Hope and Bob Dylan

A couple weeks ago, a mighty powerful thought came to me. I had been talking to a friend about the way we often distort our thinking. Suppose a loved one appears to betray us and we begin to think people in general aren’t worth trusting, or we wave to an acquaintance and she doesn’t wave back and we believe she has for some reason decided not to like us. And so on. Many of us think like this now and then or every day. Long ago, I read a fine book about such “cognitive distortions”, and I still recommend it: Feeling Good, by David Burns.

The powerful thought came when I woke up feeling lousy and didn’t particularly want to roll out of bed because a voice like a dementor from Harry Potter told me that the day promised nothing worth rising for. Then out of nowhere a voice like an angel told me, Hey, something good is going to happen today.

I jumped up (well, maybe not jumped), eager to learn what the good thing would be.

Every day since then, as soon as I awake, I tell myself that something good is going to happen. And when I look back at the end of each day, I realize something good has happened. Today, for instance, Zoe pitched masterfully and her team almost beat a great team from a national championship organization.

That day when the angel first urged me to look for the good that would happen, Bob Dylan won the Nobel prize for Literature. Now the only way the Nobel committee could have pleased me more is if they had chosen me, and not only was that not likely to happen, it would’ve have seemed quite right.

I don’t attend a lot of concerts, but I have gone to watch Bob Dylan about a dozen times, in venues small and large. The best ever was in Tucson, Arizona when he performed all Christian songs backed up with a group of six or seven gospel singers. I returned for the second performance the next day.

For at least two reasons, I’m delighted that Mr. Dylan won the Nobel prize. One, he has done wonders for America by adapting several American art forms, our folk tradition, our topical (protest) song tradition, and the blues, and made them his own, which is what artists do best, build on what’s come before. Also, he has given us an honest Christian voice.

During his “Christian” period, surely, (I think of it as his churchgoing period, before he probably got disillusioned by churches as many of us do), but also before and after.

The best way to make sense out of one of his earliest hits, “Blowin’ in the Wind” is to view the wind as the Holy Spirit: “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” John 3:8; “And suddenly there came from heaven a noise like a violent rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting.” Acts: 22

Here’s a deft analysis of “All Along the Watchtower”: “… a riff on the prophecy from Chapter 21 of the Book of Isaiah, where two watchmen on a watchtower see two riders approaching. ‘There must be some way out of here,’ said the joker to the thief. ‘There’s too much confusion/ I can’t get no relief.” The first stanza is about existential angst, about the futility and violence of the modern world. “Businessmen they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth./ None of them along the line know what any of it is worth.” In this consumerist world, we drink, we steal, we work, but nothing seems of real value.

“’No reason to get excited,’ the thief he kindly spoke.’ Who is the thief but Jesus Christ who describes himself as returning to Earth “like a thief in the night’? Indeed, ‘the hour is getting late,’ the thief informs us, another Biblical catchphrase about the return of Christ. [He continues]‘There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke./ But you and I, we’ve been through that, and this is not our fate.’ The seeming futility of life is something that we need to rise above… “Which takes us to the third and fourth stanzas: “…Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl.” This is a prophecy from Isaiah 21. The two messengers are announcing the fall of Babylon…. also a theme in the Book of Revelation, referring to Christ’s Second Coming.”

One of my favorites of Mr. Dylan’s later songs is “Highlands” in which he sings in accord with W.B. Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium”, a poem I consider strikingly Christian in its preference for pursuing the eternal over clinging to the earthly. If you haven’t read it, please do. You might want to augment it with a movie (from a novel) that played off the poem’s opening line: “That is no country for old men.”

As this is about twice as long as most of my messages, I’ll end it here with the hope that you haven’t already, you will now click some of the links. The linked version of “Blowin’ in the Wind” is most excellent.

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The Necessity of Hope

I can’t seem to make myself stop beginning the day with a dose of world news. This morning I read about the many political assassinations in Russia, and about the thousands of deaths and nearly unfathomable misery the people of Syria and Syrian refugees are suffering.

It’s not like such horrors are unfamiliar. I was born a month after we bombed Hiroshima, and my earliest years were often tainted by stories of the holocaust and of Stalin’s purges.

All my life, the world has been, for many, many, people, a hideously tragic place.

