Hard-Living Outlaws and the Good Women Who Save Them: “Like Jesus Does”

The other night, I was turning the radio dial (actually now pushing the button) trying to find something worth listening to and I was drawn to some electronically-enhanced Vegas-style country singer telling a familiar tale —

Eric Church - Having a Beer On Stage - Capitol Records Street Party 2011 - Nashville, Tn by tncountryfan

I’m a long-gone Waylon song on vinyl,
I’m a back row sinner at a tent revival,
But she believes in me like she believes her Bible,
And loves me like Jesus does.
I’m a left-foot-leaning on a souped-up Chevy,
I’m a good old boy, drinking whiskey and rye on the levee,
But she carries me when my sins make me heavy,
And loves me like Jesus does.
All the crazy in my dreams, Both my broken wings,
Every single piece of everything I am, Yeah, she knows the man I ain’t,
She forgives me when I can’t,
The devil, man, no, he don’t stand a chance,
‘Cause she loves me like Jesus does.
I always thought she’d give up on me one day,
Wash her hands of me, leave me staring down some runway,
But I thank God each night, and twice on Sunday,
That she loves me like Jesus does.      (from “Like Jesus Does” by Eric Church)
          What is the “good news” here?  And is it really “Good News”?
          First, it is good that the singer acknowledges himself to be a sinner.  He is humble, it seems.  But has he been redeemed?  He says, “he is a long-gone Waylon song on vinyl”.  It seems he is lost in sin.  So where does he turn?   To Jesus?  Nope.  To the love of a good woman.  On the one hand, you have to admire that she loves him “like Jesus does”, but you also have to wonder what this means, if she believes in him [her man] “like she believes her Bible”.
          The woman’s faith is somehow strong enough to balance allegiance to God with loyalty to her “good old boy, drinking whiskey and rye on the levee.”  Her faith is strong enough even to carry him and the weight of his sins.  She believes, so he doesn’t have to.  Is this loving like Jesus does?
          Again, he admits his “craziness” and “brokenness” – essentially his need for forgiveness.  But who forgives him?  God?  Nope.  His little woman, of course, whose redemptive love is so powerful that even the devil himself doesn’t stand a chance.  All he can do is be grateful to God for her (perhaps saying a prayer on his way to the levee for more whiskey and rye).
          I must admit as much as I love classic country music, this theme of a hard-living outlaw saved by the love of a good woman is an archetype celebrated in song and even revered in life.  Take Johnny Cash and June Carter, for instance.  Until June came along, Johnny was on a sure road to destruction.  Even with her help, he lived on the outlaw edge, but with her by his side, it was if he were made complete, redeemed by her love.
           This false theology does an injustice both to God and humanity.  When we strip the story of Christ’s sacrificial love on the cross and hang it around the necks of even the best women, we commit idolatry.
            For the women, we are setting them up for abusive relationships where men can destroy themselves and those around them while the women are left behind to pray (and, of course, stand by his side).
             Men, then, are freed from the responsibility of faithful living and grow up never really growing up.
              Good news?  What do you think?
(photo above “Eric Church – Having a Beer On…” from tncountryfan)

Who Crucified Christ?: Clarence Jordan on “The Death of Jesus”

WHAT THE POOR NEED IS NOT CHARITY BUT CAPITAL, NOT CASEWORKERS BUT COWORKERS.”  –CLARENCE JORDAN

Given that it is Good Friday, I thought I would deviate from my short story reviews and instead review a section of a sermon from The Substance of Faith and other Cotton Patch Sermons by Clarence Jordan.

For those of you unfamiliar with Clarence Jordan, he was a Bible scholar trained at the Baptist seminary in Louisville.    In 1942, he helped found (with his wife Florence and a missionary couple – the Englands) a farm in Americus, Georgia, called Koinonia.  There they worked the land and set about doing “incarnational evangelism” – living out the Gospel through hard work and faithful relationships.   This included treating his “Negro” neighbors as brothers and sisters in Christ – which got him into a great deal of trouble.

(For more information on Jordan and Koinonia, click here.)

In addition to working the land, building relationships with neighbors and forming a Christian community, Jordan set about to translate the New Testament in the Cotton Patch translations.  While his commitments at the farm occupied a great deal of his time, he did travel some and preach for various churches and other organizations (who would have him).

Jordan took Scripture very seriously.  Though not a literalist, he believed we should strive to discover its true meaning and live according to its inspiration.  He did not “explain away” the Word doing with interpretive gymnastics, but he also didn’t accept conventional orthodoxy as God’s authoritative word.

