Poems through John: Poem 6, Bread – John 6:1-14

John 6 is fascinating to me. I wrote my Master’s Thesis in seminary on John 6, so needless to say, I’ve been waiting for this one. Robert Farrar Capon wrote that the feeding of the five thousand was the pivotal turning point of Jesus’s ministry, or at least how he saw himself, and how others saw him.

What is so interesting to me is that everyone there is hanging on his words, they gather to see and hear him, to be healed. They’re hungry for far more than a meal, whether they’ve quite realized it or not.

Based on how they respond to him (and how he responds to them), it really seems that the way they aimed to go about being fed would only make them hungrier in the end. Jesus seems to have no interest in patch-work redemption, he wants the whole thing. When we get that, all that is left to do is “…sit down” and receive some bread that we didn’t buy, couldn’t pay for, and feast.

5,000 hungry
5,000 empty stomachs
All fed
With 5 loaves of barley

Everyone hungry
All of us starving
Trying to buy the Bread
With 200 denarii

But the Bread is already here
No need to pay
No need to buy
When the Bread has risen
Anyone
Everyone
Even the least
Come and eat!
The Son of Man became a feast

When Blues Run The Game – A Good Friday Playlist

InriPossibly (…definitely) the nerdiest thing that I do is make corresponding playlists for the liturgical church calendar. These have gone unsung, unnoticed, with no playlist followers on Spotify to bolster my musical and liturgical musings. Even my wife has no love in her heart for these playlists, they are often very sad as she faithfully points out and this year’s Good Friday playlist doesn’t ring through with positivity.

As Good Friday approaches I thought I’d share this little list and some of the tracks that made it this year. Good Friday is when the Church observes the death of Christ. This isn’t yet the point where followers of Jesus would find themselves filled with jubilation and excitement. This side of the cross our looking back stands dually to remind us of the depth of God’s love and the depth of our sin. We reflect on the isolation, abandoning, and suffering of Jesus for the sake of those who abandoned him. It’s a powerful day.

I love Lent and Good Friday, as Sarah Condon waxed recently on the Mockingcast, there is no cultural robbing or dressing up for this liturgy and holiday like there is with Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter. Each of these has come to stand almost as their own separate holidays far removed from the power they can represent in reminding us of grace come near. It’s a true sentiment, no one is trying to do anything for the day that we remind ourselves about our death (Ash Wednesday, I’m man enough to admit that playlist was a real downer…there’s a reason I’m writing about a good Friday playlist), or our sin and the death of Love Come to Town. The point being, there is something to be noted about these days being too dark and gloomy to be celebrated by the culture at large. There are no grocery store displays of Coke cases in the form of a crucifix, for better or worse Good Friday remains ours.

Without further ado, I present a nine-track playlist to help my soul remember what happened at the 9th hour for me and all.

  1. Blues Run the Game – Jackson C. Frank

How fitting it is that a musician who survived an explosion should write a song about a full acquaintance with the blues. There’s a depth of loneliness and sorrow in this song that gives a voice to an amount of isolation many of us will never know, but someone did.

2. Surrender – Josh White

The only categorically “Christian” song on this list. There’s something about Josh White that has prevented me from listening to much else these days. But with a chorus as simple as, “Lord I surrender, I surrender to you” unashamedly I sing on.

3. Everywhere – Fleetwood Mac

Can he hear me calling out his name? A sentiment I can fully give myself over to. I find myself constantly battling the thought that I’ve reached my forgiveness threshold. It’s hard to miss the irony of “I want to be with you everywhere” and the abandoning of Jesus by his friends. Peter’s self-assured, “I will die with you if I have to” amounts to another self-imposed law that crushes with the weight of its expectation. This song has the beauty of being flipped with the realization that he really does want to be with us, so much so that he came to us. Amen Stevie. fleetwoodmac-hero-74270722

4. Love Come to Town – U2 with BB King

BB has a special place in my heart. My dad is a huge BB King fan, and the Tennessee musician often found himself being played in our car rides together. The raspy hard sung  vocals of BB King remind us that “we stand accused.” A sentiment we all know only too well. But let’s introduce the small whisper of hope that maybe there, even for those of us who “held the scabbard when the soldier drew his sword, threw the dice when they pierced his side” to know that, “love conquers the great-divide.”

5. Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet – Gavin Byars

Do you have 29 minutes to have a little death and resurrection within yourself? There’s silence…it continues, then the frailest, least impressive voice of a “street tramp” begins to recite the beautiful lyrics “Jesus’ blood never failed me yet, one thing I know, he loves me so.” As it begins with silence, then frailness, Gavin adds a swelling backdrop of strings. The stunning thing about this track is the frailness in the voice of the tramp, that frailty does not end as the song continues, it seems to increase in weakness, and yet the refrain remains. Amen.

6. The Mercy Seat – Johnny Cash

The power of the Law in a song. “I’m innocent, you know” it begins, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, I told the truth.” We keep “shuffling out of life, to hide in death a while” and the good news for us is the Mercy Seat really is waiting.

7. Sympathy for the Devil – The Rolling Stones

“Can you guess my name?” Another meaningful track for me as it holds some memories of my time with my Dad playing the Rolling Stones to a car full of kids. Should 5-year-olds be listening to the Stones? Not a question my Dad would even consider. The song from the perspective of the Devil speaks to our perspective as well. All our hidden tendencies and the unknown parts of our lives sing out, “Can you guess my name? If I’m confusing you it’s just the nature of my game.” Even in light of the cross the game continues.

8. Suzanne – Leonard Cohen

Besides being just a truly beautiful song, it has these poetically-waxed lines:

And Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water
And he spent a long time watching from his lonely wooden tower
And when he knew for certain only drowning men could see him
He said all men will be sailors then until the sea shall free them
But he himself was broken, long before the sky would open
Forsaken, almost human, he sank beneath your wisdom like a stone

That lonely wooden tower is the lighthouse for this drowning man, amen Len.

9. Darker With the Day – Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds

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For the darkest day, “The gilled Jesus shivering on the fisherman’s hook” is a note that touches on the reality we are facing. Losing the one we placed all our confidence in would certainly speak to the day growing darker. Intentionally left with the sound or word of despair. We “carry on regardless…I come and go, full of longing for what I do not know…I just gotta say, it grows darker with the day.”

Where is there good news for those who “hope and pray, but it grows darker with the day?”

Longing for something…but that’s a different song and a different playlist.

You can listen here.

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When You’re Extraordinarily Ordinary: The Gospel According to Billy Graham

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It’s hard to imagine a life as impactful as Billy Graham’s was. Most of us, whether we realize it or not, have experienced the ripple effect of BG’s ministry in our lives. Someone who has been converted at one of his rallies is an elder at our church, our matron of the faith grandmother turned toward Jesus because of his preaching. Somewhere along the way, we’re recipients of his life and ministry.

Equally hard to imagine is the escape from the overwhelming sense of not being enough that each of us has. It’s the tiny whisper of law in our lives that says to us “be more.” The nagging suspicion that we’re not enough, or should be doing more is overwhelming in the culture at large. The buffet of social media outlets to have demonstrably good looking lives is before us, demanding as the law does that we feast. A proportionate law is the demand to keep coming back with our proverbial empty plate. As I’ve reflected on Billy Graham’s life, with the rest of the internet, I haven’t been very enamored by quotes of his, or his sermons. Nothing has stuck out so much in all the coverage or history of his 99-year life. This is what I keep finding out about BG, he was all steak and no sizzle. The most profound thing about him is that he isn’t that profound of a person after all. He wasn’t even some masterful rhetorician. The reality is that what he did well, and what we need more of, is preached the law and the gospel. He pointed out the dysfunction of what it means to be a human in this world, to be a sinner to the bone, and the absolving forgiveness found in the love of God in Christ.

His ordinariness gets after the tug each of us feels to somehow morph out of ourselves and into something more impressive. A notion that wreaks of law. Billy Graham seems to have story after story of how normal he was, that he really was a man who was at home in himself, something we aim at escaping.

Overall, I think there’s a reason the media coverage has been mostly positive (perhaps the Nixon thing, and the slow jump on the civil rights movement aside, which by the way he publically repented of in humility, but in the digital age nothing you’ve ever failed to do even in 99 years of life is overlooked. Such is the power of the law). What can you really say about someone who doesn’t have much to hide? Who publically acknowledges failure and throws themselves again and again on the mercy of God in Christ? One of the most stunning things about his ministry (estimated that he preached to over 215 million people) is that it pointed far and away from where our focus is keyed in on: self. All of it was pointed away from him.

