Friday, July 18, 2008

What's authenticity got to do with it?

authenticity- The modern ideal of being true to oneself.

Last night I was leading our ongoing book discussion of "Christianity for the Rest of Us" by Diana Butler Bass, in which she examines spiritual practices among vital mainline churches. Now there's a concept for you- "vital mainline churches". It's an engaging book and our conversations this summer have been fun, often thought provoking, and sometimes deeply challenging of how we currently experience church together. You could say a sub-theme of our
conversations has been, seeking a church for the "21st century."

Out of the blue, in the course of our time together, someone piped up: "We're looking for the perfect worship experience." Now I couldn't figure out where that comment came from, because we were discussing the search for "diversity" as an image of God's dream for the church.
Right back out of the blue I said, "I gave up on looking for the perfect worship service a long time ago." I'm hungry for what's real and authentic, both in worship and in the preaching I'm called to share with a community of faith. Most of all I'm drawn to living an authentic faith as a human being. Perfection just isn't in the equation for me.

As someone who serves the church, with a call to ministry as a pastor, that means being perfect can't ever be the ideal. Once you get trapped in that mind-set, what level of grace do you have to offer others. At the same time, I care about how I lead worship and how I preach. So what does that mean? For me, it comes down to whether I'm passionately engaged with worship and preaching. The way I see it, if I'm not moved and shaken and energized by what I'm preaching about, why should I expect anyone else to be.

A new book on preaching speaks about what I'm seeking and trying to offer in preaching and what I hope to find with others in a genuine practice of faith. That search comes down to authenticity. A recent book about the preaching life examines what that means.

The book is "Preaching Words" by John McClure. McLure writes that "authenticity is often used to describe preachers who seem to be openly human, searching, and accessible in the pulpit. Authentic preachers do not represent themselves as removed, perfect, or on a pedestal, but through various forms of self-disclosure and identification, attempt to communicate a genuine desire for self-awareness and self-knowledge. The goal is to achieve the relational authority of one who with listeners is on a search for their real humanity."

Now, I resonate deeply with what McClure is saying. In fact, I just don't see any other way to be.
Gone are the days, in my experience, where a preacher can pontificate from some remote celestial platform about the struggles to love, believe, and have hope. Too much hypocrisy and phoniness has been exposed in the church and among preachers to pretend otherwise. And younger generations, just on principle, don't buy any ideal of perfection. They haven't seen it in their own families, in churches, or anywhere else in society. And they just don't trust preachers who claim perfection! Like I said to our book discussion group, I gave up on the ideal of a perfect worship service quite some time again. After all, life is messy and far from perfect. What I do respect is passion and an effort to offer the best we have, with what we've got.

So, I say we in the church are invited to search for authenticity in our experience with each other and in our faith. Think how freeing and grace-filled that journey could be! We might have some meaningful words to share with one another about that kind of pilgrimage.

Monday, July 14, 2008

It ain't no sin to be glad you're alive- The promise of Bruce Springsteen

Long car trips are often times for me to enjoy a good book and listen to some good music.
Doing both is great, but only when I'm not driving! My wife and I drove to Milwaukee, WI a few days ago to see our son, who has started his internship year in medicine. I got to read and listen to music; my wife got to drive. And we were both happy.

No one has sung better songs about the road as a journey of exploration and search for identity than Bruce Springsteen. Seeing him in concert this past May in Omaha with my son was one of life's great thrills. I had introduced my son to the "Boss" years ago, and then we heard him live.

While on my car trip to Milwaukee, I read Eric Alterman's book on Springsteen: "It ain't no sin to be alive: the promise of Bruce Springsteen." The book was written in 1998, just as the E Street Band was coming back on the road with Springsteen after a 10 year hiatus, after Springsteen got married and had 3 children and had taken time to explore new musical possibilities. It was a time when Springsteen, according to Alterman, was growing deeply as a human being, and not just as an artist. Becoming a parent can do that to you.

In a November 2007 interview with Rolling Stone Magazine, Springsteen speaks about the meaning of his songs:

"they're all about the American identity and your own identity and the masks
behind the masks behind the masks, both for the country and for yourself. And trying to hold onto what's worthwhile, what makes it a place that's special, because I still believe it is. The American idea still has enormous power in its best manifestation. And ten George Bushes cannot bring that idea down--a hundred cannot bring that idea down."

"What's the social side" of the identity question has inspired some of Springsteen's most powerful song writing. He isn't afraid to address political questions in his music and art; in fact, he's been fearless in that regard. The "Boss" has united the prophetic side of faith with the priestly and pastoral/healing side of faith in his spirituality. That's what I find so compelling about him.

I think no one offered a more compelling pastoral/healing contribution to the American psyche than Bruce Springsteen did post 9/11 in "The Rising". In "The Rising", Springsteen imagines one of those courageous fire/rescue workers entering the World Trade Tower buildings: "May your faith give us faith. May your love give us love. May your hope give us hope." That was healing song at its best. The sadness of the past years has been the political calculus that turned the American people away from that affirmation, and traded it in for a politics of fear. Since when did that define the American spirit, Springsteen asks.

'Is there anybody alive out there?" Springsteen keeps asking in this society that seeks to anesthetize us and render us passive to the massive forces of consumerism, redemptive violence, and narcissistic individualism. And yet Springsteen also knows the power of love, the magical quality of attraction between two human beings, as stated so appealingly on the "Magic" album song "Girls in their Summer Clothes".

Back to Alterman's treatment of Springsteen. Alterman is one of our best political commentators right now. See his blog on

Alterman speaks of Springsteen as "the mythos of rock'n'roll sprung to life". A painful home life growing up, a father who refused his blessing and heaped scorn on Springsteen's musical aspirations, an Italian ethnic heritage, a sense of marginalization, rebellion against a strict Catholic school education; all this and more fueled the inner fire to hit the open road to explore identity and to create a sense of self.

Springsteen expresses this search in the song lyric:

Now every man has the right to live
The right to a chance to give what he has to give
The right to fight for the things that he believes
For the things that come to him in dreams.

As I read Alterman's book about Springsteen's life and music, I came away with a renewed appreciation for what the Boss has been doing in his music. While he has certainly been a popular artist in many ways, Springsteen has also examined the political and religious concerns of "being alive". As someone once commented, there are really only 3 issues worth sustained conversation: Religion, Sex, and Politics. After that, what else is there? Springsteen fearlessly and hopefully sings about all three dimensions of our existence. Take away any of those three themes and life is pitifully reduced in scale and passion.

In a blog spot invitation, Alterman once invited fans of Springsteen to share what he has meant to them. Here are a few of those responses:

  • "He makes me feel like I belong in this world."
  • "Bruce Springsteen's art keeps my conscience alive."
  • "He matters to me because he is like my backup heartbeat."
  • "He has opened places in my mind, provided me with music to live my life, given me solace in my grief, provided me with joy for celebrations, introduced me to lifelong friends, raised my blood pressure, increased my heart rate, added smile lines to my face, and made me dance on a a folding chair and scream, 'Gooba, gooba, gooba."
As a person of faith and a pastor, I ask myself. "Has my experience of church and faith offered that much passion and joy?" Is that a description of what the church at its best should offer?
Personally, I think so.

At the end of Alterman's exploration of Springsteen's life and music, he offers up this wonderful
piece of philosophy from the Boss. The "greatest challenge of adulthood," Springsteen once explained, "is holding on to your idealism after you lose your innocence."

On his recent "Magic" tour with the E Street Band, I heard that evocative question:
"Is there anyone alive out there?" And I screamed, standing beside my son:
"Yes, we're alive!"