How long does a new and unusual aspect of our environment need to be in place before we notice it? On the other hand, how long does it have to persist before we treat it as the new normal and begin to ignore it?
My mom and dad were married right after World War II, so they’d lived together for nearly forty six years when I came home for a visit from seminary one weekend. Right off the bat, I noticed something differ about my dad.
“You’ve gone and grown a mustache.”
“You like it?” He asked, as he smoothed the unruly hairs into place.
“Oh yeah! You look like a perfect Southern gentleman.”
He smiled. Perfect and gentleman was his aim.
My mother, who was sitting in the identical chair next to his, separated only by a small table with a lamp and magazines, craned her head around that lamp to look at him.
“When did you grow this mustache?”
“Mother! You’ve slept in the same bed with daddy every single night of your entire life. You always kiss each other good night. I can’t believe you haven’t noticed the hair on his upper lip!”
A little rattled, she replied, “It’s always dark when we go to sleep.”
I laughed. My daddy smiled. My mother always had an answer for every thing. I noticed his mustache because I hadn’t seen him in a while, whereas mother had watched the slow progression of the hiding of his upper lip. I should say, it’s been my experience the husband usually fails to notice his wife’s new haircut, an act which causes much family drama.
When I travel, I don’t go from point to point with the goal of arriving as soon as possible. If that were the case, I’d fly. In my car, if I see an interesting place, I’ll go visit, since the journey is more important than the destination. Once I’ve arrived, I even make side trips, just for a little exercise. I was walking around Lake Bridgeport, in the town of Runaway Bay, Texas, when I stumbled upon these grasses, flowers, and small trees. The afternoon light caught the center stalk so it glowed its reds and golds. The few leaves left from autumn’s color, which hadn’t been blown away by the seasonal rains quivered in the light breeze. A few flowers added color to a rather grey afternoon.
Why would ordinary weeds catch my eye? There’s nothing remarkable or heroic about weeds. Most people spend good money to rid their lawns of ugly and invasive weeds. Here around the lake is a wild place, however, and the weed is in its natural state. This red weed is unique among the other natural grasses, for its not a single blade, but a stem with alternating leaves. I had to pick my way through some underbrush to find an opening from which I could take a good photo. I felt as if this weed had called to me.
I’ve often wondered how long the bush burned in the wilderness before Moses looked up from counting his father in law’s sheep and said, “What is this? I must go see it!” Extraordinary events happen all the time, yet we’re too consumed with our day to day busyness to see the glories of God’s hand at work in the world. Or we come to a watershed moment, when the bush would burn brightly for us, and throw water to quench its fire, for “it’s never been done, it can’t be done, it’s always been this way, and people will never change.”
If Moses believed this, he’d have never followed God’s call back to Egypt. The Hebrew children would still be slaves in Egypt. But Moses trusted God. This is called a sea change, or a transformation. We don’t do this just on our own, but by a power at work greater than our own. We might resist, but God persists.
But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh,
and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”
He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you:
when you have brought the people out of Egypt,
you shall worship God on this mountain.”
~~ Genesis 3:11-12
What sea change is happening in our world today? Are people finally fed up with treating human life as a cheap commodity? We do this if we treat people as objects to be used and then thrown away when they’re worn out or too sick to be worked hard. When we fail to fund schools and health care for all, we don’t get the best people for our citizens or our employees. If only the wealthy can afford health care and a quality education, then our democracy suffers, for we will have a permanent underclass and a qualified few. This bifurcation doesn’t bode well for the future. Does a bush burn in the wilderness for any of my readers?
Are we tired of exchanging precious human lives for a shibboleth? The word means “stream” in Hebrew and was used as a sorting test to distinguish warriors of Gilead from those of Ephraim. Today, the 2nd Amendment serves the same purpose, because the National Rifle Association gives politicians large amounts of money for their campaign coffers and spends extra money on their behalf also. The NRA is the front for gun manufacturers, who profit if they sell more guns. They never want any restrictions on any freedom, but we don’t live in an anarchy, so a democracy can restrict certain aspects of gun ownership and use.
