Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Tripping, Transcendence, and Truth: A response to Kester Brewin’s 'Getting High'


I devoured Kester Brewin’s book Getting High when it was released last year, in 2016. Blending history, theology, and memoir, Brewin connects religion and outer space, drugs and hippies, all in a thorough critique of transcendence and the technologies that promote it. Although my own Gen-X rendering of religion and counterculture is different (see Banjo & Bread, my 2015 theology thesis, or see the forthcoming memoir I have been working on, if I ever finish it), the similarities between Kester Brewin’s story and mine sear my memories and spark a sense of eerie synchronicity. For those of us who entered adulthood in the late 80s and through the 90s, the late 1960s revolution was as close to us as Y2K is to the kids today.

This year’s 50th anniversary of the “Summer of Love” offers as good an excuse as any for me to finally unpack a few of my feelings about Brewin’s bold indictment of getting high. To begin, the archetypal young person’s mystical quest for God has been well-documented and the ways in which this journey intersects with pharmacology and popular culture are countless and compelling. Like our hardcore Haight-Ashbury hippie predecessors, the next wave of hippie/punk/ravers danced out the last days of the 20th century seeking truth by tripping out. Brewin’s beautiful if brutal prose slips from the “great highs” induced by substances to the “Most High” invoked by religion, in fluid and fascinating disclosures that resemble my own challenges and confessions in life’s lit cul-de-sacs.


Although I couldn’t put the book down once I started, although I don’t deny all the connections Brewin makes between the “technology of religion” and the “religion of technology,” I refuse the totality of his critique. His tragic and traumatic dismantling of transcendence left me leaning into the roots of my faith and recalling the God-intoxicated aspect of every moment of intoxication before seeking solace in sobriety in 2009. In fact, I agree with the hippie and hipster preachers that Brewin mocks, we can get high on God. Brewin and I are not the first or last spiritual writers to light up the space between Saturday night and Sunday morning with personal insight, but I cannot help myself but to believe in the closer proximity of the blues and gospel, the all-night rave and the altar call.

Brewin’s book is more personal memoir and people’s history than theological treatise. His versions of the challenges and curiosities of navigating counterculture and Christianity will resonate profoundly with readers interested in the religious meaning of the internet, space travel, drugs, and the hippy revolt. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in post-theistic Christianity, counterculture history, or radical theology. But the theological takeaway I get from Kester Brewin is a severe strike and savage stripping of the supernatural from Christianity. Brewin’s Christ never ascended into heaven and has no crown. The future of Christianity for Brewin willingly wrestles with bounded reality against boundless religiosity.

In the early 1970s, the left-wing roots of the hippy experiment within the church turned rightwards with evangelical efforts to convert the kids, the ones who barely avoided being statistical drug casualites. Around that time, paisley-and-patched-up preachers invoked psychedelic vernacular to describe Christ’s call on our lives. This was the message of Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar taken to the next level. The rap goes something like this: don’t trip-out on drugs, get trippy on Jesus. Before his death, a progressive mystic as astute as Thomas Merton would openly discuss the likes of Leary and Ginsberg, assessing how the blurred and partial epiphanies of the drug culture come from our common impulse to encounter God.

I admit that my return in middle-age to the starry-eyed campfire faith of my youth requires me to suspend many doubts and beliefs that my progressive peers share. Even though I am neither “conservative” nor “liberal” in the sense that most people in everyday politics and religion use the term, I have started to identify as “the most conservative liberal” I know.

During the first few years of my sobriety and return to church, I immersed myself in all the contemporary Christian writers I could find. I retraced their roots to the academic theology and ecclesiological debates of the 1960s. I absolutely love the work that Kester Brewin and his conversation partner Peter Rollins are doing to revisit the “death of God” ideas first brought into religious circles by the like of Thomas Altizer. But of writers from that period that push us today, I find myself much more attracted to people like Will Campbell, William Stringfellow, and Alexander Schmemann than even Harvey Cox (whose Feast of Fools I find essential) and especially Altizer.

But Brewin puts his own spin into these conversations in a manner that keeps us all talking, which I deeply respect. In books and blogs and over generous shots of expresso, I could talk about these ideas all day long. I appreciate the humor and humility, braveness and boldness, that Brewin brings to his critique. He refuses the cynicism and irony so fashionable and ultimately utterly desperate and boring. Even though Kester Brewin talks about being drunk while discussing some of the ideas in his book with his friends, his analysis is stunning in its sobriety. Ever since I abandoned the bottle, I have sought spiritual intoxication without apology, with yoga and exercise, music and meditation. It is in the precise nature of what theological transendence might actually be that Brewin and I probably disagree, however profoudnly, however tentatively.  

