The Gospel According to Kesha (Part 1)

Prologue

Anyone that knows me will find my willingness to blog about mainstream popular music curious. If auto-tune is being used to the point of it sounding like an effect then I am typically not a fan. My musical tastes have not changed much since the 90s. So let me begin with the story of how I came to discover Kesha’s latest album.

Shortly after “Rainbow” was released, Kate heard about it and played the song “Praying” while we were driving in the car one day. I listened to it with my musically analytical brain and found it interesting (“Huh, this pop song is about prayer and she jumps up an octave. Interesting.”) Fast forward a few months and I learn that Ben Folds is a producer on the album. Now I’m intrigued. Ben Folds is one of my favorite artists and I’ve seen him with the Houston Symphony the last two times he came to town. So, I listen to the whole album to hear for myself what is going on.

The album has grown on me. This is the first of three posts about the spiritual themes I picked up on in three consecutive tracks from Rainbow: Hymn, Praying, and Learn to Let Go.

Even the stars and the moon don’t shine quite like we do
Dreamers searchin’ for the truth
Go on, read about us in the news
Pretty reckless, pretty wild
Talking s*** and we’ll just smile
Don’t you see these f***in’ crowns?
If you know what I mean, you on the team

This is a hymn for the hymnless, kids with no religion

Yeah, we keep on sinning, yeah, we keep on singing
Flying down the highway, backseat of the Hyundai
Pull it to the front, let it run, we don’t valet
Sorry if you’re starstruck, blame it on the stardust
I know that I’m perfect, even though I’m f***ed up
Hymn for the hymnless, don’t need no forgiveness
‘Cause if there’s a heaven, don’t care if we get in
This is a hymn, hymn, hymn for how we live, live, live
This is a hymn, hymn, hymn for how we live, for how we live

After all we’ve been through, no, we won’t stand and salute
So we just ride, we just cruise, livin’ like there’s nothing left to lose
If we die before we wake, who we are is no mistake
This is just the way we’re made
You know what I mean, you on the team

This is a hymn for the hymnless, kids with no religion
Yeah, we keep on sinning, yeah, we keep on singing
Flying down the highway, backseat of the Hyundai
Pull it to the front, let it run, we don’t valet
Sorry if you’re starstruck, blame it on the stardust
I know that I’m perfect, even though I’m f***ed up
Hymn for the hymnless, don’t need no forgiveness
‘Cause if there’s a heaven, don’t care if we get in
This is a hymn, hymn, hymn for how we live, live, live
This is a hymn, hymn, hymn for how we live, for how we live

This is a hymn for the hymnless, kids with no religion

Yeah, we keep on sinning, yeah, we keep on singing
Flying down the highway, yeah, we do it our way
High as outer space, we don’t hear what the rest say
Sorry if you’re starstruck, blame it on the stardust
I know that I’m perfect, even though I’m f***ed up
Hymn for the hymnless, don’t need no forgiveness
‘Cause if there’s a heaven, don’t care if we get in
This is a hymn, hymn, hymn for how we live, live, live
This is a hymn, hymn, hymn for how we live, for how we live

Songwriters: Cara Salimando / Eric Frederic / Jonny Price / Kesha Sebert / Pebe Sebert

Hymn lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

(Photo by AugeeKim, Wikimedia Commons)

Lyrical Analysis

News flash: Millenials don’t trust the church. There are lots of reasons: Millenials don’t feel heard or appreciated, their culture receives the blame for the world’s problems, and they exhibit a general disdain for institutions. Their perception is that church is more filled with empty words that action (HT: RecklesslyAlive.com). From the perspective of this generation we get these words: “a hymn for the hymnless.”

But why a hymn? A hymn is specifically a song of praise or adoration typically directed toward a deity. Why is this a hymn? What makes it for the hymnless? Saying the song is for the hymnless implies that it is for the disenfranchised and the outcast. In the gospels, Jesus was typically the champion of the hymnless. Jesus came to defend those who were marginalized and on the edges of society. He restored hope to the widows, cleansed lepers, and ate with sinners. Jesus was the hymn for the hymnless.

Kesha explains, “So when I sing the words to this song, I do so as a reminder to myself as much as anyone that we can’t let the haters and the negativity win. We are all ‘dreamers searching for the truth,’ and we know the unexplainable universal goodness in people — their innate love and light and compassion for one another — will bring us together to do great things.”

There is also a thread of simul justus et peccator in these lyrics. “I know that I’m perfect, even though I’m f***ed up.” Our mistakes and flaws don’t define us. We are saintly sinners and sinful saints.

