Posts Tagged ‘Bob Dylan’

Devotional Podcast #15: “How Much Have We Been Forgiven?”

February 19, 2018

In this episode I talk about the inspiring testimony of Rachael Denhollander, the brave young Christian woman (and attorney) who testified against Larry Nassar, the U.S. gymnastics team doctor who molested over 150 girls. Her words about God’s wrath, judgment, and forgiveness were powerful. What can we learn from them?

Devotional Text: Luke 7:36-50

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Hi, this is Brent White. It’s Monday, February 19, and this is Devotional Podcast number 15.

You’re listening to my favorite singer, Bob Dylan, and his version of the song, “Stay with Me,” which is found on his 2015 album Shadows in the Night. The album is a collection of songs made famous by, or at least recorded by, Frank Sinatra. And Dylan’s crack five-piece band follows the Sinatra arrangements, with Donnie Herron’s pedal steel emulating the orchestra. And I’ll be darned if this has not become one of my favorite Dylan albums. I really like Dylan the old man—he sings songs suitable for his voice and age.

The song is literally a prayer—the singer is pleading with God not to abandon him, even though he has been unfaithful to God. Listen to the first few stanzas:

Should my heart not be humble
Should my eyes fail to see
Should my feet sometimes stumble
On the way, stay with me
Like the lamb that in springtime
Wanders far from the fold
Through the darkness and the frost
I get lost
I grow cold
I grow cold, I grow weary
And I know I have sinned
And I go, seeking shelter
And I cry in the wind
Though I grope and I blunder
And I’m weak and I’m wrong
Though the road buckles under
Where I walk, walk along
Till I find to my wonder
Every path leads to Thee
All that I can do is pray
Stay with me
Stay with me

I find that deeply moving. And pertinent to today’s discussion…

Last month, I was deeply moved by the words of Rachael Denhollander. She is an attorney, an evangelical Christian, and a former gymnast who, along with over 150 other young women, was sexually molested by Larry Nassar, the team doctor who treated gymnasts on the U.S. Olympic team for 20 years. The judge allowed her and her fellow victims to address Nassar in court.

Here’s an excerpt from what she said:

You spoke of praying for forgiveness. But Larry, if you have read the Bible you carry, you know forgiveness does not come from doing good things, as if good deeds can erase what you have done. It comes from repentance which requires facing and acknowledging the truth about what you have done in all of its utter depravity and horror without mitigation, without excuse, without acting as if good deeds can erase what you have seen in this courtroom today.

The Bible you carry says it is better for a stone to be thrown around your neck and you to be thrown into a lake than for you to make even one child stumble. And you have damaged hundreds.

The Bible you speak of says there’s a final judgment where all of God’s wrath and eternal terror is poured out on men like you. Should you ever reach the point of truly facing what you have done, the guilt will be crushing. And that is what makes the gospel of Christ so sweet. Because it extends grace and hope and mercy where none should be found. And it will be there for you.

I pray you experience the soul crushing weight of guilt so you may someday experience true repentance and true forgiveness from God, which you need far more than forgiveness from me — though I extend that to you as well.

Is Denhollander right? Is forgiveness of an evil man like Nassar possible—if he truly faces up to his sins, repents, and turns to Christ? If so, does that seem fair—or just?

Before you answer, let’s look at Luke chapter 7: Jesus is invited to have dinner in the home of a Pharisee named Simon. While he’s there, we’re told that “a woman of the city, a sinner”—i.e., a prostitute—came and wept at Jesus’ feet, wetting them with her tears and drying them with her hair. She poured expensive perfume on them.

This behavior alarms Simon. He thinks, “If this man were truly a prophet, he would know what kind of woman this is who’s touching him.”

I know we are rarely feel sympathy with Pharisees, but from Simon’s perspective, as he understood the Bible and his Jewish traditions, this woman risked making both him and Jesus spiritually impure. After all, if you’re trying to keep kosher while you eat—as Simon was—you simply can’t let a prostitute touch you. For all we know, Simon sincerely wanted to please God, and avoid sinning, and this woman was making it hard for him to do that—at least as far as he knew. And I get it: sexual sin may not bother God’s people living today nearly as much as it bothered God’s people living in the first century. But that probably says more about us than them.

