A Little Wicked–Ecclesiastes 7:18

It is good that you grasp the one and do not let the other slip from your hand. For the one who fears God will end up with both of them.

Ecclesiastes 7:18

I know that it has been a couple of weeks since I wrote about the preceding verses, probably the most challenging ones in the entire book for a contemporary Christian. I’m talking about the ones that tell you not to be too wicked (which we would expect) but also not too righteous. Really? And as we ponder those directions, if you’re like me, you’ll find yourself saying, “Not too wicked? So I can be a little bit wicked?”

A little over a week ago, I found myself walking through the crowded sidewalks around Times Square headed to a sixth-row seat at, of all musicals, Wicked. As we navigated the Friday-night press of people, we encountered some rather awkward street evangelists. They might have been aiming to be too righteous, but that’s not what puts them in my mind today.

I heard a voice in that crowd, although I never saw the speaker, who quite distinctly said, “The people of this world have chosen their god!” Looking around, I could see that this man was correct. The gods of Times Square include thinly veiled sexuality, alcohol, food, material possessions, overhyped celebrities, and endless entertainment. And here I was walking to a musical that had filled a nearly 2,000-seat hall for 16 years with people falling all over themselves to pay a hundred dollars and more per ticket.

Should I have turned my back on the Gershwin Theatre as soon as I heard those words? Should I have taken my ticket out and ripped it up, since giving it away would have been tempting someone else into the iniquity of the world? In short, was I wallowing in idolatry as I listened to singing about “Defying Gravity”?

Those thoughts crossed my mind quickly and just as quickly gave way. After all, we were on the sixth row, nearly close enough to be spit upon.

What the verse today suggests to me is that we do not have to utterly abandon the pleasures of this world in order to remain in God’s good graces. If I’m reading this correctly, then I can be a little bit wicked without utterly letting go of righteousness. I can enjoy a musical, provided I’m neither obsessed by it nor indulging in something truly ungodly. I can enjoy secular music, rich food, an indulgent vacation, and the other pleasures of this world without letting go of righteousness.

I know that even as I say this, I’m getting into slippery slope territory. As a bright and sin-inclined human, I can rationalize anything once I start deciding that a little wickedness is okay. But if I remain in touch with the Holy Spirit, the God that I have truly chosen, then I’m going to find myself pulled back when I move into dangerous territory.

And when that happens, as the closing song of Wicked says, “I’ll be changed for good.”

The End of Gungor

They’re gone. Gungor walks (and plays) the earth no more, and I had no idea. I didn’t even get to send flowers to the funeral.

Last night, my son informed me that one of his musical heroes, Michael Gungor (with wife Lisa), had elected to put an end to their musical project of the last several years, the cleverly named Gungor.

A couple of years ago, in 2017, Michael caused a fair stir by referring to the idea of the blood of Christ being necessary to effect atonement as “horrific.” Precisely, he tweeted this:

I simply think blood sacrifice is a very limited and less than timely metaphor for what the cross can mean in our culture.

My initial thought is that Twitter is a really poor place to lay out anything as complex and transcendent as theology, but Michael went through a series of tweets that made his non-evangelical theology pretty clear if not nuanced. The comment brought about–imagine this–a host of impassioned responses. The artist himself complained “White dudes keep retweeting this with snarky comments.” This led him to attempt to clarify:

To see it as literal and out of context- that God needed to be appeased with blood is not beautiful. It’s horrific.

According to my son, the band just couldn’t go on with all the controversy. Perhaps. Perhaps they weren’t getting some of the bookings or ticket sales in the wake of the kerfuffle. Perhaps we should take Michael Gungor at his word on the change:

Gungor feels to us like it’s done what it needed to do. Said what it needed to say.  And now it’s time for something new.

In that same blog post, Michael admits that things have changed.

For the last 4 albums, we’ve sometimes left many of our fans confused or frustrated— “What are they singing about now?” “Do they even believe in Jesus anymore?”…etc But we’ve always tried to stay true to what’s happening in our hearts at the time of recording a record.

Perhaps tellingly, he never answers that or other “belief” questions that he says were posed to him. Perhaps he noticed that nearly all the most-streamed songs on his Spotify page come from those earlier recordings when people did know what they were singing about. From what I can gather, it sounds as if his beliefs have drifted in the direction of what Serene Jones shared in that pre-Easter interview.

Back in 1832, Ralph Waldo Emerson left his pastorate at Boston’s Second Church, at least partially because he could not in good faith serve communion that symbolized something in which he no longer believed. While I disagree profoundly with Emerson, I admire his integrity. If Michael Gungor is making a similar move, as I suspect, then I admire his integrity as well. He has every right to believe, to write about, and to sing about anything he likes. He’s an imaginative and talented musician, and a person with a good heart.

When it comes to the blood of Jesus, however, I just have to say that he’s wrong.

Fair winds and following seas, Gungor.

The Six-String Kingdom

A 1957 Fender Stratocaster will set you back somewhere between $10,000 and $25,000. Just to be clear, I don’t own one. I knew a guy, though, who owned some fantastic vintage guitars–although nothing quite that extraordinary. The weird thing is that Dale wasn’t that great a guitar player, and he was chronically broke. In fact, at one point he found himself on the cusp of bankruptcy and set about hiding his guitars so that they wouldn’t get sold to help discharge a portion of his debts.

Here’s an example of a person who spent a great deal of money on something that made absolutely no sense for him to buy. Instead of taking care of his finances, he just couldn’t stop buying guitars and other music gear.

To the outside world, that’s what it must look like when a Christian takes the kingdom of God seriously. Jesus told us, in Matthew 6:33, to seek first the kingdom. Then he used a thick flurry of parables to help us understand precisely what it was we were to seek.

Immediately after the “buried treasure” parable, we find the parable of the pearl or the “pearl of great price.”

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls. When he found one priceless pearl, he went and sold everything he had and bought it.–Matthew 13:45-46

On first blush, this parable looks like an exact parallel of the buried treasure one. Somebody found something that was incredibly valuable and then sacrificed everything to ensure that they possessed that something. But that’s on first blush.

There are some major differences between these two parables. First of all, in the first, the kingdom is the valuable thing. In the second, the kingdom is the person who finds it. So which is it? Can Jesus not keep his stories straight? It would have been simple for Him to simply say that the kingdom is the pearl, but He didn’t. I think this is because it is not as simple as saying that the kingdom is the valuable thing or the person who finds it. It’s a combination of them.

The other big difference is that the merchant seems to be making a bad financial choice. If you find a hidden treasure and buy it, you can then sell the treasure and make a big profit. If you buy the priceless pearl at a market price you can’t really hope to sell it at a profit anytime soon. Having sold everything he had, what’s the merchant going to do?

We learn a couple of new things about the kingdom from this parable.

  • The kingdom, while incredibly valuable, probably will not look good to an accountant. It’s not reducible to dollars and cents.
  • The kingdom is a relational thing. Its value comes when God and human come together in it.

What makes a guitar valuable? A serious player could tell the difference between the 1957 Stratocaster and today’s model in a moment. But could they explain that difference? Probably not. It’s a guitar thing. You wouldn’t understand.

Having Strong Enemies is a Blessing.

Rapper Nipsey Hussle, born Ermias Davidson Asghedom, was shot to death outside a clothing store that he owned in Los Angeles. As I’m a fifty-something white midwesterner, it’s not all that shocking that I had never heard of this man until his violent death splashed him onto the news. Listening to a bit of his music this morning, I determined that it was, like most hip hop, not really my thing. That’s okay. His fans probably wouldn’t see in Doc Watson what I do. Different strokes and all that.

From all I can gather, this man was beloved within his community and in the wider world. People from the area, included in a CNN report on the crime, spoke of him as more than just a celebrity.

What caught my attention about Nipsey Hussle today was that last tweet that he sent out.

There’s something to be said for that, although I’m not sure what was meant by the statement. It’s kind of a cliché amongst Christians that if Satan isn’t bothering you, then maybe you’re not really bothering him either. Therefore, if he’s a dedicated enemy, then you must be doing something to rile him up. In that case, “Having strong enemies is a blessing.” I’m pretty doubtful that this was what Nipsey Hussle had in mind.

But here’s the reality of the matter. This man, whatever his positive and negative qualities, had a very strong enemy, the enemy that all flesh shares together: death. Ever since Genesis 3, death has been the ultimate enemy, the strongest enemy of all humans. Death is one of the four horsemen. It comes for absolutely every person.

Death comes for some more quickly, more savagely than for others. In Nipsey Hussle’s area, the level of violence is far higher than in the decidedly suburban area where I live. We’d be callous beyond excuse to act like issues such as crime, poverty, racism, and disease don’t treat some people differently than others. But regardless of who you are, death comes for you.

That’s what makes the work, accomplished already but yet to be fully consummated, of Jesus Christ so powerful. Unlike anyone, prophet, priest, or king, rapper, actor, or cop, Jesus has set the wheels in motion that will, eventually, put an end to death. Paul sums it up in a simple but profound claim:

The last enemy to be abolished is death.–1 Corinthians 15:26

In the same chapter of 1 Corinthians, he goes into more detail on the matter.

When this corruptible body is clothed with incorruptibility, and this mortal body is clothed with immortality, then the saying that is written will take place:
Death has been swallowed up in victory.
Where, death, is your victory?
Where, death, is your sting?–1 Corinthians 15:54-55

To have strong enemies might arguably be a blessing, but it is even more of a blessing when we have a strong Friend who is capable and willing of putting our greatest, our most inescapable enemy to rout.

What Has God Wrought?

It was the summer of 1969 and I rode around in a cavernous Chevy station wagon. We completely ignored the seatbelts and my mother mostly ignored the radio that was always on. That summer we listened as Zager and Evans sang:

In the year 2525, if man is still alive
If woman can survive, they may find
In the year 3535
Ain’t gonna need to tell the truth, tell no lie
Everything you think, do and say
Is in the pill you took today

That song, which is now stuck in your head for the next several hours if you’ve heard it before, kept jumping ahead, mostly by 1,010-year increments, and eventually made its way to 9510. It was profound–or so it seemed in the backseat of that station wagon.

The Nebraska duo who sang the song had a huge hit with it and then never had any other musical success. Still, they could always count on a big response when they launched into the song during live performance. People would recognize it and cheer, perhaps singing along. They had to stand there and think, “I did something good. I made this song.”

But did they? Yes, these guys, especially songwriter Rick Evans, created the text and melody. They joined with a few others, including the Odessa, Texas Symphony Orchestra, to record it. And then they appeared on various radio and TV programs during the summer and fall of 1969 to lip-sync it.

But maybe they only tapped into the zeitgeist, that sense of dread and disillusionment that came two years after the “summer of love.” Maybe this song could have been as big a dud as their followup “Mr. Turnkey.” Maybe if it had been recorded in 1965, it wouldn’t have been Beatles enough or in 1975 it wouldn’t have been Led Zeppelin enough. Who can say? Maybe the times had as much to do in making it as Evans and Zager.

But not so with the making in Psalm 118:24.

This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.

That verb, “has made,” is in the Hebrew qal perfect. Basically that means that it is straightforward and utterly done. It would be wrong to translate this as the day God “is making” or “was making.” We could say it’s the day God “made,” but the addition of “has” emphasizes that the making is finished. It was God that made it and he did all the making.

“In the Year 2525” continues to be made, in a manner of speaking, when people hear it and think about it and use it in other settings, but this day has been made. The making is complete. Our actions within and around that day are still fluid, which is where the second clause of the verse will take us. The song touches on that idea.

In the year 8510
God is gonna shake His mighty head
He’ll either say I’m pleased where man has been
Or tear it down, and start again.

That’s Rick Evans’ take on theology at least. Happily he didn’t make much of that.

Allowing the Author to Speak–Mark 1:22

The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law. –Mark 1:22

One of the things that I enjoy more than anything else is working with others to create some sort of dramatic production. It could be a brief skit, a short drama for VBS, or a lengthy production. I can direct, act, write, or perform whatever role. It doesn’t matter; I simply enjoy watching the final project unfold. (Okay, I lied. I enjoy acting more than any of the rest.)

In my current church, I have become the go-to person for directing dramatic work. It’s not that I’m particularly gifted in directing, but I seem to be the best person available. In the course of doing several productions, I’ve discovered something interesting. When I have written the script, I find myself much more confident in my decisions than if I’m attempting to interpret someone else’s text.

In the same vein, I’ve sat under choir directors who had written the music in our laps. Those people know precisely what they intended measure 33 to sound like. They understand exactly how much that crescendo on the second page is supposed to grow or just how much slow down the molto ritard on the last page was intended to evoke. Anyone else, even someone who has spoken with the actual writer, will be doing their best to interpret what the other person said. They might be imposing their own view intentionally or unintentionally, but they’ll undoubtedly impose their own ideas.

When Jesus taught in the synagogue, he didn’t simply appear as the author of the  scriptures that he read. He stood there as the author of human life, of the natural world, and of everything that those scriptures related to. The only thing Jesus did not author was himself. (And if we think too hard in that area, our brains begin to hurt.)

When I teach Sunday School, I will be like one of the teachers of the law, an interpreter of someone else’s text (even though I wrote this month’s curriculum). When you share the gospel with someone, you’ll be like a teacher of the law. Regardless of how you encounter God’s Word, it will always be God’s Word, not yours.

However, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, we can speak as one with authority. When Stephen delivered the eloquent sermon that wound up placing him on the wrong end of a stoning, do you believe that those were just his interpretation? When, on the day of Pentecost, Peter preached and drew 3,000 people into fellowship, did he speak under his own authority or Christ’s?

I cannot speak with the same authority that Jesus employed in Capernaum, but I can, I must, speak with the Spirit’s guidance and authority rather than as a mere interpreter of the law. Failing that, we’re no better than the scribes of Jesus’ day.

A Tale of Two Crosbys–Mark 1:7-8

And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” –Mark 1:7-8

Fanny Crosby wrote some 8,000 hymns during her ninety-five years. Probably none is better known than “Blessed Assurance.” In fact, my guess is that by simply putting the title and author of that hymn–actually, it should be termed a gospel song according to one common definition–I have you humming the refrain already: “This is my story. This is my song. Praising my Savior all the day long.”

If you read up on Crosby, you’ll discover that praise of her Savior truly did seem to be her story and her song. This woman, blind from infancy, recognized God not only as the being on whom she depended for her life but as the source of her poetic talents. She could see no better use of that talent than to proclaim the message of Christ as the one more powerful than her–and of you.

Bing Crosby–no relation to Fanny–lived for seventy-four years and, during the decades before and after World War Two, dominated movies, radio, and recorded music like nobody else. If nothing else, you might remember Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas.” Other big hits included “Swinging on a Star” and “Don’t Fence Me In.” The message–the story and song, if you will–of Bing Crosby was decidedly individualistic. All you have to do is look at the photos of the man with his pipe jauntily sticking from his mouth to get the sense that it’s all about him.

Although at his peak, Bing Crosby certainly carried more fame than did Fanny Crosby, neither of the two is quite a household name today. I shouldn’t wonder, however, if more young people today couldn’t identify Fanny than Bing. In another thirty years, my guess is that few under forty will know who traveled the  “Road to Morocco” with Bob Hope.

I don’t want to be unfair to Bing Crosby, whose spiritual life and condition I really cannot guess. However, I can see the message that the two Crosby’s put forward. Like John the Baptist, Fanny promoted the idea that somebody greater should receive the lion’s share of the attention.

Which Crosby do you and I resemble more? Is your story and song clearly pointing to Jesus, like Fanny and John the Baptist, or are you more of a self-promoting Bing? I must confess to spending time in both camps. May our message always be clear: There’s one more powerful than me. His name is Jesus.