I am left with questions that might not interest Brewin, or his other readers, if they are outside mainline religiou contexts. But how is this going to preach on Sunday morning? How might the conclusions of Brewin’s book form communities and spiritual practices? Over here in the Tennessee Bible Belt where I make my living as a college instructor and part-time lay pastor, I have learned why the core truths of Christianity remain so compelling to some believers, even while the prosperity gospel guts God on one side and the strident progressive politics of some others stifle ecumenical conversation. For whatever it is worth, I have gone in for transcendence and tradition, for the Trinity, and hopefully, for truth.

Last year I took my deepest detour yet into what is called “narrative theology” (sometimes called post-liberal theology) that was prompted by a dear mentor who is helping me on my pastoral journey and by a smart friend whose book manuscript I was studying. My simplistic takeaway said, sure, this Christian tradition might just be “a story,” but it is a story we might take seriously in its canonical and traditional forms. It is the covenant story in our faith tradition and the one I have lived inside. It is the story I tried to leave in my early 20s and that called me back with force in my early 40s. My takeaway from learning about “narrative theology” said: take the Bible seriously and take the Apostle’s Creed seriously. Take the confessions of my Presbyterian faith tradition seriously.

When I first read Brewin’s book, my gut reaction reminded me about how I felt as I looked deeper into the likes of authors like Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan. They discussed a Christian faith without miracles, without a virgin birth, and without a bodily resurrection. They believed there was a “historical Jesus,” so they didn’t go all-in for a mythopoetic reading, either. I loved the spirited shamanic language Borg borrowed to replace literalism, but at the end of the day, I thought: bummer. I wanted more! Everybody loves a miracle! I want Jesus to walk on water, walk through walls, and walk out of the grave.

I don’t know if contemporary skeptics can set aside the faith versus fact or spirit versus science debates and still find hope and solace in chuch or not. I don’t know what living out the gospel in daily life looks like for you, if you believe the gospel. I do know that the space between getting high and finding a Higher Power that so many recovering addicts like myself have visited is real enough to warrant serious conversations. While Brewin has not written a recovery book per se, I find his explorations highly relevant to my life and work. I recommend his book and look forward to his “response to my response,” should he choose to write one.



Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The Beloved Collision (Banjo & Bread Chapter 6)


“The question is not ‘Will the churches unite to build a kingdom?’ The question is ‘Here is a kingdom already. Will we enter it and bid others to enter it, reminding them that it is a kingdom beyond caste?’” –Will D. Campbell (Crashing the Idols 28)

There’s something special about Nashville—not its current hipster hype and hyper-gentrification. There’s something special about Nashville—in its Bible Belt collision with all the best of the American cultural revolutions in the last half of the 20th century. The city that was called the “Protestant Vatican” could be portrayed as a purely conservative hub, a somewhat citified mecca in the vast landscape of rural fundamentalism, but Nashville’s musical nature and diverse religious population never adhered to such rigid normativity. The city always had its share of religious renegades and agile agitators.

There’s something special about Nashville and the 1960s—the beloved collision of forces for good: black and white college students from the likes of Fisk University getting trained for the lunch-counter sit-ins under the leadership of preacher and Vanderbilt Divinity School student James Lawson; the underground of outlaw country musicians like Kris Kristofferson getting nurtured by the likes of a bootleg Baptist preacher named Will Campbell who could befriend both Martin King and the Klan; the artfully-crafted national magazine motive, produced by the United Methodist Church’s Board of Higher Education, mingling counterculture scents with New Left incursions and Radical Theology subversions. While much of our tale transpires in Cookeville, we cannot get there without first passing through Nashville, because that is where Tennessee kicked off the 1960s in bold relief as the sit-ins to desegregate downtown Nashville were the spark that kindled the coming flames of a turbulent decade. In early 1960, Bob Lewis was a 24-year-old seminarian from Nashville with a history degree from Peabody College. Like many of his predominately white peers at the Divinity School, Lewis was not a die-hard participant in the movement, but also like other white people of conscience, he was deeply moved by what was happening in the movement. Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine some of the radical changes that transformed the Christian white youth culture in the 1960s without the inspired impetus of the black civil rights movement.

Like the city and country that watched Nashville face the demons masquerading as decency, Lewis was shocked by the rank-and-file white response to the sit-ins. In a review of David Halberstam’s epic chronicle of the Nashville movement called The Children, New York Times reporter David Oshinsky details the distinction between the protesters and their opponents: “Dressed impeccably, carrying books to read, they endured the abuse of the white hoodlums who poured ketchup over them and crushed lighted cigarettes into their necks.” Bob Lewis reflects some 55 years later that seeing the violence of the whites and the Gandhian self-discipline of the students changed his heart.