Take, for instance, the section from his sermon God’s Destination for Man entitled “The Death of Jesus”.  Jordan opens with the rather bold statement-

I don’t believe the crucifixion was the will of God.

These 10 words cut to the heart of much orthodox Christianity as expressed in hymns, sermons, and books.  Of more concern to me is, it seems to ignore countless Scripture passages which describe the death of Christ as a “propitiation” (an atoning sacrifice).

So, if he doesn’t believe the crucifixion was God’s will, what does Jordan believe?  He expresses it this way –

…it was God’s will that his son should be on this earth, that he should be in a crucifiable situation.  I think the kind of life he lived was inevitably a life in the shadow of crucifixion.  It was a life in such tension with the world — it was in mortal combat with the world — that either the world had to die or Jesus had to die.  It was a fight unto death.  And I think that God’s way of love here is being a sin-bearer, of saying, “Sure, put on me your sin… let me be your scapegoat, let me be your lamb.”

The distinction between God willing the crucifixion and simply sending Jesus into a “crucifiable situation” (knowing human will enough to know they would opt for crucifixion) may seem like a thin line.  What difference does it make?  Jordan goes on to reveal the essential difference as he applies it to modern life –

The reason that the world is so terribly neurotic today is that it no longer has a sin-bearer.  The Church doesn’t want to bear the sins of the world. We don’t want to be anybody’s dumping ground.  We don’t want to have them throwing their dirty dishwater on us.  And the world has no scapegoat; it has no sin-bearer. The body of Christ is unwilling to bear the sins of the world.  But God was willing to bear.  And so we throw on him our sins. Behold the Lamb of God, that taketh away in his own body, bearing our sins in his body up to the cross. 

Did God put our sins on the back of his son of the cross? No.  He made him available and we put our sins on his back.  Now, in the sense that God made Jesus available and expendable, God was a party to the crucifixion.  Love makes itself available, love makes itself expendable.

Jordan’s works challenge those of us with the view that God has everything in control.  More than this, however, his words challenge a world demanding “rights” (for everything under the sun) and fighting for them by asserting economic and political control.

Jordan lived and worked among his African-American neighbors and treated them as equals long before the “Civil Rights” movement was even conceived.   His life was threatened for it.  His livelihood was cut off.  Still, he kept loving his neighbors – regardless of  their skin color.

Jordan was asked many times in the early 1960s why he wasn’t marching and speaking out for “Civil Rights”.  His response was always the same –

Love has no rights but the right to give itself away.

(image of Clarence Jordan from Tripp Hudgins in jesusy)

The Distant Mountain and the Barren Tree (a Blog Hop Story)

I found this Blog Hop Photo Reveal from Writings and Ruminations and decided I would give it a shot.  I hope you enjoy it.

Car and Mountain big

Words:  cook, help, relative, tears, finger

“I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help?

The verse flowed from Joseph’s lips as tears trickled down his cheeks.

Joseph reached in his pocket and pulled out a handkerchief, wiping away the tears.  Out of his other p0cket, he pulled out a letter, already opened. He began to read through his reddened eyes, following each word with his finger as if trying to decode a hidden meaning.

Dear Joseph,

I never expected I would be writing this to you.  I want you to know how much you have meant to me.  The last thing I wanted to do is hurt you, but I suppose that is exactly what I am doing.

 I have met someone else.  We are getting married.  What more can I say? 

Please forgive me,

Leila

Joseph stared at Leila’s name and an image came to his mind.  The day he said goodbye, just outside her house.  He was on his way West to work as a cook at a summer resort.   But he wanted to see her one last time.  She pledged her love for always.  He simply replied,  “Thank you.”  Not “I love you, too.”  Just “Thank you.”

She looked hurt, as if she had fallen and no one was there to pick her up.  That was just two months ago, but it might as well have been an eternity.  Time is so relative when you are young, when your whole life is ahead of you like a distant mountain.  Only, there is no way to cross.

Joseph stared at the snow-covered mountain in front of him.  He stepped to the edge of the cliff.

“I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help?

The question kept repeating itself in his mind.  There had to be more, but he couldn’t think of how it went.  He just stared at the distant mountain and imagined Leila’s face.

He took another step with his right foot.  Suddenly his left leg gave way and he fell to the ground.

Reaching out, he grasped hold of a hitching post and pulled himself up.  He lay on the ground, heaving for breath.

