Tag Archives: Pop Culture

Steve Beard ~ Soul Man: The Sweet Sound of Al Green

When British musician Elvis Costello was asked if he had ever had a religious experience, he responded, “No, but I have heard Al Green.” Not a bad compliment coming from Costello, a musical legend in his own right.

The legendary Rev. Al Green turns 70 today.

Green rose to international fame with timeless hits such as “Let’s Stay Together,” “Call Me,” “Take Me to the River,” “I’m Still in Love with You,” “Tired of Being Alone,” and “Love and Happiness.” In the early 1970s, he sold more than 20 million albums. He was the Prince of Love, the man with the trademark smile that made women swoon in near-riotous concerts as he tossed long stem red roses to adoring fans. A few years ago, Rolling Stone declared that Green is “the greatest popular singer of all time,” describing his songs as “unsurpassed in their subtlety, grace, intimacy, and invention.”

His silky smooth voice was coupled with stage charisma and undeniable charm. He was the consummate ladies’ man. His voice was a liquid calling card, wooing the listener into a sensuous and lush boudoir of his own creation.

In the summer of 1973, he had an experience that would forever change his life. He had flown from San Francisco to Anaheim, California, for his next show. Shortly after four in the morning, he was awakened by the sounds of shouting. “I sat bolt upright in bed, frightened that some crazy fan had broken into the room,” he writes in his autobiography, Take Me To The River. Green then realized that the commotion he was hearing was coming from his own mouth. “And while the words I shouted were of no earthly tongue, I immediately recognized what they meant. I was praising God…and lifting my voice to heaven with the language of angels to proclaim his majesty on high.”

He laughed. He cried. He knocked on doors of the hotel, telling complete strangers what had happened to him. One woman slammed the door in his face. Someone eventually called security.

Saint Paul was converted on the road to Damascus; Al Green was made righteous off Interstate 5 near Disneyland.

Green had been singing about love and happiness, but there was a war going on inside—a battle for the substance of his soul. He eventually abandoned his mainstream singing career in 1976 and began pastoring Full Gospel Tabernacle in Memphis, Tennessee.

For eight years, he sang only Gospel until he sensed God give him the green light to sing his old songs. Today, the soul man still puts on the pizzazz in mainstream venues. Resplendent in his white suit and Ray Ban sunglasses, and loaded with long stem roses like a florist, he still has the magic to commandeer the human heart, making it pulse in romance or worship—our very own funky St. Valentine.

“Now I am comfortable mixing everything up, and my audience has responded favorably,” he told the Los Angeles Times several years ago. “When I finished a short prayer at this gig…, people stood up and cheered. That told me that I could give audiences a little bit of the Reverend and they’d likely rejoice.” He sings “Amazing Grace” in casino showrooms in Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe, knowing that many of his admirers hunger for redemption just as he once had.

Full Gospel Tabernacle’s unassuming geodesic sanctuary is tucked in on the side of a quiet residential road, a few miles south of Graceland, off Elvis Presley Boulevard. For 40 years, it has played host to a myriad of music fans who make it a part of their Memphis pilgrimage. They stick out like sore thumbs, showing up promptly at 11 a.m. for a service that will not start for another half-hour. One Sunday while I was visiting, they appeared from Ireland, Arkansas, Nebraska, Minnesota, North Carolina, and England.

The visitors are greeted warmly. After all these years, the congregation has become very familiar with the novelty factor involved with having a musical icon behind the pulpit. Nevertheless, they are here to get down with God, not impress the guests (for example, there are none of Green’s Greatest Hits collections sold in the church lobby). The choir marches in and the B-3 Hammond organ starts to crank up the funk, while the electric guitar starts to wail.

Reverend Al walks around the sanctuary fiddling with his lapel microphone, gently patting visitors on the shoulder as he glides to the back of the sanctuary to adjust his own sound at the mixing board.

Back at the pulpit, Reverend Al is feeling the “unction of the Holy Ghost,” as he calls it. He starts to bob and weave like a boxer as he delivers his sermon on faith. “Hold on, God is coming!” he shouts. “Help is on the way,” he purrs. When he calls for the assembly to give a wave offering by lifting our arms, you can see the nervousness rise in the visitors. Awkwardly, we wave our arms in the air. Who is going to refuse Reverend Al? “Thank you, Jesus! Thank you, Jesus! Stop looking at Al Green,” he says. “Al Green himself came to worship God. He’s been soooo good to me,” he starts to sing as the musicians crank up the volume.

When he starts singing “One Day at a Time, Sweet Jesus,” you know you have been to church. “You are not here by accident,” he says. “I am the same person you heard sing all those songs, but I am not the same person,” he testifies. “I couldn’t preach for 25 years if something didn’t happen to me.” Speaking to the visitors with a winsome grin, he says, “Come and see Al, but Al doesn’t hold the key to your salvation. I can sing ‘Love and Happiness’ four times and I still will not hold your salvation.”

The Reverend closes out the 11 o’clock service at 1:25 p.m. with a soul-felt version of “Gonna Sit Down on the Banks of the River” by blues legend Reverend Gary Davis. He leaves us at the banks, and the decision is ours. Shall we jump in or walk away? You can tell what Green has done. You can see it in his eyes, in his smile, in the intonations of his honey-like voice.

Otis Redding died in a plane crash at 26, Sam Cooke was shot at 33, Jackie Wilson’s career was over at 41, and Marvin Gaye was killed by his father at 44. Al Green is alive—and he is grateful. Somebody shout, Amen!

It is one thing to sing about love and happiness; it is an entirely different enterprise to experience it. As he grabs hold of the pulpit, festooned in his preaching robe, you can see it on his face. He arrived at the river’s edge and took a dive into faith. He looks up at us with a grin and seems to say, “Hop in. The water’s fine.”

This article is adapted from Spiritual Journeys: How Faith Has Influenced Twelve Music Icons (Relevant).

Michael Smith ~ Four Lessons for the Church from Major League Baseball

Opening day brings such hope. Every Major League Baseball team has a chance – at least in theory. But each season, this national pastime’s popularity fades. Struggling to retain its relevance, baseball is trying to “grow younger.”

Sound familiar? Check the average age of an MLB fan (53) and you will see how the church (57) is eerily close to sharing some of the same cultural challenges[1].

Whether or not you are a die-hard fan of baseball, its impact on our culture is undeniable. Baseball has seen its ups and downs recently, not unlike any organization. While the ownership groups seem to be having their largest years of fiscal success, the sport’s popularity is fading. To respond to the changing tide of culture, Major League Baseball has tried to address their need.

Looking at the culture of baseball, let’s see how the MLB can speak to the church today.

Check Your Culture

Baseball and the church have insular cultures. Often in baseball we hear the phrase, “there’s a way to play the game.” Each sport has a rulebook, but what makes baseball unique is the amount of unwritten rules players must learn. Young players often skip college and go directly into the minor leagues, where they ride buses and play for peanuts while picking up the do’s and don’ts of how to play the game.

There is a way to do things and not do things in baseball. I’m not sure why I would be required to throw the ball at someone as a pitcher just because someone threw at one of my teammates. But I’m not in the game. That rule is certainly not written, but we see it play out time and again. You throw at us, we throw at you.[youtube id=”cx2Sps9aMcY”]

What are the unwritten rules of your church? Any room that can’t be touched? Is there a pew you are not supposed to sit in because it is ________ person’s seat? Is coffee allowed or not allowed in your sanctuary? In my denomination (the United Methodist Church) we have a rule book – it’s called the Book of Discipline. It’s a big book. It has plenty of the written rules of how we play the game in our denomination.

The church experience often encourages insider thinking and an insular mindset.  I guarantee you though that if you start to play the church game long enough, it will invite you to be an insider thinker that seeks to preserve the integrity of the “game.” You will think like a churchgoer and dangerously lose touch with those who don’t know all the rules of your church. Check your culture.

It’s Not About the Pace

A lot of conversation has gone into speeding up the game of baseball. In today’s world we want things done yesterday.

For me, pace of play isn’t just about speeding things up. I am certainly not recommending just trying to go through liturgy faster. (Although that might be humorous to see.)

