Friday, December 25, 2009


I get broadcast emails from some American friends about keeping the “Christ” in “Christmas,” as the argument goes. And I’m reminded constantly as I watch seasonal television every time somebody says oh-so-sincerely “Happy Holidays!”
That’s an appropriate greeting, of course, to a mixed audience … but it’s certainly rather forced when they are talking about “holiday” presents, and “holiday” decorations of wreaths and garlanded trees, which are part of the Christmas tradition, not Hanukkah or Kwanzaa or whatever else our neighbours may celebrate at winter Solstice time. However, I appreciate the bizarre legal world of the public square [broadcast version], and I’ll just grimace a little every time the semantic requirements stretch my patience too far.
I should hasten to add, I am not of the party compelled to lobby to “keep the Christ in Christmas.” Rather, I echo the conviction of Teilhard de Chardin who found “Christ in all things,” and I don't fear he's in danger of getting lost. As a writer, I simply prefer that things be called plainly what they are. The time of year is a season of several “Holidays,” and a suitably open greeting is appropriate; but a decorated tree comes to us from a Christmas tradition, and it’s just fine to call it a Christmas tree, thank you. As a citizen and a theologian, however, I see something much larger and more universal unfolding, and the world is a better place for it… There is no need for the defensive or proprietary tone struck by some Christians at this time of year.

“Christmas” in its popular festive guise has become a secular celebration. By that I do NOT mean it has been de-spiritualized. Rather, it is a celebration that has become a tradition of our society, it’s a Canadian [speaking of my own context; transpose as you see fit for yours] cultural event that the vast majority of us participate in to some extent, whether or not we identify as Christians. The tree; the cards (although far fewer than even 10 years ago); the presents; the feast – some on Christmas Day, others on Christmas Eve; the Santa Claus legend; the exterior lights on malls and offices and homes… we all know the cultural cues.
People – communities – need occasions of shared festival. Public celebrations are as important to our social health as yearly vacations or daily baths are to our personal health. In the West, I’d argue that the broadest and most familiar such festival is Christmas. It is a Season of Light(s)… overlaid on solstice ceremonies, we celebrate the Light at the turning of the year, the longest night signaling the start of the lengthening days.

Early Christians used that ancient festival time to celebrate the birth of their resurrected Christ. Of course we don’t know the birthdate of Jesus … he was a nobody, born to a peasant. Nonetheless, a commemoration of his birth was in order. Therefore, just as the early community “Christianized” much of pagan Rome’s traditions and social roles to conform to their own ethics and values, blending in just enough to avoid persecution -- so they later made the winter festival an opportunity for celebration and thanksgiving.
A lot of history has elapsed since then, for good and ill, as far as “Christianizing” impulses go. It’s mighty hard for us to imagine that impulse as a private, countercultural compromise among believers, an effort by a tiny minority to be faithful and still be citizens and participants in mainstream life. Christianity’s imperialistic history has infused Christian traditions into the most religion-less corners of life; there was a time when whole communities and traditions were buried and suffocated under a universalizing presumption of “the Christian society.” I’m glad, personally, that such a time is passing now.
Those who argue to keep the Christ in Christmas are arguing, I think, from a similar universalizing presumption: celebrating Christmas is an expression of Christian faith and belief, and this belief in Christ the Risen Saviour must not be separated from our public Christmas celebrations. Respectfully, I disagree.

While active practice and public confession of Christian religion is much less visible now than a couple of generations ago, it is still safe to say a majority of people accept that Jesus of Nazareth existed as a historical figure. Whether or not he was the Messiah, or whether he was resurrected to reign in glory at God’s right hand, these are questions of theology and faith commitments. On the other hand, the teachings that we read about in the Bible stories of his life and ministry do not require a faith commitment to absorb and accept. Jesus as the popular “Prince of Peace” can be accepted as such as a teacher and an “evolved” spiritual being. His teachings, his example according to the Gospels, his “love ethic” as it is known, has become part of the Jesus lore even for those who are not religious. This love ethic has been absorbed into the fabric of our winter festival, into the traditions of Christmas – the public holiday, apart from the religious observance.

As an active Christian and public theologian in a post-Christian world, I’m completely okay with the notion that peace and grace and the eternal Light of Love -- the message and mission of Christ … are the “reason for the season.” For me, that is embodied in the holy messenger Jesus Christ, whose birth we acknowledge in the word “Christmas.” But if the secular world wants to pause in its dispassionate frenzies for a couple of weeks and actually practise goodwill and generosity in the name of self-emptying love … then God is indeed alive in the world, and the Holy Spirit is moving, touching, and changing people by other names.

To that I sing, Hosanna in the highest.
Merry Christmas to all, and may grace and peace abound in 2010.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Adam Lambert: DID YOU SEE THAT??

Okay: The Voice was a little rough but that was TOTALLY NOT THE POINT.

25 yrs ago Motown celebrated its 25th anniversary on TV (pretty novel at the time) and Michael Jackson blew everybody's mind with his moonwalk. This weekend Motown celebrated its 50th anniversary, and coincidentally everybody’s mind got blown again– but not by Motown. That happened on the American Music Awards, of all places.

America, meet Adam Lambert. Again.

Wow. Wow wow wow. ABC Television did its best to “bleep” some of those visuals but Adam was operating waaaay over their heads. The producers gave him the finale – maybe because they figured the kiddies would be in bed by that time? – which comes with the weight of its own expectations, on top of the promise of the boy’s sheer talent. The pressure on Adam was significant. But he is a pro – seizing the moment, recovering a slip seamlessly, layering shock on top of surprise.

Do I like s&m as a subject of art? Not especially. And yes, there’s an unapologetic s&m theme, both in the lyrics and unsurprisingly in the choreography, but Adam Lambert’s message to his audience is not just about sexplay. Imagine all those people who haven't seen him since he "lost" Idol? The next message they get from him is the unequivocal “For Your Entertainment” (pardon the paraphrase, I'm going from memory) -- you thought I was so soft and sweet ... it's gonna get rough for you ...
If that song isn't a shot across the bow of everything everybody thinks of American Idols, nothing ever could be. I DID NOT GET ON TV TO BE AN AMERICAN IDOL, I GOT ON AMERICAN IDOL TO BE ME.

I applaud him for every career-risking (career-making) step of it, and damn you I WON'T even stumble, I'll roll with every hazard you throw at me... That was breathtaking. In part because it was on the typically bland and pandering American Music Awards. If his much-celebrated vocal technique was a little ragged last night, well, we can forgive him: his vocal performance was quite secondary to his arrival as a significant cultural force.

Bono's had rough vocal nights that made people cry. (Hell, he's had laryngitis!) Springsteen has had rocky technical nights that he carried on sheer passion. And that's what Adam did, on adrenaline and voracious creativity. And you know what? that kind of go-for-broke, to-hell-with-pretty attitude onstage is where his rock'n'roll lives... there’s a little bit of punk in that brand of audacity. It proves his cred, for all the clubby buzz about the album.

The guy’s got ****ing stones, man...

The queer community's gonna be, Yay, Adam, standing up for us! and the artsy community's gonna be WHOA, Adam, what a throwdown! and the AI tweenies are gonna be too embarrassed to say they don't really get it to each other, but they might just ask their moms why Adam's got those boys on a leash ... and the rest of us rock'n'roll grown-ups are just gonna say, okay, the boy's got more balls than I was willing to give him credit for. AND THEY WILL ALL BUY HIS RECORD. Even if some of them have to smuggle it into the house (like my dad wouldn't let me go see Rod Stewart only after he saw him on Midnight Special in pink spandex. I guess a lot of little girls won't get tickets to Adam's first tour. LMAO)

Wow, again. That was insane. That was the "insanely good" his fans wanted it to be, but even they couldn’t have expected this. He didn't have to prove he could sing pretty. The whole world already knows that. What he needed was to break through every last box that people thought they could put him in. The enemy of the Artist is the very idea of "nice." People now know ... or at least, suspect ... that as gentlemanly as he may be, his art has no intention of being nice.

Watching him sing made it clear for me that he wasn't after all singing about S&M, he was singing about his art, about creative freedom, and the imagery was his symbol for the rough and dangerous ride ahead (and okay, yeah, he also likes naughty sex). I am so thrilled for him, and proud of him, and a little protective of him -- because he was naked out there, man -- that was 110% of him.

This morning I caught his little post-show interview with Access Hollywood. Completely calm, assured, a little cheeky, and utterly unconcerned about any viewers he might have alienated. “If you were offended … then maybe I’m not for you.” Shrug.

I think we are witnessing the making of a superstar. Done and done.

The legend begins…

Friday, November 13, 2009

IT MIGHT GET LOUD; or, a Note of Contrition to Edge from a Rock'n'Roll Penitent

File under: ZooTV Confessional.