It’s telling of his impact that we’re all somehow small recipients of his work and life. I’m currently not benefitting from any quotes or enthralled at how many he preached to. Instead, I find myself only thinking about his normalcy. Reading more and more about how free he was of the law of ‘thou shalt be impressive’ and realizing more and more how enslaved I tend to be to it. Such is the power of the law. And yet it meets its end in the message of Billy Graham, whose life was filled with the same message of one-way love that puts an end to all our striving. Cheers to you BG, and thank you.

Poems through John: Poem 5, Water – John 5:3-9

It seems a little pointless to ask what it would be like to live in the realization that healing is so far off. To become clean is a foregone conclusion. It isn’t possible for me. We see this lame beggar in John 5…healing is something that is beyond him. He’s settled into this reality.

This is a situation that we all know too well. Could we really be healed? Could we really be clean? Could we really be more?

The deeper reality is that it only takes the tiniest spark. As C.S. Lewis noted in The Great Divorce, “…the tiniest spark can be fanned into flame.” That tiny spark comes in the faintest realization that someone else is going to have to place us in that water. For the beggar, this is only half right, but it is right. My healing is contingent on the work of another.

He just so happens to be able to do it without the water. He can do it with only a word.

Waters stirred
Let me in
If only healing could begin

Waters stirred
can't get in
If only someone would put me in

Waters Stirred
Breath and Wind
By His word
Healing would begin

Poems through John: Poem 4, Thirst – John 4:4-26

I recently heard Jonathan Martin say something to the effect that we sometimes believe the people who have living water flowing out of them are the spiritually elite. The best of all the followers of God. He went on to explain that the reality is, we often don’t know we have a stream of living water flowing in us until our side gets pierced. What an image.

This woman in John 4 goes out from Jesus into her town, facing all her fears and the entire town comes to know Jesus. Did she know in all her shame that she had a stream of living water in her belly? Most often we don’t…but as Jonathan has said, sometimes it doesn’t mean more holiness, it might just mean more holes.

Which makes me think of a great Frightened Rabbit song,

“You’re acting all holy, me, I’m just full of holes.”

This woman is full of holes, which turns out to be a wonderful thing. More places for the stream to spring up!

Please,
Give me something to drink
You look thirsty
You look like you're hurting

Do you mean me, sir?
How is it that you would ask...me?

Please,
I'll give you a drink
You look thirsty
You look like you're hurting

Oh, but you don't have a pail
I dont see how we could get any further
How could you give me any water?

Please,
It's nothing to me
I'll give you everything
You only need to drink

Even the Losers – The Gospel According to Tom Petty

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about Tom Petty and it certainly won’t be the last. I’ve been doing a bit of reflecting on his life, music, and what all of that means for me (or more importantly, has meant to me). I’ve been a Tom Petty fan my whole life it seems. In the same way that we tend to like the sports teams our parents like, I’ve always gravitated towards the music of my dad (this is also because there is no way I’m cheering for Nebraska). Growing up it was rock-n-roll in the car with my dad; it was the Rolling Stones, Zeppelin, Dylan, Guns N’ Roses, Springsteen, and of course Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. We were inundated with Lynard Skynard and a swath of blues musicians on a regular basis in our little minivan.

Honestly, there wasn’t always a minivan consensus on what we were listening to. The respect and admiration for the Rolling Stones had not yet set in for my brothers and me. However, there was one band who would come on that always received a unanimous yes vote: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

Free Fallin would come on, or Mary Jane’s Last Dance, or Here Comes My Girl, or You Wreck Me, or Learning to Fly, or any of the great Petty Songs… and content satisfaction reigned in our vehicle for those three and half minutes.

Tom Petty understood all of us in that minivan. This family of 6 who were living on a $800 a month Prison Guard salary from my dad. Living in state-provided housing (because there was no chance we could afford anything else), we were just the family living in Raiford, Florida outside of Gainesville – the hillbilly swamp  – barely making it. The interesting thing is, I know we were poor, and I know things were difficult for our family, but I don’t think any of my brothers or me remember it. Or that we gave much thought to how our mom pinched pennies at the grocery store to feed us and pack our lunches for school, or all the night shifts my dad worked, or all the Christmas gifts they somehow made possible. 

