Sunday, October 02, 2005

Conforming Our Lives to a Counter-Cultural Song

The world in which we live makes tremendous counter-claims to those of the Gospel. We are encouraged to indulge ourselves in hedonistic behavior and to spend our way to happiness. We eat fast-food individually, separate from the community. We say a quick prayer on our own, separate from the community. We listen to our IPOD’s pre-programmed to music self-selected, separate from the community. We surf the Internet in an isolated cubicle, separate from the community. Whether we like it or not, the culture is telling us that we are primarily individuals, independent consumer spending-units, whose goal is to, according to the market mantra, “have it your way.”

In contrast, as Christians, we have been called to sing an entirely different tune to a different God. Like Christ’s disciples, we are beckoned away from doing our work only unto self into a community of the faithful who learn to pray together, listen to one another, and to become the people of God in service to the world. Doing this requires enormous effort in the midst of the toxicity of a self-indulgent, me-oriented, capitalistic American culture. Learning to speak the language of Zion oftentimes seems quaint, at best, and dangerous, at worst.

I just returned this weekend from a 600-mile odyssey to southern Missouri to lay my grandmother to rest in a rustic, rural, family cemetery in the midst of nowhere. The world that she and my grandfather sought to tame was harsh and difficult—one wracked by the vagaries of economic depression, agrarian failure, and childhood death. She and my grandfather learned to work with their hands and to toil long and hard for precious little. They served congregation after congregation, dodging rats in the basement as grandpa labored at building a sanctuary above; boiling dandelions and scraping the bottom of the barrel for grains of corn meal in order to feed themselves, their children, and their charges. They did the best they could, handing on the traditions of the faith and both my parents and those in my generation have had to rewrite the old, old story in words more appropriate for the brave new world in which we find ourselves.

As a child, I can still remember her parents alone in their bedroom on the cold wooden floor of a frame house praying our names aloud as the wind whistled outside in the midst of yet another Iowa snowstorm. She was raised to read her Bible faithfully, to labor in the Lord’s service diligently, and to pray as if her life, and those of her children depended on it. On the last day on which I saw her, this past summer, she had been reduced to a shadow of her former self. She sat in a wheelchair, an afghan over her withering legs for protection and stared somewhat incoherently ahead. She resorted most often to grunts and groans and the spark of recognition was nowhere to be found. After a few minutes, the one-way conversation died out and I wasn’t sure what else to say—other than to pray with her, as I always did. But in the background, the piano was playing and a few of the residents were singing along. The nursing home administrator had told our family that this was my grandmother’s favorite activity, the one time when her tongue would be loosed and she would seem to become herself again. And so, I looked right at her and began to sing: “Jesus loves me, this I know; for the Bible tells me so. Little ones to whom belong; they are weak but he is strong. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me—the Bible tells me so.” And, sure enough, the hint of a smile began to cross her lips and she joined right in.

These are the words of the Christian community, along with so much else from the Gloria Patri, to the Prayer of Confession, to the words of the Psalter. They make their ways into our minds and into our hearts conforming us to another reality than the cultural construct which surrounds us. They make up the liturgy of Zion and, when all else has faded in our memories, they remain with us. They have been said and sung by countless generations before us and they will continue to exist long after we are gone. This is how the people of God begin their day, with others—both the living and the dead—and we are invited to join in.