I, too, thought the world was coming to an end. Here’s what ‘Kimmy Schmidt’ gets right.

kimmy

Ellie Kemper in Netflix’s “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” (Eric Liebowitz/Netflix)

By Alissa Wilkinson

The poster for “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” features a background crowd of grey-clad New Yorkers scuttling along in the rain. In front of them, Kimmy (played by Ellie Kemper) — in magenta pants, a yellow cardigan and purple sneakers — is jumping ecstatically into a puddle. The tagline: “Life begins when the world doesn’t end.”

I smiled when I first saw the poster. A decade ago, I was a puddle-jumping newbie New Yorker, too.

And Kimmy joyfully splashed in puddles for awfully similar reasons to my own.

Tina Fey’s new Netflix series opens when Kimmy and three other women emerge from a bunker and into a world, they’d been told, was scorched and dead. For 15 years of captivity, their captor, Rev. Richard Wayne Gary Wayne, said God wanted him to protect them from the destruction above. Now free, Kimmy decides she’s not going to settle for Indiana. She wants New York.

I was never in an apocalyptic cult, or even just a regular old cult. But in the 1990s, I was part of a certain branch of fundamentalism that flourished among Christian homeschoolers. Leaders called for women in calico jumpers and long hair, and also a total break with most culture, including no contact with Christian things deemed too worldly: magazines for teenagers published by Focus on the Family, contemporary Christian music, youth groups or Amish romance novels.

To read the rest of Alissa Wilkinson’s article in the Washington Post, click HERE.

Barbarians in our Midst: How the Irish Spread the Gospel

George G. Hunter III is distinguished professor of evangelism and church growth at Asbury Theological Seminary. He served as the founding dean of Asbury’s E. Stanley Jones School of World Mission and Evangelism. Dr. Hunter is the author of numerous well-known books dealing with evangelism, mission, church growth, ministry and emerging ways of “doing church.”

When he wrote The Celtic Way of Evangelism: How Christianity Can Reach The West…Again (Abingdon), Steve Beard sat down with Hunter to talk about the Celtic vision of evangelism, discipleship, imagination, spiritual warfare, and the supernatural.

 What inspired you to investigate Celtic Christianity?

For longstanding reasons — partly subconscious, perhaps rooted in my genetic makeup or ancestral memory — I have always been more interested in ancient Celtic Christianity than practically any other Protestant that I know.

Screen Shot 2015-03-17 at 11.39.54 AMSeveral years ago a book came out called How the Irish Saved Civilization written by Thomas Cahill, a cracker-jack historian. It stirred my interest in the expansion of Celtic Christianity. He tells the story of how Patrick’s evangelization of Ireland developed an alternative way of doing church and reaching people. Cahill describes how the Celtic monks copied decaying scrolls on to new scrolls and thereby kept much of the Greek and Roman learning of antiquity alive—thereby “saving civilization.” The monks rescued learning from the oblivion of the Dark Ages when the Vandals, Franks, Frisians, Goths, Visigoths, and other “barbaric” peoples overwhelmed the Roman Empire and destroyed the libraries. The Celtic monks kept “civilization” alive.

Cahill tells the story of how people—joining apostolic leaders such as Patrick, Columba, Columbanus, Aidan and others—reached one barbaric population after another across Britain and western Europe. They did this even though the Roman branch of the church thought it was “impossible.” The Romans thought that barbarians could not be Christians. The Celtic movement proved you could evangelize people first and civilize them second.

Then a book came out by Anglican Bishop John Finney entitled Recovering the Past. Finney profiles the Celtic movement’s basic mission approach. My book spells out much more specifically how the Celtic Christian movement reached and discipled the barbaric population of Europe.

How do you see this relating to Christianity in the 21st century?