No, Simon’s estimation of this woman’s character was absolutely correct. Jesus concedes as much in verse 47, when he says, “Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven.” Indeed, the short parable Jesus tells Simon in verses 41-42 presupposes that this woman was a very serious sinner:  “A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?”

In the parable, the woman is the one who owes 500 denarii—which amounts to about two-years’ worth of wages. Simon, meanwhile, would owe 50: about two months. It’s not the case that we’re all equally sinful—or that all sins, in God’s eyes, are equally evil or harmful. The Bible doesn’t teach that. All sins will separate us from God eternally, apart from Christ, but it’s not the case that God is indifferent to the kind of sin we commit. The point of the parable is, because of their sins, both of them owe a debt that they’re unable to pay to God. Both of them will only be forgiven because of God’s grace alone.

So let’s get back to Larry Nassar. If Jesus were updating the parable for today, maybe Nassar would owe 5,000 denarii, or 500,000, or 5 million. I don’t know.

But Denhollander is absolutely correct: Is forgiveness possible even for Nassar? The answer has to be yes—and not on account of anything Larry Nassar can do. As Denhollander said, good deeds cannot erase what he’s done. Moreover, apart from repentance and faith in Christ, “God’s wrath and eternal terror” will be poured out on him.

But even now, so long as Nassar lives and breathes, the possibility exists that he can still repent and be saved. Whether he will or not… that’s up to him.

While it’s understandable that many of us feel no sympathy or compassion for the Larry Nassars of the world, the possibility that God can forgive even sinners like them is good news: It means that the blood of Jesus Christ is powerful enough to save the worst of sinners. It means that even the worst sin is no match for cross of Christ. It means, best of all, that there’s hope for us! God can forgive us and save even us!

Isn’t that amazing?

In Colossians 2:14, the apostle Paul says that because of the what Christ accomplished on the cross, God canceled the “record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” Our debt to God is wiped out—which is an amazing gift, if we’re willing to receive it?

What about you? Have you experienced the “soul-crushing weight of guilt” for your sins? If so, has this guilt led you to “experience true repentance and true forgiveness from God”?

Please believe me: That forgiveness is available to you right now!

Pressing on with Liam Ó Maonlaí and Glen Hansard

April 2, 2014

dylan

A new tribute album recently came out, Bob Dylan in the 80s: Volume One, celebrating what everyone considers to be Bob Dylan’s worst era in music. I don’t disagree, except it’s all relative: it’s still Dylan, so even at his worst he never fails to be interesting. And if you cherry-pick Dylan’s best work from that decade, it compares favorably to his best from any other decade.

One highlight of the album—which would be a highlight of any conceivable album—is Glen Hansard’s cover of “Pressing On,” a straightforward gospel song from Dylan’s Saved album. While it’s not available online in a format that I can post here, I found this YouTube performance of Hansard backing up fellow Irishman Liam Ó Maonlaí, who used to sing in a band called Hothouse Flowers.

In his intro, Ó Maonlaí says that “Christian Bale, God help us, tried to emulate it on a film,” referring to the fictionalized movie about Dylan, I’m Not There. Christian Bale played the gospel-era version of Dylan and performed this song—although the singing was overdubbed by John Doe of X. Ó Maonlaí does a much better version.

The reference is Philippians 3:14: “I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”

Enjoy!

Billy Graham on Vinyl, Part 1: “God’s Delinquent”

March 28, 2014

graham_lp

Given my natural interest in old things, I figure I should have been born around 1952. That way, at 14 years old—the most formative time in life to discover great music—I could have walked into a record store on May 16, 1966, and purchased two of the best albums ever made, both of which were released that day: Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde and the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. And I could have easily gotten them both in mono—the way they were meant to be heard!

Ahh… That would have been a perfect day!

Nevertheless, the great thing about being a vinyl junkie is that records—at least since Columbia Records introduced the LP in 1948—are surprisingly durable. Which brings me to today’s subject…

Vintage Billy Graham sermons on vinyl!

