Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Music 2011

Here’s a list of my favorite new and ‘new to me’ music for 2011. It’s pretty heavily weighted to the neo-folk rock side of things and borders on country I guess. What can I say, I love mandolin.

We were treated to the band Mount Moriah as the opening act for the Indigo Girls this summer. Their self-titled album features a couple of songs that I really find compelling, ‘Lament’ and ‘Reckoning’ are soulful and if you can’t feel the raw, unchecked emotion in the voice of lead singer Heather McEntire you should check your own pulse. I’d suggest watching and listening to their live cuts on There is also a cut of ‘Lament’ on the Current’s website that’s worth a listen (

I hate to be bandwagon jumper, but Mumford and Sons, The Decemberists, and The Civil Wars all put out excellent music this year. Mumford and Son’s deluxe edition of “Sigh no More” is excellent. Because of the rawness and the trueness that live recordings often present I like to listen live versions when available. This album not only includes studio versions of the recordings but a good number of their songs performed live as well. ‘Little Lion Man’ and ‘Roll Away Your Stone’ are particularly well done live.

From The Decemberists’ album “The King is Dead”, I particularly enjoy ‘Down by the Water’ (check out the Austin City Limits live version with Gillian Welch for a real treat) and ‘January Hymn’. ‘This is Why we Fight’ is also worthy of a long listen. Add the band’s “Long Live the King” EP to this album as a playlist and you’ve got over 80 minutes of good tunes. The folk influences combined with a hint of R.E.M. (Peter Buck appears on three tracks of the album) are intriguing.

I’m no longer a huge country fan, and I honestly shudder to think that I once was, however, The Civil Wars bring a really unique sound to the turntable, or the iPod. While the title track to “Barton Hollow” gets most of the attention ‘Poison and Wine’ is the song that grabbed my attention.

A few songs and artists that didn’t release new material this year and fall into the “new to me” category include the Avett Brothers which I might go as far as considering my new favorite band. These guys are kind of rough around the edges but their lyrics are full of grace and reflect the struggles of everyday life. Their lyrics often present a new, folk-like version of the Psalter. ‘Ill with Want’ is particularly compelling and reflects the struggle that many of us have with living our lives in a manner that isn’t corrupted by the all too frequent societal message that we need to be constantly ‘keeping up with the Joneses’. The song ‘Once and Future Carpenter’ challenges our sense of ‘call’ into a life well-lived, regardless of our given circumstances. ‘Once’ has yet to be released, but a wonderful CMT unplugged version can be found on YouTube. Also check out ‘I Thank God’ a song that appears on the compilation album “My Favorite Gifts – A Christmas Album”.

A few more "new to me" types: I’m really intrigued by the group Band of Horses, their folk influence is grand, but they have a very unique sound, full of reverb, that borders on techno; interesting to say the least.

Finally for something completely different, check out Matisyahu. Matisyahu is a Hasidic Jew whose genre falls somewhere into in somewhat of a combination of rap and reggae. His music is infused with a Jewish sense of spirituality and often times the lament is more than obvious. ‘One Day’ is a beautiful song that totally captures the lament of the psalms yet does so with a very uplifting sensibility of hopefulness.

Peace, Jeff

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Lake Superior Sunday

Last Sunday I gave the following at First UMC in Duluth in celebration of Lake Superior Sunday. It was a hot, humid day in Duluth, but the worship service was fun, filled with great energy, music, and prayers.

It might look a little like this: One of those rare calm mornings on Park Point. The sun’s been up for a little bit. It’s a little chilly, although it is mid-summer. A “hippie” looking kind of guy and a few friends are sitting on an old log. A crowd is growing as he speaks. He’s got long hair, wearing one of those army surplus jackets. The remnants of the groups breakfast, some fish and bread sit beside them, the gulls are circling over head waiting for them to move on. His friends listen intently as he describes “the one that is more powerful than I” that is expected at anytime. So powerful is this stranger that this guy is not worthy to wear his Tevas or Chacos.

The crowd begins to buzz as a stranger walks among them. They part as he approaches the man speaking. As he greets the man, he asks to be baptized. The man in the fatigue jacket objects, but is convinced by the stranger that it is the right thing to do. They walk to the shoreline, but just as they are to enter the water they notice a metal sign that reads “Beach Closed due to high levels of Coliform bacteria”. The man turns to the other and says “My Lord, I am sorry, but I can not baptize you today, it is not safe to enter the water”.