“Yeah, we keep on sinning. Don’t need no forgiveness. ‘Cause if there’s a heaven, don’t care if we get in.” This lyric reveals how disenfranchised popular culture has become with the Christian church (especially the evangelical wing). Whatever carrot the church is dangling in front of the culture is meaningless – even “heaven” (the meaning of salvation in evangelical Christianity being wrapped up in avoiding eternal damnation). Even if the true idea about heaven and salvation is more to do with connection, wholeness, and healing from God, the church has lost the ability to convey that message due to the prevailing cultural perception.

My theory is that in the context of North American Christianity the church has lost the substantive content of its spirituality and the medium has become the message to the surrounding culture. In the popular culture, a hymn is no longer a song of praise used to unite an assembly in lifting their voice in adoration. Hymns, sin, forgiveness, and heaven are now metaphors used by pop songs. The spiritual reality beneath them is vanishing. How will the church embrace the hymnless today?

Advertisements

Ashes to Ashes

palms for ash wednesday

“Images from the Ash Wednesday liturgy are spoken over bodies not only in church buildings at the beginning of Lent but also outdoors in all seasons of the year: “We commit this body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust” (ELW, p. 284). In the funeral liturgy, such words are spoken after the body is laid in the grave and as earth is cast onto the coffin, or as ashes are placed in the earth or into a columbarium. Each year, the Ash Wednesday liturgy offers every member of the church words and a gesture that seem to have arrived, ahead of time, from our own funeral liturgy. Earth is placed on our bodies, scriptural words about the inevitable decomposition of our bodies are spoken over us: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Among the many things that Ash Wednesday accomplishes is a small-scale, ritualized, near-death experience.” (Excerpt from Worship Guidebook for Lent and Three Days, Augsburg Fortress, 2009, p. 18)

In seminary I had a systematic theology professor who often welcomed us to class with these words: “Greetings, frail creatures of dust!” Now, that may seem like an odd way to welcome people, but it has a theological underscoring that is significant. In the end, after all is said and done, we go back to being what we were all along – dust.

Ash Wednesday (February 13) is the first day of Lent in our liturgical calendar. It occurs 46 days before Easter. The precise date of Ash Wednesday is always moveable, falling on a different date each year because it is dependent on the date of Easter. Why 46 days? According to the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus spent 40 days fasting in the desert before the beginning of his public ministry. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of this 40-day liturgical period of prayer and fasting. Why are there an extra six days? Because there are six Sundays during the season of Lent, and every Sunday is the day of resurrection (a little Easter). On Sundays the fast of Lent is broken in celebration of the resurrection.

Ash Wednesday gets its name from the practice of placing ashes on the forehead as a sign of mourning and repentance to God. The ashes used are typically created from the burnt palms of the previous year’s Palm Sunday services.

Historically, Ash Wednesday and the following season of Lent was the time of final preparations for baptism. Catechumens, people desiring to join the church and receiving instruction about the Christian faith, experienced an intense time of prayer, fasting, exorcisms, and teaching. Finally, at dawn on Easter Sunday, after an all night Vigil, the catechumens were baptized and welcomed into the body of Christ by participating in the Eucharist for the first time. Ash Wednesday was the beginning of a season of life, death, and renewal.

But why do we have to be so morbid about it? Because no matter how much wealth, no matter how many material possessions, no matter how much plastic surgery, no matter how much exercise and fitness, no matter how much success, no matter how much fame and notoriety, in the end, we go back to being what we were all along – dust.

All Are Saints

 

All Saints’ Day is a widely celebrated event in the Christian world. In the Roman Catholic Church it is officially called the Solemnity of All Saints. It is also known as All Hallows or Hallowmas (from which we get the word “Halloween,” from “All Hallows Eve”). All Saints is celebrated on November 1 by parts of Western Christianity, and observed the first Sunday thereafter in our church. It is a day to honor all the saints, known and unknown, who have gone before us in the faith.

Among the people of God, those who possess extraordinary faith have always been looked upon highly. From faith-confessing martyrs in the first century to compassion-filled servants in the twentieth century, it would seem that some believers have been given an extra portion of Christ-like strength and humility. But how does the Bible define the saints? The term often used by Paul in the New Testament to identify the church is hagioi. This term indicates separation for and dedication to God.  It is not, however, the amazing accomplishments of one’s devotion that allows entrance into sainthood. It is the singular redemption obtained through faith in Jesus Christ that creates saints out of all believers. All believers, great and small, are saints.

When Paul used the word “saint” in his writings (Romans 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:2; Ephesians 1:1) it was rarely used to describe individuals. It is primarily used as a picture of the elect people of God who are sanctified and redeemed in Christ.  There is also confusion as to the final destination of the saints after this earthly life. Do some experience the fullness of God’s presence while lesser ones are left out? Roman Catholic dogma and a blend of other religions have left some believing in a hierarchy of saintliness in heaven. The biblical account leads us to believe otherwise. All God’s people, or saints, are assured of a restful paradise until the renewal of all creation. Joining God in paradise is not the final destiny for the saints – the bodily resurrection is our essential hope in eternity.

