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Death Grief and Hope: Songs for the Shadows (2)

So, then, to continue from my last post, If we are not to grieve as those who have no hope, and not to hope as those who have no grief, then only one conclusion is left to us.  We should grieve as people of hopeso what does that mean?

Here is where grace enters in powerfully.  “Grieving as people of hope” means that God’s grace is in the picture with us as we sorrow in life.  Grace does not magically take away our pain or make it hunky-dory wonderful.  I have heard preachers stand up and talk about heaven and hope in a glib and superficial silliness that emotionally slaps the faces of the grieving ones sitting in front of him or her.  If it gives them a moment’s comfort, the dark shadow will soon come.  If Jesus wept over Lazarus, there is something important in it for us as well. Whatever we believe about the life to come, it is always in faith, in part, clouded by the contrast between the only reality we know with some certainty against a promise that is yet to be.

Paul helps us in a second passage from the New Testament. In 2 Corinthians 4:7-9 he wrote, “But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; s_s_hopestruck down, but not destroyed; Afflicted but not crushed.”

  1. Perplexed but not driven to despair
  2. Persecuted but not forsaken
  3. Struck down but not destroyed

What sustains us in life is not to escape affliction, questions, persecution and suffering.  It is being rooted in the life that transcends it. This means accepting

  1. The reality of death—as well as the truthfulness of grace. It not only does not avoid the worst features of human life, it enters into them.  Grace is seeing the worst about us and still loving us. I once wrote a song to try to express the anguish of this, called,
  2. The necessity of grief— Grief is part of life just as death is on its path. If we are to imbibe life as a gift, we have also to taste its bittersweet transience.  In the nineteenth century, Ray Palmer wrote the great hymn, “My Faith Looks Up to Thee,” and penned these wonderful words:

When ends life’s transient dream,
When death’s cold sullen stream shall o’er me roll;
Blest Savior, then in love, fear and distrust remove;
O bear me safe above, a ransomed soul!

I have written about 110 songs at this point, bits and fragments of maybe 250 more, but looking over them, I realize how much time grieving has occupied in my mind. I am sure much of this has to do with my vocation–I cannot avoid walking through the valley of someone else’s shadow weekly–but I am also impressed with the massive  energy spent on avoiding the subject in our culture–and the price we pay for it. One song on this subject for today, “Trying to Remember” Read the rest of this entry

Death Grief and Hope: Songs for the Shadows

  We must face our losses.  Courage does not spare us from them. 

Courage’s work begins at the other end of honest acknowledgement.

          Grief can encompass many parts of life, not merely death.  It is, in many ways, our most universal experience.  It can be the death of dreams, grief of a way of life that ends, the end of a relationship, leaving home, moving to another town, divorce, a broken friendship.  The question is, “What are we to do with it?”

I can’t speak for people who have no faith in God, but I will admit that having faith in God doesn’t dispose of grief. It is just the same, just as overwhelming, the same disbelief followed by disintegration and despair and a long struggle to put life together again.

One verse of scripture I have found meaningful is  this one:

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.   1 Thess. 4:13

 I take great comfort that it does not say, “Don’t grieve, you’re a Christian,” but I have heard many a well-meaning minister stand up and talk about death like it was a flu shot. Death is real, it is irreversible, it is disheartening. I don’t think dismissing reality is a good idea. It has a way of showing up again with reinforcements.

The denial of death is, as Ernest Becker said, the most pervasive of human failings, and the most futile. The Apostle Paul said, very intentionally, that we should not “grieve as those who have no hope.” Instead, I would assume, we should grieve as people who DO have hope. Read the rest of this entry

“The Man I Didn’t Kill” and Paying Attention

In 2008 I wrote a song called “The Man I Didn’t Kill.”  The story of the song is pretty simple in a way.  I get song ideas all the time just from observations of life.  I never mind a drive to the hospital or the million other tasks I have to do in my work as a minister.  It is an ocean of songwriting material, because it’s simply life experience.  I really admire the great songwriters who live in Nashville, sit in an office all day and crank out lyrics.  I’m not sure I’m that imaginative.

