Striving No More, Part 2, or “Prophets Don’t Grow Up From Little Boys,” or “Do They?”

Keithgreen

This is part 2 in a 5 part series. You can read part 1 here.

14 Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. 15 He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him.

16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,

    because he has anointed me

    to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners

    and recovery of sight for the blind,

to set the oppressed free,

19     to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”[f]

20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him.21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked.

23 Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ And you will tell me, ‘Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’”

24 “Truly I tell you,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown. 25 I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. 26 Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. 27 And there were many in Israel with leprosy[g] in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.”

28 All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this.29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff.30 But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way. – Luke 4:14-30

This will be part 2 in a 3 part series. That means, among other things, that like part 1 in this series, this post started out differently, but along the way I realized that the overall story I’m telling- about how we hope to connect with a local faith community and the many reasons why including the road that brought us to this point- couldn’t fully be told without yet a little more background. So now I want to talk about Keith Green. That’s him, above, if you hadn’t guessed. If you don’t know anything about him, click the link in his name for his Wikipedia page. I highly encourage taking a little time to learn something about him. I’ll have something to say here about him, of course. If you want even more background on his life from the official bio on the website of the ministry he and his wife, Melody, started, go here.

Keith didn’t live very long. He died before his 29th birthday. He was a musical prodigy, having learned to play guitar and piano as a very young child, and was writing his own music by the age of 6. By the age of 11 he had written 40 original songs and signed a five year recording contract. As his Wikipedia entry says:

By the time Green was twelve, he had written ten more songs, and Time magazine ran a short piece about Green in an article about aspiring young rock-‘n’-roll singers, referring to him as Decca Records’ “prepubescent dreamboat”.[6] However, after national attention envisioned by Decca Records failed to materialize for Green, Donny Osmond captured the attention of pre-teens and teenagers, eclipsing Green’s newfound stardom, and he was quickly forgotten by the public.[7]

Keith was a spiritual “seeker,” and after experimenting with “drugs, eastern mysticism” and “free love,” Keith, who had a Jewish heritage which his family “hid from him” according to the bio on his ministry’s site, discovered Jesus. He had grown up reading the New Testament, but again according to that bio when he learned about his Jewish heritage suddenly something “clicked” for him that hadn’t before, and it’s said that he “proudly told the world, ‘I’m a Jewish Christian’.” He and Melody had been married shortly beforehand, and “As soon as Keith opened his heart to Jesus, he and Melody opened their home. Anyone with a need, or who wanted to kick drugs, or get off the street, was welcome.  Of course, they always heard plenty about Jesus at what fondly became known as ‘The Greenhouse’.” Wikipedia adds:

The Greens continued to invite guests into their home.[11] They eventually ran out of space and, purchasing the home next door to their own and renting an additional five in the same neighborhood, they provided an environment of Christian teaching for a group of young adults, the majority of whom were of college age. Much to the consternation of neighbors, there came to be 75 people living in the Green’s homes and traipsing down the suburban streets—including recovering drug addicts and prostitutes, bikers, the homeless, and many single pregnant girls needing shelter and safety. Some were referred to the Greens by other ministries and shelters, but most just crossed their path during their normal life at home and on the road. In 1977 the Greens personal outreach became a non-profit ministry they called Last Days Ministries.[12]

So this newbie Jesus follower and newlywed, no less, immediately took the unquestionably good part of the “good news” that is the “Gospel” to heart and began living it out in ways that most would be Jesus followers do not. I come back to the passage from Luke 4 that this post begins with often, and for good reason. As always, it’s notable that Jesus inaugurated his ministry by quoting the prophet Isaiah and declaring “good news to the poor,” “freedom for…prisoners,” recovery of sight for the blind,” and freedom for the oppressed and then stating that this scripture was fulfilled in the hearing of his listeners. Many people debate many things about Jesus including the most central of his claims and especially the claims made about him, but to my mind it’s inarguable that good news for the poor, et al, is just that- good. I believe that folks who want to follow Jesus do so most closely when they focus more on living their life and conducting their ministry the way Jesus began his, and less on all the other stuff that inexorably leads to division, partisanship, and the like. That certainly was a tremendous part of what Keith focused on, and I could end his story here having told a remarkable tale of a remarkable man.

Of course, there’s more to it than that. Keith and Melody not only loved and served folks on the margins of society, but Keith did so while continuing to write and record music at a prolific pace. His ministry page bio says:

Not only did Keith’s life take a radical turn, but by then he was a highly skilled  musician and songwriter,  and so all of his songs changed too. His quest for stardom had ended.  And now his songs reflected the absolute thrill of finding Jesus and seeing his own life radically changed. Keith’s spiritual intensity not only took him beyond most people’s comfort zones, but it constantly drove him even beyond his own places of content.

Keith was prophetic in the way he lived his life, and this was reflected no less in his voice as an artist. Keith was not afraid to speak truth to power, and like Jesus, his most incisive truth-telling was reserved for the religious types who said one thing with their mouths and something else entirely with their lives. All the while, he worked to be truthful about his own life and struggles, all of which was reflected in his songwriting. It’s most evident, though, when you see him sing live. You can’t watch him sing without noticing how heartfelt his songs are, how genuine he is. Take this recording of “Asleep in the Light,” for example. This is one of my favorite songs of his, as it perfectly captures his understanding of Jesus’ heart for reaching “the lost” and marries it with Keith’s prophetic truth-telling as he calls out the church, those who are supposed to be living out the ministry Jesus inaugurated of good news for the poor and marginalized and indeed for us all, and challenges them to simply do better.

