January 19, 2017
It’s January at Despondent U: a new academic semester. So far we are off to a good start. I love opening the second half of the year. The fresh energy, the Christmas clothes, the New Year’s resolutions. Soon the spring sports will be overlapping with the winter sports in full schedule. I love this time of year.
Today, our campus is getting ready for the big game – Despondent U vs. Camus College. It will prove to be another classic battle between the Mighty Sasquatches and the Angry Existentialists. People come from all over the country. ESPN shows up. Besides bragging rights for the year, the winner gets to lift the floorboards of the opponents gym and peak into the darkness and scream. Tonight I expect we’ll give Camus a lesson in despondency. Who knew that NCAA chess could be so exciting!
It’s amazing how quickly the campus falls back into rhythm after Christmas break!. It feels good to fall into a routine again. My routine always begins with my daily trip to Life’s Hard Café…where the motto is “Life’s Hard…have a cup of coffee!” This morning when I walked into the coffee shop, the atmosphere was charged. I immediately noticed people engrossed in animated conversation. Tables of students were arguing – like an embodied message chain – talking over each other about the pros and cons of the upcoming political transition. I saw one table with a guy wearing a rainbow flannel vest with a pony-tail, arm wrestling another guy in a red hat – while arguing over the meaning of “alternative facts”.
I went to the counter to order my Americano. Jill, who is the owner and proprietor of this beat-nick hipster haven was behind the counter. She asked how I was doing. I said I had a good day ahead of me – it’s a writing day! I volleyed the question back. She looked at me honestly in the eye… “It’s a day!” she said. But I got the subtext. I slid a few dollars across the counter, and she slid them back to me, saying, “This one’s on me… Life’s hard… for a lot of us, life’s hard…so write well today, and have a cup of coffee on me!” Small gifts can make the day, can’t they?
Life’s hard for a lot of people. That’s what was on my mind when I got into my study at Revelation Memorial Chapel. It’s a Thursday which, as I said, means today is a day I set aside to write. That’s part of my routine. I hold up in my study in the effort to win a sentence, maybe two. I love my Thursdays! One of my big decisions on a writing day is to determine what music will be playing in the background. It’s an important decision; what I listen to often shapes the mood of what I write. With the words “Life’s hard… for a lot of us…” reverberating in my soul, it feels like a U2 kind of day! So as I write to you now, a live version of “40” is playing in the background – loudly – echoing the psalmist’s cry – “How long…?”
Did you hear that U2 is on tour this spring & summer? It’s the 30th anniversary of the Joshua Tree album. Of course you did. I heard through the grapevine you secured tickets to the New York City show. I’m so jealous! The Joshua Tree was the soundtrack of my coming of age – and it’s celebrating now 30 years. which means that I am officially old! When did that happen? My students don’t even know what I’m talking about when I reference this album, but I’m encouraging all of them to treat themselves – to listen to it from start to finish – if they have never done so.
If you are like me, there are bands and albums that shape you. When you hear one of their songs, all of the sudden you’re transported to a former life – where one was on the cusp of waking up to a larger world of consequence. This was a season of life when music felt immediate, urgent, and visceral. Is there anything like the songs of our youth? For me, that band was U2 and that album was The Joshua Tree. The music of protest and hope – of saints and heretics – songs offering a soundscape evoking a spirituality that is both home and quest at the same time. This was the album that showed me that Christians making music did not have to make “Christian music” to be faithful. Song that suggested deep desire was not something to be ashamed of or feared, but to be acknowledged and followed all the way back to God.
I can still remember in high school driving in my used maroon Alero with the windows down singing from the top of my lungs, “I want to run, I want to hide, I want to tear down the walls that hold me inside.” Occasionally, like this morning, I need to touch that former world, and remember. For as you get older, it’s easy to forget to play the music – and to play it loud!