When a lawyer who supported the students and their leaders had his house bombed, Martin Luther King came to Nashville and spoke at Fisk University. Hearing King was another turning point for Bob Lewis. Stories of the sit-ins even reached an impressionable high-school student. Calvin Kimbrough recalls, “So one way that I would begin this story is that growing up in Nashville, I had the great grace of having a Sunday school teacher who actually tried to teach us about what the sit-ins were all about in Nashville.” Even though the white community in Nashville included the same ilk of racists seen elsewhere in the south, other white folks—preachers, students, journalists, and citizens—were converted by the witness provided by their black brothers and sisters. One of those white allies was the renegade Baptist Will Campbell, whose remarks about entering the kingdom are profoundly echoed by author, congressman, and civil rights pioneer John Lewis, who described the Nashville movement as part of the coming Beloved Community already realized, as “nothing less than the Christian concept of the kingdom of God on earth” (qtd. in Cass).  To the enlightened Christian radicals of the 1960s, this kingdom and community had no boundaries; as our story will reveal, it even extended 80 miles east to the small college town of Cookeville.

On his first day at Tennessee Tech, Calvin met his life-long friend and collaborator Dave McIntyre, who thought Calvin, even though coming from Nashville, represented the “epitome of a Tennessee country boy, banjo in hand.” Of course by September 1964, the banjo didn’t just represent the traditional music of Appalachia but also the new folk music of the revolution. For Calvin and others, it was the teaching tool of the icon who told us what it was like to have a hammer and a bell, the profoundly important Pete Seeger.  For young Nelia Tripp, she encountered a beloved collision at the intersection of the white and black communities in the town of Lawrenceburg, just north of the Alabama border. She remembers, “This movement began in my early childhood because I grew up on a street in Lawrenceburg, Tennessee, where the white community ended and the African American community began. And our house was the second house above the big hedge that separated the two communities.” This proximity for Nelia eroded the chasm of segregation and nagged her young conscience. She explains, “The African American community below that hedge—people literally lived in cardboard and paper shacks. There was, however, a hole in the hedge, and the children would move back and forth between the communities and play together.” Nelia Tripp left Lawrenceburg for Cookeville, in part to follow a fellow high-school-cheerleading friend and in part to flea her extended family’s urging to attend Peabody College to live with her family’s lineage in a Confederate dorm. Nelia reflects, adamantly: “And it was just like ‘over my dead body, I’m not going there and living in the Confederate dorm!’”

Just after Divinity School, Bob Lewis became a United Methodist minister and had a short call to a church in Bell Buckle as well as the Webb School, but the regional bishop found him a better fit as the campus minister at Tennessee Tech in Cookeville. Like the colliding forces that made Nashville an unlikely nexus for cultural revolution in the south, some modest collisions provided for the even more unlikely undercurrent of change in the remote college town of Cookeville. For people who place some faith in providence, though, the collision course that brought our cast of characters to Cookeville turned out to be a sacred synchronicity that nurtured the work of the kingdom in the context of campus and small community.

Nelia Tripp, Calvin Kimbrough, Bob Lewis, and Dave McIntyre all arrived in Cookeville and Tennessee Tech from different places, but their plans converged. Calvin “came to Tennessee Tech because it was inexpensive and I could get in” and considers it a “great grace” that Bob Lewis showed up around the same time. Looking back on the years of ministry, art, and activism, Calvin suggests, “Our human efforts—Wesley Foundation, Patchwork Central, the Open Door—feeble as they are, are attempts to be reconciled in Christ and to enter Jesus’ Beloved Community.” As some communities disperse, other communities unite. Beloved collisions sometimes seed the always already (and necessarily not-yet) of God’s Beloved Community.

If you would like a copy of the complete Banjo & Bread as an Adobe PDF, please send a message to Andrew Smith at:
professor.andy.smith [at] gmail.com with 'Banjo & Bread' in the subject line. 



Monday, January 30, 2017

Grace & Gratitude. Sanity & Singing. Repentance & Resistance. A Hopeful Manifesto for These Times.

  1. Grace & gratitude are as real as gravity, & we need these to guide us & ground us. Grace is unlimited because if the grace of God can be shared with the idolatrous sinners of scripture, if grace can be given to a reformed drunk & delusionist now crazy poet mystic like me, it can be shared with everyone & anyone. That means everyone. Even our political adversaries are recipients of a gratuitous grace. Every single one of them. Don’t plan a revolution without grace. Return to its wellspring often.

2. Talk to each other. Talk to everyone. Strangers, friends, leftwing or rightwing or no-wing, all of the above, it doesn’t matter. Talk to people about everything except politics. Music, TV shows, movies, weather, even God, try to have a meaningful conversation where you are right now about what is actually going on in your lives. Let’s try to avoid shaming & blaming our neighbors for making choices we don’t approve of because plain & simple, we are not in charge. You are not in control, & neither am I. The political binary is blinding us in ways we cannot even comprehend because we are so caught up in the either-or narratives to which we don’t belong. We belong to each other. Extremist ultimatums & temper tantrum tyranny are the way of an evil warrior. We share the earth, just another someone standing on common ground, breathing common air, blood running through our veins. Fundamental human unity remains an incontrovertible fact of existence. Cosmic reality requires admission & acceptance of the ways in which we really do have so much in common. Don’t dehumanize, even the dehumanizers. Try hope. Try it.