There are also several passages that clarify that it is not personal accomplishment that achieves sainthood. The dying criminal hanging on the cross near Jesus confessed faith in him (Luke 23:39-43). Jesus promised him entrance into paradise that very day. Similarly, the church in Corinth is addressed as the sanctified in Christ who are called to be saints (1 Corinthians 1:2). From the content of Paul’s letters we see Corinth was laden with immorality and factions. However, these spiritual troubles do not preclude the church from being a collection of the saints of God. The understated truth is that sainthood is less about achieving personal piety and more about simple faith in the redeeming work and power of Jesus. It is enough to be found in Christ and covered by his grace.

A saint is not a higher-order Christian. Through baptism, we have joined with Christ in his death and resurrection, making us saints now and saints to be in paradise. Our goal on earth is to join with Christ in the recreation of the world now, which anticipates the ultimate recreation of heaven and earth and the bodily resurrection of Christ’s faithful followers.

Holy Communion – what’s in a name?

RollDid you know that there are a variety of names for the sharing of bread and wine in worship? Those names include the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, the Breaking of Bread, Eucharist, Mass, the Sacrament of the Altar, the Divine Liturgy, and the Divine Service. Each title highlights a unique aspect of the Meal.

The “Lord’s Supper” speaks of the meal that the risen Lord holds with the Church, the meal of the Lord’s Day, a foretaste of the heavenly feast to come. It also reminds us of the Last Supper that Jesus shared with his disciples the night before he was handed over to his death.

“Holy Communion” accentuates the holy community established by the Holy Spirit as we encounter Christ and are formed into one body with him and so with each other. The word “communion” reminds us of how the early church shared everything in common (Acts 2:44).

“Breaking of Bread” is a phrase used four times in the New Testament (Luke 24:35; Acts 2:42, 46, and 20:7). It recalls how the early church celebrated communion within the context of a larger common meal (known as the Agape Meal).

“Eucharist” calls us to see that the whole meal is a great thanksgiving for creation and for creation’s redemption in Jesus Christ. The term “Eucharist” is derived from the Greek noun εὐχαριστία (eucharistia), meaning “thanksgiving.” Communion is understood as a meal of thanksgiving, reflecting how Jesus “gave thanks” as he broke and blessed the bread and wine.

The term “Mass” is derived from the old dismissal of the participants at the end of the service and the sending away of the bread and the cup to the absent. It invites us into mission. The term “Mass” originates from the Late Latin word missa (dismissal), a word used in the concluding formula of Mass in Latin: “Ite, missa est” (“Go; it is the dismissal”).

“Sacrament of the Altar” invites each one to eat and drink from the true altar of God, the body and blood of Christ given and shed “for you.”

“Divine Liturgy” says the celebration is a public action, carried out by a community of people. This is the term used in Byzantine Rite traditions, such as in the Eastern Orthodox Church. These churches also speak of “the Divine Mysteries,” especially in reference to the consecrated elements, which they also call “the Holy Gifts.”

“Divine Service” helps us to see that the primary action of our gathering is God’s astonishing service to us; we are called to respond in praise and in service to our neighbor.

(This article includes excerpts from The Use of the Means of Grace, Principle 36.)

Experiencing God in Worship

1228670_90111056How do you experience God in worship?

Is it a feeling? Is it an attitude? Is it a thought? Does it bring joy? Does it feel mysterious? Does it make your fingertips tingle?

Which part of Sunday worship is most meaningful to you?

Is it the songs and hymns we sing together with one voice? Is it the water that cleanses us and renews us as new creatures in Christ? Is it the reading of God’s story and the proclamation of the good news in Jesus? Is it the common meal we share in broken bread and poured wine? Is it the blessing and sending that propels us to be God’s people for the good of the world? Where do you experience God the most in worship?

The important thing is not how you experience God in worship – but that you experience God in worship. If you come to church week after week and never experience the person of God, never enter the fellowship of the Trinity, you’ve missed the point and we as a church have failed in our task.

Also valuable to remember is that how you experience God is not the same as how other people experience God in worship. God creates us as individuals and wires each of us in unique ways. Just because one person experiences God in a different way than us does not make it better or worse than the way we experience God. What becomes crucial is how we act and respond to those who draw near to God using “worship languages” that are different than our own. The words of Philippians 2:3-4 should guide the hearts of everyone in our assembly on Sunday: “In humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” We worship God as one body, in the unity of the Holy Spirit.

Worship is designed to create space for the Holy Spirit to move and show up in fresh and unexpected ways. Worship is not a one way conversation. We are not the only ones speaking during worship. Worship is space for the Spirit to provoke, whisper, and prod us into Christ-likeness. The work of our worship is to be attentive in both heart and mind and then follow in obedience.