I bet there are at least three people out there who are as excited about this as I am!

graham_back_pic

Detail from the back cover.

Consider this a new series on my blog. In addition to today’s sermon, I have five more in the hopper. (And, if eBay cooperates, maybe even more on the way!)

Today’s sermon is “God’s Delinquent,” which comes from Side 1 of Word Records W-6114-LP, circa 1964.

The sermon, as Graham says at the beginning, is aimed at young people and their parents. It’s about Samson, whose story is found in Judges 13-16. It includes several topical references (as all good sermons do), so it’s well past its expiration date. And Graham’s oratorical style—which is GREAT, by the way—isn’t congruent with contemporary styles of preaching (but that’s our problem). But if you can look past that, the message still rings true.

Am I the only one surprised by the frank manner with which Graham discusses young people’s “problem with sex”—even the fact that he uses the word “sex” in a 1964 sermon surprises me. (Eat your heart out, Mark Driscoll!)

I especially like this part:

And there comes a time when a young person has to make up his own mind. When you come to give your life to Christ, you can’t go on your parents’ religion. There are a lot of people who are resting on Mother’s faith or Dad’s faith. No, it’s got to be a faith of your own! You see a lot of us tonight have been reared with religious backgrounds, but you never really come to know Christ for yourself. There isn’t the joy and the peace and the satisfaction and the assurance in your own life. You haven’t really come to him yourself. You haven’t had the experience of Christ in you. That’s what you need.

I heard about some people down in the south that had told everybody that they were going to New York City, and while they were in New York city as tourists they were going to see My Fair Lady when it was on in New York. And they went and to their amazement when they got there they couldn’t get tickets,  it was packed out. And they were going to be there four days and every show was packed. And they wondered how in the world they were going to go back to their little town in the south and tell everybody they didn’t get to see My Fair Lady.

So, they stood in front of the theater one afternoon and saw people coming out after the matinee. And they saw that people were throwing tickets away—half tickets. So they got an idea. They went over and they bought for a dollar a program, My Fair Lady. Then they reached in the gutter and got some tickets, put them in their pockets and went home singing and humming “I Could Have Danced All Night.” “On the Street Where She Lives.”

They had the tickets to show. They had the program. They knew the songs. They had everything, except they hadn’t been to see My Fair Lady.

And that’s the way with a lot of you: You’ve got the language. You’ve got the looks. You can sing the songs. You can quote the verses. You’ve got everything except you yourself haven’t been to the cross… and known Christ for yourself.

To listen, click on the media player above or right-click on this link to download .mp3 file.

“To live outside the law you must be honest”

January 9, 2014

platingaOr so said Bob Dylan in his 1966 song “Absolutely Sweet Marie.” Theologian Cornelius Plantinga, in his book about sin, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, offers reasons why this is true.

Reflecting classic Christian teaching, Plantinga writes that sin and evil are a privation: they represent the absence of something, namely the good. Like a parasite feeding on its host, they require the good in order to survive.

Nothing about sin is its own; all its power, persistence, and plausibility are stolen goods. Sin is not really an entity but a spoiler of entities, not an organism but a leech on organisms. Sin does not build shalom; it vandalizes it. In metaphysical perspective, evil offers no true alternative to good, as if the two were equal and opposite qualities. “Goodness,” says C.S. Lewis, “is, so to speak, itself: badness is only spoiled goodness. And there must be something good first before it can be spoiled.” Here Lewis reproduces the old Augustinian idea that evil “has no existence except as a privation of good.” God is original, independent, and constructive; evil is derivative, dependent, and destructive. To be successful, evil needs what it hijacks from goodness.[1]

Therefore, “good and evil grow together, intertwine around each other, and grow out of each other in remarkable and complicated ways.”[2] He writes that biographers “make themselves students of this phenomenon,” especially in relation to towering religious or moral leaders in history.

