Monthly Archives: December 2012

U2’s “Yahweh,” an Advent Lament

U2’s 2004 album “How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb” ends with “Yahweh,” which contains several Advent themes.  It’s a prayer of self-dedication that names the world’s broken condition and looks forward to God’s coming redemption.

The album has a Scriptural shape, as does its predecessor, released in 2001, “All That You Can’t Leave Behind.”  Both albums are meditations on life after the fall.

“All That You Can’t Leave Behind” ponders the dynamics of grace at work in a broken world.  The album’s opening and closing songs (“Beautiful Day” and “Grace”) form an inclusio highlighting this theme.

“How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb,” on the other hand, begins with “Vertigo,” which considers the confused state of creation and our bewildering experience in it.  Even though the human is shattered, however, we are inexorably drawn toward some sort of eschatological deliverance.

Hello hello
I’m at a place called Vertigo
It’s everything I wish I didn’t know
Except you give me something I can feel

Whereas “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” ponders God’s already-arriving redemptive work in the world, “Vertigo” kicks off the subsequent album by looking ahead to God’s future rescue.

“How To Dismantle,” then, is more of an Advent album, and “Yahweh” makes this explicit.

This is the first of three verses, each of which is a prayer of self-dedication:

Take these shoes
Click clacking down some dead end street
Take these shoes
And make them fit
Take this shirt
Polyester white trash made in nowhere
Take this shirt
And make it clean, clean
Take this soul
Stranded in some skin and bones
Take this soul
And make it sing

The chorus looks ahead to God’s coming deliverance with a longing fueled by creation’s pain:

Yahweh, Yahweh
Always pain before a child is born
Yahweh, Yahweh
Still I’m waiting for the dawn

I’ve been playing the song regularly these days, especially over the last week.  I’ve adopted it, along with the one below, as a running Advent prayer.

Almighty and eternal God, so draw our hearts to you, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so control our wills, that we may be wholly yours, utterly dedicated to you; and then use us, we pray, as you will, and always to your glory and the welfare of your people; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.


Lives Bigger Than Any Big Idea

A familiar cultural script has been followed over the last week.

Interrupting the program with “breaking news,” networks competing for the first images, interviews with eyewitnesses, outraged demands for change, speculations about mental health, interviews with policy experts, outpourings of sentimentality, ill-considered attempts to explain, special interest-funded officials making statements, conservatives blaming liberals, liberals blaming conservatives, promises of new legislation, doubts about policy details, this group lobbing stats at that group.

The familiarity of the cultural drama is depressing because we know where it leads.  Despite vows of “never again” and “enough is enough,” this moment, brought to us by the “the way we always do things,” threatens to leave us where we’ve always been.

In the wake of events that can hardly be captured with words, there has been no shortage of words.

I was struck, however, by President Obama’s Sunday night speech.  Nothing that he said resonated as powerfully as when he read the names of those who had been killed.  Many in the audience could not contain themselves.  They wailed and wept out loud.

It reminded me of these lines in U2’s lament, “Peace on Earth”:

They’re reading names out over the radio
All the folks the rest of us won’t get to know
Sean and Julia, Gareth, Ann and Breda
Their lives are bigger, than any big idea

I wish there was cause for hope in the wake of this.  What, however, is different in how we’re responding to this that guarantees that things will change in the future?  What would make James Fallows’s prediction wrong, that the shootings will continue?

Is it that there’s a huge reservoir of outrage?  Isn’t that part of the cultural script?


Throughout the weekend, my thoughts kept returning to something Stanley Hauerwas wrote after September 11, 2001.  He said that the horror of that day “requires a kind of silence.”

We desperately want to “explain” what happened. Explanation domesticates terror, making it part of “our” world. I believe attempts to explain must be resisted. Rather, we should learn to wait before what we know not, hoping to gain time and space sufficient to learn how to speak without lying.

Edward Blum strikes a similar note, reflecting on responses to the death of his young son:

Reverend Walton’s text message to me after my son’s death is the only one I have kept: it reads simply, “sigh.” He knew as a father and as a brother that this was not the time to counsel.

It’s impossible to know how to respond to what happened in Newtown, CT.  Desires to explain, to blame, or to speak in other ways can be overwhelming.

Silence, however, may be the best course for now.  Not the silence of resignation or inaction, but the kind that creates space to know how to speak.

