Stories and tales from a guitar-picking writer, theologian, speaker, blogger and entertainer. From small town quirks to the bizarre realities of family, whacky church life and slightly damaged kinfolk, insights from a reluctant son of the South takes you along. Never know where it’ll end up but it’s sure to be worth the trip.
Watched “Moneyball” Sunday night. I liked it. It surprised me. I wasn’t sure that it could be faithfully made into a film worth watching, but, as usual, I know little about the art of that. Brad Pitt is a great actor, all of the fluff of paparrazinsanity aside, and he hit a homer again. It’s an interesting story about baseball, change, and the resistance to new things that always comes. It doesn’t end with exploding lights, a la, “The Natural,” but with the gentle irony that success leads Billy Bean to a fateful choice between one vision of “success” and family–even though his is broken.
I was in the mood to think about all of that, since my granddaughter just turned a year old this weekend. She has changed our lives and our priorities. I care much less about a great many things. I declined an opportunity to be part of a panel on religious responses to immigration law in Alabama, a topic I feel strongly about, but I’m going to see that little girl for a brief visit, and, as I explained to friends, this is even more important than securing the borders of the United States.
Tony Giles, a friend who works in financial services, said yesterday that he is hopeful about the economy, even if worried, because, “Prosperity always climbs a wall of worry.” His idea is that as long as we are worried about our world, there is still a chance it can get better. I like that. Jesus told us not to be anxious, which is one of the strangest and hardest of all of his sayings, for what else motivates humans beyond anxiety? I know there is a way to not react to anxiety without eliminating it, and that is the best I can do.
Don’t worry about my granddaughter? Might as well tell me to quit breathing. I will worry about, at, and just plain worry this world until it provides her the kind of planet little children deserve. If I had continued down midlife without her, I might have been able to unwind myself from caring a little more, retire, play golf and croak. But I can’t. It matters too much now.
Thing is, I don’t mind minding so much. She’s worth it. If a smile can make a person feel that good, you can cruise on it all day long. The other day, our band, during practice, recorded “You Are My Sunshine” for my baby, recorded on an iPhone. (click to play it). Grandparenting will make a fool out of you–I’ll testify. One that will keep caring, no matter how bad they say it is. God send us some more fools. We might balance some budgets, stop a lot of stupid wars, work harder, save more, and give our egos a rest. All you need is one baby.
Jeremy Lin and the Knicks finally lost a game. Look for some of the “Linsanity” to fade. Expect a second wave of rumLination to follow, as the bandwagon backs over the kid from Harvard. I don’t even watch the NBA anymore, and
basketball was my sport. I don’t know what it was, but after Jordan, Magic and Larry and their supporting casts went away, it sometimes seemed like the NBA turned into the athletic version of the Kardashians. LeBron is still hated for leaving Cleveland. Truth is, if the NBA game has changed a lot in recent years, so have games in general.
We can recite the litany of why’s:
Win no matter what.
It’s about the money, the mansions, the bling and the babes, no matter what you say.
Shame has lost its identity in our world—no publicity is the only shameful state.
Tradition, love of the game, team: why do they sound “quaint”?
If you want an indicator, consider that staying for your junior year in college is considered “noble”. Since when did education become a liability and being rich a necessity?
Maybe that’s why “March madness,” the NCAA’s annual “survival of the fittest” is so much more attractive to me than the NBA. I was a high school basketball player. I wasn’t great, just okay. Co-captain of my high school team as a senior and all that. But years after I graduated, I kept playing—intermural in college, even playing with the high school kids as a pastor until my joints wore out. All because there was something FUN about the physical test of shooting, dribbling, passing, playing. Most of all, trying to win together.
I like Jeremy Lin. Nothing to do with being “Asian” (why do we always go there?), Harvard-educated (okay, he can get a job when he retires), third-string sub who makes good, but just because he reminds me of a time in my life when I’d rather shoot hoops in forty degree weather than play guitar—and that was saying something.
There are still plenty of great NBA players and people who are about winning. Shaq, Tim Duncan, last year’s Mavs and the largely unheralded bench guys who lay it on the line. But fame and fortune have crowded “team” into a tie for third at best. Watching an NBA game just ain’t Lakers-Celtics in the 80s. Where are you, Bill Russell, Magic, Larry? And maybe today’s games just reflect us in general.
So I like Jeremy Lin. Nothing to do with Asia, Harvard or world peace. Linsation is just about doing your best. Call it excelLINce—character, quality, and love of the game. He’s an amateur (from the Latin word for “love,” thus one who does something purely for the love of it) in a game long ruined by money. Ultimately, if the human soul is to survive, there has to be something in us that we do for the sheer pleasure and value of doing it and the joy of watching.
Hey, kid, pick yourself up. You’re gonna lose now and then. Get ‘em tomorrow.
