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.
2013 Holy Week ServicesSpecial Musical Guests for Holy Week: This year we have some wonderful musical guests who will come to offer their gifts in our journey to Easter. The great Eric Essix, Birmingham’s own jazz guitarist, will join us for Monday’s service to play in the service for us. Our own Bill Bugg will sing on Tuesday. On Wednesday we welcome Alabama bluegrass legends Three On a String. Then, on Maundy Thursday evening, we will be honored to have Angela Brown, one of the world’s great opera sopranos, as our guest to sing in our communion service. Angela came to a great crisis of faith in hier life when her brother died at age 20 and ended up at the great Oakwood college in Huntsville, originally majoring in biblical studies and minoring in music, but was persuaded that she had great gifts to offer God through her voice. She made the long climb in the world of opera and in the 2004-2005 season, made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in the title role of Verdi’s Aida to critical acclaim and made the front page of the New York Times with her performance. She has traveled the world since then, but will be in Alabama during Holy Week and is coming to sing for us and offer a Master Class for our Betty Sue Shepherd Scholars.
This promises to be a powerful and meaningful week of worship, devotion and inspiration as we all “turn our eyes upon Jesus, and look full in his wonderful face.” Put the dates on your calendar and plan to be here. Bring your heart and hopes with you.
“It is the morning after a wall of thunder ripped across our lovely state. Time to roll up our sleeves and see what we can do to help.”
A lot of death and injury greeted us when we emerged–damaged homes, businesses gone—and we found the task of cleaning up absolutely daunting. One family in my church found themselves in a neighborhood of felled trees, including a big one right in the middle of their den. The husband put it this way to me on the phone, “We’re glad to be alive.” A lot of people echoed those thoughts. One family in my church watched the huge Tuscaloosa tornado on television live as it destroyed the store in which their son was working. Then, for 45 minutes, they waited for the phone call—his truck was totaled, but he and his co-workers all alive.
Many were not so fortunate. Well over 200 died all across the state. For months and weeks, the wounded and grieving dug out. Volunteers poured in from everywhere, as did the government and state workers and the nation’s sympathy. Not long after, Joplin was devastated by another killer tornado and Alabama moved off the front pages.
Walking, Praying and Learning Where Jesus Walked
In July of 2010, I was part of a group of 18 ministers from central Alabama. I was asked by a colleague who led the project to recruit the group. We met in an initial retreat, then went together on pilgrimage to Israel for two weeks. We were funded by a grant from the CF Foundation in Atlanta, Georgia in a program that has been functioning for many years to deepen and renew the spiritual lives of ministers in the hope of revitalizing churches in order to impact their communities.
Most of this group had never been to Israel before, and we committed by our participation to be an ongoing Christian fellowship, praying for each other and eventually working on a project for the greater good of our churches and the place where we live.
Most are pastors. A few work in church-related ministries. We were Episcopal, Presbyterian, Mennonite, Baptist, and Methodist. We were male, female, racially diverse, geographically from many different seminaries, hometowns and experiences. Most of us knew about one another but didn’t really know each other until we came together for an initial community building retreat in Atlanta for two days.
The trip to Israel was transformative. We did not merely visit tourist sites—we prayed in them, stayed in a Benedictine retreat center in Galilee for a week and another Catholic center in Jerusalem for a second week. Our days began and ended in worship. We went to the West Bank, saw the walls and checkpoints guarded by automatic weapons and suspicion.
We lived together as a community of faith for two weeks and came back as friends. We continued to meet monthly together, every other month in a four hour “pilgrimage” to each other’s place of service. The highlight of these meetings was to lead us to walk together through the buildings, hear our stories, and pray together for that person at a “holy place.”
We struggled with the project, though. What could we do? We spent a follow-up retreat agonizing through to something. It was organized, intentional, and lifeless. It had all the passion of a tooth extraction. We went home and nothing happened.