Now, this is admittedly a little melodramatic. But it also contains a great deal of truth. If Jesus were to come to Duluth today, would he be able to be baptized in the waters of Lake Superior? Would John the Baptizer have to worry about washing his flock of followers in water that contained high levels of mercury and PCB’s or any number of household chemicals that are thoughtlessly tossed away? Unfortunately the answer is all too often yes. Unfortunately Lake Superior is not the only body of water that we need to be concerned about. The Jordan River, the very same waters that Jesus was said to have been baptized in is so polluted that simply wading in it can produce sores and lesions. Here in Minnesota about 40% of the waters that are tested each year fail in the categories of being swimmable, drinkable, or producing a fishery that is free of a consumption advisory; 40% of the lakes tested are not suitable for either swimming, drinking water, or the fish that swim in them are not fit enough for consuming.

Can you imagine, the waters that are supposed to cleanse us, to incorporate us into the body of Christ so polluted that we could no longer practice the sacrament of baptism?

I don’t think John, or Jesus had to worry about finding water that is free from pollution so that baptisms could happen. I also don’t believe that we should have to worry about it, nor should future generations of Christians have to worry about it.

I also know that Jesus would not have had to be worried about the chemical levels in the fish that he fed to the 5,000. Yet today, most of us sitting here this morning are not supposed to eat more than one meal of fish from Lake Superior each week. Children, nursing mothers, and mothers to be should probably skip them entirely.

Now, I do not want to be a naysayer here. There are obvious environmental problems, but after all we are to be celebrating Lake Superior. So, with that in mind I would like to offer some ideas on why we, as Christians, should celebrate this enormous gift differently than our non-Christian brothers and sisters, and by celebrating this gift demonstrate that it is indeed important to us as people of faith and we intend to do better in the way that we treat it.

Water connects us to one another in many ways.
From the shores of the lake, we could visit and connect with people on the far side of the globe, people in Africa, Australia, and Europe, even Antarctica. I think it is rather amazing, even humbling, to think about that.

Water connects us to creation. All biological life as we know it requires water for survival; therefore water allows the web of life to exist. It is through this web that creation, humanity, and God are intimately linked to each other. That is something to celebrate, remember and be thankful for.

As Christians, water connects us to one another in a different manner. Through our baptisms we are brought into the body of Christ, connecting us not only to each other but also to Jesus as well as all those who have gone before us and those who will follow us. Again, something to celebrate, remember, and to be thankful for!

Let’s look at baptism a little more closely. When I put on my “theologian hat” I get to ask a lot of “what if” questions. So here goes. What if we looked at baptism, specifically Jesus’ baptism like the early church did? How might that affect the way we view the waters of our great lake?

Mar Jacob of Serugh, was a 4th century theologian writing from what is present-day Syria. His prose about the Baptism of the Lord is fascinating and reflects a very interesting understanding of what that event meant for Christians. According to Jacob Jesus’s baptism went something like this:

As he entered the waters of the Jordan River, the sky began to open. As Jesus was submerged into his symbolic death, the Holy Spirit descended like a dove snatching him from the grip of chaos and death. As he emerged he did so in a royal robe of glory that shone whiter than snow. By touching the waters in this manner, by conquering chaos and death for the first time, the waters were made divine, sanctifying them forever and ever. As the waters flowed from the Jordan to the seas all waters of the earth were thereby sanctified and those washed in these sacred waters would also be baptized into the death, resurrection of new life that is found in Christ. Even the waters of Lake Superior, the St. Louis, Lester and Baptism Rivers were made sacred by this one event.

If we consider Jacob’s theology of Jesus’ baptism, how might that change our views on how we treat our water resources? If all waters have been made sacred, and because the earth is largely a closed system, all the waters of the earth have been here since the beginning – which means that the waters we are about to renew our baptismal vows with could very well be the same waters that baptized Christ – does that not give us great pause to reflect on the way we treat what is truly sacred?

The other day the UMC website had a link to an article about a group of clergy in Pennsylvania that are concerned about the “fracking” process used to extract natural gas from deep wells. Their concern is that the chemicals that are injected into the earth affects the aquifers and their drinking water. It was an interesting article that demonstrated the delicate balance between wise use of our resources and long-term protection of those same resources; as well as the health and economic wellbeing of the people living in the area. What was really interesting were the comments from the article that followed. Most of which ran along the lines of, why are clergy involved with this, they should be saving souls and bringing people to Jesus.

This theology while not wrong per se, is in my estimation a very limited, view of what we are about as a church. If there is any doubt how we are to interact with creation we have to look no further than Paul’s letter to the Romans and the passage that David read for us earlier.