I see, all around us, the rise of “new barbarian” populations. These are the people whose lives are sometimes out of control — driven by compulsion or hijacked by substance abuse. Growing numbers of people have a “rough edge.” If they came to church, they wouldn’t know when to stand up, sit down, or what to say to the pastor afterwards. They wouldn’t know how to find II Kings or II Corinthians. If they said anything, they might split an infinitive or utter an expletive! There are a growing number of people, across the whole western world, who aren’t quite refined and aren’t always nice. Over the years, I have observed that almost all churches overlook those populations. At least nine out of ten churches I’ve worked with will never get around to offering the Christian faith to people who aren’t already sufficiently “civilized” by the church’s standards. Most churches never reach out to people who aren’t “refined” enough to feel comfortable with us, or to people who are too out of control for us to feel comfortable with them.

 What kind of rethinking must take place in the modern-day church in order to learn from the Celts?

First, the church probably needs to entertain the idea, as though for the first time, that lost people matter to God, including people who are not “like us” or recognizable “good” church people.

Second, within our Wesleyan tradition, people need to entertain a fresh understanding of the doctrine of prevenient grace. The Holy Spirit is working through the events and circumstances of people’s lives to awaken receptivity to the gospel. If we believe that lost and out-of-control people matter to God and that the Holy Spirit is already initiating an engagement with them, some of the other things will follow.

Sometimes when I’m leading a seminar I’ll ask people if they remember their first kiss? Most people will raise their hands. I ask, “Did you really know what you were doing?” Then, I ask, “Did that stop you from doing it?” Of course it didn’t. The point is that love finds a way. I discovered that the way forward with out-of-control populations today is astonishingly consistent with some of the ways Patrick, Columba, Aidan, Columbanus, Brigid, Hilda and others found to reach the “barbarians” of their time.

hunter

Dr. George G. Hunter III

This is a much more vast population than most church leaders are aware of. Vast numbers of people have a genetic vulnerability for addiction, like other people have a genetic vulnerability to diabetes. But we now know about the added factor that drugs, some more than others, change the chemistry of the brain at varying rates in a way to induce a lifetime of “craving.” At that point a person’s life is, more or less, hijacked and, by themselves, cannot always control what they do. They experience unspeakable guilt and shame, and a profound spiritual battle that the Evil One and the demons exploit.

Years ago, I heard Art Glasser, who taught mission theology at Fuller Theological Seminary, say, “The form that possessive destructive evil takes varies from one generation to another and from one culture to another. It’s most dominant form in our culture and this generation is addiction.” The more I circulate, the more convinced I became that Glasser was right.

In most every city you can find a church or two that steps out of polite conventionality and targets those lost, hijacked people. Likewise, you can find churches that have a dozen, or even a hundred, 12-step meetings at different times of the week in various places.

Some of these churches are invading enemy territory and visiting people in bars and high drug-use neighborhoods, rediscovering that the “sower goes forth to sow the seed of God’s word.”

Addiction can be attached to alcohol, nicotine, heroin, crack cocaine, or even sex. Millions of people live lives out of control; addiction is destroying them inch by inch. These people matter to God. Christ died for them and the power of the Holy Spirit is available to them. Tragically, the Church has what they need, but most churches aren’t offering it to the people who need it most.

Nevertheless, the Recovery Movement is the “underground awakening” of this generation. More people are discovering the grace of God for the first time in their lives through a recovery ministry than through all of the evangelism programs combined. As a professor of evangelism and church growth I had to take that seriously.

 Some might flinch at the notion of welcoming out-of-control segments of our society into “perfectly good” congregations. It sounds a bit explosive and adventuresome. Is risk-taking part of Celtic Christianity?

Yes. The gospel song about the shepherd who seeks the lost sheep has the other 99 sheep safe in the fold while the shepherd searches. But that is not the way Jesus’ parable reads. The parable has the 99 huddled together in the wilderness while the shepherd leaves them to hunt for the lost sheep! The parable suggests there is some inherent risk in being a Christian.

Within the Celtic outreach model, people are being grounded in Christian truth and spiritual disciplines, are part of a small group, and they reach out in teams. If these elements are held, probably no one will be lost to “the other side.” But when we keep the people in the church — to eliminate all risk, we rob them of the greatest adventure — following Christ as his ambassadors in the real world.