I think I’ve been taking Edge for granted all these years. Not his art, or his virtuosity, or his unmistakeable personal style … we all know Edge is as much “the sound of U2” as Bono’s vocals. But I think – well, this is Confession, so I know – that I have failed to connect Edge the man (read: his heart) with the interplanetary fire, rage, and tenderness that come out of his guitar. It's as if the guitars were playing the man. I’ve failed to feel the soul of Edge as I have so painfully and gratefully felt the soul of his literate bandmate, Bono.

Until I saw this movie. If you’re a guitar freak; if you’re a rock’n’roll fiend; if you’re a fan of White Stripes OR Raconteurs OR U2 OR Zeppelin, you will love It Might Get Loud. It’s built on a High Concept: find 3 rock guitar icons of 3 distinct generations; let each of them talk about The Guitar; and then put them together in a room, with a bunch of their favourite instruments and amps. It’s a little bit precious, a little bit self-conscious… but the 3 musicians are young Jack White, Renaissance man and demographic representative of a generation that knows not the liberating magic of the electric guitar; Jimmy Page, snowy-haired Lord of the Sex-Drugs’n’rock’n’roll Manor; and our beloved soft-spoken guitar geek, Edge.

Purely from the Rock ‘n’ Roll Heaven angle? Jimmy Page picking a mandolin while sitting at the blustery gates of Headley Grange nearly 40 years later? Crikey. You tell me what happens to you, but I got chills and hot flashes and little starbursts behind my eyes watching him. Not only for the surreal flashbacks to Going to California and Battle of Evermore, but for the new appreciation of the depth of his mastery and the breadth of his musical voice. What a thrill.
Similarly, Edge gives us typically understated commentary on his visit back to Mount Temple Comprehensive School ... after so many years of reading about the place, I confess it was a total fan-thrill to actually see the ordinariness of the linoleum hallways, the lockers and the little classroom that he and Paul (soon to be "Bono Vox"), Larry and Adam, used to learn how to play their instruments. Edge takes us to THE bulletin board, where Larry put up the notice ... and he kind of smirks at the anti-climactic banality of the thing. Very Edge. Very Irish. Delicious.

Jack White was a bit of an unknown quantity to me, going in. I knew a couple of White Stripes songs, and liked them a lot for their unapologetic guitar-rock thrust. There isn’t a lot of that in hit music these days … not that I listen to radio much anymore, except by accident. However, my movie companion is a fan of Jack, and set me up to expect to like what I saw. I did. Having spent some valuable time on my own spiritual journey with Robert Johnson and the hellhound myths of the Delta, I instantly wanted Jack White to succeed at whatever he next attempts. I liked getting to know him.

But our dear Edge: who is every bit the cultural icon and innovator that Jimmy Page is, but with a much LONGER Top 40 resume! – our dear Edge … the zen guy. The techie guy. For all that Jack is an upstart (just 10 years in the game), he and Jimmy were clearly guitar kin, both reincarnations of Delta bluesmen handed Marshall stacks and MTV. U2 has never been a “roots” rock’n’roll band, Rattle & Hum notwithstanding. Their basis was never the blues and 3 chords, a sex-thrust and a bent blue note. No, the evolution of U2 was a military punk tattoo out of the clouds, a swirl of sensation resolved into a growing-up boom-cha! Edge is not historical kin to Jack or Jimmy. But he is like them, channeled through his guitar music.
In this movie we learn a lot about Edge the U2 member, and a little about Edge the wealthy rock star (yoga accessorized with a Blackberry?), but he talks relatively little about his “feelings” about things. The most heat you will hear in his voice is nearer the beginning of the film, when he is trying to explain that the guitar “… is my voice.” As compared, we should infer, to the ubiquitous Bono’s verbal and theatrical arsenal, i.e. Himself.

And so, taking him at face value, I endeavoured with the film’s considerable help to hear Edge at the centre of U2’s songs – to hear not merely “the guitar sound,” but Edge’s song within the collective that is U2. (After all, it’s just as important to sift out Bono’s own “songs,” his poetic impulse, to better appreciate the collaboration that is a U2 recording.) My favourite scene is the source of the film’s title, when Edge is standing in a small room, guitar strapped on and encircled by electronic boards and cords and switches and pedals. He explains that most of what people hear is his experimentation with the effects of amplification. Magically from his fingers comes that rubbery pogo-spring riff that opens Elevation … until he turns off everything electric, and picks the same strings on the guitar. *pinggggg?…. pinggggggg* Chuckling, he enacts a mock meeting with the band: “Hey, guys, listen to this great new riff!” *pinggggg?…. pinggggg*
Immediately I was reminded of the many live versions of Bullet the Blue Sky we’ve heard and seen – Edge’s solos like an apocalyptic judgement of rage and death, which never fails to chill my viscera, from a shadowy source that sometimes scares me. But the chasm between that sound and the gentle demeanour of the guy in the toque breaks off the emotional connection that should be made between me and that artist. And that does an injustice to him.

Not that one ever forgets that Edge’s sound is front and centre … but since seeing this documentary, I’ve consciously listened to those sounds in the same way I listen to the lyric-less Beethoven or Mozart. My weakness is for words, so I readily default to sympathies with the lyricist. But we already know that often, Bono’s words come after the music has started to take shape; that Bono finds words that reflect the essence in the band’s musical sketches. So now I’m listening for Edge’s voice, within the orchestra of U2 sounds. How does Edge feel about, for example, the Spirit’s Mysterious Ways? How does he feel about information overload – in the graceless squawk of Numb, or the breathless seduction of (Even Better Than) The Real Thing? In every song there’s a man in dialogue with his world, musically; a man who is clearly a reservoir of deep connection to pain – hear in the patient chick-a-chick of Bad, the unconditional love of the friend who lets you cry; a man whose read of the world’s senseless waste aims his machine-gun guitar at the people who can make it stop, in Sunday Bloody Sunday.
And Mofo – I can’t even.
Edge’s book of poetry is in many ways more graphic and profane than Bono’s, even as they serve the same sacred Muse in musical praise and prayer. Against Edge’s characteristic personal restraint, his creative voice is a gift I never properly received, until now. (Forgive me, Mother Muse, for I have sinned…) Thanks to Davis Guggenheim, the director of It Might Get Loud, I have repented. And thanks truly to a humble man who lays his heart out in a global spotlight, without strutting, posing, embarrassing himself or imploding, an artist of conspicuous audacity who draws no attention to himself …
Edge, you are an enigma and a master I haven’t properly honoured, not really. But that’s changed now. Thanks for letting us in.

Okay, everybody, we all get to do penance: Turn it up.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Saturday, October 31, 2009

U2 360 - live in 2009 (part II)

Beginning with the end...

There were 2 encores: the first one, not unpredictable: megahits One and Where the Streets Have No Name with a little surprise in between. The second one was much less predictable, hearkening back to the unnerving appearance of the devil MacPhisto in his platform shoes at the end of the Zooropa concerts -- an astounding alter-ego with a different kind of message and even a new sort of sound: U2 as pure, delicious, theatre; theology as performance art.

At the end of Wednesday night’s U2360 show, after the conventional encore of Big Hits, the band and their singer reappear -- or rather, a shadow wrapped in a suit of lights where the singer should be -- to sing Ultraviolet. Not a big hit by any stretch, not a selection included “just for the fans.” Not going through the conventional motions. Pay attention, folks.
Sometimes I feel like checking out
I wanna get it wrong, can't always be strong…
Feel like trash, you make me feel clean

I'm in the black, can't see or be seen
Baby, light my way
…sings the shadow in the suit of red beams, into a glowing ring of light that amplifies his plea and physically lifts his weight as he dangles out over his audience.

Then the shadow takes on the dark ambiguity of With or Without You –
My hands are tied, my body bruised
She's got me with nothing left to win
And nothing else to lose
And you give yourself away

He is tired, cynical, maybe angry … his face is obscured, his voice is drained of feeling. With or Without You has been an emotional centrepiece on previous tours; it was profoundly moving in the concert recorded for the Elevation DVD. It’s a fan favourite, it’s a hypnotic love song, it is all these things, and the band is playing it as sweetly and seductively as ever … but the current rendition of it is a jarring, unsettling deconstruction of whatever we think this song is supposed to be.
As the heartbeat of the song quiets behind him, the shadow removes his suit of lights, methodically places it on its hanger and hooks it to the radiant microphone, and very deliberately bids it goodbye: here we have 3 songs for the price of 2.

