Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Beatitudes Project: Words From The Hill & Beatitudes


Throughout the month of April I have been reflecting and meditating on the Beatitudes. Each day, I have read one of them, prayed that Beatitude and then worked on how I could live out that passage from the Sermon on the Mount that day. It has not been an easy task, as the Beatitudes are like the Ten Commandments on steroids, but it has been deeply convicting and rewarding. As I was delving deeper into the Beatitudes, I was discovering that this wasn't a checklist for earning God's favor but a blue-print for living out God's kingdom on earth. The Beatitudes was a way of being, a way of becoming and that they impacted both the internal and external of one's life. The Beatitudes effects both the horizontal (humanity's relationship with God) but also the vertical (humanity's relationship with each other). The Beatitudes aren't some fanciful wish list but a kingdom design rooted deeply in the human condition and letting us know that God is there with us. Theologian Stanley Hauerwas wrote, "The basis of for the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount is not what works, but who God is."

In the midst of my spiritual excavation of the Beatitudes, Stu Garrard released both an album (Beatitudes) and a book (Words From The Hill) and has plans to release a documentary. When I received Words From The Hill in the mail, I immediately began to connect with where Garrard was coming from. From the opening, he writes of being in a place of uncertainty and worries, as his wife was in the hospital for an unexpected surgery. He is honest in his wrestling with God and self-doubt. In this place of confusion and fear he Garrard began to study the Beatitudes. In the introduction to the book he writes, "Jesus delivered what is considered to be his most complete sermon on this subject. We are not in control. Life does not always work out the way we expect it to. And, he tells us, when we find ourselves at the end of our rope, at rock bottom, God is there. God is on our side." This is the starting point for his rediscovering what Christ taught in the Beatitudes. "If you want to see who God is," he says, "look at the Beatitudes."

And he does. Very closely. Not only the words, but how he is or isn't living them in his own life. and he writes the stories of others (Becca Stevens, founder of Thistle Farms, and Shane Claiborne are two of the more high profile people), though it's often the unknown people whose stories he tells that have the biggest impact (such as Gaile, who spent 24 years on death row before having her sentenced changed and being released on parole).  Garrard does not come at this as merely being a sacred text that we are meant to study and simply get knowledge from. He comes to realize this is a way that followers of Christ are meant to live their lives. While on tour in Brazil, he discovers the reality of extreme poverty. "God," he writes, "hears the cries of the oppressed, those enslaved by lack of power and choices; and I felt a pull toward the unexpected - a new way of being." The Beatitudes reveal that God is always on the side of the marginalized, oppressed, poor, weary, beaten down and those on the fringes of society. "God is on the side of everybody for whom there's no reason why God should be on their side," he discovers.

Like the Beatitudes, Garrard's book makes one think, rethink, question, struggle with, become uncomfortable over as it pushes us out of our easy answers and excuses, and candidly ask ourselves, "Am I having an impact on the community around me?"  And we are commanded to. Scriptures always make the connection that righteousness to justice. One cannot choose one over the other. "The divine gifts and grace of the Beatitudes," he writes, "will always have a social dimension and a requirement to see things put right." The Beatitudes address violence, poverty, racism, hunger, hatred, injustice and loss. It addresses the human condition. And it's rooted deeply in community.

The Beatitudes force us to ask ourselves; What do we ache for?

Do we ache for what God aches for in this world?

Does our aching translate to action?


Dr. John Perkins, one of the pioneers of the Civil Rights Movement, said, "The work of Justice is fundamentally redemptive. We are redeemed by God and then are invited to join the redemptive work of God."

Stu Garrard writes with clarity, compassion, honesty and with a poetic truth that reveals the reality that God is on our side and always with us. In one of the most moving and beautiful chapters, "Mourn," he retells a story that David Kessler shared with him. It's about a village where, if someone dies, all the households change something in their yard or on the exterior of their house that very night. Why? So that the next morning, when the mourners come out of their own house, where their world has literally changed with this death, they will see that the world has also changed for everyone who lives around them. Symbolically, they are showing their neighbors this and holding that pain and loss in a visible way. Can you imagine how transformational that must be for everyone? Can you picture how different our world would be if we all enacted that tradition?