Public mass shootings have occurred on average every 172 days since 1982. Since September 6, 2011, there’s been 14 mass shootings at an average interval of less than 172 days. These don’t include domestic violence or criminal activity. Seven of the deadliest mass shootings in modern US history have taken place in a school, including Sandy Hook elementary and Virginia Tech University. The deaths at Stoneman Douglas HS in Florida were the 180th mass shooting since 2009 and the third mass shooting in 2018. By Valentine’s Day in 2018, 17 school shootings had been reported, and in the week after, even more.
Schools now receive an average of 50 threats of violence daily, compared with 10 per day at the end of 2017, NPR reported. Since I began this blog in 2011, mass killings in public spaces have snuffed out the lives of 270 persons in grocery stores, church sanctuaries, schools, post offices, and restaurants. In seven years, an average of 38.6 individuals did not celebrate with cake and ice cream on their next circuit of the earth around the sun. I didn’t know any of these personally, but we may have lost the next Steve Jobs or the next Mother Theresa, or someone who would have fought happiness to their small corner of the world.
Some want to arm the schools, but what about the other places of mass shootings? Why not just ban the weapon which enables the taking of mass casualties? Or are the lives of grocery shoppers less valued than school children? Ask an orphan if a parent is valued. We don’t want to become an armed state in America, or at least I’m not for it. Perhaps the NRA wants this, for the gunmakers would boost their bottom lines. They make enough money off the rest of their product lines.
Some would say, opioids take MORE lives, as does tobacco use (1,300 deaths per day). These substances are legal and on the market we expect people to use them responsibly. They’re also addictive and controlled. The largest incidents are mostly since 2004 when the ban on semiautomatic weapons lapsed. These weapons, civilian equivalents to military type issue, are meant for mass killing, not for sport, hunting, or target shooting. Their high velocity ammunition doesn’t just pierce flesh, but obliterates it. Survival rates are slim and none.
I wonder if this moment in our nation’s life is our burning bush, our opportunity to hear the voice of God calling to us, and we rise up to set our people free from this pain and insanity.
“I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt;
I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters.
Indeed, I know their sufferings,
and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians,
and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land,
a land flowing with milk and honey…”
~~ Exodus 3:7-8a
Once upon a time, Bishop Nicholas of the Greek Orthodox Church was known for his charity to the poor and other good deeds. After his death, enough miracles in his name elevated him to sainthood. People began to give gifts to others in his name to celebrate his feast day, December 6th.
Later on, the gift giving at Christmas became more important. After Clement Moore’s 1823 Poem, A Night Before Christmas, the visit of “Old Saint Nick” came alive in children’s imagination. With Thomas Nast’s Illustrations during the Civil War era, Old Saint Nick transformed into Santa Claus.
Of course, even though the two were once one person, their personalities are different. Everybody loves Santa Claus. He embodies holiday cheer, happiness, fun, and gifts—warm happy aspects of the Christmas season. How do Santa Claus and St. Nicholas differ?
Santa Claus belongs to childhood;
St. Nicholas models for all of life.
Santa Claus, as we know him, developed to boost Christmas sales—the commercial Christmas message;
St. Nicholas told the story of Christ and peace, goodwill toward all—the hope-filled Christmas message.
Santa Claus encourages consumption;
St. Nicholas encourages compassion.
Santa Claus appears each year to be seen and heard for a short time;
St. Nicholas is part of the communion of saints, surrounding us always with prayer and example.
Santa Claus flies through the air—from the North Pole;
St. Nicholas walked the earth—caring for those in need.
Santa Claus, for some, replaces the Babe of Bethlehem;
St. Nicholas, for all, points to the Babe of Bethlehem.
Santa Claus isn’t bad;
St. Nicholas is just better.
We can actually keep the spirit of both Santa and the Saint all year long if we keep the joy of giving and receiving gifts to all, especially by giving to those who have less than we have.
If we keep the love of all persons in our hearts, then we’re loving as God loves us, for this is how the saints love the world. Even Santa loves all the world like this—really! Does any child ever get coal in their stocking? No! This is only a grownup threat to make the child behave. All children get a Santa gift, for the “Santas” in the community will make it happen, for they are the Saints who walk among us.
