Thursday, March 31, 2005

Hefty and Poetic

I recently finished a book called “Walk On: The Spiritual Journey of U2” (Steve Stockman). I have listened to U2 since the early 1980’s, which coincided with my baptism into Christ, and like a lot of people I have been intrigued by their music’s subtle allusions to the Christian faith.. Steve Beard, editor of Good News magazine, puts it well when he says, “There is very little garden-variety evangelicalism found in the members of the band. They drink, smoke, swear and wear leather pants. But there is a hefty and poetic substance that I think would startle St. Paul and bring a smile to the Psalmist.”

What I hear in Bono, the lead singer, whom Beard refers to as “rock ‘n’ roll’s most effective and enigmatic spiritual provocateur,” is the gritty, aching, relentless QUEST to know, understand, and experience God and his presence in the world.

Consider “Where the Streets Have No Name”: I want to run / I want to hide /I want to tear down the walls / that hold me inside / I want to reach out / and touch the flame / where the streets have no name. (Now read Psalm 42:1-3).

Consider “One Tree Hill,” written in memory of a friend who died tragically: We turn away to face the cold, enduring chill / As the day begs the night for mercy / Your sun so bright it leaves no shadows, only scars / Carved into stone on the face of the earth / The moon is up and over One Tree Hill / You see the sun go down in your eyes / You run like a river to the sea / Like a river to the sea. (Now read the mournful psalms about loss and pain).

Consider “Peace on Earth”: Heaven on Earth / We need it now / I’m sick of all of this / Hanging around / Sick of sorrow / Sick of pain / Sick of hearing again and again / That there’s gonna be Peace on Earth… / Jesus can you take the time / to throw a drowning man a line / Peace on Earth (now read Habakkuk).

Consider “When I Look at the World”: “When you look at the world / what is it that you see? / People find all kinds of things / that bring them to their knees / I see an expression / so clear and so true / that it changes the atmosphere / when you walk into the room / So I try to be like you / Try to feel it like you do / But without you it’s no use / I can’t see what you see / When I look at the world. (Now read the gospels).

In my old age (at 42, the sun is setting) I am becoming less patient with plastic Christianity that takes no risks and tolerates no rough edges, and I find myself hungering for more of the grittiness and passion that I hear in these lyrics. Many Christians have been critical of U-2 and vice-versa. Each has a point. Fine. But I think the modern church needs more “hefty and poetic.” Leather pants or not.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

"We Just Talked"

Unless you have been living in east Louisiana or west Texas with a TV on the fritz and the hound dogs under the weather you have heard by now the story of how the man in Atlanta who killed four people on a rampage which began in a courthouse was apprehended peacefully after spending seven hours with a woman named Ashley Smith. I had not heard the news on Monday evening when I was talking to my Mom on the phone but she peaked my curiosity with her breathless description of this “incredible, courageous, inspiring” woman, at which point I responded that, yes, I have been married to Angela for sixteen years and I know she’s awesome but what did that have to do with the situation in Atlanta?

Well, I eventually got it sorted out and began to look into things and sure enough, unless you live in south Oklahoma or north Texas with the TV broke from tornadoes and dust storms, you don’t need me to point out what an amazing story this is. Have you read the transcript or seen the video of Ms. Smith’s account to the police? What is so moving to me is how she didn’t say anything extraordinary or profound. In her words, “we just talked.” She told him about her daughter and her life. She asked him about his family. She asked him why he killed the four people. She told him that he needed to turn himself in and pay for his crimes. She read to him from “The Purpose Driven Life” and talked to him about God and her faith.

“He showed me a picture of the -- the agent that he did kill. And I tried to explain to him that he killed a 40-year old man that was probably a father, a husband, a friend. And he really began to trust me, to feel my feelings. He looked at pictures of my family. He asked me to – if he could look at them and hold them… really didn’t keep track of time too much because I was really worried about just living. I didn’t want to die. I didn’t want him to hurt anybody else. And I really didn’t want him to hurt himself or anyone else to hurt him. … He had done enough. And he really, honestly when I looked at him, he looked like he didn’t want to do it anymore.”

When she finally persuaded him to let her go to visit her daughter, she told him she was going to call the police. He let her go anyway. When the police came he surrendered peacefully.

Listen, we should be careful not to make sweeping assumptions or sappy generalizations: some people have been killed despite talking to their abductor. Many murderers plow right through pleas and prayers and mention of God and manifestation of faith and attempts to “just talk.” But it is hard not to feel that, in this encounter, what transpired was an experience of the redemptive power of grace, and that, as Ms. Smith said in recounting their conversation, “he thought that I was an angel sent from God… and that he was lost and God led him right to me to tell him that he had hurt a lot of people.”

I won’t argue with that. – Matt Soper

Sunday, March 06, 2005

100% for the First Time

“What’s in your wallet?” The commercials for Capital One are a lot of fun to watch. I especially like the ones with actor David Spade demonstrating the art of saying “no” to customers. What a hoot!

But maybe the best question isn’t what’s in your wallet but who’s in your wallet? Or, as Dayana Yochim asks (“Our Credit Crunch,”, 3/2/2005), how much of what’s in your wallet is yours?

Yochim surveys the landscape of America’s debt addiction and offers the following summary: “A long time ago, we were a nation of cash-rich, house-poor people. Then, we became house rich and cash poor. Today, we’re a nation that’s credit dependent and cash broke. That’s right: Broke. Completely bust.”

Yochim’s basis for this assertion is a recent Business Week report which noted that total household debt – including car loans, mortgage, and student loans – topped 100% of disposable income last year for the first time ever (For some perspective, the nation’s debt 20 years ago was about 65% of disposable income).

In our first week of West Houston’s Escape the Debt Trap series, I made three penetrating observations that you no doubt remember vividly because they have dominated your thinking since and are in the process of re-shaping your life:

First, debt always presumes upon the future, and too much debt puts us in the position of master and God in the position of servant, as we in effect declare to him, “I’m counting on you to increase my income, despite whatever other plans you might have had for me.”

There are certainly instances in which we should “step out in faith,” particularly for causes which further God’s work and for endeavors which represent an investment for us that will yield a return later, such as education or an investment opportunity. But much of the consumer debt in America is a result of wanting a fancier lifestyle than we can afford, which is particularly audacious to presume upon God for.

Second, because the average Christian gives about 2-3% of his income to God, and many more times than that to lifestyle indulgences, it is hard not to sense a subtle practice of idolatry, as we first decide what our lifestyle will be, then consider what is left over for God’s work.

Third, as one sociologist observed, “Living within your means today in America is counter-cultural.” In other words, in order to live responsibly you have to be willing to be “strange” and, often, to experience subtle peer pressure to not live differently than “the crowd.”

But of course there is hope, and the rewards are tremendous for those who will embrace this “counter-cultural strangeness” as part of their Christian life. Today I will offer five specific steps as part of an “Escape Plan” from the Debt Trap. No catchy commercial jingles – just solid, powerful steps to finding freedom. – Matt Soper (3/6/05).