 Celtic Christianity appears to invest heavily in creativity, imagination, and spiritual experience rather than merely spiritual knowledge. Does that play a role in their evangelism and ministry?

Yes. There is now more latitude, and more need, to be creative in how we “do church” and present the gospel. That means engaging people with the gospel in lots of different ways in addition to preaching and didactic teaching. The approach involves culturally relevant music, using the people’s language rather than church’s traditional language, employing poetry, drama, and the visual arts. More and more churches are discovering a kind of multi-media approach to dramatize the gospel in as many different ways as they can. The key to this is allowing the “rebirth” of our imagination.

As the enlightenment has faded, western humanity appears to rely less on logic and reason — we are speaking of differences of degree — and relies more on imagination and experience. The Celtic movement would coach today’s communicator to engage people through their imaginations in a range of creative ways. You maximize the possibility that people will get the message and they’ll discover the beginning gift of faith.

 Celtic Christianity also seems to emphasize the interconnectedness between life and theology in a more profound way than most churches today. The Celtic cross incorporates a circle in the center, representing our physical world and nature. The Celtic prayers acknowledge the every-dayness of life and its connectedness to theology.

The Celtic movement presents a whole range of options for our churches. Celtic Christianity was enormously more “culture friendly” than the Roman branch of the church. It even believed that you could find things in the people’s primal religion that could be used to help interpret the gospel. They believed that the gospel came not to destroy but to fulfill the prior religious aspirations and some of the experiences of the people. Celtic Christians believed that the High God that their neighbors believed in — who was unavailable — had indeed come to us and is one with us in Jesus Christ.

Celtic Christians were also “nature friendly,” believing that the animals and birds and fish of the fields, forests, jungles, and rivers are more kin to us than the Roman branch of the church believed — which took a kind of exploitative approach to nature. Defenders of the Roman branch of the church will point to figures like Francis of Assisi. However, Francis discovered Christianity’s love for animals from the Celtic monastery at Bobbio, just a few miles from Assisi, which had been founded by Columbanus.

 One aspect of Celtic Christianity that seems to be similar to Third-World expressions of Christianity is an openness to spiritual warfare. There also seem to be many more episodes of what the late John Wimber called “power encounters” or supernatural displays of God’s power — healings, deliverances, dreams and visions.

This issue would need to be nuanced very carefully. Compared to present-day traditional western Christianity, Celtic Christianity emphasizes much more experience, the revelation of God through dreams, the power of intercessory prayer, etc. There also appears to have been a significantly greater emphasis on healing — physical, spiritual, and emotional healing — than what we usually find in the church down the street.

When it comes to what Wimber called power encounter, its cousin exorcisms, and some of the other Halloween-oriented ministries, those appear to have been occasional projects of the Celtic movement. They would do it when necessary but they didn’t count it necessary very often. It appears there were such ministries but they were episodic. The later “hagiographers,” who wrote about the lives of the saints, were enormously more interested in spiritual warfare than the saints had been!

 Yet even in the Celtic prayers, you read a greater sense of the recognition of the Evil One, of dark forces. Perhaps it was because they were surrounded by Druid culture, but even their written liturgical prayers reflect far more of a cosmic struggle than what we see in mainline, denominational Christianity.

Yes, they certainly had a more vivid sense of the supernatural. They had a vivid sense of the presence of God and a vivid sense of all three persons of the Trinity. They had a vivid sense that we are to pray without ceasing. It meant praying into each situation, and their prayer life reflected their awareness of evil forces in their midst. Part of their life of prayer was to be protected from the Evil One and delivered from the powers of sin, evil, and death. Frankly, I have learned to pray for protection; Christians who are in denial of the presence of evil are more vulnerable than they know.

How would a local church adopt a more Celtic way of “doing church?”

I would recommend adopting the four-fold Celtic approach to preparing people for ministry. It appears to me to be vastly more sophisticated and effective than anything now being attempted in most churches.

