Posts Tagged ‘John Lennon’

Devotional Podcast #29: “Death & the Gospel According to the Beatles”

August 29, 2018

In this episode I challenge us Christians to ask ourselves which gospel we believe: the gospel according the Beatles or the gospel according to Jesus. Don’t answer too quickly! We all know what the “correct” answer is… but what does our heart say?

Devotional Text: Matthew 6:19-21

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Hi, this is Brent White. It’s Tuesday, August 28, 2018, and this is episode number 29 in my ongoing series of devotional podcasts. You’re listening right now to a song called “Girl,” by the Beatles, which I recorded directly from their 1965 LP Rubber Soul, on Capitol Records.

“Girl” is one of the best Beatles songs from one of their best albums, which means it’s a pretty darn good song! I played a longer portion of the song to introduce this episode than I normally do in these podcasts because I needed to get to the song’s third verse! Listen to these words about the eponymous “girl” to whom the song is directed:

Was she told when she was young
That pain would lead to pleasure?
Did she understand it when they said
That a man must break his back
To earn his day of leisure?
Will she still believe it when he’s dead?

John Lennon told Rolling Stone magazine in a 1970 interview that this verse is an attack on the Christian idea that suffering can be good, necessary, and redemptive—that “pain would lead to pleasure,” as the song says—indeed, that living a faithful Christian life is a life of self-denial, but this self-denial is worth it because it leads, ultimately, to lasting happiness and joy—in heaven if not before. As Jesus himself said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”[1]

Did the girl in the song grow up believing this—back when she was young and naive; back when her parents made her go to Sunday school; back before she had a mind of her own or could think for herself? If so, the song says, don’t believe it anymore! It’s not true! 

From the singer’s perspective, pain never leads to pleasure; it’s never good or necessary; pain is an enemy that disrupts or interrupts or otherwise distracts you from living “your best life now”; and death is the greatest enemy of all! The sooner the girl realizes this, the better. 

Besides, from the singer’s perspective, the girl will realize it eventually—when the worst thing happens to her. And the worst thing in the case of the song is the death of this unidentified man—perhaps her father—who obviously believed in Jesus, who “broke his back to earn his day of leisure”—who’s now dead. 

“Will she still believe it when he’s dead?” the singer cynically asks. The answer: “No… no, she won’t.” Whatever comforting Christian convictions, or principles, or—worse—platitudes she grew up with will come crashing down in the light of the harsh, cold reality of death. And when they come crashing down, well… she’ll realize that she needs to live for herself and not for others—and certainly not for God.

So the song is a cautionary tale: you’re going to die some day, too, dear listener… just like this man that the girl loved. Except… here’s the good news: it’s not too late for you to avoid the mistake that he made. You don’t have to end up like him; you don’t have to miss out on life the way he did! 

So… repent while there’s still time, the song says. Turn away from faith in God; turn to yourself; turn to pleasure; turn to getting as much out of life as you can while there’s still time. Read the rest of this entry »

Sermon 02-14-16: “Living Water”

February 17, 2016

John Sermon Series Graphic

Biblically speaking, men meet their future wives at wells. It happened for Isaac, Jacob, and Moses. Jesus, of course, was never married, but he’s well aware of the symbolism of his speaking to this Samaritan woman at a well. He knows that throughout the Bible, God is often depicted as husband or bridegroom to his people, Israel, his wife or bride. In the New Testament, Paul and the Book of Revelation also pick up this theme. So on Valentine’s Day 2016, we’re studying a scripture that points to the greatest, most romantic love story ever told: that Jesus, God the Son, left his Father and his home in heaven in order to cleave to his bride—the church, those of us who believe in Christ—and “become one flesh” with us.

Sermon Text: John 4:1-18

[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3.]

I am directionally impaired. In other words, I’m terrible with directions. I always have been. I confess that my sense of direction gotten even worse in this age of GPS. I use Google Maps almost all the time now! But I use it, not just to know how to get from Point A to Point B, but also how to get from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible. Google Maps does a nice job of directing me around traffic.

Even this past week, I was taking my son Ian to his elementary school, which is just a few miles form our house. You just make one left turn out of our neighborhood. This past week, however, there was an accident blocking the entire road 50 yards from my intersection. I had to make that one left turn, but that one left turn was blocked. So how do I get around it, so that I can get to my son’s elementary school?