3. Sing Kumbaya. Sing This Land Is Your Land. Sing Sit At The Welcome Table. Sing We Shall Overcome. Hold hands & say the Lord’s Prayer & the Serenity Prayer. Sing the Doxology. Sing all the old songs that your parents & grandparents sang when they marched with Dr. King. Stop saying “I wonder if I would have marched if I lived back then.” This is our “back then.” March. But don’t forget to sing. To Hold Hands. To pray with your heart & pray with your words, even while you are praying with your feet. Stop saying love doesn’t work when you have anger & fear in your heart. Try giving love the first try or one more try. Try it & see if love doesn’t make fighting seem like less of a struggle. Try love. Sing Kumbaya.

4. Repent. Repent. Yes repent. Don’t forget to repent -- repent because the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. But if you are white, middle-class cis-het Christian person of privilege like me, repent for the part of our collective lineage that was there & is responsible for the collective sins of our past. Don’t do it out of guilty, because you might not be guilty but we bear the cross for our foreparents in the deepest cellular river of psychic debt. Repent of white supremacy, slavery, racism, native american genocide, sexism, bigotry against the LGBTQI family, repent of overconsumption & exploitation of earth. Reparations as prerequisitive for collective reconciliation. Remember Jesus accepted his share of the responsibility for the guilt of humankind, & he wasn’t even guilty of anything except blasphemy. Participate in the holy blasphemy of sacred disobedience to the immoral executive orders of these early days of a new kind of evil empire. Moral dissent is our calling, repent for the past that made this possible, & join the loving revolt for the future of humanity.

5. Don’t give away the sweetness of joy & sanctity of sanity & the loving love. Take time for self-care. Take a day off the news, a day off social media, a day to yourself. So much sanity & so much love, these are subversive to the core. This is a time where the couple behind the barricades in a passionate embrace provides the crucible of true defiance. We will compromise when it doesn’t destroy our values, we will admit when me might be wrong, we will work to make it better for everyone & not just a few, we will share the abundance of mercy with as many as we can, but we will not compromise our center, our beating hearts, our breathing lungs of loving joy, a holy precious reality underlying all the other unrealities constructed to distract us. We rejoice in our differences even with the ones who hate difference, please don’t flatten us into bland & blind illusion of whatever you’ve been told is true by the manufacturers of lies. Please don’t say love doesn’t matter. Don’t let the seriousness of righteous anger suffocate the tender laughter & the sweet relief of human beings as fellow human beings. Hold on to love. Believe in love. Love is resistance. Resistance without love is defeat. We are love. We are resistance.

6. Read Will D. Campbell:
“I believe God made the St. Lawrence River, and the Rio Grande River, and the China Sea and the English Channel, but I don’t believe God made America, or Canada, or Mexico, or England, or China. Man did that. It is doubtful that there has ever been a nation established for bad reasons. Nations are always established to escape tyranny, to combat evil, to find freedom, to reach heaven. Man has always been able to desire to build a heaven. But it seems he has never been able to admit that he didn’t pull it off. So he keeps insisting that he did pull it off. And that is really what patriotism is all about. It is the insistence that what we have done is sacred. It is that transference of allegiance from what God did in creating the whole wide world to what we have done with (or to) a little sliver of it. Patriotism is immoral. Flying a national flag—any national flag—in a church house is a symbol of idolatry. Singing ‘God Bless America’ in a Christian service is blasphemy. Patriotism is immoral because it is a violation of the First Commandment.”   ~ Will D. Campbell ~


Monday, January 2, 2017

Flight. A sermon for 1/1/2017

Flight - a sermon for 1/1/2017
Text: Matthew 2:13-23
Preached at Blue Spring Presbyterian Church and First Presbyterian Church Sparta, Tennessee in the White County Parish of Presbyterian Churches



“Fight or flight” describes a theory about how humans and animals respond to stressful and threatening situations. Today is New Year’s Day and people around the world have stopped fighting the tragedies of 2016 and have taken flight into the possibilities of 2017. Like many of my friends of my generation, raised in the 70s and 80s, we have mourned the 2016 deaths of American celebrities, like a music star called Prince who died in April or especially last week’s loss of a movie icon Princess, the great Carrie Fisher, followed the next day by her mother Debbie Reynolds. But today’s sermon takes us far away from the early deaths of this world’s pop Prince and Princess to the two different kinds of Kings we find in the gospels of the New Testament.


References to Jesus as royalty -- even in his childhood -- prompt us to recognize that, this King of love and liberation is not the military or political leader some wanted for their Messiah. Even today, historians and theologians debate the nuanced nature of this difference in the meaning and ministry of Christ. The author of Matthew clearly wants his Jewish readers to see in Jesus another Moses, to view Jesus as the new Israel. Fight or flight -- the emphasis in today’s story is clearly on flight more than fight, or maybe, on flight as a different kind of fight.