First, every person in a monastic community spent some time in solitude, out in nature. They had a saying, “Go and sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” Patrick himself discovered the presence of God, that he had learned about in the catechism, in the midst of nature. The Celts believed that time alone in nature is indispensable for triggering a God-consciousness.

Second, everyone had a soul friend. This is not a superior such as a spiritual director, but more like a peer with whom one could be totally vulnerable.

Third, most Celtic Christians were members of a small group who met weekly. Ten or fewer people were led by a person who was most chosen for his or her transparent devoutness.

Fourth, everyone was involved in the life of the monastic community—worship, and Scripture memorization, etc. A great many illiterate Celtic Christians knew all 150 psalms by heart because they rehearsed 30 psalms a day; as a community, every five days, they rehearsed all the psalms.

Everyone, in the community, was involved in ministry with seekers. At some point in their development they would be a seeker’s soul friend, or they would observe and help a seeker in their small group who was discovering faith.

That fourfold approach: solitude, soul friends, small group, and ministry of the community — including ministry with seekers — appears to be a potent synergizing combination to produce contagious saints than any of the “improvements” in the last 12 centuries.

What kind of ministry did the Celts have to seekers?

It was, essentially, the “ministry of hospitality.” The monastic community would simply admit into its ranks people who had not yet discovered the gift of faith. The community seems to have believed Christianity was more caught than taught. The people were more likely to catch it in the community of faith rather than by being left to their own devices in the world. That strategy was recovered by Wesley in 18th century Methodism. The Celts, and the later Methodists, welcomed and involved seekers who hadn’t yet experienced justification.

In the book, I feature 18th century Methodism as a historic case of “unconscious reappropriation” of the Celtic Christian vision. I’ve read all of Wesley’s writings and cannot find much evidence that he consciously drew upon ancient Celtic Christian materials. A number of those themes, such as small groups, hospitality and imagination, were by that time in the DNA or ancestral memory of British Christianity. From time to time, various movements in the Christian community have rediscovered and reinserted those themes.

The current Alpha course is a more recent case of a movement reappropriating many Celtic Christian outreach principles without being fully aware of their ancient source.

 You spent time in Ireland, Scotland, and England — at places like Iona — while preparing your book. Many people seem to be doing that. Why?

I think that Celtic Christianity virtually invented the pilgrimage, and our generation has rediscovered its subtle power. The Celts believed that the “veil” between earth and heaven is much “thinner” in places historically associated with a monastic community, or faithful preaching or service, or conversion of a tribe. We experience, in ways we cannot fully explain, that we are more likely to experience God at Iona, or Lindisfarne, or Glendalough, than at Rupp Arena or downtown Manhattan.

Steve Beard is the editor of Good News. This article first appeared in the March/April 2000 issue of Good News.  

Ramps in Cathedrals

skateBy Steve Beard

When you hear about ramps being built in sanctuaries, it’s usually to provide easier access for wheelchairs. Outside of Amsterdam, however, the ramps in one abandoned church are there to help young skaters get gnarly air.

“Two dozen scruffy skateboarders launched perilous jumps in a soaring old church building here on a recent night, watched over by a mosaic likeness of Jesus and a solemn array of stone saints,” writes Wall Street Journal reporter Naftali Bendavid. “It is one of hundreds of churches, closed or threatened by plunging membership, that pose a question for communities, and even governments, across Western Europe: What to do with once-holy, now-empty buildings that increasingly mark the countryside from Britain to Denmark?”

Bendavid was reporting from amongst the well-used skate ramps and the distressed religious imagery at the Church of St. Joseph. The sacred décor that once had been center stage now serves only as a faint reminder of yesteryear’s 1,000 congregants praying and singing at the cathedral in Arnhem, Netherlands – an hour train ride south from Amsterdam.