Beats me, because, remember, I’m directionally impaired. But not to worry! Because I have Google Maps, which tells me how I can get there by making a right-hand turn instead of a left-hand turn. Only problem, of course, is that by making that right-hand turn, and going around the accident, it took an extra ten minutes to get to the school. But… I got there O.K., so that’s all that matters. Read the rest of this entry »

Ash Wednesday sermon: “Failing at Lent”

March 6, 2014


Sermon Text: Matthew 6:25-34

The following is my original manuscript for last night’s Ash Wednesday message.

Matthew McConaughey, who won an Oscar this week for Best Actor, gave an incredibly gracious, sweet, and faith-filled acceptance speech. Among other things, he thanked God, saying, saying, “He has graced my life with opportunities that I know are not of my hand or any human hand.” Then he thanked his family in a moving way. Then he said something that was confusing to some people but made perfect sense to me. He said that when he was 15 he was asked by someone who his hero was. He thought about it before answering, “My hero is me… ten years from now.” And that person came back to him ten years later, when he was 25: “So, are you a hero?” and he was like, “No! Not even close! My hero is still me… ten years from now.” So he said that while he’ll never catch up with that hero, he’ll also never stop chasing him.

He was saying this: build your life in such a way that ten years from now you will be worthy of being a hero to your younger self. In other words, if the younger version of yourself could see yourself today, would you be a hero to him or her?

Do you care to take that challenge? Would my 34-year-old version of myself look at me today and think I’m a hero? If not, why not? What about you? Read the rest of this entry »

Sermon 02-02-14: “Sin and Temptation”

February 8, 2014


In Part 2 of “Practically Perfect,” our sermon series in James, I talk about “tests” again—except this time about those tests that we fail. The Bible calls these failures sin. It might seem overly negative, and certainly out of step with our culture, to focus on sin. But if we don’t first hear the “bad news” about sin, we won’t be able to comprehend the good news of Jesus Christ, who came to save us from our sins!

Sermon Text: James 1:9-18

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

About once a month, I have recurring nightmares that have to do with being back in high school or college. These kinds of dreams are very common. Maybe you’ve had them too. One of mine goes something like this: I’m back in college. I signed up for a class at the beginning of the semester that I had no interest in whatsoever. And the truth is, I blew off the class all semester long. I haven’t attended the lectures. And I haven’t done any of the homework. I have no idea what’s going on in the class. And suddenly here it is, the end of the semester: it’s time to take the final exam. And I’m completely unprepared. So much so, in fact, that I don’t even remember what lecture hall or classroom the class meets in.

It’s at this point that I wake up and breathe a sigh of relief. Because if I didn’t wake up, I would surely fail the test.

In this week’s scripture, James continues to talk about tests that we face—and he talks about tests that we fail, and why we fail them. Read the rest of this entry »

Lennon’s “Imagine”: the My Little Pony of philosophical statements

November 5, 2013


Last year I said some unkind things about an artist I otherwise admire, including the following:

Having said that, his legendary peace anthem, “Imagine,” is air-headed mush—I mean lyrically speaking. The song’s melody rules, and since music is more important than words, I’m hardly immune to the song’s virtues. I understand, emotionally, why the song is so well-loved.

But the words… Ugh!

The song contends that without countries and religions—with the misguided nationalism and fanaticism that sometimes attend to them—we would have nothing to “kill or die for,” which is obviously nonsense. This can be seen with just a tiny bit of reflection. After all, which came first: countries and religion or killing and dying?

And now, along comes Christian apologist (and Brit) Francis Spufford to out-do me. Even if I didn’t agree wholeheartedly with the author’s sentiments, I know great writing when I see it. This excerpt comes from this book, which I will now have to purchase.

For a piece of famous fluffiness that doesn’t just pretend about what real lives can be like, but moves on into one of the world’s least convincing pretenses about what people themselves are like, consider the teased and coiffed nylon monument that is “Imagine”; surely the My Little Pony of philosophical statements. John and Yoko all in white, John at the white piano, John drifting through the white rooms of a white mansion, and all the while the sweet drivel flowing. Imagine there’s no heaven. Imagine there’s no hell. Imagine all the people living in–hello? Excuse me? Take religion out of the picture, and everybody spontaneously starts living life in peace? I don’t know about you, but in my experience peace is not the default state of human beings, any more than having an apartment the size of Joey and Chandler’s is. Peace is not the state of being we return to like water running downhill, whenever there’s nothing external to perturb us.