On the under-appreciated album Pop is a track called Gone, which Bono dedicated to his friend Michael Hutchence shortly after he died (see the Popmart DVD):
You wanted to get somewhere so badly
You had to lose yourself along the way…
Goodbye, you can keep this suit of lights
I'll be up with the sun
I'm not coming down
And I’m already gone…

This final sequence, really a keening coda to a buoyant, triumphant show, seems to me to be a mini-suite of songs purpose-built to frame the concert’s final number, the new song Moment of Surrender. Months back, when I first heard that this was their show-closer, it made me wonder what was afoot. Oh, it’s a very special song (as I wrote earlier), but certainly an unlikely send-off. (For that matter, MacPhisto closed his little concert with Love is Blindness, an anti-anthem if ever there was one.) It had to be deliberate, designed to provoke. Some reviews (fans and professionals) expressed confusion or a shrugging disappointment in the lack of a Big Happy Finish … not surprising. U2 doesn’t want it to be easy: they’re asking us to think. Pushing us to feel. Why -- how -- do they make it hurt so much?

Back to the start

Plenty of people have written their reports of these shows, so I don’t need to do that. But I must try to transpose some of the impressions, some of the marks they left on me.
The show opened with a song most people (if sales of No Line on the Horizon are any indication) don’t know, Breathe. It’s a song about feeling crazy and finding sane. It’s a wall of suffocating noise, and a window on a way out: “I found grace inside a sound … and I can breathe now.” The sound quality inside BC Place is less than perfect, but way better than average for the venue. It’s a concrete cave with an inflated pillow roof. The bass and grinding guitar dig into your sternum … and it feels good.

Three songs in, I find myself in a vision, a living prayer, with Bono on a little bridge – reminds me of the kind that hangs over ponds in a park – hovering just above a sea of faces, singing, “I was born to sing for you … my first cry, it was a joyful noise.” Magnificent. It wasn’t preacherly, it wasn’t explicit. It was instead, reflective. That’s when it occurred to me how Bono has come to make it look easy, in the sense that for him and the wave of music he rides on, it looks so natural. Like a magician who matter-of-factly reveals diamonds in his white-gloved hand, Bono can pause and pray on a tower of joyful noise: Edge, Adam and Larry will hold him up as high as he needs to be heard.
When they get to I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, the noise is deafening. The entire audience sings the first verse. Bono closes the song with Stand By Me, and the crowd picks up the chorus and everyone is lifted by the compassion they find on their own lips. Bono and Edge take it into a gentle duet on Stuck in a Moment – and Bono’s final soulful phrase quotes not his own recording but Scripture: “It’s just a moment, this too shall pass.”

We were especially blessed by a shimmering, swirling and rare performance of The Unforgettable Fire – Willie Williams’ set and lights seemed to take centre stage, giving us a multimedia interpretation of fire and pain and separation and confusion – the band seemed to be almost completely obscured, but I didn’t mind. It was like watching a 3D video, with the band playing live – the Claw is a stunning canvas, designed for dreamy beauty as well as harrowing contortions. It was a perfect interpretation of the song.

The new album is represented by 7 songs, all but one from the in-your-face front half of the record. They are brilliant live. The title track is a pile-driving buzz-saw of disorientation (also unfamiliar to its audience, but no matter—Bono is clearly inspired by it) that U2 uses to take us next into Elevation – which proves once again to be without question one of the best stadium rock songs any band ever created. It’s got beat, structure, balance, sing-along simplicity and substance, all in a magical euphoric brew that lifts the band as much as it lifts all of us. The same should be said of Vertigo, designed for maximum catharsis and defenseless enlightenment – “all I know is that you give me something I can feel/your love is teaching me how to kneel…”

And then the band pushes all that giddy release into a flailing, vertiginous re-mix of a whimsical little pop song called I Know I’ll Go Crazy if I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight. In the middle of the new album, Bono sings about the importance of lightening up and cutting loose especially when you’re fighting to undo some of the damage in the world. It’s cute and catchy. Most of the audience don’t know it. But that doesn’t prevent the band’s attack on it from cutting us all into little cubist bits – the lyrics are mostly lost in the noise and feedback, but Bono’s challenge is loud and insistent: Will you sing for your sanity? he shouts. The song is long and psychedelic, almost too long, almost out of control and uncomfortable – when abruptly they gear down into images of Iran’s protesting citizens and a straight-no-chaser dose of Sunday Bloody Sunday. Without commentary, without prompts. And the song is more potent and more universal than anyone realized. The band’s outrage is more than Irish.

This is the tour, by the way, where U2 finally dropped Bullet the Blue Sky as a political set piece. It shows up in every concert DVD since Rattle and Hum, and as great a piece of agitprop as it is, it’s been done to death! I cheer its absence on this tour … when they have so much great political material to mine.
The set didn’t give much more than a hat-tip to the overtly political, though – it was wonderful to hear MLK, along with Bono’s dedication of it to Aung San Suu Kyi, as a “peaceful revolutionary,” followed by Walk On, written expressly for her. As the last song of the main set, it was sweet, but not yet euphoric. The band saved that for the first encore.

It began with a charming video introduction by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, on the meaning of the One campaign as a prelude to the song, One. That song may never grow stale ... it's as urgent as the day it arrived to illuminate the band themselves after weeks of discord in 1990. Bono closed out the song with a naked prayer, "Hear us coming, Lord, hear us call!..." The music soars around his voice, the hands of the audience surrounding him are raised in a sea of affirmation. The song crashes to a decisive finish, and as the ovation subsides Bono begins an unaccompanied, ragged but sweet proclamation: "Amazing grace... How sweet the sound that saved a wretch ... like me." Unexpectedly – at least to me – the audience joins him, singing along with the entire verse.
Stand By Me, I expect them to know. Amazing Grace? – anything after the first line? Wow. I am proud of my compatriots for finding those words, and daring to sing them aloud together. Finally, the Big Finish is the incomparable Where the Streets Have No Name. “I wanna tear down the walls that hold me inside.”

I folded to my knees...

In hindsight I will realize that virtually all of these songs have been about the battle to know oneself.

With the sole exception of the sweet In a Little While, dedicated to the families of touring rock stars and roadies, this concert contains no simple love songs. (And With or Without You is anything but simple, especially this year.) Instead, all of these songs express the soul’s hunger for clarity, for release, for union with the Source or the Destination, or both -- being stuck, seeking some light, getting lost, being found. Certainly this is a regular theme in U2’s music, but this particular setlist is built, not around political calls to arms, but almost entirely around this inner longing to be truly known. We want to know our place in the world, we struggle to belong, to be loved.

U2 has long understood the political implications of spiritual wounds, and the media’s emphasis therefore has been on their politics… because God knows that’s easier than spirituality. But on this tour it seems the band has chosen to focus on the spiritual work required to change the world – consistent with the tone of No Line on the Horizon.
The coda at the end of the show, the shadowy suit of lights, mimes our hidden story of fatigue, futility, and emptiness. Maybe it also says something more oblique about U2’s life as rock stars – certainly critique of the Pop Life is not new to their work. I don’t know.
But either way, say goodbye to the suit of lights. On your knees, boy.

Bono's performance of their final song, on this night at least, is as guileless and exposed as that first take they captured on the album. This is not Bono the cheerleader. This is a man in confession, as earnest as I've ever seen him:
my body's now a begging bowl,
begging to get back to my heart ... to the rhythm of my soul

Moment of Surrender is unequivocally about being broken … and it is unequivocally about being free. This is the paradox of faith, of spiritual surrender. I cannot imagine a more un-rock’n’roll note on which to end the biggest rock show ever mounted. It is so U2. It’s why I love them.

All the media can talk about is this show’s size, because of course they don’t know what the hell to say about surrender. But U2 made very deliberate choices with these songs. They sent off their audience – young, old, lifers, newbies, rockers, atheists, believers – with the message that ultimately, it isn’t about flash, sound, fury, stardom… On the contrary, their farewell each night was a kind of abdication, a step to the side. That second encore seems to say, “It isn’t about us. We are not at the centre of this. We are not the point of this.” The point of it … is the moment of surrender. That is their gift to us, a broken prayer that is an invitation to freedom ... wrapped up in ambiguity and shadow and a chorus of joy.

And when I go there, I go there with you. It’s all I can do.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

U2: ALIVE AT 33 (part I)

U2 doesn’t go out on the road to trot out the hits and keep the fans interested. After 33 years together, they mount shows the same way they make albums: with warriors’ determination to win the battle against alienation and apathy. To make a work of art that is worthy of the time and carbon footprint it asks of us.
And make no mistake: art is indeed worth our investment of time and resources. God knows we ought to take our pulse and our blood pressure every so often to see how we’re doing … that’s what art must do. It broadcasts our collective pulse and blood pressure, paints pictures of our pain and our victories. So that we know they’re there. U2’s medium is performance art, from their earliest days as misfit kids in Dublin. Street theatre and high-concept multimedia are as much a part of their repertoire as Adam’s bass and Larry’s drums.