Then the words came to him –  “My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth.  He will not suffer thy foot to be moved: he that keepeth thee will not slumber.”

Joseph lay on the ground silently.  He looked up at the heavens and took a deep breath in.  Relieved.  Grieving, but grateful.

He climbed to his feet and walked back to his car.  He fumbled for the keys and started the engine.

Before pulling out, he looked over and noticed a tree near the cliff.

Its branches were nearly barren, but it was standing firm.

George Herbert’s Love

Love

by George Herbert

George Herbert

LOVE bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,    

Guilty of dust and sin.

But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack   

 From my first entrance in,

Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning    

If I lack’d anything.

‘A guest,’ I answer’d, ‘worthy to be here:’    

Love said, ‘You shall be he.’

‘I, the unkind, ungrateful?

Ah, my dear,    

I cannot look on Thee.’

Love took my hand and smiling did reply,    

‘Who made the eyes but I?’

‘Truth, Lord; but I have marr’d them: let my shame    

Go where it doth deserve.’

‘And know you not,’ says Love, ‘Who bore the blame?’    

‘My dear, then I will serve.’

‘You must sit down,’ says Love, ‘and taste my meat.’    

So I did sit and eat.

(image of George Herbert from  Anne Rein in Favorite Poets)

The Final Word by Michael Card

This blog is devoted to words.  I spend a lot of time exploring how words are used in the writings of others and experimenting in my own writing ways to best use words to express beauty and meaning.  I firmly believe in the value of finding just the right words to communicate effectively.  Try as we might, though, we always fall short.  Our words are ultimately imperfect offerings.

And so, more than anything, I devote this blog to the “final, perfect Word” celebrated in this song by Michael Card –

 You and me we use so very many clumsy words.
The noise of what we often say is not worth being heard.
When the Father’s Wisdom wanted to communicate His love,
He spoke it in one final perfect Word.

Chorus:
He spoke the Incarnation and then so was born the Son.
His final word was Jesus, He needed no other one.
Spoke flesh and blood so He could bleed and make a way Divine.
And so was born the baby who would die to make it mine.

And so the Father’s fondest thought took on flesh and bone.
He spoke the living luminous Word, at once His will was done.
And so the transformation that in man had been unheard
Took place in God the Father as He spoke that final Word.

Chorus

And so the Light became alive
And manna became Man.
Eternity stepped into time
So we could understand.

Chorus

(lyrics to “The Final Word” found at ST Lyrics)

(“Mary and Baby Jesus”,  Some rights reserved by Scott Schram)

Eight Thrifty Writing Posts on WordPress Today

winter scene

The air is brisk outside.  Ice-encrusted snow continues to make walking hazardous.  It’s been a good day to stay inside.  Listening to George Jones.  Leaning back on this electric recliner.  Being grateful I’m not out filling pot holes or patrolling city streets.

Instead, I’m reading blog posts on writing to share with you.    Here are some good ones you might want to check out.

30 Stories, Day 6: The Door” (The Read Room) offers a review of E.B. White’s “The Door”… “a wonderfully nonsensical story by a renowned grammar nazi!”

7 Lessons Learned From Blogging Every Day of 2012” (Next Practices) reveals some insights gained from a discipline of daily writing.

Thank you, George Washington” (My Teaching Portfolio) shares a class writing assignment and gives an example of one wondrous result.

She Was a Few of His Favorite Things” (charlottesville winter) responds to a writing prompt by celebrating and bemoaning the unrequited love of artist and muse.

“… and our hearts forever” (mothering spirit)  pays tribute to an alma mater – Notre Dame – a place to grow in faith and love as a person and as a writer.

The black in my blood” (Writer Michael Burge) describes one man’s ambivalent journey from the country to the city (and back again).

A Christian Writer’s Confession” (John Erik Patterson) points to the temptation “just below the surface” to lead a wild and reckless life (for which many artists become known).

May All Your Dreams Come True, with No Expiration Date” (Kaye Munroe Writes, Too) details the hard work of one artist realizing her dream of publishing a book.

(image “Ottawa Ontario Canada March 2011” from dugspr — Home for Good, some rights reserved)

Love and Loss in “One Red Rose” by John Prine

red rose 

One Red Rose © John Prine

1. The rain came down on the tin roof.

Hardly a sound was left from the birthday party.

The kitchen light fell asleep on the bedroom floor.

Me and her were talking softer

Than all the time before I lost her.

