Thursday, December 29, 2005

Why, and how, Bono matters

Since my last post about Bono and U2, the Irish singer and prophet who calls for ending extreme poverty in Africa has received wider acclaim. Time Magazine featured him on the year end cover with Bill and Melinda Gates as Time’s Persons of the Year.
All three are deserving! All three are making amazing contributions to better the lives of the poorest of the poor. Too bad for Bill Gates and Microsoft that Apple beat them to the punch in launching the IPod with Bono and U2!

So, at year’s end, Bono has been featured on the covers of three magazines: Time just recently, The New York Times Magazine cover in September with the title, “The Statesman: Why, and how, Bono matters,” and of course Rolling Stone in the November issue featuring an interview with editor Jann S. Wenner.

The Times Magazine story features Bono’s humanitarian work and the New York Times Magazine story focuses on Bono’s political skills in mobilizing aid to Africa. Strikingly,
Rolling Stone examines Bono’s spiritual life in some depth. Here are some of the Rolling Stone spiritual questions:
What role did religion play in your childhood? “I knew that we were different on our street, says Bono, because my mother was Protestant. And that she’d married a Catholic. At a time of strong sectarian feeling the country, I knew that was special.”
Did you feel religious when you went to church? “Even then I prayed more outside church than inside. It gets back to the songs I was listening to; to me, they were prayers.”
Your early songs are about being confused, about trying to find spirituality at an age when most anybody else your age would be writing about girls and trouble.
Yeah. We sorta did it the other way around….The music that really turns me on is either running toward God or away from God. Both recognize the pivot, that God is at the center of the jaunt.
What is your religious belief today? What is your concept of God?
Bono: “If I could put it simply, I would say that I believe there’s a force of love and logic in the world, a force of love and logic behind the universe. And I believe in the poetic genius of a creator who would choose to express such unfathomable power as a child born in ‘straw poverty’; ie. the story of Christ makes sense to me.

Social and spiritual commentators like Leonard Sweet have been observing for some time now, that there’s a high tide of spirituality in the culture at large that largely seems to have by-passed the church. In some ways, Bono is an example of that. In church life it often feels like spirituality is about “niceness”, until someone like Bono comes along –and many others too- who find that “niceness” doesn’t do justice to God or to the path they feel they have to walk in finding the truth about life. I find Bono’s split religious parentage fascinating, an Irish Protestant mom and a Catholic father. I wonder if it speaks to his spiritual and political ability to bridge a lot of divides in the world, that keep people separated in their nice, safe, and often narrow points of view.

There’s a poem by Seamus Heaney, Irish poet, whose work influences Bono, especially in “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb” that aptly describes Bono’s convictions:
“History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.

So hope for a great sea-change”

Ready or Not, Here Life Comes!

Since my last blog posting, I’ve been enjoying the company of all three of our sons during the Christmas break. I drove down to the University of Missouri before Christmas to pick up our two oldest sons, Scott who is a sophomore there and Jason who is in his second year of med school. Our youngest, Daniel, is a high school sophomore.

This week I experienced one of those life transition moments as a parent , as Jason and Scott and I went test driving cars. Jason’s in the car market, and I’ve been impressed with his research skills in learning about good quality used cars from a variety of internet and consumer reports magazines. It’s his money, and he wants to make a good choice!
Great! So, we went to the local Honda dealership and drove a CRV small SUV and the latest Civic. Imagine all three of us guys in our family, over 6 ft. tall each, with the max at 6ft. 4in. Our sales consultant promised we could all easily fit in any of the Honda cars. He was right! After we got back, we talked and then the salesman brought out his sales manager, who must have been all of maybe 28 years old! What can we do to put you in a new car today, Jason? We all laughed and Jason said he was still doing research. Walking away from the dealership, Jason informed me, “That’s how they try to sell you, Dad.”

What can we do to put you in a new car? I’m proud that Jason is doing his homework and mastering the skills, with some of my help, to figure out what a wise choice will be for his needs. Mapping choices and decisions is a practical and spiritual discipline, as I continue to learn with my three sons.