Good biographers find character ironies irresistible. Hence the attraction of Martin Luther, one of the three or four most prominent Christians after Paul, a doughty champion of the gospel of grace and a ghastly anti-Semite who wanted his readers to break down Jewish homes and house their occupants in stables. Other ironies appear in other characters including Luther’s most famous modern namesake. Martin Luther King Jr., one of the noblest and most eminent Americans of the twentieth century, adulterated his marriage and plagiarized some of the work that made his reputation. Thomas Jefferson held slaves. The Bible itself gives us such alloyed heroes as King David, a great and godly and wicked man whose name has been blessed by centuries of Jews and Christians.[3]

We shouldn’t be surprised, therefore, that the “smartest blows against shalom are struck by people and movements of impressive resourcefulness, strength, and intelligence—that is to say, by people and movements gifted by the very God and with the very goodness that their sin attacks.”[4]

1. Conelius Plantinga Jr., Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995),89.

2. Ibid., 80.

3. Ibid., 80-1.

4. Ibid., 89.

My Christmas playlist

December 26, 2013

Music plays an important role in all seasons of my life. This Advent/Christmas season has been no different. One highlight, for example, was singing and playing (on guitar) Christmas hymns and carols with a clergy colleague for our churches’ combined Men’s Club last week. Then, on Sunday, I played and sang when a few of us went caroling for my church’s shut-ins.

Thanks to YouTube, I’ll share with you a few unusual Christmas-themed songs that have been on my playlist this year.

The first is a traditional song that I fell in love with when I heard it on a Bob Dylan album. Since Dylan’s people at Sony are Scrooges about sharing his music for free online, I’ll link to this version by Paul Brady. It’s not really a Christmas song, except that it takes place on Christmas morning. Some British army officers are trying to recruit the Irish narrator and his cousin Arthur McBride.

To say the least, their efforts are unsuccessful.

The cousins refuse, politely at first. But Sgt. Napper persists. His sales pitch includes telling them that soldiers have fine clothes, beautiful wives, and money—including the signing bonus he’ll give the two right now if they’ll enlist.

Arthur, the spokesman, declines with this witty riposte.

“But,” says Arthur, “I wouldn’t be proud of your clothes
For you’ve only the lend of them, as I suppose
But you’re dare not change them one night, for you know
If you do, you’ll be flogged in the morning…

“And we have no desire to take your advance
All hazards and dangers we barter on chance
For you’d have no scruples for to send us to France
Where we could get shot without warning”

As you’ll hear, violence ensues. But don’t worry: David beats Goliath.

This next song might be, as one YouTube commenter calls it, the “most depressing Christmas song ever,” but I’m not so sure. At least at Denny’s the narrator isn’t alone on Christmas—and, as he sings, the refills on coffee are always free. The song, “Christmas at Denny’s,” was written by a first-generation Christian-rocker named Randy Stonehill (from 1989, if memory serves). Sadly, no video exists of Stonehill’s performing it, but this is a good one.

When I was a boy I believed in Christmas
Miracle season to make a new start
I don’t need no miracle, sweet baby Jesus
Just help me find some kind of hope in my heart

Another melancholy song, this one from Joni Mitchell. “River” is about a break-up for which the narrator feels responsible. Listen to the tenderness in her voice when she sings, “I made my baby cry.” Christmas is a lousy time to be heartbroken, as everyone knows. She quotes “Jingle Bells” on her piano in a couple places, except in a plaintive minor key. No happy Christmas bells here.

Her album Blue, by the way, is perfect and beautiful—simply one of the greatest things ever committed to vinyl. I love it so intensely that I’m apt to pull an Arthur McBride if anyone says otherwise. Accept no version of the song other than Mitchell’s. When she sings, “I wish I had a river so long/ I would teach my feet to fly-y-y-y-y-y-y,” listen to her voice take off into the stratosphere. Are there actually people who don’t love her voice?