After my morning dose of news, I drove to a restaurant to meet my son for breakfast and on the way listened to an old Andre Crouch song, “Jesus is the Light of the World” and felt as if a boulder had risen off my shoulders. Because belief in Christ and the God he proclaimed gives me hope that all this tragedy will get redeemed; that people who die young, suffer in unimaginable ways, or have very little chance of living in anything like contentment, will at last find peace and joy.

In my favorite of all novels, The Brothers Karamazov, brother Ivan admits that even though God may redeem all the tragedy and suffering, he cannot forgive God for it all. I am neither as bright nor as sensitive as Ivan. Perhaps that’s why I can accept that God has motives far beyond what I can begin to comprehend.

I worry about people who reject God out of hand, who take as gospel the Darwinian world view and essentially contend as did the skinny wrestler in the film Nacho Libre, “I don’t believe in God, I believe in science.” I wonder how these people can live with the world’s tragedy. Maybe they compartmentalize and lock the grim facts away in some dark corner of their minds. If not, how do they accept such a world? Have they become so callous?

I’m a fan of science. My Zoe is a lover of science and I encourage her to follow science as a career, since it offers so many exciting opportunities in so many fields. But to take science as the answer to everything is to ignore the very simple fact Plato portrayed about 2500 years ago in “The Allegory of the Cave”: we only perceive what our senses allow us to know, and our senses are limited.

Though I am glad my belief gives me hope, hope is not the basis of my beliefs. That would be nothing but wishful thinking. Reasons that led me to believe are given in Reading Brother Lawrence.

I suspect only people whose hearts are damaged or turned off can look at the human condition and fail to be driven to actively search for a reason to hope in some destiny more fair and beautiful than what our senses perceive.

Coincidentally, or providentially, take your pick, about an hour after I wrote the above, Pastor Jason in a message at Journey Community Church offered this insight: “One of the central symptoms of our sickness as humans is a rock hard shell of callousness, exhibited in self-absorption, belief in self-sufficiency, and consequent apathy that numbs us to God and people around us.” He attributed it both to the fall (the one in the Garden of Eden) and to defense mechanisms we create out of fear. He also mentioned God’s promise to Ezekiel. “I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.”

My prayer is that God will extend that promise to me and mine and to us all.

white-Christian-evangelical

Nowadays, “white”, “Christian”, and “evangelical”, are loaded words. White can mean oppressor; Christian can mean ignorant; and evangelical often means bigot.

Since I could be called a white evangelical Christian, I frequently take offense at the way they are used. The one I find most offensive is “evangelical”. Last month I wrote about the abuse and misuse of that word. But I feel compelled to keep writing about it. Here’s why: though the category evangelical may comprise as wide a variety as the category animal does, most often “evangelical” is used as if the whole demographic belonged to the variety I consider the worst of us: those who use the label “Christian” as a cover for greed, racial and class prejudice, fear and other attitudes wholly opposite from those Christ preached and practiced.

For about ten years, I have attended a church that grew out of a distinct “evangelical” tradition. I will try to deliver an accurate summary, at least as far back as the tradition’s origins in the Salvation Army.

Out of that movement, through her parents, came Aimee Semple McPherson*, a remarkably passionate and effective evangelist and faith healer of the very early twentieth century. Sister Aimee, in connection with her Angelus Temple in Los Angeles’ Echo Park district, founded a bible college. One of the college’s students was Chuck Smith, who later, as pastor of a small church in Costa Mesa, California, actively welcomed the truth-seeking hippies we used to call Jesus freaks. Pastor Chuck, with the help of some highly charismatic young people, most notably Lonnie Frisbee, gathered a following that grew exponentially until it became a denomination of its own, called Calvary Chapel.

A number of Calvary Chapel preachers founded churches that, while not under the Calvary Chapel umbrella, continued in the same tradition. Three of those are among the most popular churches in San Diego, where I live. The first was Horizon, out of which came Journey and The Rock. The Rock, founded by long-time Horizon preacher Miles McPherson, once a football player for the San Diego Chargers, has become a true mega-church. I suppose in part because Miles is black, The Rock is quite racially integrated. The other two, though primarily white, have never, to my knowledge, promoted or condoned racism in any way. Over ten years at journey, I have never heard anything that could be construed as advocating greed, racial or class prejudice, or fear of anything but exclusion from the love of God.

In my mind, “evangelical” is lovely word that describes a belief that “the essence of the gospel consists in the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ’s atonement.**”

If I knew how, I would start a movement to take the word back from its abusers.