Peace between people is an achievement, a state of affairs we put together effortfully in the face of competing interests, and primate dominance dynamics, and our evolved tendency to cease our sympathies at the boundaries of our tribe. Peace within people is made difficult to say the least by the way that we tend to have an actual, you know, emotional life going on, rather than an empty space between our ears with a shaft of dusty sunlight in it, and a lone moth flittering round and round. Peace is not the norm; peace is rare, and when we do manage to institutionalize it in a human society, it’s usually because we’ve been intelligently pessimistic about human proclivities, and found a way to work with the grain of them in a system of intense mutual suspicion like the U.S. Constitution, a document that assumes that absolutely everybody will be corrupt and power-hungry given half a chance.

As for the inner version, I’m not at peace all that often, and I doubt you are either. I’m absolutely bloody certain that John Lennon wasn’t. The mouthy Scouse git he was as well as a songwriter of genius, the leatherboy who allegedly kicked his best friend in the head in Hamburg, didn’t go away just because he put on the white suit. What seems to be at work in “Imagine” is the idea—always believed by those who are frightened of themselves—that we’re good underneath, good by nature, and only do bad things because we’ve been forced out of shape by some external force, some malevolent aspect of this world’s power structures. In this case, I suppose, by the education the Christian Brothers were dishing out in 1950s Liverpool, which was strong on kicks and curses and loving descriptions of the tortures of the damned.

It’s a theory that isn’t falsifiable, because there always are power structures there to be blamed when people behave badly. Like the theory that markets left to themselves would produce perfectly just outcomes (when markets never are left to themselves) it’s immune to disproof. But, and let me put this as gently as I can, it doesn’t seem terribly likely. We long to believe it because it’s what we lack. We dream of the peace we haven’t got, and to make ourselves look as if we do have it, we dress ourselves up in the iconography of heaven we just announced we were ditching. White robes, the celestial glare of over-exposed film: “Imagine” looks like one part A Matter of Life and Death to one part Hymns Ancient and Modern. Only sillier.

Unapologetic: Why Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense, pp. 10-13

[Thank you for the heads up, Derek Rishmawy.]

Lennon’s right: God will make everything all right

May 27, 2013

To be a fly on the wall when this jam session was happening!

In yesterday’s final Beatles-themed sermon, which featured the song “Revolution,” I discussed John Lennon’s pessimism about changing the world for the better, while nevertheless maintaining that “it’s gonna be all right.” The world is going to be all right, I said—more than Lennon knows. But it won’t be all right because of what we humans do; it will be all right because of what God will do in God’s act of new creation on the other side of resurrection.

Lennon wasn’t a Christian, obviously, but it turns out he had something like this in mind, too. In a footnote in Ian MacDonald’s Revolution in the Head, MacDonald writes:

The phrase ‘it’s gonna be alright’ arose from Lennon’s experience while meditating in Rishikesh [while visiting the Maharishi in India], his idea that God would take care of the human race whatever happened politically. He later confessed that he’d dabbled in politics during the late Sixties out of guilt and against his instincts.[†]

On this point Lennon and I are in complete agreement. To use theological jargon, my outlook on politics is thoroughly eschatological: God will take care of the human race regardless what happens politically. That doesn’t mean Christians should become Amish about political involvement; only that their stance toward politics should be cautious and skeptical and rightly focused on the Big Picture of God’s kingdom. This is why I’m less interested in politics than some of my friends want me to be.

Ian MacDonald, Revolution in the Head: The Beatles Records and the Sixties (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2005), 285.

“You better free your mind instead”

May 24, 2013
What a great single this was!

What a great single this was!

The Beatles’ “Revolution” will receive some theological reflection this Sunday as we finish up our Beatles-themed sermon series. The Vinebranch band will also, of course, perform it, along with “Let It Be.”

“Revolution” was controversial when it was released in 1968. In an era in which many young people believed they could make the world a better place, this song was a wet blanket: “Well, you know, we all want to change the world,” John Lennon sang. But show me the plan first. How do you know your efforts won’t end up making things worse? “If you talk about destruction,” count me out. Also, don’t ask me to support causes whose leaders have “minds that hate”—like Chairman Mao, for instance. Violent means don’t justify supposedly peaceful ends.