Picture sat on top of the chest of drawers.

Chorus: One red rose in the Bible

Pressed between the holy alphabet.

Probably wouldn’t believe you If you told me.

But what I never knew I never will forget.

2. Rainy nights get dark real early.

  Her dress was soft and her hair was curly.

  We danced around the table to the old banjo.

   Rainy nights were made for lovers.

    We lay there still beneath the covers

    And I ain’t never felt like that before.

    Chorus:

(lyrics for “One Red Rose” posted at The Prine Shrine)

(watch a stop-action video of Prine in concert performing this song, click here.)

Tonight I wanted to write a love poem, but I just didn’t find the words within me.  Instead, I thought I’d reflect on this love song composed and recorded by John Prine in 1980, just a couple years before I “discovered” his music.

I started to analyze this song, to make note of its imaginative imagery (“the kitchen light fell asleep on the bedroom floor”) and reflect on the spiritual significance of the one red rose in the Bible (“pressed between the holy alphabet”).  Then, my mind started wandering back to past relationships, lost loves, intimate moments made more precious in the past tense.  I became lost in my reverie and again, no words were to be found.

Being alone isn’t such a bad thing.  It is often invigorating to be alone.  Being lonely, however, can be excruciating.  Debilitating.  I could go on to say the answer is to always be in a relationship – not a physically intimate one (these are too fragile and easily broken), but a spiritual one with Jesus Christ (who alone can bring us peace).  This is very true and a great comfort to us in times of need.

But sometimes in our losses even the right words are not meant to be spoken.  When Job grieved the loss of his wealth, his health, and particularly his loved ones, his friends did one beautiful and right thing.  They sat with him in silence – for 7 days.  It was only when they spoke up and tried to make sense of his tragedy that they really blew it and abandoned him in his misery.

As a pastor, I was often called upon to counsel and encourage people who had experienced great losses, including relationship losses due to divorce or separation. I tried to offer them Biblical guidance when the time was right, but often what was needed most was a listening ear, an compassionate heart and an understanding prayer.

Now, as a writer who wants to honestly share laughter and tears, sorrow and joy, I find myself somewhat at a loss.  Perhaps it would be best to turn to fiction or poetry.  Some things in life are just too sacred for memoirs.

So, I tell you what.   I’ll give myself (and you, if you’re up for it) a writing prompt.

Using the imagery of this song, particularly the line –  “One red rose in the Bible, pressed between the holy alphabet.” – write a poem or a short story.

I look forward to seeing how this takes shape and I hope some of you accept the challenge with me.  If you do, be sure to include a link back here (in the comments to this post) where we can find your work.

Now, write….

               

Give Your Life or Choose to Die: Eponine and Javier in Les Miserables

les miserables

I just got back from the movie Les Miserables – my first movie theater experience in about 20 years.  All I can say is – it was worth the wait.

But I will say more… probably several posts worth.  First, let me caution you that if you are planning to see the movie (and I recommend you do), see it before you read this review.  That said…

Today, I want to focus on the lives and deaths of two characters in the film – Eponine (the inn keeper’s daughter) and Javier (the policeman).

Eponine grows up in the household of unscrupulous parents who favor her over Colette (“I mean Cosette.” – as the inn keeper would say).  She sees their greed as they rob, cheat, and steal even a a randy Santa Claus from his goods (including his pants).  As they fall on harder times, as does most of France, they are still only looking out for themselves.  To the end of the movie, they sing out their selfish creed as they are carried away from crashing a wedding.

Yet, in spite of her skewed upbringing, Eponine manages to develop strong values.  Though she falls in love the handsome and brave Marius, she consents to show him the way to Cosette when she sees this is his heart’s desire.  Though she could have become embittered at only seeing love from a distance, she channels her rage to fight for the freedom of her people.  In the end, she gives Marius Cosette’s love note, making their union possible.  As her reward, she is able to die in his arms, as he declares love for her as well.

Eponine lives a virtuous, self-less life.   She gives her life for her love, and for people.

Javier, on the other hand, lives for vengeance.  We first see him overseeing prisoners as they are treated like slaves.  Though he hands Jean Valjean his parole papers, he tells Valjean that he will  never pay for his crime (of stealing bread to feed his sister’s son).  Javier represents the dark side of merciless law that favors the punishment of death-in-life rather than make room for forgiveness and grace.