So the one thing they have never done in their guise as rock stars is go through the motions. Even when they stumble (yeah, that giant lemon: WHAT were they thinking??), it is in the attempt to shock us awake, to make us see something as we’ve not seen it before. But not merely for art’s sake – no.
To see something fresh, to make a new connection, that’s to wake up! to see things as they are. But first you must be disoriented, must lose the relations of things … before you can suddenly see new interrelationships where you saw none before. Creative people know this sensation well – they can’t always live there, but they are comfortable passing through it because they know it brings them closer to the Real. It breaks through a layer or two of the illusion of isolation and separateness. As the pulse of Life throbs in all things, sometimes that pulse becomes visible to us. Sometimes by grace, sometimes by spiritual discipline… sometimes in art.

Here’s what I’ve learned after witnessing U2360: going to see U2 in concert, at this stage in my life and in theirs, is a risky venture. It’s a leap of faith. Because they give so much, and they ask so much – that is, I know they’re taking me to a deep place, where they will ask me to feel. If they succeed in going deep enough, and if they ask the right questions that touch the right nerves, I know I will feel… very deeply. Tonight, 24 hours after we departed each other’s company, my heart hurts. I ache.
I threw myself into a sea of sound.
Lights go down
It's dark, the jungle is --
Your head can't rule your heart
A feeling's so much stronger than a thought

To begin with, the face of this ocean of sound is Bono. His mastery as he matures is something to behold. He is older, sure, but more than that, each phase of life that he himself enters seems to contribute something to his performing gifts. In 2005 he was less chatty than in 2001; while in 2009 there is a truer stillness within him as he moves around the stage, as he pulls the voice up and out of him. Rev. Beth [see U2Sermons at right and the book Get Up Off Your Knees: Preaching the U2 Catalogue] made the observation some years ago that where once Bono the front man took on a prophetic persona, he now strikes a more priestly tone – these are biblical terms, having to do with the manner of exhortation rather than any personal moral attributes. He’s less likely now to climb a scaffolding and wave a flag, and more adept at persuading 50 000 people to lift their voices in praise. He shepherds the crowd, even as he hurls his vulnerability into their arms in complete trust. Dare I say … his ego (about which he’s always been completely candid) is less visible while his strength is moreso.

My dear friend and concert companion (and more casual U2 follower) put it beautifully in her morning-after email: I just love that feeling Bono gives me of being in the presence of greatness. Or more like Greatness, actually. The larger than life-ness that he's got while he's just this little guy walking around that huge contraption, he just ... doesn't look little. Like there's SO MUCH SOMETHING I DON'T EVEN KNOW in that one body, that it's like he's all crowding up in my business even from as far away as he was…

So much something. That's probably always been true of him, it's just that now the "something" is a little harder to name -- Bono's not trying so hard to put the words in our mouths. He's much better now at letting the songs, and the animating spirit of the songs, speak through him.

Which is why I was first dismissive and then perplexed when I read several fan reviews of different 360 shows that mentioned specifically Bono's performance of With or Without You. They reported that he was "bored with it," "tired of it, like he just doesn't care anymore after singing it so much..." Well, accuse the man of a lot of things, but never of forcing himself to sing something every night that he no longer likes or feels inside! With a catalogue like theirs? With the missionary zeal that they bring to building their concerts? It just didn't make sense. So let me begin my reflections on last night's concert at the end of it -- With or Without You is the second-to-last song in the set.
By now, most fans will also have seen it whether they attended shows or not, since the band so generously put up the entire LA concert on youtube. I avoided the live stream of that show, knowing my own show was coming up just 2 days later.

Now I know what those fan reviewers were referring to, and I forgive those who so completely misunderstood the point of that performance -- because they moved me to take a closer look at the entire setlist and find something there more deliberate than I otherwise might have appreciated.
My head is catching up with my heart...

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Nothing to lose but our chains

In my reading for homework the other day, an author reflected on the early Christian communities (under Rome) in terms of class, and their class struggle. I found this refreshing in scholarly writing, about theology or anything else, and said as much with a wink to my classmates. Alas, the professor informed us that the author, a theologian, is in fact a Marxist and perhaps his terminology is not the most helpful.

alas, say I ... can't somebody raise the notion of social class, if not struggle, without defaulting to a Marxist position? With tongue only partly in cheek, I make public displays of sympathy with Marx (if not with Marxists) because the recognition of class structure in these post-modern times is usually illuminating. Certainly the notion of class has been discredited and mostly dispensed with, at least in conventional wisdom, because (1) this [pick your geo-political identifier] is a democracy and the people choose their government and (2) the free market is free to everybody, right? Unfortunately, that's the convention among the wage-earners and consumers who do not make capitalism's major decisions. The view from the elites of our time is rather that there is a clear gap between those decision-makers and the decision-followers. And hopefully the decision-followers will forget all about the the shell-games that were exposed in last year's economic meltdown.

Personally, I identify with the working class, and I know lots of workers who would resent any such label. However, I don't use it to describe my relative value in the world, since all of us are contributors to what we call society. I do use it to reflect my location among all the groups it takes to form a society. I am not lower-class; but I am a worker, who implements the decisions of the decision-makers in my industry. The decision-makers are more like theorists; the workers move the widgets, and we all get to see if the widgets do what the theorists planned for them to do. In this world, there are also people who teach; people who nurture; people who are mirrors (artists). Society moves and grows and hums along with all of these living, acting parts. I have no problem naming them "classes," even though it's kind of a loaded word.
But naming them is preferable to pretending they don't exist, pretending that each of us has individual "autonomy" as promised by the Enlightenment while none of us are taught to practise collective agency. If we do not individually recognize and claim the part we play in maintaining society (which ought now to be conceived as global), we can never really experience our own autonomy; that is, we will not connect to decision-making about the larger forces in our daily life. My point is, the group we belong to is one of those larger forces.
The corporate agenda is to have us believe that we are "free to choose" ... what to buy. If we have money. Last year's economic meltdown ought to be an object lesson for all of us consumers: for a moment the emperor stood naked, and all those financiers were called to account for putting profit above honest participation in society. (I don't know if the consuming class learned from that lesson yet, though.)
True democracy, true self-determination, is political agency. It is participation in the shaping of society: the conditions under which we go to work, secure shelter and food, celebrate our milestones and even recognize our significant relationships. Each class (and each of us probably belongs to more than one) has valuable and unique input into the shapechanging of society. People who labour, that is, carry out others' ideas, need to contribute their own innovations drawn from their experience, if an overall enterprise is to function optimally. The working class has something necessary to the entrepreneurial class ... for increasing profit, sure, but more holistically for making the enterprise a vital contributor to the health of our society. The entrepreneurial class does have something necessary to the working class, or to the non-waged working class, or to the class of elders who've left the daily grind of wage-working behind: in a capitalist economy, entrepreneurs activate the machinery of cash flow. This does not make the entrepreneurial class any more valuable than the rest. Government regulates behaviour, divvies up wealth, supports those outside the wage-working world.
-- wait a minute -- "outside the wage-working world??" Well, who says the government should support anybody who isn't earning their own keep? (you know where this is going.)

Because we all need reminding that we -- the collective, national, income-reporting variants of "we" -- value more than the creation of profit. We value people who are too old to work any longer; who are unwell; who are physically different from the norm and who therefore participate in our world in different ways; people who are too young or still uneducated; people who are just people. We want to take care of everybody: that's why we have a tax system, a federal government, a provincial government. Our structures are where WE put them, so that the mighty wouldn't exploit the weak, so that the Industrial Age wouldn't eat its children; so that more and more of us might participate in the vast web of relationships on this planet. Some through wage-work, some completely outside of it. It takes many classes of people to make the world go 'round. 6 billion individuals on the planet can never know their value and earth-moving strength, but millions of groups of them can build the world we want... the world we need.

Monday, August 31, 2009

The Cloud of Wordle Knowing!

It will mesmerize you for hours ... especially if you're a typography geek. (This Wordle is of No Line on the Horizon by U2.)

Go visit! Go play! Jonathon Feinberg is a genius!

Wordle: What we do.

Monday, August 10, 2009

LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOUR is a medical & political commandment

The health care debate in the United States is breaking my heart. I'm a Canadian, and I am battling to keep our universal health care. I don't want a system designed to profit from my illness or accident; I don't want a system that must "choose" profitable disease over expensive disease. Illness is not, should not, ever be an arena of economic opportunism. Surely there are higher values among us than the profit motive; surely we can educate and hire innovators and nurturers who will do very special work for fair remuneration, in a system universally applied to all who are in need regardless of their economic station.

Surely everyday folks can see the wisdom of replacing a sickness-for-profit model with a care-for-all model. In the health care arena, why is profit important? Sustainability is important. Prudence and integrity and oversight are important. Why does it have to be run by and for private profit? Can the American people [in their democratic role as political agents] not conceive of ANY undertaking that should be EXCLUDED from the profit game?
Or do those critics of universal care actually believe that health and healing is only for the chosen?