This week I’ve been reading a great book, with the title: “Ready or Not, Here Life Comes”, by Dr. Mel Levine of the University of North Carolina, Director of the Center for Development and Learning. A few comments by Dr. Levine:

*”A particularly challenging period is the opening stages of life at work, the school-to-career years, a time that, although rarely thought of as distinct, may be one of the roughest to traverse. These are the start-up years…(and) most people are better prepared for their retirement than they are for the startup of their working lives!”
*”We are in the midst of an epidemic of work-life unreadiness because an alarming number of emerging adults are unable to find a good fit between their minds and their career directions.”
*Role models within a family are an endangered species. (6)
*”An adult must be able to chart her own road maps. They odyssey leading into adulthood can be a lonely and harsh voyage, especially if a startup adult is naïve and uninformed, if he’s never learned to be a mapmaker.”( 10)
*”Every parent and all educators want to believe they are preparing kids for the real world. But since that real world keeps changing, it should be obvious that teaching and parenting must keep pace …But are teaching and parenting keeping pace? I don’t think so.” (11)
*Mel Levine identifies 12 Growth Processes in the course of his book to help parents, educators, and young people discover insights into the question: “How Who I am and Who I’ve Been Might Tell Me Who I’ll Be.” (109)
*What I find helpful is the realization that, “Life inevitably contains launches. Entering a new job, getting married, having a child, or starting a business are common examples. Self-launching opens a chapter in a life story, a process through which we gather the tools we need and set off to do something more or less on our own.” (112)
*”How then do we ensure self-launching abilities are in place on time?”

Right now, in my life, I’m involved in helping three very important young men find the resources they need to launch themselves in life. I realize that I’ve learned a lot about doing that through the years from some important mentors. My own twenties involved self-launching without any parental help, because of the death of my mother and the estrangement of my father. In God’s grace, I’ve had the pleasure of making a contribution to my own sons.

Questions: Who has helped you launch in life? What was helpful? Do you agree our society makes it hard for young people to make a transition into adulthood? Why?

Friday, December 16, 2005

U2 rocks Omaha with atomic force!

U2 came to Omaha last night. Here’s what the review from the Omaha World Herald reported:
“With passion and precision U2 delivered an exhilarating concert that transcended entertainment. During the Irish rock band’s sold-out performance Thursday night at the Qwest Center of Omaha, the arena took on the reverence of a worship service and, at times, the urgency of a human-rights rally. Before a crowd of more than 16,000 fans, the band used its music to convey compassion, hope, tolerance and spirituality during a jubilant two hour and 20-minute performance.”

Wow!!! Doesn’t that say it all. U2 brings a postmodern sensibility to what “faith in the public arena” can feel and look like. Note the words in the review above: reverence, urgency, compassion, hope, tolerance, and spirituality.” Cap that off with the description of a jubilant experience, and you’ve brought together many of the strands of postmodern spirituality. Now, what does this say to the church? What are we seeking to convey?

In the Rolling Stone interview with Bono in November, there’s a striking picture of Bono facing out from the opening pages of the magazine. Against a black background, the face of Bono stares straight ahead, with a white blind-fold around his yes. On the blind-fold are letters for the word “COEXIST”. Only the X is the “Star of David” and the O is from the Muslim crescent moon. The last letter T is in the shape of the Cross of Christianity.
It’s Bono’s postmodern call to spiritual tolerance, to promote world peace. Now, for those of us who are Christians, this is perhaps the supreme spiritual invitation of our time.
Can we as passionate people of faith, live in a world where we respect the Muslim, the Jew, the Buddhist, the Hindu and others?

That’s all for today. I’m driving down to Columbia, Missouri to pick up my two sons from college. I imagine we’ll talk about U2 on the way home. That kind of conversation is something I missed with my own father. So, I connect with Bono’s song “Sometimes You Can’t Make It on Your Own”

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

U2 and Bono Coming to Town: Rock Star, Statesman, Different Kind of Christian

Omaha is set to welcome the super rock group U2 this coming Thursday, December 15 on its tour of the album “How to Dismantle An Atomic Bomb”. What an incredible string of concerts we’ve had in Omaha this year. Prior to U2 it was Paul McCartney, whose tickets sold out in about 15 minutes! Not much different with U2 I might add.
About the closest to either concert I could get, was knowing a couple of good friends who scored tickets. Omaha, believe it or not, now ranks as among the top 10 concert venues anywhere!