I want to thank the folks at the St. Nicholas Center for this idea. They have good resources for teachers for downloading. Check them out. I found the images on google search.
When I was young, I thought I had to be Wonder Woman in order to please my parents. You know, the perfect daughter, the smartest child, the best artist, and the best behaved of all their progeny. After all, I was the first born and the only girl, so I’d had my parents’ undivided attention for those crucial early years. I thought if I worked hard, I could overcome any obstacle, and make any situation better, just by my force of will.
This is magical thinking, however. It works for comic book heroes who live in hard edge black and white moral worlds, but we live in the real world of fuzzy grays and complex moral choices. My family history of long marriages wasn’t going to extend to my generation, for I could no longer live with my alcoholic husband. I felt less like Wonder Woman and more like a failure. I told my mother I thought she and daddy always wanted me to be “perfect to earn their love.”
She looked dumbfounded at me, paused a moment and spoke, “Honey, we only wanted you to do your very best at all times. We knew you had more in you that you hadn’t tapped yet!”
This is the moment I forgave my parents for my Wonder Woman complex and learned to live with her. Not every person has had my parents. Some parents have no dreams for their children, so we must dream for them and encourage them to be superheroes in our classrooms, in our neighborhoods and wherever we meet them.
Other parents lack imagination. They see their children repeating their own lives as good enough. Yet, they too only want the best for their children so if they can only imagine their life repeated for them, we shouldn’t fault these parents for their lack of imagination. They never lived in our age or times, nor in our bodies or minds! We children can become the best we can be, for our world is far grander than theirs ever was! We won’t always live up to the expectations of our parents or the plans they imagined for us, but we will be superheroes anyway.
My daddy once told me I was learning in high school chemistry what he studied in college chemistry classes. This is why your six year old nephew or niece can work your smart phone faster than you can! The world’s knowledge explodes now, doubling every year, but with the internet it will soon double every 12 HOURS!
We won’t need to learn all this information, or keep it stored in our minds, but we will need to know how to access it. Asking the best questions, knowing what is necessary, and the sense of discernment to winnow the good from the chaff will be what separates the best answers from the better, the good, and the ordinary ones.
My latest painting is a self portrait as “Wonder Woman during the Great American Eclipse.” I traveled to Kentucky to see this wonderful event at Land Between the Lakes. We can all be superheroes at every age and in every body shape. Just as the eclipse united all of America in the joy of celebrating a coast to coast mass experience provided by nature, we each have a divine image within us that unifies all of humanity as one, for we’re each made in the image of God. As the Jewish queen in scripture was reminded, “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” (Esther 4:14)
How we become the best persons is a matter of becoming a superhero or “coming to royal dignity for such a time as this!” We’ll always be fine tuning our spiritual lives, our education, and our professional achievements. Even when we retire, we’ll find engaging opportunities for service to others and self improvement both. Most likely our spiritual lives will deepen and our family and friendships will take on more importance. I hope you all seek your best life possible, beginning today.
Join me in being a Superhero! You can be a hero for someone who needs you today.
Joy and Peace, Cornelia
“The biggest disease today is not leprosy or tuberculosis, but rather the feeling of being unwanted, uncared for, and deserted by everybody. The greatest evil is the lack of love and charity, the terrible indifference towards one’s neighbor…”
~~ St. Theresa (Mother Theresa)
The biggest disease today isn’t covered by any medical plan–it is the lack of concern for the weak and vulnerable among us. The only medicine for this is a change of heart, so we begin to consider the needs of the poor, the disabled, and the ill as equal to the healthy, the rich, and those who can work.
This medicine is a living faith, not a dead assent to beliefs! Can we look on the face of our brothers and sisters and see the face of God!?! Can we see the wounds of Christ needing to be healed!?! If we see only the money and the tax ramifications of the plans currently proposed by congress, we have a dead faith, for we aren’t working to care for the “least of these, my brothers and sisters, who are the Christ” we meet daily as we go about our journey.
