Lent 1: Ode on an Empty Pot

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:9-15)

Lent is my far and away my favorite liturgical season. It is also in many ways the most misunderstood. When most people think of Lent, they affix the expression “giving [x] up for” to the front of it, where x equals “chocolate” or “coffee” or “alcohol” or “smoking” or “meat on Fridays” any number of other indulgences. In the popular imagination, Lent is synonymous with renunciation and self-denial.

I grant you, this interpretation of the forty days leading up to Easter has a long history within Christianity. According to one traditional framework, we practice Lenten discipline in imitation of Jesus, who fasted forty days in the wilderness and said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matt 16:24) – the ultimate act of self-denial being, of course, Christ’s death on the cross on Good Friday. In this schema, therefore, it is the least we can do to give up sweets for a month-and-a-half, seeing as how Jesus gave up his very life for our salvation.

“We shape clay into a pot, but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want.” –Tao Te Ching, Ch. 11

Another, not incompatible interpretation sees the Lenten discipline of fasting as an exercise in controlling our fleshly selves, which must be subordinated to the life of the spirit. As 1 John puts it,Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world;  for all that is in the world… comes not from the Father but from the world” (2:15-16). Lent is a season for us to forsake the things of the world–food, drink, bodily pleasures–and “set [our] minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Col 3:2). Inherent in this framework is a strong dualistic distinction between the worldly self and the spiritual self, with the latter infinitely superior to the former.

As someone who doesn’t believe in either substitutional atonement or spiritual dualism, neither of these Lenten theologies make a lot of sense to me. Yet it’s still my favorite liturgical season. To understand one important aspect of why that is, I turn from West to East, from first chapter of the Gospel of Mark to the eleventh chapter of the Tao Te Ching (translated by Stephen Mitchell):

We join spokes together in a wheel,
but it is the center hole
that makes the wagon move.

We shape clay into a pot,
but it is the emptiness inside
that holds whatever we want.

We hammer wood for a house,
but it is the inner space
that makes it livable.

We work with being
but non-being is what we use.

One of my Lenten disciplines this year is fasting one day a week. I do not fast because I believe that the body is evil and needs to be punished in order to live a Godly life (whatever that means). Rather, I fast because I have long had a less-than-healthy relationship with food, in which I eat or drink my feelings rather than engaging them openly and consciously. Instead of using food as a way to fill the emptiness I feel inside, I’m making a conscious choice to empty myself – and to listen for what emerges from that emptiness. Because the fasting is not an end in itself: fasting must always be balanced by feasting, emptying always be accompanied by filling. We pour out the contents of the pot so we can fill that negative space with something else, not we we can leave it empty and useless.

So this Lent, I’m praying for emptiness – the emptiness not of self-abnegation, but rather of self-realization. May we not fast to punish ourselves, but rather to push ourselves to become our best, our fullest selves.

Amen. –Tom

Posted in Lectionary 2015 | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Epiphany 6: Woodcarving

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”  Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. (Mark 9:2-9)

[Note: a version of this sermon was preached at First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco’s “Church After Dark” on Sunday, 2/15/2014.]

My friend Sam Miller is one of those people you might refer to as infuriatingly talented. Sharply intelligent, a national championship debater in high school, working on his second novel, upsettingly good-looking, and, best/worst of all, the lead singer-songwriter of Paradise Fears, one of the finest pop-rock outfits working today. (To be fair, I’m a little biased: the band and I come from the same tiny South Dakota town, and Sam is my pastor-mentor’s oldest son. But to be even fairer, they just finished up a headlining tour last fall and are opening at the Fillmore next week, so I’d say they’re doing alright without PR from me.)

Sam recently recounted on Facebook a conversation he had while riding a transcontinental train, a conversation I here paraphrase, since I can’t seem to locate the original post. The story begins with Sam walking into a compartment and sat down opposite the compartment’s only other occupant, a man in his late 40s. The guy introduces himself and struck up a conversation with that classic question: “So what do you do?”