Gary Nancy Greg

My ideas come from life.  I walk through, listening to people in trouble, solving problems, managing a congregation, dealing with budgets, praying for the sick.  All along, though, the artist in my brain tries to pay attention.  I’m not looking for songs, but I’m paying attention for things that interest me. Kate Campbell talked a lot about being curious—noting things you care about and trying to understand why.

So songs, or at least ideas, pop up everywhere.  Back about 2008 or 2009, I wrote a song that ended up on my cd “Overload of Bad News Blues.”  It’s called, “The Man I Didn’t Kill.”  It came from a close call.  One day a pedestrian walked out in front of me without looking.  I was watching him, so I hit the breaks and, for the first time, he saw me.  Small bit of life. Read the rest of this entry

Thou Shalt Love Thy Bandmates

Anyway, riding in a van for a week turned us from “Friends

and Brothers” to angry inmates who couldn’t wait to bust out.

Fifteen Years.  That’s how long Shades Mountain Air has been together, at least the core of Greg and Nancy Womble, Gary Furr, and Don Wendorf.  We have spent a couple hours a week most of that fifteen years weekly at Greg and Nancy’s house, practicing, horsing around, composing, arranging, learning and growing from one another.  We’ve only had one personnel change in all that time–Don’s son, Paul, our outstanding fiddle player, left us to move on with wife, kids, career, to Texas, and so, we were four again for a while, then found Melanie Rodgers.  Mel has added dynamic new joy to our sound, and is now a part of our 15th Anniversary Live Album that is now available.     (Go to the website store for our new CD click here!)

Image

Shades Mountain Air at Moonlight, 2013

The album sounds great!  We hired Fred Miller of Knodding Off Music to record and engineer our live concert.  Fred did a fantastic job and we are so happy with the result.  He captured our live sound and energy.  It sounds like us!  There is NOTHING like live music, and though it’s fun to be in a studio and monkey around with something until you get it “perfect”, there is a corresponding loss of that spark that performers-audience and a venue provide.  We did it at our favorite gig–Moonlight On the Mountain in Bluff Park in Hoover, Alabama, with Keith Harrelson, as always, handling lights and sound.

I say all this because Shades Mountain Air is more than a band.  We have become family together.  We love playing together, singing, creating, whether anyone is listening or not.  Greg and Nancy’s kids grew up having to hear us every week in their house. We have been through life crises, griefs, and changes Read the rest of this entry

Pat Terry and the Eye of the Artist

 If we learn to look at life with the eyes of the artist, we

will see an entire universe that is “a gift of mercy.”

Workshop

Pat pondering how to help a workshop participants song

It’s odd that a musical preacher who writes songs, cut his teeth and got called to ministry during the Jesus Movement of the 1970s would have met Pat Terry so late in life, but that’s the way life winds sometimes.  I had heard of the Pat Terry group back when he was starting out—Pat is just a bit older than me.  I heard his songs, but my musical journey got put on hold for a long time as marriage and children and years in graduate education and pastoral ministry took me in different directions.  I continued listening to music and playing and singing, sometimes in church and mostly by myself for my own pleasure.

Pat Terry, meanwhile, was on a journey of his own, too.  After many years, first in the very spontaneous and joyful Jesus Movement musical world, and then for a while in the increasingly industry-captivated contemporary Christian musical world, he moved on.  He had a good, long run as a commercial songwriter in Nashville, with a string of songs for many well-known artists like John Anderson, Travis Tritt, Kenny Chesney, Alan Jackson, Tanya Tucker and the Oak Ridge Boys.  He learned the Nashville craft and all the while continuing his own inner journey of writing from the heart.

So it was that a few years ago, Greg Womble, my friend and bandmate who plays the banjo publicly, and I, who play it out of earshot but love it, went to Atlanta to Read the rest of this entry

“The Blind Side” Gets Blindsided

We prefer a safe mediocrity to a persuasive truth telling.

