I worked for a while as a hospice chaplain. In that work I traveled all around north central Illinois, visiting the dying wherever they were: in their homes, in nursing homes, and in hospitals. I tried to give people what they needed. Sometimes it was a prayer or a song; more often, what they needed was just someone to talk to.
Some people wanted me to sing old hymns; some wanted me to read scripture; some wanted me to lead them in spontaneous prayer; some wanted me to pray the rosary with them. I did whatever I could. But one thing I wasn’t really prepared for was the large number of ex-Christians I met in that work: people who had left their churches, and who really didn’t want to hear any more religious BS. (Now that I’m a pastor, I naturally spend most of my time with people who are still coming to church, so I don’t meet nearly as many ex-Christians!)
Many of these people had been damaged by their former churches. One had been hounded out of a church for divorcing and remarrying. One had been told that the reason his young daughter had died was because he hadn’t prayed for her cure with sufficient faith. One gay man had been told that AIDS was his punishment from God. One man had been told that his deceased wife was unfortunately in hell, having never been baptized. And so on, and on, and on.
Someone argued with me today that “progressive” Christianity is just a snare and a delusion — that Christianity doesn’t need to progress, because in its good old-fashioned form it was already just right. But my experience is quite the opposite. I’ve seen a lot of damage done to good people by good old-fashioned Christianity. My feeling is, we have to help it do better.
In Chapter Three of The Inn of God’s Forgiveness, I wrote:
To summarize, here’s the bad news: if you want to claim the Christian tradition without affirming the traditional creeds, it’s a bit of an uphill battle. Confident creedal Christians will identify you as an inadequate believer, if not actually an agent of Satan; confident atheists will identify you as an inadequate doubter, still clinging to your discredited faith tradition; but in the face of both, you will have to insist on claiming your own religious identity.
It’s coming back to haunt me now. I’m advertising the web page for the book on Facebook, and people are occasionally commenting on the ad that appears in their news feeds. So far, the comments are of just these two kinds. There are confident creedal Christians who want to tell me that I’m not really a Christian — and there are atheists who are say things like “tired of these fairy tales in my news feed” and “he [Jesus] is a made up character in a storybook who cares.”
But oh well! I can’t really blame the atheists for being cheesed off: shouldn’t Facebook know enough about their interests to not advertise a book of Christian theology and hymns to them? But it’s interesting how reactive people are on this topic — reactive in much the same way on all sides. The atheists feel threatened and demeaned by an oppressive Christian majority. The conservative Christians also feel threatened and demeaned by the erosion of their tradition in an increasingly secular culture. And, of course, I feel pretty beleaguered myself, getting it from both sides. But it’s been very interesting to engage my conservative Christian commentators in online discussion. We often seem to be able to find some ground for mutual respect, though not always agreement. That’s progress. And meanwhile, the people who are not offended by the ad, though not posting, are coming to the web site and downloading the hymns. 1000 downloads and counting!
I’m working on two new hymns about the earth: one happy (“The Harmony of the Incredible Earth”) and one sorrowful (“Compassion’s Sting”). That’s sort of how I’m feeling these days. Sometimes the earth is so overwhelmingly beautiful that I just have to join in its song; sometimes the harm we’re doing, the harm I’m doing, to the earth is so sad that I just have to lament. Here’s a draft stanza of the first:
Oh, blessed is Earth, the prolific and sweet,
Providing us plenty of good things to eat,
With life on the surface and treasures below,
What greater abundance could any bestow?
Her fisheries, forests, and fields of grain,
Her breathable breezes, her drinkable rain,
The harmony of the incredible earth!
The harmony of, the harmony of, the harmony of the incredible earth!
And here’s a draft stanza of the second:
When species vanish from the Earth,
And ancient coral dies,
When land erodes and life is stilled
And burning forest cries,
When silence falls where once the calls
Of songbirds filled the air,
You weep, O God, with every death
And final breath,
And yet we do not care.
I don’t think Keystone XL is a good idea — maybe that’s why this is on my heart today.
The Nook version of my new book, The Inn of God’s Forgiveness and Other Hymns for the Progressive Church, is now available from Barnes&Noble. On most Nooks, the music pages themselves will be too small to read, but you can always access the pdfs here for printing.
I usually use a Kindle myself, but I got a used Nook on eBay for testing this edition. It was pretty straightforward. I guess I already found most of the problems when I made my Kindle and iBooks Store editions.
Every week I post a recording of my sermon over on the church web site: clarecongregational.org. I don’t usually post the children’s message there, but this week it was too much fun to leave off. It’s a quick introduction to the Ten Commandments, with a little song to help people remember what they are. There’s a first great commandment, inscribed in solid stone…
The iBooks version of my new book, The Inn of God’s Forgiveness and Other Hymns for the Progressive Church, is now available from the iBooks Store through iTunes. On most iPads, the music pages themselves will be rather small, but you can always access the pdfs here for printing.
I usually use a Kindle myself, but my son reads books on his iPad, so I was able to test it using that. Apple has an interesting free app for creating iBooks: their iBooks Author. I spent a few hours with this, and used it to build the first chapter of The Inn of God’s Forgiveness. I really like pop-up footnotes, and with some labor I was able to make that work with iBooks Author. It wasn’t easy: I had to create separate little graphics for the footnote links (a little .png for “”, and another for “”, and so on). But the result looked nice and worked well.