Pace of play is about intentionality – it is about eliminating the distractions and focusing on the actual point of the game. So the pitch clock isn’t about time, but about helping pitchers focus on pitching rather than on adjusting their hats, belts, and a host of other things. It’s the same for batters, who need to keep a foot in the box rather than walking away while we wait for the next pitch to be thrown.

So in the church it is also not about time either, but about intentionality. Are you focused on worship or do a bunch of routine or distracting things eat up the time? How many Sundays do your announcements drag on so long that it almost becomes a mini-sermon? There are clock-watchers in our churches who wonder what was accomplished in that hour of their lives. It’s a little bit of this and that, some music, prayer, a sermon, and once a month Communion.

Help people connect to what they are supposed to be doing in church, rather than the extraneous routine that can distract. Stay focused on what you are hoping to do in worship. Keep your foot in the box, and play ball.

Wear #42

Scandal, lockouts, and performance-enhancing drugs have all been a part of the recent narrative of baseball. The church is also not without its share of blemishes. But for all the faults of either organization, here is one thing baseball teaches the church that we should embody more: We all wear #42.

A number is a signifying mark of the player. No two players on the same team share the same one. However, on April 15, every player in Major League Baseball will wear #42 in honor of Jackie Robinson. April 15, 1947 was the year in which the color barrier was broken in baseball. Jackie Robinson stepped up to the plate, and the game would never be the same. Every April 15 we see the power of solidarity, memory, history, and hope.

The church is still learning this lesson. The sooner we realize we all wear the same number, the better our world will become. Wearing #42 is a reminder of the closed doors of the past that can be broken down by the courage of even one person. So when we all wear it, we acknowledge where we were, and resolve to not repeat history. We learn the lessons of our past to have a brighter future. If a mere game like baseball can set this example, then how much more should the church be leading the way in these areas of justice, love, and hope.

Rally Before the 7th Inning Stretch

As in baseball, often the church’s rhetoric and conversations are reactive and come too late into the game. It seems as if we are having conversations around next-generation ministry as generations have already left the ballpark. If you begin to really buckle down and get serious at the 7th inning stretch, what are your odds of winning?

Right now, let’s put our rally caps on and give it one final push. We can tell the story of the past but we can’t put Babe Ruth on the roster. So who are the new players, and how can we get them in the game? It is time for the church to stand up, raise our voices together as one, and get ready for the next couple of innings.  Whether it’s baseball or church, there is always hope.

[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/nationals/baseballs-trouble-with-the-youth-curve–and-what-that-means-for-the-game/2015/04/05/2da36dca-d7e8-11e4-8103-fa84725dbf9d_story.html. Also for UMC – http://www.umc.org/news-and-media/bishops-seek-younger-church-membership-by-2019

Jeff Rudy ~ Favor and Vengeance: Your Missing Piece

One of the activities my wife and I like to do from time to time is to put together puzzles. It can be a calming and centering exercise…unless…unless…you draw near to the end of making the edges or even close to completing the puzzle and discover there is a missing piece. You turn the house upside down (or at least I do) looking for it but can’t find it anywhere. Frustrating isn’t it?

One time we were putting together a Doc McStuffins puzzle with Julianne and discovered that the puzzle we were putting together had an extra piece and was an exact duplicate of one of the existing pieces. I couldn’t help but wonder…oh, no! Somebody purchased this same puzzle and is missing this very piece. We empathized deeply! Because there is not much like the frustration of not having the closure of completing the puzzle such that it looks like what the outside of the box pictures. I hate to put an incomplete picture in your mind, but I want you to keep that image of a puzzle with a missing piece there for a few moments…

Carrie and I recently disconnected our cable service and while a great liberating feeling came in not having to pay for it and we couldn’t keep up with the DVR anyway, we’ve found ourselves wrapped into the benefits of Amazon Prime, which enables us to catch up on some things. Like Downton Abbey – we’ve been binge-watching the series, now about six years behind the curve. The truth is that Carrie and I had sworn off dramas and tried to stick to sitcoms when I entered the ministry because we figured, “Hey, there’s drama enough in the church, right?” Alas, we’ve fallen back into the trap. Anyway, I’ve found it interesting to trace the development of several characters and there is one character in particular that has grabbed my attention – Mr. Bates, the valet to his lordship, Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham, and the way Mr. Bates responds to the conniving ways of Thomas, who begins the series as a footman, jealous that Mr. Bates got the job of valet instead of him.

Mr. Bates, that I have seen to date, is plagued with a past of disappointment and crime, including theft, but has grown into an honorable and trustworthy gentleman. One day Bates caught Thomas stealing wine from the cellar and while he had the opportunity to do so, he did not report what he witnessed to the head butler. This is interesting as there had been quite a discrepancy between the records of how much wine they were supposed to have versus the actual inventory on hand. Thomas, in the meantime, found a way with a couple of accomplices to try to convince the head butler that it was Mr. Bates who was taking the wine and for a while it looked as though Mr. Bates was going to go down and be dismissed from Downton.

But the tables were turned when one of the accomplices came clean and told the truth that Thomas had told them to support his story against Mr. Bates without having witnessed anything. So Mr. Bates was proven innocent and the head butler gave him a chance to reveal anything he may have witnessed. Now here is where many of you, like me, who watch the show put yourself into the story and were yelling at Mr. Bates to turn Thomas in and reveal all…what more could be better than to exact vengeance on the one who intended him harm?

“Turn Thomas in! Get him out of there!” But what did Mr. Bates do? He remained silent. Argh! He had the chance right there! He could’ve brought closure! He could’ve completed the puzzle and revealed the truth! But he left the missing piece out.

What does Mr. Bates and an incomplete puzzle have to do with Jesus reading the Scripture and teaching in the synagogue?

Well there is something interesting that takes place. When Jesus completes the portion of Isaiah that he had chosen, Luke notes (4:20) that, “He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down.” What I was curious about as I was studying this passage was to ponder if there was a reason why Jesus quit reading at the portion where he stopped and then rolled up the scroll. So I went to where Jesus quoted and I want you to see what I saw, so let’s compare the two:

Luke 4:18-19 (NRSV)

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Isaiah 61:1-2 (NRSV):

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn.

There were a couple of slight differences you might’ve picked up on – a topic to explore at another time, but I’m particularly interested in why Jesus stopped at “year of the Lord’s favor,” and did not continue on into “the day of vengeance…” After all, God’s vengeance is against God’s enemies, right? What would be wrong with that? Why wouldn’t Jesus go on and satisfy the vengeful longings of those who were looking for the overthrow of the world’s kingdom? It would be true! It wouldn’t be unjust!

He could’ve put that last piece in there, but he didn’t.

Consider this. I think Jesus chose deliberately to stop reading when he did because he came to teach and to live a gospel whose first word and last word – from beginning to end – is a word of love and grace, of good news to the poor and oppressed and of the favor of the Lord. That’s why it’s important that Luke notes the detail that Jesus “rolled up the scroll” before vengeance would have its say. Jesus was preaching a gospel of transformation where the people of God would lay down their desire for vengeance and cross over to love.

Rudy Rasmus, pastor of St. John’s UMC in Houston, tells the story of his crossing over to love. His daughter was harmed at the age of four, but he didn’t find out until she was 18. And when he found out, it challenged every aspect of his being to not just kill the guy that had hurt her. Here’s what he said:

I knew I was crossing over when I was in a place that I thought was Christianity, that place where everything is going really pretty good, and it doesn’t require any real effort to love. I knew I crossed over when I could love in spite of knowing that I have the capacity to hurt somebody that hurt my family. That’s when I knew. As a matter of fact, that’s when I told my congregation, ‘This week I became a Christian.’ That’s when I crossed over from knowing I had the capacity to do some damage and not do it…that was it.

Then Rudy went on to tell a test that he faced thereafter. He was driving and came upon a red light. And across the street right in front of his truck walked the guy who had harmed his daughter. And he said to himself,

Is this a blessing or a test? In those seconds, I was thinking ‘Man, I would really like to run over this cat.’ But he was talking to another guy who was crossing the street in front of me, though, and I’m thinking I really don’t want to run over the other guy, but really I don’t want to run over either one of them. So I let them both cross in front of my truck. And when they got to the other side, I called my daughter and said, ‘Guess who just walked in front of my truck?’ And she knew immediately. I said, ‘Guess what?’ She said, ‘Daddy, obviously he’s still walking.’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ She said, ‘That’s good daddy, because I would have hated to have lost twice.’ I think that day I passed the test.