Both the song and the Bible share a similar pessimism about human nature. In a published response to a radical student who wrote an “open letter” criticizing Lennon and the song, Lennon wrote:

You say ‘in order to change the world, we’ve got to understand what’s wrong with the world and then destroy it. Ruthlessly.’ You’re obviously on a destruction kick. I’ll tell you what’s wrong with it—people. So, do you want to destroy them? Ruthlessly? Until you/we change your/our heads—there’s no chance.[†]

I couldn’t have said it better myself. As the song says, “You better free your mind instead.”

Easier said than done, I guess!

In fact, both “freeing your mind” and creating a world in which love, peace, and justice hold sway—a desire that the Beatles often sang about—is impossible apart from a radical and miraculous intervention from God. But I’ll say more about that this Sunday.

Here’s the White Album version, “Revolution 1.” A more aggressive version was later recorded and released as a single.

Steve Turner, A Hard Day’s Write (New York: It Books, 2005), 169.

Is “daytime, nighttime suffering” really all she gets?

May 10, 2013

The great B-side to the Wings’ hit “Goodnight Tonight.” If you were Paul, wouldn’t you save a song this good for an album?

I’ve done a nice job (if I say so myself) splitting the difference between John’s songs and Paul’s songs in this Beatles-themed sermon series—with the understanding, of course, that the two often collaborated. (Post-breakup, the two argued over “In My Life”: While John said that he wrote both words and music, Paul claimed he wrote the music. At least one musicologist I read detects the styles of both in the vocal melody.)

Even when they didn’t collaborate, however, near-sibling rivalry and pride motivated them to do their best work. Iron sharpens iron. Therefore, in my mind—I have no idea if this is how it happened—John writes his childhood reminiscence, “Strawberry Fields Forever”; Paul hears it and thinks, “I can do better than that!” Then he writes his childhood reminiscence, “Penny Lane.”

This Sunday, however—Mother’s Day—the two featured Beatles songs both represent the work of Paul: “Lady Madonna” and “Your Mother Should Know.” Sorry. John wasn’t much for domesticity back then. His bittersweet “Julia” was written to his deceased mother, but the lyrics are vague. He could be singing about any lost love. John saved his best motherhood song for the devastatingly sad “Mother,” from the Plastic Ono Band album.

But Paul also wrote and recorded his best motherhood song after the Beatles split: “Daytime Nighttime Suffering,” the B-side to his 1979 hit “Goodnight Tonight.” I promise I would have the Vinebranch Band perform this song if it were in keeping with the series theme!

“Daytime Nighttime Suffering” is “Lady Madonna” without a sense of whimsy. Like the Beatles song, McCartney says that motherhood is incredibly difficult—except there is no “music playing in your head” to ease the pain of regret, failure, and distress.

What does it pay to play the leading lady
When, like the damsel in distress,
Daytime, nighttime suffering is all she gets?

Nice reference to “damsels in distress”: McCartney goes on to say that motherhood is “no fairytale anymore.” It’s a strangely pessimistic song, not only for Paul the family-man, but for the exuberant melody and vocal arrangement—surely one of his sunniest and best. Maybe he’s communicating through the music that motherhood isn’t as bad as it seems? There is hope.

What these mothers need, McCartney says, is for people—well, including fathers like himself—to give them all the love and compassion they deserve. The singer asks the “mighty river” of love to flow through him. The river in this case is likely a metaphor for God: pour out your love on these women who suffer for their children. Pour out your love through me—a fitting prayer for any occasion.

This is easily one of my favorite McCartney songs. Wikipedia even tells me it’s one of Paul’s as well. For mothers everywhere, here it is. Enjoy!

“In my life, I love you more”

May 7, 2013

I intended last Sunday’s sermon to speak, in part, to high school seniors and other young people who would soon be making a transition in their lives—leaving home, going to college, going into service, beginning a new career. As such, I assumed the sermon would have a valedictory tone. After all, Paul’s words in Acts 20:17-27, the scripture I chose a couple of months ago, are literally part of a farewell speech to elders in the church at Ephesus, a church with whom he had ministered for two years.

Little did I suspect when I chose that scripture that I would also be be making a transition—and that it would be announced on the very Sunday I was preaching this text. As a United Methodist elder, I’m “itinerant”: each year I either get reappointed to my present church, or I get appointed elsewhere. It’s always a year-to-year contract. I’ve been an associate pastor for six years, which is a long time in the Methodist system. So in June, I’m leaving Alpharetta to pastor a church of my own.