What I love most about U2’s songs are the images that are suggestive. In this way, their songs remind me of Jesus’ preaching – especially the parables of Jesus. Parables use the images – the stuff of real life – to show us a deeper reality; they are fictional stories with a spiritual truth. Jesus was the master of parables. Like great song lyrics, parables traffic in metaphors that shape our imagination in order to bend our reason back into proper shape. Parables have the subversive way of helping us to see reality afresh, and maybe discover what we thought we knew for the first time. They were meant to confuse and confound. Jesus’ parables require us to think and wrestle with meaning beyond our experience. Maybe Jesus knew that if we have to struggle to understand – if we have to think about it – maybe we will own it more.
Jesus spoke a language people could imagine and live into “You are the salt of the earth…” “You are the Light of the world, no one lights a lamp and puts it under a bushel basket, but on a lampstand and it gives light to the entire house.” Jesus’ parables show, not tell. He spoke in images like these, not to help us know more, but become more – to be salt… to be light! – in the world. That’s what I am reflecting on this morning as I write.
How do we become more and not just know more? Life is hard for a lot of people. It’s true. How do we Christians engage this world in a way that shows and not just tells them? How do we pursue an education that seeks not to know more, but to become more in Christ? How can Despondent U be a parable? How do we help others to reach out and touch the flame – or a world where, though we have not found what we are looking for, it will be alright because in Christ we discover we are already found?
These parables of Jesus have the power to shape our perceived reality. They are subversive, unassuming, and simple, and yet they get inside of us and their meaning works us over. I’ve been thinking about this since the coffee shop this morning – how divided and angry and hurt and confused people are on all sides of contemporary political life. I’ve been reflecting on how Jesus – this peasant Palestinian poet – uses language to evoke an alternative political vision.
In Matthew, Jesus says “The Kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make their nests in its branches.” Or this one, “the kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened,” (Matthew 13:30-33).
Jesus’ parables about the Kingdom of God suggest a different way. Jesus’ Kingdom is not like ours. It has different operating assumptions. God’s politics begins unassuming and small. But that little mustard seed – a little yeast – when nurtured, grows into something that is larger than what we could have expected or imagined. God’s Kingdom creates a reality for others to enjoy – a common good, like birds nesting in a tree that grows from the tiniest of seed. Who would have guessed? I need to hear and remember this truth right now. Maybe you do too? When we think that Jesus is speaking of God’s Kingdom in the context of imperial Rome, the most powerful force the world had known, these words seem an audacious claim. Except when you stop to think that today imperial Roman is nothing but a footnote in history, and the good news of Jesus’ Kingdom and his church has spread across the globe into every language and country and nation. And as of today, is one of the fastest growing movements on the planet! The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, indeed.
It’s crazy, but sometimes I wonder – I wonder what would it feel like if we lived into and out of these parables of Jesus? What if we got interested in wrestling with the meaning of God’s Kingdom again? This is the Kingdom that Jesus prayed would be experienced on earth as it is in heaven! How would it shape our identity? How would it inform our politics? I wonder – would we become more? I wonder what would happen if we were as excited and passionate about living into the consequences of God’s Kingdom as we were about rivalries? I wonder what difference it would make at the coffee shop, or our scholarship, if Jesus’ words were discussed and debated with as much interest and energy as the latest political tweet, sound-bite, or election result? I think we would be surprised. I think something would grow that would be beautiful and substantial!
Jesus’ parables about the Kingdom remind us that whether you voted left, or right, or other – whether we win or lose the big game – there is another reality we need to care about – because it’s a reality that cares about us! A reality where the Kingdom of God is near – now reigning and working in a way – that like a parable, surprises us in subversive insight and the power of fresh life! All we need to do to participate in this alternative Kingdom is to turn around – back toward God – and come with as much faith as you have in your soul, even as little as a mustard seed! That’s enough. Life is hard. It’s true. But Jesus – his parables – help me believe… to “believe in the Kingdom come when all the colors will bleed into one!” So my friend, I’m still running; running towards that wide open country of salvation! I hope you keep running too – to where those streets have no name! Today, in your study, play the music loud.
And remember those who can’t hear the music think the dancers mad, but they’re not – dance anyway – dance like no one is watching! That’s the news from Despondent U. Be well. Give Kristen and the kids my best. Keep loving your place, loving your people, and loving the Word.