Back to U2 and Bono. I have developed a real passion for the music and social outlook of the band from Dublin. And I would like to share my thoughts about that in a few posts this week. First off, I find Bono a compelling figure on the world celebrity stage right now. He’s a rock star with a conscience and a genuine faith in the God of Jesus Christ.
Along with that comes the fire of a prophetic faith served straight from the Hebrew Scriptures and prophets like Isaiah and Micah.
“He has told you, O Mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?” Micah 6:8

Bono does a pretty good job with two out of three of Micah’s recommendations. The “walking humbly” part doesn’t really fit the outsized personality and ambitions of Bono.
He wants a world where the poor in places like Africa have a decent chance to move from the most extreme forms of poverty to what he and others call a “liveable poverty”.

Today, I’d like to introduce some of the interview Bono did for the November 2005 issue of Rolling Stone. In that interview, Bono speaks about growing up in Dublin, as Paul Hewson, a.k.a. Bono, with no thoughts that he would become the voice of the world’s biggest rock band, let alone a political activist who has revolutionized policy on debt relief in Africa. In that interview with editor Jann Wenner, Bono speaks about his complicated relationship with God and Christianity, his thoughts on his group’s musical legacy and his hopes for the future of the human race.

What was your childhood in Dublin like? (JannWenner)
I grew up in what you would call a lower-middle class neighborhood…a nice street and good people. And, yet, if I’m honest, a sense that violence was around the corner. Home was a pretty regular three-bedroom house….Mother departed the household early; died at the graveside of her own father. So I lost my grandfather and my mother in a few days, and then it became a house of men. And three, it turns out, quite macho men- and all that goes with that. The aggression thing is something I’m still working at. That level of aggression, both outside and inside, is not normal or appropriate.

The Dreamer: “ My father encouraged us not to dream; to dream was to be disappointed,” says Bono. “Which, of course, explains my megalomania.”

(Hart: Bono wrote an extraordinary song about his father on U2’s current cd,
“Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own”.
“You don’t have to put up a fight
You don’t have to always be right
Let me take some of the punches
For you tonight.”

It’s a song of great emotional depth, challenging the kind of destructive macho that lots of men seem to feel the world demands of them.)

Bono to Wenner:
You know that Johnny Cash song, “A Boy Named Sue” where he gives the kid a girl’s name and the kid is beaten up at every stage in his life by macho guys, but in the end he becomes the toughest man.

Wenner: “You’re the boy named Sue!”
Bono: (Yeah) By not encouraging me to be a musician, even though that’s all he (my dad) wanted to be, he’s made me one. By telling me never to have big dreams or else, that to dream is to be disappointed, he made me have big dreams. By telling me that the band would only last five minutes or ten minutes, we’re still here.”

(Hart: It’s this kind of transparency to the world that makes Bono such an appealing figure. He’s brutally honest with himself and his life story, and sometimes with other people, but there’s also an accepting kindness at work in his life. More about that tomorrow, when I take up the evolution of Bono as an activist and how he worked to convert former Sen. Jesse Helms to the cause of AIDS activism. What a conversion that was for the famous Senator “No”! from North Carolina, my home state.)

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Mary's Song

There are some stories that put the Advent/Christmas Season in perspective.
Like the story I came across recently, in the following news report.

In recent days, I learned, Prince Albert was officially enthroned as head of state of the tiny city state of Monaco off the coast of the Mediterranean. News reports indicated that Prince Albert- quite a charmer with the ladies it’s said- might have expected all eyes to be on him. Yet the world’s photographers had their cameras trained on the beautiful Princess Charlotte- the 19 year old niece of Prince Albert.

Princess Charlotte was described as a teenager who enjoys horse-riding, skiing, and snow-boarding. At age 5, she received the gift of her own private island, somewhere in the Mediterranean. She’s been shielded from the media in the hope she would be able to lead a “normal life”. Now, I’m thinking; what could a normal life be for someone like this anyway.

I also believe this. If most people in the world were thinking about a young woman who would be the right candidate to become the mother of the Prince of Peace- God’s child- Princess Charlotte would be easily nominated according to our celebrity culture.
She’s rich, beautiful, sheltered and protected; possessed of every advantage.

But God does this strange thing; according to Luke’s Gospel.
“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.” (Luke 1: 26-38)

Mary has no prominent family or station in life to draw attention to herself. She owns no islands; enjoys no wealth or special protection in a dangerous world. Yet the angel Gabriel speaks of her as the “favored one!” and tells Mary “The Lord is with you.”