I’m so hard to handle
I’m selfish and I’m sad
Now I’ve gone and lost the best baby
That I ever had
I wish I had a river I could skate away on

Finally, here’s a song that isn’t a Christmas song, but I dug it out of my collection of 45 RPM records last night and listened to it—I kid you not—14 times in a row. It’s from Beach Boy Brian Wilson’s self-titled solo album from 1988. (Click here to listen to this version.) Everybody hates the production of this album, which tries way too hard to make Wilson sound relevant to MTV audiences, but if you can hear past that, you’ll hear the man doing some of his best songwriting and vocal-arranging.

There isn’t much to the song, lyrically: three couplets, a refrain, with a “la-la-la” bridge. The world is broken, Wilson says in his typically child-like way, and it can only be healed by love and mercy. He and I both know where that kind of healing comes from.

He sells the sentiment with a gorgeous descending chord progression that reminds me of brother Dennis’s song “Forever.” As with some of his other great songs—”In My Room,” “Don’t Worry, Baby,” and “Time to Get Alone,” to name a few—he melts my heart.

I love this live version with a boy’s choir. By the way, how does Wilson’s voice sound better today than it did back in the ’70s? How did he reverse the years of damage? Getting off drugs helped, I’m sure… But still.

I can trust Jesus to overturn the money-changers’ tables, not myself

August 30, 2013

Unlike most people on the inter-webs this week, I’ve so far avoided commenting on you-know-who. What’s the point? I can’t pretend to feel indignant, or shocked, or offended by the performance. I go to movies. I watch TV. I read books. I have the internet piped into my home. I know what’s out there and what’s in my heart. Who am I to be indignant?

Also, I can’t add anything to the helpful things that have been said, nor can I take away the harmful things that have been said. I liked this post from Christianity Today‘s “Her•meneutics” blog (as I usually like posts from that blog). This Vanity Fair piece is good, too. And this from the Onion A.V. Club.

Everything about the story depresses me when I think about it too much. Hard to believe there was a time 50 years ago when Bob Dylan, out of principle, walked away from performing on the top-rated Ed Sullivan Show because the network censors wouldn’t let him perform the satirical “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues.” Like Miley Cyrus, he was controversial—but the good kind of controversial, related to actual ideas.

Those were the days! Instead we’re stuck with today’s pop culture. We’ve clearly lost something.

I’ll probably say something about the controversy in this Sunday’s sermon, because the response to Miley Cyrus ties into this week’s scripture about specks and planks, etc. In the meantime, I just read these helpful words from Dallas Willard:

Although [Jesus] certainly let his condemnation fall upon self-righteous and deeply corrupted leaders (Matt. 23; Luke 11:29-54), we never see it in other contexts. And we can trust him to express it appropriately toward such people, though we ourselves could rarely if ever do so. Anger and condemnation, like vengeance, are safely left to God. We must beware of believing that it is okay for us to condemn as long as we are condemning the right things. It is not so simple as that. I can trust Jesus to go into the temple and drive out those who were profiting from religion, beating them with a rope. I cannot trust myself to do so.[†]

Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (New York: HarperOne, 1997), 220-1.

John Lennon was, however briefly, a “born-again Christian” in 1977

April 10, 2013
imagine

Billboards such as this one graced the busy Atlanta streets a couple of years ago.

After rejecting the Christianity of his staid Anglican upbringing in the late-’50s and flirting with a form of Hinduism embraced wholeheartedly by George Harrison in the late-’60s, wasn’t John Lennon finally done with religion and spirituality during the last decade of his life? Didn’t he become a hard-nosed philosophical materialist?

No—although we might be forgiven for thinking otherwise: After all, according to his 1970 song “God,” Jesus and Buddha were two of many persons or things he no longer believed in. And in the song that has become an anthem to atheism, “Imagine,” Lennon challenges us to imagine no religion or heaven—that the world would be a better place without faith in God.

But his expressed atheism of 1970 and ’71 told only part of the story. Throughout the ’70s, Lennon regularly consulted psychics and dabbled in Tarot cards, séances, astrology, numerology, and other occult practices. Upon reading (and recently re-reading) Steve Turner’s Gospel According to the Beatles, however, what surprises me most was Lennon’s renewed interest in, and tantalizingly brief embrace of, that thing to which he seemed most adamantly opposed: Christianity.

