Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Small Things with Great Love - Margot Starbuck

God wants to separate us from what divides us.

Small Things with Great Love: Adventures in Loving Your Neighbor
Author: Margot Starbuck
Foreword: Tony Campolo
Publisher: IVP Books (
Pages: 239

In Small Things with Great Love by Margot Starbuck one thought summarizes what makes her voice fresh: “We don’t have to add lots more overwhelming activity to what we’ve already got going. Rather, the regular stuff of our lives―the commute to work and the potlucks and home improvement projects and errands and play dates―are the exact places in which we express and experience God’s love for a world in need” (20).

If some Pharisees in Scripture were known for laying on heavy burdens without lifting a finger to help, Starbuck is just the opposite. Her whimsical, humorous viewpoint makes the work of reaching those on the margins less frightening. Perhaps unknowingly her style echoes that of Jesus when he said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and burden is light” (Mt. 11:28-30 ESV). I appreciate her gentle spirit, which does not burden readers but seeks to release them into a richer, fuller life.

She lightens the load by being transparent about her own struggles and showing through stories how readers can take baby steps. It is a wonderful primer for those who want to know God’s heart for the poor and move from an insular environment to one that is more open. It is far too easy to become separate from the ones that God loves. This book is a start to bridging that gap.

Along the way Starbuck addresses the many different places in which we find ourselves. One of my favorite chapters is “Introverts.” I found it liberating because it affirms the type of person that I am by temperament and points to ways of loving God and neighbor appropriate to it. It makes a point reiterated throughout the book. We can be ourselves in engaging others.

In keeping with the spirit of whimsy, this book can be read creatively in a way that considers our various differences and roles. At the end of each chapter readers have the option to skip to a section relevant to them. At the end of “Introverts,” if you are female, you can turn to page 75 to read “Women.” If you are male, you can keep reading into the next chapter, “Men.” And so it goes at the end of every chapter. Readers in every walk of life are addressed, and they can follow this adventurous path if they choose not to read straight through. It’s all so good that those who skip around might want to go back and catch the parts they miss.

One part that troubled me comes toward the end where the author discusses the impact of our choices. How we spend and consume has an impact on the rest of the world, and it is right to consider this. It’s not that I disagree, but I wonder if there is more to consider than choosing to pay more so that we don’t support cheap labor. I am simplifying, but I wonder what God would have us do. I have a friend that out of necessity buys cheap jeans. I live in an area where unemployment is typically above the state average. Some people, and I am now one of them, depend at least in part on the meager income they gain from working at big box retailers.

After being denied entrance into our community several years ago, Walmart is getting ready to open in a location that was abandoned after another store that was popular locally went out of business. As I am sure is the case in most places, there will be more applicants than job openings. Even though many local residents strongly oppose this retail giant, others will welcome the low prices. Perhaps an obvious solution is for retailers like Walmart to act responsibly and improve their record in relation to all involved in the manufacture and sale of a product. Loving your neighbor precludes exploiting him. Let justice roll down from the upper echelons to the lowest in every endeavor. What a difference it would make, not to mention the hope it would engender. Do these corporations and the people that manage them have the will to make changes?

If the answer in part is to avoid shopping at big box retailers, their employees might lose their jobs and be forced to find new ones in a scarce environment. Is this a cost that our nation needs to bear to move toward a more just society? It would be interesting to know more of what Starbuck and others think. I don’t have the answer.

What troubles me is wondering if these issues are more complex than we realize. Then again, maybe part of the answer is, as much as possible, to be simple in the sense of not complicating how God would have each individual respond. That in part is what makes this book endearing. Normally, it’s not a matter of doing great things, but small things with great love. 

Friday, October 26, 2012

Athanasius: The Life of Antony of Egypt

Antony embodies a holy belligerence to evil that still inspires.

Athanasius: The Life of Antony of Egypt
A Paraphrase by Albert Haase, O.F.M.
Foreword by Shane Claiborne
Publisher: IVP Books (
Pages: 128

Is there such a thing as holy belligerence? The Life of Antony of Egypt by Athanasius shows that an aggressive attitude toward Satan and heretics can be appropriate. Antony reminds me that though our ancient foe seeks to work his woe, he is no match for Christ and those who have found refuge in him. “We conquer the enemy with godly thoughts and hope-filled feelings. Such thoughts and feelings expose the demons for who they truly are: worthless kindling for the eternal fires of hell,” (60) Antony said.