An Advent Homily

*Originally given at Midtown Christian Community, Dec. 18, 2010

Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Isaiah 7:10-16
Romans 1:1-7
Matthew 1:18-25
Psalm 80:1-7, 1618

We are in the final week of Advent.  Christmas Day, of course, is next Saturday.  Advent is the time of year leading up to Christmas when we celebrate the coming of the Son of God into the world to accomplish our salvation.  We celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ in his first advent and we anticipate the return of Christ the King in his second advent.

This season highlights the revelation of God in Jesus to redeem all of creation and to reconcile God’s people to himself.  We are being redeemed by God right now, and we look forward to the final consummation of our redemption. We remarked a few weeks ago that the Scripture readings for Advent reflect this emphasis on the second advent, including themes of accountability for faithfulness at his coming, judgment on sin, and the hope of eternal life.  It’s a time of reflection and consideration of our lives before God.

In this double focus on past and future, Advent also symbolizes the spiritual journey of individuals and a congregation, as they affirm that Christ has come, that he is present in the world today, and that he will come again in power.  With all of that in mind, we need to ask ourselves, “how should we be living?  What in the world are we supposed to be doing?”

We are a group of people committed to blessing Springfield, called to embody God’s love, presence, and power to one another and to this city.  We are called to love the Lord our God with all our hearts and to love our neighbors as ourselves.  Well, how does that look?  What shape should that sort of life together as a community take?

These are the questions that we are going to need to face in the coming weeks and months.  By God’s grace, we have come through a time of wilderness wandering, looking for a home.  Now we’re here.  We’re settled.  Now what?  What should we be doing?

Transitioning to our passages for tonight, we ought to be asking ourselves, what shape does the obedience of faith take among us?  In Romans 1, Paul mentions that his entire mission was to bring about the obedience of faith among the nations.  God’s aim is to reconcile all the nations to himself, and we are a gathering tonight that testifies to the fruit of Paul’s ministry.  Paul took the gospel message outside of Israel to the nations, and that we have become obedient to the faith is one of the results of that.

But how should the obedience of faith look among us?  We can’t be satisfied with the status quo.  We have discovered that our lives are vibrant and exciting when we truly put ourselves in the risky place of doing something that stretches us for gospel purposes.  We don’t want to fall into a rut here in this new place.  We’ll be starting those conversations in January, so please be thinking about that question – what does the obedience of faith look like for us?  In these Advent passages, what wisdom can we glean for considering our lives as those who belong to one another and to Jesus?

I want to suggest to you (that sounds so formal!) that these texts point to what genuine obedience looks like.  And I say this on the basis of the contrast between Ahaz in the first text and Joseph in the Matthew passage.  The connection between these two passages is very obvious, of course, because we have the prophecy in Isaiah and the announcement of the virgin birth to Joseph in Matthew.  While there’s much there to talk about, I want to point out the contrast between Ahaz’s response to a word from God and Joseph’s response to a far more challenging word from God.

This contrast highlights one of the major themes of the Advent season – preparation, readiness, willingness to do what God says to do, repentance, obedience to the life-giving word of God, even if that word comes to us and radically challenges our assumptions.

First, let’s look at Ahaz.  In Isaiah 7, the prophet is sent to the king.  Now, time for a Bible quiz—is Ahaz a good king or bad king?  Ahaz was one of the bad kings in Judah.  He turned away from the Lord and did not honor God the way he should have done.

Isaiah is sent to Ahaz to deliver to him a word from the Lord.  It was pretty normal for a prophet to deliver a message from God and then to announce that a sign was about to be given to confirm that the message truly was from God.  The Lord tells Ahaz to ask for a sign.  Ahaz responds by saying, “I will not ask; I will not put the LORD to the test.”

Bravo, Ahaz!  That’s almost the same thing that Jesus says when he’s tempted in the wilderness, isn’t it!?  Sounds very pious, very godly.  Well done, Ahaz, you’ve responded rightly.  Or has he?  What does Isaiah say in response?  You are trying the patience of God!  He told you to ask for a sign, so do it!  And since you won’t, here’s the one you’ll be given.  That’s the context for the announcement that a young maiden will conceive and give birth to a son.

What we see in Ahaz is a person who is well-practiced at pious talk with no real commitment to seriously listening to God and doing what he says.  Frankly, Ahaz is right that no one should put God to the test, but this is not the right situation to use talk like that.  Ahaz wouldn’t be putting God to the test by simply responding to what God had commanded, but he uses this kind of talk to hide an unrepentant heart—to hide the fact that he’s not actually willing to adjust his life to bring it into conformity with what God has commanded.