If our Sunday words are only for ourselves and not for the world also, if our Sunday words are only for our lives and not for the lives of others, and if our Sunday words are only for our lives, but don’t translate to our politics, we cannot say that we are living a fully Christian life.
What is the medicine for this? Repentance and restitution. We must make a change in the way we live, the way we think, and in all the ways we act: our uses of money, our treatment of people, and our lifestyle choices. All must be governed by God’s all encompassing love. If God’s love flows into our hearts, let this same generous love flow out unimpeded.
“Love one another, as I have loved you.” –John 15:12
I’m finishing up my grandchildren’s family history scrapbooks. I got to thinking about our family tree. The high holy days between Thanksgiving and Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza, and the year end festivities bring families together. This often results in a few fireworks or flamethrowers at some of these gatherings. I suspect alcohol may be involved in some of this, but old grudges and scores, which haven’t been settled in decades, won’t get settled on this holiday either.
My mother’s sister claimed our family goes back to the Baronial Order of the Magna Charter. These are a distinct group of the descendants of the signers of the 1215 document, in which King John of England granted the principles of constitutional law. The most important was each person, even the king, was subject to the law.
For my family, the real importance was our Anglo Saxon ancestry was ancient and noble, as well as white. Our linage also qualifies us for membership in the DAR, Daughters of the American Revolution, and DOC, Daughters of the Confederacy, two more all white groups. Both of these are institutions of a bye gone age and a bifurcated society. I have folks in my family tree who liked to put on “airs,” as folks in the country like to say. All the old ones in my family tree went to their graves holding these beliefs firmly. I loved them anyway.
Trees are meant to live by breathing fresh air and growing new leaves and branches. Even if trees only propagate by pollinating with their own kind, each tree is part of a giant forest of many species of trees. If a forest were a monoculture, a single disease or pest could wipe out the entire growth. If the forest consists of many different plants and trees, the destructive organism has to work very hard to destroy the whole, for the different and unlike species provide protection for one another. The variety of a diverse culture is its strength.
If we human creatures took note of our surroundings more, we would not fear the Others, but would embrace them. We would make them our friends, and we’d defend one another from harm.
The next generation of my family tree, I hope, is learning to love the other families of this diverse and wonderful world. I hope the branches of your family tree are open, growing, and renewing. Perhaps your branches can provide a shelter and make America friends again.
Actually, that’s my stunt double. Just like Chuck Norris, I’m too brave to cry. Or, the heat dries up any form of moisture that escapes my eyes. The stuff oozing from my pores is a different matter altogether. I think those 3,000,000,000 holes scattered across my body are each an eye leaking the tears our real ducts can’t cry.
The real Chuck Norris never sweats. He breaks any sweat that comes near him. Sweat is afraid of Chuck Norris, for he is the epitome of cool. How cool is Chuck Norris? We could defeat global warming if we unleashed his massive forces of chill. His sustained energy could bring down the ocean’s temperature by 4 degrees. In fact, Chuck Norris has the cooling equivalency of two Antarctic continents plus the Arctic ice cap.
Many things make my stunt double cry. Mostly they are those events, situations, or conditions that I cannot fix or make better for someone else. I spent years helping my daughter try to overcome the effects of her abuse. Others also gave their best efforts also. Her mental illnesses haves always impaired her ability to trust others or to stay on a treatment plan. Once she became an adult, she could choose, even if she didn’t make good choices, or have the ability to choose well.
I could cry about this forever, or let my stunt double have this role. I chose to grieve about this loss, shed enough tears, and find a way to live my own life by meeting the hopeless, the suffering, the despairing, the lost, the victims, and the ones “who’ve been down so long , it looks like up” to them. After all, this is where Christ met me. I knew if he could reach into my dark pit and pull me up into the light, if I offered Christ to others, he would the same for them.
