence of God.

Are we here by random chance? Human life doesn't seem all that random to me. A friend reminded me recently of the Christ of the Ozarks statue in Eureka Springs and the silliest question ever asked about the statue: “Is that a natural formation?” If it seems so ridiculous to ask that about an obvious work of art, then why would we assume that the masterpiece in God’s gallery is just a “natural formation?”

If life is random chance then I have won the lottery twice with the birth of both my sons. But I don’t have that sort of luck. Maybe that’s because I don’t believe in luck. I do however believe in fine art.

For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities--his eternal power and divine nature--have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.Romans 1:20

For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.Psalm 138:13-14

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Putting the Saint Back in Saint Patrick's Day

It is unfortunate that St. Patrick's Day is widely known for nothing more than wearing green, pinching, leprechauns, and inebriation. I say that because the story of Maewyn Succat, who later took the name Patrick, is one of the more inspiring stories from Christian history.

Many of us have heard the legends about Patrick chasing the snakes from Ireland, but the events in his life and the decisions that Patrick made that enabled him to bring the Christian faith to an entire nation are better than legends.

One of the most impressive prayers recorded in history is "The Breastplate of Patrick," a prayer for daily strength, protection, and encouragement. I post part of it here as my small way of bringing some faith back into another wayward holiday . . .

I arise today
Through God's strength to pilot me:

God's might to uphold me,
God's wisdom to guide me,
God's eye to look before me,
God's ear to hear me,
God's word to speak for me,
God's hand to guard me,
God's way to lie before me,
God's shield to protect me,
God's host to save me
From snares of devils,
From temptations of vices,
From everyone who shall wish me ill,
Afar and anear,
Alone and in multitude.

Christ to shield me today . . .

Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through belief in the threeness,
Through confession of the oneness,
Of the Creator of Creation.

(Attributed to St. Patrick, 5th century A. D.)

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Treasures Old and New

The West-Ark congregation is blessed to have Tom Chapin conduct his seminar, “The Heart of Worship.” Tom does not preference a particular style of worship but invites us to appreciate the core dynamic of worship that is our response to the majesty and mystery of God. I value greatly his reflections on his worship heritage and his own pilgrimage back to the heart of worship. His stories kindled some reflections and recollections of my own.

For instance, I recall how a dear sister from Arkansas would occasionally fuss just a bit about new fangled songs and then pine away for the old hymns. I enjoyed our conversations, but I never was certain what she meant by the old hymns. I am never sure exactly what any of us mean when we speak of new songs or old hymns as the terms are so relative. How old does a song have to be to qualify as one of the old hymns? When dealing with 2000 years of Christianity and at least 1000 years of church music how old is old? How new does a song have to be to be contemporary Christian music? Some of the so-called new songs would qualify for the play list on a “Christian oldies” station.

As a test, see if you can guess which song is the older of the pair: Burdens Are Lifted At Calvary or Teach Me Lord To Wait? If you guessed Burdens Are Lifted At Calvary then you are right — but only by one year! Burdens Are Lifted At Calvary was written in 1952 and Teach Me Lord to Wait (a song I didn’t learn until the1980’s) was written in 1953. Once again, which is the older of the pair: Our God, He Is Alive or Where No One Stands Alone? If you guessed Our God, He Is Alive then you are wrong. Where No One Stands Alone was written in the 1950’s, and you may be as surprised as I was to learn that Our God, He Is Alive was written in 1966 by Aaron W. Dicus. That means that this song, which is so well known that it is often referred to by its "Songs of the Church" hymn number of 728b, is only a year older than I am! How can this song that is so familiar that it is sometimes called “the Church of Christ anthem” be less than 40 years old? Surely I am not as old as the old hymns!

It goes to show that age has nothing to do with familiarity or acceptance. For instance, do you know any of these old hymns - Phos Hilaron or Dies Irae? Probably not what most of us would consider "the old hymns" as they sound more like chants, but they are old and they were once the hymns of the church. Looking at this issue from the other side, we may ask what makes a song new or contemporary? Some of our so-called new songs are just a few years away from Medicare eligibility. Many of the songs considered contemporary or new were written in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Do we assume that a song is new simply because it is nothing more than printed lyrics on a Xeroxed page bound by a single staple with a title like "Our Songs" written on the front with a magic marker? When does a “new song” become an “old hymn?” Does it become official and legitimate when it gets arranged with a musical score and added to a hardbound book with a ribbon bookmark and an impressive, stately, and authoritative title like "Sacred Hymns Preferably Selected?" When does a song become a hymn? I see a real opportunity here for a Schoolhouse Rock-type cartoon. Can you imagine a little rolled up piece of paper with typed lyrics chanting to the tune of I’m Just a Bill . . .?

I’m just a song, yes I’m only a song,
and I hope I won’t be waiting too long.
Well, it’s a long, long wait from composer to arranger,
a long, long time ‘till the church folk think I’m ancient.
And then they’ll print me as a hymn!
Oh I hope and pray it’s not long, but today I am still just a song!

There is something to be said for familiar songs. The songs and hymns that we have grown up with and are commonly known have a communal power. They are affirming and reassuring. They are an artifact of our cloud of witnesses. I will never forget the story a friend told me of walking into a worship service in Los Angeles in the 1940’s where he was stationed for Marine training. He felt like a stranger until they started singing his mother’s favorite hymn. The power to create that sort of bond is something to be cherished. Likewise, there is something to be said for encountering the unfamiliar song and learning it. I recall worshipping with the church in Mexico and Honduras and singing the song Bienvenidos. It is a song that the church sings to welcome one another and it is sung with joyous vigor and hearty hugs. This song is not a part of my natural worship heritage, but I was graciously allowed to own it as an outsider and I was, as the song implies, welcomed into a fellowship despite the fact that I was a foreigner.