Fast forward to the revolution.  Javier is a prisoner of the revolutionaries, being caught as a spy.  Jean Valjean is given the opportunity to kill him for his crime.  Instead, he cuts Javier loose and grants his pardon.  This confuses Javier.  In fact, it causes him to question his existence.  Not long later, when the tables are turned and Javier lets Jean Valjean escape, Javier can’t bear to live with his identity confusion.  The world can not contain both Valjean and Javier (mercy and vengeance), he sings.  He chooses to kill himself rather than to live by grace.

Death is something none of us can escape.  But we do have a choice.  We can live by grace, and do what is good and right and loving, as Eponine does.  Or we can die clinging to a perverted sense of human injustice that can never measure up, as Javier does.

Give your life or choose to die.  Which will you do?

(image “At the Movies – Les Miserables” from erjkprunczýk, some rights reserved)

Christmas in Prison – John Prine

John Prine at Bonnaroo 2010

Christmas In Prison
©John Prine 

(lyrics found at the Prine Shrine)

It was Christmas in prison
and the food was real good
we had turkey and pistols
carved out of wood
and I dream of her always
even when I don’t dream
her name’s on my tongue
and her blood’s in my stream.

Chorus:
Wait awhile eternity
old mother nature’s got nothing on me
come to me
run to me
come to me, now
we’re rolling
my sweetheart
we’re flowing
by God!

She reminds me of a chess game
with someone I admire
or a picnic in the rain
after a prairie fire
her heart is as big
as this whole goddamn jail
and she’s sweeter than saccharine
at a drug store sale.

Chorus:

The search light in the big yard
swings round with the gun
and spotlights the snowflakes
like the dust in the sun
it’s Christmas in prison
there’ll be music tonight
I’ll probably get homesick
I love you. Goodnight.

Chorus:

 

I have been a John Prine fan since I first saw a PBS documentary on him over Christmas break in 1982.  The guy is amazing and he’s still going (relatively) strong in his 70s.  I was going to post a Youtube video of him performing this song at a concert in 2011, but I wasn’t sure of the copyright laws.  If you want to check it out (for entertainment purposes only), click here.  If you haven’t heard it, check it out before you read on.  Art should always be appreciated first before it is analyzed.

The song title and opening line sets the stage for a melancholy mood.  The closest I’ve ever been to being in prison at Christmas was when I was separated from my family, staying with an older couple while I went through some treatment.  There were no bars, no guards (but the food was real good there too).  Oh, and there was also the time I was in the psych unit over Christmas.  I was confined there (and the food wasn’t even that good).

Prine’s absurdist humor comes through almost immediately (turkey and pistols carved out of wood).  On the live video clip, someone laughs (probably hearing it for the first time) and you almost miss the next lines (a danger you face when going to a Prine concert).

Prine abruptly shifts from absurdist humor to tremendous longing, as the prisoner dreams of his lover (even when I don’t dream) and finds himself bodily attached to her, though physically far separated.  This lover’s paradox appears as well in another of Prine’s songs “Donald and Lydia” (find lyrics here).

The chorus then shifts the focus slightly to a more spiritual realm.  The inmate is hoping to outlive his sentence, that love (in the form of his lover) would come back to him.  Prine’s doesn’t hesitate to introduce God into his songs, but his theology is rather elusive.  He seems to prefer common phrases “by God” that could suggest a simple expression, but it also opens the door to a strong connection to the divine.

In the second verse, the inmate poetically describes his lover as someone who is intelligent and life-giving, with a love that can not be confined.  Lest he turn his prisoner into Wordsworth, however, Prine then has his narrator compare his lover’s sweetness to “saccharine at a drugstore sale“.  You can’t get much sweeter than that in prison.

The final verse brings the dreaming inmate back to the reality of his imprisonment and separation from his lover.  The only light is coming from the searchlight swinging round with the gun.  Snowflakes, which remind many of the joys of the season are only spotlighted “like the dust in the sun”  It’s hard to know where the music will come from (maybe in the reverie of the narrator).  He concludes with a woefully understated summary – “I’ll probably get homesick.  I love you.  Good night.”

In yesterday’s post I reflected some on my own loss this season as I face the death of my marriage.  Even with that, I can’t begin to imagine the grief and longing of those whose loved ones have died, children who are permanently separated from their parents, or people in prison or war-torn countries desperately wishing they were somewhere else.  My hope is, if any of you should happen to stumble onto this, you would find hope in your seemingly hopeless situation.

We are rolling.  We are flowing.  By God.

(photo of John Prine from wfuv – some rights reserved)