It’s easy for us to do the same thing.  It’s easy for us to make excuses for not participating in our community life the way we ought to.  It’s natural to make excuses for not giving ourselves to one another the way we should be doing.  If Advent is an opportunity to consider how to make adjustments in our lives to participate more fruitfully in Jesus’ own joy among this community, then we need to be suspicious of our immediate reactions to being challenged.  We need to sift through our talk and make sure that we aren’t masking unrepentant hearts.

Joseph provides an opposite example in the Matthew text.  Joseph is a young man, probably something like 15 or 17 years old.  He’s been told since he was old enough to remember that he was going to be married to Mary, probably a neighbor.  They have been betrothed and are heading toward marriage.  All of a sudden she turns up pregnant.  That can only mean one thing.  Mary has had relations with some other young man.  Joseph doesn’t know what to do.  He must have been humiliated, frustrated, confused, hurt.  But he’s an honorable person, which is incredible when you consider how young he was.  He wants to quietly do the right thing in order to make sure that Mary doesn’t endure awful shame in their community.

While thinking through all of this, Joseph is visited by an angel in a dream.  He is told that Mary is pregnant by God himself, and that the child to be born is the long-awaited savior who will redeem Israel from their sins.  This is outrageous news!  He’s probably having a hard time believing it.  It was, after all, a dream – maybe he’s just losing his mind out of jealousy for Mary and whoever she’s messing around with.  But look at the passage – how does Joseph respond?  What does he say?  What does he do?

No pious talk that masks an unwillingness to respond to God; no excuses; nothing at all.  Joseph just does it.  He wakes up, changes his plans, and does what he does in response to what God had said.  He gets the outrageous news that Mary is pregnant by God himself—that doesn’t happen every day—and that this child will be the Messiah.  In the face of all that, Joseph does not ask questions but just does the next thing he’s told to do.

What a great example of simple obedience—a single-hearted response to God that does what is asked in response to the path of life being pointed out.

This is the sort of community we need to be.  We may need to make some adjustments in our lives.  We may need to say “no” to other things that distract us in order to make room in our lives for being Midtown the way we need to.  We may need to shut down certain things we do and begin other things.  Who knows?  We don’t know exactly what we’ll look like down the road, but we need to be willing to talk with each other, think creatively, pray, listen to one another, pray some more, and be ready to be a repentant community so that we truly enjoy the presence and power of God among us.

A good place to start may be to pray our psalm for this evening.  I’m going to close by praying it, so when I finish, make it the prayer of Midtown by saying a hearty “amen” at the end.

Hear us, Shepherd of Israel,
   you who lead Joseph like a flock.
You who sit enthroned between the cherubim,
shine forth before Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasseh.
Awaken your might;
   come and save us.
Restore us, O God;
   make your face shine on us,
   that we may be saved.
How long, LORD God Almighty,
   will your anger smolder
   against the prayers of your people?
You have fed them with the bread of tears;
   you have made them drink tears by the bowlful.
You have made us an object of derision to our
   and our enemies mock us.
Restore us, God Almighty;
   make your face shine on us,
   that we may be saved.
Your vine is cut down, it is burned with fire;
   at your rebuke your people perish.
Let your hand rest on the man at your right hand,
   the son of man you have raised up for yourself.
Then we will not turn away from you;
   revive us, and we will call on your name.

Advent Prayer for the Weekend

God our Father, you loved the world so much you gave your only Son to free us from the hated power of Sin and Death.  Help us, Father, as we wait for his return, and lead us to true freedom and life. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The Marketization of Christian Discipleship

Daniel Bell, in The Economy of Desire, is concerned with capitalism’s destructive effects, including its marketization and commodification of all of life.  That is, capitalism fosters in us habits of mind, shaping our imaginations so that we envision all aspects of our lives as consumers.

This includes how we participate in Christian communities:

 [T]he habits we learn as consumers in the market economy tend to carry over to other dimensions of life.  Thus we are conditioned to approach religion as a commodity, as just another consumer good alongside toothpaste and vacation homes.  Think, for instance, of the commonplace practice of “church shopping.”  This is to say, capitalism encourages a shallow, decontextualized engagement with religious beliefs.  Like the vast array of exotic cultural products from around the world that appear side by side on the shelves of the import franchise at the mall, in a consumer culture, believers tend to become free-floating cultural objects.  These objects do not require anything of me; they entail no particular commitment or engagement.  They do not bind me to any particular people or community.  Rather, they function only to serve the end(s) or purpose(s) I choose, which, in the case of religious choices, might include shoring up my self-image as “spiritual,” or providing meaning amid the stresses of my middle-class life or the right values for my children, and so on.  (Consider the popular standard for evaluating worship: “Does it meet my needs?”).  Reduced to a religious commodity, Christian beliefs can be held in the midst of a political economy that runs counter to those beliefs without any tension at all (p. 21).