When I get to the point of dragging out my Chuck Norris stunt double, I know it’s because good old Chuck is a cultural Christ figure. When I want a power for good to make a difference in my world, I call on this Texas Ranger. Instead, I should call on the spiritual power that flows through me:
“My soul clings to you; your right hand supports me.” (Psalm 63:8)
I may not be able to relieve the suffering of any one person, but I know God in his mercy understands and has compassion on all who suffer. God didn’t withhold God’s own son, but gave him up to suffer for all of us (Romans 8:32). Through this suffering we are united with those everywhere who experience wretchedness of any sort. Too often we hear that the winners of this world are our heroes, but faith tells us that those who lose their lives will gain their lives.
If we are to best grow into the Christ life, we cannot forget those who suffer while we are being healed, nor those who hunger or thirst while our stomachs are full. The real Chuck Norris would not send his stunt double to do good in this world.
Context is everything. In the real world of my daily hikes, the objects in this artwork are pieces of trash that I’ve found lying near the path that I walk. Put together with a fresh eye to shape and color, they become instead a nativity scene. I live in Hot Springs, Arkansas, a place known for its healing waters to the native peoples who once roamed these lands and now known as our nation’s first National Park. We have two large hospitals, a rarity for a town of only 35,500 people, but we also serve outlying rural counties. If you want healing, this is the place to come, for we have spas, bathhouses, great food, a beautiful lake and mountains.
The local YMCA is just down the road from the Mercy Hospital campus. If I leave the Y, I can get a 1.5 mile hike with varying grades and enough level spots to recover my wind and get the whole done in about 30 minutes. I’ve about trained the courtesy cart lady to wave at me and pass me by. At first I think I struggled enough that she would stop to offer me a lift.
When we speak about context in a work of art or context in a biblical verse, we mean that we need to look at the surroundings. The surroundings in an art work include the artist’s life experiences, as well as the image they were viewing. We artists pour the sum of who we are into the whole of the world as we see it.
Likewise with the biblical context, we ask: what was the writer’s intent, what do we know of his life experience, what seems to be his goal in writing as he does, what does his choice of words or images suggest, why are some stories unique and not repeated by other writers, and to what do the stories before and immediately after point?
In the New Testament, Luke is the only writer to mention that the birth of Jesus took place outside of an established lodging place. He uses the Greek word Kataluma, which means “lodging, inn, or guest room,” depending on the context. He is also the only one to mention the parable of the Good Samaritan. Healing takes place for the victim of bandits at the inn and for the whole world at the no room inn.
“And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn” –Luke 2:7
“He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him” –Luke 10:34
The No Room Inn Nativity has the standard imagery of the Holy Family: Joseph is the tall, blue, flattened paint can with the radiator head; Mary is is the crushed coca-cola can with the tin can head and screws for eyes; the angel on the left is a rain washed McDonald’s French fry container with a tin can lid for a head; and the baby Jesus is an orange plastic cross/halo resting in a VIP parking ticket from a NASCAR race I attended in November. Alone, these are just pieces of trash, but together on a gold background, this collage becomes an icon worthy of reminding us that the King of this world began his life in a No Room Inn.
This Jesus who came to heal the rift between God and humanity, began his human life on the outside. Those of us who feel like we aren’t meant for the inside need to realize that Jesus spent his whole life on the margins, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and casting out demons, while at the same time afflicting the comfortable insiders who came for the show. Context is everything. Take your ministry out into the streets, find the broken bits of “trash” that have the potential to become new. Begin a healing ministry, not for those inside your comfortable inn, but for those who are told, “No room!”
Recently a male acquaintance of mine had the temerity to suggest that perhaps I might need one of those buttons that calls for help to a distant monitoring site. I had told him I’d been sick and he knew I lived alone. I was feeling much better by then and retorted, “As long as I can walk the around the 1.5 miles of Mercy Hospital, I don’t need a button that says I’ve fallen and can’t get up!” He escaped my wrath by a quick exit into the elevator. Indeed!
“I can do all things through him who strengthens me,” Paul said of Christ to the Philippians (4:13). Isaiah reminds us that God “gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young fall exhausted; but those that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they run and not be weary, they shall walk and not be faint.” (40:29-31).
