Friday, November 18, 2022

The Boss' Five Best Songs of Faith

 My son and I were having a conversation about what we consider Bruce Springsteen’s best songs. After talking about some of our favorites, I started thinking about how he’s spoken about his (lapsed) Catholicism: he isn’t practicing, but he’s “still on the team.” He uses religious imagery pretty frequently. And he has famously said, of the way he structures his songs, “The verse is the blues, the chorus is the gospel.”

     It’s interesting how so much of popular music wrestles with, aspires to, and even embraces faith. I guess that’s  because those are themes common to humanity. 

     So, mostly for me and maybe a little bit for you, and in no particular order, here’s my list of Bruce Springsteen’s Five Best Songs of Faith. Try it with an artist you like. 

The Rising (from The Rising, 2002) 

    The title track from Springsteen’s response to the September 11 terrorist attacks tells the story of a New York City firefighter who comes to the scene “carrying the cross of [his] calling” — his NYFD insignia, based on the cross of St. Florian, the patron saint of firefighters. He ascends the stairs of the burning World Trade Center, surrounded by the “spirits” of those whose faces have “gone black” in the fire. “May their precious blood bind me,” he sings, “Lord as I stand before your fiery light.” 

     While the verse talks about fear, destruction, and death, the chorus invites us to resurrection: “Come on up for The Rising /Come on up, lay your hands in mine /Come on up for The Rising /Come on up for The Rising tonight.” Our firefighter sees “Mary in the Garden” — maybe Mary Magdalene on Easter morning, maybe a wife named Mary. Or maybe both.

     Author Jeffrey Symynkywicz calls the song "a national Good Friday experience if ever there was one.” In a moment of darkness for all of us, Springsteen called us to believe in “The Rising” — the hope of resurrection.

My City of Ruins (from The Rising, 2002)

    Springsteen wrote this song about his hometown, Asbury Park, New Jersey, years earlier, but included it on The Rising for obvious reasons. The lyrics tell of a city in decline, with “boarded-up windows,” “empty streets,” and “young men on the corner like scattered leaves.” In a particularly poignant line, he sings, “The church door's thrown open / I can hear the organ's song / But the congregation's gone.” “Tell me how do I begin again?” he asks.

     The answer comes in a refrain: “With these hands.” He intends to rebuild. He repeats that line 20 times, alternated with another: “I pray.” He prays for the strength, love, and faith to use his hands to rebuild what’s been ruined. The song captures the sorrow of loss and the hope that with faith in God human beings can rebuild what’s lost. It reminds me that God often does his reconstructive work with the hands of the faithful.

Badlands (from Darkness on the Edge of Town, 1978)

     This one is sneaky of me. It’s one of my favorite songs, period. It sounds at first listen like a typical Springsteen rocker about a guy who finds himself discouraged by his situation in life, who’s had his “back burned” by “working in the fields” and has his “facts learned” by “working beneath the wheels.” 

     But in the anger and disappointment, you might miss these lines: “I believe in the love that you gave me / I believe in the faith that can save me / I believe in the hope and I pray that someday / it may raise me above these badlands…”

     Faith, hope, and love. These three remain. 

Rocky Ground (from Wrecking Ball, 2012)

     This song is probably the most overtly religious of any in Springsteen’s catalog. It a line from a gospel song, “I’m a Soldier in the Army of the Lord,” looped throughout the refrain. From the opening lines, “Rise up shepherd, rise up / Your flock has roamed far from the hills,” and “angels…shouting ‘Glory, Hallelujah,” the song calls for those who would shepherd the wandering flock to listen. “Forty days and nights of rain have washed this land,” Springsteen sings, referring to the financial injustice that Wrecking Ball addresses, but “Jesus said the money changers in this temple will not stand.” “Find your flock, get them to higher ground,” he urges (political leaders, maybe?). “Flood waters rising and we're Caanan bound.” Maybe we all have responsibility as shepherds: “Tend to your flock or they will stray / We’ll be called for our service come Judgment Day / Before we cross that river wide / Blood on our hands will come back on us twice.”

     The song wants us to be soldiers, shepherds leading those who are struggling to safety over “rocky ground,” believing that “a new day’s coming.” But there’s doubt still, as captured in a rap section by Michelle Moore:

You use your muscle and your mind and you pray your best

That your best is good enough, the Lord will do the rest

You raise your children and you teach them to walk straight and sure

You pray that hard times, hard times, come no more

You try to sleep, you toss and turn, the bottom's dropping out

Where you once had faith now there's only doubt

You pray for guidance, only silence now meets your prayers

The morning breaks, you awake but no one's there.