Baptist news wires recently carried the story about a successful protest by a Baptist preacher to remove a movie from Lifeway stores.  The movie is “The Blind Side,” starring Sandra Bullock.  It was based on the book by the same name by Michael Lewis, who also wrote, Liar’s Poker and Moneyball.

Michael Lewis

I happened to meet Michael Lewis years ago when he was writing the book, and he told me he was working on a “really interesting story.”  It was about a young man from the meanest streets of Memphis who was adopted by a family and placed in a white private Christian school.  The story is well known by now—Michael Oher went on to be a football star at the University of Mississippi and now plays for the Baltimore Ravens.

I bought and read the book when it came out, and went to see the film.  Football movies are pretty well required viewing in Alabama.  So I was more than amused with all the other moral problems at the moment—debt, wars, racism, the disintegration of families, and do I need to go on?—that a PG-13 movie could cause such an uproar.  According to the report,

LifeWay Christian Stores will no longer sell videos of “The Blind Side” after a Florida pastor proposed a resolution for next week’s Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting protesting the sale of a PG-13 movie that contains profanity and a racial slur…[the stores decided to] pull the movie, an inspirational film starring Sandra Bullock that tells the true story of a white Christian family that adopted a homeless black teenager who went on to play in the NFL, to avoid controversy at the June 19-20 SBC annual meeting in New Orleans.  [The pastor who brought the resolution] said there is much about the film to be commended, but there is no place in a Christian bookstore for a movie that includes explicit language that includes taking God’s name in vain.

I get it.  It’s Baptist to speak your mind.  I know language has become debased and misused.  And, it’s the right of any store and its owners to sell or not sell what it wishes.  Still, it stirred a few thoughts about the mostly non-existent tie between Christians, especially evangelical ones, and the world of the arts.  And why fewer people want to be Baptists.

Walter Brueggemann once said that in the book of Leviticus, which for some odd reason has become a moral center for a lot of people today, there is an emphasis on holiness as “purity.”  There are other forms of holiness in scripture—moral and ethical righteousness, for one, that sometimes comes into conflict with the notion of purity.  Jesus encountered this among the Pharisees, who could not do the deeper right things for fear of disturbing their own ethic of remaining personally removed from what might compromise, taint and violate their ethic of purification holiness.

I have thought a lot about Brueggemann’s distinction since I first read it.  Somehow, a fully biblical notion requires more than avoiding “impurities.”  Yet purity is important.  An obsession seems to lead always to a rather puny moral energy that dispirits more than it inspires.  Inevitably, it ends up with an account of morality that is always boycotting, removing itself from sinners and sin, and circling the wagons.

Read the rest of this entry

The Artist and the Editor

There is a time for the Artist and a time for the Editor

The Editor worries about the audience, sales and attracting attention to the finished product

The Artist tries to listen to the deep, deep truth within, unfiltered and unfettered

The Editor wants it to be the best it can be and to have a chance to be heard.

The Artist wants the work to be true to what it was the first time she heard it

The Editor is outside the Artists heart and mind and often doesn’t “get” the artist’s vision

The Artist cannot leave himself and struggles to know how it will connect to others and sometimes what makes sense to the Artist doesn’t make sense to anyone else

The Editor is finally responsible to the publisher and the audience

The Artist is finally responsible to his Judge and Maker and himself and his art

The Editor respects the artist, may even be one herself, so it is not about bad and good.

The Artist respects the Editor, and understands that it is not just about money or pleasing others.  It is also about belonging to the community and the world and being heard

Sometimes they clash and tears are shed.

The Artist’s matters of conscience can turn into stubbornness and pride

The Editor’s insistence on practicality, marketability and being liked by large numbers of people can mask a desire to please and the willingness to sacrifice integrity for success.  They both labor with the burden of ego and control.

They always have to talk and pray about it and listen to each other for the best thing to happen, even when the Editor and the author live inside one person.