This change of heart didn’t come from reading, say, Chesterton or Lewis, as we might have liked. It came by way of televangelists such as Oral Roberts and Pat Robertson. Turner describes it as follows:

Next came one of the most extraordinary turnabouts in John’s life. A television addict for many years…, he enjoyed watching some of America’s best-known evangelists—Pat Robertson, Billy Graham, Jim Bakker, and Oral Roberts. In 1972 he had written a desperate letter to Roberts confessing his dependence on drugs and his fear of facing up to “the problems of life.” He expressed regret that he had said that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus and enclosed a gift for the Oral Roberts University… “Explain to me what Christianity can do for me. Is it phony? Can He love me? I want out of hell.”[1]

Lennon and Roberts exchanged a series of friendly, heartfelt letters, which can be found at the library of Oral Roberts University.

The correspondence and his exposure to TV evangelism didn’t appear to have any effect until he suddenly announced to close friends in the spring of 1977 that he’d become a born-again Christian… Over the following months he baffled those close to him by constantly praising “the Lord,” writing Christian songs with titles like “Talking with Jesus” and “Amen” (the Lord’s Prayer set to music), and trying to convert nonbelievers. He also called the prayer line of The 700 Club, Pat Robertson’s program.[2]

Yoko Ono, who always discouraged Lennon from following “gurus,” opposed his newfound faith, although he took Ono and his son Sean to church at least once.

Those close to the couple sensed that the real reason [Ono] was concerned was that it threatened her control over John’s life. If he became a follower of Jesus he would no longer depend on her an the occultists. During long, passionate arguments she attacked the key points of his fledgling faith. They met with a couple of Norwegian missionaries whom Yoko questioned fiercely about the divinity of Christ, knowing that this was the teaching that John had always found the most difficult to accept. Their answers didn’t satisfy her, and John began to waver in his commitment.[3]

Such is often the case with freelance conversions, I suppose, separated as they are from the wisdom and guidance of mature Christians. It’s hard enough to maintain one’s Christian faith within a healthy community of believers!

When Dylan’s Christian conversion became public in 1979 with the release of Slow Train Coming, Lennon—Dylan’s nearest rival in the pantheon of rock idols—reacted strongly. In response to Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody,” Lennon wrote a bitter “answer song” called “Serve Yourself,” posthumously released on the John Lennon Anthology.

When asked in 1980 about his response to Dylan’s conversion, John was less than honest. He said he was surprised that “old Bobby boy did go that way,” but “if he needs it, let him do it.” His only objection, he said, was that Dylan was presenting Christ as the only way. He disliked this because “There isn’t one answer to anything.”… In what can now be seen as an allusion to his own born-again period, which hadn’t yet been made public, he said, “But I understand it. I understand him completely, how he got in there, because I’ve been frightened enough myself to want to latch onto something.[4]

Steve Turner wrote an article about Lennon’s short-lived conversion in Christianity Today back in 2000, which you can read here.

1. Steve Turner, The Gospel According to the Beatles (Louisville: WJK, 2006), 187-8.

2. Ibid., 188.

3. Ibid., 189.

4. Ibid., 191.

N.T. Wright sings Dylan

May 8, 2012

There’s simply nothing about this that I don’t love: my favorite theologian sings one of my favorite songs by my favorite artist. I knew he was a fan; I’ve heard him quote Dylan in his books and lectures. But this is special.

“You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”

November 14, 2011

Last Friday, Vinebranch played host to its best Coffeehouse yet. (Coffeehouse, in case you’re not from around here, is a free music event that Vinebranch worship leader Stephanie Newton organizes in the fall and spring.) I performed the Dylan song “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” with the Vinebranch Band. This version of the song was made famous by the Byrds on their Sweetheart of the Rodeo album in 1968.

For whatever reason, I’ve never been less nervous singing and playing in front of people. I hope you can tell that we’re having a lot of fun.