Jesus Was an Only Son (from Devils and Dust, 2005)

     This is just a pretty little ballad in which Springsteen has said he wanted to “reach into the idea of Jesus…as somebody’s boy.” It begins with Jesus walking up Calvary, with Mary beside him. It flashes back to him laying at Mary’s feet, reading the Psalms as a boy “in the hills of Nazareth.” She remembers her own promise that she’ll be “at his side” to keep away “shadow,” “darkness,” and “tolling bell.” But then in Gethsemane he “prayed for the life he'd never live” — maybe one in which he could comfort his mother as she had comforted him. It ends with these lines, a little stab of hope for everyone who has to watch their children suffer: “Jesus kissed his mother's hands / Whispered, "Mother, still your tears / For remember the soul of the universe / Willed a world and it appeared.” God brings something out of nothing: that’s what he did at Creation, that’s what he did at Calvary, and that’s the promise still when we trust in him. 

     Some honorable mentions have already come to mind, but I’ll just say that I think it’s good for us as believers to look for the ways God is working in our world. Sometimes we’re inclined to think popular culture is Godless — and sometimes it is. But human beings, Christians believe, have a need for God whether we admit it or not. Let’s look for the ways that need shows itself, thank God for it, and ask how we can help people answer it. 

Friday, November 11, 2022

Bible Study

      But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

-2 Timothy 3:14-17 (NIV)

The church has always valued the Bible. We’ve always been rooted in and formed by it. Oh, we’ve sometimes disagreed among ourselves on how Bible authority works, but we’ve pretty much always agreed that it is our authority.

     Increasingly, though, we live in a world in which the Bible’s authority isn’t taken for granted. Few outside the church — and even some inside it — see the importance of it. Maybe that’s you. Maybe you don’t think the study of the Bible is for you. You don’t teach Bible classes or preach. Maybe you don’t even like to read very much. Maybe there are some things in the Bible you’ve had a hard time understanding. 

     Or maybe it’s not so much understanding but acceptance: You’re wondering what millennia-old documents from ancient cultures, filled with fantastical and incredible events, offer to me as a guide for my life? 

     If any of that sounds like you, then I want to tell you that the study of the Bible is most definitely for you. Maybe you just need a little help. I’m not the last word, you understand, far from it, but I do preach and teach from the Bible every week. I’ve studied it really all my life. And maybe I can offer you some thoughts on how to make studying the Bible more profitable for you. I’m going to start by pointing you to 2 Timothy 3:14-17, which is one of the places that the Bible has something to say about the study of Scripture. It’s part of a letter from Paul, the apostle and missionary, to Timothy, a younger co-worker of his who he had left in charge of a church in the town of Ephesus. 

    The first thing I’d point out is that the Bible is “inspired.” Maybe you’ve heard that before, and even believe it. But most of us are dealing with all kinds of extra baggage when we hear that word. Lots of adjectives have been added to what Paul says about Scripture: “inerrant” (there are no mistakes), “infallible” (it cannot be wrong), and “literal” (it should always be interpreted at face value). Sometimes those adjectives have been made into a litmus test of faithfulness; if you don’t affirm them, you aren’t committed to biblical authority. But when Paul said that the Scriptures are “God-breathed,” he wasn’t saying that you have to believe in a literal six-day Creation or that God and Satan literally had a conversation about Job. (Nor was he saying that you shouldn’t believe either of those things.)

     Paul was talking about the origin of the Scriptures, that they come from God, that they’re infused with God’s voice and vibrating with his life. That being the case, God can communicate in metaphor. He can speak to us through parable and even myth. Sometimes in the Bible he even speaks through the godless, faithless words and actions of those opposed to his purposes in the world. As we read the Bible, let’s leave off the extra adjectives we might want to attach to it and just go with “inspired.” Breathed out by God. When you read Scripture in all of its diversity and variation and eclectic kinds of literature, you’re hearing God’s voice. 

