I was going to call this blog ‘There’ll be pie in the sky, bye and bye.’
Have you heard that song? It was written as a parody of the Salvation Army hymn, ‘In the Sweet Bye and Bye’. Its composer, Joe Hill, wrote it over a hundred years ago as a justly angry reaction to the hypocrisy of religious movements and people who sought to save the soul while trampling on the lives of their poor neighbours. Or just paying lip service to their needs but never attending to them.
They were terrible times, in the aftermath of slavery in the States, when the whole world was struggling through depressions and hunger, and the parody is written in bitterness, anger and truth. And the words of the original hymn were written in innocence, naivety and truth.
Both versions, true.
Joe’s parody came to sum up the cynic’s view of religion – just about any religion. “We’ll have pie in the sky? Huh? So just shut up and wait patiently while your kids starve? ” Just as Alice complained about jam yesterday and jam tomorrow but never jam today, the phrase ‘pie in the sky became’ a metaphor for wishful thinking, childish, even infantile wishful thinking.
In the 60’s Pete Seeger came along and he revived the song, angrily, justly, again claiming that those who preached pie in the sky while doing nothing to solve the problems of their needy neighbours were the very opposite of followers of Christ. It became one of the songs of the anti-war, civil rights movement in America.
From the day of your birth it’s bread and water here on earth,
To a child of life… to a child of life
But there’ll be pie in the sky by and by when I die
and it’ll be alright it’ll be alright
There’ll be pie in the sky, by and by when I die,
and it’ll be alright it’ll be alright
Sometimes I doubt and fear
that I’ve really gained salvation here
For it’s out of sight,
for it’s out of sight
But there’ll be pie in the sky,
He said if I do his will,
there’s a promise he’d fulfill
And he’s gone now to prepare be a mansion up there
In the sky.
I don’t think that Pete Seeger wanted to damage Christianity, true Christianity, but he was disgusted by hypocrisy. He wasn’t a Dawkins character, or a Hitchens, because unlike them Seeger wasn’t eaten up with obsessive hatred for deism of any kind, he didn’t set out to demolish belief in God. In fact, he said “I tell people I don’t think God is an old white man with a long white beard and no navel; nor do I think God is an old black woman with white hair and no navel. But I think God is literally everything, because I don’t believe that something can come out of nothing. And so there’s always been something. Always is a long time.”
But he wasn’t a follower of Christ and his revival of that old cynical song became a sort of lazy man’s reason to reject the church, to never walk into a church, to never listen to a message or to open the Bible. Poor Pete, poor Joe, without meaning to they hit on a hard truth that damaged faith, and that hard truth was that the church, the established version of the church, has grown inward looking, pseudo pious and negligent.
I thought about ‘pie in the sky’ yesterday at church. Our little Baptist church here in West Wales is setting up a CAP ministry. That’s Christians Against Poverty. And as we watched a short video made by a woman who had been freed from crippling, life destroying debt, by the simple intervention and guidance of non-judgmental and practical people, I felt tears pricking my eyes. I know what it is to hear the post arrive and dread going down to pick it up. I know what it is to hide final demands under the cutlery tray so that my husband won’t see them and be upset. I know what it is to dread the next knock on the door. Before I started writing, when we were fresh back from Canada and South Africa, we were as broke as broke could be. Neither of us had work, we had a 6 year old daughter, a council house with a kitchen table and two stacking chairs and one old armchair, and two beds. That was it. And yet the bills came in and came in and came in. Electricity, gas, water, rent… it damn near broke us.
Now, all around us, there are people in debt and fear and confusion. How can we preach pie in the sky to them without reaching out to help them up? How can we tell them about heaven if we are happy to leave them rotting in hell? We can’t, my chumlets. Put yer money where yer mouth is, I say!
And that’s what CAP does. Energy, devotion, simple practical help and befriending are poured out of the church and into the lives of people who are drowning in debt. In a year or two, or three or four, they will be debt free. And then they can start again, using the tools that CAP has given them.
That’s the church I want to belong to. That’s bringing the love of Jesus to the lost.
James 2:14. What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?
As a sort of PS: Johnny Cash also sang ‘Pie In The Sky’ but he sang it as a spiritual. And it works, on both levels. That’s what you call honest writing.