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Peace, Brother Michael

So U2’s finally on the road again, with their usual state-of-the-art panache. In celebration of last week’s opening gig in Italy, I popped Rattle and Hum into the DVD player. Ah, the velvety lusciousness of film, instead of the hard edges of tape! Great portions of the movie are steeped in Americana, peaking with the band’s pilgrimage to Graceland. Surely the best part of that sequence is hearing more than 5 words out of stoic Larry Mullen, and that’s on the subject of his admiration for Elvis, the musician. To be a young rock star visiting the earthly remains of the original Rock Star, the first one to burn out before he could fade away, must be a humbling pilgrimage indeed. And then the movie makes a poignant connection that in 20 years I never truly felt until now.

Larry lapses into contemplative silence while the camera lingers, and the soundtrack segues into the trembling intro of the band’s 1984 song, Bad.

If you twist and turn away
If you tear yourself in two again…

Bono’s inspiration for his lyrics was the scourge of heroin addiction among Dublin kids, but the band makes it a musical intervention – a desperate, muscular attempt to pull the addict, any addict, out of the blackness of their powerlessness.

If I could through myself
Set your spirit free
I'd lead your heart away
See you break, break away
Into the light
… Through the flame

It is as full an expression of sorrow and love as you will ever hear. In the film Rattle and Hum, it becomes in part a prayer for Elvis, an artist and a brother lost to us for the sorry sake of prescriptions too easily obtained. Or as Springsteen put it in his own farewell song, for “a whole lotta trouble runnin’ through his veins.”

Of course I thought of Michael Jackson.
Like everyone else, I’d been thinking about Michael Jackson all week. The whispers about his own pharmaceutical habits started almost as soon as word of his death got out, and I couldn’t help but compare him, needlessly and inevitably, with Elvis.

I was too young to be a proper Elvis fan, but I sure liked his songs and the day he died is burned into my memory. I never followed Michael Jackson’s career (unless my sisters’ collection of Jackson 5 45’s counts), but surely, it followed me. In the Eighties, MJ was a fixture. And oh, I’ve never ever tired of the complete package that is Beat It. You kids may not believe it, but there was a time when the possibilities of “performance video” were unimagined and untested … and in 1983, Michael Jackson exploded the potential of the video clip. He proved it was possible to electrify a pop audience … with interpretive dance, staged for the camera. Who knew? Impeccable musical sense, visual innovation, visceral sexuality. His creative power was breathtaking.

I remember about 10 years ago, I stumbled across one of those great old black-and-white TV clips of the Jackson 5. I hadn’t heard any of those songs since I was a child myself. And Michael’s voice … was a revelation. The boy is TEN! Even on the chirpy, bubblegum numbers like ABC, you can hear sophistication in his delivery … On a ballad like I’ll Be There? That’s an old soul. That’s experience and compassion. All bundled into a beautiful, unnaturally assured child who could hardly know his own depths. Smokey Robinson himself captured the shock of that voice at the memorial yesterday.

I’m wide awake
Wide awake
I’m not sleeping

Much has been said in the last two weeks about what a cultural force we experienced in Michael Jackson. It’s a balm to hear those affirmations now. The wide-angle perspective of the tributes we’re hearing is a corrective for the distortions of both his private life – we can never know, nor truly judge – and the public’s perceptions. That perspective should be a rebuke to the likes of Republican Peter King, who seems proud to be ignorant of the arts. Maybe he really does think war has more value to the community than the arts do. If so, then his constituents need to set him straight.

And if anyone thinks that Michael Jackson’s very life was not given in the service of his country, then they do not take seriously the gifts and sacrifices inherent in the creative process. Particularly, I would add, in the popular performing arts.

To be genuinely creative – innovative, original, unconventional – and also famous? And then rich? Toxic brew. Creation requires a profound surrender. Sure, some of the biggest egos in the world have also been wildly creative. But it’s no less true that in the moment of creation, in the leap and the risk and the not knowing what the “finished” work might be … that requires a surrender of one’s known limits and all safe appearances. It takes a sturdy psychology – or a disciplined spirit – to balance the mundane requirements of normal life with art’s deep spiritual demands. Many artists simply lack both the psychology and the spiritual ballast to tolerate “normal,” – and they suffer.

But if your art touches the masses, you must learn that the role of the Good Celebrity carries a whole new set of rules and obligations, which can undermine everything inside you that values beauty and newness. Today even more than in the Eighties, and on a wholly different level from back in the Sixties, the public appetite does not want celebrities to be complex or subtle. Yet, the gift of the visionary is to see layers, connections and nuances that the rest of us have never seen before. Or to beautifully embody instincts and compulsions the rest of us are afraid of. Or both.

Michael Jackson did both, even moreso than Elvis. He also lived through fame in the Sixties, the Seventies, the Eighties, and through the very worst of celebrity in the Nineties, up to today. Well, until June 25. Forty years of his creative life he gave. And his life was not without the same dysfunctions of us regular folks, who get to cope or not in relative privacy.

To let it go
And so to fade away
To let it go
And so fade away

If I could, you know I would
If I could, I would let it go --
This desperation
In temptation

Let it go

As is their custom, U2 is creating a space in its concerts for the outside world – in their first few shows, they have paid tribute to Michael’s legacy. Bono has sung from Man in the Mirror, Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough, Billie Jean, and dedicated Angel of Harlem to his memory. Perhaps one night Bono will nod to the righteous funk of Jackson’s Bad … or maybe we’ll hear them perform their own song, which might lay bare for us the compassion and sorrow, the passion and triumph and contradictions, of this remarkable artist’s life.

I’m wide awake
I’m wide awake
Wide awake
I’m not sleeping

Sunday, June 21, 2009


Language is that special blessing that sets us apart from other creatures on this planet. I’m not just talking about reading here … We are information junkies, it’s true. But language is capable of much more than mere information. It is the stuff of our dreams, our stories, and of course our age-old songs. Poetry is much more ancient than science, and its wisdom reaches different places than science.
So what does language have to do with spiritual life? Well, everything. What we call things directly influences how we experience them. People have all kinds of their own reasons for rejecting church – for feeling “spiritual, but not religious” – but I know that for many, the traditional language in church is a turn-off. And one of the biggest turn-offs, spiritually or intellectually, is God the Guy in the Sky. God as “He.” We might feel limited by language at times … but let’s remember that we may also be liberated by language.

News flash: God is not a Guy in the Sky. God is not “our father.”
What we mean is, God can be like our father.

We have to be careful that we don’t ever think that we know what God is… and yes, we have permission to be playful and creative when we try to think about what God is like. The Bible has given us an enduring metaphor for our Creator: God the Father. It has also given us many other images, but they never got nearly the same press through the centuries. People everywhere in every time have used all kinds of words for God, expressing the richness of our imaginings and intuitions and pictures of the divine.

“Our Father who art in heaven” is not a bad image for God. We may appropriately pray to the supreme fatherliness of God. Fatherliness is a virtue, it is a blessing and a gift. It’s a great adjective. But God is not “he.” God is not the Guy in the Sky, Father of the world. God is like a father of the world.
Maybe we know that, intellectually. We can say, God is like an ocean. God is subtle, like breath... God is like a father. Those are similes, as you’ll remember from Grade 5 Language Arts. If we turned them into metaphors, they would sound something like the hymn that says … “Breathe on me, Breath of God.”
The metaphor is Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne (the Psalms). The metaphor is Our Father who art in heaven (the prayer of Jesus). That’s a poetic image, that is not a description.

For all our lives -- in church, in the Bible, hey, in movies and TV, everybody says God is a he! (If he looks like George Burns or Morgan Freeman, maybe that ain’t so bad!) So even if we know that isn’t literal, it’s just difficult to not talk about “Him” when we’re talking about God. Even when we know a personal pronoun belongs to an individual, a person.
Hmm. Dilemma. Some may say, what difference does it make, if we all understand that we don’t mean it literally? Well, maybe none … as long as talking about God’s good creation, and Her steadfast love, and Her righteous judgement at the end-times sounds just as good to you. Our Mother who art in heaven. Is She your help and your strength, is She a lamp unto your feet? Great, then we’re already there.
But of course, even changing the personal pronoun creates the same problem. A mere man (or woman) does not belong where the Ultimate and Absolute, the Ground of Being and the Mystery of Life dwells in our hearts.

Now we need our metaphors, don’t get me wrong. …“Show, don’t tell” is the writer’s number one rule. Metaphors and similes can help show us something intellectual, or abstract, or unfamiliar. The good ones, as any English teacher will tell you, deliver a little shock of unlikely connection. One of my favourites comes from a master, Leonard Cohen: “a garland of fresh-cut tears.”