Did you hear that? “I knew I crossed over when I could love in spite of knowing that I have the capacity to hurt somebody that hurt me, my family.”

The opportunity to proclaim and exact vengeance was right there before him. But he didn’t take it. The opportunity to proclaim the day of vengeance was right there before Jesus too; he was given the scroll; he could have kept on, but he stopped, rolled up the scroll and handed it to the assistant.

Where do we fit? I think we’re like the assistant. And now the scroll, the puzzle is back in our hands, and here’s the challenge. What happens when the scroll is placed in our hands and all of a sudden the piece of the puzzle that was missing – vengeance – is uncovered and you can place it back in.

Will you? Or will you allow Jesus to set the parameters of the gospel? Will you allow yourself to be won over, to cross over to the gospel of love – knowing that that was and is the way of the Christ, who, anointed by the Spirit, disarmed the powers not by vengeance and might, but by suffering, humility, forgiveness and love?

We know what Christ did with the whole realm of nature at his disposal. He renounced the spiritual forces of wickedness, rejected the evil powers of this world…accept the freedom and power God gave him to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they presented themselves. (Just go up to the previous episode in Luke’s gospel for proof.) And when we survey the wondrous gospel of love, in the suffering of the Christ, how do we respond when the whole realm of the puzzle is at our disposal?

Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were an offering far too small, love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all…

You see if you can cross over to love, the puzzle changes its shape and so are we shaped, such that we reflect the pattern after which we are fashioned – Jesus Christ. Then we will truly be “Christians” – which means “little Christs.”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Steve Beard ~ Aaron Neville’s Road to Redemption

This piece is part of a series on substance abuse, faith, and different expressions of Wesleyan Methodist response. You can read the first installment about one congregation’s prayer vigil over the heroin epidemic in its community here.


There are two striking features you notice when Aaron Neville performs: his massive biceps and his ethereal falsetto voice. Once you come to grips with the incon­gruity of his hulking, muscular frame and his transcendent vocal gift, you take notice of the rosary bracelets, the dis­tinctive mole above his left eye, and the numerous tattoos- including the dagger on his left cheek.

A few years ago, my best friend and I were invited to the CD release party for the Neville Brothers while we were in New Orleans. The Neville family has been a Big Easy music institution for more than 50 years. The brothers (Art, Aaron, Charles, and Cyril) were in their hometown pro­moting “Walkin’ in the Shadow of Life” -a hip-hopish album of French Quarter funk, jazz, soul, rhythm and blues.

The crowd at the House of Blues was mesmerized as Aaron sang his classic ballad, “Tell It Like It Is.” Forty years ago, that song shot to the top of the charts. The heartbreak behind the hit is that although it had been selling 40,000 copies a week and was being played nationwide on the radio, Aaron Neville’s recording label was in a downward tailspin. He never saw the song’s royalties. Someone was get­ting rich off his artistry, but it sure was not Neville. While the song was topping the charts, he was busting his back as a longshoreman on the docks of New Orleans in order to feed his family.

Aaron Neville sings with a sincere earnestness. He is the least flamboyant on the stage, yet he is the most intense when he strings along his vocal offering-treating each note and harmony with the precision of a heart surgeon. He is grateful for his gift and he treasures the opportunity to share it with others. Neville earned his spot on the stage by triumphing over Jim Crow racism, drug addiction, prison time, and financial desperation.

For the warrior, the battle never seems to cease. His wife of 47 years recently died of a long bout with cancer and Neville found himself displaced from his hometown of New Orleans shortly after hurricane Katrina. In the midst of his losses, he sings to bring hope where life’s clouds have turned gray.

His tremulous voice is recognized all over the world. Neville has won three Grammys and has been nominated for numerous others. He has even become a modest pop culture icon by being periodically parodied on “Saturday Night Live,” singing “The Star Spangled Banner” at Super Bowl XL with Aretha Franklin, and making a guest appearance on “The Young and the Restless.”

Life was not always so sublime. There were the drug-induced clashes with the law-stealing cars and robbing jew­elry stores. “Deep inside, I was always nervous and scared, but the dope pushed down the feelings,” he writes in the autobiographical “The Brothers.” “Before taking off, I shot up. I went to that otherworld place.”

Neville did the crimes and served his time.

He began smoking pot in junior high and started using heroin shortly thereafter. “First time I shot smack, I was in love,” he recalls. He even got high with the late Ray Charles.”Shooting smack didn’t help my thinking any. I thought I loved the high-and I did-but my mind checked out. I just wanted to stay high.”

Neville was raised in a God-fearing home. His dad was Methodist and his mom was Catholic. He attended Saint Monica, a school run by nuns who used to get death threats from the Ku Klux Klan for teaching black kids. “They were caring women who taught me about love,” he remembers.

The lessons he learned from the nuns faded for a time, but the core message never went away. Although he was a thug-lookin’ junkie with a criminal record, Neville wanted to be something different. “If you saw into my mind.and looked into my heart, you’d see someone who just want­ed to sing. Sing with the Madonna. Sing with the angels. Sing the dreamy doo-wop, sing like Gene Autry out on the range, sing the old love songs, sing my prayer to God to find a way to get off the dope that was turning my mind to black night.”

He was desperate to be unshackled. He would get on a Greyhound from New Orleans to New York in order to try to dry out. “Just climb on that sucker and find a seat in the back and sit and sweat it out.Curl up in a fetal position, all fevered, throwing up in the bathroom, sweating and suf­fering through Indiana and Illinois, up all night, up all day, not eating, not drinking, just sweating out the dope, cold turkey..”

He went to the Big Apple to find his brother Charles, but what he found were the “shooting galleries” in Harlem where addicts were using heroin. “I got to the city clean, but the clean didn’t last. Those shooting galleries matched my mood-dark and lonely..I didn’t want to know about any­thing except floating away from a world filled with pain.”

Heroin was Neville’s undoing. For a while, his wife kicked him out of the house because of his habit. He was never sure if he was chasing the dragon or it was chasing him. All he knew was that he was a slave to the high.

“I knew I needed to make my transformation, needed to get back to the place where I was a little boy who believed in the goodness of God and power of prayer,” he remem­bers. He called out to God. He prayed with tenacity as he climbed up the steps of Saint Ann’s Shrine in New Orleans on his knees. He even called upon the intercession of St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes.

He finally checked himself into the rehab program at DePaul Hospital in New Orleans. That was 25 years ago. In addition to the one-week lock-down, Neville stayed an additional two weeks because he didn’t feel ready to deal with the outside. He did lots of praying. The man with the physique of a fighter was battling for his own soul. “When I left, I left clean,” he testifies. “I vowed to stay off drugs. With God’s help, I’ve kept that vow.”

When he got out, he changed friends-separating himself from the users and abusers. “If anyone came to me or my brothers with dope, I’d get in their face and scare them so bad they’d never come back again,” he says. “I became a watchdog. But a lifetime of drug taking taught me no one stops till they’re ready.”

Despite the temptations to bow once again to his addiction, Neville was ready for the next chapter of his life-one that would include three Grammy Awards and numerous nominations.

In his 1997 song “To Make Me Who I Am,” Neville doesn’t sugar coat the change in his life. “I’ve met a lot of lost souls in the bowels of hell / Traveled some crooked roads, got some stories yet to tell. I’ve shot up with the junkie / Broken bread with the devil, fallen on my knees to God. Some days I was blessed, some nights I was damned / But I always tried to lend a helping hand. Once I was a deceiver, but now I am a believer.”

The revelry of the Neville Brothers gig at the House of Blues came to an astounding and respectful silence when Brother Aaron began singing an a cappella version of “Amazing Grace.” Without preaching, the testimony went forth. “I once was lost, but now I’m found. Was blind but now I see.” People wiped tears from their eyes. John Newton’s hymn is universally beloved-even in the midst of spilled beer and cigarette smoke. Although we may not all be ready to walk through the front door to the house of redemption, we still like to know that the porch light is on.