After some reflection, however, I decided not to go that route. The books produced by iBooks Author are fixed-layout things. But most of the people in my church who read ebooks do so largely because they can change the font size and read the book with large print. For that, a plain old .epub works better. So that’s what you get from the iBooks Store if you buy this book. It doesn’t have the fancy pop-up footnotes, but it can be read at different font sizes.
This poem uses memories of a person I’ve known all my life, a person who showed me what love is like, and therefore what God is like. That person is my mother. So sometimes, I pray Psalm Twenty-Three this way: not The Lord is my shepherd but The Lady is my mother.
The Lady Is My Mother
The Lady is my mother;
I shall not want.
She tucks me in between clean sheets;
She reads me a story.
She cleans the cut and binds on the Band-Aid;
She combs down my hair for our name's sake.
Even though I tremble and cry out in darkness, I will waken with relief,
For you are with me; your hand and your voice, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me with macaroni and cheese
in the presence of my siblings;
You set fresh milk on the table, and only gently scold me when
My cup runneth over.
Surely love and generosity shall sustain me all the days of my life,
And I will dwell in the house of the Lady for ever.
I will be performing for “The Gathering”, the annual retreat of the UCC Women of Michigan, at the Kettunen Center in Tustin, Michigan, on June 12, 2015. My playlist is still undecided, but I’ve promised to do “The Buddha Kicked My Butt!” It’s a weekend event; my concert will Friday evening.
Contact Sallie Anderson at (989) 732-9001 for more information about The Gathering.
The Kindle version of my new book, The Inn of God’s Forgiveness and Other Hymns for the Progressive Church, is now available from Amazon. On most Kindles, the music pages themselves will be too small to read, but you can always access the pdfs here for printing.
I made this Kindle edition myself using Jutoh from Anthemion Software. The software worked well for me, and when I reported a problem in the way footnotes were working on the Kindle Paperwhite, Julian Smart (technical director of the company) was a huge help. He quickly made and sent me a beta-test version of Jutoh (2.21.0) that solved the problem. I can’t recall ever getting tech support like that before, anywhere!
If you want to know, the problem was in the strange way the Kindle supports pop-up footnotes. I use footnotes rather heavily in the book — sometimes for bibliographic references, sometimes for brief digressions. I want them to pop up on an e-reader, so the person reading the book won’t lose the main thread. Kindle does sometimes decide to display footnotes as a pop-up. But how it decides which part of your document is a pop-up-able footnote, and how it decides where that footnote ends, is arcane and (as far as I can tell) completely undocumented.
Anyway, I hope this Kindle version gives satisfaction. May God bless you, and may all your footnotes pop up!
I’ve just published a new book: The Inn of God’s Forgiveness and Other Hymns for the Progressive Church. It’s a collection of eight new hymns, each with a chapter about the theology it expresses. The hymns in the book are free: they may be downloaded at this page, or copied from the book, and they come with a Creative Commons license that allows unlimited copying for non-commercial use. There are also some spiritual exercises in the book, which may likewise be downloaded and copied at this page.
I wrote these hymns because the hymnals and other collections available to me didn’t have enough of what I wanted: singable hymns that reflect a progressive Christian theology.
What do I mean by “singable”? It’s a very subjective thing, of course, and differs from one congregation to another. I wrote these hymns to be sung in my own congregations. Those congregations were, on the whole, quite elderly, and if socially progressive, were musically conservative. If I introduced songs with any syncopation—if there were any odd chordal progressions—if the tempo was more than moderate—if there was any rhythmic complexity, even so much as a rest on a downbeat—the congregation was half lost. Of course, not everyone in a congregation will sing at all, but I wanted our singing to be as inclusive as possible. I didn’t want to leave the weaker singers (who are, often, the oldest singers) feeling embarrassed or left out. So I tried to make these hymns harmonically and rhythmically simple. They’re also rather repetitive: for example, many of them have refrains, which help timid singers build confidence.
Then, what do I mean by “progressive”? When people ask me what I mean when I call myself a progressive Christian, I tend to offer a list of things I disagree with. For example: I do not find the theory of evolution offensive or even particularly controversial. I do not believe that the Bible is infallible, inerrant, or literally true in all its parts; it is not, to me, the word of God. I do not judge people based on their sexual orientation, and I don’t think God does either. I do not think God’s judgment takes the form of punishing sinners with eternal torment. I do not think that Jesus died to pay the price for our sins. I do not try to make converts of people who are being well served by other religious traditions. And so on—and as I speak this way, I find that I am defining progressive Christianity by listing the aspects of conventional Christianity it rejects.
But in the end, that isn’t enough. It isn’t enough to say what you reject; you must also say what you claim. Hymn-writing turns out to be a good discipline for this. Perhaps any theological writing that is strictly negative is inadequate—but any hymnody that is strictly negative is obviously inadequate. You have only to imagine trying to turn the previous paragraph into a song to feel the flaw in it. You might perhaps turn it into an amusing series of negative verses, but those verses would be begging to be answered by a refreshingly positive refrain.
So the hymns in this collection are my attempts to express aspects of a positive progressive theology. They are not meant to give a systematic statement of that theology; there are plenty of topics unaddressed here, and there’s plenty of room for a sequel. These hymns are, in the old sense, occasional pieces. They were written for particular occasions in my spiritual journey.
I hope they will be a blessing in yours. If you find the hymns interesting and/or useful, please support this work by buying the book.