     Related to that, knowing the Bible isn’t the point. A lot of damage has been done in the world by people who know the Bible well. Much evil has been done by men and women who have studied the Scriptures and use them to justify and hide their misdeeds. Maybe that’s one of the reasons you don’t care to read it — you’ve been put off by the hypocrisy of some of those who have. Don’t read the Bible to win arguments or prove a point or assemble list of “gotcha” verses. Paul told Timothy that the Scriptures made him “wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.” The point of reading the Bible is to know Jesus. To see God’s work of salvation in the world. To consider how we can be a part of it. Knowledge of the Bible won’t magically save you. But taking it into your heart and mind will point you toward the God who loves you and has already done his work of salvation in the world. It will lead you to faith in Jesus. It will rebuke, correct, train, and equip you to serve God and do good in the world. 

     Like Timothy in the letter, we should “know those from whom [we] learned it.” For us, that might mean being aware of the fact that none of us approach the study of Scripture with a blank slate. We’ve had people who have either encouraged or discouraged us. Some of us have families who modeled Bible study for us; others don’t. Some of us have been taught some unfortunate and untrue things regarding the Bible: that it’s riddled with “mistakes,” that it glorifies violence, slavery, and rape, that it’s responsible for a great deal of the evil in the world, that we don’t even have any idea what the Bible originally said. Others have been taught that it has authority, but have also learned some unhelpful ways to read it. Some of us want to hold on to interpretations of some parts of the Bible, correct or not, because we learned them from people whose experiences we value. All of us are affected by what we’ve already been taught about the Bible. But we still have the ability to distinguish those voices from Scripture itself, and determine for ourselves if what we’ve been taught is useful or not.

     The very first thing Paul tells Timothy about Bible study is that  he should “continue in what [he’s] learned.” That’s important, that we should continue in what we learn from our study of the Bible. In that way, learning the Bible isn’t like memorizing trivia or picking up a new skill. It’s more like learning a new language, or a musical instrument; what you learn can only be realized in practical, everyday conduct shaped by this new thing. What’s in the Bible is intended to be practiced. Lived. To study the Bible is to recalibrate. It’s to change course. It’s to let the voice of God sink so deeply into our hearts that it changes our direction and helps us to live new lives. 

     If the Bible only confirms what you already believe, then I wonder if you’re really studying it and trying to continue in it. If you think there’s nothing more to learn there for you, then I think you may be skipping over the parts that challenge your convictions. Read it with the intention of bringing your study out into the reality of your day-to-day life. Live in your Bible study. Work out its implications, even the tough ones, in the way you conduct yourself in the world of work and school and neighborhood and home and church that you inhabit.

     Of course, reading the Bible assumes that you’re using a translation that’s understandable to you. If you’re having trouble understanding yours, try a new one. There are many excellent English translations, and probably several choices if your first language isn’t English. I make some suggestions here, if you’re looking for any.

     I’d also suggest that you study the Bible with other people. It’s a community book, not an individual one. We learn much when we hear it read and interpreted by others. Surely your church has some Bible classes available. If not, you can find them online, like these or these.  

     Whether any of this makes sense to you or not, I hope you’ll make sure that regular Bible study is a part of your life. 

     And may God bless you through it.

Friday, November 4, 2022


  You have searched me, LORD,

and you know me.

  You know when I sit and when I rise;

you perceive my thoughts from afar.

  You discern my going out and my lying down;

you are familiar with all my ways.

-Psalm 139:1-3 (NIV)

My father-in-law passed away this week. He had been sick for a long time, “gone,” in a lot of ways, for a couple of years. We have faith in Jesus, as did he, so we don’t “grieve like those who have no hope.” We know that “to be away from the body is to be at home with the Lord,” and so we view his death as a home-going. Still, even though Christian mourning is tinged with the hope of resurrection, it’s still mourning. My wife has lost her father. My son has lost his grandfather. Laura’s mom has lost her husband of 56 years. Friends and extended family have lost someone they enjoyed spending time with. That’s a lot of loss. 

     Laura said tonight as we went over his obituary that some of the people who are caregivers at the facility where John lived for the last few months “don’t know who the people they’re caring for were.” I think that was really profound. Everyone has history. They came from somewhere. They loved, they laughed, they cried, they had careers, they made mistakes, and they did good. Sometimes we tend to freeze people in the moments of their lives that we know them, and for most people we know that doesn’t do them justice. I have no doubt that if John’s caregivers could have somehow been implanted with the memories that Laura has of her dad or Edith has of her husband or Josh has of his grandfather, or even I have of my father-in-law, they’d probably go about their jobs in a different way. Guess that’s not possible, though.