He continually exhibits a holy disdain toward anything that opposes God. He does not mince words when he believes the truth is at stake, “Stay away from the schismatics and the Arians, as I have, because they are heretics and enemies of Christ. Form your community around the Lord and the saints so that, after you die, they will recognize you as old friends and walk hand-in-hand with you into the heavenly mansion prepared for you” (98).

The fantastic stories scattered throughout read like legend. Whatever the truth, Antony’s life is inspiring. He is extremely devout, yet like the author, Athanasius, he is humble and intensely practical. There is a wealth of wisdom pertaining to spiritual formation, battling demons and living the Christian life.

This encourages deeper devotion without advocating a slavish following of Antony’s practices. We are all different, and God’s dealings vary with the individual. Antony’s asceticism, though foreign to our modern culture, which has gone to the opposite extreme, encourages discipline. Aside from his example, readers can gain from a godly perspective. The righteous disdain for Satan and his forces is revelatory. It’s not some crazy ranting; it’s the mature perspective of someone who lives by the truth of Scripture.

The editor provides occasional context and instruction in shaded boxes that appear in the text. One particularly illuminating insight pertains to the “noonday devil”: “Within the desert tradition, acedia was often referred to as the ‘noonday devil’ and is better translated as ‘throwing in the towel.’ The hermit would begin his life and spiritual and spiritual formation in the desert with enthusiasm and gusto. However, by midday (figuratively speaking; hence the name ‘noonday devil’), the sun would be beating down upon him and he would become discouraged and want to give up the entire challenge of spiritual formation. And so he would throw in the towel and return to his former way of life” (54-55).

The book includes three pastoral letters written by Athanasius. The last, which is a fragment, covers the canon of Scripture. Haase writes, “This Easter letter fragment, of which there is a shorter version found in Greek and a longer version found in Coptic, is the first written documentation of the ‘canonical’ books of the Christian Scriptures. Athanasius’s list simply records the unofficial consensus of the church which would be subsequently endorsed by church councils in Rome (382), Hippo Regius (393) and Carthage (397)” (117). This also touches on what are known as the apocryphal books and how they are viewed by various groups. Athanasius does not see them as authentic and authoritative Scripture.

Haase makes this ancient classic easy to read and his comments are helpful. The stories about Antony are fascinating, which makes this engrossing. This can be read quickly, but as the editor suggests in relation to Scripture, far more can be gained by “treasuring” and “pondering” the passages that speak to readers.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Velvet Prince - Mike Johnson and friends

Along with The Artist/The Riddle, this is an overlooked Jesus movement recording.

Velvet Prince
Artist: Mike Johnson and friends
Label: Born Twice Records (
Length: 10 tracks/36:10 minutes

For those interested in music with roots in the Jesus movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Mike Johnson’s Velvet Prince and The Artist/The Riddle have been remastered and released by Retroactive Records.

I wish that contemporary Christian music (CCM), the industry that grew up around the music of the movement, had followed some of the highlights found here. CCM is by definition message-driven but has been lacking at times in the raw inventiveness of the early Jesus music. It has suffered from a narrow focus and being overproduced and homogenized. That pristine quality is one of the benefits of an old recording like the Velvet Prince.

It’s raw, a little ragged, but earnest in exhibiting a broad array of styles and subject matter. It also has an underlying sophistication that reflects Johnson’s background with heralded groups like the Mike Bloomfield Blues band, Electric Flag and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. One standout track where you can hear that influence is the Dylanesque blues-rock of “On to L. A.”

On the lighter side is “Your Health Food won’t Get You into Heaven.” It’s not just the comical words; what makes this funny is an old-timey country style combined with most-important-song-in-the-world singing. I enjoy natural food as much as anyone, but I appreciate the hilarious reminder that “yogurt ain’t got no savin’ power.”

“Something’s Goin’ On” is a satirical “the end is coming” rag, complete with kazoo. For those who might remember him, it is reminiscent of Country Joe McDonald.