With verses like these ringing in our ears, well meaning people of faith do great harm to God’s gift, which is God’s own image, whether male or female (Genesis1:27). We run our precious images into the ground until they are flat exhausted, burnt out, overwhelmed, physically sick or plain old addicted to either the work, the adulation, or some other less desirable habit. We forget that the one person who is “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” (Colossians 1:15) is also the same one of whom was said, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14). John’s gospel alone mentions that “Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well” (4:6). No other gospel author speaks of the Lord’s humanness as does John. If Jesus can get tired and need rest, why is it we who follow him cannot do the same thing?
We think we are being good shepherds by being always at work, always on call, always at work. I have clergy pals who feel they have to justify their exercise time as “prayer time or sermon preparation.” I have other friends that have worked themselves into the hospital with exhaustion, yet tried to leave against medical advice just to do someone’s funeral because they were jealous of another pastor coming into their church. The stress of disaster relief efforts in addition to all our other responsibilities can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Hurricane Gustave in 2008 put several of us in lower Arkansas into the hospital with stress related heart events. Fainting into your spaghetti at the community meal gets you a free ride to the local hospital, even if you go under protest!
I won’t begin to list the side effects of all this stress on our precious bodies, other than to say that when we put ourselves under this much stress, we eat more comfort foods, we exercise less and we sleep less. All these acts cause us to eat more comfort foods. If we really want to live a Jesus lifestyle, start walking! Give up your need to be a Ken or Barbie doll perfect person and tell your people you are going out to find the lost sheep.
The lost sheep is your identity as a child of God, not your calling as a pastor or your ministry in the church or the world. It isn’t how you make your money as a banker, a mechanic, a coder, or a salesperson. This isn’t you as a mom or a dad, but you as God’s own child. If you are feeling lost in the role of what you do, you are a lost sheep. This icon (image) of the Good Shepherd should point you to the only one who can find you and bring you home safely from the wilderness. If you are with him, you stand under the tree of life, whose leaves are used for healing. Your wounds will be healed and you will heal the wounds of others also.
For further reading, a classic spiritual text is Henri Nouwen’s THE WOUNDED HEALER
I dilly dallied, as is my usual habit. I have some inner compunction that forbids me to turn up too early. It’s a learned behavior from early childhood: showing up too soon meant additional chores, whereas I’d rather be playing or reading or doing my art. However, Bon Jovi was coming to Verizon arena and that meant 18,000 people and possibly 6,000 vehicles were going to descend upon the twenty acres just across the river from downtown Little Rock. Late wasn’t an option. You can arrive late for church, walk in and find your seat while the congregation sings the first hymn or praise songs, but late for football or a rock concert means hoofing it from the far parking lots. Your seat may be reserved, but your parking space is a crapshoot.
I left my hotel at 5:30, arrived at the arena 15 minutes later, saw that the Burger King directly across the street was offering $10 off street parking, and I bagged this along with a Whopper Jr. with cheese and no pickles to go. About the time I’d finished my walking picnic (do calories eaten while exercising count?), I was at the entry. There a man asked me, “Will you be needing to drink tonight?” Do I need to or want to, I asked him. “Want to,” he said laughing. Oh no, I’m good to go as I am. I’ll be driving afterwards, so nothing for me. He wished me well and went about his work. He was checking the IDs and placing the orange bands on folks so the beverage people wouldn’t be slowed down for the inside sales. I thought of all the church greeters who miss an opportunity to engage in some type of meaningful conversation with the folks that are passing through their contact zone. If a church is a community, our first line greeters initiate that experience.
Once inside the door, I had two hours to kill or fill. Killing time is a long tedious process, but filling time is pleasant and refreshing. First I stopped to shop. Yes, I sacrificed at the altar of all things Bon Jovi to buy a $45 T-shirt with the logo on it. It’s a witness shirt. Of course, most people don’t read your clothes because they don’t see anything past the border of their personal space. We have been taught not to stare from an early age, so reading someone’s chest/breast is impolite. Only artists, children, and other rude people defy this social convention.