A few years ago, The New York Times reported: “In Britain, many social workers have sent Neville’s CDs to suicidal patients as spiritual medicine, hoping his voice will quell depression. In India a bridge has been named for him. Doctors at the Betty Ford Clinic, in California, sometimes use his gospel CD “Devotion” to comfort addicts in detox.”

It was Bob Dylan who was referring to Neville when he wrote: “There’s so much spirituality in his singing that it could even bring sanity back in a world of madness.”

He gets letters all the time about the healing power of his singing. “It’s the God in me touching the God in them,” he concludes.

Looking back, Neville considers himself blessed to have been arrested as well as for getting robbed of his early royalties. “When I did ‘Tell It Like It Is’ in ‘66, I didn’t get paid for it and that was God doin’ that. Man, if I got $10,000 when I was 25 years old, I’d be dead now. When I sing it today and get a standing ovation, that’s my pay. I’m still here, still singin’. That’s my pay.” Since he has tasted redemption, he refuses to lean on regret. “My life, I don’t think I’d change nothing, because everything I went through enabled me to have compassion for the next man. Whatever he’s going through out there, I’ve been through.”



This article appeared in Risen Magazine in 2007.


Maxie Dunnam ~ I Am the Bread of Life

It is absurd to apologize for mystery.

Keep that sentence in your mind now because I will be coming back to it in the sermon today, and may be coming back to again and again in this series of sermons which we begin this morning. It is absurd to apologize for mystery.

Some of you movies buffs will remember an Italian film entitled Le Dolce Vita. As that movie opens, a helicopter is flying rather slowly and not very high above the earth. Slung from the helicopter is a kind of rope halter in which there is a statue dressed in robes with arms outstretched. Now and then it becomes rather amusing as the camera focuses simply on that statue, and it looks as though the statue is flying through the air alone. It passes a field where some men are working in tractors. They look up and see this sight and become very excited. They begin shouting to one another and pointing and then one of the fellas recognize who it is a statute of and says, hey, that’s Jesus. The others become even more excited. They throw their hats into the air; they wave and they scream, but the helicopter moves on. It comes into the edge of the city of Rome and is flying rather low over an apartment building, on the top of which is a swimming pool surrounded by beautiful girls dressed in bikinis. The helicopter does a double take as the men flying it see what’s going on there. It comes back and it hovers over the swimming pool and in an effort to attract the girls’ attention, the men began to shout down at the them, asking them for their telephone numbers, telling them that they’re going to finish their mission – taking the statue to the Vatican – and would be quite happy to come back when they finished that mission.

It’s a rather amusing thing to see and Frederick Buechner describes the kind of reaction the audience had in a college town where he saw that movie. At first it was an immediate reaction of laughter; laughter at the incongruity of it all. On the one hand, the sacred statue dangling from the sky; on the other hand, the profane Italians and the bosomy young bathing beauties. One of them cold, remote, so out of place, hanging there from the sky; the other made of flesh so radiant with life. When the thing comes on and the people begin to laugh, no one doubts as to what they’re laughing at and no one doubts as to whose expense it is. But when the helicopter gets on into the center of Rome, the dome of St. Peter’s Cathedral looms up from the earth, and then for the first time, the camera people focus in just on the statue, and very soon this figure of Jesus fills the screen. And then the move on in, zoom on in, until only the bearded face of Jesus fills the entire screen and there’s no more laughter. All is quiet and still; there is complete silence, because it seems as though they are seeing their own face for the first time. A face that they may not have seen before, but a face that they somehow know belonged to them, or that somehow they know they belong to. It’s absurd to apologize for mystery.

And there’s mystery here; mystery in the way that Jesus comes to us; mystery in the way that when we, in his presence, in our heart of hearts, have to be still and quiet and look and listen and ask, what have you to do with me Jesus of Nazareth? Or, what must I do with Jesus who is called the Christ?

This is a season of reflection and assessment. The season when we focus our eyes in a disciplined gaze upon Jesus. The season when we position ourselves in relation to Jesus in order to receive his judgment and his grace. To facilitate this long look at Jesus, I’m going to preaching a series of sermons on the great claims of Jesus. Those passages in the scripture where Jesus says, I am, I am the bread of life. I am the light of the world. I am the good shepherd. I am the resurrection and the light. In these sayings of Jesus, these great claims, he writes his autobiography. It is as though in words he is painting a self-portrait, and this is what we want to look at.

And we begin today, with that one word from our scripture lesson – I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never hunger, and he who believes in me will never thirst. Let’s put that verse of scripture in the immediate, as well as in the larger context of the scripture. Jesus has performed a number of miracles, miracles of healing. Just the day before, he has performed that miracle of multiplying the loaves and the fishes and feeding the multitude of 5,000 people. At the close of the day, the disciples take a vote and move across the Sea of Galilee, but Jesus goes off alone to be by himself and quiet and to renew his soul in relation to God. On the next day, the crowd, wanting to see Jesus again, decide to go over where they saw the disciples go, thinking that the disciplines may know where Jesus is. When they get there, Jesus is with them. They didn’t know it, but he had walked across the water and joined the disciples in that miracle that amazed the disciples themselves. And when they see Jesus there, they ask, when did you come here, Rabbi? Jesus didn’t answer their question, but rather he pressed the deeper issue of hungering and thirsting after righteousness. And he said to them, you’re really not concerned about who I am as the powerful Son of God, you ate your fill yesterday of the loaves and fishes, and that’s what you’re interested in. Then he laid his claim upon them, do not spend yourself, he said, for bread that perishes, but seek that bread which is God’s offer of eternal life. And then he made the connection between what he had done in feeding the multitude and what had happened in the wilderness when day in and day out Moses and the wandering Jews had received Manna from heaven.

Listen to those verses there, 32 and 33, “then Jesus said unto them, verily verily I say unto you, Moses gave you not that bread from heaven, but my father giveth you the true bread from heaven, for the bread of God is he which cometh down from heaven and giveth life to the world. Then said they unto him, Lord ever more give us this bread. And then Jesus made his claim. I am the bread of life, he who comes to me shall not hunger and he who believes in me will never thirst.” It’s absurd to apologize for mystery.

So we’ll not bother to apologize or to explain or to rationalize, but simply nail these truths down as the core of our learning today.

One – life depends on bread. We can’t live without being physically nourished – life depends on bread.

Two – this physical bread is God-given. The anonymous poet stated it clearly, back of the loaf is the snowy flour and back of the flour the mill and back of the mill are the wheat and the shower and the sun and the father’s will. Physical bread is God’s gift.

Three – for all of God’s children to have this bread, we humans must corporately labor and share. For all God’s children to have this bread, we humans must corporately labor and share. Augustine put it a pithy sentence – without God we cannot, without us God will not. Get that. Without God, we cannot, without us God will not. God will not make a loaf without us, and we cannot make a loaf without God. So in a loaf of bread we have symbolized the fact that we are dependent upon bread, we’re dependent upon God, we’re dependent upon each other. So we need to remember that the way this world is constituted, there are those who will not eat unless we provide them the bread to eat; that is, unless we provide the necessary resources by which they can get bread. So, again, for all God’s children to have this bread, we must humans must corporately labor and share.

Now a fourth learning. While in its most elementary form, life depends upon bread, bread only nourishes life, it doesn’t make life all that God intended it to be. Now I wish I had time to talk about this at length. Parents, it is not enough for you simply to provide food and clothing for your children; it’s not simply enough for you to provide them a good education; it’s not enough for you to simply provide them the physical necessities of life. Husbands, wives, it’s not enough simply for you to share together in the parenting process; it’s not enough for you simply to provide sexual satisfaction for your mate; life demands more than that. Life demands relationship; caring and sharing, tenderness and affection, giving as well as receiving love. There must be shared values and commitments. I don’t believe people fall in love. People grow in love. And people don’t fall out of love, they cease to love because they cease growing in love. There is a quote with one great truth – “if thou hast two loaves of bread, sell one and buy lilies.” Now that’s the truth. Life needs more than bread; it needs lilies. It needs love and light and beauty and blessedness.

