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

636548041083127937-Billy-Graham-3267959

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.

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. 

tom-petty-Epics-Petty-66-68_Photographer-Unknown-billboard-510

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.

Reinvention and Resurrection: The Gospel According to Brand New

21-brand-new-science-fiction.nocrop.w710.h2147483647

I was 14 when I found Brand New. As a freshman in high school with hormones in full swing, I ate up every word on Your Favorite Weapon. I was equally transfixed by Deja Entendu. When “Sowing Season” began on The Devil And God Are Raging Inside Me I was more floored than anything else. How has this band been able to completely reinvent themselves with every record? Daisy was no different, this band was once again a new band.

It’s pretty rare to have a band that grows with you. I’ve had a Brand New album for each major milestone in my life. Two albums in high school, two in college, one as a husband and father. Each of those seasons and times was filled with struggles and flux, and each met with something from Brand New.

Science Fiction is no exception. This album is full of personal and communal turmoil, with heaps of writhing and longing to be better (or healed). Themes found on Science Fiction seem like anything but fiction in today’s world. It feels more prophetic than fiction. “Desert” presents a protagonist easily associated with a protesting White-Nationalist from last week’s Charlottesville riots. “137” sounds a lot like what the world of “fire and fury” nuclear war would look like.  Yet even better, Lacey is able to get underneath the reality of the human condition – all the longing (for hope) – and all the turmoil (at our inability) we feel. Not simply in times of potential nuclear threat, or marching of White-Nationalist, but daily. These two seemingly unreconcilable realities and pulls within our world define our daily struggle. Yet, they get after our deepest longings.

This album demonstrates the complexities that each of us has with God and ourselves. Personal turmoil is an easy theme of the album that begins with a therapy session. “Waste” is a wonderfully dark example of the reality of personal turmoil and demons. We’re “stuck like glue” to the parts of us that we hate so much, holding onto the tiniest glimmer of good at the continual plea, “don’t lose hope,” after all, “you are not alone.” Our daily lives are filled with the sense of personal turmoil that Science Fiction holds out so beautifully. That kind of writhing is known to each of us, at the dirt-floor basement-bottom. But this album isn’t all gloom, there are very real themes of hope threaded throughout.

A band that is incredibly adept at reinventing themselves and their sound may have left us all wondering if that same reinvention is possible in the world we inhabit. It doesn’t seem likely. But maybe what Brand New is after isn’t a reinvention, but a resurrection. That kind of newness all the writhing seems to be longing for is met with resurrection in a way that it could never be met with a reinvention. We needed the dark-reality-reminder from Brand New, and I’m not saying that as an enormous fan of this band, I’m saying that as a student of the human condition, as someone with the lowest possible anthropology.

If there was an album we needed this year it was Science Fiction. I confidently assert this to be the album of the year. Each of us hope to be brand new at the end of our days, our longings fixed on renewing or reinventing ourselves. In reality, we all need a little resurrection. Here’s to hoping for a resurrection for this band, who has promised to throw in the towel after this fall tour. But for those of us who are deeply aware of our faults and failures, I’ll let Jesse Lacey have the last word:

“I’m hoping that in time, you can lay down all this weight you’ve been carrying around, and maybe one day you’ll find your way to climb up out of your grave”

Must Listen List: Lit Me Up, Waste, 137, and Batter Up

SaveSave