The commodification of the imagination happens to church leaders, too.

In several contexts I’ve heard pastors and ministry leaders speak of their churches in terms of “giving units.”  Those in the pew aren’t people to whom I am intensely committed, humans with histories, hopes, fears, families, sorrows, and joys.  They’re “giving units,” manipulable by market forces in service to the bottom line–the church budget.

It seems to me that there’s something seriously sinister at work when caretakers of souls look at the people entrusted to them by the Lord of the church and see them in market terms.

Capitalism & the Common Good

In assessing capitalism from a Christian theological perspective, Daniel Bell isn’t claiming that capitalism doesn’t work.  He admits that it does and that it often improves the condition of the poor.

For Bell, however, the question isn’t whether or not capitalism “works.”  The question is, What work does it do (p. 88)?

Daniel Bell, The Economy of Desire

He begins with a prior question: What are people for?  What’s the end or purpose of humanity?  Across Christian theological traditions, the end of humanity is to enjoy communion with God and enjoy God’s goodness along with one another.

In assessing capitalism (or any economic order), then, the question is, “Does it enable and enhance humanity’s chief end of glorifying and enjoying God forever?  Does it aid or obstruct desire in its ascent to God?”  Put another way, “With our economic lives ordered by capitalism, are we able to worship God truly?  Are we able to desire God and the gifts of God as we ought? (pp. 88-89)?”

As I mentioned previously, Bell claims that “capitalism is an economy of desire that works against the created end of humanity, which is to share in the communion of the divine life of the blessed Trinity” (p. 93).

One way capitalism does this is in its implicit anthropology, envisioning the human as ultimately self-interested:

[I]n a capitalist culture we are constantly reminded to look out for number one, businesses are increasingly run with an eye not toward public service but toward increasing the value of stockholdings, our youth respond to queries about why they want to do what they want to do with the mantra “to make money,” and worship is planned and marketed in terms of how it can met my needs and what I get out of it.  Here we might recall the well-known line from Adam Smith: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.  We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love.”  For Smith, the dominant force in human life was “the uniform, constant and uninterrupted effort of every man to better his own condition,” a sentiment echoed by a contemporary economist as he writes, “I do not know the fruit salesman personally; and I have no particular interest in his well-being.  He reciprocates this attitude.  I do not know, and I have no need to know whether he is in direst poverty, extremely wealthy, or somewhere in between . . .  Yet the two of us are able to . . . transact exchanges efficiently . . . ”

The emphasis on self-interest entails a rejection of any substantive notion of a shared purpose or common good that unites humanity.  Already we have seen how the capitalist individual and capitalist freedom are set over against communal ends and collective purposes.  Some Christian economists defend this rejection of a shared purpose on the grounds that such is simply not possible in large societies.  Other economists suggest that “as commendable as the goals of friendship, charity, and fairness are, it is naïve to expect people to behave in a way that they will be realized.”  This is echoed by one of the leading lights of the neoliberal economic vision when he notes that love is simply not possible as an economic motive, and it is further reinforced by other economists who strive to show how self-interest can explain decisions in all realms of life, from theft to governance to marriage.  Perhaps the most famous expression of this rejection of any notion of a common good comes from Milton Friedman, when he dismissed the idea that businesses have a “social responsibility,” saying, “Few trends could so thoroughly undermine the very foundations of our free society as the acceptance by corporate officials of a social responsibility other than to make as much money for their stockholders as possible.”

At best, capitalism is compatible with only the thinnest notion of a general interest, understood as securing the conditions whereby individuals are free to pursue their disparate private goods (pp. 100-102).

It is worth considering how capitalism as an economic order shapes imaginations and social practices in such ways that break down communal bonds.  If humanity’s end is enjoying God and enjoying God’s blessing along with others, is capitalism an inherent threat to God’s aims for humanity?

The Spiritual Myopia of God’s People

I’m buried under stacks of grading this week, so take missing persons reports with a grain of salt.