This gospel reading is a difficult one as a barbaric tragedy overshadows the beautiful mystery of Christmas. But we can contrast Herod’s fear and hate with Joseph’s prophetic faith and hope. Herod wants to fight, but despite his cruelty in what is called the ‘slaughter of the innocents’ -- he cannot succeed against the secretive flight of the Joseph family, helped as they were by strange dreams and the shrewd and holy deception by the wise men. When we are dealing with a Herod, even the Bible shows it is sometimes right to tell a lie.


A few weeks ago, we learned how Mary and John the Baptist sacrificed to do their part in the Advent stories. Joseph and the wise men are the heroes of this Christmas story. Joseph listens to the voice of God in four profoundly important dreams throughout the early pages of Matthew. Thanks to the angels speaking to him in his dreams: 1. he does not divorce Mary and gets married to Mary instead; 2. he flees from imminent harm in Bethlehem; 3. he learns of Herod’s demise and the safe time to return to Israel; and 4. he is instructed to go back home to Nazareth in Galilee. All from some dreams.


Even today, we as Christians need to discern the still small voice of God from all the competing voices in our culture. If your dreams are anything like mine, dreams are not usually the first place I turn to learn about God. I generally turn to the Bible first, then my teachers and mentors next.
But if I have been studying and praying the night before, and I am behind schedule on sermon prep, sometimes I will wake up in the middle of the night to start or finish a message. But let’s be real, sometimes the voices in our head can be as much about what movie we watched last night or what song we listened to all day or what we are most afraid about or even what we had for dinner that didn’t agree. The scary thing is that Herod is probably listening to some pretty strong internal voices as well.


According to scholars, Herod was culturally Greek, politically Roman, and religiously Jewish; he was considered brutal yet brilliant. He had 10 wives and had his favorite wife killed when he feared she would betray him. He considered his sons rivals and ordered two of them strangled to death.


Herod was known as the King of the Jews, and he felt irrationally threatened by the baby King born in Bethlehem, the baby King we as Christians know as our true King. Despite Herod’s earlier collaborations with the likes of Antony and Cleopatra to his credit, Christian history does not judge Herod sympathetically, as his allegiance was to himself and to Rome, not to God. This Herod the Great, who will die in today’s readings, is not to be confused with the later Herod Antipas, a son of Herod the Great who we will meet again at Christ’s trial.


Herods are gonna hate, and this first Herod doesn’t seem to contemporary Christian readers as remotely great as his title boasts. No doubt the world of 2016 has Herods, too, but our world is so polarized that one person’s Herod may seem ironically heroic to someone else.


As exciting and perhaps complicated as the drama and intrigue are, this is shocking for a Christmas story. A worldly king was ready to kill the king of peace before his ministry would even begin. Desperate despotic kings that want to kill children: a sickening reality that invokes both a fight and a flight response.


The invitation to Christian discipleship shows that a life in Christ is better than a life enslaved to selfishness and sin, but the Christian walk is not a life of perfect ease and comfort but a life of courageous risk and challenging witness. A Christian idea that is very important to me is our dual citizenship.


We are in the world but not of it; we are the citizens of not one kingdom but two. We are dual citizens of this world and the world that is to come.


Christ has come and so much of God’s reign was accomplished in his ministry, on the cross, and in His resurrection. That is the kingdom already. But as the misery and evil of this present world so painfully demonstrates, there is still more to be accomplished for God’s love, God’s mercy, God’s peace, and God’s justice -- the kingdom come. That is the kingdom of the not yet. We live between the already and the not yet. When we partake of the Lord’s supper this morning, we will have a memorial meal to Christ’s ministry on earth and a foretaste of the kingdom yet to come.


We want to be like Joseph, but sometimes we need to admit that we have an inner Herod that we are wrestling with too. Jesus did not need to die a brutal death on a Roman cross because the mass of humanity are like his stepfather Joseph; Jesus died for selfish angry sinners who are a lot more like Herod than Joseph. It is scary to think that for Jesus to later die so that we might live, first these unnamed children of Bethlehem will die, so that Jesus might live another day as a young child to later live out his destiny as a young adult.


That children are vulnerable to this kind of viciousness is not just a thing from the turn of the 1st century but a reality of the 21st century. Children are still not safe from cruelty, neglect, abuse, and even murder. Children are unsafe in the streets of Aleppo, Syria and they are afraid in the streets of the city where I was born, Chicago, Illinois.


Children are scared as close by as Murfreesboro or Memphis. Children are not safe on a schoolbus in Chattanooga. Children can be bullied by their peers even in Putnam County or White County. Children can be harmed even by the very people meant to protect and mentor them. Children are hurt online by strangers posing as friends.


We need to be vigilant -- and learn tactics and techniques that promote safety and protecting others. We need to know when the time is right for flight, to just walk away. We need to know when the time is right for fight, or time to get a friend to stand with you, or time to call the principa, the police, or your parents. We are citizens of two kingdoms by virtue of our births, but as followers of the Nazarene, we also know where our ultimate allegiance lies.


