Pastor to An Aspiring Idol

Even churches, it seems, have their fifteen minutes in the social media world of fame. Through the years, that usually comes from outstanding accomplishments by our dcc11b02-024a-44ad-8d38-d692770fbac3-150660_2251members who do something that ends up on the bulletin board.  In my present congregation, having been here nearly 26 years, you eventually get a little reflection of the wonderful things your members undertake, and they are many.  We have graduated people who became ministers, doctors, attorneys, and we claim eminent Baptist historian and advocate for the poor Dr. Wayne Flynt as a former member who was here in his Samford days.  We currently have the Alabama Crimson Tide stadium announcer, Tony Giles, as a member, and in Alabama that accords near divine status for half of the church. One of our oldest members, Bobbye Weaver, was a renowned jazz drummer who played with Lawrence Welk and a host of other eminent people.  One of our late members once danced with Betty Grable and worked on the Apollo space program.  I could go on.  But every church has its luminaries.

What does this “reflected glory” mean for the pastor?  Not much.  For if we take too much credit for the rich and famous, we also must own the other side of our membership.  Let’s not go there.  Give credit where it is due—their families, but more importantly, God, who is the giver of all good gifts.

So, our church is currently agog over Walker Burroughs, who is in the final eight of American Idol.  Walker has been a member of our church most of his young twenty Continue reading “Pastor to An Aspiring Idol”

Whitney Houston and the Biggest Devil

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

Whitney in happier days

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.

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.