I’m sure the word “bittersweet” was made for such an occasion. As I said in my sermon, I know I’m ready for this new opportunity. I know it’s a good career move. And, most importantly, I know the Lord has good work for me to do down in Hampton, Georgia, where I’m headed. I know all this in my head—it’s my heart that still needs convincing. But it’ll catch up soon enough.

With all that in mind, you can imagine how I felt hearing the Vinebranch Band play the Beatles’ “In My Life.”

There are places I remember
All my life, though some have changed.
Some forever not for better.
Some have gone and some remain.
All these places have their moments
With lovers and friends I still can recall.
Some are dead and some are living
In my life I’ve loved them all.

Pass the Kleenex, please! I read somewhere that this was the first pop song that dealt so candidly with mortality and loss. It was certainly the first Beatles song to do so.

Regardless, by the second verse, it becomes more a love song than a reminiscence.

But of all these friends and lovers,
There is no one compares with you.
And these memories lose their meaning
When I think of love as something new.
Though I know I’ll never lose affection
For people and things that went before—
I know I’ll often stop and think about them.
In my life, I love you more.

On the one hand, the narrator is making a statement about his new lover: “As much as all these other people mean to me, this new person means so much more.” But he’s saying more than that: thanks to this new lover, he understands love itself differently—he’s learned something about the meaning of love that makes the love he knew previously pale by comparison: “And these memories lose their meaning…”

In a way, isn’t this what happens to us when we enter into a saving relationship with God through Jesus Christ? It changes everything—the way we understand the world, our values, our relationships, our choices. Once we experience Love Himself, the God-who-is-love, we see all other loves in relationship to the absolute. As the song indicates, human love can only pale by comparison.

Not that John Lennon necessarily had God’s love in mind when he wrote the song. He was likely confusing the “God who is love” with the “Love who is god,” a common mistake in pop songs and pop culture. But he wasn’t too far off, so I give him credit.

With this understanding in mind, it made perfect sense for me to say the following, alluding to the Beatles song, at the climax of my sermon:

So I’ll never lose affection for you—for your love, your prayers, your patience, and your forgiveness. I love you… and nothing changes that—certainly not moving away or changing churches. But I love God more. And this move is the difficult sort of thing that I have to do because I love God more.

My point was that sometimes all of us Christians have to make painful, heartbreaking choices because we love God more than anything or anyone else. Jesus himself makes the same point, through hyperbole, when he says that unless we hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, even our own lives, we cannot be his disciples.

Leaving all these people I love at AFUMC is at least one small example of what Jesus is talking about. Otherwise, in my life, I almost never have to choose.

Unless or until the Beatles camp decides to remove their songs from YouTube (and I hope they don’t) you can enjoy “In My Life” right here:

Sermon 04-28-13: “The Word Is Love, Part 3”

May 2, 2013

Paul and Linda McCartney, circa 1970. Paul’s decision to include Linda—not previously a musician—in his new band Wings was deeply unpopular with both fans and music press. On the other hand, the two never spent a night apart (except for the nine days he spent in a Japanese prison in 1980).

We understand that Christ-like love is self-giving and self-sacrificial when it applies to loving our neighbor “out there”—in the mission field. But when we marry, we now have a neighbor who lives under our roof and sleeps beside us. We have a neighbor who manages the household with us, raises kids with us, and makes a life with us.

So now that we’re married to our neighbor, it suddenly matters a great deal how we feel? It matters what we’re getting out of the relationship? Isn’t this a double-standard?

As I discuss in this sermon on love and marriage, happiness in marriage is important, but there is no path to happiness in any part of life that doesn’t lead us up a mountain called Calvary.

Sermon Text: Ephesians 5:21-33

The following is my original sermon manuscript with footnotes.

I’m a fan of the public radio show This American Life with Ira Glass. Each week the show features a theme, and they have a series of real-life stories related to the theme. Last Valentine’s Day their theme was “people going to extremes to find and pursue their one true love.” One of the stories featured a 30-year-old man named Kurt.

Kurt had been with his girlfriend for 13 years—they started dating as high school sweethearts. And they had lived together for their entire adult lives so far. But they never tied the knot. And Kurt started to wonder why. “Maybe the reason I haven’t married this person that I’ve been with for 13 years is that she isn’t ‘the one.’ And since we’ve never dated anyone else, maybe we should take some time off—a month or two—and just play the field. See what else is out there first, and then decide whether or not to get married.” So that’s what this couple did. They took a break from each other. And after several months, they decided to break up once and for all. Read the rest of this entry »