I was recently in a meeting that included someone who moved here from outside the United States. He and his wife had been here about 10 years. At the end of our meeting as we were talking about various issues, he made an interesting observation. He said “it has been curious for us to see that Americans seem to always need an enemy.” Of course, many Americans I know would cheerfully say, “Then get out!”
I thought it was an insight worth thinking about. Not only do we always seem to need an enemy, it seems that at times if don’t have one we create one. I would not even venture to explain this, not being either a sociologist or an historian, but as a longtime observer of human nature from down below, it rings true. Maybe that competitive spirit that has so many good sides also has some really dark ones.
I am re-watching the Civil War series by Ken Burns. It is powerful, wrenching, and full of the irony that continues to live through our life together. We are still powerfully defined by our most violent conflict. Our nation survived a time when the enemies of our nation were our fellow citizens. As I heard historians talk about that time, I recognized a lot of rancorous conversations we continue to have. The more things change…
Enemies are inevitable in life, if King David is any indication. You aren’t paranoid if they’re really after you. Someone quoted Zora Neal Hurston to me one day that she is supposed to have said at the end of her life, “I have made me some GOOD enemies.” If you don’t do anything and never really live, you won’t have opposition. It took a while in the ministry, but I have come to be thankful for opposition’s role in calling forth the goodness in us.
Still, enemies are expensive—they cost us energy, time and sometimes the best as we try to abide them. They can turn us into their twin if we aren’t careful. Hating ‘em seems, at the front end, quicker.
So loving them seems like a tremendous waste of time and resources. Jesus’ invitation to love our enemies and pray for persecutors seemed to Nietsche a sign of profound weakness, a weakness that made Christianity the morality of slaves born of resentment rather than power and strength. Given the trillions of dollars here and there that our enemies cost us, it would seem that Jesus’ invitation to figure out ways to not always have so many of them is not only high-minded. It might make more practical sense than first appears.
That this plays out in my world, the world of religion, does not need stating. Nobody is worse than religionists at creating demons to cast out. If we would only cast out the ones that are actually there rather than the ones we fabricate from fear and distrust, life would be busy enough. A friend of mine used to say, “If it isn’t termites, its piss-ants.” So we are tempted to spend our lives rooting out spiritual termites and guarding against a sky that is always about to fall.
I continue to marvel at this time of my life at the wonder that we will accept the sacrificial death of Jesus so enthusiastically without also taking seriously the things that He said. I don’t think this was starry-eyed optimism. I think Jesus was brutally real. The cost of hating is too high. The price of annihilating our enemies is more than just nuclear bombs, massive armies and nation-destroying entanglements (though that is pretty costly on its own). We also have to ask, “Is the price to ourselves really worth it? “
“What will a man do if he gains the whole world and loses hisown soul,” Jesus said. Oras another quote from Zora Neal Hurston goes, “Love makes your soul crawl out from its hiding place.” Far as I’m concerned, the cost of hate is way too high in this economy. At the very least, we could try to balance the budget.
Whitney Houston made your heart soar with that magnificent voice. You kept hoping for her—so lovely, so achingly vulnerable, so fragile. “Come on back, girl,” you hoped. In the end, she didn’t. There will be moralizing—drugs, bad choices, all the rest. But such times are wrong for moral lessons. There is a time to criticize, and a time to refrain from criticizing. A time to learn a lesson, and a time to let the dead alone and mourn.
The story of Whitney Houston makes me think how hard it is to care for one’s own soul when there are so many other agendas vying for us.
Diane Sawyer recounted on the news last evening about that famous interview in 2002, when there was so much speculation about how thin she was and wondering about her condition.
Sawyer:If you had to name the devil for you, the biggest devil among them?
Houston: That would be me. It’s my deciding, it’s my heart, it’s what I want. And what I don’t want. Nobody makes me
do anything I don’t want to do. It’s my decision. So the biggest devil is me. I’m either my best friend or my worst enemy. And that’s how I have to deal with it.
I respect her right to assess her own life. But to take it a little deeper, I would add that it is important to understand what it means to genuinely accept the responsibility to care for oneself. If that sounds easy to do, it is not. We are stewards of our lives. A friend of mine told me of a seminary teacher colleague who used to say, “The first spiritual law is this: God loves you, and everyone has a plan for your life.”
Whitney said on the interview played on the news that the most terrible sound in the world is the sound of 10,000 disappointed fans. That in my opinion is the demonic temptation of being an entertainer or for anyone who works with people on a large scale. Preachers know: one or two venomous critics can cancel 100 who are blessed by us—if we give them that power.
But why would we? And then there is that restlessness in oneself. I asked an ambitious classmate of mine, who was never satisfied that the current church he was in was not a “good fit” for him, “How many people will it take to tell you how wonderful you are before you can be happy?” That’s the question you have to answer before you can do this work. That was three churches ago for him. Hope he finally found the grass above the septic tank.