Throwing Out the Plan
In April of this year, one of our group, Mike Oliver, found his community devastated by the tornado. More than a hundred homes were utterly destroyed. The next week my church, like hundreds of others, loaded up a truck full of donated supplies and took it to them in Williams, AL where Mike’s church had organized..
The church instantly turned into a community kitchen, feeding thousands of meals to homeless people from the community, a daycare center, and a disaster relief operation. They had to bury two of their own members and get back to work.
All through the summer, people worked, cleaned up and prepared for the next phase, which only now is underway in earnest. One of the realities about disasters is that the tornado or the tsunami or the earthquake get all the publicity. Rebuilding is harder to watch over the long haul.
Meanwhile, our ministers group kept meeting, praying, wondering about what we might do. Mike had an idea. He
invited our group to come together on building a home for a family in his community. The church had already organized to do this as their calling. They have already built five homes and more are on the way.
Thought all of our congregations already had multiple projects they were involved in, we all decided that we would do this one together, somehow. We are raising money, sending volunteers, praying together, and will go on October 7, all of us who can, to work together on our house that day.
When Mike presented the project idea, it rang a bell. I suspect it won’t be the last one we do together. There are still needs here in Birmingham, and other places. But God has a whole church in the world that only has to harness us to one another to make good things happen.
So it was that on Monday, September 19, four of our group, along with two men from my church, went together to see our project. We were met by the leader of our Israel trip from last year, Dr. Loyd Allen, and Tom Tewell, the man who
leads the foundation program that sent us, as well as Mike and number of his church folks.
After a time of lunch and fellowship together, we rode out and toured the area. It was the first time I had seen it extensively, so I found myself deeply affected by to breadth of destruction, and by how many areas still had debris and damage evident. The hardest site was one of sorrow and joy side by side. A concrete slab, clean to the ground, lay as evidence of a place where a home had been. It was the home where two of the church’s members had died, their bodies thrown across the road, deep into the tangle of trees and debris. Next door was one of the homes the church had completed and dedicated, where recently the congregation came to celebrate a new beginning with a family.
After visiting several sites where homes had been built or were underway, we came to the site that we have committed to help together. The husband and wife came out to meet us. They have been married 38 years, have eight children and there were thirteen of the extended family together that day when the tornado roared over their little patch of land and destroyed their trailer homes. I will let you listen to Mr. Hardy’s remarkable description of what happened. It’s about 2 ½ minutes.
We were joined by the chair of deacons and we all joined together and had a groundbreaking and prayer together for the home we hope to build. Tears streamed from men’s eyes as we listened to the Hardys tell us how blessed and overwhelmed by the thought that “complete strangers” would care about them and help them. I told them it was we who felt blessed to get to meet them. I was pretty sure we were talking directly to Jesus through their faces and hearts. I felt Him with us.
When I got home, I was tired, deep tired. I began the feel the emotions of all the damage I had seen, the suffering it represented, and the power of hope in a place where people have cast aside the divisions normally among them and began to help one another. They were and are becoming real “neighbors” to one another.
I woke up this morning thinking about Galilee and Capernaum and Jerusalem—and Williams, Alabama. I thought about all the terrible divisions in that place of killing and brokenness, where walls are being built at vast expense, to keep people apart. We saw it with our eyes, together.
We came home also with memories of the place where Jesus lived and died, the water he fished in and the village where he grew up. We prayed and prayed together, and we became friends, more than ministers usually do, I am sad to say. We live in our own siloes, running our own little place, and need God’s help to get pulled out of them.
So out of nowhere, on April 27, the walls blew down and we stood there, afraid, vulnerable, dazed. We needed each other. Then gradually it has been dawning on us that these walls started blowing down a long time ago—in ancient Israel through a rabbi who told the Truth, indeed was Truth in human form. And somehow, in a journey a group of pastors who didn’t know each other took, mainly because somebody paid for most of it and gave them a gift. We went thinking, “This will really be nice. It will inspire me and give me some sermons.”
