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:

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Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The late great feast of fools (Banjo & Bread chapter 4)

My preliminary foray into Jesus hippy research in 2010 consisted of watching Lonnie Frisbee and Larry Norman videos on YouTube and soaking in the sunny smiles and visionary vibes seen in snapshots from the massive beach baptisms; from my initial impressions, I didn’t fully grasp the tensions between the more conservative trends and counterculture trips. Even the secular hippies shared a suspicion of rational notions of progress and an embrace of romanticized social forms. 

According to Shires’ theory, then, the emerging leaders of the new evangelical movements in the 1970s seized this sensibility and were offering young people an “antitechnocratic, non-compartmentalized spirituality” (ch.3), something similar to that sought in the wider counterculture via drugs, festivals, the occult, and Eastern religion. Ellwood eloquently points out how romancing the past enchants hippies and evangelicals: “Reference to an idealized rural past, the days of the ‘old-time religion,’ is as important as the communalistic edenism of the psychedelic culture” (18). 

Echoing Shires and Ellwood, Eskridge claims that hippies on both the counterculture and evangelical side shared “a sweeping pessimism about the future” (86). He further explains how “the hippie Christians merely shifted cultural gears” from the likes of the I Ching and Carlos Castenada to “studying the symbolism and hidden prophetic clues in the writings of the Old Testament prophets and John the Revelator” (86). As we know, though, such an intense focus on predicting the End Times, fighting the Antichrist, or anticipating the Rapture remains popular today in religion as well as in the dystopian bent of science fiction films. 

In America, fear sells. Despite charges of anti-intellectualism, the Jesus People in general seem to be a well-read demographic. But what books did they read? Eskridge quotes Ellwood, citing: “The book The Late, Great Planet Earth is one of the few volumes besides the Bible found in virtually every movement commune, home, and church parlor. Next to the Scriptures, probably no other book is more read” (Eskridge 86; Ellwood 89). Written in a sensational and accessible style, but dismissed and discredited by scholars, Hal Lindsey’s text as mass-market paperback sold millions, focusing on wars in the Middle East, a coming Armageddon, a violent judgment for the lost, and an eternal peace for the saved. The evangelical Lindsey dismisses religious Leftists as Satanic “ecumaniacs” (172), and the Jesus hippies bought into this. The ecological left that also descended from the hippies has its own versions of emotionally manipulative shock literature. During the last decades of the Cold War, it wasn’t just the parachurch preachers exploiting our fears; the peaceniks did this with anti-nuclear war films. 

But why did Lindsey’s “apocaliterature” so capture the imagination of the Jesus hippies? Couldn’t another book have been second-only-to-the-Bible in communal relevance? Another “Jesus revolution” looks like Harvey’s Cox’s Feast of Fools. While the evangelical freaks were feeling the heat of the coming wars and judgments, the life-lovers on the Left were grooving with the gentle jester and festive gestures of the Harvard theologian’s frolic and flow, in harmony with the best of the hippies and protesters, the tendencies Cox defines as the neomystics and militants. As my research intensified, I realized the seminarians were reading Harvey Cox alongside a host of other progressive Christian thinkers and acting on their theologies. 

Harvey Cox carried no compulsion to combat the counterculture; he even hoped the church would not contaminate it. Cox charges, “The challenge Christianity faces is how to embrace this spiritual renaissance without crushing it, how to enrich it without polluting it, how to deepen it without mutilating it” (133).  While the evangelicals defended the usual dualities of saved versus damned, outside the world versus in it, Cox encouraged the “verve and brightness” of the neomystics to remain engaged, to “transform celebration into a way of being in the world, not a way of getting out of it” (132). Cox’s books share an eschatological bent with other books of the times, but he embraces the future with fantasy, hope, and humor—inclusive in tone yet incisive with tension. By the 1970s, the evangelicals would be bent on selling their brand of Christianity to the unsaved, while in the 1960s, the ecumenicals embraced secular culture—a church losing itself to find itself, a feast to which all are invited—especially the holy fools. 