A pastor friend put it this way wants: “I’m not bothered by what the critics said nearly so much I am bothered that I let it bother me.” THAT is the place where the devil does his best work.
Rest in peace, Whitney. Sing with the angels, and fear the critics no more. In heaven, every judgment heals and purges, and there are no more tears or pain, for the former things have passed away.
The website “Sightings” put out an interesting piece this week. Thanks to my good friend and blog reader Lamon Brown for forwarding this to me. It is a piece on the music of Adam Arcuragi. I was unfamiliar with Arcuragi, but immediately was drawn to go read the piece and the NPR interview of Arcuragi. His album Like a Fire that Consumes All Before It, writes M. Cooper Harriss
…has raised interest in the popular-musical category of “Death Gospel,” a metaphysically attuned variety of the Americana genre named by Arcuragi. Death Gospel is not sonically related to “Death Metal” (a heavier
Heavy Metal music); nor is it overtly “gospel” music. Arcuragi describes it in a recent Huffington Post interview as “anything that sees the inevitability of death as a reason to celebrate the special wonder that is being alive and sentient. That’s the hope with the songs. . . . It is exciting that we can reflect upon it as intelligent life and do something to make that wonder manifest.” Arcuragi’s interview attributes little theological import to the gospel portion of his category, noting instead his love of 2/2 time and pointing to a number of historical antecedents such as Claude Ely and Johnny Cash, and more recent–and some might say more “secular”–acts including Neko Case and the Flaming Lips.
I was immediately drawn to this for a couple of reasons. First, because in my work as a minister, I am around death and dying on almost a weekly basis. I’m guessing my funerals are now in the hundreds over 32 years of work. I have buried old people, babies and everyone in between. Suicides, cancer, tragedies, fires, drowning, car wrecks, sweet release from Alzheimers, folks whose loved ones and friends were all gone, and those who left too soon. On only a few occasions did I bury people no one was sad to see go. One funeral prompted a member to come, “Just to see what you were going to say about him, Preacher.”
Yet in a recent gathering of ministers when I asked the question, “If you quit your job now, what would you miss most?” children and funerals were at the top of everyone’s list. Way ahead of committees, raising money, and listening to people comment on our appearance every Sunday. We all understood—there is something holy about death and the grave. It takes us to an edge of life that paradoxically renders it precious and intoxicating. All the people in one’s life, gathered together, all the stories and sadness, food and laughter in one place. Everything stops for a few days, no matter how “busy” we are, it’s not too busy for this.
Second, it is intriguing because I have, oddly, found myself writing about death a lot in songs. I have one about a man remembering the love of his life just after she has died, another about a man named “Michael” who faces death from cancer, a song I wrote in college, but added a bittersweet fourth verse years later. I have one called, “Hole in the Ground” that is so morbid I have never performed it, and another called, “Farewell, Baby Girl,” about an anonymous newborn found floating in the Chattahoochie River when I pastored in South Georgia. While some of it is fictitious, the basic story is real—a tiny infant, drowned by her parents, shortly after birth. I donated my services to bury the child in a pauper’s area where babies were buried in our local cemetery called, “Babyland.” What resulted was a song so somber that my wife never likes to hear it performed. I’ve only done it once.
I had a great time in concert last night at the Moonlight on the Mountain venue, appearing with Lynn Adler and Lindy Hearne. Afterwards I found myself engaged into two intriguing conversations. One was with a fellow musician who is a Christian and an English teacher, and we had a fairly substantial conversation about suffering .
I did a little more milling around and found myself standing at the car talking with another new friend about science, evolution and the possibility of real faith. My acquaintance commented that the unreality of his childhood religion, its failure to look at its own shortcomings, made faith quite hard.
Acoustic music fans are serious about their music. I continually find the most profound conversations that happen in that place, where artists write gritty, funny and sometimes raw takes on life. That all of this happened at the end of a musical performance in which I did not do any overtly Christian songs is rather remarkable. It does make me wonder if the guaranteed happy praise and triumphalism of too much Christian music is rooted in a shallow theology underneath that cannot paint life with much reality because it renders death as unreal.
We are actually more comfortable with the denial of death. After all, when one of the most powerful commendations of many so-called “different kind of churches” is their claim that they make church fun, what in the world is that? And then we go and hear far more difficult truths from our secular songwriters, who often are actually taking all these things seriously. Strange.
I started singing in the Jesus movement in one of the early youth choirs. I remember one song in a musical called, “Life,” by Otis Skillings, when early contemporary Christian writers were cranking out material for a hungry marketplace of churches. I remember very little about the musical. I loved singing. I only remember one line, though: “LIFE, pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa.” It sounded musically like elevator music. Even then I thought, “This is pretty shabby.” True art tells truth, it doesn’t gloss over it or make it more palatable with shortcuts through the hard places. Tell the truth—onto every cheek some tears must fall. And then…REAL life can break through. I have another song that puts it this way, “Life is for real.” Without death, you never know.