Gang Aft Agley

1scottish_2678776bSecession is the word of the day.  Even now, the people of Scotland are at the polls, voting a simple “Yes” or “No” to decide whether they want to break off from the United Kingdom and go it alone.  Their decision will have impact not only in the British Isles but will reverberate the world over.

The question of secession is always a tricky one–for Americans particularly.  Our only real experience with it didn’t go so well.  The secession of our Southern states led to Civil War and massive bloodshed.  But the idea persists.  Just recently there were efforts for sections of California to be turned into six states, there continues to be talk of Texas possibly seceding from the United States one day, and we always wonder–mostly tongue-in-cheek –whether the South will decide to “rise again.”

On an international level we just this past year witnessed a referendum in Crimea that involved a rather unpleasant secession from Ukraine.  The tension inherent in that move underscores the reality that while it may have its fans, for many others secession is a notion fraught with peril. the-south-will-rise-again-3

But is secession illegal?  Not necessarily.  In the United States secession has been understood that way since the Civil War.  But then that is only because the North won the war.  Politics is, after all, the art of the possible, and politics in our country made secession impossible by force of arms.  Considering that we live in a democracy, though, it does seem logical that the people of a certain region could decide for themselves how to proceed.  Barring the beginning of a British Civil War, this seems to be the operating procedure today in the United Kingdom.  We’ll see how that works out.

The situation of Scotland is rather different that the American Confederacy, of course.  Scotland was once its own nation, and in many ways has always maintained its own character.  The American South, while unique, never had such a cohesive national identity in the years before the Civil War.

9919c6d5c37178403f6011f449c9698fDespite Scotland’s strong claim to the legitimacy of secession, the choice they face today does recall a haunting question from the American crisis and similar movements today: what does it mean to be a democracy?  Surely such a place must affirm that people have a measure of self-determination, but what are the limits of that freedom?  From a certain point of view secession should be possible, but does it really make sense for this option to always be on the table?  For a nation to have any stability in the long-term it would seem not.

Though the time may have come for the Scots to decide their fate, an “Aye” today from them and British acceptance of their move will potentially legitimate the efforts of people the world over to break off from their nations to0.  While all of this may sound romantic in a sense, it raises important questions about national stability and what it means to exist together for the common good.  The answers our world offers will define the fate of democratic peoples everywhere.


Matthew 6

“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 6:1)

378212_390491687673417_520749693_nOver the past few days I was at a retreat with a group of youth ministry folks from the Pacific Northwest.  While we were together, a leader shared that we needed to avoid the temptation to become “professional Christians.”  By this he meant, of course, that we needed to be careful not to reduce our faith in Jesus Christ to simply a function of our church work.

As I think about my life, I realize that I’m about at close to a professional Christian as you can get.  As an ordained minister teaching ministry classes and Church history at a Christian university, my life and faith is deeply enmeshed in the sometimes drudgery of the day-to-day tasks of work.  Part of my job is praying.  Repeating the same ideas year after year.  Thinking “religiously” and helping others do the same.  Analyzing faith from the inside and out.  Making future pastors learn the technical details of the trade.  This year I’m literally teaching students how to preach and read Scripture out loud.

Don’t get me wrong: I believe that what I’m doing at my university is important.  But in the midst of it, there is always the danger that I forget what is really important about it and turn the means into the end.  This is why Matthew 6 is important: it offers words to a professional Christian like me.homem_orando21

Avoid public displays of generosity.  Don’t pray publicly.  Keep spiritual disciplines like fasting to yourself.  In the life of teaching and ministry, of course, we can convince ourselves that each of these prohibitions are not for us.  Because, after all, we need to model the Christian life for others, right?  Don’t we need to practice our righteousness in public so that others will have a good model to follow?  True as far as it goes, but within lies the danger that we therefore professionalize our faith in a way reminiscent of the Pharisees of old.  Such depersonalization of our relationship with Jesus Christ can have dire effect.  Used to being the center of attention in spiritual matters, we religious leaders can come–often unwittingly–to be enamored with the role and respect such realities afford us.  Our faith is then no longer about God.  It is about the work.  It is about us.

jedi for jesusJesus, of course, says a strident no to all this.  And before we think his instructions in Matthew 6 are just Messianic hyperbole we can gloss over, we ought to take the Sermon on the Mount at face value: a direct word to us.  As Bonhoeffer helps us remember, it is not just about general or deeper principles–glossing over the trees for the forest.  Rather, “his call is an actual call and he wishes it so to be understood, because he knows that it is only through actual obedience that a man become liberated to believe.”  Does this mean that we never pray publicly again?  Before we ever answer that question or explain it away, we need to remember that it was Jesus who asked it.  Attention is demanded.  If we don’t grapple with those words and let them shine light in our “professional Christian” lives, we run the risk of great danger.

