Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Country Music Theology

Ray Noble Price, "The Cherokee Cowboy," died of pancreatic cancer in 2013.  His baritone voice and his songs spanned sixty-plus years of country music and thus a good portion of my life.  When I was 17 years old, Price recorded an album entitled "Faith" which nurtured my young life then, and has continued to do so through the years.  The LP album is still boxed away somewhere, the cassette version was chewed up in the tape player some years back, and I now listen to the music on a CD.  There was one song that spoke to me in those early years and speaks to me still, even after years of theological study and reflection.  The song was written by Stuart Hamblin and sung by both Hank Snow and Ray Price.

"How Big is God"
Though man may strive to go beyond the wreath of space
To crawl beyond the distant shining stars
This world's a room so small within my Master's house
The open sky but a portion of His yard
How big is God?  How big and wide His vast domain?
To try to tell these lips can only start
He's big enough to rule His mighty universe
Yet small enough to live within my heart
As winter chill may cause the tiny seed to fall
To lie asleep till waked by summer's rain
The heart grown cold will warm and throb with life anew
The Master's touch will bring the glow again
How big is God?  How big and wide His vast domain?
To try to tell these lips can only start
He's big enough to rule His mighty universe
Yet small enough to live within my heart

A few years ago I  attended a Ray Price concert.  He was 82 years of age at the time.  After the concert I spoke with him.  I told him how much his album "Faith" and his rendition of "How Big is God" had meant to me through the years.  His humble response was "Thanks so much, but it's the words and the music that makes the difference, not the voice that shares them," and with a warm smile he autographed his photo for me.  I wish I had been quick enough to respond and say, "Perhaps so, but it was your voice that brought those words and music to me through all these years."

After all the theological books read, and after all the lectures and seminars attended, this one simple country music song still remains my theological stance.  I know it is simplistic.  I know there are serious intellectual flaws in it.  But it is for me the core of my theological thinking and experience.  "How big is God?  How big and wide His vast domain?  To try to tell these lips can only start.  He's big enough to rule His mighty universe, yet small enough to live within my heart."

Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Mysterious Mix of Life

An old preacher began his sermon with this introduction:  "This morning I'm going to explain to you the unexplainable.  I am going to define the indefinable.  I'm going to ponder the imponderable.  I'm going to unscrew the inscrutable."  How I wish I could do all that as I ponder the mysterious mix of life.

A few years ago an old friend stopped by to visit.  It had been thirty years since we last connected.  I hardly recognized him--the truth is--I did not recognize him.  Thirty years ago he had hair.  Thirty years ago he was in good physical shape, weighing in at about 170 pounds.  Oh, but you should see him now!  He weighs in at about 250 pounds and most of that is hanging over his belt!  Thirty years ago everyone thought he was on the road to a great career, but he didn't make it.  Some of this I suppose was his own fault, but what could he do about his loss of hair or the consequences of various decisions and chance happenings in his life, some of which he had no control over.  In life there is a mysterious mix of many things, some conscious, some unconscious, and many of these are totally outside one's control.  Various myths are inculcated; genes inherited, psychological issues are present, background plays a huge role, chance happenings occur, relationships are developed and lost, accidents happen, choices are made (some conscious, some unconscious) and opportunities are accepted or lost.  All these things play a part in the life of every person and very often these things control our lives much more than we know.

A study was done of 268 men who entered Harvard in 1936.  Their lives were observed over the next 70 years.  When the study began, the sociologists attempted to predict what life would hold for each of these men.  But the predictions were way off.  They lived out their lives in ways that defied all predictions.  Each life was unique--and while they all started at Harvard--and had somewhat the same opportunities--their life journeys were totally different.  Life's mysterious mix had much to do with it.  Some developed physical problems based on their family history; some made unwise choices; others were tumbled over by life circumstances beyond their control.  Life is a mysterious mix of many ingredients.