Hometown heroes: Sam Miller and the boys from Paradise Fears.

“I’m the singer in an alternative rock band,” Sam says.

The man smiles. “Yes, but what do you do? I mean for a living.”

Sam returns the smile. “That is what I do for a living.”

His conversation partner seems somewhat taken aback. “And you’re able to pay your bills doing that?”

“I mean, we’re not living the ‘rock star’ lifestyle or anything,” Sam says, “but yeah, we’re able to make a living.”

The guy is interested. “And how do you manage that? A lot of bands never get off the ground.”

Sam explains: “Well, we love what we do, and we work really hard at it. Our families back home encouraged us and told us we could do anything we put our minds to, and we have a really great community of fans who’ve got our backs. It’s pretty cool, really.”

The guy nods for a moment in silence. Then he says, “You know, your band remind me of this friend of mine who lives in his mom’s basement and makes woodcarvings.”

Now it’s Sam’s turn to be taken aback. “Excuse me, sir, but we’re professional musicians. We work hard at this. I don’t think we sound anything like this friend of yours who lives in his mom’s basement!”

“Yes you do,” the guy says. “You both have people in your life who think that what you want to do is important and want to support you in being able to do that.”

I tell this story, because I think it’s important to remember, when thinking about the people we admire, people who are talented and successful (however we define “success”) and lead rich and meaningful lives, people who have a strong sense of identity and purpose, we forget that they didn’t get where they are all by themselves. There is no such thing as a “self-made man.” The story of the Transfiguration lends itself to that kind of thinking though: Jesus is transformed before the eyes of his disciples; the glory of his Self-hood is revealed to them, and they hear a voice from the heavens declare that this is God’s beloved, with whom God is well pleased. It’s easy, from this story, to assume that Jesus is unique in his Belovedness, unique in his radiant identity.

But you’ll notice that Jesus doesn’t go up the mountain alone. He takes with him Peter and James and John, his friends and disciples, fishermen who, when Jesus came wandering into their lives and said, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people” (Mark 1:17), didn’t tell him that he was crazy. Instead they “immediately they left their nets and followed him” (Mark 1:18). They effectively said, “Yes. What you’re doing is important, no matter how wild and unusual it might seem. We want to support you to do that.”

An Eastern Orthodox icon of Jesus’ Transfiguration.

Christians often look to Jesus as a paragon of self-realization, even perfection. But he needed a community behind him and around him, to affirm and support him in letting his true self shine forth, as much as any of us. We can all think of those people in our lives who have nurtured and encouraged us in letting our true selves shine – or at least, I would hope that we could all think of those people. But I’m very aware that we live in a world where affirmation and support are not universal norms. There are too many places in our families, our schools, our communities, our societies where we are told exactly the opposite of the words that Jesus heard on the mountaintop: that our band will never make it, that our ministry is pointless, that our aspirations are not valid, that we are not beloved.

Sam Miller and the boys in Paradise Fears heard that affirmation from their friends and family and fans, and that enabled them to chase their dream in the face of a world that says, “You’ll never make it as a musician.” Jesus heard that affirmation at his baptism and from his friends and followers, and that enabled him to carry out his ministry of healing, of reconciliation, of transfiguration in the face of a world that thought him crazy, even dangerous. So as we move into Lent, this season of reflection and introspection, I pray that we might remember those individuals and communities who have been our agents of transfiguration. And I pray that we might still strive, in the midst of reflection and introspection, to form and support communities of transfiguration ourselves, places where we give others the tools they need to carve from the wood of their experience and their passion an identity for themselves with which they and God alike are well-pleased.

Amen. –Tom

Posted in Lectionary 2015 | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Epiphany 5: To Be Understood as To Understand

If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission. What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel.