Now the fifth learning, the biggest truth. Jesus said it, man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God. That is Jesus’ answer to the devil when after 40 days in the wilderness, he had been fasting, and was terribly hungry, and the devil said to him, why don’t you turn these stones into bread in order that you might eat. And Jesus’ response was, “man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.” For us Christians, we know that we not only live by the words of God as we find them in the scripture, we live by the word of God who is Christ himself.

Here it is in a story out of Great Britain. An old scrubwoman was taken ill. Her friends managed to get enough money to get her into the hospital. During her convalescing, she went up and down the corridors of the hospital meeting the other patients and visiting with them. She became very close friends with a 12-year-old boy across the hall from her. Johnny was his name, redheaded, freckle-faced, a kind of stereotypical 12-year-old. They became fast friends. The little boy was very sick. One early morning, a commotion awaken the old scrubwoman and very soon the mother of Johnny came rushing into her room saying, the doctors are here and they say Johnny has only 10 or 15 minutes to live – he loves you so much, won’t you come and say something to him. Well that was a tough task for a simple woman, but with the courage of a great Christian, she walked across the hall, sat down by the bedside of Johnny, took his frail hand between her calloused palms, looked him in the eye and said, “listen Johnny, God made you, God loves you. God sent his son to save you, God wants you to come home and live with him.” Johnny lifted himself feebly up on his elbow, a smile, a faint smile came on his face and he said, “say it again.” And the old woman repeated it. “Johnny, God made you, God loves you. God sent his son to save you.” And a big smile came on Johnny’s face and he said, “tell God thank you.” The old woman knew it, the 12-year-old learned it, man shall not live by bread alone, but by the words of God – more than that – by the word of God, Christ himself.

And that brings us to our focus today. The bread that will be brought to the altar in a moment, is symbolic of it. It is absurd to apologize for mystery.

This is the ultimate truth of the Christian gospel. The bread must be broken in order for us to be nourished by it. And that’s what this sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is all about. The body of Christ continually broken, that the salvation and the continued life of Jesus Christ might come to you and me. That’s a mystery. It’s absurd to apologize for mystery, we simply receive it.

Go back to our scripture lesson – the crowd was thinking, if not saying, “wait a minute. It was Moses who gave our ancestors bread in the wilderness. Do you mean to tell us that you can do the same thing?” Jesus said, it wasn’t Moses. It wasn’t Moses who gave you bread in the wilderness, it was God. And God has sent down his bread from heaven to you. I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never hunger, and he who believes in me will never thirst. And the crowd said, Lord, give us this bread always.

Philip Tallon ~ Martyred Velociraptors and Vegetarian Vampires: The Christian Roots of Redemption in Hollywood

I went with my wife to see Jurassic World the other night. It’s a movie about an ineffective park executive with poor control over the attraction’s carnivorous inclinations. Fittingly, it’s directed in an ineffective style, with poor control over dialogue, editing, and characterization. The one exception is the dinosaurs, who are perfect, and whose Cretaceous carnivorous instincts get to explode pleasurably onto the reopened park’s Disnified main street. Pleasurably, I should say, for the dinosaurs and the audience, not the rich tourists attacked by pterodactyls while drinking at Jurassic World’s Margaritaville.

In most ways, Jurassic World is just Jurassic Park, but with more at stake. The story of human hubris punished by nature is the same. Most of the dinosaurs have appeared in previous films. But there’s one big difference, and I think it’s worth a note. As seen in the trailer, Chris Pratt’s character, a dinosaur trainer named Owen, has tamed the first film’s villainous velociraptors. Early in the film, a hapless Jurassic World employee falls into the raptor pit. Everyone writes him off for dead, but Owen rushes in, asserting his alpha role over the raptors and saving the goofball’s life. Later in the movie, the raptors become the heroes, riding alongside Owen as they go on the hunt.

At this point in the movie, and again later when yet another dangerous dinosaur from the first film returns as a semi-hero, I was struck that Batman was wrong. He says in The Dark Knight, “You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

But in Hollywood, the opposite is true, “You either die a monster or live long enough to see yourself become the hero.” Which is to say, there’s an operative logic of redemption running so deep in Western storytelling that, given enough time, we should expect that all villains will eventually become heroes. Origen may have been wrong to state that even the devil will eventually be saved, but a certain kind of “narrative universalism” is true in Hollywood.

More evidence for my thesis about this deep, redemptive theme in Hollywood films was in the trailers. Terminator Genisys features lovable old Arnold, a terminator-turned-good, fighting his evil old self (a brilliantly created CG representation of young Arnold from the first movie). The Terminator series has carried on this redemptive theme for so long that younger viewers may be unaware that the Schwarzenegger-shaped terminator model was ever evil.

Even further evidence is easily found in your Netflix list or on any Redbox, with a host of monster-types-turned film heroes. E.g. I, Frankenstein, Godzilla, Despicable Me 2, Fido, and Maleficent. Respectively, these show: Frankenstein’s-monster-turned-hero, destructive-lizard-turned-hero, super-villain-turned-hero, zombie-turned-hero, and Disney-villain-turned-hero.I could go on all day with more examples. These are just some recent ones.

Perhaps the best recent example is Twilight, where one of the most sexually-predatory, satanic monsters in the popular imagination becomes, not just a hero, but a monogamy-seeking vegetarian of sorts, forsaking his natural prey for humanely sourced animal blood.

This theme of forsaking violence is also found in a number of other kids’ movies, where beasts of prey attempt to overcome their carnivorous appetites. You can see this in the terrible movie Shark Tale, or in the infinitely better Finding Nemo–whose repentant sharks, with their mantra, “Fish are friends, not food”–make explicit the groaning Paul talks about in Romans 8. They’re seeking a deliverance and restoration of harmony.

It is hard not to see this perennial theme of monster redemption as anything but theological. if John Wesley could have used film clips in his sermon, preaching, perhaps in a movie theater rather than in a field, he might have played Finding Nemo at a key point in “The General Deliverance,” when he talked about the restoration of all creation from any bloodlust:

The whole brute creation will then, undoubtedly, be restored, not only to the vigour, strength, and swiftness which they had at their creation, but to a far higher degree of each than they ever enjoyed…They will be delivered from all irregular appetites, from all unruly passions, from every disposition that is either evil in itself, or has any tendency to evil. No rage will be found in any creature, no fierceness, no cruelty, or thirst for blood. So far from it that “the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid; the calf and the young lion together; and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall feed together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain.” (Isaiah 11:6, etc.)

This theme of monsters-turned-heroes is right there in scripture, with Paul’s story in Acts, when murderer-turns-martyr for the gospel. It is also seen in the incorporation of monsters like gargoyles into medieval church art, where even grotesque creatures find a purpose and place in the redeemed life.pic

But it is also even more explicitly seen in some of the stories of the saints of the early church, especially in the apocryphal-but-interesting story of St. Christopher. In one variant of the story of St. Christopher, he was a dog-headed monster, a cynocephaly, who on meeting Christ and carrying him across a river, repents and is turned into a human.

These conversion stories, even of monsters, is made possible by the Christian theology of creation, which holds that everything God created is good, and the most sin can do is distort that goodness. Moral evil cannot completely eradicate goodness in anything. Redemption means restoring the good originally intended, untwisting and untangling the distortions of God’s primeval intention. Monsters are save-able (in theory) because there can be no purely evil thing. If a thing exists, it isn’t beyond the possibility of redemption.

It has long clear to me that, though popular culture forsakes any explicit theological grounding, the narrative “operating system” of Western storytelling still runs on the “kernel” of Christian theology. Self-sacrifice and resurrection is central in Hollywood blockbusters (The Matrix, Tangled, Big Hero 6, Frozen, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, etc.). The hope of the gospel lives on even after the truth of the gospel is forgotten.

This is akin to the way that church architecture often proclaims bigger theological truths than the preacher. In old churches, which faced east in expectation of Christ’s return, the hope of the second coming may be denied from the pulpit. Tombstones in old church graveyards faced east for the same reason, preaching a “sermon in stone” about the hope of the resurrection to future, less faithful, generations.