“At the Arnhem Skate Hall, the altar and organ of the church, built in 1928, have been ripped out, while a dusty cupboard still holds sheet music for a choir that hasn’t sung in 10 years,” Bendavid reports. “Two dozen young men speed along wooden ramps and quarter-pipes, their falls thundering through the church, as rap music reverberates where hymns once sounded.”

The years of abandonment and water damage have made the building’s upkeep financially impossible. While it searches for potential buyers, church leaders have allowed skateboarders to take refuge in the sanctuary.

“It creates a lot of atmosphere — it’s a bit of Middle Ages,” Puck Smit, 21, one of the Dutch skaters observed about skating in the gothic cathedral. “When I first saw it, I just stood there for five minutes staring.”

For those not raised in the church, a cathedral can be awe-inspiring. For those raised in the church, however, abandoned sanctuaries are unsettling. There can be a disconcerting feeling when browsing through an antique store that used to house a Presbyterian congregation or sitting down in a restaurant that once was an Episcopal sanctuary. Where prayers and hymns and sermons were once offered, now appetizers and gourmet coffees are served. Where once the Bread of Life was broken on an altar, now gluten-free scones are sold with brambleberry jam.

The news of gutted churches is as painful as driving through the upper Midwest and seeing the dilapidated factories that served as the work places for droves of men and women from a previous generation. Time shifts, technology evolves, populations migrate. All the while, the Church attempts to proclaim a message of redemption that is translatable in all languages, in all neighborhoods, for all eras. Sometimes, however, the message gets stifled, sidetracked, and eventually muted.

“For Christians, a church’s closure — often the centerpiece of the town square — is an emotional event,” writes Bendavid. “Here people have worshiped, felt grief and joy, and quested for a relationship with God.” Those closures are now moving at a clipper pace. Roman Catholic leaders in the Netherlands report that “two-thirds of their 1,600 churches will be out of commission in a decade, and 700 of Holland’s Protestant churches are expected to close within four years.”

In Europe, ex-churches are being repurposed in many ways. They have become supermarkets, floral shops, bookstores, gymnasiums, and high-end fashion boutiques. One cathedral is now a circus training school for trapeze artists. Another houses a Frankenstein-themed bar that features lasers, bubbling test tubes, and a creepy monster descending from the ceiling at midnight (one assumes there is a poignant sermon illustration in this example).

Communities are scrambling to see how best to transpose these empty houses of God into community centers, libraries, art museums, and even homes. The widespread nature of this crisis is Europe’s modern day reality.

For the happily secular, it is a civic issue about empty buildings. For the faithful, however, the abandoned chapels are prophetic illustrations of a nation’s empty soul.

“These buildings were designed to be places of wonder, mystery, countercultural adventure, risky intensity, places of freedom and joy,” Dr. Duffy Robbins observed when I shared the Journal story with him. “Sadly, what they became over time were places of safety, predictability, blandness and irrelevance.” Robbins is a prolific author and professor of youth ministry at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania.

Pelle Klomp, 14, another of the Dutch skaters said visitors occasionally stop by to complain. “Especially the older people say, ‘It’s ridiculous, you’re dishonoring faith,’ ” he said. “And I can understand that. But they weren’t using it.”

That last line should be read twice. “But they weren’t using it.”

“What I think a lot of these kids have settled for in these empty buildings are cheaper answers to the authentic and deep cravings of their souls,” Robbins said. “Let’s don’t blame the kids for this outcome; they have a (Jesus-shaped) hunger in their hearts. Let’s blame the churches that have removed most of the Water and Bread and salt from the menu.”

This is not just a European problem. Between 2012 and 2013, United Methodism in the United States closed the doors of more than 300 churches. Part of the United Methodist ritual for deconsecrating a church building is to be reminded of its purpose: “It has been consecrated for the ministry of God’s Holy Word and Sacraments. It has provided refuge and comfort for God’s people. It has served our holy faith,” reads part of the litany in the Book of Worship.

There is also thanks given for mutually shared experiences: “We have celebrated the Lord’s Supper here and been nurtured by it through our journey of faith. We have rejoiced here as believers have confessed faith in Christ. Here we have baptized our children and mourned our dead.”