For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings. (1 Corinthians 9:16-23)

Throughout history, when people have had an anonymous quote that needs a well-known author in order to lend it appropriate gravitas, St. Francis of Assisi has been a go-to false attribution, not unlike Mark Twain or George Carlin in more modern times. Take one of my favorite maxims: “Preach the Gospel at all times, with words if necessary.” This, as well as any single sentence I’ve yet run across, sums up my approach to Christianity and the use of Christian theological language. Despite this, there is no evidence that St. Francis ever spoke or wrote these words.

Whatever its provenance, when reading Paul’s letters, I sometimes wished he had heard this little maxim. More than any other individual, Paul was responsible for turning Christianity from a messianic movement within Judaism into a distinct religion. He was the first “evangelical,” as it were, preaching “Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2) far and wide, making converts of Jews and Gentiles alike. His impact on the development of Christianity cannot be overstated.

Labrador Inuit with Moravian missionary, c. 1819.

Which is why Paul’s language of “winning Jews” and “becoming all things to all people, so that I might by all means save some” in the passage from 1 Corinthians this week makes me more than a little uncomfortable. It smacks of the Christian triumphalism that fueled the missionaries of the colonial era, who were more interested in making converts than in living out Jesus’ Gospel of radical love. It reminds me of my Congregational forebears who came to South Dakota and learned Lakota first and foremost so that they could translate the Bible into the language of the “savages,” who studied Lakota culture, not because they believed that Lakota culture was valuable in and of itself, but so that they could explain to those “poor, benighted souls” that their Wakantanka (“Great Mystery” or “Great Spirit”) was in fact the God of Christianity. For those missionaries, comprehending a people and their way of life was simply a prelude to bringing them into the Christian fold. And if that didn’t suffice to “civilize” them, then naked force would do in a pinch.

Over and against such missionary zeal, I prefer to be guided by another prayer commonly attributed to St. Francis, the aptly but erroneously named “Prayer of St. Francis.” I’m thinking in particular of a line in the latter half of the prayer:

O Divine Master, grant that I may not seek…
so much to be understood as to understand.

There is huge difference between comprehending something and understanding it. Just take a look at their respective etymologies. Comprehend comes from the Latin “to grasp,” whereas understand has the original sense of standing, not under something, but in the midst of something. To understand is to be surrounded by, to allow the object of understanding to fill us and penetrate us, without seeking to hold or possess it. Those early missionaries sought to comprehend Native culture, to grasp it and then shape it to their own purposes. To “become all things to all people, that [they] might by all means save some.” To “kill the Indian and save the man,” as the infamous boarding school slogan had it.

This desire to grasp and use rather than to truly understand is hardly unique to colonial missionaries. How often have we listened to respond rather than to hear in a conversation? How often have we researched an opponent’s perspective, not in order to understand it from their vantage point, but rather the better to tear it down and assert the truth of our position? Real understanding requires us to let go of our presuppositions and our ingrained beliefs, to let go of our need to make converts to our religion or our cause. It requires us to meet others as they are, not as they might be for our designs. It requires us to stand in their midst and open ourselves to the possibility that, in this meeting, we might be transformed.

So this week I pray, with Pseudo-Francis (as it were), that we might seek not so much to be understood as to understand. I pray that, rather than trying to grasp others different from us and change them to fit our molds, we might instead approach with open hands, stand in their midst, and allow them to change us. I pray that we might preach the Gospel at all times – with words only if absolutely necessary.

Amen. –Tom

Posted in Lectionary 2015 | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Epiphany 4: A Prophet in an Echo Chamber

The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet. This is what you requested of the LORD your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said: “If I hear the voice of the LORD my God any more, or ever again see this great fire, I will die.” Then the LORD replied to me: “They are right in what they have said. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command. Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable. But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak–that prophet shall die.” (Deuteronomy 18:15-20)

In my course on Sufism last semester, our teacher, a Sufi sheikh from Morocco via Oakland, explained to us that Muslims believe that there have been 144,000 prophets throughout history – and not only those mentioned in the Abrahamic Scriptures. Why would God send so many messengers into the world if He had already sent the Prophet-with-a-capital-P, the Messenger with the Message, Muhammad (praise be upon him)? Our sheikh answered this question in terms of Islam’s deep and abiding concern with language. For many Muslims, the Qur’an is no longer the Qur’an in translation. Instead, it is merely that: a translation, an interpretation, a provisional rendering of the Message transmitted by God to Muhhammad in Arabic. However, not everybody speaks Qur’anic Arabic, of course. So God sent other messengers, to carry God’s revelation to many different peoples in many different contexts. “A prophet must speak in the language of his people,” our sheikh told us.

The Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, CA. You can’t see UC Berkeley’s famed Sather Tower in this shot, but having a literal ivory tower dominate the skyline just across campus is a brilliant visual metaphor, trust me.

A prophet must speak in the language of his people. As I begin a new semester of seminary, those words stick with me (amended for inclusive language, natch). In many ways, seminary is quite unlike any other graduate school program on the face of the earth. I mean, we’re here to study God. What does that even mean? How do you develop a curriculum around that? And more to the point, how crazy do you have to be to decide, “Yes, I am going to dedicate three (or four, or five) years of my life to studying the Tao-that-cannot-be-spoken”? This is a place where I can pitch the idea of daily morning prayer and actually have half-a-dozen people say, “Yep, that sounds like a great idea, let’s drag ourselves out of bed at daybreak every morning and sing through a centuries-old Benedictine order of service” – and then go out and get arrested for civil disobedience with the same set of crazies with whom I pray every morning. To be fair, I don’t know the oddities and idiosyncrasies of other graduate programs, but seminary remains a very unique kind of odd and idiosyncratic.

In other ways, however, seminary is like any other grad program – that is to say, a self-selecting bubble, populated by folks who share, for the most part, a worldview and a specialized lexicon to accompany and articulate that worldview. Every profession and specialization has its own jargon, to enable practitioners to communicate efficiently and effectively within their field, and grad school is where we go to learn the tools and tricks of the trade. Little wonder then if we pick up some of the characteristic modes of speech and thought of our field – to a certain extent, that’s precisely the point.

The danger arises, however, when the time comes to interact with the “outside world.” I’m not even talking about theology’s well-documented tendency to get stuck in its own head, to fail to relate Scholastic proofs for the existence of God and arguments for and against the ontological unity of the Trinity to the concrete facts of human living. I’m talking about those of us who are committed to living our faith, to creating peace in the world and justice in society. My school happens to occupy a particular corner of the culture of leftist academia where we toss around phrases like “neo-imperialism” and “intersectionality” and “q***ring the binary” and “radical inclusivity” and “internalized oppression” and “theologies of disruption” like Russell Wilson throwing a touchdown pass.

Language and football are much the same: sometimes, despite our best attempts and intentions, we simply fail to make the pass. (Photo of Russell Wilson from USA Today.)

It’s not that I think the ideas to which these words refer are necessarily wrong, “postmodern liberal fascism” or what have you. But not unlike Mr. Wilson’s game-ending pass in last night’s Super Bowl, I worry that our meaning will be intercepted en route to those with whom we’re hoping to communicate. Because the vast majority of people just don’t talk like that! Certainly not the people we’re hoping most to reach in our struggle for a more caring, more just world. It’s a textbook example of what famed Harvard linguist Steven Pinker refers to as the Curse of Knowledge: “[the] difficulty in imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know.” It’s almost as if, despite our rhetoric, we’re more interested in talking to one another than in talking to the rest of the world.

If faith leaders are called to be raised up as “prophets from among our own people,” as Deuteronomy puts it, prophets whose voices the people will actually heed, then we have to speak in the language of our people. And that is not the language of the academy. Ideas like privilege and oppression are important. Making the realities of privilege and oppression clear to a world that would like to deny their existence is important. But constant, mantra-like repetition, combined with the lack of clarity characteristic of academia–as if it were only too obvious what we were talking about, and thus hardly worth clarifying–has rendered such words impotent to many of the people for whom they might actually become meaningful concepts, who only need a prophetic nudge to understand themselves and their world in a new light.