* For a fascinating look at Sister Aimee, read The Biggest Liar in Los Angeles.

** Quoted from Wikipedia.

Trump and Evangelicals

Recently I read that four-fifths of “evangelicals” intend to vote for Donald Trump.

As a writer, I’m all about words. And a common word that concerns me is evangelical.

I’ve been a churchgoer for about twenty-five years and a believer in Christ since long before my churchgoing began. I have attended Quaker, Catholic, Baptist, Lutheran, Assembly of God, Methodist, Episcopal, and independent churches. These days, my church is Journey in La Mesa, CA, which grew out of the Calvary Chapel movement. Also, I taught five years at a conservative Christian college. Through these experiences, I have come to distinguish between evangelical and fundamentalist.

In my mind, fundamentalists are essentially about conservatism, holding to traditional ways, while evangelicals are essentially dedicated to experiencing a connection to Christ, understanding his message, and proclaiming that message to others.

In this wretchedly political year, I have far too often read the term evangelical as referring to everyone who accepts the Biblical doctrine that we should be born again.

Given my definitions, I am not in the least surprised if four-fifths of fundamentalists mean to vote for Trump, since his message is all about holding onto or returning to the way things were. But if four-fifths of those I call evangelicals plan to vote for a fellow who is all about power, privilege, and isolation, when Christ’s message is about sacrifice, love, and outreach, I am quite disturbed.

Either I or the journalists had better revise our definition of evangelical. I hope it’s them, because to me, at least, evangelicals and fundamentalists are about as much alike as Sunnis and Shiites.

Love Everybody?

I try to write a Church for Writers post at least every month, and this month I meant to offer some thoughts about the religion of evolution. But then a man entered a nightclub in Florida and killed and wounded almost a hundred people. And the next day, a radio personality commented: “We need to start acting kindly to each other. If everybody did just that, the world would be a safe and happy place. And though we can’t make other people be kind, we can behave kindly ourselves. That much is easy.”

Her comments were quite appropriate, I thought, and right in accord with Christ’s command for us to love our neighbors. And though I was touched by her passion and innocence, I need to note that being kind to everyone is not so easy.

Before I go on, I should point out that in my vocabulary, to love our neighbors and to be kind to people are practically synonymous. Psychologist and author M. Scott Peck defines love as a willingness to sacrifice, which could translate to being kind even if it hurts.

Kindness may be easy when people treat us well and don’t get into our way. But when they attack or demean us or frustrate our plans or desires, being kind to them is hard. It’s something we need to work at. Something most of us need to learn. And kindness to the degree it becomes sacrificial love is, for many if not most of us, mighty hard.

Following my first divorce, I began to detect that I was not good at loving people. So, being an avid reader, I began reading up on the topic of love.

I could recommend quite a few books, but I’ll start with Soren Kierkegaard’s Works of Love . Kierkegaard maintains that when Christ instructs us to love our neighbor, he is issuing a command, not making a suggestion. And Christ clarifies the command with the parable of the good Samaritan. In this context, to love our neighbor means to love without distinction. Everybody. Even those who believe or act in ways we find odious. Even those who may have done us grievous wrongs.

Being truly kind, not just friendly, is hardly easy. But it’s possible, if we put our hearts and minds to it.

Please try to love without distinction, and consider reading a book on love, and pray something like this: “Lord, teach and help me to lover better.”

The rewards of love are many and miraculous.

Please subscribe to this blog and read about them, maybe next month.

Purple Rain

For no particular reason I can recall, I never quite connected with Prince, except that every time I happened to hear ”Purple Rain”, I thought, Whoa, that’s some mighty fine blues.

And now Prince died. I read a few articles and watched a couple U-tube performances the articles linked to, and learned to appreciate the fellow so deeply that a couple days ago, I downloaded “Purple Rain” and since then have listened to it obsessively. If I’ve ever been as moved by a song, the memory has flown.

I used to be mystified by the purple rain image, and a little put off by it, as some of us tend to be when we find ourselves clueless. But this past week, it only took a few times listening until I knew, as sure as I know anything, that purple rain is the holy spirit.

Skeptical? Listen for yourself.

Should you not believe in the holy spirit, call it the muse or whatever else you may consider the source for inspiration, or the part of our nature that guides us to and through what some call intuition, and into every sort of transcendence. No doubt many would contend it begins with or results in brain chemistry. No matter, the effect is so powerful, so transforming . . . see below.