The theme of monsters being redeemed is, of course, partly a result of the need for Hollywood to milk any old iconography with some juice left in it for new products. But the ease with which we accept these stories of redemption, and our desire to see monsters turned into heroes, speaks to a deeper need to know that nothing with a shred of goodness in it is beyond the scope of salvation. Deep down, we are all velociraptors in search of an alpha.

Elizabeth Glass Turner ~ Humility. Unity. Worship.

There I was, punching couch cushions, trying to keep my sudden, violent shouts muted so I wouldn’t wake up the kids.

If you watched the University of Kentucky vs. Notre Dame college basketball game Saturday night, you know what I’m talking about: a nail-biter, an epic battle. “This is why we love sports,” a headline blazed the following morning.

In the aftermath of the win (in Kentucky, a win really does leave an aftermath), a story popped up online showing an entirely different angle to the triumphant chest bumps and crazed leaps of players suddenly realizing they’re headed to the Final Four.

For a moment I thought I’d dozed off in front of my Facebook feed which, full of UK fans and friends in ministry, has been overflowing with a steady stream of Kentucky blue and Holy Week imagery punctuated with chipper pastors subtly posting service times in bold alongside inspiring photos on Saturday nights and Sunday mornings.

Men kneeling in front of others, washing their feet. The Pope? No, that’s not the Pope. Friend’s promotion for Maundy Thursday service? Religious icon?

Or a team of basketball players?

Kentucky residents would’ve seen this clip last August (there’s nothing about the Wildcats that goes uncovered in the Bluegrass).

“Well, no wonder they play so well together,” I thought after first seeing the video over the weekend. “They washed feet together. And shared humility always brings unity.”

This thought came unbidden as if it were an overfamiliar bumper sticker. What?

Shared humility always brings unity.

Pictures emerged from my mind: the close bond I’d built with fellow students on a mission trip where we, yes, served others.

Believers gathered in an upper room, praying, waiting together in humility for the Holy Spirit.

The Book of Acts: disciples beaten, thrown in jail together; as much as we dwell on the early conflicts of the early church, consider this: the thousands of miles of road traveled, the uncomfortable nights, the stressful circumstances. When’s the last time you traveled with someone else for months? Years? Travel brings out the hidden depths of the human soul like no other experience: hotel clerks recognize the despair in an exhausted parent’s eyes after driving for hours with small children. Peaceful partnerships descend into irrational, chaotic fights in which unfoldable maps are bandied like awkward paper weapons. “See how they love each other”? While traveling?

“Ah,” you counter, “but they had the Holy Spirit. They were anointed.

“Yes,” I would counter, “but they were also human beings, not the Incarnate Christ,” as several stories from Acts will bear me out.

Yes, they had the blessing of the Holy Spirit at work. But it would seem that one of the Holy Spirit’s favorite ways to work is by doing remarkable things through shared humility. And by birthing unity through Spirit-infused shared humility.

When Jesus washed the disciples’ feet, he set them an example: this is who I am, this is what I do. Now, go and do likewise. What they couldn’t anticipate was the real-world result that washing feet together yields.

Have a conflict in your church? Don’t just schedule a service in which people on one side of the argument are “serendipitously” paired to wash the feet of the people on the other side (although I still recommend just that). Send them all out to wash feet together.

There’s another way that shared humility brings unity. Consider worship, and what it is. Whether you picture a church service or crowds gathered around a royal palace, note that first and foremost, before anything else is done, worship is shared humility. How can it not be? You’re gathered with your peers to publicly announce, through kneeling for prayers, or singing words, that you all depend on God alone; that God alone is worth worship, and that you are not. To worship is to humble yourself. To worship together is to humble yourselves together. Humbling yourselves together is shared humility. Shared humility brings unity.

As we move towards Maundy Thursday this Holy Week, let me ask: whose feet do you need to wash? Who has given you a headache recently, caused you pain? And with whom do you need to go and wash feet, sharing humility side by side?

Recently my family was invited into the home of some international students. They treated us like honored guests, cooking and serving because, as one of them said, “you take care of us, so it’s only right that we take care of you sometimes.” While there, one of them matter of factly commented on the habit of a couple locals who would deliberately rev their vehicles and buzz the students while they were mid-crosswalk, crossing the street.

The international black students.

One student had a bottle of urine thrown on them from a moving truck window.

I have never dealt with sexism with the grace that my black friends consistently deal with racism.

One pastor with whom I recently attended a conference led a peaceful march a couple of months ago. Some townspeople wore miniature white Klan masks and put fried chicken and watermelon in the middle of the road on which the marchers approached. What was the response of the marchers? To switch the focus onto the number of people who had offered lemonade or refreshment to the peaceful protesters.

What if the media were flooded by images of local police departments kneeling down, one by one, and washing citizens’ feet? What if the media were flooded by images of community leaders kneeling down, one by one, washing officers’ feet? What if the media were flooded by images of police departments and NAACP members traveling together to build concrete block houses for Proyecto Abrigo in Juarez, Mexico? What if the media were flooded by images of rival politicians walking into each others’ offices to wash each others’ feet?

Alright, I may get carried away a little.

Except I’m not carried away. Even DC politicians – of both parties – are not beyond the Spirit-charged grace that comes with shared humility. 

This is what the Gospel is: unlikely candidates for sainthood lined up to shock their bodies with a subservient physical posture. Unlikely candidates for sainthood lined up, minds paralyzed with the reality that someone is touching their feet.

“Do bad guys like to sing about Jesus?” This is the kind of question I field from my five-year-old son during bath time. I’d been singing a song from their “Little Blessings” choir to keep the music in the kiddos’ minds. As I got ready to wash my little boy’s feet, I told him about Saul, a bad guy who did not sing about Jesus, meeting Jesus on the road and loving to sing about Jesus afterwards – so much that his name changed and later when he was singing about Jesus a prison broke open.

Bad guys have been a theme for my little guy lately, who every night prays, “Dear God, thank you for everybody and everything except bad guys.” No matter how much we tell him bad guys need prayer, no matter how much we pray for bad guys, he has staunchly resisted.

Oh, little guy. Let’s wash the bad guys’ feet.

Who knows. Maybe someday Duke players will wash Kentucky players’ feet.

Hey, a girl can dream, right?

Steve Beard ~ Take My Hand: The Gospel and the Blues

The first of several pivotal scenes in the film “Selma” occurs when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. makes a late night phone call to gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. The undeniable weight of what lay ahead for King and the civil rights movement was heavy on his soul. In quiet desperation, King (played masterfully by David Oyelowo) awakens the gospel music legend with the phone call and simply says, “I need to hear the Lord’s voice.”

Mahalia Jackson (played by Ledisi Young) breaks the stillness of the night with an impromptu and stemwinding plea in her housecoat and slippers:

“Precious Lord, take my hand / Lead me on, let me stand / I am tired, I am weak, I am worn / Through the storm, through the night / Lead me on to the light / Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home.”

This iconic scene in the film was indicative of King’s dependence upon spiritual strength, Jackson’s healing voice, and the Savior’s nail-scarred hands.

“Precious Lord” was King’s supplication, his way of reaching out for the hem of the garment. It was his last request only moments before his voice of eloquence was forever silenced on April 4, 1968, with a .30-06 bullet. King had just asked Chicago saxophonist Ben Branch to play the song at the rally later that night in Memphis.

As a farewell to her civil rights compatriot, Jackson sang “Precious Lord” at King’s funeral. This would be the last of innumerable times they would share the same stage. Whenever King requested it, Jackson was willing to lend her voice for the cause – despite the death threats. As the granddaughter of slaves, Jackson sang the gospel classic “I’ve Been ‘Buked, and I’ve Been Scorned” right before King gave his “I Have A Dream” speech in Washington D.C. Jackson is credited for steering King off his prepared text by shouting from behind the podium, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!”

Mahalia Jackson (1911-1972) was the undisputed queen of gospel music. She incurred the wrath from some church folks who resented the way she unveiled the power of gospel music outside the sanctuary in secular venues.

Others thought that her soaring style, hand-clapping, and foot-stomping borrowed too much from the blues and jazz singers of vaudeville, the sin bins, and the juke joints.