In Feast of Fools, Cox celebrates forces that were already at work in the late 1960s convergence of counterculture and Christ. The prankster surrealist Jesus practices the timeless theater of the times. Even though the ecumenical Christian student movement of the 1960s had its roots in the liberal church, it cannot correctly be called “liberal”—it turned out much more radical. Ironically, the religious Right also rebelled against the liberal establishment to separate itself into an organized, dominant political force that became powerful within the very power-structure it decries. The religious Left remains interfaith and influential in pop culture, dissenting but disorganized, but experiencing revival in the emerging church.
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If you would like a copy of the complete Banjo & Bread as an Adobe PDF, please send a message to Andrew Smith at:
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Thursday, July 21, 2016

Right On & Left Out (Banjo & Bread chapter 3)

The conservative conversions come from a genuine place. Sin-addled yet saved-by-the blood, their testimonies ring true. Because their passion for the Bible and the person of Jesus Christ resound, because the sheer spontaneity and widespread popularity of their revival affirms relevance, I cannot dismiss the long-term impact of—or the lingering musical and cultural contributions of—the Jesus People. But as Preston Shires documents in his book Hippies of the Religious Right, as T.M. Luhrmann notes in her essay for Harpers called “Blinded by the Right,” and as Larry Eskridge documents in his comprehensive God’s Forever Family, the Jesus People represent a clear-cut counterrevolution within the counterculture. 

In 1971, renowned evangelist Billy Graham published his book Jesus Generation, a comprehensive book-length tract—a manifesto for the movement more than a text about the meaning of the movement. According to Eskridge, when Graham’s crusade hit Chicago in 1971, a ragtag rebellion of Yippies and Satanists and the like showed up to make mischief, but even more than the baton-wielding Chicago cops, it was a song-singing and hand-holding group of Jesus People that diffused the situation by infusing a disruptive conflict with love. A watershed moment in the public history of the later “Jesus movement” came with the Godstock festival held in Dallas, Texas in the summer of 1972. Officially titled “EXPLO ’72,” this evangelism conference and energizing concert marks a culminating moment for the movement in the national spotlight, highlighting the sympathetic loyalty to the movement in Graham.

Graham’s energizing endorsements helped clear the way for this “explosion” (which the title EXPLO abbreviates) in the national imagination, but the event was also an evangelistic organizing platform for Campus Crusade for Christ (CCC). According to Larry Eskridge, Campus Crusade’s leadership harbored a serious “concern about the nation’s volatile political and cultural scene” and planned to avert the “calamity” of a leftwing revolution (170). Even though the conservative bias of the event was clear, the organizers made sure that “attention was paid to denying claims CCC was in any way tied to right-wing political elements” (Eskridge 170). Eskridge tactfully treats this topic and its apparent duplicity. Because of this desire to appear politically unbiased while cultivating a sincere conservative bias, the EXPLO refused to invite President Richard Nixon to the event, despite the strong private support for Nixon shared by many of the organizers. 

While the weekday rallies were at the packed Cotton Bowl, the concluding Godstock concert attracted almost 200,000 people, so it took place at the Texas State Fairgrounds. Charged with thousands of watts of power, color-coated with a psychedelic backdrop, and starting at 7:30 in the morning, the event’s musical headliner was the great Johnny Cash. The vinyl compilation of the day’s music is a Jesus People collector’s item, capturing the ambiance of the movement with inspiring musical tracks. The music fan in me would have loved EXPLO, but the activist in me would have only gone in subversive Christian solidarity with Jim Wallis under the banner of the People’s Christian Coalition. As retold in two 21st century dissertations on the evangelical Left by David Swartz and Brantley Gasaway respectively, Wallis and his comrades essentially picketed the event with anti-war messages like “Choose This Day—Make Disciples or Make Bombs” or “Love your Enemies or Kill Your Enemies,” then going so far as to disrupt one of the rallies that had overtly pro-military content with chants of “Stop the War!” and unfurled a banner saying “Cross or Flag, Christ or Country.” 

They were hardly embraced by their kin in Christ. Gasaway explains, “The crowd of conservative Christians seemed stunned at first by this brazen display but quickly drowned out the chants with thundering ‘boos’” (40). Wallis and his group of “post-Americans,” the prototype of today’s still influential Sojourners magazine and movement, were not Jesus Freaks; in fact the Jesus people in Dallas, hippies and straights alike, seemed okay with uniting cross with flag, the prince of peace with the President’s war. This tension within culture and church remains today. 

Although I shouldn’t be shocked by these accounts, I admit great discomfort at the implied conclusions: that in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Christianity was at first dominated by spiritually-dead and ostensibly liberal churches, and then, transformed by a conservative revival of reformed hippies who had once dropped acid and thus could handle the dramatic fire of the Holy Spirit. Were some of these seeds of the Christian right in fact “right on” while others were reactionary? There’s something sacred about Jesus Freaks, but what about the lineages of the Christian Left that are “left out” of the scholarly literature on the Jesus movement?

To read chapter four, go here:

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.