     All that’s possible is to tell the stories of the people we love.

     So, maybe you’ll indulge me if I tell you who John Blount was. At least as I knew him.

     John wasn’t the kind of guy most people would think of as adventurous. Still, he moved to Chicago from Henry Country, Tennessee (not exactly a major metropolitan area) when he was just an 18-year-old kid fresh out of high school and renting a “sleeping room” (his term) across the street from his uncle’s apartment. 

     John was the kind of guy who’d go pick up two elderly ladies from church who were getting kind of forgetful and take them to the grocery store. And then smile when they came out telling him about how they had “run into” each other in the store. The store that they had just ridden to together. In John’s back seat.

     John was a guy who was asked by a dying member of his church to take care of his financial matters, mostly meaning to search his house for the cash he had hidden all around. He told his family members, “You can trust John.”

     John was an electrician who was willing to make the one-hour round trip to his daughter’s and son-in-law’s house for any repairs without showing frustration or dismay (for the most part) at said son-in-law’s cluelessness. That includes the time he came over to repair their dryer, took the thing apart and tested every circuit, and then discovered that the dryer wasn’t getting hot because it was set to “air fluff.”

     John was a guy who, along with Edith, joyfully spent time with his grandson, teaching him about stock car racing and having “adventures” with him. He was also the kind of guy who sent that grandson off to college with a tool box in his car, assembled from his own collection and now a treasured keepsake. 

     As long as he could, John went to every funeral of family and friends, whether in the Chicago area or in his home state of Tennessee. Those relationships meant the world to him, and even when he forgotten much he still remembered those names from long ago.

     John got a job at the old Oscar Mayer plant at North and Sedgwick in 1955 — by getting off a CTA bus when he saw a “now hiring” sign — and then gave that job his best for the next 30 years. He knew when he had what he needed. He wasn’t always looking for more and better. 

    When the church he and his family were a part of moved to a “better” building in a new suburb, John, Edith, and Laura and a few other families decided to stay behind and start a new church in the suburb they were leaving because they thought there should still be a church there. They sacrificed to buy and renovate a building. John taught classes and did maintenance. That church is still there today.

     And he was also willing, when it seemed like it would be better for his teenaged daughter, to move to that other church and serve there.

     He was the kind of guy who, when his daughter had narrowed her college choice down to a Christian university and another school closer to home, just wrote the check for the Christian university. (His son-in-law is especially glad that he did.)

     John didn’t finish college — his “summer job” in Chicago turned into a 30 year career — but he was one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever known in all the ways that matter: relationally, emotionally, ethically, morally, and spiritually.

     I could say a lot more. And you could say a lot more about the people in your life too, and you should. Everyone deserves to be known and appreciated for who they are and were, for the paths they’ve travelled, the joys they’ve seen, and the struggles they’ve endured. 

     We live in a world that reduces people: to characters on a screen, an identity in a computer, a set of financial transactions, a political opinion, a medical diagnosis, an obituary. As Laura noticed, that’s no way to know who people really are. 

     In Psalm 139, the psalmist celebrates that God knows him. Knows everything about him, what he’s going to say before he says it, what he thinks, what he treasures deep in his heart. God has known him, in fact, since before he was “knit together” in his mother’s womb. The psalmist can’t escape God’s knowledge and, here’s the thing, he doesn’t want to. He welcomes God’s knowledge of him. It’s “wonderful” to him. In fact, he wants God to know him even more deeply, if that’s possible, so that anything “offensive” in him might be found out and eliminated. I don’t know, maybe we don’t really welcome that level of God knowing us. But we should. 

     We should because it’s part of love to know the beloved. Matter of fact, you can’t say love exists without that knowledge. God knows us because we matter to him. We should, like the psalmist, celebrate that. We shouldn’t want to keep anything from him because the God who knows us loves us deeply. 

     And we should do people the honor of loving them like God loves us: by knowing them. Be willing to know their pain and sorrow as well as their joy. Know the things that make them delightful, but also the things that make them difficult. Be willing to know them and accept them as they are, without doubting that they can change, grow, and improve. Let them tell their stories. Take the time to know them.

     I think you’ll find that people are more fascinating and multi-dimensional than you imagined.