Of course, the Curse of Knowledge is hardly a unique condition of progressive seminaries. As Pinker points out in the essay I linked above, it is one of the defining characteristics of academia in general. It is also, I would argue, one of the defining characteristics of the Church at large (I could write an entire sermon on why the words “God” and “Jesus” may be in fact the most alienating words in the whole ecclesiastical lexicon). We need to find new ways of talking about the work of justice–hell, about the work of faith–that invite our listeners into reflection and transformation, rather than hold them at arm’s length or baffle them with bullshit. We need to speak, not in the language of the activist or the theologian or the seminarian, but in the language of the people. As Frantz Fanon once said, “Everything can be explained to the people, on the single condition that you want them to understand.”

So as this new semester begins, I ask: do we want the people to understand or not?

Amen. –Tom

Posted in Lectionary 2015 | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Epiphany 3: Call Me Maybe

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. 

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it. (Jonah 3:1-5, 10)

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him.  As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him. (Mark 1:14-20)

When I saw the Gospel reading for the third Sunday after Epiphany was the calling of the first disciples, I knew immediately that I was going to entitle my reflection “Call Me Maybe.” It’s not every day I get to integrate my love of trashy pop music into my religious work. (Actually, that’s not entirely true – I directed a summer camp program last year entitled “Top 40 Theology,” in which we did things like exegete OneRepublic, use Beyoncé to enlighten a passage from Romans, and have a glow-stick-tastic dance party in the camp chapel. But I digress.) I had no idea how/if the song would relate to the passage in question; I just liked the title and ran with it.

As a general rule, I’m opposed to mixing religion and pop music, if only because Christian radio is so mind-numbingly banal. I am prepared, however, to make an exception in this case.

As it worked out, however, that seemingly flip title got me to think much more deeply about the nature of calling. We talk about being called a lot in the Christian tradition: called to take up our cross and follow Jesus, called to be peacemakers, called to go and make disciples of all nations, called to be love one another as God loved us first, called to the ministry, and so an ad nauseum. In the non-religious realm, we often speak of finding our calling, discovering and walking that path to which we are uniquely suited and that uniquely suits us. In both cases, a calling isn’t something we can will into being of and for ourselves. We can’t choose a calling the same we can choose a career. Certainly, our choice matters; in order to be lived, a call must be 1) heard and 2) answered, and that requires our active cooperation. But the call itself seems to originate elsewhere, whether in some external source or (as I’m more inclined to think) in our own deepest selves, deeper than our conscious, calculating mind. Your calling is, in the oft-quoted words of Frederick Buechner, “the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

When we consider calling in Buechnerian terms, then, you might think that discovering your calling would be be a profoundly joyful experience, that living into it would be the easiest thing in the world. And it often is! But because our callings operate upon us at levels deeper than those of the conscious mind–and because human beings can be willful little pricks–our callings can be sources of frustration and even profound suffering – especially when we refuse to answer them.

That’s certainly the case for Jonah in this week’s first reading. He had just spent the last two chapters of his eponymous book running away from God’s call to prophesy to the city of Nineveh, because he knew full well the fate that typically awaits those who accept the prophetic mantle (“getting thrown in the stocks” is one of the more pleasant possibilities). Finally, after sailing as far away from Nineveh as possible, getting himself thrown overboard, and spending three days in the gastrointestinal tract of a whale, Jonah finally, begrudgingly accepted God’s call. All that suffering could have been avoided if Jonah had just listened to God’s call in the first place.

But honestly, would we have acted any differently in his place? To accept your calling is to commit yourself to a process, an allurement, a power that is not entirely (or even particularly) in your control. It is to make a decision to do this instead of that, to be this instead of that, to collapse the wave function of limitless possibility, to limit yourself in some real sense to this path – and to all the inconvenient detours and trudging rainy days that might follow. And even then, there are no clear-cut guarantees that this path among all others is the right one. To pursue one’s calling is a supreme risk, an act of incredible faith.