What a wonderful detail Luke’s Gospel records in telling us that Mary was “much perplexed” by the angel Gabriel’s words. I feel a whole lot of breathing room in Mary’s response. If Mary, the mother of Jesus the Messiah, receives an angel sent directly from God to tell her she’s favored and she still feels “perplexed”, then there’s hope for me in struggling to know God’s will.

Yet it still seems right to recall Mary’s humble courage, her receiving and carrying and giving birth to Jesus, and her joy as she sang of the saving work of God in human history.
Two lines of her song are especially moving:

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” (Lk 1: 47)
“…he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.” (Lk. 1: 48)

Quite often, it seems we separate these two verses of Mary’s song. We church people
feel we know what it means to sing songs that magnify God’s goodness and power.
That’s a praise song we say to ourselves, and there have surely been numerous praise songs to that effect.

But Mary’s song makes a startling affirmation. This magnificent God has looked with favor upon the lowliness of his servant. What a powerful affirmation. God’s magnificence doesn’t come at our expense, or preclude looking upon us as human beings with “favor” and blessing.

When I hear Mary sing that “my song magnifies the Lord” joined with the phrase
He has looked with favor upon the lowliness of his servant, I hear two songs.
I hear the tones of J.S. Bach’s wonderful composition on this text, “The Magnificat”.
And I hear the mood and sound of a great African-American spiritual,
“Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen; nobody knows the troubles.” Learning Mary’s song entails a celebration of God’s magnificent goodness that leads us to rejoice in our spirits. Learning to sing with Mary also affirms that God looks with favor upon all those struggling with lowliness in life.

Mary sings a song of solidarity with the lowly, with poor mothers who struggle to feed their children. Mary sings with the African mother who carries a water jar on her head to reach water miles away. Mary sings with a mother who worries about the future of her children in a world with gunfire and famine. Mary sings with the single mother who is working to shelter and feed her children. Every mother and father, and every son and daughter, who has been in a low spot, a place of struggle, can know that Mary, the mother of Jesus, has been there with them. We can all learn Mary’s song this Christmas Season. It has far greater power, don’t you think, than singing, “Have yourself a merry little Christmas.”

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Gift wrapping for Heifer International

What’s a memorable pre-Christmas or Advent experience for you? Here’s a recent one for me and a few of my best friends. This past Saturday a group of us from The Oasis, a new Presbyterian Church in West Omaha, were joined by some other friends in a service project to benefit Heifer Project. Scheel’s Sporting Goods at Village Point Mall was delighted to have our group offer free Christmas gift-wrapping, in exchange for donations to Heifer Project, a really great organization that provides animals for food and agricultural purposes in poor countries and regions of the world. Now picture this. There we are gift-wrapping shot-guns, archery sets, basketballs, bison jerky, and for one family about $800 worth of winter coats. For the family buying coats, I was told it was their gift theme of the year. It took a while to gift wrap $800 worth of coats, so they told us they were headed for the nearest happy hour, till we were done!

In the madness of gift-wrapping thousands of dollars worth of Christmas gifts, I heard this story from one of our wrapping team members. She said her husband went down to Pascagoulah, Mississippi in September to help out with disaster relief following Hurricane Katrina. He expected to be there maybe ten days. Well, he stayed about two weeks and realized the clean-up job was enormous. So, he drove home to Omaha and asked his church and others to rent a Bobcat, a small earth moving piece of equipment,
so he could go back to help out. In no time at all several thousand dollars was raised; this man loaded the Bobcat on a flat-bed; and he headed back South. He got good as an operator of his Bobcat, working for two and a half months to clear out destroyed homes and up-rooted trees so other relief workers could do their jobs. He was having so much fun, his wife headed down to Pascagoulah for a couple of weeks to help out also. She said it was quite a sight getting there, because she was in a line of motor homes, trucks, semi-trailers and other vehicles. Most were church groups like, Baptist Men on a Mission, Presbyterian Disaster Relief, Methodist Relief Workers, and Catholic Charities.
What a sight! It reminds me of the prophet Isaiah, when he says to the Israelites in exile, that it’s time to prepare a way in the wilderness for God, to build a highway of hope for the people to return to Jerusalem. (Isaiah 40: 3-4) Building a “highway of hope” takes hard work; but it can surely be satisfying After the man with the Bobcat returned home, he told his wife it felt strange to be out of a job. I wonder! I bet other jobs will come…