Old and new are relative terms. Familiar and unfamiliar are relative terms. Sometimes we are the strangers and sometimes we are the insiders. I hope that we can all sing a few old hymns along the way and maybe learn a few new songs. That would be nice, because I fully believe that the good-natured conversation I had with my dear sister from Arkansas will happen again. Not between her and me, rather a day in the future, perhaps some seventy years from now, when a woman who is today about 15 but will then be in her 80’s will be politely fretting to some younger minister about all the unfamiliar new songs. She’ll be pining away for the songs that remind her of camp and youth rallies and her favorite CD’s and contemporary Christian artists who are dead and gone. She will be pining away for the old hymns.

Thursday, March 10, 2005


Yesterday we said goodbye to our friend, Aubrey Walden. In the year and a half that I knew Aubrey I knew him as “the man who is almost 100-years-old.” He died Sunday at the age of 99.

When we told our oldest son, age 11, that Mr. Aubrey had passed away he expressed his feeling of loss by saying, “I really thought he would make it to 100! He was really looking forward to that.” We were all looking forward to that. You can say what you like about the appropriateness of recognizing birthdays during Sunday worship, but Aubrey’s birthday was one that demanded to be recognized not merely for his longevity but also because his many years became his way of expressing the goodness of God. Aubrey was an evangelist simply by being himself. I too had hoped for the Sunday closest to November 16 when we would all cheer and applaud because Aubrey had celebrated his 100th birthday. I had hoped to see the children gawk at one another as they pondered such an astronomical age and then boast that they knew a real honest-to-goodness centenarian – which I am sure they would pronounce as “hunnert’yurolman.”

Yesterday at the funeral, Dale Brown spoke so well about Aubrey and urged us to let the memories of our 99-year-old friend flow. It is a blessing to experience this wave of memory. Brad Pistole sent out an email sharing some of Aubrey’s reflections on life. Our crowd in Peak of the Week shared stories on how Aubrey brought kindness and joy to their lives. In Dale’s eulogy and in all the stories and reflections there is one theme I have noticed: Aubrey took an interest in other people. He was complimentary and caring. I experienced that myself. On more than one occasion, Aubrey praised me for my preaching. He said much more than “good sermon, young man.” His words recognized that the talent to preach is a gift of God. I do not think I can write what he said to me because I wouldn’t do justice to the sacred blessing he shared. I can tell you that when Aubrey gave me such a “compliment” I did not get an ego boost, rather I felt a sacred charge and holy responsibility to preach the word of the Lord.

Aubrey Walden was indeed caring and complimentary and I think he modeled a characteristic that we would all do well to imitate. For the entire time that many of us knew Aubrey, he was a senior citizen. (In fact, when men first walked on the moon, Aubrey was a senior citizen). Perhaps because of his age, any of us would have forgiven him for being curmudgeonly, worried, anxious, or self-absorbed. Yet, he was not. He often thought of us. He didn’t demand “respect for one’s elders,” but he gained respect that was based on more than the fact that he was our oldest member.

I take some consolation in the fact that this was Aubrey’s 100th year. The fact that he did not make it to his 100th birthday only means that some of his plans changed. Aubrey worked at Golden Corral until very recently. He once told me that he planned to work until he was 100, retire for two years, and then come back to work. I had every reason to believe that he would do just that. His plans may have changed, but the eternal life that we witnessed in our 99-year-old friend continues.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

A Compromised Sense of Humor

Chris Rock's selection as host is a sign of the Academy Awards Ceremony's dilemma. The producers of the show want it to be controversial enough to draw viewers but not so controversial that it offends them. The producers realize that the single memorable moment which could never be scripted or rehearsed is what people will be discussing around the water coolers, replaying on the morning shows, and writing about on blogs. Although they know they cannot artificially manufacture this memorable moment, they are eager to establish the proper atmospheric conditions that will yield the freak occurrence that promises to lure people back next year to watch another celebrity train wreck. Rock, the edgy and over-the-top comedian, seems to have just the right resume.

Don't misunderstand me; I have no criticism of Rock as host. In fact, he did just what was needed. He punctured the bloated pretentiousness of Hollywood with his skewering comedy. Rock was a sort of "people's host" who poked a little fun at the celebrities for all of us fine folk in "fly-over land" (Hollywood's derogatory term for everything between New York City and Los Angeles). Rock took aim with his man-on-the-street interviews, his "Who is Jude Law?" bit, and his pre-show advice for self-important actors and their acceptance speeches ("Don't thank God," Rock said. "God's busy working on the tsunami, so leave him alone.")

Rock, like the best comedians, says what the people are thinking even if no one else will say it. For the last few years the celebrities have been cajoling and chastising the rest of the nation and the world. Now Chris Rock is turning some of that back on the stars. For a comedian known for being crude and over-the-top he showed remarkable wisdom. As he said in one post-show interview, he did not take an unfair swipe at anyone who was down. ("It's just a joke. Jude Law probably made a scillion dollars this year. I would never hit a person that's down. Jude Law's fine. I'll go and see another Jude Law movie; maybe he'll put me in one of his movies.")

I hope all the celebrities have the grace to laugh at themselves. Whether we work in Hollywood or Holyoke, not taking ourselves too seriously is a sign of maturity. It keeps us from being too easily offended which often leads to other problems for everyone. It also gives us perspective so that we understand what is really important and deserving of reverence. Unfortunately, there are some, like Sean Penn, who seem to have a compromised sense of humor.