Guest Post: Confessions

The following was written by Jeff Nelson, a United Methodist pastor in Redford, Michigan and is reblogged here with his permission.


A Sorrow For All Seasons from Flickr via Wylio
© 2010 Don, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio
I am a preacher
And I am tired of preaching

I am tired of trying to figure out what to say
About school shootings
And movie theatre massacres

I am tired
Of gasping for the breath to breathe
I am fresh out of peaceful platitudes
And saccharine sentiments
I cannot offer a nimble nicety
In face of Paris bombings
And twisted winds that tornado towns into trash heaps

And when levitical codes are hurled
Like hand grenades
At young boys who hang
Themselves behind closeted doors
And mothers of hooded sons
Are told their boys can be target practice
On suburban streets
Brown skins bleed on black concrete
As if no lives really matter

So Forgive me if I get tired
Because I am beyond tired

Preachers and pastors are supposed
To provide answers to these things
Wide eyes stare form pews at pulpits
Praying for even the most bland of reassurances

"Just serve me up some of that supermarket-sheet-cake pastor
So sweet in the moment that it makes our fillings hurt...."
only to leave you ten minutes later starved
emptier than before you ever swallowed it

Makes sense of this senselessness preacher

Give meaning to this meaninglessness

Comfort us in the chaos

Well I am tired
I am tired of event after event gripping my heart
Daring me to impart some sort of good news
To tie it all up with a nice red bow
To place it under the tree to be opened
When you show up at my door with the shattered pieces
Of your lives

See suddenly I am a shepherd
Just wanting
Just wanting to be a part of the flock

Can I tell you that I am scared?
Do you want to know that I am confused?
Is there any comfort for you that I too become numb
Dumbfounded by the voices that promise us protection

Wrap yourself in the flag or cynicism or conspiracy
Tighten the boarders or let everybody in
Take away all the guns or arm them all
The swirling sensation of 24 hours of cycling news
Or to escape into food or booze or sex or Netflix streaming
All leaves me screaming for answers I simply cannot find

I once had silver bullet solutions
To all your questions and queries
Potions and prayers, magic tricks and slight of hand illusions
To spin death and disaster into better tomorrows
and I have used them
Used them all
And I have nothing left
Nothing fits

So I sit at our symbol
Where it was said God once bled himself dry
Emptied of answers, divinity in humanity
Stark and naked, beaten and broken
Unable to articulate any grand solution
Or to fashion an escape hatch to an easier way out of this
Just a word of mercy and a scream of fear
This is a near as I can get
I am sorry I am too tired to preach
This all I got
This is my best
Just to sit with you
by this symbol
And rest


The preceding was written by Jeff Nelson, a United Methodist pastor in Redford, Michigan and is reblogged here with his permission.


Melodious reflections

Music - Day 13 of 50 Project from Flickr via Wylio
© 2013 Austin Kirk, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio
I describe myself as just enough of a musician to get by. Nevertheless, music has always been a huge part of my spiritual life, among my top influences and ways that I feel I connect to the divine presence.

I grew up singing in church choir. When I was a teenager, youth group friends got me into contemporary Christian music (CCM), and I never turned back. I listened to it my car and bedroom all the time. I filled my ears and headspace with Petra's eschatological lyrics set to rock music, Steven Curtis Chapman's encouraging lyrics set to acoustic guitar, and Avalon's platitudes set to soaring, stacked harmonies (to name just a few). CCM was there during some transformational times. My first time profession of faith was made at a concert by the little-known Al Denson. DC Talk was all the rage and proved Christians could be cool. And I still remember the transformative prayer time I had after a break-up with a girlfriend. "Abba, Father" by Rebecca St. James was on repeat that night.

Later in life, I came to appreciate the theological treasure trove in the lyrics of bands like Caedmon's Call, Jars of Clay, and Rich Mullins. I also came to appreciate the lyrical depth of hymns. Although a fair number of them strike me as self-righteous or convey more confidence than I can relate to, their history and message are invaluable and are achieving more appreciation among millennials; the children of those now middle-aged adults who grew up with seeker services and praise music. I too have grown impatient with praise and worship music. So much of it is uninteresting, musically as well as lyrically. It tends to repeat over and over using near-romantic language to describe one's adoration (enamoration?) with God. It doesn't fit my experience and some of it would scare off any human love interest.

Lyrics I find most meaningful are ones that richly express one's heart, wherever it may be, not shying away from things like pain and doubt. Some of the most powerful prayers I have ever heard put to music are songs that were not necessarily written by a confessing Christian for a Christian record label. Regardless of the original intent of such songs, many have become prayers for me.

There have been days when nothing expresses my heart to God better than "Bring Me to Life" by Evanescence. "Build Me Up From Bones" by Sarah Jarosz, perhaps unbeknownst to her, contains biblical imagery from Ezekiel and, if heard as a dialogue between oneself and God, can give you the chills. "What I've Done" by Linkin Park, particularly its visuals in the music video, is a more theologically articulate expression of sin, fallen humanity, and repentance than anything done for a Christian music label. I've used their song "Castle of Glass" to go along with the theme of human frailty in Ash Wednesday services. Indie artist Paul Dateh nails the experience of second guessing and trying to move on from the past in his song "Another Chance." Though it's only known to some as the theme song for Dawson's Creek, Paula Cole's "I Don't Want to Wait" is a great soundtrack for praying that God would make me more present to the here and now. "Better Days" by the Goo Goo Dolls is the prayer that's on my lips every December 31 as the ball drops. Even dark and depressing bands like Breaking Benjamin can produce songs that connect with me and my ministry, like "Anthem of the Angels," a song that reminds me of the pain and anxieties expressed by the loved ones of people who are in their last days.

But I'm also one of these people who can sometimes get just as much meaning out of an instrumental song. I know that's not everyone. I chuckle every time I think of a certain colleague who wiggles and squirms during such numbers and has been known to ask, "Why do we spoil a good worship service with a prelude?" But for me, some instrumental songs can communicate more than words can. One of my favorite instrumental artists these days is Buckethead. Yes, I know, he's weird. I have no idea what's behind his getup. But that guy can play the guitar. Some of his stuff is grungy, experimental rock, but his album Electric Tears is downright transcendent. Brian Carroll (his real name) is no Christian, but lately I've been using music from Electric Tears for prayer and meditation, both for myself and with groups. When I listen to his guitar pieces on that album, I could swear I know exactly what he was thinking and feeling as he wrote it.

Music prays. For me, anyway. The Spirit may intercede for me when my prayers don't have words (Romans 8:26), but music does a little bit of that too.

Every once in a while I sit down at the piano and piddle. Usually, when a song comes out, it's gone and I don't remember how I played it. Absent having the right technology and time to put it to paper, I recently recorded one and uploaded it. I'm sure my low-quality, ambient recordings are going to impress no one in the SoundCloud community, but below you'll find my short instrumental piece called "Contemplating." The song is saying something...although I couldn't explain it with words.

Whether you're a music person or not, may you know that anything that comes straight from your soul can be a prayer to God, and counts as "sacred music."