Have you ever wondered what happened to your college classmates?  Where are they now forty or fifty years later?  How did they get there and why?  Who could have guessed?  Or have you ever wondered where you would be if you had taken another road than the one you chose?  Did you consciously choose that road or did it just happen?  Where would you be now?  Who could have predicted the many twists and turns of your life or mine?  Have you ever wondered why one person dies in a tragic accident or by fatal illness at a young age?  Have you ever wondered about how one person lives to be 95 and another 35?  Life is a mysterious mix--and despite our best efforts and fondest hopes and dreams, life does not always shape up the way we want or think it should.  Life is a mysterious mix of paradox and sometimes even wimp.

Some will say that it is all in the will of God.  Does God operate on a whimp, choosing this person above the other for success, for poverty, for destiny, for death, for accident?  I find that ludicrous and irrational!  Does a person then determine his or her own life journey?  No, that doesn't work either and is just as irrational.  Oh, how I wish I could explain the unexplainable, define the indefinable, ponder the imponderable, and unscrew the inscrutable!

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Noticing the Other Person

I once read a story about a fellow who dies and finds himself in a shimmering realm.  He thinks to himself, "I guess I was better than I thought."

An angel approaches him.  The angel ushers him into a regal banquet hall in which an immense table is laid out with unimaginable delicacies.  He is seated at the table with many others and a choice selection of food is served.  As he picks up his fork and prepares to eat, the angel comes from behind and straps thin boards on the back of his arms so he cannot bend his elbows.  As he continues trying to pick up the food, he becomes aware that the boards prevent him from getting it to his mouth.  He cannot maneuver in order to feed himself.

Looking about, he notes that all the other people around the table have their arms similarly strapped to boards so that they cannot bend their arms either.  They are grunting and groaning as they attempt to get food into their mouths.

So the man turns to the angel standing beside him and says, "This must be hell?"  "Uh, huh," says the angel.  "What about heaven?" asks the man?

So the angel shows him into another huge banquet hall in which there sits another great table ladened with an equally delectable array of food.  "Ah," says the man, "this is more like it!"  And sitting down, he is about to help himself once again when another angel comes and ties boards to the back of his arms so that, once again, he cannot bend his elbows to feed himself.  Lamenting that this is the same maddening situation as hell, he looks about in his dismay and notices that, at this table, there is something different happening.

Instead of people trying desperately to help themselves, straining against the rigidity of their arms, each person is holding his or her arm straight and feeding the person on either side.  Each person is feeding the person next to him/her and everyone in the room is completely satisfied.

"So this is heaven!" the man finally realizes.  And the angel standing beside him says, "Uh, huh."

The difference between heaven and hell according to this little story is that hell is where one is wholly focused on feeding oneself, paying no attention to anyone else.  Heaven, on the other hand, is all about noticing, helping, lifting, feeding, and caring about the other person next to us.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

The Toxicity of Words

Human speech, says the writer of the Epistle of James in the New Testament, seems innocent enough.  After all, the tongue is just a small part of the body.  Yet despite its size, the tongue is like a bit that controls a horse or a rudder that steers an enormous ship.  The tongue can burn like a raging forest fire incinerating everything it touches.  It can corrupt both the subject and the object of speech.  What we say to one another can be "full of deadly poison" that kills.
"With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men and women, who have been made in God's likeness.  Out of the same mouth comes praise and cursing.  My brothers, my sisters, this should not be.  Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring?"   James recommends that "everyone should be quick to listen and slow to speak."
In practice, most of us tend to be just the opposite, quick to speak and slow to listen!  The power of the uncontrolled tongue is a serious problem.  Our words have power--power for good or for evil.  What we say to one another can exclude or embrace, heal or humiliate, lift up or tear down.  Most of us still carry the wounds from criticisms heaped on us years ago.  Most of us can still remember a compliment given, even though it was given many decades ago.  The power of the tongue is an awesome power!
What we say to one another or about one another reveals more about us than about the person to whom or about whom we speak our words.  That's a scary part about toxic talk--it reveals the character of our own inner identity.  We project on others that which we refuse to deal with within ourselves.  We put other people down in order to raise ourselves up or to insure our own superiority.
Watch your tongue!  In the gospel of Matthew (12:34-37) we read that we will have to give an account for every careless word we have spoken.  Now that is really scary!