We know that sometimes we have to choose between wrong and right, between darkness and light, between the way of the new day and not the long night. As the great poet singer Bob Dylan wrote, “You’ve to got to serve somebody. It might be the devil or it might be the Lord, but you’ve gotta serve somebody.”  The baby Jesus and his family don’t stay in Christmas exile in Egypt. They come home to the small town of Nazareth.                                                               

Being from Nazareth but born in Bethlehem would be like being from Sparta but born in Nashville. Jesus is not a city slicker like I used to be but a small town man like some of you.


In wanting to learn more about the history of White County, I discovered something special about the Presbyterian preachers who have preceded me. I can trace my lineage to my place here and tread knowing in whose footsteps I walk. Let me share with you from what I found “Legends & Stories of White County, TN” a Master’s Thesis in English by Coral Williams from Peabody College, written in 1930, 83 years ago.


This story comes from one of our predecessors, a preacher during the Civil War, when this area was deeply divided. “Jessie Hickman was a distinguished Presbyterian preacher in the county [who] remained neutral throughout the war. At one time he and [another man] were taken captives by the Federals and condemned to be shot [as] prisoners [. . .] before the firing squad. When all was [ready], the preacher asked for a word of prayer. The request was granted. He then invited the captain and the guard to kneel. The prayer was so fervent that at the close of that prayer, the captain ordered that the two prisoners be freed and [. . .] escorted home.”


It was not a fight he could have won and a flight that would have surely failed, but fervent prayer saved pastor Hickman. In a fight that was destroying his state, his region, his community, and perhaps his church, he refused to take sides -- and stood aside with Jesus.


God calls us to be like Jesus, to be like Joseph, and to be like Jessie Hickman. But we do not have to do this alone.


We can lean on each other and lean into our sacred flight to the future kingdom come by listening to God’s word and by being the church. We cannot all be princes and princesses and kings, sometimes we are everyday heroes like loyal stepparents and loving grandparents. God is always asking unlikely servants and surprising underdogs to do God’s work and protect God’s children. God is even asking the Presbyterians of White County, Tennessee to bring the kingdom in our communities, and the more I get to know the people of these churches and the work we are doing, I realize how this is already happening.

Allegiance to the reign of Jesus Christ is not a New Year’s resolution but an everyday way of life for those who follow the carpenter from Nazareth in Galilee. Let us take flight to heaven when it is our time, but in the meantime, let’s fight with love for the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.

[image The Flight Into Egypt; Vittore Carpaccio; Date: 1500; Italy]

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

"Wow" - a sermon for 11/13/2016

“Wow” - a sermon for 11/13/2016
Texts: Luke 21:5-19; Isaiah 65:17-25
Preached at Blue Spring Presbyterian Church and First Presbyterian Church of the White County Parish, Sparta, Tennessee



Be careful what you pray for, they say. During prayers one Sunday at a small church like ours, a child started whistling during the quiet time for the private personal prayers that are only on our hearts. As his mother shushed the young boy, he protested, “But Mama, I asked God to teach me how to whistle, and he did.” Be carfeful what you pray for.

For about five years, I have provided pulpit supply from time-to-time at churches around Cookeville but also in Michigan and North Carolina. Not only do I feel called by God into this work, if I am honest, preaching is an opportunity I have prayed for. In the summer of 2015, I had already agreed to preach on a couple different Sundays at a couple different churches. I didn’t know when I said yes to those opportunities, that both would turn out to be the Sunday after another of America’s mass shootings, and I would search for words of comfort and peace. Be careful what you pray for.

When I told Ms. Geeta a few weeks ago that I would preach on Sunday, November 13, I really wasn’t thinking “Oh that is the Sunday after Election Day.” Be careful what you pray for. Now starting next year, I am supposed to preach for you every week, so I really hope that after I get started, you will not all be scratching your heads and saying “Be careful what you pray for.”

No matter which candidate had won the United States Presidential Election of 2016, this would be a difficult Sunday to preach, so I offer you this difficult sermon. But on this Sunday of all Sundays, it’s good to be in church. It’s good to be in church today.

Because no matter who wins the presidency, we gather to worship the king. No matter who is our public leader, we have a peronal Lord.

No matter who won, some would be celebrating while others would be hating. Some would be singing while for others the results are stinging. Some people just shake their heads and say, “I have no words.” But for us preachers, having no words has never been an option.

This past Tuesday night, I turned off the television and attended an event called “Election Day Communion” where people who voted for Trump and people who voted for Clinton sat together at a table to share stories and songs and the meal that Christ has prepared for us. Election Day Communions took place all across the USA.
One thing I can say is that anyone seeking to know the savior Jesus Christ is welcome at his table,
young or old
rich or poor
City or Country
Cardigan or camouflage
From a sprawling mansion or from the wrong side of the tracks
liberal or conservative
Out of right field or out of left field or right down the middle of the road
All that or none of the above.