Reading through narrative analyses of John 9, I came across this gem from the conclusion to one paper:

In the field of organizational psychology, the term “organizational myopia” is used to describe what happens when people work within organizations without a clear understanding of the purpose of one’s work. Without clear understanding of one’s function within an organization, the mission of the organization begins to drift and functions, procedures, and roles become larger than the mission. In much the same way, the religious leaders functioned in ways that were spiritually myopic. The larger purpose of their faith tradition became lost in translation as they worked to maintain their ethnic-religious-political traditions. Throughout the text, this tension is played out over a series of interactions with the religious leaders. In these interactions “knowing God” takes on different meanings. There are those who know God in a traditional and theological sense while there are others who know God in an experiential sense. These ways of knowing God need not be pitted against one another as they mutually reinforce each other. However, in the Gospel of John, Jesus consistently points out the religious leaders’ lack of experience with Him and their inability to discern His presence that nullifies their intellectual and traditional knowledge of Him.

Is a Growth Economy Inherently Good?

In his book, The Economy of Desire, Daniel Bell claims that “capitalism is an economy of desire that works against the created end of humanity, which is to share in the communion of the divine life of the blessed Trinity” (p. 93).

He fleshes this out by analyzing capitalism’s implicit theology, especially its anthropology.

Daniel Bell, The Economy of Desire

One feature that Bell explicates is something that’s bothered me over the last few years—that is, the unquestioned goodness of “economic growth.”  It’s a worthwhile task to question this assumption.  Is it rhetoric that masks destructive dynamics?  The unquestioned goodness of growth also infects and affects our imaginations regarding other aspects of life (i.e., relationships, church life, the upwardly-mobile trajectories of our lives, etc.).

Notions that are so widely accepted that their goodness becomes given can easily become enslaving and oppressive ideologies.  Bell’s analysis is at least worth considering.

The interest-maximizing character of the capitalist individual is closely related to the way in which human desire is construed by capitalism as fundamentally insatiable . . .  The problem that drives the entire economic enterprise is rooted in the unquenchable, infinite nature of human desire.  Thus Adam Smith speaks of that desire in humanity “which cannot be satisfied, but seem[s] to be altogether endless.”  Homo economicus is a being of unlimited wants.  Because human desires are unlimited, economics, as the allocation of limited material resources, is necessary.

In this regard, consider how the health of the economy is measured.  When we listen to the daily business news, what are we told is a sign of economic health?  Growth.  When retail companies evaluate the health of a particular store, what do they look at?  Growth over the same period as last year.  When a labor forces is evaluated, what is the standard?  Increased productivity.  When politicians want us to vote for them, what do they ask us?  Are we better off (i.e., do we have more) now than before?  Growth is the benchmark of well-being, the measure of good and evil.  More is better.  Consider, as well, the notion of “opportunity cost.”  In teaching us to weigh not just the out-of-pocket cost of a choice but to consider as well the “cost” of all the opportunities foregone by making that particular choice, we are in effect being taught that we rightly desire everything.  After all, one must desire everything for not choosing something to be regarded as a cost.

All of this is to say that capitalism deforms and corrupts human desire into an insatiable drive for more that today is celebrated as the aggressive, creative, entrepreneurial energy that distinguishes homo economicus (pp. 102-103).

Is there anything wrong with such a vision?  Does it run against the grain of a Scriptural conception of desire or of what constitutes “well-being?”

Advent Communion Meditation

Advent is a time of waiting with eager expectation for the arrival of the Son of God.  He has promised that he will return and bring in his kingdom, which will be a reign of justice, goodness, and peace.  There will be plenty for everyone and we will all be satisfied.  Our hearts will no longer ache with sadness, regret, or loneliness, nor will they burn with anger and desires for revenge.  We will no longer fear others or plan for their destruction.  We will love and be loved and we will dwell in God’s renewed world with pure joy and complete delight.  We long for that day because that’s not our present experience.

In anticipation of that day, however, we do a few things to enjoy a bit of that reality now by the power of the Spirit.  We gather together to be reminded of God’s goodness, to share our griefs and pains.  We laugh and draw courage from one another and from reminding ourselves of Christian realities.  We eat with the new friends and family that God has given us called the church.  And we participate in this ritual called communion, or the Lord’s Supper.

We do this to remember that God sent his Son to be the Savior of the world.  We do this to remember that God saved us at the cross of Jesus.  We do this to remind ourselves that though we eat a small chunk of bread now, we will feast with Jesus when he renews creation, freeing it from bondage to decay.

So, when you eat and drink, you are saying “thank you,” you are saying “yes,” and you are saying “come, Lord Jesus.”  Thank God for salvation in Jesus.  Say “yes” to enjoying God’s family now.  And say “come, Lord Jesus,” praying that God will again and very soon send his Son to restore creation and satisfy our hearts.