Despite heavy-handed pressure, Jackson never compromised on her personal vow to only sing gospel music. “Blues are the songs of despair,” she said. “Gospel songs are the songs of hope. When you sing gospel you have the feeling there is a cure for what’s wrong, but when you are through with the blues, you’ve got nothing to rest on.”

No one understood the spiritual chasm between blues and gospel more profoundly than did Thomas A. Dorsey (1899-1993), the songwriter of “Precious Lord” and the legendary father of gospel music. For more than a decade, Dorsey was also known for writing bawdy blues under the alias “Georgia Tom.” As the prodigal son of a church organist mother and a father who was a Baptist minister, Dorsey’s double life embodied a very real spiritual warfare.

“My soul was a deluge of divine rapture,” said Dorsey after hearing spirit-filled music at a revival. Not long after that, however, Dorsey was playing piano as Georgia Tom for blues legends Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Tampa Red.

Two severe and lengthy bouts with what he dubbed as “unsteadiness” incapacitated him from playing music and caused him to tailspin into depression. His mother told him to give up the blues and get back into the good graces of the Lord. But every time he would lurch in a righteous direction, it seemed as if the blues would lure him back. The war for his soul raged back and forth for many years.

After a miraculous divine encounter and prophecy at a church service, Dorsey made a heartfelt commitment to focus on gospel. A remarkable professional collaboration between Dorsey and Jackson began shortly thereafter.

In 1932, things would change forever for Dorsey. He had become the choir director of the Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago and was selling his songs to mass choirs. As he was preparing for a gospel concert in St. Louis, he received a telegram instructing him to immediately return home. By the time he arrived, his young wife Nettie had died giving birth to the couple’s son. Two days later, the baby also died.

Dorsey was crushed, despondent, and trampled underfoot. Social critic Stanley Crouch once observed that the New Testament contains perhaps the greatest blues line of all time — “Father, why hast thou forsaken me?”

It was in the forsakenness of that hour that Dorsey chipped away at the piano and wrote, “Precious Lord, take my hand …” In the sorrow of the desolation and flood of his loss, the song that inspired Dr. King was the dove that Dorsey released in search of dry land, the flight of hope. It was his blues: “I am tired, I am weak, I am worn.” It was his gospel: “Lead me on, let me stand.”

“If a woman has lost a man, a man has lost a woman, his feeling reacts to the blues, he feels like expressing it,” Dorsey told his biographer Michael W. Harris in The Rise of Gospel Blues (Oxford). “The same thing acts for a gospel song. Now you’re not singing blues; you’re singing gospel, good news song, singing about the Creator; but it’s the same feeling, a grasping of the heart.”

For Dorsey, life was both gospel and blues. He had seen it in the juke joints and the sanctuaries. “It gets low-down. Now what we call low-down in blues doesn’t mean that it’s dirty or bad or something like that,” Dorsey said. “It gets down into the individual to set him on fire, dig him up…”

“Precious Lord” became a universally beloved song because it grasped the heart. You can hear how it inspired King, energized Jackson, and bandaged up Dorsey. It enabled King to weave a civil rights message to a white audience over the growling police dogs, shouted racial slurs, and the segregated lunch counters. It empowered Jackson to take traditional gospel music to locations beyond the choir loft and to audiences beyond the black church. It inspired Dorsey to blend the juke joint blues with the Sunday morning hope of gospel.

It was both Good Friday heartbreak and Easter Sunday jubilation – somewhere right there in the grit and toil of life.


Reprinted with permission.

Aaron Perry ~ Deathless Death: Take Me to Church

“Something in you dies when you give yourself indiscriminately to gluttony, whether in food, drink, or sex.”[1] While it was New Testament scholar N.T. Wright who wrote that, it could just as easily have been written by singer-songwriter Andrew Hozier-Byrne (“Hozier”), as commentary on his song, “Take Me to Church.” The only difference is that Hozier celebrates this kind of “deathless death.” Wright does not. Neither do I. I think it’s God’s grace. I also think it is Wesleyan theology.

John Wesley was a eudaemonist. This means he was focused on happiness. I first heard this notion when I chanced to encounter Burrell Dinkins and the sermon he preached through an online chapel service from Asbury Theological Seminary.[2] Well, maybe it wasn’t chance, but a kind of prevenient grace. Dinkins captured something that was just beginning to emerge in my theological convictions in my first days of pastoral ministry: holiness—a life devoted to God—is the path both of and to happiness because it is the path to God.

But not all walk the holiness path. And sometimes the amount of sacrifice offered by the desperate traveler down a path that once promised happiness makes for a more determined traveler. Wright names three of the paths people plod in pursuit of happiness: food, alcohol, and sex. Hozier’s “Take Me to Church,” luring, rich, and haunting in melody and voice, is like a determined traveler calling heartfully from far down the path of sex-as-happiness. Its conviction and eerie beauty is undeniable. Go to YouTube here and listen to the song, but refrain from watching the video for the moment; it has a narrative of its own. You’ll hear what I mean.

Hozier wrote the song about his first breakup and the importance of sexuality in being human. “Sexuality, and sexual orientation—regardless of orientation—is just natural.”[3] It seems the expression of sexuality is the experience of heaven. From “Take Me to Church”:

My church offers no absolutes 
She tells me ‘worship in the bedroom’
The only heaven I’ll be sent to
Is when I’m alone with you
I was born sick, but I love it
Command me to be well
Amen. Amen. Amen 

Church, worship, heaven, amen. Religious words and divine experience interact clearly and seamlessly. Hozier makes it explicit: “an act of sex is one of the most human things. But an organization like the church, say, through its doctrine, would undermine humanity by successfully teaching about sexual orientation—that it is sinful, or that it offends God. The song is about asserting yourself and reclaiming your humanity through an act of love.”[4]

But the context of the song betrays this line. “Take Me to Church” does not speak of asserting oneself, but of offering oneself to the female goddess that is his lover. “If I’m a pagan of the good times / My lover’s the sunlight / To keep the Goddess on my side / She demands a sacrifice.” This leads into the doubly paradoxical conclusion: “Offer me that deathless death / Good God, let me give you my life.” It is paradoxical in “deathless death,” but also in the giving and taking: life is given and simultaneously taken.

Hozier further clarifies this deathless death: “I found the experience of falling in love or being in love was death—a death of everything. You kind of watch yourself die in a wonderful way and you experience for the briefest moment—if you do believe somebody and you see for a moment yourself though their eyes—everything you believed about yourself is gone.”[5] It seems that death comes at the hands of the lover. “Take Me to Church” vividly captures how sharing oneself in the relationship leads to this kind of (sacrificial) death: “I’ll tell you my sins and you can sharpen your knife.” So, why would Hozier agree with Wright’s analysis of indiscriminate giving? Because Hozier believes that something in you dies when you give yourself in the human act of sex.

Yet when there is a kind of relationship, let’s call it consensual, this death must go both ways. The lover becomes not just the one who gives their life, but the one who takes the other’s life. Perhaps the song’s video inadvertently captures this paradox as well, as one gay lover looks on in helpless dismay at his seemingly unconscious or dead lover at the end of mob violence perpetrated because of their forbidden relationship. (You have probably already watched the YouTube video, but if not, then go watch it here and you’ll see what I mean.) The lyrical memorability and melodic thrust of the song capture the reality that it could be either lover in a relationship who vocalizes the message of the song. This mutual deathless death is the closest you get to love and happiness on the sex-as-happiness path.

