by Steve Borgard
May 26, 2017
Singing the Blues: The Power of Lament
I don’t know exactly when our where it happened, but I discovered blues music. The first blues album I ever bought was “B.B. King Live at Cook County Jail.” What was a white, middle class, teenager doing listening to B.B. King, while his peers were listening to Prince or Van Halen? I’m not sure, but the music captured my heart and my imagination. There was something about the blues that reverberated with the joy and struggle of life. Music that was so sincere and honest, it touched upon a raw nerve that I imagined deep within everyone’s soul.
In the Hebrew scripture, there is the book of Lamentations. Imagine that, in our very own Bible a whole book of poetry about singing the blues. Reading the first couple of verses, we get a feel for the despair:
Lam. 1:1 How lonely sits the city
that once was full of people!
How like a widow she has become,
she that was great among the nations!
She that was a princess among the provinces
has become a vassal.
Lam. 1:2 She weeps bitterly in the night,
with tears on her cheeks;
among all her lovers
she has no one to comfort her;
all her friends have dealt treacherously with her,
they have become her enemies.
Wow, that is singing the blues.
Modern day spirituality is so filled with the ‘power of positive thinking’ and the ‘all is well with my soul’ sermons that we may have completely lost the ability to associate lament with spirituality.
This Monday is Memorial Day in the United States. It is a time for people to collectively remember the high cost of war. Recently walking through the Lafayette neighborhood, I saw a small impromptu memorial set up for a local ‘son’ who died in combat. It broke my heart. I began to lament, to feel the blues. My maternal grandfather fought in WWI and was awarded a Purple Heart. He survived the initial battle, but from the stories I have been told, he suffered from what was then called “shell shock” and is now termed PTSD. He died at a very young age most likely due to his injuries suffered in battle. He left behind a wife and three children. The high price of war. I read a copy of the sermon that was preached at my grandfather’s funeral. The minister said my grandfather wanted to be a pastor, but felt that what he did on the battlefield prohibited him from doing so. I can’t imagine the pain that haunted my grandfather’s soul.
Memorial Day can be celebrated in a host of ways: picnics, family get-togethers, rousing calls to patriotism, and the like. I wonder at times, where is the lament? How can we find the capacity to lament, to collectively sing the blues, in a manner that might bring healing to our communal soul?
May 19, 2017
Prayer Beyond Words
Rom. 8:26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.
At times I find Christian worship services overly verbose. A typical service: Announcements, Call to Worship, several hymns with several verses, Children’s Message, Witness for Giving, Communion Meditation, Prayer, Words of Institution, Benediction, and more. It’s as if we believe people will somehow be transformed if only they could hear another message. I’m not sure how many messages a person can process in an hour or if that many messages actually lead to the transformation we are seeking in our lives.
With the 24 hour news cycle, televisions and advertising invading every square inch of our lives, phone messages, text messages, Facebook post, etc.…we are constantly bombarded by messages. I myself am on message overload.
I guess it is ironic that I speak in worship service more than anyone else, since I feel my life has been transformed by sacred silence as much or more than any holy proclamation. With all the noise elsewhere in society, I do find a deep respite in the quiet moments we share together as community.
At the deepest moments of life, words often fail. This past week I conducted two graveside services. I sermonized (a bit), read scripture and poems, and offered prayer. I wish I would have offered more silence, a chance for people to experience their own feelings while standing at the edge of a grave mourning the loss of a loved one. The Apostle Paul understood that words can’t capture our deepest feelings and encouraged a prayer life that is better served with ‘sighs too deep for words.”
So this brief message is an encouragement to get away from messages on occasion. Let the Spirit help you find a way to sit with your feelings, the ones beyond words, and experience the ‘sighs’ that can lead to a very deep connection with yourself and the God who is ever present.
March 31, 2017
What Does Opening Day of Baseball Have to Do With Religion?
When people find out that I am a pastor, a common response I receive is, “I am not a religious person, I don’t go to church.” While the person may not see themselves as religious, often with enough dialogue, I can learn of the many religious dynamics that offer structure to his or her life.
Opening day of Major League Baseball is this Sunday, April 2nd, with three games being played. The following day, the rest of the teams will have their season openers.