Troy Davis and cost-free compassion

September 22, 2011

The state of Georgia became the object of scorn this week by executing Troy Davis, who was convicted of murdering a cop in Savannah in 1989. Evidence since his conviction casts some doubt on whether Davis did it—how much doubt I have no idea. I have no reason to imagine that Georgia’s pardons and parole board was acting in anything other than good faith. Regardless, Davis insisted that he was innocent up to his death. Many public figures—from Jimmy Carter (predictably) to politicians with solidly conservative bona fides like former U.S. Representative Bob Barr—opposed the execution, as did a former FBI Director, William Sessions.

It was funny the way many news reports also included Pope Benedict XVI in this list of opponents. They might have explained that since the Roman Catholic Church opposes capital punishment in general, the pontiff’s stance would only be newsworthy if he did support the death penalty for Davis!

I hope that my heart hasn’t become numb to these types of stories. Unlike many of my colleagues in ministry, and other Facebook friends, I didn’t feel any deep emotional investment in the outcome of Davis’s last-minute appeals. After all, I’ve lived in a death-penalty state all my life (except for that brief period in the ’70s when the U.S. Supreme Court banned it because of its unfair application). It’s not like I needed the Davis case to wake me up to the sobering reality of it—or to the likelihood that innocent people have been and will continue to be executed, whether Davis, in this case, “did it” or not.

Yesterday, a Facebook friend posted, indignantly, that she can’t believe that people are getting more worked up about yesterday’s changes to the Facebook newsfeed than they are to the fact that the state is going to execute someone. I wasn’t sure what to do with that. As long as Georgia has the death penalty, they (or should I say we?) will continue to kill people with it. If not Davis, then somebody else really soon. If not in Georgia, then in some other state in our union.

If we had to wait for tragedies to cease before we could resume our normal life, who could get on with living? We all have 24/7 access to every kind of tragedy, evil, and injustice if we choose to avail ourselves of it.

The whole spectacle of the Troy Davis story reminds me of a 1975 Bob Dylan song called “Black Diamond Bay,” which describes the last fateful moments in the lives of several people living on a tiny resort island that literally explodes from a volcanic eruption. The last verse shifts abruptly to the perspective of someone (presumably Dylan himself) learning about the disaster on TV:

I was sitting home alone one night in LA
Watching old Cronkite on the seven o’clock news
It seems there was an earthquake that
Left nothing but a Panama hat
And a pair of old Greek shoes
Didn’t seem like much was happening
So I turned it off and went to grab another beer
Seems like every time you turn around
There’s another hard-luck story that you’re gonna hear
And there’s really nothing anyone can say
And I never did plan to go anyway
To Black Diamond Bay.

For me, TV (and the internet) flattened the whole tragic story of the murdered police officer, Mark MacPhail, and his family—not to mention Troy Davis and his family—to just “another hard-luck story” that I’m going to hear when I turn on the news.

The media make events like this one seem unreal to me—too abstract, too distant. I don’t know the facts of the events in question. I don’t know these people on my screen. I don’t know the truth. I could muster some compassion for them, but how do I know my compassion is real, and not simply manufactured by media producers who are trying to tell me a good story—which means better ratings and more ad revenue?

How do I know that my “compassion” isn’t instead a voyeuristic kind of entertainment?

I am, along with the United Methodist Church (see ¶ 164.f of the Book of Discipline), opposed to the death penalty in all cases. As long as we safely imprison murderers so that they are no longer a danger to others, we can afford to wait on God’s justice to be done. Besides, God implements his own death penalty at the end of our natural lives. No one escapes it. And no one escapes justice in the long run. God sees to it.

So here I am, opposing the death penalty. Big deal. Unless or until I can do something about it in a meaningful way, what am I supposed to do about Troy Davis? I trust that God placed compassionate people in his life to help him, and that compassionate people are helping his family now. I trust that God has placed compassionate people in the lives of Officer MacPhail’s family. I’m obviously not one of those people.

Posting angry words about it on Facebook or even on a blog(!) hardly counts as meaningful action. It’s cost-free compassion. I need costly compassion. And that starts with people I know and people who are within my sphere of influence—people I feel called to care for.

In the meantime, I’m turning off the news again.