I’m in Tucson for reasons probably irrelevant to this discussion. I’m alone, no Zoe to occupy my energy, fewer distractions than when I’m home. This evening, I listened to “Purple Rain” on the way to dinner at Rocco’s Chicago Pizza, a most delightful establishment (on Broadway, in case you should visit that part of the world). Only seconds after I took a patio seat, I heard a man at the next table telling a joke: the Pope dies. St. Peter takes him to someplace reminiscent of a Chicago El train stop. The Pope says, “I didn’t expect heaven to be quite like this.” As St. Peter begins to respond, a server interrupted my attention. If you know the end of that joke, please send it to me. I might’ve asked the man to repeat it, but he had already segued into a story about swimming in the ocean and running into a Portuguese man of war, which, as he pointed out, is purple. “Fitting,” he said, “since purple is the color of danger.”

Whoa, I thought. The holy spirit is dangerous all right. It can break “the frozen sea inside us”*; force us to witness us who we really are; and/or compel us to gaze into an abyss where we learn that “if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” **

If we survive, we are rich beyond measure. If we don’t, who knows?

Thank you, Prince. You have given me a bountiful week.

* Franz Kafka
** Friedrich Nietzsche

Rapture and the Indomitable Spirit

So many people I care about have died this year, which is not yet four months old, I have wondered if the rapture may have arrived.

For those lacking knowledge (or opinions) of the rapture, here’s a Bible passage:

1 Corinthians 15:51-52: “Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.”

Okay, I saw the twinkling of an eye part, but I’m as sure as can be that our perception of time is simply an illusion. And even if time is flat out real, in God’s perspective, how long would the twinkling of an eye take?

Pleased don’t misunderstand . I am no fan of the Tim LeHaye-Jerry Jenkins bestselling Left Behind series.

Pam, Zoê’s mom attended a high school connected with a church LeHaye had pastored. And long before those books came out, LeHaye issued videos based upon the premise that soon God would take the best folks out of the world and leave the rest of us rascals and ingrates to duke it out with Satan and his minions.

Pam is the source of Zoê’s diligent-student gene. She missed one day of school K-12, which was day two of these early Left Behind videos, because on day one she learned that pastors didn’t necessarily get the green light, and her dad was a Methodist minister. The next morning, she faked an illness and skipped school.

Fast forward. Pam and I taught at a college of which Tim LeHaye was one of the founders. He came and gave a speech at the invocation of a new president. His topic was basically there is us and there is them. And we’re the good guys.

Afterward, between the ceremony and the reception, we adjourned to our office to ditch our cap and gown outfits. The instant the door closed behind us, we turned to each other and said in unison, “That guy is scary.”

I only read a few pages of the LeHaye-Jenkins books. No comment. And until this year, I didn’t give the rapture much thought. But now …

The recent deaths that have most troubled me, even the ones readers of this post aren’t likely to know, I will list because doing so will help keep them in my memory.

First was Carol Galante, a wonderful friend in the mystery community, mother of authors Lisa Brackman and Dana Fredsti. Then Alan Rickman, Professor Snape in the Harry Potter films, of which I am quite a fan. Then came David Bowie, and very soon Glen Frey of the Eagles, with whom I hung out one long afternoon when we were young. Incidentally, Rickman, Bowie, Frey, and I were all born within about a year of each other. Next I got news of the death of Amy Radovic, a young, vital and vivacious colleague from our time at San Diego State University. And a day or so later, writer Jim Harrison died. Then came of Merle Haggard. And last week, Prince.

Every one of these people was exceptional. They all, I believe, had big hearts. Not a jerk amongst them. Which has led to my weird thoughts about the rapture. Weird thoughts have long been one of my specialties. This one may be weirder than most. I ran it by Pam. She thinks I’m loony. We are no longer married.

Yesterday, my Zoe wanted to watch The Karate Kid, so I watched with her, as I’m a big fan of Mister Miyagi. And while watching, I hearkened back to my years practicing Tae Kwon Do and recalled that the main point of the art was to develop an indomitable spirit.

I earned a black belt, which indicates that my spirit at least ought to be reasonably indomitable, and reminding myself of that lifted me out of some fairly severe melancholy. So today, I called my friend Mark, another black belt, and suggested we get together once a week for a Tae Kwon Do workout, even though it’s been some years since I have practiced the art.

I mean, to live in this world, especially if we’ve been left behind, a fellow can certainly use an indomitable spirit.