Monday, October 31, 2011

desperation, rich mullins...and a million years ago

My friend Beth Lutz sent me a couple of photos from what seems like a million years ago. Beth was Beth Snell before she married my buddy and co-pastor Mark. She sang with an acoustic Christian group way back in the late seventies/early eighties (sorry, Beth) named Zion. Zion was centered around an unknown, piano-hammering young singer-songwriter named Rich Mullins. I was working a minimum wage job downtown in the catacombs of the Public Library and Rich worked a few blocks away in the ticket booth in the Shillito’s parking garage. We’d get together and argue theology—neither one of us really knew much—and wonder why the church had a problem with long hair at the time. He was raised in a conservative religious home, I was raised in a pagan home. Rich was slightly wacky. Maybe that’s what religion does to you, I don’t know. But I think that’s why I liked him.

I had just become a Christian, gotten a civilian job, and had started playing guitar more seriously after being a drummer in bar bands from the time I was fourteen. Remind me to tell you the story sometime of an expletive-ranting bar owner in Kentucky that kept a beer-guzzling live bear in a cage that bit his finger off one night between sets. At the time it seemed, uh, justified somehow. But I digress.

I met another Christian named Paul Niehaus who had a TEAC four-track reel-to-reel tape recorder (I told you this was a long time ago) in his basement with an old upright piano. He and I played guitars together and had started gigging in local coffeehouses in the mid-seventies. At night Rich would come to Paul’s basement and bang furiously on the upright, I’d play my black-oyster pearl Ludwig drums and Paul thumped bass. Paul and I eventually formed an acoustic group with a female singer and female violinist. And then married them. Is music great or what?

Rich formed Zion and then a relative loaned him the money to go to 5th Floor Studios in Cincinnati and record a self-produced album. Rich called and asked if I would play drums on the sessions and of course I said yes. A friend named Tony Ross played bass. Greg McNeilly engineered and went on to engineer all three albums for a band called Prodigal that I had the pleasure of playing with in the early-to-mid-eighties (for some of that retro-80's-blast-from-the-past-rock-goodness, click below...)

Anyway, it was a song from that Zion session called Sing Your Praise to the Lord that made its way to the ears of rising CCM pop star Amy Grant. The rest is early Christian music history.

Rich was signed as songwriter, moved to Nashville and eventually released his own music, later forming and traveling with A Ragamuffin Band. By the early nineties, his songs were picked up by other artists by the boatloads. Awesome God became a signature worship chorus. Rich could have been fairly wealthy, but instead he arranged for a small church he had attended to receive all his money and had them pay him whatever the average income was in America—about $25,000 then. The church gave the rest of the money out to various ministries and needs. Rich never married and started a quasi-monastic order called the “Kid Brothers of St. Frank.” He said he would have been a Catholic monk but was too much of a wimp. When an executive from a record label once asked him if he knew how much money was pouring in from royalties, he simply said, “No…it would just make it that much harder to give away.”

Like most of us, Rich was a complex personality. Deeply desperate for God, a strong sense of justice, more than a little quirky, critically honest and opinionated. Years passed before I saw him again. The last couple of times were at a Bruce Cockburn concert at Bogart’s and then bringing him in to play at the Vineyard on a weekend in the mid-nineties. He died shortly afterward in a tragic car accident on the way to a benefit concert.

In the end, I think it works like this: the more we’re aware of how screwed up we really are, the more desperate we become for Jesus. Maybe it’s the implied message when Jesus forgave the prostitute who washed his feet with her tears: the one who is forgiven much loves much. It certainly creates a desperation for God. We really, really need Him. I mean, who do we think we’re kidding? Perhaps that’s why the Bible says, “The fool has said in his heart: there is no God.” (Ps 14:1)

I think that’s why I absolutely loved Joe Boyd’s message this weekend in the Strong Challenge series. The angle he took with the “Strong Training” segment was the desperation factor: it’s only when we’re really desperate that we get serious about doing anything we can to be near Jesus.

I could use some more of that in my bones.

And I hope there’s a funky old upright piano in the Kingdom Come; it would be good to hear Rich again. He was a desperate man.

Monday, October 17, 2011

occupy protests

I’m mesmerized by the Occupy protests, perhaps oddly in the same way I was fascinated by the Tea Party movement, or for that matter, the Arab Spring. It doesn’t help to watch a particularly crazy person snag the media interview on your polarized news source of choice, or to buy into the short-sighted categories and simple labels like communists, ultraconservatives, fundamentalists, socialists, or whatever depending on the movement. But it’s more than sociologically interesting when groups of people begin leveraging social media to tap into a simmering discontent. And then the tipping point comes.

Even apart from the politics and economics (let alone the moral implications), the blending of human nature, discontent and movements is intriguing. The fact is, any protest movement has to be listened to by the sheer fact that it reflects a repository of frustration. Although the voice of Occupy is light-years from being monolithic and seemingly still in a deconstructive phase, it is reflecting one thing clearly: a frustration with economic inequities reflected by the widening gap between the rich and poor.

Tread carefully here: greed and coveting are equally creepy, whether you’re the 99 or the 1 percenter.

