WORD FROM THE PASTOR:
Out on Highway 61: An American Travelogue for Lent
On a recent car trip, I listened to Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, and was seized anew by his vivid retelling of a familiar Bible story: God says to Abraham, “Kill me a son”, Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin me on...Where do you want this killin done?” God says, “Out on Highway 61.” Dylan’s imaginative association of a great Bible story with a great American route stirred my interest in U.S. Highway 61, the “Blues Highway”, the “Great River Road” that follows the Mississippi from New Orleans to Minnesota. The Bible story Dylan borrowed points toward Christ and His cross (a father giving up his son). It occurred to me that there were several places along Highway 61 that might have other cross-related messages for us during the time of Lent. So I offer you a mini-travelogue of this great American road that can help us in our Lenten journey. (And if this article is a bit longer than usual...well, I do have 1400 miles to cover...)
NEW ORLEANS. At first I thought the Crescent City’s lesson would involve music–after all, it’s the birthplace of jazz and of America’s most influential musician, Louis Armstrong. But what most seizes my imagination about New Orleans is its diversity. French and African, Irish and Italian have long rubbed elbows in the city. The first Greek Orthodox church in the U.S. was in New Orleans. The Original Dixieland Jazz band, which made the first jazz record, included Sicilian, Hispanic and Canary Islander members. The incredible diversity of New Orleans reminds me of the scene in Revelation where God’s people gather before His throne in heaven–a great multitude “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Rev. 7:9). “God so loved the world” that He sent Jesus (John 3:16). Christ is the “lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). The sins of all people were taken away by His cross. The many nationalities of New Orleans can remind us of how wide the saving love of God is–it embraces every race, every people. (NEW ORLEANS BASED ADVERTISEMENT: Don’t forget to purchase your tickets for St. Paul’s Mardi Gras on Mar. 6).
THE CROSSROADS. There are many crossroads in the world, but the crossroads refers to the point where Highway 61 intersects with Highway 49 in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Here blues singer Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for musical mastery. This is only a legend–actually, if you listen to Johnson’s “Crossroads Blues”, he cries out to God for salvation: “I went down to the crossroads, fell down on my knees; I said, “Good Lord, save poor Bob if you please.” Even if it is only a legend, it still reminds us that the Devil does indeed “prowl about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (I Peter 5:8). He wants to draw us away from God. He offers us “deals”–things that look very alluring and attractive, but that damage our spiritual life (like the “deal” he offered Adam and Eve: “you shall be like God” - Genesis 3). Like Robert Johnson, we need to fall down on our knees and cry out continually to the Lord to save us. Since it’s the crossroads, this intersection can also remind us that Jesus Christ went to the cross to overcome the power of the Devil. (By the way, a little north of the 61-49 crossroads, another great blues singer–Bessie Smith–died in an auto accident).
MEMPHIS. This key city in American musical history is, of course, where Elvis is buried. Several great American musical styles–the blues, rockabilly, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, soul–have been deeply associated with Memphis and with record labels like Sun and Stax. Since these musical styles all express great emotion, Memphis can be a reminder of our emotional life. Whatever emotional state we are in, we can relate it to our faith. In times of happiness, we can praise the Lord for His blessings. And in times of sadness–when we “have the blues”-- we can take our negative feelings to the cross of Christ. After all, on that cross He cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46) In our blue times, we go to the abandoned Christ–knowing that His abandonment led to resurrection and renewed joy. We are sure God will also renew our joy.
Our faith is never based on emotion. “God is greater than our heart.” (I John 3:20 ). But it’s good to let our emotions–whether they be happy or sad–draw us nearer to God. Here the Psalms are instructive. The emotional content of the Psalms swings wildly from exultation to dark, blue despondency–but at all times, the Psalmist takes his feelings to God.
ST. LOUIS. This city reminds us of our heritage as Missouri Synod Lutherans. In 1839, a group of Lutherans left Saxony in Germany and landed in New Orleans. They sailed up the Mississippi (thus more or less traveling the same route as Highway 61) to Missouri. They sought religious freedom–the state church in Germany had strayed from the traditional Lutheran faith, and they wanted a land where they could proclaim Jesus without government interference.
The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod can be a cantankerous and eccentric group. But one thing about the LCMS–she keeps the faith. She stays away from the fads and fashions that sweep up many religious groups. She avoids taking political positions; her hymns and liturgy still call God “He”, even though masculine pronouns for God have been banned in many church bodies; and most importantly, she keeps Christ and His Gospel at the center of her preaching and teaching. As often as I apologize for her, I more often thank God for her. So let St. Louis stand for two things: our American heritage of freedom; and our Missouri Synod heritage of keeping the crucified and risen Saviour at the heart of the church’s life.
MINNESOTA. The “Great River Road” takes us ultimately to the state where the Mississippi–“the father of waters”–has its source. For Christians, a river flowing inevitably makes us think of Christ on the cross, where His side was pierced and “there came out blood and water” (John 20:34). This powerful scene suggests the birth of the church–just as Adam’s bride, Eve, emerged from his opened side as he slept deeply, so Christ’s bride, the church, is born from His pierced side as He sleeps the deep sleep of death. The water and blood are reminders of the Sacraments that give life to the church–Baptism and Holy Communion. The Mississippi River certainly also makes us think of baptism, where we are united to Christ’s death and resurrection and enter into fellowship with Him. Ultimately, it also suggests the great river in heaven:
...the river of the water of life, clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God
and the Lamb through the middle of the street of the [heavenly] city...(Rev. 22:1)
Highway 61 takes us to the source of the Mississippi–but the way of Christ, the way of faith, takes us to an even greater river–the one that flows through heaven itself!
So there’s our Lenten travelogue along a great American road. Whether or not we ever literally travel the Great River Road, may our feet always stay on God’s road; whether or not we ever drive the Blues Highway, may our hearts always overflow with the joy of Jesus.
God loves you and so do I!