After the prayers have been uttered and the hymns sung, it is eventually proclaimed: “We now deconsecrate and release [this building] for any honorable use.” This may not seem like a profound ritual, but it signals important closure to those with deep roots and long memories invested in a particular sanctuary – whether it is a gothic cathedral or a rough-hewn tabernacle at a campmeeting.

Of course, behind every cathedral is a message. When the doors are padlocked and the roof is leaking and the pews are barren and the pulpit is empty, the message about the love of God through Jesus Christ is silenced. In the case of the Church of St. Joseph, the tragedy of the broken down cathedral is compounded by the missed opportunity to reach out to young skateboarders.

“Ironically, skaters are notoriously told to leave every place they try to skate,” observed Kit Tomlinson, Pastor of Recreation at University United Methodist Church in San Antonio, when I shared the Journal article with him. “The church isn’t even having to work to get these skaters on the premises – but they aren’t offering the Gospel to them. They don’t see this a mission opportunity.”

Tomlinson spearheads a ministry at University UM Church to expose every skater in San Antonio to the message of Christ. More than 2,500 different skaters have been exposed to the church’s ministry, and 175 skaters have committed their lives to Christ within the last seven years.

“Because skateboarders are almost always being chased around by security guards and authorities,” Tomlinson said, “we wanted to be different than the rest of the world and invite them in and share the Gospel with them.”

And what should be done with all these abandoned churches? “I don’t know why they don’t turn them into skateparks,” he said. “Seems like exactly the demographic the church needs.”

Steve Beard is the editor of Good News.  

Take My Hand: The Gospel and the Blues

Gospels-Spirituals-Hymns-CD2-coverBy Steve Beard

The first of several pivotal scenes in the film Selma occurs when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. makes a late night phone call to gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. The undeniable weight of what lay ahead for King and the civil rights movement was heavy on his soul. In quiet desperation, King (played masterfully by David Oyelowo) awakens the gospel music legend with the phone call and simply says, “I need to hear the Lord’s voice.”

Mahalia Jackson (played by Ledisi Young) breaks the stillness of the night with an impromptu and stemwinding plea in her housecoat and slippers:

“Precious Lord, take my hand / Lead me on, let me stand / I am tired, I am weak, I am worn / Through the storm, through the night / Lead me on to the light / Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home.”

This iconic scene in the film was indicative of King’s dependence upon spiritual strength, Jackson’s healing voice, and the Savior’s nail-scared hands. “Precious Lord” was King’s supplication, his way of reaching out for the hem of the garment. It was his last request only moments before his voice of eloquence was forever silenced on April 4, 1968, with a .30-06 bullet. King had just asked Chicago saxophonist Ben Branch to play the song at the rally later that night in Memphis.

As a farewell to her civil rights compatriot, Jackson sang “Precious Lord” at King’s funeral. This would be the last of innumerable times they would share the same stage. Whenever King requested it, Jackson was willing to lend her voice for the cause – despite the death threats. As the granddaughter of slaves, Jackson sang the gospel classic “I’ve Been ‘Buked, and I’ve Been Scorned” right before King gave his “I Have A Dream” speech in Washington D.C. Jackson is credited for steering King off his prepared text by shouting from behind the podium, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!”

Mahalia Jackson (1911-1972) was the undisputed queen of gospel music. She incurred the wrath from some church folks who resented the way she unveiled the power of gospel music outside the sanctuary in secular venues. Others thought that her soaring style, hand-clapping, and foot-stomping borrowed too much from the blues and jazz singers of vaudeville, the sin bins, and the juke joints.

Despite heavy-handed pressure, Jackson never compromised on her personal vow to only sing gospel music. “Blues are the songs of despair,” she said. “Gospel songs are the songs of hope. When you sing gospel you have the feeling there is a cure for what’s wrong, but when you are through with the blues, you’ve got nothing to rest on.”