“Death Gospel,” Art and Life

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

Adam Arcuragi

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.

Don Wendorf and I last night at the Moonlight photo by Keith Harrelson

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.

CLICK HERE to listen to “Farewell, Baby Girl”

Thank You, Ella Jones: Churches, the Arts and Why They Matter

I nearly always prefer the hidden, obscure, local and unnoticed to the Big Stuff.  Celebrity…zzz…even small pond big fish I find relatively uninteresting.  It’s just all so predictable and often pompous.  When I opened today’s Birmingham News, the top of the front page, as usual, was about Alabama and Auburn football, which is as always.  You just have to understand that in Alabama, I would fully expect to see this on a front page:

TIDE LANDS FOUR FIVE STAR RECRUITS

AUBURN HOPES NEW DEFENSIVE COACH WILL “TURN THE TIDE”

NUCLEAR WAR PROBABLE IN NEXT FEW DAYS (Section B)

GOD SAYS ARMAGEDDON IS AT HAND

MARTIANS LAND ON EARTH

COACH SABAN COMMENTS ON NEW RECRUITS: “Next year looks bright,” Coach says at local Walmart.

CURE FOUND FOR CANCER (see G17)

As Bruce Hornsby says, just the way it is.  But one little hidden gem was on page one, nestled among the two stories on football on the masthead and grim news about our latest number one, being the largest county default in American history, was a story about a woman who played the organ in her church for seventy-five years.  Ella Jones has played since she was 12 years old, and still going strong at her church in a nearby town called Graysville.

Over the past year, while reading biographies of Elvis Presly, Sam Phillips, Hank Williams, and a host of other Alabamians, it was striking to see how powerful church music was in forming both their artistry and their musical imaginations.  It took me back to all the little churches of my childhood, some great and some very, very small, but they all had a couple things in common.   First, they were all Baptist churches, the Southern variety.  As I heard people

Birmingham News/picture by Jeff Roberts

say, “We were often more Southern than Baptist and more Baptist than Christian.”  Who else would move to Wisconsin and plant a Southern Baptist Church because they didn’t have one?  We did when I was in the sixth grade.  Two families, mine and another, with about eight kids between us, launched a little church that is still there today.

Churches, for a long time, offered graded choirs, the only choirs I ever sang in, most of the musical training I received, and gave me most of the opportunities to sing in front of people regularly.  Not to mention a vast collective memory of hymns.

If you knew how many of the great singers and performers in American entertainment began in the church and around gospel music, it would stagger the reader.  Aretha Franklin?  Started in church.  I could go on but why?  The entire early canon of country music was transmitted—and claimed for credit—by the Carter Family, but their musical teeth and a good bit of that canon came from the churches.

I am grateful for it all—anthems, quartets, homely sings around the piano on Sunday night.  A way of life is disappearing.  Church looks a lot like karaoke in too many places to me.  But old hymns still take me back to a different time when we sang and played a lot.  I am glad for it.

The German pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was martyred by Hitler for trying to overthrow the Nazis, came to New York and taught at Union Seminary before returning to die at Flossenburg.  While here, he attended the Abyssinian Baptist Church where Adam Clayton Powell was pastor.  He was mesmerized by the gospel singing and took albums back with him of the spirituals.  He said that there, for the first time, religion changed for him from “phraseology to reality.”  Don’t tell me the arts don’t matter.

It is a truism that when we need the arts the most we usually defund them, downsize them and de-emphasize them.  When do you need songs more than during a Dustbowl, a Depression or a Great Recession?  I know we need engineers and mathematicians and psychiatrists.  But Lord Help us if none of ‘em can sing.  Humorless and tone-deaf people create a lot of the misery in this world. So, a salute to the Ella Jones’ of the world for keeping us alive and giving yourselves to make us all better.

Some of those people who taught me how to sing, “Jesus wants me for a sunbeam” and “Jesus loves the little children” are long gone.  But somewhere down in us, it is remembered after most of the sermons have turned back into empty space.  It matters.