So, God as father can be a great metaphor, as we contemplate fatherliness perfected. But some human experiences of “father” may be less than perfect, something other than loving and steadfast. Martin Luther, for example, was a monk who dedicated his whole life to prayer and biblical scholarship. Yet, he felt so unworthy for much of his life because a “righteous” father (like his own) was in his experience punishing, stern, judgmental and fault-finding. He struggled for years to understand grace! He finally solved his dilemma (and many of ours) when he broke through to a different definition of righteousness.

It’s true, the Bible spends an awful lot of time calling God “He.” Jesus himself gave us the prayer, “Our Father…” The Psalms are overflowing with him’s and he’s. Should that make it a fact, is that proof that God is like, this guy with body parts … in the sky? On a throne? No.
It does demonstrate the power of that particular metaphor, it suggests a Creator of fatherly and powerful attributes. What’s more concrete and universal than a family image? But it only works if we enjoy it as a metaphor. The problem is when we stop being amazed and enlightened by this clever or original comparison with something else … and start hearing not a comparison but an equation. “God the Father” after many centuries starts to sound like God is actually a father. What does that do to “God?” Fatherliness stops being understood as an aspect of God, and starts sounding like the shape and extent of God.

There are still many people like Luther who might have good reason to cringe at the idea of a “fatherly” God. They need to know also that God shows us the perfection of many other attributes – mothering, companionship, nature, communion.
The Bible (not to mention ancient and modern sources in other traditions) does provide other ways to imagine God. Our Father who art in heaven is only one impression of God. Here’s another.

Upon my bed at night
I sought him whom my soul loves;
I sought him, but found him not;
I called him, but he gave no answer.
‘I will rise now and go about the city,
in the streets and in the squares;
I will seek him whom my soul loves.’
I sought him, but found him not.
The sentinels found me,
as they went about in the city.
‘Have you seen him whom my soul loves?’
Scarcely had I passed them,
when I found him whom my soul loves.
I held him, and would not let him go
until I brought him into my mother’s house,
and into the chamber of her that conceived me.
I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem,
by the gazelles or the wild does:
do not stir up or awaken love
until it is ready!

[The Song of Solomon
3.1-5 NRSV]

There are some things our culture has traditionally focused on as “biblical,” and other things completely ignored in the stereotypical understandings of faith. “The Song of Songs” from the Old Testament might be one of the latter.
The Bible has many voices, and when we neglect their diversity, we dim the illumination we might find there. We risk forgetting that these are all only impressions of godly experience – not statistics about God.

God as lover? God as a soul-mate, a companion, even a spouse, on the human journey of growth and discovery? Does this not ring true at some times, in some circumstances? Consider the glory of being alive, of feeling all your senses tingling, or of being overwhelmed with something you cannot contain – an epiphany, or a wave of tears: those can be God moments.
God is like all these things, because God IS all these things – but not limited to one of them. For Christians … faith does have a human face, in our brother, Jesus the Christ. But God was also known to our Hebrew ancestors in a pillar of fire. God was known to the biblical poet in a lover’s skin. God may be known to you in your child’s eyes.

“Our Father who art in heaven” is not a required password for knowing grace, or for being loved as God has loved us. The Holy Spirit is unpredictable, creative, subtle and sometimes overwhelming. It tells you, You are not alone, and you are made of beauty and wonder… and it will tell you in the language that your own heart knows.
I wish you grace and peace today, in unexpected shapes.

And please, thank God for whatever true fatherliness has blessed you in your life. Happy Father’s Day.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

"Bless Us With Discomfort"

Ladies and Gentlemen,
Adam Lambert is …

on the cover of Rolling Stone! “And it should come as no surprise to anyone” that he’s gay, says he in his own words.

How will his audience, or the general pop audience, respond? We can only wait and see. His career will be something of a social experiment, as we are clearly in an age that is increasingly accepting of alternative self-identifications. Certainly social acceptance is demographically patchy at best: LA, Vancouver, the big cities, yeah, maybe it's kind of all right being yourself. Arkansas, or Alberta, maybe not so much. If you're 20-something, maybe it's no big deal; if you're in your 50s or 60s, maybe it's a little more difficult to wrap your head around. At least that’s what statistics are telling us about the current state of things.

The appearance of someone like Adam Lambert on the scene is still cause for cautious optimism, as I suggested in my last post. Our community is finally capable of raising such an assured young man (kudos to his parents, of course); and the likes of American Idol is prepared to support him -- if only for the dollar signs in their eyes. But we know too well we have not fully exited a time or place when all the dollars in the world would not breach the wall that went up when "homosexual" was whispered about you. Come to think of it, that wall used to spring up pretty fast when someone uttered so benign a word as "divorced" -- you baby boomers might remember that, when you were kids? And never mind the whispers, you weren’t even on the guest list if you were brown-skinned.

There was likewise a time (not yet past) when it was considered "not natural" to marry outside one's own race (operating on the flimsy assumption that each member of each race could remain “pure.”) It was once considered in certain quarters not "natural" for a woman to have desires, or to have them fulfilled. It was once considered not "natural" for women or people of African descent to be educated. And it was once considered "natural" in some circles to keep certain classes of human beings as slaves. All of these things have been changing, over the generations. Painfully slowly, for everyone crushed or crippled in the machinery of collective fear and oppressive policies. But visibly changing, nonetheless.

Society – the great collective of souls with hearts and minds indelibly marked by each other – is a fluid, living organism. It changes, adapts to new stimuli. It changes, because growth is life, and stasis is death. Norms change. “Normal” changes. Painfully, often with great sacrifice and also with great celebration.

Mostly, though, it changes one person, one small moment at a time.

Last January I had the privilege of being invited to preach at a local church on the Sunday following President Obama’s Inauguration week. (Oh yes, I am in Canada, but the world shared in that party.) I had been particularly captivated by the furious debate surrounding Obama’s inclusion of three very different clergymen, who were to lead prayers accompanying the public celebrations. Public prayer on such a scale doesn’t occur very often, and when it does it’s nearly always in response to some horrific tragedy such as 9/11. For once, we as a world community were held together in joy and thanksgiving, in not just one moment of public prayer, but three. That is a powerful force – to unite so many in an invocation, in a wish, in a sacred vision for peace and affirmation. I wanted to reflect on that in church that Sunday.

Oh, I noticed these particular clergy were (1) all male and (2) all Protestant (or at least, non-Catholic Christians), which was a gross oversight if one actually wants to make a statement about inclusiveness. But that sorry misstep was countered by other stark differences in their social locations.
Pastor Rick Warren (evangelical author of The Purpose-Driven Life) offered the prayer for the Inaugural moment itself; Rev. Joseph Lowery, lion of the civil rights movement alongside Dr. King, powerfully closed the Inaugural ceremony by invoking memories of a darker time in the American family, contrasted with the breaking light of a new day.

But the week had begun with an opening prayer for the Inauguration Concert at the Lincoln Memorial, for which Obama invited Episcopalian Bishop Gene Robinson. Rt. Rev. Robinson is a politicized, if not controversial public figure because he is openly gay. His prayer was conducted in advance of the concert’s live telecast – discuss that unfortunate coincidence amongst yourselves – but it was all over the internet.

I also wanted to share Rev. Robinson’s lovely blessing litany in church, since many probably missed it. And because I was addressing an active Affirming Congregation, it seemed especially pertinent.

O God of our many understandings, we pray that you will…

Bless us with tears – for a world in which over a billion people exist on less than a dollar a day, where young women from many lands are beaten and raped for wanting an education, and thousands die daily from malnutrition, malaria, and AIDS.
Bless us with anger – at discrimination, at home and abroad, against refugees and immigrants, women, people of color, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people…

At that point there was a bit of a commotion in the pews, and a man stood and shouted out in protest. He wasn’t completely coherent, at least from where I was standing, but his voice grew strong enough to say something to the effect that he would never be coming back, because the presence of gays in the church somehow spelled the end of the church … To which one of a gentle gay couple in the front pew replied rhetorically, “But we’re still here.”
The sanctuary door slammed behind the man, and a breathless silence hovered in the church. I resumed reading Rev. Robinson’s prayer where I had left off:

Bless us with discomfort –
Yes, that was the very next line, the place erupted in laughter, God smiled (I think) at the teachable moment, and I continued the service.

…at the easy, simplistic “answers” we’ve preferred to hear from our politicians, instead of the truth, about ourselves and the world, which we need to face if we are going to rise to the challenges of the future.
Bless us with patience – and the knowledge that none of what ails us will be “fixed” anytime soon, and the understanding that our new president is a human being, not a messiah.
Bless us with humility – open to understanding that our own needs must always be balanced with those of the world.
Bless us with freedom from mere tolerance – replacing it with a genuine respect and warm embrace of our differences, and an understanding that in our diversity, we are stronger.
Bless us with compassion and generosity – remembering that every religion’s God judges us by the way we care for the most vulnerable in the human community, whether across town or across the world.