Another cup of Caffeine for the Conscience- December 2, 2005

We’ve been discussing God’s Politics by Jim Wallis at Panera’s Bread Company for the last few weeks, with a neat group of people. Coffee seems to aid good conversation! I’d say it’s a real stimulant to good thought! On good authority, I’ve been told that Jim Wallis, who is also editor of Sojourner’s Magazine, will be coming to Omaha in April of 2006. He will be sponsored by Presbyterians for Peace and Justice, Creighton University, and Countryside Community Church. Following Wallis’ book, I posed the question,
When did Jesus become Pro-Rich? Actually, I started with another question, What is the most famous biblical text in America about the poor? It’s cited quite often, recently by Bill O’Reilly in one of his usual wrong-headed political opinion pieces in the local paper.
The verse in question is, “For you will always have the poor with you….(Mark 14:7)
That’s where O’Reilly stopped. The rest of the verse goes on to say, “For the poor you will always have with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you will.”
Jesus is assuming that his followers will always put themselves in close proximity to the poor and so will easily be able to help them. How close are we to the poor in America?

At our book discussion, we talked about experiences of being close to the poor. One man talked about the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He called it a place of despair, where the best thing they do is celebrate funerals. He explained. Since so many adults die at a young age from poverty and drug abuse, funerals are a common experience. At the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, they have learned how to grieve, but not how to hope.
Another young woman spoke about her mission experience in Malawi, in the southern part of Africa. She made a curious comment. I often felt more comfortable there among the poor people of Malawi than I do here in the United States. The people of Malawi are poor, but they are generous with what little they have, she said. Here in America, too often, we measure people by what they have and not by who they are. You could say we all had a strong jolt of caffeine for the conscience in our discussion of God’s Politics that night.

A Redemption Story - November 28, 2005

Wow! We saw a great movie over the week-end, Walk the Line. It’s the story of Johnny Cash and the story of his love for June Carter, played by Reese Witherspoon.
It’s also a story of human redemption. When I mentioned that in a sermon I had titled,
Antidote to Cynicism, a friend said it opened up a helpful way to understand the movie.
Oh, it does have great music and amazing singing by Joaquin Phoenix who plays Cash and Witherspoon who also sings really well. June Carter wrote the song “Ring of Fire” as an expression of the overpowering and even dangerous love that she and Johnny Cash shared. The movie ends at a period still early in Johnny Cash’s musical career, with 35 years of creative work still to follow. The 1990s were an especially fruitful period with the American Recordings series. If you want to see how the story of redemption plays out in Cash’s music, watch the award winning music video Hurt, a cover of a song by Nine Inch Nails. It offers powerful religious imagery.

Caffeine for the Conscience - November 17th

A good cup of coffee stimulates thinking and discussion. And I had been craving some of both, so I invited a group of some new and familiar friends to meet at Panera’s Bread Company for a discussion of God’s Politics, by Jim Wallis. Wallis is editor of Sojourner’s Magazine. The subtitle of Wallis’ book is noteworthy: Why the Right Gets It Wrong, and the Left Doesn’t Get It.

It was a Thursday night when about 12 of us sat down at some tables with our coffee in hand. I opened with a question. Why can’t we talk about things that matter most, like Religion-Sex-and Politics? Being something of an extrovert, I asked that question loudly enough for people at surrounding tables to hear it. Wouldn’t you know it?
Three people joined in, either pulling over their chairs or leaning in close enough to hear or comment. Now I ask you. Why is it when “nice” church people get together, they are often so downright boring in their conversation. It’s like we’re terrified of any disagreements. And that makes us boring! Someone has put it this way of us, “We are out there on the cutting edge of the uncontroversial.” Who wants to go there?

Wallis, in God’s Politics, observes that the 2004 Elections were supposed to have been determined by voters concerned with “values.” But as he put it, Which Values and Whose Values? The war in Iraq is a values issue; so is poverty; so is the economic stressors on families. Why is it conservatives are so often consumed with a narrow definition of morality, asks Wallis. And why are so many progressives so resistant to a discussion of faith and politics. Morality is about more than what happens in the bedrooms of America. What do you consider the chief moral issues?