In late October, I attended “worship on the mountain” up in Allardt, and the workshop I attended looked at the lectionary for the Advent season of the church. Strangely the Advent Bible passages are not all gingerbread cookies and peppermints sticks. Far from it. The Advent passages can be terrifying. Today’s lectionary is in the same lane.

Around this time we get into the prophets. And in the gospels, the passages seem obsessed with the apocalypse, with war, with the end of the world.

As Americans in 2016, we get this. When today’s passage in Luke talks about wars and insurrections, plagues and earthquakes, the destruction that is sometimes required to precede creation, we Americans can be like, “I get that.” When the passage in Luke talks about betrayals and family feuds between siblings, against parents, against children, and against friends, we Americans can look at the fights on our Facebook and Twitter pages, we can say to Luke, “I get that.” Just this week after class, a student came to me in tears, saying that a friend of hers could not go home on the weekend because her parents did welcome a daughter who supported a different candidate.

Yet we in the church, we don’t just look on in disbelief at the anger and resentment around us; we look at the family member fighting against family member, and we don’t ignore it. As Christians we refuse to participate in behaviors we believe contradict the teachings of Christ. We are always about the business of hoping, of helping, and of healing.


If we are going to be the church, the Christian Trump supporters and the Christian Clinton supporters and the Christians who cannot support either of them are going to need to sit at the table together, break bread together, hold hands together, and sing together. If we need to cry together, we can do that too. If we don’t like the results of an election or a test or a job interview or a football game or any human event, we need to shout praises anyway.

When the going gets rough and tough, God doesn’t tell us to feel something we cannot honestly feel, but God does tell us what to do. God says give thanks anyways, worship anways, and sing praises anyways. This week, I turned to James 1:2, a verse I had heard preached at a small evangelical church in Cookeville last Sunday: “whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy.”

Friends, being a follower of Jesus Christ sometimes means pushing past our feelings no matter how hard it hurts. It means suiting up, showing up. It means loving your enemy, and it also means listening to your enemy. It is not about the difference between left and right, it is about the difference between right and wrong.

There’s a lot of hope in the prophet Isaiah, but on the whole, the book is not without the righteous anger and harsh judgments that characterize the prophetic poetry and prose found in the Hebrew scriptures. Now the prophet, the prophet  feels his feelings.

The late great Jewish scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel says “the prophet’s words are outbursts of violent emotions,” a “rebuke” that is “harsh and relentless,” a “breathless impatience with injustice.” What we learn from the prophets is that God is not just concerned with our personal salvation but with our collective repentance and deliverance as well.

God’s command to count our suffering as joy does not mean we suffer alone. If the God we see revealed in the Bible is anything at all, He is a God who is with us in trial and tribulations and in victorious celebrations. God hurts when we hurt and God rejoices when we rejoice.    

There was so much worry and anxiety leading up to the Presidential Election that one post I saw called it “pre-traumatic stress.” People who want to be happy and well-adjusted have been taught to reduce stress and treat anxiety as a mental disorder.

But somtimes to be a Christian is to be anxious, to be stressed out, to be maladjusted to the ways of the world. I have been dabbling in a book about the connection between Presbyterian or Reformed theology and the respect for God’s creation called Ravished by Beauty by Presbyterian scholar and writer Belden Lane. In that book I recently came across a passage that made my hair stand up. Lane argues that for our Presbyterian foreparent John Calvin, anxiety is not a disorder. Anxiety is a form of praise.

According to Calvin, to be human is to be at constant risk, which is why, according to Calvin, the psalms are often preoccupied with griefs and sorrows, fears and doubts. According to Calvin, the entirety of the cosmos and creation are not stable. Today’s science confirms this idea of chaos, the radical instability of all reality.

Not just politics and presidential elections but the cosmos and all creation have us dangling on the precipice of possible destruction. This was the reality for John Calvin, and it is our reality today.

The fear of God doesn’t mean that God is a jerk, but that rather God’s reality is awesome in its beauty and in its terror and that this reality might invoke a healthy respect, a healthy humility, and even a little bit of anxiety. Calvin claims that if we stop praising God, if we stop participating in life, we can at any point be plunged into darkness and disorder. Any semblance of sanity and fragile stability we find in an unstable world is a gift from God. Yes we can with God’s help turn even our anxiety, even our worry, and even our fear into a form of praise.

In the passages that precede today’s reading from Isaiah in chapter 65, the poet promises hunger, thirst, shame, and pain for those who ignore God. Without God’s love, we can just as easily turn our stress and anxiety into arrogance and violence.

Yet despite all this terror, despite all this evidence of our personal failings and the chaotic cosmos and freakish cruelty, God is up to something. God is making a way out of no way. God is holding the heavens together. God is turning our fear into praise. For God promises us something else.