During the communal prayers, later in the service, someone made a point of offering up the angry heart of the nameless man to God’s mercy and understanding. I think the rest of the congregation felt as compassionate and realistic about the conflicts we daily face, in small ways and in big ones.

“Bless us with discomfort.” This is a powerful prayer. Prepare us to be changed. Unbuckle our certainties and prepare us to grow. Discomfort is actually a critical part of creativity. My very spiritual friend, a creative writing teacher, calls it “divine discontent.” Adam Lambert pulled the tooth, popped the balloon, yanked the grist of speculation away from the media. Now he just wants to be a musician, create something worthwhile, and hopefully sell records.

Meanwhile the consumers and the pundits will have to squirm and twitch and decide if their horizons have grown broad enough for the likes of Adam Lambert … and for all those artists and executives and mechanics and clerks and students and regular folks behind him, who just want to be themselves, living and working among us.

Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us,
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun
Let us march on till victory is won.

James Weldon Johnson (1871 –1938)

Sunday, June 7, 2009


Kris Allen has my vote … for the classiest man of faith on prime-time television.

Oh yeah, he won that Fox TV talent thing last month? Yeah, that one. But the real drama, the storyline that put some reality in “reality” TV for once, was and is his new friendship with the runner-up, Adam Lambert. The understated Mr. Allen probably wasn’t looking to change the world when he auditioned for American Idol – he apparently wasn’t even looking to win, God bless him – but I think he and Adam together will deserve some credit for having altered the cultural landscape. I’m well aware that the lion’s share of press has gone to Adam Lambert, not to mention the stratospheric numbers he’s generated on Google. Yet, if Kris hadn’t played the part he did, Adam’s story would have been quite different. And not nearly so powerful.

Adam Lambert is completely magnetic, and not only because of his astounding voice. He has charisma, he has star power; and he has what many "stars" do not: manners. Grace. Thoughtfulness. And did anyone else mention he's as beautiful as a screen goddess (hair and makeup by The Cure)? Oh, you probably noticed that.
I had never watched an American Idol episode in my life. But one of my Fave Fab Females started sending me cryptic notes and pictures: "You have to see this guy. Click here, and here, and here...And oh, wait ‘til you hear him sing 'Brigadoon!' " 'Scuse me, Brigadoon? Sure, and there's internet footage of Adam in an elegant suit, singing The Prayer at the Yitzhak Rabin Tribute concert; there's him upstaging Val Kilmer in The Ten Commandments; there's some extraordinary clips of him vamping some hard-rock burlesque surrounded by dancers of various sexes and persuasions... the boy is clearly a club creature, openly glam, proudly theatrical, but also well-trained and a serious professional.

So he struts into American Idol's carefully contrived world, and apparently blows it apart, one sector at a time.

Week after week, he kept showing up and wowing his audience, and probably drawing in more and more people like me, who otherwise would never watch. I don't know what American Idol usually looks like, but it was pretty thrilling by ANY standards to see the likes of Glambert in full-throated sex-machine howl on Whole Lotta Love -- and props to the band who also rode it hard -- in American prime time.
Yet, at the end of every Idol performance, he steps out of his hellcat prowl (or purr) and instantaneously becomes the boy next door. He's articulate and self-aware, shrewd about his career but spontaneous enough to gush about the cool outfits he gets to wear for work. The world is his oyster now, and he will be one to watch for the next few years (especially once he's off the Idol leash, after this year's tour).

Adam is a compelling personality because he appears so completely at ease in his own skin -- and in this world. He knows what he's good at; he knows what he has to work at, he's educated about his medium. His confidence -- however hard-won it might have been -- is ... well, kind of infectious. He treats everyone with respect and puts people at ease. In a word, he is likeable. Flamboyant, theatrical, goth, guyliner and all, he is genuinely likeable.
But he is more than just "nice." So much more. He doesn't speak in spiritualized terms, but he does speak with disciplined positivity and, I dare say, a certain sense of mission about acceptance and inclusion of difference. Given a new and vast platform, he's using it to encourage parents to applaud and support their children who are a little "different," who want to be creative. Send them to dance class, give them vocal training. "Artists are a little bit special, they need the support," he says.

Now, the (pink) elephant in the room is nudging me to mention the difference that all of America is talking about, and it ain't about practicing scales. But Adam has been more honest than any of the speculators or gossips, because all of us know of some poor boy who was taunted and tormented and called "gay," NOT because he yet had any carnal inclinations at all, but simply because he was different. Adam's is the most relevant message we could hope for, because he refuses to let anyone be reduced to labels and be filed coldly in some moralistic category.
And he may just be the most effective messenger we could want, a goth boy of the demi-monde who is perfectly comfortable with Middle America (read: American Idol); but one who respects that audience enough to offer them "something maybe they didn't know they wanted." Creativity is his message, more than cultural disruption. He isn’t Marilyn Manson – he wants not to bludgeon his audience, but to woo them.

But none of that fully explains why he's on my blog.
It’s true that audacious creativity and originality and self-awareness like Adam's does alone merit spiritual reflection. The creative process is a deeply spiritual process, even in those who would never call it that. So I'm not presuming anything about Adam's beliefs.
I do think he’s an old soul. Yet, prudently he has no pretensions to Deep Thoughts or Political Statements (in public), he says he just wants to sing, and be judged on his art. Of course he’s more sophisticated than that, and he knows full well that asking to be judged for his art alone IS his political statement.

Countless commentators wanted the Idol competition to be about more than just singing. With Danny Gokey rounding out the Top Three, many wanted to make it a tally of endorsements for, oh, shall we call it “lifestyles?” You know, Danny (and likewise Kris, the dark horse bringing up the rear), the card-carrying Christian versus Adam the flamboyant one who hasn’t said he’s gay.
Let us pause to decode that snapshot of American pop culture. In social shorthand, those characterizations imply juxtapositions, i.e. a Christian can’t be flamboyant, and the one who “looks gay” can’t (or wouldn’t) be Christian; or, the one is restrained, temperate, and “good,” the other is … not. (Alternatively, the one is open, creative, and "good" -- while the other is not!)
Whatever. Moving on now, to real three-dimensional people, and the reason Adam Lambert and Kris Allen are important to our spiritual health.

Now, it is American Idol after all, folks: it is a popularity contest. And in the end, maybe the guyliner was a little more than America could stomach in its new American idol. But the punchline in this story is that it wasn’t squeaky-clean Danny whose votes ousted Adam. The showdown finale was between Kris and Adam – tagged respectively, Christian and flamboyant, yes, but demolishing the rules of American hit television by refusing to stay in their boxes.

I know next to nothing about Kris Allen’s non-musical life, except that he’s married, he calls himself Christian and he’s done missionary work across the world. I heard about the exchanges among the other contestants that made reference to what is supposedly “godly” and right in relationships, but Kris’s name wasn’t part of that. I don’t know what kind of Christianity he practises, or how he envisions his God. I do know this: he declares himself Christian to the television audience – i.e. to the world; and he freely, publicly, verbally, and especially non-verbally, loves Adam Lambert like a brother.

The blogosphere of Idol fans --"prolific" hardly suffices -- have dedicated millions of keystrokes to the warm relationship between Adam and Kris.
I needn't reiterate what everyone from to the New York Times and Ryan Seacrest have had to say about the contrasts between the two men. There’s the obvious: LA glamboy, Arkansas country boy; but also their personalities could not be more distinct. Kris was self-effacing even in his moment of triumph, while Adam was eating the Idol soundstage for lunch with Feelin' Good and Whole Lotta Love. Meanwhile they were assigned as roommates in the mansion midway through the season, and they obviously clicked.
They’ve both spoken freely about becoming friends, and joked publicly about their differences. Online fans have dubbed their relationship a "bromance," which is charming and maybe not inaccurate; nonetheless it is flip and much shallower than the bond that is apparent between them.
In an interview the day after the finale, Adam departed from the usual breezy soundbytes required of him to emphasize what he felt was most important about the competition -- that the friendship and respect between himself and Kris might be an example for others in transcending difference, for the reward of becoming enriched by it. Both of them become animated when they talk about how much their new friendship has meant to them. Still, their words never exceed generalities.

But pictures do.

One blogger dedicated a whole .jpg- and .gif-stuffed page to the story of the “bromance,” which brings together all the images (collated from a hundred other sources online) that speak more eloquently than any interview. Kris really isn’t much of a talker anyway, and Adam is nothing if not deliberate and professional in his public comments. But body language is like soul-talk, direct and poetic. Certainly between Adam and Kris, it has been.