We say we want to find our purpose, to do and to be that which brings us our greatest joy, to live our lives with souls on fire. But purpose requires commitment. Joy is intertwined with sadness. Fire burns. It’s easy to see where Jonah was coming from. Better to qualify that yearning for purpose with a conditional: “Call me! …maybe.”

Jesus calls the first disciples.

In this light, I’m struck by the incredible, borderline-crazy bravery that the first disciples show in this week’s Gospel reading. Jesus has only just begun his ministry; he hasn’t yet built his reputation as a miracle-worker and healer. He might as well just be another mendicant preacher, of which there was no shortage in first-century Palestine. And yet here Jesus steps up and says to these Galilean fishermen: “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” At best, he might hope for confused indifference, if not outright hostility, to such a call. Simon Peter and Andrew, James and John are literally in the middle of doing their jobs. What possible incentive could they have to drop the nets that provide them with their meager livelihood and hitch their wagon to this dude’s dubious star?

And yet they sensed something in this strange wanderer, something so singular and compelling that they were willing to down tools and walk, to set off on an adventure whose end they could hardly have foreseen. No “call me maybe’s” for these guys; they heard the question underneath Jesus’ invitation and unequivocally answered “Yes,” committing themselves to both untold suffering and overflowing joy. That takes some serious guts right there. I pray that we might all have that same courage: the courage to pursue our callings, and to hell with the consequences. The courage to live our lives with souls on fire. The courage to drop the “maybe” and commit ourselves, wholeheartedly, to that which we were born to do.

Amen. –Tom

Posted in Lectionary 2015 | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album Review: Belle & Sebastian, “Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance”

Growing up, I considered myself a thoroughgoing introvert. And why shouldn’t I be? I was bookish, shy, with a strong intellectual and artistic bent and a revulsion of loud parties. Most of my adolescence was spent reading classic novels, listening to classic pop records, and pining over unattainable girls. (No wonder I fell in love with Belle & Sebastian the minute I heard them back in 2006.) As I’ve grown older, however, while I still revel in long walks in the woods and late-night headphone listening sessions, I’ve come to realize I never particularly enjoyed all that time alone as a teenager. Much of the time, it didn’t re-energize me; it was simply the only thing I knew how to do in the face of crippling social anxiety. Now that the anxiety is a little more under control, though, getting out to the clubs sounds a lot less abhorrent. I wouldn’t say I’m a full-blown extrovert, but I’m decidedly more extroverted than I initially realized.

It would seem that, sometime in the nearly two decades since Tigermilk (1996), Belle & Sebastian came to the same self-realization. Born out of Stuart Murdoch’s battle with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), Belle & Sebastian had always assumed they were staunch introverts, sketching inward-looking characters so fragile and lovely, they sounded as though might float away on a afternoon breeze. But beginning with 2003’s Dear Catastrophe Waitress, the band’s (that is to say, Murdoch’s) extroverted side has come more and more to the fore. The gauzy, gorgeous chamber pop with which they made their name was now augmented by punchy horns, booming drums, and dueling guitar leads, opening the door to the stomping glam-isms of The Life Pursuit and lush girl-group pop of God Help the Girl. Judy and her dream of horses hadn’t vanished, not by any means; she just had to share the stage now with Thin Lizzy-listening cuckoos and white collar boys.

Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance (2015), perhaps more explicitly than any Belle & Sebastian record before it, lives and moves and has its being in the space between Stuart Murdoch’s long-established shrinking violet persona and his long-submerged inner extrovert. “Allie” tells the story of one of Murdoch’s classic female protagonists, fretting over news reports of violence in the Middle East while she lives her day-to-day life wrapped up in books. But instead of setting Allie’s inner turmoil to acoustic guitars and gentle strings, the band turns in one of the most propulsive rock n’ roll performances of their career. Meanwhile, “The Cat with the Cream” features a lush, insistent string arrangement, over which Murdoch delivers lines like “How I wish you’d read to me/Verses rich in swallows and trees” with quintessential feyness. But then the lyrics take a turn toward the political:

Everybody bet on the boom
And got busted
Everybody bet
And in the government trusted
Grubby little red MP
Yellow flapping hopelessly

And then there’s “The Party Line,” which displaces “Your Cover’s Blown” as the closest thing to straight-ahead disco in the B&S songbook. Or the ABBA-meets-Pet-Shop-Boys dance-pop of “Enter Sylvia Plath” – but there, the title gives it away! Because if you just read the lyrics, about a young man who becomes infatuated with the eponymous poet, you would expect a musical backing nearer to “Get Me Away from Here, I’m Dying” than “Go West.”


Certainly, if you asked me what I was anticipating from Belle & Sebastian’s new record, I wouldn’t have said that. And to be honest, it’s not entirely successful – the subject matter and its musical treatment are simply too strange as bedfellows. But if you go back to Tigermilk, their very first record, “Electronic Renaissance” was right there, a synthesizer-laden patch on a well-worn baroque pop jacket. Extroverted dance-pop has always been a part of Stuart Murdoch’s musical personality. It’s just that, as he’s matured as a songwriter and as a person, he seems to have grown more comfortable expressing that side of himself.

Ultimately, it was music that empowered Murdoch to engage in that self-expression and survive his battles with CFS. It’s been a constant theme in his work, from the girl who made life-size models of the Velvet Underground in “Expectations” to the story of Eve’s redemption-by-pop in God Help the Girl. And above all things, Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance is a valentine to music, its power to inspire and enchant, to bridge the gap between our inner and outer worlds. “Be popular, play pop, and you will win, my love,” Murdoch’s muse counsels him coyly on “The Everlasting Muse.” It is music, music pouring through headphones on a rainy day, that gives hope to the protagonist of “Ever Had a Little Faith?”: “Something good’ll happen, wait and see… You will flourish like a rose in June.”

Nowhere are the salvific potentialities of pop music more fully realized than “Nobody’s Empire.” It is, by Stuart’s own admission, the first time he has explicitly tackled his struggles with CFS in song, even though those struggles have long been his unspoken artistic touchstone:

Lying on my bed I was reading French
With the light too bright for my senses
From this hiding place
Life was way too much
It was loud and rough round the edges

There was a girl that sang
Like the chime of a bell
She put out her arm
And she touched me when I was in hell

Someone sang a song and I sang along
Cause I knew the words from my childhood
Intellect, ambition, they fell away
They locked me up for my own good

Time and distance have enabled him to set this incredibly personal narrative to music that is brighter, bolder, “poppier” than any of those early records, themselves conceived in the midst of and in response to the “hell” described here. But it loses none of its intimate power for that. It is, quite simply, one of the finest songs Stuart Murdoch has ever written, the sound of a man seeking to integrate his personality, to craft an identity for himself here and now, that simultaneously honors his past as well as his present, his inner as well as his outer world.

In this regard, “Nobody’s Empire” achieves what Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance as a whole does not. The record tends to veer between intro- and extroversion rather than dwelling fully in either or achieving integrative balance. To say that it is an imperfect document is not necessarily a criticism, however. Identity (re)formation is always imperfect, always messy. But through the messiness, we still have the magic of pop music, beckoning us to “leave that vision of hell to the dying” and, as album closer “Today (This Army’s for Peace)” would have it, “come out into the light.” Amen to that.

8/10

Listen here. Buy it here.


Related Posts

Posted in Album Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Epiphany 2: L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
    you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
    and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
    O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before,
    and lay your hand upon me.
 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
    it is so high that I cannot attain it.

For it was you who formed my inward parts;
    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
    Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
    My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
    intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
    all the days that were formed for me,
    when none of them as yet existed.
How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!

    How vast is the sum of them!
I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
    I come to the end—I am still with you. (Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18)

At the very end of 2014, on the second-last day of the year, I did something I never thought I would do in my life: I got a tattoo.