The Beatitudes are the grand "What if?" of imagining and working towards the kingdom of God (on earth as it is in heaven) as an earthly reality. Words From The Hill gives us concrete examples of broken people who are actually transforming their own pain through the grace of God and then transforming the communities around them through mercy and love and compassion. They are taking the words of the Sermon on the Mount literally and at face value. They are caring for the needs of the vulnerable that God has repeatedly called us to take care of. The Beatitudes comfort us and challenge us just as all of Christ's teaching and life did. And Stu Garrard gets it.

Words From The Hill reveals that, while we don't always get answers, we always have God's presence. It shows us how that reality, that truth, can not only change and transform our lives but, when we allow it to by reaching out, it can change and transform the lives of those around us.  This is the good news of the Gospel, this is the reality and purpose of the Beatitudes for those who are willing to risk embracing the life Christ has called us to live out in all the world.

As I began to read Stu Garrard's book, I also started listening to his latest album, Beatitudes, which is connected to his project. The first thing this reminded me of in terms of its scope and depth was another such project, The Jesus Record, by the late Rich Mullins. Mullins meditated on the life of Christ and from that reflection came ten songs about Jesus. Garrard focuses solely on the teachings known as the Sermon on the Mount or, as the album is entitled, the Beatitudes. Like The Jesus Record, Beatitudes is quite an accomplishment. This album is not a cheap gimmick but a decade-long project of the heart.

"What does it mean to listen? I mean to really listen, with no distractions or divisions . . . listening to listen, not to respond?"

How many other albums start with those questions?  Reiterating what Stu Garrard wrote about in Words From The Hill when he repeated what was asked of him by Rabbi Joseph, "What does it mean to listen?"

The Beatitudes were first heard by those disciples and followers on the hill listening to the Rabbi, Jesus, teaching in a way they had never heard before. This was an upside-down perspective on how the world was supposed to work. Garrard clearly listened to Christ's words in the Beatitudes and, with guest artists, transcribed them into 18 tracks on an amazing album. Working with everyone from Hillsong United to Propaganda to Amy Grant, Garrard didn't just ask them to offer their vocals to the songs but each artist contributed by helping to write the very songs they performed on. Amy Grant's "Morning Light" ties to the story of Gaile and her imprisonment on death row and later parole. 

This is an album with a clear vision. The more one listens, the more one will be drawn in by the depth of these songs that so artistically portray each of the Beatitudes in a way that is fresh and moving and makes one go back to the words of Christ's Sermon on the Mount. The songs embody the Beatitudes in a way that is unexpected, such as Audrey Assad's "I Will Be Your Home," one of the most achingly beautiful tracks on the album. Inspired by the Syrian Refugee Crisis and her being the daughter of a Syrian refugee herself, Assad's words will bring one to tears, along with the playing of Hassan Al Zoubi (on tabla drum and Oud), who is a first generation Syrian refugee. 

I also love how Garrard contrasts being a peacemaker to being a troublemaker, with another stand out track entitled "Make A Little Trouble" and features Propaganda. This song has Propaganda confrontational rapping, "I ain't got a song for your youth group to ride to. This ain't God and country. I don't worship no flags. This is fist high, Adonai."  He honestly challenges us to become acquainted with the pain of our neighbors, which will "cost you a little bit" and to "get outside your bubble and cause a little trouble." This is Christ reminding us that following him is not comfortable or safe, that it is meant to be challenging and lived out in a costly manner within a broken and hurting world. "When the world needs a miracle? Can you be the miracle?"

This is not the bland and overplayed Christian/worship music that controls the radio airwaves. It's unfortunate that albums like Beatitudes and the songs contained on it don't get radio play because we desperately need to hear its challenges, its beauty, its poetry. This is the prophets and the psalmists wrapped in one record.

"And the mercy you give away, well it comes back to stay" Garrard sings on "Oh Blessed" followed by Anthony Skinner reminding us, "If you ache for what's right, you will be satisfied."

These are songs that truly echo and embody the meaning of the teachings of Christ with the Beatitudes.  Like Rich Mullins' The Jesus Record, Stu Garrard's Beatitudes is an album to be listened to track by track, letting each song speak to and challenge the listener. This is an incredibly powerful accomplishment. 

Stu Garrard's official website:

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