Elvis–tragic hero, addict, mystic

Just finished a bio of Elvis Presley I picked up a few years back and had sitting on my shelf by novelist Bobbie Ann Mason.  Elvis is one of those figures whose presence is culturally ubiquitous, so the danger is greater that we think we “know” him, only to discover that we do not know this person at all.

I felt the sadness that so many musical biographies have evoked in me in recent years—bios of Johnny Cash, Bill Monroe, the Carter family, Eric Clapton, the great blues singers and Hank Williams.  One common thread in this tapestry is the lonely road of fame.  No one knew this more than the King.

If Hank Williams was the first true country superstar, Elvis rocketed down a road no one had ever seen before. Mason’s telling is masterful, even if the story is familiar.  What was new to me was all the dabbling in Christianity and Eastern religion Elvis did, even as he descended into the world of drugs.  If he was the true king of Rock and Roll, he was also the archetype of addictive splitting off into separate selves, isolation from loved ones, and disconnection from life.

At the same time I was reading the Elvis bio, I was also working through The Addictive Personality by Craig Nakken.  He quotes a plaque on a friend’s wall that says, “Fooling people is serious business, but when you fool yourself, it is fatal.”  Elvis’ story is one of a young man whose musical genius could not be suppressed, but whose spiritual and emotional life and growth were assaulted from every angle in the process.  He lived in a prison of impossible expectations, wealth and adoration.  He made the great mistake of addiction: confusing intensity of experience with emotional intimacy.

I love Elvis.  He met the Beatles on my eleventh birthday, August 27, 1965, for the first time, a symbolic joining of the two great musical rivers of my boyhood.  It was a disastrous meeting, one that was filled with misunderstanding and misinterpretation.  They came to offer him homage and he became threatened by it.  Rather than the joyful intersectionElvis between “Colonel” Parker and Ed Sullivanthat might have happened the two roads diverged instead.  Elvis spiraled deeper into isolation in the coming years,  into paranoia and bizarre behavior, drugs, control by the manipulative Colonel Parker,  the succession of vapid and empty movies,  and the banality of Vegas.  But ultimately it is Elvis himself who sat so uneasy on the throne he was handed so early in life.  He once described himself as “hanging on my own cross.”

Another book I have read in recent months, is Elaine Heath’s The Mystic Way of Evangelism.  In it, she describes the three classical stages of the life of prayer—Purgation, Illumination, and Union with God.  Purgation is a dark and terrible place, but also a holy one.  It is a time in which the pilgrim often falls into dryness, spiritual uselessness, and darkness.  Yet it is also the very place out of which great newness comes.  When Elvis came to his darkest times, they were also the moments that offered the possibility of new and different life, had he somehow been able to turn away from the monstrosity of fame.

I was struck by the interesting intersection of these three books—Elvis, the secular child of the South, disconnected from all real relationship and the people who would love him by the fame and fortune that came with his talent, the addict who destroyed himself in the process of expressing the passion in his soul, and the seeker who sought, if only now and then, to cry out against the commercialization and worship that ultimately pulled him into chaos.  He read books on religion, seeking to discover some deeper place in his life, and to draw the spiritual core of his early life into his music and thought.

Finally, the forces who made money from him and rode the train of fortune on his back were too great for Elvis.  Even worse, Elvis’ own craving for acceptance and love from the world without was greater than the fragile quest for peace could withstand.  Yet in his comebacks the “voice” that was authentically emerged again and again.  A cry, “Listen.  I have something to say.”

Tragic hero, addict, mystic.  What burst through that boy in Sun studios when he sang,  that voice and passion that connected so deeply and bridged segregated musical worlds, still reminds us—finding our own voice is a painful, intense, risky business.  It is life and death, and best undertaken with spiritual roots and a few dependable guides along with us.   I kept wishing that someone close to the King had been able to tell him the truth and that he had listened.  We lost him too soon.