Where have I embraced my professional Christian life so much that it has displaced the One around whom my existence is to be centered in the first place?  What needs to die in order to correct this?

Review: “Songs of Innocence”

738aa476It has taken me some time to sort through the unexpected release U2 dropped on the world last Tuesday: “Songs of Innocence.”  Though my first listen-through left quite a bit to be desired, my appreciation of the album has grown since then.  Even so, I have doubts about whether today’s U2 can ever recapture the magic that propelled them to their original heights.  Here, then, are a some thoughts on the individual tracks as well as a few summative notions:

1.  The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone): I’ll be honest: I really, really, really don’t like the title of the song.  Nothing against Joey, but I have no need to see his name in the title of a U2 song.  It really takes what could be a more poetic and mysterious set of lyrics and limits them rather unfortunately.  To top it off, I’m not too musically excited about it as the first song on their first album in five years.

2.  Every Breaking Wave: Now this is more like it.  This song is clearly U2 at some of its most, well, U2.  A catchy song with some good lyrics: “Are we so helpless against the times?”  and “It’s hard to listen while you preach.”

3.  California (There is No End to Love): Was there some kind of fire sale at the parentheses factory?  It isn’t unheard of for U2 to use these kind of naming conventions, but this still seems excessive.  The song itself is quirky and fun, reminiscent for me of the similar geographically centered song “New York.”  Once it gets going, it is full of joy.  Not one of their most important songs, but not a dog by any means.9afc2556-0341-46a6-9cbf-dafa2c604307-460x276

4.  Song for Someone:  I’m a big fan of this anthem as an example of everything U2 can be.  I daresay it is an instant classic and quite possibly the best track on the album.  Remember: “…there is a light, don’t let it go out.”

5.  Iris (Hold Me Close):  I don’t mind the parentheses here so much because they don’t overdefine the song or give it a cornball veneer.  Listening to this song is a unique exercise, because I think its power is limited unless you realize it was written for Bono’s mother.  Knowing that she died when he was only 14 gives it a depth well-signified by the hypnotic and repeated word “Iris” heard multiple times throughout the song.  Truly a heartbreaking journey.

6.  Volcano: I think this song might rock the most of any track on the album, and I like it quite a bit.  It is rollicking with a solid amount of attitude.

7.  Raised by Wolves: The song (especially the refrain) can be a bit “on the nose,” but the more I listen to it the more I like it.  As they sing the words “raised by wolves” I hear a rather deliberate throwback to their early days circa Boy/October/War.  It is worth spending some time U2-GQ-Magazine-u2-32147518-465-590with.

8.  Cedarwood Road: Hint: it’s the road where Bono grew up.  Not the best track on the album, but it has soul.  Reflect on this: “You can’t return to where you never left.”

9.  Sleep Like a Baby Tonight: A slow jam, here.  Just OK.

10.  This is Where You Can Reach Me Now: I like when they sing “soldier, soldier.”  I’ll leave my comments at that.

11.   The Troubles: As haunting/spiritual/ponderous songs at the end of U2 albums go, not their best.  I like the guess vocalist, though.

A friend of mine said that the first part of the album was solid, while the back half was rather mysterious to him.  In most parts, I tend to agree.  Tracks 9 and 10 are definitely not a highlight for me.  In general, though, I think the album is a good one.  In terms of ratings, I’m going to place it at number 9 out of the 13 U2 albums I have now rated (see here for the others). It is, therefore, not as good as How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb but better on the whole than War.

328477e9163d1f4d15f754dd7fb84770For an album entitled Songs of Innocence, it definitely does spend time reflecting on the younger days of the Bono and the band.  That said, this innocence is never entirely pure as we encounter the volcanoes, wolves, soldiers, and–of course–Iris.  But then that’s U2: always better with the shadows than the light.

In the end, this is a good album, but therein lies the problem: it’s only a good album.  U2 can make a good album in their sleep.  What they needed now, five years from their last release with Bono in his 50s, was a truly great and transcendent album.  And this one isn’t.  At this point, it is more than reasonable to ask whether we might ever get one from them again.  Unless Songs of Experience can do it–and soon–I’m afraid it may be time for the boys to hang up their instruments and walk gently into the night before they embarrass themselves and/or make a misstep that mars their legacy forever (if–all things Apple considered–they haven’t already).

A good try, surely.  But that’s all this one is: a good try.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Before the Wars

september-11-stone-290Thirteen years.  A rising generation has now entered adolescence in this changed world we call home.  Thirteen years dominated by terror, war, fear, and hatred.  Thirteen years since the 20th century came to its definitive end on a Tuesday morning in September.