 

Keith was unapologetic in his zeal not simply for “evangelism” to use a church-y word, but even more so in his zeal for Jesus. As Circle of Hope reminds us, “life in Christ is one whole cloth.” So because Keith had been so transformed by God’s love for him he spent his all too brief life from that point forward sharing that love with others whether he was inviting prostitutes and those experiencing homelessness or addiction to come live in his house(s) or giving an “altar call” at a concert with thousands of people in attendance. His invitation to all he met to enter into right relationship with Jesus necessarily meant proclaiming the “good news” not only about their souls but also and especially about their lives in the here-and-now. This is especially clear in another of my favorites of his, “The Sheep and the Goats.” Some of the references in this and much of his music may be anachronistic and theologically unsophisticated, but again his words, music, and life are provocative, genuine, heartfelt, and powerful, as is evident:

Keith could have been a darling of the “Christian” music industry, but Keith doubled down on his challenging words for the church to hew more closely to the One they were supposed to be following by upsetting the “Christian” music industry’s business model, as Wikipedia notes:

In 1979, after negotiating a release from his contract with Sparrow, Green initiated a new policy of refusing to charge money for concerts or albums. Keith and Melody mortgaged their home to privately finance Green’s next album, So You Wanna Go Back to Egypt. The album, which featured a guest appearance by Bob Dylan, was offered through mail-order and at concerts for a price determined by the purchaser. By May 1982, Green had shipped out more than 200,000 units of his album – 61,000 for free. Subsequent albums included The Keith Green Collection (1981) and Songs for the Shepherd (1982).[15][16]

When his music was carried by Christian bookstores, a second cassette was included free of charge for every cassette purchased to give away to a friend to help spread the Gospel.

All of this begs the question, though, why am I spending all this time writing about Keith Green? Hopefully my deep respect and admiration for him is apparent, and I think his life deserves to be remembered. I suspect that a lot of folks today who want to follow Jesus may not know much about him or have little appreciation for his impact. Thus, his tale is worth telling in its own right, but this is also a deeply personal tale for me. I probably would have been one of those would be Jesus followers with little knowledge of or appreciation for Keith. He died, after all, in a plane crash- with two of his kids aboard and Melody at home with a toddler and another baby on the way- at the tender age of 28, when I was just seven years old. I have much older half-siblings, though, and though the church I grew up in probably would have struggled with the prophetic nature of Keith’s ministry and life (that is, the truth he had to tell the church about the way they were following Jesus- or not- would have been a painful truth, most likely, for the church of my youth), my siblings introduced me to him as a young kid, and I grew up spending hours upon hours listening to his music. It probably helped form my faith in such a way that when, as a sophomore at Gordon College, I heard the call to go spend a summer living and loving the marginalized in the inner city of Philly, I didn’t hesitate. I went for it. Sadly, perhaps, I’ve gone a long while in my adult life without connecting with Keith’s music, and therefore without connecting with God in the special way Keith’s music helps me to, but it remains a big part of me.

So yesterday I began listening to many of Keith’s songs again for the first time in a long time. It was like putting on an old, well-worn but favorite hoodie that fits just right, as only it could. I found I could sing every word to many of the songs I listened to, and  I also found that many of Keith’s songs I listened to made me cry. You see, I remain a would be Jesus follower in no small part because of the way my faith was formed at a young age as I listened to Keith’s music. This formation continued through my Kingdomworks (the precursor of Mission Year, which I provided a link to above) experience and beyond as I struggled with the legacy of my abusive upbringing in my “Christian” home, and one of his songs over the years has taken on special significance. Keith says it’s a song Jesus wrote for him, but I always hear it spoken directly to me, and I’m broken by it every time:

It’s the first line that gets me: “My son, my son, why are you striving?” The truth is, I spend much of my waking hours striving, always striving, always trying to do better, to do more, to work harder. “Resting in my faith” or in much of anything else is mostly a foreign concept. As Bill Mallonee put it, “I’ve been trying to negotiate peace with my own existence.” There’s more to be said, there, obviously, but my point now is that when I hear Jesus singing to me through Keith in this song, I’m invited to leave “Struggleville,” even if only temporarily, and be still, knowing that God is God, and I’m not, and this brings (momentary) peace. For this, I’m grateful.

I’m grateful too for the invitation not only to be in right relationship with God, God’s good world, and my neigbor- that is, to live into the good news that Jesus proclaims and Keith too- but also for the invitation to worship a God who’s worthy of it. Again as Circle of Hope reminds us, “without worship, we shrink.” I can follow a Jesus who brings good news for those on the margins, who keeps surprising us by showing up where we’d least expect him and with those we’d least expect him to be with. More than that, though, I can worship a God who not only calls me to be my best self but who is the One who made that self, the one that is the author and “finisher” of my faith and in whom the entire cosmos holds together. I’m often skeptical. I want “good” theology that can live with all the tensions that I have to live with in real life. I want to know that doubt need not be the enemy of faith, but can be its partner. But if my faith, and more importantly Jesus, can’t engage my whole self and help me to live life as a fully formed person, than I want little to do with it, or him. Keith’s music functions as a delivery system for Jesus straight into my heart, not entirely bypassing my brain but engaging me in a much deeper way than mere intellectualism can afford. This gives me space to worship, and I shrink no more.

I leave you with one last song by Keith. He wrote it for his parents, whom he desperately wanted to see living in right relationship with God. In it he references Jesus’ reception by his hometown crowd as he inaugurated his ministry in the passage at the top of this post. That crowd just couldn’t accept that the Jesus they knew as a boy would dare to speak so prophetically to them because, as Keith puts it, “prophets don’t grow up from little boys; do they?” Keith did, and some day maybe I will too.

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