We may agree or disagree with the movement’s aims (if they become clarified) or what the solution is—or even whether it elicits a solution (a la “let a free market settle it”)—but the movement is certainly reflecting a perception. And you know the connection between perception and reality.

I came across this fascinating response by a blogger/commentator named Josh Brown featured on APM’s Marketplace website and radio show. Josh is part of the Evil Empire, the “one-percenters”, those being vilified by the Occupy folks: Wall Street traders, bankers and stockbrokers who have been accused of controlling one-third of America’s wealth. He’s an investment advisor at Fusion Analytics in Manhattan. He wrote under the heading of Dear Wall Street, this is why the people are angry:

“In 2008, the American people were told that if they didn't bail out the banks, their way of life would never be the same. In no uncertain terms, our leaders told us anything short of saving these insolvent banks would result in a depression to the American public. We had to do it!

“At our darkest hour we gave these banks every single thing they asked for. We allowed investment banks to borrow money at zero percent interest rate, directly from the Fed. We gave them taxpayer cash right onto their balance sheets. We allowed them to suspend account rules and pretend that the toxic sludge they were carrying was worth 100 cents on the dollar. Anything to stave off insolvency. We left thousands of executives in place at these firms. Nobody went to jail, not a single perp walk. I can't even think of a single example of someone being fired. People resigned with full benefits and pensions, as though it were a job well done.

“The American taxpayer kicked in over a trillion dollars to help make all of this happen. But the banks didn't hold up their end of the bargain. The banks didn't seize this opportunity, this second chance to re-enter society as a constructive agent of commerce. Instead, they went back to business as usual. With $20 billion in bonuses paid during 2009. Another $20 billion in bonuses paid in 2010. And they did this with the profits they earned from zero percent interest rates that actually acted as a tax on the rest of the economy.

“Instead of coming back and working with this economy to get back on its feet, they hired lobbyists by the dozen to fight tooth and nail against any efforts whatsoever to bring common sense regulation to the financial industry. Instead of coming back and working with the people, they hired an army of robosigners to process millions of foreclosures. In many cases, without even having the proper paperwork to evict the homeowners. Instead, the banks announced layoffs in the tens of thousands, so that executives at the top of the pile could maintain their outrageous levels of compensation.

“We bailed out Wall Street to avoid Depression, but three years later, millions of Americans are in a living hell. This is why they're enraged, this why they're assembling, this is why they hate you. Why for the first time in 50 years, the people are coming out in the streets and they're saying, ‘Enough.’”


No matter which side of the fence you were on regarding TARP and the bailout, one thing is for sure: when leaders, whether they be political, economic, cultural or spiritual leaders, become so tone deaf that they can’t hear the pop song, there’s dissonance a’coming. I have to agree with Josh on this one. What were the trustees and boards-of-directors thinking when they karaoked to “Executives Gone Wild”…especially when those at the top were the ones ultimately responsible for tanking their own companies, save for the taxpayer bailout? Of course companies can do whatever they want to with their own money…that’s part of how capitalism works. But how do you miss the obvious PR meta-message? Really?

Miguel De La Torre, associate professor of social ethics at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, writes, “During the booming economy (1990 to 1995) when most corporations reported profit increases of up to 50 percent, the average CEO's pay rose from $1.9 million to $3.2 million, while the average worker, during that same time period, experienced a pay drop from $22,976 to $22,838.”

One of the purposes of the prophets in the Old Testament was to force the people with power and privilege to face the music. It shouldn’t surprise us that there is an over-abundance of warnings given regarding the abuse of power and money. Over and over.

Jeremiah prophesied with the word of God:

“Doom to him who builds palaces but bullies people, who makes a fine house but destroys lives, who cheats his workers and won’t pay them for their work, who says, ‘I’ll build me an elaborate mansion with spacious rooms and fancy windows. I’ll bring in rare and expensive woods and the latest in interior decor.’” Jeremiah 22:13–14 (Message Version)

Through Ezekiel, the Father cried:

“The sin of your sister Sodom was this: She lived with her daughters in the lap of luxury—proud, gluttonous, and lazy. They ignored the oppressed and the poor. They put on airs and lived obscene lives. And you know what happened: I did away with them.” Ezekiel 16:49–50 (Message Version)

This really isn’t a rip on the rich. Let’s be honest: compared to most of the world, all of us are pretty wealthy. If you’re reading this on your own computer, you’re among the estimated 6-7% elite of the world. But it seems to me that when a sizable group of people begin questioning the gap, someone needs to listen. Perhaps there is something to a “populous prophetic” voice.

The French Revolution is derided or cheered depending on your historical politics. It eventually produced Napoleon. Sheesh—what a megalomaniac. Yet it was the self-consumed French aristocracy and the wealthy, powerful Church clergy who really missed it, and paid dearly with their heads. Literally. Though it’s a dubious Marie Antoinette quote, “Let them eat cake” reflected the tone-deaf response to the populous when, among a barrage of other things, bread prices increased fifty-percent.

All I’m saying is that those at the top have a responsibility to be aware and respond wisely. If I were asked (uh, doubtful) to give a little pastoral advice to CEO’s and execs, it would be this: don’t ignore the rumble; a little self-restraint and self-discipline could go a long, long way.

And we should all reread James—he should get some credit if just for being the brother of Jesus.

I’m just saying.