A new heaven and a new earth. God is making a new Jerusalem. God is making a new America, too. God promises joy and delight and an end to the weeping and the stress. God promises a long life. When God says the wolf and the lamb shall feed together, he is talking to us. The liberal and the conservative will sit at table together. Our labors, the prophet says, will not be in vain.

The Presybyterian author Anne Lamott says that to pray constantly like Paul instructed, we need just three simple prayers. Help. Thanks. And Wow.

On Wednesday, the the conservatives said thanks, the liberals said help, but we all said wow. Wow, Lamott says, is the mesmerizing and the miraculous but like her we also know it is the tragic and the terrifying. Wow. Whether you are for the next President or against him, he is an unprecedented Wow. The prophet Isaiah gets “wow,” and if you have never sat down and read Isaiah through, it is a great text to work through during Advent, as it is an interlocking puzzle piece that for Christians connects the Old and New Testaments.

No matter what we do in the coming days and weeks to make sense of this change in our national leadership, don’t forget to pray. Pray for President Obama. Pray for President Elect Trump. Pray for all our leaders.

I think Abraham Heschel would agree with Anne Lamott when he writes, To pray is to take notice of the wonder, to regain a sense of the mystery that animates all things . . . Prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living.

No matter what we do in the coming days, remember to pray, remember who you are.

The great GK Chesteron said that one of our greatest errors is that we do not know ourselves. Get to know yourself in the coming days.

You are a beloved child of God. Chesterton says that “we have all forgotten who we really are” and even worse “we forget that we have forgotten.” No matter what, try to remember who you are, so then if anybody asks, you will know what to say.  

You are a Christian, and you are a Presbyterian.

You are chosen and elected by God’s unimaginable love and grace for great and beautiful things.

The prophet says Be Glad And Rejoice In What God Is Creating. A new heaven and a new earth. Wow. Wow. Just Wow.


In the name of the father son and the holy spirit. Amen

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

A Secret ‘60s History of Cookeville, Tennessee (Banjo & Bread, Chapter 5)

En route to Ireland via Atlanta in May 2014, I returned to the Open Door Community to show the intentional Christian collective to my wife Jeannie in a long-overdue visit, my first since living there briefly as a Resident Volunteer in 1987, when I was a 19-year-old student from Antioch College. In going back, I hoped to catch up with the co-founders of this Presbyterian base community in the Catholic Worker mode, Vanderbilt Divinity School alumnus Eduard Loring and his partner Murphy Davis. Days before my visit, Murphy emailed that she and Ed would be out of town. Instead, she suggested we get with the Open Door partners who had graduated from Tennessee Tech. So we spent an enchanting few hours with Calvin and Nelia Kimbrough, who met and were married in my adopted hometown of Cookeville when they were students at Tennessee Tech in the late 1960s and early 1970s. 

After meeting, eating with, and listening to my new friends talk story and then seeing some of their voluminous scrapbooks of gorgeous archival evidence, I realized that the Kimbroughs were the people I needed in my project; they were missing links in the lineage. Not only theologians and historians, Methodist ministers and radical married monastics doing full-time work as Jesus revolutionaries, they are artists and musicians who were practicing hippy Christians back-in-the-day. During the Kimbroughs’ time in conservative old Cookeville, the campus Methodist community at the Wesley Foundation was a hotbed of hippy happenings and progressive forums, of theatrical performances and liturgical experimentation. Meeting these creative Christians so committed to social justice would be a visionary glimpse of the Beloved Community on any day, but to sit with them, listen to their stories, see the pictures, and catch a glance at the vibrancy of the tiny Cookeville counterculture they’d created back when, this returned me to the deep waters of radical Christianity in which I had been baptized as a child—and entirely reframed this thesis. Over months of interviews conducted in Cookeville and Atlanta, over countless emails, social media posts, and phone calls, Calvin and Nelia revisited the 1960s and showed me a colorful Christian counterculture we could simply call the church. 

Their suggestions for further research uncovered striking anecdotes and audacious connections, revealing how the hippy Christians showed up several years before the Jesus hippies and thrived as part of a larger campus Christian movement, interacting with the New Left and organized as a global ecumenical revolution under the banner of groups like the World Student Christian Federation, the Methodist Student Movement, and the University Christian Movement. What began as my tentative and theoretical foray into the backstory of hip Christian countercultures has been dramatically transformed into a first-person theological biography of these marvelous mentors and friends with whom I feel a deep kinship and soul connection. 

Not in library or bibliography, not in some stranger’s dissertation or yet another database, I finally found the best source for understanding the ‘60s—not in books but in colleagues, not far away in California but in this conservative Tennessee college town.

To read the next chapter, go here:
http://www.presbyhippy.com/2017/01/the-beloved-collision-banjo-bread.html


If you would like a copy of the complete Banjo & Bread as an Adobe PDF, please send a message to Andrew Smith at:
professor.andy.smith [at] gmail.com with 'Banjo & Bread' in the subject line.