On the more somber side is the mournful “Standin’ at the Station,” perfectly suited to the feeling of being abandoned. The sparse, gentle instrumentation make this hauntingly beautiful.

The title track is a hard-rocking allegory that closes with wild feedback. Johnson also employs this literary device effectively on The Artist/The Riddle. If allegory and humor are scarce and a lost art in music today, it is a shame since both are powerful tools. With all the heaviness in the world, the need for humor has never been greater. Allegory remains a creative way to convey meaning to those who might be turned-off by a more didactic approach.

“Would You Believe” is a signature song reworked here into light jazz from Johnson’s self-titled Exkursions recording. The Exkursions were an early group for Johnson. Their concerts featured mainstream music without any Christian witness until the end when they closed with one invitation-to-faith song, normally “Would You Believe.” Johnson then shared his testimony, and Anglican minister John Guest preached. Johnson believes that this “low-key” approach was the secret to their success in ministry.

Velvet Prince follows in that legacy. The Christian witness on most songs is less overt. The appeal is in the careful craftsmanship. It might hold more interest for those whose first attraction is the music. Along with The Artist/The Riddle, this is an overlooked early document of an artist creatively expressing his Christian convictions.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Artist/The Riddle - Mike Johnson

A first love faith gives birth to a childlike simplicity, wonder and creativity that are often missing today.

The Artist/The Riddle
Artist: Mike Johnson
Label: Born Twice Records (
Length: 10 tracks/35:15 minutes

Back in the late 1970s I remember seeing The Artist/The Riddle by Mike Johnson in my friend’s large LP collection of early Christian music. A smiling Johnson with a sparkle in his eye is in the foreground while the background of the album cover reflects the peace and tranquility of Christ’s future millennial reign.

It was a remarkable time with artists like Larry Norman, Keith Green, Randy Stonehill, Phil Keaggy, Barry McGuire, the 2nd Chapter of Acts, Nancy Honeytree, the All Saved Freak Band, Love Song, Children of the Day, and many more singing of their faith in a contemporary music context. Like the move of God that preceded it, bringing many in the counter-culture to Christ, it was new. There was no established Christian music industry like there is today.

A first love faith gave birth to a childlike simplicity, wonder and creativity that are often missing today. As that early movement became an industry the music and content became more homogenized losing some of its freshness. It makes me thankful for artists that create something new and different. With so many talented Christian artists inside and outside the industry, how wonderful it would be to see original expressions of faith blossom again.

Mike Johnson was one that I overlooked when I started listening to the music of that era. It may be because he never achieved the same popularity as the more well-known artists. But that was not for lack of talent. He was an original member of the Mike Bloomfield Blues band and went on to become lead guitarist for Electric Flag and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. His background shows in music that is slightly more complex than what is found on some of the early Christian releases.

One of the remarkable features of The Artist is the diversity of styles. “The Artist” starts off with gentle folk sounds, but when this allegory shifts to the work of the enemy, the sound becomes biting. Johnson repeatedly uses story to convey biblical truth.

The other title song, “The Riddle,” is more renaissance with the use of flute and recorder. “I Met a Man” is a humorous rag depicting the futility of trying to find life outside of Christ.

“Lord Doctor” is a favorite with its lyrical guitar, reminiscent of Phil Keaggy and vocals that sound a lot like Terry Talbot, another early pioneer in this genre.

“Jesus loves you” may be cliché but it sounds fresh to me on “Little Boy,” where a father confesses to a son that God loves him more than he ever can.

“The Witness” extols a person who would otherwise be unknown but for his faithful testimony, which changed lives throughout his town. This depicts true significance.

It’s interesting that the last three tracks, though varied in style, all relate in some way to Christ’s return. “The Sound of His Returning” is regimented marching band music. Something similar to this could have been used many years ago by the Salvation Army as they marched and sang like a banner of Christ waving through the mean streets of London.

“The Wedding” draws heavily on Jewish marriage custom with music to match. The closing “We Want You to Return” combines those words at the end with a winsome melody. I appreciate the second coming emphasis, which does not seem as prominent in our day.

I missed this when it was first released in 1976, but the remastering is excellent, making the production closer to today’s standards. It is a worthwhile addition for fans of the artist and any who are interested in music from that special time. For mature Christians, it can be reminder to cultivate again that first love.

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