Much blood was spilled that day…and so much more since.  But before the wars, before all the rest, there were simply days of shock.  Days of disbelief and grief and anger and helplessness.  For me, days unlike any others before or since.ground-zero-september_11_bw

I dig deep in my own personal archives for today’s post, reprinting part of a column I used to write for our college newspaper (The Houghton Star) in my role as Student Government President.  The date on my file is 16 September 2001; it was published not long after as a reflection on our lives as Americans, students, and believers in those terrible days.  I offer it to you now as a means of recalling what it was like after the terror but before all the rest:

“The Sound of Silence”

by Joshua Ziefle

The events of the past few days have weighed heavy upon our nation. Arguably the most tumultuous of our lives, they have led us through shock, grief, and anger—a journey that assuredly will be with us as long as we live. Our nation exhibited these emotions collectively—from an American President nearly brought to tears in a news conference to the blank stares of those watching the unthinkable occur on every television to the silent rage of many who rail against this attack. More than this, we find ourselves in the predicament of wanting to do something but having no idea where to begin. Ultimately, it is a feeling of helplessness that makes us frantic in the face of all the images, news reports, radio announcements, and innumerable discussions that confront and surround us in a whirlwind of noise.

…we, like many in our country, may not be able to engage in specific or tangible tasks of relief but we are both able and have been pursuing those activities of aid within our calling…there will be new ways for us to act in the near future, and I ask that you would answer the call when it comes. But let us not be frantic in this pursuit—it is neither effective nor the way of the Christian.

My mind cannot help but go back to Friday September 14 as we came together on the quad, not with noise or confusion, but in silence. As we joined that day in silent prayer to God and as we allowed to Him to speak to us, the utter lack of noise after a week infused with it spoke to the power of the Almighty to calm and direct the direst and most uncontrollable of situations. In end, I offer this: let us act resolutely, let us take time to mourn and grieve, and let us realize that confusion and pain are an unfortunate part of our world that we cannot avoid, but let us never fail to recognize that bringing ourselves in silence before God may be what He desires for us at this point and in this time in our lives.

No More Furniture

Bombast-FurnitureAs I read through Fowler’s Stages of Faith again with my class, the richness of his now 33-year-old monograph continues to teach.  One of the topics he discusses early on is, not surprisingly, faith.  As per his definition:

Faith, classically understood, is not a separate dimension of life, a compartmentalized specialty.  Faith is an orientation of the total person, giving purpose and goal to one’s hopes and strivings, thoughts and actions.

Thinking about this definition from the perspective of youth ministry, I’m reminded of the way in which the big questions of life are first able to be asked during the adolescent years.  Though teenagers may often be reticent to  settle upon a particular orientation of life “too soon,” the ability to do so in a mature way is emerging in them for the first time.  The questions we ask as their mentors, pastors, and leaders are important.  The answers they land upon are vital.

So too is making sure that they understand–whether by Fowler’s definition or a more overtly theological one–that faith is never be simply one option in the grab bag of things that we might add to the furniture collection of our life.  It is 0632_07not something we take on or add like a hobby.  It is, rather, the whole foundation of our lives.  A foundation that can have some radical implications.  That upon which we build our lives, see the world, make our decisions, establish our being, and live into our reality.  For my money, helping students comprehend all of this is one of the most important tasks for youth ministry in our time and culture.

Fowler reminds his readers that faith can be founded upon many things.  It can be founded upon something worthy, or it can be built upon things much more problematic.  And, in my estimation, faith is always there whether we know it or not.  As students consider these matters, therefore, they ought to be reminded that it is not a question of whether or not they have faith.  It is a matter of what kind of faith they have.  Because–“religious” or not–we all have faith in something.  We all have some kind of foundation.

Which one we have is the most vital question of our lives, for by it all the rest of our existence will come to be defined.

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Matthew 6:21

America the Exceptional

puritans25As I teach a course entitled “American Religious History” this semester, I am deeply enjoying the process of engaging once again with my doctoral field of study.  Since we are early in the term, we’ve only gotten to colonial America at this time.  Requisite, therefore, was a reading from the Puritan John Winthrop, who compared the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony as something like a “City on a Hill.”

This image–a reference to Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount–reverberates powerfully, and has come to be identified in a very real sense with the idea of “American exceptionalism.”  Taken to mean that America is distinct from the rest of the world and–not uncommonly–that it is better in some very real ways, the theory is (as you might imagine) somewhat controversial.