So, how might Wesleyan theology engage this sex-as-happiness path? Wesley shows how certain pursuits of happiness have the adverse effect:

You seek happiness. But you find it not. You come no nearer it with all your labours. You are not happier than you was (sic) a year ago. Nay, I [expect] you are more unhappy. Why is this, but because you look for happiness there, where you [know] it cannot be found? Indeed, what is there on earth which can long satisfy a man of understanding? His soul is too large for the world he lives in. He wants more room.[6]

The sex-as-happiness path is not wrong because sex is bad and sexuality is shameful. Far from it! The sex-as-happiness path is wrong because it comes to an end. The path simply is not long enough. Sex is not enough. For Wesley, false paths to happiness are not simply dead-ends, though; instead, all shortcuts to happiness lead to hellish misery:

I entreat you to reflect, whether there are not other inhabitants in your breast, which leave no room for happiness there. May you not discover, through a thousand disguises, pride? Too high an opinion of yourself? Vanity, thirst for praise, even (who would believe it?) of the applause of knaves and fools? Unevenness or sourness of temper? Proneness to anger or revenge? Peevishness, fretfulness, or pining discontent? Nay, perhaps even covetousness. And did you ever think happiness could dwell with these? Awake out of that senseless dream. Think not of reconciling things incompatible. All these tempers are essential misery: so long as any of these are harboured in your breast, you must be a stranger to inward peace. What avails it to you if there be no other hell? Whenever these fiends are let loose upon you, you will be constrained to own, ‘Hell is where’er I am: myself am hell.’ [7]

To keep with the theme that Hozier introduced, this potential for hell on earth is why orthodox Christians maintain the traditional view of marriage and sexuality. While Hozier seems to equate an act of sex with an act of love in the interview with “The Cut” quoted above (http://nymag.com/thecut/2014/03/qa-hozier-on-gay-rights-sex-good-hair.html), Christian theology works to determine when an act of sex is an act of love in order to keep sex an act leading to happiness. Or, as writer Christopher West put Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body, “the problem with pornography is not that it reveals too much of the person, but that it reveals far too little.”

While there are different applications and important differences regarding sexual ethics within various minor and major Christian traditions, Christian theology broadly affirms that sex between a man and woman in a marriage relationship is the context where sex is act of love precisely because it is the relationship where one lover may give him- or herself without the other taking this life. Far from the relationship of goddess/god with sharpened knife demanding sacrifice in “Take Me to Church,” faithful marriage is the relationship where sex does not lead to a deathless death, but to life—most explicitly in the flesh-and-blood life of the child who becomes the symbol and reality of the mutual self-giving of two lovers.

The holiness-as-happiness path does not end in the same way that sex-as-happiness does. The holiness-as-happiness path does not end at all, really, because it is the path to God, the source of life and life to the full. God does not offer a deathless death, but endless life in resurrection. That’s the path of happiness. To trod that path? To read those lyrics? To hear that song? Take me to church.


[1] N.T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: The Pastoral Letters, SPCK: London, 28.

[2] http://place.asburyseminary.edu/ecommonsatschapelservices/992/

[3] http://nymag.com/thecut/2014/03/qa-hozier-on-gay-rights-sex-good-hair.html

[4] Ibid.

[5] http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/music/hozier-i-m-still-figuring-it-out-i-m-still-figuring-myself-out-1.1933663

[6] Wesley, Works. Volume 5, p. 137.

[7] John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley. Volume 5. New York: Emory and Waugh, 1831. “A Farther Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion,” p. 138.

Cole Bodkin ~ “Calvary” Revealed

Note from the Editor: This film is rated “R” and therefore is not advised for all audiences. You are encouraged to use your own discernment in your viewing choices.

“Calvary” is not for the faint of heart. This movie is audaciously candid and ruthlessly palpable. Replete with memorable dialogues and unforgettable characters, its core message is both timeless and timely. There are so many juxtapositions between vices and virtues that every interaction between the good priest and his various dialogue partners deserves its own separate blog post. It comes as no surprise, then, that some have hailed it to be one of Ireland’s greatest films. Yet, in the end, this movie etches an indelible impression on many levels, drawing one’s thoughts back to the plot, its purpose, characters, and its theological relevance for today.

The premise of the movie is that a parishioner threatens to kill Father James Lavelle. This occurs during a confessional, and of course, without knowing when this may take place, the remainder of the movie is devoted to characters developing and the audience guessing who this sinister menace is.

There are many different elements one could discuss, but I’d like to focus on the good priest’s attire. Throughout the entire movie, save a scene or two, he is wearing a black soutane. Its symbolism drew the attention of various interlocutors, yet it seemed to hold great symbolic weight. As Brendan Gleeson (Father James Lavelle) said in an interview shortly after the airing of the film:

[In] “Calvary”…I…had to absorb the pain and disillusionment of everybody else, and their cynicism and their bitterness, and it was relentless. I remember putting on the vestments for Mass, and feeling, “Okay, this is like a suit of armor.” John said it was like a samurai preparing for battle, and I felt, “Okay, I’m the protector of whatever I believe to be good, essentially.” There was an essential quality to it, a kind of metaphysical examination, or an exploration of that. And it did feel as if I was under assault for the entirety of the shoot. I was shattered at the end of it.

In some ways “Calvary” functions like a modern day parable: teasing us into thinking long and hard about its message, meaning, and implications for our world in the 21st century. I propose that the parable (movie) answers the question, “What does it look like to live as a royal priest prepared for battle in a Post-Christendom context?” Though I’m not suggesting this was director John Michael McDonagh’s intent, I think a parabolic and prophetic inference may be drawn from this film through theological reflection.

Without divulging too much information and spoiling it for those of you who haven’t seen it (that’s, in part, how parables function!), we will briefly plunge into Ephesians 6:10-18 and its theological relevance to “Calvary” and our contemporary world.

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these,take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

Suiting Up for Battle

What does putting on the full armor of God (Ephesians 6, 1 Thessalonians 5) look like in a post-Christendom context? What’s our black soutane? What does putting on the new self in Christ look like (see Colossians 3)?


The good priest stood firm with boldness, proclaiming truth to the cynical and even sinister parishioners. In most situations, truth was quintessentially involved (nihilism is a key theme), yet it is more keenly noticeable with his conversations with the suicidal daughter, the manic psychopath, and the author nearing death. Telling the truth in a 21st century post-Christendom context will be difficult and will be met by challenges; nevertheless, the Truth will set people free.


On multiple occasions Lavelle is identified as “good.” His righteousness is actually the reason his nemesis wants to kill him. Remember, “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matthew 5:6) and “blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:10).

Gospel of Peace

After the Beatitudes, Jesus speaks of the disciples’ roles in terms of mission (Matthew 5:13-16), involving both being (salt and light) and doing (good works). Lavelle embodied this in both his character and his acts. Scene after scene, it was as if the good news was going toe to toe with the bad news. The good priest might demonstrate how evangelism and discipleship are to be done in a post-Christendom context: in homes, bars, hospitals, and confessionals.


There is a whole dialogue between two widows (one recent and the other a few years) on the issue of faith, especially in regard to crisis. Lavelle captures what faith has become for many today: “For most people it’s the fear of death, nothing more than that. And if that’s all it is, then it’s very easy to lose.”

Salvation and the Holy Spirit

The helmet of salvation is a defensive armor, protecting the head from onslaughts. The sword of the Spirit (the Word of God) is an offensive weapon. Part of our salvation involves being freed from sin, and the topics of sin and repentance come up quite a few times in this movie.

Not just a few times, Lavelle asks if his parishioners are seeking pardon. If they weren’t, he usually didn’t stick around too long, being annoyed with their unwillingness to repent. I’m reminded of John 20:21-23: “So Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you; as the Father has sent Me, I also send you.’ And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.'”


Lavelle had to soak himself in prayer in order to confront what he had to face daily. What does prayer look like in a post-Christendom context? How do we pray for our enemies? How do we prepare ourselves for battle?

As we reflect, meditate, and prepare ourselves during this time of Lent, maybe the example of Lavelle is worth imitating. Now, he wasn’t a perfect exemplar, nor are any of us, save Jesus of Nazareth. Yet he picked up his cross and followed Jesus en route to “Calvary.” The cross prepares us ultimately for the glorious resurrection, but let us not forget what that path entails. As Bill Mallonee put in “Welcome to Struggleville”:

i’ve been trying to negotiate peace

with my own existence

she got a stockpile full of weaponry

she breaking every cease-fire agreement

oh the whole thing is full of decay

as sure as i’m made of dust

and into rust i know

the beast is falling

they are building a new gallows

for when You show up on the street

polishing the electric chair

they’re gonna give You a front row seat

heard a sneer outside the garden

salutation so well heeled

“final stop no points beyond struggleville

welcome all you suckers to struggleville”