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.

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Ana Marie Cox (aka Wonkette) comes out of the closet as a Christian

wonk“I have not been public about my faith,” confesses Ana Marie Cox, the snarky left-wing blogger who goes by Wonkette. “I am somewhat tempted to embrace the punk-rockness of being a progressive, feminist, tattooed, pro-choice, graduate-educated believer—and then I have to remind myself that believing in God is about as punk rock as wearing pants, maybe even less so. Almost nine in ten Americans believe in God; in any given moment, how many are wearing pants?

“In my personal life, my faith is not something I struggle with or something I take particular pride in. It is just part of who I am.

“The only place where my spirituality feels volatile is in my professional life; the only time I’ve ever felt uncomfortable talking about my faith is when it comes up in conversation with colleagues.

“It does come up: Since leaving Washington, I have made my life over and I am happier, freer, and healthier in body and spirit and apparently it shows. When people ask me, “What changed?” or, “How did you do it?” or, sometimes, with nervous humor, “Tell me your secret!” I have a litany of concrete lifestyle changes I can give them—simply leaving Washington is near the top of the list—but the honest answer would be this: I try, every day, to give my will and my life over to God. I try to be like Christ. I get down on my knees and pray.”

To read the rest of her story, click HERE.

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Lent kick off with Stephen Colbert and Father James Martin

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

Courtesy of Cathleen Falsani and Kenneth Tanner.

Courtesy of Cathleen Falsani and Kenneth Tanner.

By 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.

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True Myth: A Conversation with Sufjan Stevens

sufjan6402Excerpts from the Pitchfork interview with Sufjan Stevens:

“For the last 15 years, Stevens has mixed his own life history with fantastical images and stories of the ages—from the Bible, from Greek mythology, from American fables—inventing a new sort of 21st-century folklore along the way. But while this creative strategy has led to him being regarded as one of the finest songwriters on the planet, it’s also taken a personal toll. “My imagination can be a problem,” he says. “I’m prone to making my life, my family, and the world around me complicit in my cosmic fable, and often it’s not fair to manipulate the hard facts of life into a vision quest. But it’s all an attempt to extract meaning, and ultimately that’s what I’m in pursuit of, like: What’s the significance of these experiences?

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Pitchfork: Did your dad and stepmom impose Christianity onto you when you were young?

SS: No, they weren’t that religious at that time. We would go to Methodist church, because that’s what my great grandmother attended. I was the acolyte in charge of lighting the candles, which was really exciting to me. I had this childhood fantasy of becoming a priest or a preacher, so I would read and study the bible and then make my family listen to me read a passage from the New Testament before meals—and they very begrudgingly accommodated that for a while. I was just fascinated; some of my most profound spiritual and sexual experiences were at a Methodist summer camp.

Pitchfork: As in much of your work, there are references to Christianity and mythology on this album. What does faith mean to you at this point?

SS: I still describe myself as a Christian, and my love of God and my relationship with God is fundamental, but its manifestations in my life and the practices of it are constantly changing. I find incredible freedom in my faith. Yes, the kingdom of Christianity and the Church has been one of the most destructive forces in history, and there are levels of bastardization of religious beliefs. But the unique thing about Christianity is that it is so amorphous and not reductive to culture or place or anything. It’s extremely malleable.

To read the entire interview, click HERE.

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Europe’s Empty Churches Go on Sale

The former Roman Catholic Church of St. Joseph in Arnhem, Netherlands, one of hundreds of decommissioned churches, was turned into a skate park.

The former Roman Catholic Church of St. Joseph in Arnhem, Netherlands, one of hundreds of decommissioned churches, was turned into a skate park. Photo credit: Merlijn Doomernik for The Wall Street Journal.

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Wall Street Journal

By Naftali Bendavid

Jan. 2, 2015

ARNHEM, Netherlands—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.

This is the Arnhem Skate Hall, an uneasy reincarnation of the Church of St. Joseph, which once rang with the prayers of nearly 1,000 worshipers.

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?

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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. A skateboard attached to a wall urges, “Ride the dark side.”

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. An old tire hangs on the statue of a saint.

Puck Smit, 21, a regular visitor, says the church ambience enhances the skating experience. “It creates a lot of atmosphere—it’s a bit of Middle Ages,” he says, between gulps from a large bottle of cola. “When I first saw it, I just stood there for five minutes staring.”