It is a potent idea to analyze historically and dispassionately by asking what this idea meant in the lives of citizens over the course of our nation’s development.  It is also, of course, a relevant question to consider in terms of contemporary politics and personal outlook. What we think today about America’s exceptionalism or lack thereof has some definite implications for not only our self-image, but the way(s) we act in the larger world.Shining_City_Upon_Hill-American-Exceptionalism

A lot of ink has been spilled on this topic.  Probably enough to address it from every possible angle.  If you are interested, I commend much of this material to you.  For my part, I’ll simply say this: historically speaking, it is difficult to deny that parts of America’s history have been the exception to the rule.  Unique settlement.  The ability for Old Worlders to start over.  Diverse religious groups that led to disestablishment and de facto and eventually de jure religious toleration.  An early experiment in democracy that continues to have staying power.  A multinational and multiethnic composition that defies easy categorization.

If by “exceptional” we mean different, then in all of these things and more, America was certainly the exception to the rule of the Old World.  If we take the phrase to mean “better,” then, of course, we get into some sticky territory.  The dangers of national chauvinism and being blind to our own faults can ever be wrapped up in this idea.  It makes me nervous to say much in this direction but I will offer this:  I do think that the United States has been better in certain areas.  Think of the persistence of the rule of law.  The functioning of our democracy.  Our value of the freedoms we often take for granted.  Throughout the history of humanity and even today, these things are what sets America apart from so many.  Not from everyone and not at all times…but they have nevertheless been there.

exceptional1200As an historian, though, I realize all of these distinctives and positive “exceptions” are borne on the back of a lot of darkness as well.  The subjugation of native peoples.  Deep-seated racial strife and intolerance of many kinds.  A history of slavery.  A sometimes national chauvinism with international implications.  Economic inequities and the persistence of poverty.  The list could go on.  It is possible to be exceptional for good and bad, it would seem.

Morever, even many of America’s benefits are more from historical happenstance or the hand of Providence than any effort on our part.  What if the continent had been much smaller?  Denuded of natural resources?  Had been populated by a much more technologically advanced set of natives?  What if it was discovered at a different period in human history?  If a few developments in our history had simply gone another way?  So much contributed to the development of America over time, and not all of that can be assigned to the efforts of America itself.  The connotations of “exceptional” changes a bit when one remembers that other lands not so similarly blessed could have tried all of the things we did and ended up with some very different results.

So while I would agree that America is and has been exceptional in a number of ways, I would be very hesitant to say thisCaptain-America without deep qualifications or the understanding that it is an unmitigated grace rather than a necessary consequence.  Exceptional means primarily difference and only secondarily better.  In no case does it mean that it will necessarily continue into the future or that we always deserve this.  It also doesn’t mean that there aren’t other exceptional nations out there.  Good, bad, and ugly, the world is full of them.  It also doesn’t mean that others have not prefigured our exceptions and met or surpassed them today.

Further, if we are really to embrace John Winthrop’s “City on a Hill” as a model for this outlook, we would be wise to hear all of us his words, reminding us that great power is often met with a call to great responsibility and not unquestioning pride:

Soe that if wee shall deale falsely with our God in this worke wee haue undertaken, and soe cause him to withdrawe his present help from us, wee shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. Wee shall open the mouthes of enemies to speake evill of the wayes of God, and all professors for God’s sake. Wee shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause theire prayers to be turned into curses upon us till wee be consumed out of the good land whither wee are a goeing.

Admittedly, these have been some very quick thoughts as I dash off to class.  I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this important topic.

Things I Would Like To See (Part XI)

51j-YkbyY3L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Secret rooms.  Oh yes: secret rooms. 

Perhaps I watched too much Scooby-Doo or read too many Hardy Boys books as a child, but I have to confess that I’m rather entranced by the idea of having a hidden or secret room inside of my house.  You know the kind I mean: a chamber behind a bookcase, a den under the stairs, a secret bathroom hidden behind a full-length mirror.  Having something like this sounds pretty exciting to me, and I would love to live in a house–or have a house built–with a feature like this.secret-rooms-17

There would be advantages, of course.  High resale value (to just the right buyer).  The ultimate in privacy.  A place to store your valuables.  The hidden fun knowing that you live in a house with a secret room but never telling anyone about it.  And, for a relative claustrophile like me, an enclosed space to call my own.

Hidden-Door1_729-420x0I wouldn’t be interested in the space as a “panic room” or fallout shelter/zombie redoubt per se, but it certainly could function that way.  Versatile.

If–like me–you are interested in experiencing a house with a secret room and/or taking up residence in one yourself, you are in luck.  The Internet seems chock-full of them.  Take a look here and here.  And if you’re ready to take the plunge, there’s a company called Creative Home Engineering who will actually install one of these things for you.  Amazing.  Terrific.  And just another of the things I’d like to see.