Thomas-Dorsey2-playingNo one understood the spiritual chasm between blues and gospel more profoundly than did Thomas A. Dorsey (1899-1993), the songwriter of “Precious Lord” and the legendary father of gospel music. For more than a decade, Dorsey was also known for writing bawdy blues under the alias “Georgia Tom.” As the prodigal son of a church organist mother and a father who was a Baptist minister, Dorsey’s double life embodied a very real spiritual warfare.

“My soul was a deluge of divine rapture,” said Dorsey after hearing spirit-filled music at a revival. Not long after that, however, Dorsey was playing piano as Georgia Tom for blues legends Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Tampa Red.

Two severe and lengthy bouts with what he dubbed as “unsteadiness” incapacitated him from playing music and caused him to tailspin into depression. His mother told him to give up the blues and get back into the good graces of the Lord. But every time he would lurch in a righteous direction, it seemed as if the blues would lure him back. The war for his soul raged back and forth for many years.

After a miraculous divine encounter and prophecy at a church service, Dorsey made a heartfelt commitment to focus on gospel. A remarkable professional collaboration between Dorsey and Jackson began shortly thereafter.

In 1932, things would change forever for Dorsey. He had become the choir director of the Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago and was selling his songs to mass choirs. As he was preparing for a gospel concert in St. Louis, he received a telegram instructing him to immediately return home. By the time he arrived, his young wife Nettie had died giving birth to the couple’s son. Two days later, the baby also died.

Dorsey was crushed, despondent, and trampled underfoot. Social critic Stanley Crouch once observed that the New Testament contains perhaps the greatest blues line of all time — “Father, why hast thou forsaken me?”

It was in the forsakenness of that hour that Dorsey chipped away at the piano and wrote, “Precious Lord, take my hand …” In the sorrow of the desolation and flood of his loss, the song that inspired Dr. King was the dove that Dorsey released in search of dry land, the flight of hope. It was his blues: “I am tired, I am weak, I am worn.” It was his gospel: “Lead me on, let me stand.”

“If a woman has lost a man, a man has lost a woman, his feeling reacts to the blues, he feels like expressing it,” Dorsey told his biographer Michael W. Harris in The Rise of Gospel Blues (Oxford). “The same thing acts for a gospel song. Now you’re not singing blues; you’re singing gospel, good news song, singing about the Creator; but it’s the same feeling, a grasping of the heart.”

For Dorsey, life was both gospel and blues. He had seen it in the juke joints and the sanctuaries. “It gets low-down. Now what we call low-down in blues doesn’t mean that it’s dirty or bad or something like that,” Dorsey said. “It gets down into the individual to set him on fire, dig him up…”

“Precious Lord” became a universally beloved song because it grasped the heart. You can hear how it inspired King, energized Jackson, and bandaged up Dorsey. It enabled King to weave a civil rights message to a white audience over the growling police dogs, shouted racial slurs, and the segregated lunch counters. It empowered Jackson to take traditional gospel music to locations beyond the choir loft and to audiences beyond the black church. It inspired Dorsey to blend the juke joint blues with the Sunday morning hope of gospel.

It was both Good Friday heartbreak and Easter Sunday jubilation ­– somewhere right there in the grit and toil of life.

Steve Beard is the editor of Good News.

 

U2 observes the passing of its “North Star”: Pastor Jack Heaslip, RIP

jackBy Steve Beard

On Wednesday, February 25, members of the band U2 gathered at St. Mary’s Church outside of Dublin in order to observe the passing of the Rev. Jack Heaslip, the band’s long time friend and “traveling pastor.” The 71-year-old Anglican priest passed away after a lengthy battle with motor neuron disease.

Heaslip’s pivotal spiritual guidance and pastoral care was recognized by the band when he was referred to as “our North Star” on the liner notes of U2’s last album Songs of Innocence.

Heaslip performed the marriage ceremony between Bono and his wife Ali, baptized their children, and conducted the funeral for Bono’s father. Bono described Heaslip “as a source of inspiration and calm for us over our lives,” in the collaborative autobiography U2 by U2.