Creation and humanity in particular are reliant on each other for fulfillment. This portion of Paul’s letter to the Romans is meant to make it clear that ALL of creation suffers and groans - TOGETHER; we are not separate from God’s creation but are an integral part of it. Furthermore, Paul’s understanding of creation is that it comes from a loving God, creation is not static but is actively seeking fulfillment. We are not to be saved FROM creation but WITH it. There is no concept of a personal salvation, rather we, including creation, are all in this together. Limiting our view of salvation to only ourselves would be wrong in Paul’s view.

In this context, when we look at Paul’s letter and our call to be stewards of creation from Genesis, it is clear that we have a huge responsibility to care for all of creation.

In our busy, highly insular lives it is easy to loose sight of this; that we are part of creation and that we have a special place within it. There are a few images or points to ponder, that I would like to leave you with and to let you mull over as you celebrate being part of Lake Superior Sunday.

First, is related to baptism. It is said that each morning Martin Luther recalled his baptism as he rinsed and washed his face. Is it possible that our perception of our baptismal gift would change if we did that each morning? Can we remind ourselves each day that we have been given this gift of being incorporated into the body of Christ and that we are to be thankful for it?

The second image is of rock. Specifically those smooth rounded rocks and shorelines of this great lake. Last evening we made our way to Stoney Point and were watching the waves swirling in and out of the bowls that had been worn into the rock, continually forming them, and smoothing them. What if we viewed our baptisms similarly? What if we were to allow the baptismal waters, made sacred by Jesus’ own baptism to work on us in a similar manner? If those waters can smooth rock like that, imagine what it might to do you!

The final image is from the Rule of Saint Benedict. Coming from a Benedictine school, I would be remiss if I didn’t try to squeeze a little of St. Benedict in here this morning. The Rule states that we are to look for God in the ordinary events of each day, because “We believe that the divine is everywhere” (RB 19.1). Water, alder branches, beaches of basalt cobbles, a giant lake; things you see everyday, yet have the potential to hold something very, very special within them if we take the time to look for it. When we do find it, that extraordinary something, we tend to take much better care of it. From these gifts, we can look at our baptisms and truly be thankful. Amen.

Monday, April 25, 2011

What the World Needs Now

The Holy Thursday service at Alexandria UMC has traditionally followed the “Maundy Thursday” rubric; focusing on some aspect of the gathered disciples and Jesus sharing their final meal together. This year that focus revolved around the question “what would you do if someone that you had a bad, perhaps very bad, past with sat down at this table with you? What would your response be?” We had an interesting discussion at our table about forgiveness. Being the youngest at the table by probably 20 years, I heard about how forgiving people or not even getting into situations that would require forgiving someone, gets easier with age. (I think they call that wisdom.) As interesting as that conversation was, there was something else that really stuck with me, and has continued to do so. It really kind of bothers me too.
We read the account of the Last Supper and in it of course, Jesus wraps a towel around his waist and commences to wash the feet of the disciples. They, particularly Peter, are troubled by this. It seems we generally are too. After the Gospel reading, we share communion. Each table has some bread that we break and share, and a carafe of juice that is passed amongst the table as well. One individual, let’s call him “Al”, who began the ritual by breaking bread proceeded to announce to everyone that he would break bread and pour the juice, but he certainly wasn’t going to wash any feet. It wasn’t enough that he said it once, but repeated it four or five times – just to make sure everyone knew where he stood on foot washing.
While it is certainly common in the Mennonite and Catholic traditions, foot washing is not really all the common in the mainline Protestant Churches. My guess is that “Al’s” response would be typical of most mainliners. People certainly aren’t comfortable with something new and radical as this and while I understand, I think that is very unfortunate.
So, let’s play a little “what if”.
What if, we all humbled ourselves to wash the feet of just one other person? What if, that person was the one that person from our past that we weren’t in the best of relations with? Last week the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams issued a challenge that every elected official in Great Britain be required to wash the feet of the poor whose lives are affected by the budget axe that is falling there. What if that happened here? What would happen if every clergy person, from the biggest mega-church to the smallest congregation, bent down and washed the feet of members of the congregation they were serving? (Yes, even the ones that email or call them about how horrible the sermon or worship was every week!)
In a world awash in hubris and the constant need to be right, perhaps, bending down in humble fashion and washing the feet of another, just like the one whom we supposedly model our lives after, might just be the start of something. At the very least it would literally give us all a very different perspective on those people we worship with or whose lives are affected by the decisions we make.
What the world needs now? Maybe some clean feet.