I sat next to a young couple from near Pine Bluff. The boy clearly loves this gal, but she’s had a hard life and can’t really believe it. When I showed her my shirt, I said I really wanted the hot red one with gold bling, but it didn’t come in “full mature womanly figure” size. “Oh I love red and gold, but I’d be afraid someone would take it.” Her boyfriend looks at her and says, “Come on honey, I think you’d look hot in that shirt!” Both these kids have had tough lives, but they have found each other and are making the days better for each other. I learned all this in less than an hour at a rock concert. How long do we take before we ever open up at church? Many of us never will, except for our physical illnesses, for we hold the mistaken belief that God rewards our silent suffering or worse, if we admit to suffering, we also admit to being an imperfect person. God already knows we are imperfect, so it won’t come as a surprise to the Almighty. It might only surprise the others who labor under the same delusion.
As I sat, I took photos of other folks killing time by checking facebook. Pretty soon, nothing would post and Instagram couldn’t refresh its feed, since too many bored people were online at once. I gave up and began to take photos only. It was as if we were all dressed up with no place to go, yet we were all here and being held in check, like racehorses behind the starting gate. Some found their way to the foot tall margarita stand, others to the beerita stand (half beer/half margarita), and others to the food and drink stands. I chatted with my other seat mates for a bit and realized I knew them from one of my appointments during my ministry. There may be six degrees of Kevin Bacon, but only one degree of Bon Jovi or Methodist ministers. I heard of the woes of their recent pastor and the trouble in their town. But it’s a broken and fallen world we live in, and we pastors can’t take responsibility for other peoples’ actions. This is why a God gave us Jesus to fall back upon when we fall down or the world falls apart.
At 7:30, I realized that the concert was no where near starting, no matter what my ticket said, so I went in search of the ladies’ room. On my way back, I chatted up the aisle folks. Some of them seemed surprised that a stranger was speaking to them, but then we do tend to live in our own little bubbles. This experience was the most like church, for I realized that while folks had come in groups or pairs to the concert, they came to experience it in their own private universe. They may have been part of the crowd, but their experience was much smaller and more intimate. I had come alone, however, and was seeking unity within the whole. Therefore, I was reaching out to connect with as many as possible to feel a part of the group. This is why a “friendly church” can seem cold to a stranger, but welcoming to the in crowd.
On my way back down to the floor, this handsome silver haired gentleman performed the requisite ticket check on me. He asked, “Do you like Bon Jovi?” Oh yes, I said. How about you? “Not so much, but I do get to say hello to very pretty ladies.” Aren’t you sweet, I smiled and said as I left for my seat. He probably had ear plugs for the evening. This was a nice moment to keep as a memory. I’m glad I’ve taken to wearing my hair up in braids. It makes me look approachable, young, fresh, and not all bound up. Uptight isn’t alright anymore. That was ok for the professional look, but now I want go look like me. My Sunday go to meeting clothes are now my dress casual clothes. I’m deep into retirement and not much on dressing up anymore. Once I had 47 pair of shoes, now I’m down to 12. I actually wear just 2 pair most of the time. Maybe we should simplify our lives, our dress, and our behavior: just be the same wherever we are. No one could call us a hypocrite then.
Finally the lights went dim and a roar rose from the crowd! Our anticipation wasn’t for naught. Bon Jovi and the band were taking the stage. The spotlights flashed brightly, strobing the darkened amphitheater. Blue lights burst into the stage that was just 17 rows and an orchestra pit away from my seat. Then oranges and reds quavered across this field and the sounds of “That’s What the Water Made Me,” “You Give Love a Bad Name,” “Runaway,” and the “Lost Highway” rolled out over the excited crowd. We sang along, at the top of our voices. Some of us sang the whole song, others sang just the choruses, but we all shared in the experience. A rock concert differs from a classical performance in that the latter is done by the artist for the audience to appreciate the artist’s abilities and talent, whereas the rock concert is a communal or participatory event in which both the artist and the crowd share the creation.
