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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

Standing Next to Death

I have not posted here in a month.  I took the month of January off in a period of “lying fallow,” if someone with as many hats as I wear can ever really “lie fallow.”  Truth is, though, I ;have been learning to stop now and then, reassess and see how we’re all doing.

gravesideMostly in this month I’ve been working hard.  The church where I am Pastor had six deaths in about three weeks.  All were  friends (and that is becoming the most common description of who I funeralize now, since my 20th anniversary is approaching) and two near my age were among that group.  One, Steve Blackwelder, was an ex-Marine.  I mean a REAL Marine, a tunnel rat in Viet Nam who saw death up close and personal.  Yet in ;the life after that, while he suffered and struggled in many ways, he lived out kindness and care for others in every way that he could.  He collected Beatles ties, and all the pallbearers and my associate Pastor wore one of Steve’s to the service.  The next Sunday, I told the church about Steve coming over when I moved in in 1993 to fix some plumbing issues and then setting my backyard on fire by accident when he flicked a finished—but not extinguished—cigarette through the fence.  We put it out, and now it was a laugh for us.

Then there was Bob Daily.  He was a former deacon, Sunday School teacher, you name it volunteer, the guy who went to welcome anyone to the church with a cold call.  He was my insurance agent and I ate breakfast with him weekly for 20 years, so pardon me for feeling a little vulnerable at the moment.  Read the rest of this entry

“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”

Irene, Goodnight…

For a change, Alabamians were watching anxiously for everyone else’s safety as Irene ripped up the Eastern seaboard.  Alabamians are used to hunkering down in our safe places with flashlights and batteries, bottled water and a weather radio, waiting for the all clear.  So we waited this time, but the memories of April were still with us.  I have a daughter in New York, so I appreciated Mayor Bloomberg’s caution.

There is a delicious sweetness in hunkering in the dark during a storm.  Routine stops, you call and gather everyone who matters most to you and let go of a frightful number of things that seem, normally, indispensable.  So, for a moment, flights grounded, schools closed, ballgames stop, traffic ceases, the world grows still as nature roars its terrible beauty and we wait.  It is delicious and sweet because the ache for life is powerful.  Anxiety, just enough to give an edge, focused toward listening and being ready. Tomorrow, when the storm passes, not only will we have the euphoria of having survived, but we will also probably see the most beautiful weather in months.  We are alive, and it feels good.  We have remembered for a moment who matters to us, and what doesn’t matter at all, and it is clear to us.

Storm names are the oddest thing to me.  Will I one day kneel in terror as “Hurricane Howard” or “Tropical Storm Myrtle Mae” bear down on me?  Weird.  We don’t name the tornadoes.  They come too quickly and they’re gone.  We only give them terrifying numbers:  F4 or F3, as though they were aliens dropped on the earth to destroy us.  Life and death, so close that we can think about it, not just abstractly.

So, glad it’s over.  But it drove me to somber singing this weekend.  Thought about old Leadbelly’s song, “Good Night Irene” when some man had painted a hasty sign he nailed to his outer banks property, “GOOD NIGHT, IRENE.”  Good night, indeed.  And goodbye.  We dodged death once more.  We are a little more alive, although some didn’t make it.  Count our blessings, clean up, and move on.

Had a little time this afternoon, so I recorded “Good Night Irene,” and remembered what a sad and tragic song it really is.  It’s odd to see what happened to it.  Leadbelly was a convicted murderer in prison who sang well enough to get a pardon or two, but the song is deeply sad, about a broken heart in an early marriage between two young, immature people.  The singer struggles with temptation to die, to throw himself into the river and drown.  Later mainstream folkies softened and sanitized it.  The Weavers’ version sounds like something from “A Mighty Wind.”  You can almost see Mitch Miller’s bouncing ball.

No, a good blues song is a serious thing–about life and death and pain and hellhounds.  No white picket fences, just the storm of some life, roaring toward you, and the sheer audacity of living when you know you’re going to die sooner or later.  Hunker down in a storm shelter, think about love and family and what matters, and your heart starts pouring out.  So you sing it and the storm passes and you’re still here, the truth is out there now, in notes and tears, and you can get up and go on a little more, relieved, glad, breathing still.  Now that’s a song.  So, goodnight Irene.  See you in our dreams, fears and all.  Good to still be here.