Maybe we didn’t notice because this is what life was like for literally everyone we knew. The late 80’s and early 90’s in Raiford, Florida weren’t booming economic times. It was the place for people who couldn’t afford anything else. You didn’t work at Florida State Penitentiary because you wanted to – you worked there because you dropped out of high-school, your dad left when you were 5, and you had 4 kids at 22 years of age. That’s the world my family inhabited. The pentecostal family church, the dirt track racing, rundown trailer life of Raiford, Florida. This was our world, our language, our ethos. Interestingly enough, it was also the world of Tom Petty (and several of the Heartbreakers too).

Tom Petty grew up in the hillbilly swamp of Florida, poor family, abusive dad, unsuccessful in school, reject, loser. I’ve never asked, but I’m willing to bet so much of his music resonated with my dad because he spoke the language of my dad’s life. He was tapped into some deeper reality that struck a chord with all of the rejects in North Florida. 

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I think all of those drop-outs, losers, dejected, poverty-stricken men and women of Raiford working long shifts, night shifts, too-many-kids-not-enough-money-people were wondering: Can we really break free from all the inflicted (and self-inflicted) turmoil of life? Can we ever make it out of here? Will I ever be something other than what I am? Will I ever be something for my family better than what my dad was? Will I always be this ________?

Enter Tom Petty.

What was so beautiful about his life and story is he comes in and answers with an emphatic, chord-reverberating “Yes!” to those questions. Music and the stage was his pulpit, and proclaiming a place for the losers and rejects was his sermon. It was gospel to us because it is the heart of the actual gospel as well. Whether he ever knew it or not, it meant that my mom and dad didn’t have to stay in Raiford, it meant they could buy and make a beautiful home in the mountains of East Tennessee and see their kids become something more than the prison guards of North Florida. It meant a house full of grandchildren who are showered with gifts every Christmas. It meant life could be something more.

Somewhere a switch has to flip, somewhere someone will have to say “I won’t back down,” or realize that all these hard things – all the waiting (that has correctly been assessed to be the hardest part of life) – means something, even for (and especially for!) the losers.

The reason I love Tom Petty so much is due to this soul-captivating theme behind his life and music: The losers and rejects have a place, and that place is to be more than they are told they can be. It is fascinating how someone as rejected as Tom Petty was in his youth, became one of the most accepting in his fame. That happens most often when losers find that they can be more, they don’t have to be defined by who they were, or who they were told to be. That’s what I think it means to be a Tom Petty fan – to know that is what drove most of who he was and how he lived. That Tom Petty was someone who had been to the dirt-floor-bottom of self and life and preached that it may seem “hopeless” to believe you could be more or make it out of “this old town,” but you really, really could be more.

Tom Petty was not unlike another man who came from a podunk town who made it a point to find the losers and rejected to welcome them to his table; to proclaim that they belonged, that they could be more, that they were loved. The reality is we’re always making statements of how we think the world should be and look, and I’m thankful that Tom Petty made the statements he made along with the music he made. I’m thankful that in Jesus there is a very real place at his table for Tom Petty and all the other rejects from all the small, poor towns in all the world. For Tom Petty, I hope you found whatever you were looking for. I believe you did.

For further fascinating viewing: Running Down a Dream on Netflix – Epic and wonderful documentary about the life and formation of The Heartbreakers. 

For further fascinating reading: Petty, by Warren Zanes – Wonderful biography of the loser from North Florida who became something more.

Poems through John: Poem 3, Teacher – John 3:1-15

John 3 starts with a Pharisee coming to Jesus for a little theological discussion. He was likely unaware that he would get a bit more of a theological education.

He speaks of what he knows, what he can see.

We’re constantly bringing our preconceived notions of Jesus to him. “I know who you are, I know all about you, Jesus!” The actuality is that it is Jesus who knows all about us. Like Nicodemus, we’re far too concerned with what we bring to the table. If we’re gonna call him ‘teacher’ we will have to let him teach us.

Teacher, we know who you are
We know where you came
No one can do what you've done
Outside of The Name

Let me tell you something true
You want Kingdom come
But you'll need to shed that skin
Start all over again
Water and Spirit
Breath and Wind
You'll need to shed that skin
Start all over again

How can that be?
Shed my skin,
Start again?
Surely you can't mean me

You called me teacher
So let me teach
The Wind blows
Where the Spirit goes
To anyone
To everyone
Who seems out of reach