This experience alone reminded me the most of why church ain’t bringing IT like Bon Jovi. How many of our congregations have the moniker “the frozen chosen?” For this group, worship is done to them and they merely observe the performance. After church they may intellectually discuss the merits of the sermon or the song selections, but preaching to this crowd is difficult, for encouragement isn’t their long suit. They are well trained in stillness, silence, and the flat aspect of their faces while in the sanctuary. It’s as if God might strike them dead if they so much as bat an eyelash. Get them around a potluck table afterwards, especially the deserts, and they are quite lively. Perhaps we should serve chocolate brownies instead of communion wafers and 5-Hour energy shots instead of the communion wine or grape juice.
A song that surprised me was “Whole Lot of Leavin’.” because it had never been released in the USA. Fresh to our ears, we applauded even louder, but when Jon rolled into “It’s My Life” the screaming broke loose! It wasn’t the nice church ladies on my left (who I periodically checked on to make sure they were still alive), but the gal who couldn’t believe this was her birthday dream come true. She was on her first syllable of the nonstop scream that was her entire commentary of the evening. When the Spirit takes over, some are wont to speak in strange tongues or languages. Others break out in laughter, barking, or whooping, while some twirl or dance in place. All that was happening all over the stadium as Bon Jovi sang “Because We Can,” “What About Now,” “We Got It Goin’ On,” and “Keep the Faith.”
This was one of the high points of the concert, for which we’d been standing, singing and clapping all the way through so far. We were probably 45 minutes into the concert and I noticed the young couple in front of me were plum worn out. I said, He’s 55, working it for all he’s got & you’re tired? Stand up and honor this! (I checked my fitbit after the concert when I got to the hotel. My steps/activity counter posted over three miles just from the aerobic workout dancing and clapping in my foot and a half of floor space.) I thought, I’m as bad as all those judgmental church folks who think this younger generation doesn’t have what it takes to “do IT the right way.” In truth, they are probably just worn out from a long week at work and hassles with the kids. I should give them a break. There may be more than one way to skin an IT, after all.
Just as preachers can’t bring the same sermon every week, rock stars don’t play the same set at every venue. Life would get old. For us Arkies, Bon Jovi played a set that related to our history and our connections. Just as there are the six degrees of Kevin Bacon, almost everyone in Arkansas is an FOB or an FOH, the Clinton’s of course. We heard “It’s Only Make Believe,” (Conway Twitty cover) and “Someday I’ll Be Saturday Night” as part of that recollection and connecting. As the mood slowed, we heard “Diamond Ring,” and “(You Want to) Make a Memory.” All the young and old lovers took this moment in time to hug and kiss, to make their own memory of the night they shared with Bon Jovi.
But enough of all that smooching, the band had come to rock! “Born to Be My Baby,” “We Weren’t Born to Follow,” “Who Says You Can’t Go Home,” “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead,” (with snippets of Jumpin’ Jack … more), and “Bad Medicine” (with snippet of Shout) rounded out the main program.
The old preaching saw is strike fire & sit down. Leave them crying for more. Cry we did. More they had! “I’ll Be There for You,” “Wanted Dead or Alive,” “Have a Nice Day,” and “Livin’ on a Prayer” wound up the best night in twenty years in Arkansas. Don’t wait so long, BJ, you have friends here.
When I checked out of my hotel the next morning, the clerk was just in awe that I had gone to see Bon Jovi. I thought, no one ever says that about church. Is that because it happens every Sunday? If we held church once every twenty years, or asked people to pay steep admission prices, would that encourage us to attend? What if we had songs that we played over and over, like the top 40 and country hit stations play their lists, would that engage our participation? What if the seats cost more depending on their location (in church, the back row would cost the same as the concert orchestra pit)! We might have a better, if not rowdier, crowd down front. The preaching might get more exciting too. Then again, these two worlds aren’t meeting for the most part, for the same reason that the screaming fans and the prim church gals don’t run in the same crowd. They need a person who walks in both worlds to either be the church for them or to bring the church to them. The walls of the church itself are the barrier, even when the church ladies go out into the rock world, and the world can’t come into the church itself. This is why the church ain’t bringing the message of healing for the hungry and the hopeless like Bon Jovi is bringing IT. This is why the concert felt like the church ought to be, but each of us needs to bring our true heart to into true concert with the God who can rock our world, and not just our arena.