Woodstock is 50 Years Old, And Jesus is Still Disappointing

Woodstock is 50 Years Old, And Jesus is Still Disappointing August 18, 2019

The French news on Friday alerted me to the fact that this weekend is the 50th anniversary of Woodstock—that curious cultural moment when a lot of young people converged magically on some field in upstate NY to listen to a lot of music and do a lot of drugs—at least, that’s what I divined from reading more about it on the internet. Now it has a website, of course, because everything becomes respectable in time. You can buy merch, obviously, and also, PBS has done a documentary:

In 1969, the original Woodstock Festival brought together half a million people in a celebration of peace, music and love. Fifty years later, there are anniversary celebrations of Woodstock large and small taking place throughout the country and around the world, along with new films, music, books and socially responsible products. 2019 is confirming what we all feel: the spirit of Woodstock is alive and flourishing. We are particularly excited about Barak Goodman’s documentary Woodstock: Three Days that Defined a Generation, which will be airing on PBS in August etc. etc.

In my effort to learn more about the peace, music and love (and also the socially responsible products) I found a video of a man who says he really has learned to fight back and “speak what’s on his mind” since he’s turned sixty, and that “it’s all good, it’s going to be a great event.” A few more clicks, however, led to the discovery that there will be no official Woodstock 50:

Woodstock 50 will not happen. There are other Woodstock anniversary celebrations afoot, sure. Several artists, including Santana and the Doobie Brothers, will play live at the original Woodstock site, in Bethel Woods, New York, beginning August 16. But this and other tribute events can’t call themselves Woodstock or even the Woodstock Experience, because if they do, they might just receive a cease and desist from Woodstock founder and owner of Woodstock Ventures, Michael Lang, whose efforts at his own anniversary celebration came to a litigious end earlier this year.

If you’re sad about this and toddling off to church for some kind of consoling explanation, don’t blame Jesus, no matter what he says in this morning’s gospel. When he promises (though not in today’s lections) to give a “peace that passes understanding,” I’m pretty sure it doesn’t mean that he was the central organizing principle for the Woodstock Generation. And when he says he’s come to bring division and fire, I don’t think he means a lawsuit. Nevertheless, no matter what he means, we all stand to be disappointed.

Last week I carefully skirted around the guilty waters of Jesus’ fantastical command, “Do not be anxious” which he follows up with the extraordinary question, “for which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?” ‘Well,’ I always think when I’m plodding through this particular chapter, ‘I can.’ That’s the whole point of worry and anxiety—to hold the universe together in some meaningful sense. If I didn’t care, I wouldn’t worry or be anxious. But I do care, and why doesn’t God do something? That’s not just my own peculiar cry, it is the heartfelt lament of every human generation. If God is so powerful, if Jesus is love, then why doesn’t he make it better? Why doesn’t he sort out this mess? I, and all my fellow-creatures mill around the mucky, rain-drenched field, looking for something else to smoke, wondering why we’re so uncomfortable.

If Jesus had stopped there it would have been bad enough. But the whole chapter is packed with disappointing promises. “I come to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled!” he cries, his own gathering of people looking up in astonishment. “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth?” And they and you answer, ‘Yes, of course, the peace that passes understanding, the settled rest that I so desperately need of on account of my mounting anxiety, the relief from trouble and drama and misunderstanding and estrangement. I’m pretty sure you’re called The Prince of Peace, so.’ “No,” says Jesus, “I tell you, but rather division.”

And so, in a matter of some thirty verses, Jesus disappoints the world, but especially Christians who, just like everybody else, don’t really want to have a hard time with anything. Indeed, the leading popular preachers of our time—who God, incidentally, in the book of Jeremiah, explains that he loathes utterly, and rejects—say that Jesus specially wants you to lead a peaceful, happy, comfortable, anxiety-free life, as if the command not to be anxious means that you will just settle back into your plush, beige-colored sectional to gaze at your expensive WIFI connected screen, trouble-free because that’s what you deserve. If you’re still anxious, it’s because you’re not trying hard enough. You just need a better solution. If you look for it, there it will be.

Unfortunately,  fifty years ago the thing found was Woodstock—a brief drug-addled escape from a world laden with anxiety and bitterness. Now it is social media and Instagram filters—a technological escape from a world that failed to keep its own promises to itself. In fifty years the sexual revolution turned out to be the worst, racism is still wandering around the human heart, and so many of us are so uncomfortable in our own skins that trans-genderism and trans-ableism are mainstream solutions to the ubiquitous burden of human misery.

It must be God’s fault. Why doesn’t he do something?

The trouble is that he did do something, and goes on doing it. Like leading all the Israelites out of slavery in the land of Egypt, maneuvering them in between a great wretched body of water on one side, and the army of Egypt on the other, and then telling them to stop fussing. Or promising Abraham a son, an only son, whom he will love, and then asking for that son back, so that the two of them walk in black sorrow up a lonely mountain to the certain bitter division of death. Or catching a young woman on an ordinary afternoon and turning over her whole world, dividing her from every single earthly hope she might ever have had, every relationship that brings comfort and solace—parent to child, woman in her community, and ultimately mother from son—to make her the home of the singular and terrifying thing that God would do. ‘Are you up for it?’ asks the angel, and she, unflinchingly, like Abraham with his knife, like Moses with his staff, says, ‘Yes,’ and rushes off to find the only other person in the world who will understand her.

I have frequently, though never so catastrophically, found myself so positioned. There I am, minding my own business, and I look up to discover that God has so orchestrated events, so moved me and all my circumstances, that I have nowhere reasonable to go other than to him. And that there he is, in the place I should have been, alienated, estranged, uncomfortable–the only true solution to the problem of myself.

All of these kinds of crises are so that I can be—as the writer of Hebrews explains most painfully—disciplined as a son, or rather a child in this gender-inclusive age. If you never had the water before you and the army behind you, the certainty of death placed before your eyes, if you never had the opportunity to see that you couldn’t sort it out on your own, that your radical independence was a sham, that you needed divine aid or you would certainly perish, you wouldn’t be a child of God.

Which is the thing that God does. He grabs you as you are rushing headlong into a sordid and sin-laden field, full of every kind of vice and human solution that only leads you further and further away from him, and opens your eyes to the true state of yourself. “Is not my word like fire, declares the LORD, and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?” And you are the rock, you are the thing that is shattered under the blow. All your coherence, your competence, your comfort is put to death so that you can see that what God does is your only help, your true peace.

Anyway, Woodstock fizzled out, so you might as well go to church.

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