As a guidance counselor and English teacher at Mount Temple Secondary School, Heaslip is credited with helping walk Bono through the agonizing death of his mother when the singer was 14-years-old. “I liked him – more than liked him, I trusted him,” Bono writes.

Almost always outside of the glare of the spotlight, Heaslip garnered the attention of spiritually-minded fans of U2 when an audio recording was released of the blessing Heaslip offered to the band and entire crew on the night before the Elevation Tour began in March 2001. The tour consisted of 113 shows and was seen by more than 2 million fans.

Heaslip began by reading a verse from Isaiah 61 that had been read by Jesus in the Gospels. “The spirit of the sovereign Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.”

“I felt that what we want God to do tonight is to pour his anointing,” Heaslip told the band and crew. “That’s not just a dab on the forehead – that’s a rich anointing of his oil. We’re told the oil would flow down from the top of your head – and in my case into your beard – and down your front and make a mess.

“But that’s the richness of God’s anointing,” Heaslip continued. “And what I felt God wanted me to do today was to pour out, in his name, that anointing on everything to do with this tour – every body, every thing. We think of the band, but we think of every piece of equipment and everyone who works that piece of equipment, everyone who packs up, everyone who drives a car, everyone who does the catering, everyone who is responsible for technology, every joint of wire, every plug, every soffit, every light.

“So we ask for that anointing to be poured out by the power of his spirit. So we simply say: Come, Holy Spirit, and reign. Pour out your rule and anointing on this tour. Let nothing be an obstacle. Just melt away anything that is not of you, so that your power can flow without interruption. We claim your blessing and your anointing, because we ask it in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.”

According to news reports from the funeral, the Rev. Kevin Brew said that Heaslip would not have wanted the focus to be on himself. “Jack made a lasting impression on so many people in so many ways. Jack being Jack, he would have had certain views on how his funeral to be conducted.

“It was not to focus on him but rather on the Christian faith he proclaimed in so many different ways,” Brew said.

U2 members Larry Mullen, Adam Clayton and the Edge were among the congregants. Bono’s role in the service included reading a passage from Isaiah 61 – the text used as the Elevation tour blessing 14 years prior.

Last year, Heaslip wrote a meditation in Disquiet Time: Rants and reflections on the Good Book by the skeptical, the faithful, and a few scoundrels (Jericho). His devotional contribution was called “A Tale of Two Mottoes,” and was a reflection on a verse from Psalm 127 that was publicly displayed on the wall of the assembly hall at Mount Temple.

“Jack was a magnificent man with wisdom surpassed only, perhaps, by his humility,” said Cathleen Falsani, religion journalist and co-editor of Disquiet Time. “He had a way of gathering people under his wings, quietly shepherding them in courageous directions and to embrace a Creator who is exponentially more than we ever could imagine. God’s fingerprints were all over Jack’s life and in turn all over the lives of those who knew and loved him best. It was an honor to call him friend, to know him the wee bit that I did, to be kept in his heart and lifted in his prayers.

“I think about the countless concertgoers and lovers of music who never knew the gentle Irish sage — this Polaris who called attention not to himself, but pointed to the One whose lights shines upon us all — who covered them with his benedictions,” Falsani continued. “And as I give thanks for Jack’s life, the words of another great Irish sage — the late poet/mystic John O’Donohue — play in my mind: ‘You would want us to find you in presence / Beside us when beauty brightens / When kindness glows / And music echoes eternal tones.’”

Steve Beard is the founder and editor of Thunderstruck Media.

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Fitting tributes and insights about Father Jack Heaslip:

• Tim Neufeld http://www.atu2.com/news/our-north-star-tribute-to-rev-jack-heaslip.html

• Steve Garber http://www.washingtoninst.org/9607/requiescat-in-pace-jack-heaslip/

• Cathleen Falsani http://www.patheos.com/blogs/thedudeabides/2011/06/14/jack-heaslip-what-if-god-is-even-greater-than-we-think-oh-yes/