Watching them together, both before and after the results, we saw no wariness or distance between them (compared with, say, Danny’s cold, take-no-prisoners duet with Kris). And heck, didja see those hugs?? Sure, there’s a lot of hugging on Idol, and I take most of it as genuine: the 5 months of competition are grueling, especially for the finalists, and I’m sure many of them feel a bit like comrades-in-arms. Certainly Kris and Adam must have felt like that.

But their physical way with each other is more than social or circumstantial.

And let me make this abundantly, loudly, perfectly clear: I AM NOT TALKING ABOUT ROMANTIC ATTRACTION. Kris obviously loves his adoring wife, and Adam is quite capable of feeling platonic love for other men, hey, just like regular folks. So let my words not be misconstrued in any way, shape or form. End of Disclaimer.

A brilliant (and hilariously insane) male blogger from the equally brilliant website Television Without Pity summed up the sub-cultural tremors we are feeling this way: And if that's the choice that America's handing us -- the choice between these two men who are soft, but manage to be anything but weak, and are the only two out of the whole Top Twelve you could say that about -- that's the best news I've heard in a long, long time.

Say amen, brother. It’s joyously evident that Kris has no qualms whatsoever about his trust in Adam, or about the message he’s sending to viewers. When they hugged, they hugged for real – there was none of the typical back-slapping not-too-close! hugs between men in public. To pick just one, there’s a telling moment in front of the press corps immediately after Kris’ win. Adam is patiently doing his post-episode 10-minute Q&A beside the Fox logo, when Kris comes around the corner into camera range and nearly tackles Adam with a broadside bear-hug. It’s spontaneous, genuine, and affectionate, for the world to see.

They’ve had each other’s backs. They’ve learned from each other, and they’ve advocated for each other. With and for each other they are respectful and generous. Open. Trusting. And loving.
Adam Lambert could not be happier for his friend, Kris Allen, American Idol 2009. And Kris Allen admires and celebrates the extraordinary gifts of his larger-than-life friend, Adam Lambert.

Kris Allen is my kind of Christian.

Monday, June 1, 2009


Now, where were we before I was interrupted?

Hmm, I was having significant qualms about my relationship with my workplace and the work I was doing there, and then U2 came along and lit a fire underneath me about originality and authenticity, and speaking one’s own word truly and faithfully into the world. And then I quit my job and went on vacation.
Now the dust has settled, and I’ve returned to the job in retail from which I’d taken an indefinite leave (thank God for collective agreements). It is not a creative or powerful job, but it’s a good one that pays the mortgage and most importantly, pays my way through grad school.

The questioning I’d been doing about “authenticity” did not begin when I heard U2’s No Line on the Horizon… but it’s not unreasonable to say the album provided the beginning of some answers. The work I was doing for a year and a half (having taken a leave from school) was important work for social justice – but almost from the start of it, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this job wasn’t mine to do. It felt like I was doing someone else’s work. So I constantly debated myself:
social justice! Just what you’ve wanted!
Countered by: But not this! My strongest skills – writing, speaking, teaching – aren’t even in play here!
-- But this work matters, affecting people where they live, in their day-to-day lives!
– but you want to open their eyes to their spirits, to examine what love really is, in their day-to-day lives …

And then there’s Bono, shouting to the world: Magnificent! I was born to sing for You – I didn’t have a choice… Daring to be original, daring to make his work in the world BIG. My biggest fear was that returning to my old job would make me, or my calling, smaller somehow. But now after a month back at it, nothing could be further from the truth. The retail job leaves me as soon as I leave it after 8 hours; my mind has room again for theology and creativity. This school year I will take 4 courses, which nearly completes the requirements for my degree. And I feel like myself again: I don’t feel like I’ve given myself away.
God’s call sometimes takes surprising forms, eh? I heard the call to do the work of God’s love in the world, and I thought I would know what it would look like. Intellectually I concluded that I’d landed in the right place to develop an appropriate form of “ministry” (not to be mistaken for traditional evangelism!) in the secular world. But my heart, my guts – my frustration – kept informing me otherwise. An unexpected but very rich lesson. God kept calling, even after I thought I had “found what I’m looking for.” And it took me awhile, but I listened – not knowing for sure that everything would be hunky-dory on the other side of it – but it couldn’t be ignored. And now, I couldn’t be happier.
I have no regrets, mind you: certainly the experience and skills I gained on the job are invaluable. My mistake was in thinking that I’d reached my destination. Apparently I’m still on my way there…
… in some very good company. (see below!)

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Thursday, March 19, 2009


Entering the final movement of the album, things turn kind of cinematic ... Word-pictures blend vivid snapshots with hard reflections on the trajectory of one’s life. I’ve heard that White As Snow is destined for use in a film about a soldier in Afghanistan. I try to avoid such information in advance of hearing a song, but this is one of those cases where it really does enhance what is already powerful in it.

O Come O Come Emmanuel, for starters – the melody on which this lovely, painful song is based. U2 has never done such a thing -- borrowed a traditional tune, or been so direct in Christian references. You can't help but think of The First Time, an equally audacious gospel reflection on … well, cynicism, really; plainspoken and purely sung in an era of irony and overkill, I know that The First Time is a touchstone for many Christians among U2’s fanbase. White as Snow takes on a third-person voice – clearly, as Bono describes a childhood landscape that is nothing like Ireland – of someone far from home … and far from the certainty he once knew. If only a heart could be as white as snow…

Many years ago through a dark night of the soul, I heard Amazing Grace in the most unlikely, incongruous setting. Having run off to a strange town where I knew no one, I attended a dinner theatre for a one-woman show about the life and music of Janis Joplin. I like Janis for all kinds of reasons, and I certainly needed the input of a ballsy artist at that point in my life. But when out of the blue (or out of Janis’ own dark night), the singer-actress offered up Amazing Grace … I was so overcome I sobbed through the last 20 minutes of the show. Way back then, I had no idea what a hold the Holy Spirit had on me. I only knew that the song touched a very raw and defenseless place in my soul.

I’m a little more self-aware now … but just the same, when Bono the carefully nonsectarian activist poet sings Who can forgive…?/Only the lamb as white as snow, to an ancient devotional tune, I’m unprepared. Like Amazing Grace that night – when somebody else, especially a distant stranger, reaches into the intimacy that Christ shares with me (as with each of us) there is no covering my nakedness. There is no other response but to weep. This song tells the truth about the pain of distance from our faith ... or more to the point, about our loneliness for God. Bono's measured, unaffected performance is a gift (if he'll indulge me) of faithful confession.
The road refuses strangers
The land, the seeds we sow
Where might we find the lamb as white as snow?

The nearly-final song makes the big noise that we're more accustomed to from U2: guitar and keyboard capturing the world's teetering, flailing off-balance me-mania -- I wasn’t gonna buy just anyone’s cockatoo…Would you?? -- And then flooding it with the light of our choice to love.
Breathe – I know the title’s been used elsewhere, but no other song sounds like this. It truly came alive when I caught the band’s appearances on Letterman, to introduce this material. It was spectacular – Bono was working to reach those new notes, but throwing his body from a jaded sneer into this gospel shout:
Every day I die again, and again I’m reborn/Every day I have to find the courage to walk out into the street with arms out/Got a love you can’t defeat, Neither down nor out…

Countercultural in all the best senses, the song careens through a tour of a slippery, slimy, frantic world that tries to tell you who to be, and what to buy to get there. It takes work, brothers and sisters, to be in the world but not of it, you have to think about it, you need courage, like he says, and in the end you’ll remember --There’s nothing you have that I need/I can breathe, breathe now…What a defiant, fireworks finish to an extraordinary ride.

How scary is the world, anyway? What’s it gonna do to you? Choose the finest risk of all, choose love – as loud as you can.
Walk out, into the sunburst street
Sing your heart out, sing my heart out
I’ve found grace inside a sound
I found grace, it’s all that I found


…Let me in the sound: I found grace, it’s all that I found…
He actually said that. And I thrill every time I hear him shout it, every time I recall the sheer size of the performance I saw on TV… they are as thrilled with this music as I am, I think. They should be. It feels like vision has broken open, and the Light is getting in. The ghosts aren’t real.
I’ve found grace inside a sound…
And I can breathe
Breathe now


But unexpectedly, the album ends on a coda, the evocative Cedars of Lebanon. On first hearing, I wasn’t so sure I liked the abrupt turn away from the road we’d just travelled. It didn’t take long for the song’s hard-bitten ironies and pensive insights to hook me, though. Bono’s deadpan talk-singing wrapped in silky, undulating layers of sound – and punctuated by that same floating “Sunshine…” chorus from Unknown Caller. As an alienated reporter ponders the spiritual contribution of his enemies, voices from above implore, Return the call to home…
This story’s not over yet.