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

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Father Hans Pauw, pastor of St. Eusebius Parish, confirms the parish is trying to sell the church, but says church leaders have no problem with skaters using it for now. He said the parish is talking to a potential buyer.

“There are some things we don’t want—a casino or a sex palace or that kind of thing,” Father Pauw says. “But when it’s no longer a church in our eyes, then it can have any purpose.” As for the painting of Jesus holding a skateboard that now adorns the interior, he says, “I can see the humor in it.”

Read the whole story at The Wall Street Journal.

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Blood & Thunder Roller Derby World Cup

Official photographers of the 2014 Blood & Thunder Roller Derby World Cup held in Dallas, Texas.

Official photographers of the 2014 Blood & Thunder Roller Derby World Cup held in Dallas, Texas.

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The way of faith for Alice Cooper

By Steve Beard

Back in 2002, MTV announced that the biggest hit in its history was a program called “The Osbournes.” The half-hour show — complete with constant bleeping from excessive foul language — was a curiously fascinating docu-comedy starring the members of Ozzy Osbourne’s family — wife and two teenage siblings (the eldest child bowed out of the show). Ozzy, of course, is the British rock singer acclaimed for his ghoulish heavy metal performances.

CooperThe Osbournes had just moved into a new Beverly Hills mansion where they promptly bemoaned the loss of their former neighbor, Pat Boone. Ozzy dottered and mumbled around the house trying to figure out the TV remote control, his wife hired a pet therapist to get the dogs to stop pottying in the living room, and the kids screamed and chased one another around the Osbourne compound.

Truth be told, I found the show captivating in a strange way. Others, justifiably, hated it. The television networks were scrambling to tap into the newly minted genre of “reality” television. At that time, I recommended that the next MTV show should feature Alice Cooper’s family. That’s right, the spooky granddaddy of shock rock who festooned his stage with guillotines, electric chairs, and boa constrictors. Continue reading

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Wrestling disquietly with the Bible

By Steve Beard

“My new Bible study is really testing me. I have never studied the Bible or read my Bible and I really have no idea how to do it,” confessed my friend Tiffany on Facebook. “The language is still confusing and I feel like I’m not really getting the messages.”

grantfalsani_disquiettime_hc-2-1The 24-year-old roller derby girl, saleswoman, and mother recently began attending a new church with her husband and she joined a women’s Bible study. “No matter how you word it, the Bible still has very confusing parts. I promise you it is not the version I’m using that is the problem. It is that I am just new with this whole studying the Bible thing. I feel like a freshman that just finished basic math and got thrown into senior calculus.”

As you can imagine, there was no shortage of responses to her post. Tiffany’s Facebook confession was made on the same day I received Disquiet Time: Rants and Reflections on the Good Book by the Skeptical, the Faithful, and a Few Scoundrels, edited by Jennifer Grant and Cathleen Falsani (Jericho Books). In their introduction, the two editors describe the contributors as “nonconformists and oddballs,” comparing them to the characters on the Island of Misfit Toys from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Do you remember the cowboy who rides the ostrich or the toy train thunking along the track with a square wheel on its caboose? The imagery is strangely fitting for this collection of ruminations on the Bible from a wide variety of faith traditions.

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East of Eden

2000__largeBy Steve Beard

Every morning I see a poster hanging in my home for a Triple Crown surf contest in Hawaii. During the last 25 years, I have been to several of the islands, but the small town of Haleiwa on the North Shore of Oahu has been my vision of paradise. We all envision paradise differently: The Mall of America, Fenway Park, Disneyland, Pike’s Peak, the Amazon rainforest. Mine just happens to include shave ice, pineapples, macadamia nuts, and crashing surf.

Several months ago, my family gathered in Maui to celebrate my mom and dad’s 50th wedding anniversary. Before renewing their vows in a beautiful United Methodist sanctuary, I was invited to preach the sermon at the morning service before a congregation of Tongans, tourists, and my extended family.

Because of all the sights, sounds, and smells that surrounded us, I took the opportunity to ask if it was easier or more difficult to find God in paradise. I take great comfort in knowing that the human story told in the Bible begins and ends in the gardens of paradise. The environment surrounding the Tree of Life bookends both Genesis (2:8-9) and The Book of Revelation (2:7).

I love knowing that God cared about creating “trees that were pleasing to the eye” in Eden and that it was his first choice, his first plan, and his heart’s desire. Our search for paradise is God-crafted. There are more than two dozen cities in the United States called Paradise. Why? Because the everlasting soul craves an eternal kingdom.

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