So, what does baseball have to do with religion? Well, baseball provides many dynamics that religion provides. As the season begins, there is a clear demarcation of time and the dynamic of hope enters into every baseball fan’s heart as they anticipate the new season. Baseball fans find a sense of belonging with their fellow fans; they find themselves as part of a larger community, something ‘bigger” than themselves. Sacred time (opening day, playoffs, home opener, seventh inning stretch), sacred places (stadiums, Hall of Fame, statues of players), sacred rituals (ceremonial first pitch, rally caps, cheers), sacred song (“Take Me out to the Ball Game”) the list goes on and on… and I didn’t even mention the amount of prayer that happens at baseball games.
As my sons played sports as children, I was grateful for some of these dynamics. One aspect that I most appreciated is that sports had clear seasons (a beginning and an end). The start of the season was filled with hope. At the end of the season, win or lose, the team celebrated their accomplishments. This wasn’t true of other activities in which my sons participated. My one son was part of several bands that got to play some pretty great venues. But, like most bands, these bands morphed into existence, and after a time of conflict or disinterest, the members slowly drifted away. Sometimes a band member was replaced other times the band just fell apart. No clear beginning, no clear ending, and no celebration along the way.
The Lenten and Easter journey provides a clear demarkation of time. It is a time to reflect on the past year, to see where and how we have journeyed as a community, and renew our hope, that God is opening a beautiful new season before us. Good Friday marks in a very clear way the end of Jesus’s journey. From the cross he cries, “It is finished.” Easter helps us to ritualize the new beginning, the hope of Christ’s presence. We can have a new start, a new beginning.
As holy week approaches, may we find the time to contemplate the endings and beginnings that shape our lives.
March 17, 2017
Lent - A Chance to Rewire Our Brains
With guitar in hand, I walked into a local music shop, excited to take my first guitar lesson since moving to Lafayette. I sat down and began to display the basic skills that I already possess on the instrument. The guitar teacher promptly asked me if I knew a very basic and rudimentary finger picking pattern that is a building block for many songs. He showed me the simple pattern, thumb-index-thumb-middle. Just four notes, and two fingers alternating with a thumb. 5-3-4-2 - is the string pattern. It is easy-peasy.
Except, I could not do it. My right hand was not familiar with this finger picking pattern and it kept wanting to go to “more familiar ground,” the other patterns I have played over the years. The pattern was easy to understand, easy to visualize in my head, but I could not get my fingers to do it. I felt like a kid, picking up a guitar for the very first time. I was frustrated. I laughed nervously every time I made a mistake, and at times my brain and fingers just froze. Come on….5-3-4-2 - thumb-index-thumb-middle.
The teacher just smiled. He told me I would get it. Every time I made an error, yet caught myself, he would say the encouraging words, “Nice self correction.” It gave me hope, when I felt like ‘fumble fingers.’
Later that same evening, while practicing at home, the pattern began to click. By the next evening, I could play the pattern without thinking. “Fumble fingers,” turned into “flying fingers” and I could breeze through the pattern at a pretty rapid rate. It felt like a miraculous transformation.
What really happened is that my brain began to rewire itself. With intentional practice, consistent repetition, and visualizing my desired outcome, my brain made adjustments and began to strengthen certain neural connections, so my muscles remembered and repeated the pattern seamlessly.
This is the way our bodies learn. It was my very hands-on experience with neuroplasticity: the brain's ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. Yes, you can teach an old dog new tricks! Our brains are constantly adapting to our experiences. We are being transformed daily, either strengthening our current habits and thought patterns, or we adapt and make new connections.
Lent is a season of focused spiritual discipline. It is a time when Christians commit to prayer, meditation, scripture reading, and acts of charity. When I have taught spiritual exercises, often a common response is, “I just can’t do it.” People say if they try and meditate, their mind wanders. If they pray, they fall asleep.
Every time we ‘fail’ at a spiritual discipline, it is just an opportunity for self correction. It is an opportunity to pay attention to our habits and patterns, and begin the process of becoming more of the person we want to be. With intentional practice, consistent repetition, and visualizing the desired outcome, you can transform your life.
The simple act of taking ten minutes a day, to focus deeply on the good, beautiful, and sacred moments of life will help your brain strengthen those connections, so they repeat more naturally. Taking a few moments every evening to concentrate on your breath and relaxing your body, will help develop a ‘muscle memory’, that will make it easier to relax and find calm more naturally.
So, this Lenten season, I encourage you to chose a simple practice that may bring transformation to your life. It only take a few moments a day to begin to ‘rewire’ your brain.
To give you a guitar update, I am now working on an amazing version of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.”