My tattoo.

At first glance, it’s a little cryptic: a planet, ostensibly Earth, and the motto underneath: “That’s why I believe in you.” If I told you that it’s the logo of the MOTHER video game series, you’d probably scratch your head until I explained that Ness, the baseball-bat-wielding 13-year-old from Super Smash Bros., was the protagonist of the second MOTHER game, known in the U.S. as Earthbound. The motto itself comes from the series theme song, “Pollyanna (I Believe in You).”

At which point you’re probably thinking, “You must be a pretty big fan of these games!” Which would be true, obviously. Much as I adore the MOTHER games, however, that doesn’t explain how much my tattoo means to me. For that to make sense, you need to know that the he same day I got my tattoo, my little brother Kennedy got a tattoo of a lightning bolt with the caption, “I believe in second chances.”

My little brother’s tattoo.

Again, doesn’t necessarily make a lot of sense at first – until you realize that it’s the Franklin Badge, one of the most important items in the world of MOTHER, and that the caption is also from “Pollyanna,” from the final chorus:

You may say I’m a fool
Feeling this way about you
There’s not much I can do
I’m gonna be this way my life through
‘Cos I still believe in miracles
(I swear I’ve seen a few)
And the time will surely come
When you can see my point of view
I believe in second chances
And that’s why I believe in you

Kennedy was the person who introduced me to the MOTHER games. He was also the unwitting catalyst of the existential crisis out of whose depths I heard my call to the ministry, possibly the single person most responsible (however unintentionally) for my joining the Church and going to seminary.

I believe in second chances, and that’s why I believe in you. Dork siblings, marked permanently as dork siblings, forever.

My tattoo is incomplete without my brother’s. There’s a silence that precedes the affirmation “That’s why I believe in you.” Why do I believe in you? And who do I believe in? Only when we place our arms alongside one another can you see the whole picture. That’s not something we get to do very often, seeing as how I live in California and Kennedy lives in Texas. But when I look at my tattoo, even though I may not be able to see its other half, I know that it exists. And that fact–the fact that I cared so deeply about these games and this song and my relationship with Kennedy that I had this thing engraved on my body forever–still brings me to tears on a pretty regular basis. What makes my tattoo meaningful to me is not what you can see on my upper arm, but what you can’t see.

As I meditated on the reading from Psalm 139 this week, I was also struck by what I couldn’t see there. Full disclosure: Psalm 139 might just be my favorite passage in the entire Bible. But the lectionary left out my favorite part of my favorite Psalm, verses 7-12:

Where can I go from your spirit?
    Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
    if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
    and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
    and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
    and the light around me become night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
    the night is as bright as the day,
    for darkness is as light to you.

For me, this is the crux of the whole psalm right here – indeed, the crux of the whole Bible. If I were to get a Bible verse branded permanently into my flesh, it would probably be Psalm 139:12: “even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for the darkness is as light to you.” Why, I wondered, does the Lectionary leave out the single most important part?

“One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.” — Antoine de Saint Exupéry

Of course, the point of the psalm is precisely this: that God is with us everywhere. Even in the midst of the deepest darkness we can imagine, even when we can’t see a way forward. Because what we can see isn’t nearly as important as what we can’t see. I don’t need to see my favorite verse in this week’s reading to know that it’s there, to remember it when I need it and repeat it to myself as a talisman against the darkness. I don’t need to be able to see Kennedy’s tattoo to know exactly why “I believe in you.” I don’t need to be able to see through the darkness to trust that there is a way through, to know with every fiber of my being that the Spirit of Love is always present. “L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux,” as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry put it: “Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.”

So I pray this week that we might all find those psalms, those verses, those songs, those tattoos, those talismans that remind us of who we are and what we believe. That shine for us as a light in the darkness. That, even though we don’t always say them aloud, even though we can’t always see them with the eyes, are written on our hearts as indelibly as if they had been written on our arms.

Amen. –Tom

Posted in Lectionary 2015 | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment