Monday, January 23, 2012

Four Upcoming States Newt Gingrich Could Win

In addition to my first two posts here since 2010, I also just wrote my first Daily Kos diary since I started front-paging at MyDD in 2009 - and my first political post since going to work for the DNC. It's not progressive, it's not data-driven; it's just a little horserace speculation to get back in the blogging swing of things after such a long hiatus.

I'm going to try and be a blogger again, sharing religious observations and personal reflections here and political thoughts through a new Daily Kos account. (And as always, both on Facebook and Twitter, as well.)

Sunday, January 22, 2012

On discipleship, grace, and headfakes

This morning's Gospel was Mark 1:14-20, in which Jesus called Simon and Andrew to drop their nets and follow Him. My thoughts on this passage involve Rob Bell, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Bruce Springsteen.

Pastor Rob Bell’s Nooma video "Dust" is one I have thought of often since first seeing it in college, and I finally got to watch it again this past week at my church's 20s/30s group. In this 15-minute video (excerpt), Bell explains that most Jewish children in Christ's day went to school and memorized the Torah. The best of the best stayed on for a few extra years to learn the rest of the Jewish Scriptures. But only the best of the best of the best (sir!) would be asked by a rabbi to become his disciples. He would say to them, "Come, follow me."

Because Simon and Andrew are out fishing in this passage from Mark, we know that they weren't following a rabbi. They were no one's disciple -- they weren't considered anywhere near the best. And then, out of the blue, a rabbi comes to them and says (in the Matthew version) those hallowed words they thought they'd never hear – "Come, follow me." Jesus told them, you ARE good enough. Good enough to follow me, good enough to be honored, and, as my rector in DC, the Rev. Cara Spaccarelli, points out, good enough to teach.

That is an honor, a blessed invitation, and it is extended to all of us today. Everyone is worthy of Christ's love, attention, and time, and thus also of ours -- but, our own worthiness comes at a cost.

This morning's processional hymn at Christ Church Parish in DC was William Alexander Percy's "They Cast Their Nets In Galilee." It was one I hadn’t heard before. The melody was "Georgetown," a happy tune with a quick tempo, and the first verse had blissful, over-the-top lyrics like "happy simple fisherfolk."

But it was a happy, simple headfake. When we hit the third verse, I was a bit shocked. My last blog post came to mind, about Bruce Springsteen songs that on casual listen seem to be patriotic ballads but are in fact powerful indictments of a broken system.

They cast their nets in Galilee
Just off the hills of brown
Such happy simple fisherfolk
Before the Lord came down

Contented peaceful fishermen
Before they ever knew
The peace of God That fill'd their hearts
Brimful and broke them too.

Young John who trimmed the flapping sail,
Homeless, in Patmos died.
Peter, who hauled the teeming net,
Head-down was crucified.

The peace of God, it is no peace,
But strife closed in the sod,
Yet, brothers, pray for but one thing -
The marvelous peace of God.

I think the hymn has the right definition for the wrong word. There is a marvelous peace of God, one that calls us to beat swords into plowshares and let the Romans lead away our Savior -- one that calls us to call to use words and love as our weapons against oppression. But at the same time, following Jesus does come with a cost.

In his book, "The Cost of Discipleship," Bonhoeffer warns us against what he terms "cheap grace" -- the belief that we can simply dunk our heads in water with a prayer and have everything be hunky-dorky, and go about just as before with nothing changed beyond Heaven's opinion of us. Or in his more eloquent and passionate words,

The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing... Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate...

[Costly grace] is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him...

Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son.

I'm not done with this book yet, but Bonhoeffer's point is well taken: We're not following someone if we're not in motion behind them, if we're not changing a thing. So I'm not sure I can really call myself a disciple of the homeless Christ.

I don't give nearly enough to charity. I haven't cut down much of my consumption or sold off most possessions, instead hoarding the money they could raise and worrying about the security of my stuff. I don't read the Bible on my own very often, and lack discipline even in the simple things like getting myself to go hiking or visit a free museum. I pick jobs that I think will be good for society, but almost never seem to also volunteer my actual free time. So many things that could serve the kingdom and strengthen my relationship with God, yet I spend my time watching movies, mindlessly surfing the Internet, and drinking craft beer.

But there is always hope. At the 20s/30s group, my rector reminded us –- me -– not to feel unworthy because of failings like the ones I list here. Christ's call does not go away -- He is there anew each morning, saying, "Come, follow me." She finished her sermon today saying if you haven’t seen that call in your life, look harder. Bishop Andy Doyle of Texas echoes that on his blog, saying that if you haven't seen it, don't worry; it's still there and it's never going away: "What seems very inspiring here is the notion that this is not a one-time event. We are not to repent and believe; but rather we are to live a life of repenting and believing."

Or as my mentor in Nebraska, Fr. Tom Jones, often said, "Just as I am" is a great hymn -- but though we can come just as we are, we can't stay that way.

It's a continual process. It's costly grace, and it's God’s love. We are called to drop our nets, to follow, to change. And no matter when you read this, it's time we get started.

Friday, January 20, 2012

New Springsteen Song: Born in the USA, Part Two

Awesome news: Bruce Springsteen has a new album coming out March 6. It's called "Wrecking Ball," after his last single, a track he put out in October 2009 to commemorate the destruction of Giant Stadium.

The first track is called "We Take Care Of Our Own," and the music video was released yesterday. On casual listen, it's pretty jingoistic - the music is reminiscent of the album The Rising, with Roy Bittan's uplifting keyboards, organs from newcomer Charlie Giordano, and a driving beat, and the chorus repeats the line "We take care of our own, wherever this flag is flown."

Don't be deceived. This song is actually Born in the U.S.A., Part II. That 1984 song's rocking chorus led Ronald Reagan to use it as his anthem - but the verses were about a Vietnam veteran who was "born in the USA" and then let down by his country. "We Take Care Of Our Own" is the same. The verses tell the story of a crumbling economy - of people who can't get work despite the rhetoric of politicians and pundits who pretend to care. Mostly Springsteen sings bout unemployment, but he even alludes to Hurricane Katrina, "from the shotgun shack to the Superdome." The chorus, like with Born in the USA, only sounds patriotic in order to point out that the promise of our authority figures' patriotism is a lie. It's a perfect song for a country who sees all its GDP growth go to its top 1% - a country where wages for more than 90% of us remain flat even in the boom times.

NPR compares the music to Arcade Fire and Flock of Seagulls, while calling the lyrics "pure boss... patriotic in the style of Mr. Smith and Dr. King." And THAT'S true patriotism.

(There is one theological line, though, where he says "the Calvary stayed home' - not the cavalry. And that seems odd for Springsteen, the man of "Land of Hope and Dreams" that seems almost ripped from the Gospels. I'll let it slide this time - it matches the song's true tone - but nothing could be further from the truth. Christ may not end the rough times, but he gets us through them.)