Well, we weren’t prepared for what it actually did. It knocked the walls over. We began to truly care about each other and our churches and our ministries. God connected us all through the land of Israel and that ancient story. So on the “day after thunder,” we discovered that we didn’t go to Israel just to get away from our churches or enjoy a time of respite. It was to lead us to rural Williams, Alabama, and to the Hardys, and to Pratt City and Birmingham, and down deeper into our own congregations and people, to see that this is indeed the best and most holy work of all, realizing the meaning of the words of the Lord Jesus when he said in Matthew 18:20, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” We went to Israel to find what Jesus always wanted us to find—one another.
Pilgrim’s Progress is one of my favorite spiritual writings to come from the Baptist and Puritan stream. The longer title of the original The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come written by John Bunyan first appeared in 1678. It was written by Bunyan while locked in jail for violating the Conventicle Act, in which the state forbid anyone but officially licensed Anglican priests from holding religious services.
I have been to that jail where Bunyan was, been to his grave in London, and visited the town where he lived as an early Baptist. It is a holy place for me. Pilgrim’s Progress is about an arduous, and highly symbolic, journey of a man called Christian who sets out from the security of his homeplace, the City of Destruction, to find the Celestial city to come. He heads out carrying a huge burden on his back, his sin, and is discouraged by others at every turn, but he perseveres.
It’s incredibly hokey in one sense, an allegory that never lets you forget its allegorical-ness. Along the way, the characters have allegory names: Faithful, Talkative, Mr. By-ends, Hopeful, the Giant Despair, Temporary, Grim and Too-bold. They represent sins, human failings and strengths in people.
And yet, the perceptiveness of the human soul, the psychological insights into inner struggle that Bunyan shows in it are powerful. It is still a resource I turn to now and then. I have felt so many of the struggles he identifies.
But something never felt quite right about calling my blog, “Pilgrim’s Progress.” First, it could be construed as a bit pretentious, as though I did what preachers always do in their sermons, make themselves the main character. I mean, am I really so sure that I am Christian, headed for the heavenly city against all odds? Why wouldn’t I just as well be Mr. Ready-to-Halt, or Heedless, or even Mr. Fearing? It’s like calling yourself, “The Deserving.” Humblebragging, as I wrote in an earlier piece.
So, since I am a musician, consider that to be a central piece of “me” and think of my art as inseparable from me, I chose a qualifier and the moment I settled on it, it felt right. “Flatpicker.” That may not be a term you have heard if you’re not a guitar player. Flatpicking is a style, one of the two major ways players perform melodies on guitars, the other being “fingerstyle” or fingerpicking. Most classical players are the latter.
Flatpickers have to do what finger players do with three or four alternating fingers with a guitar pick alternating back and forth at high speed. When you first start to learn it, it is hard as all get out. And there are different ways of doing it: Alternate picking, Crosspicking, Downpicking, Economy picking, Hybrid picking, Lead guitar, Sweep-picking and Tremolo picking. There are other styles—strumming and fingerstyle, with little worlds of their own.
Flatpicking guitar is a world rooted in the proud chemistry of post-puberty male testosterone. It’s often about speed, being the fastest, not far removed from NASCAR and football.
Flatpickers have their own magazine, their own heroes and a whole web of camps, festivals and venues. But the granddaddy of them all is the one in Kansas. It’s called the Walnut Valley Festival, but it’s known to Flatpickers as “Winfield”, as in, “He won Winfield.” My teacher, Glenn Tolbert, competed and made it pretty far, and he is FAST.
Three different summers I went to a camp in Maryville, Tennessee, devoted to teaching instruments to disciples, but the centerpiece is guitar flatpicking. The Founder of the camp, Steve Kaufman, a native of Maryville, and his renown is being “the only three-time champion of Winfield.” He is a legend among guitar players.
Other instruments compete, of course. A friend at camp told me of jamming with a 16 year old girl years ago who went on to win the fiddle competition. Her name was Krauss, I think, Allison I believe it was. Pretty good fiddler, he told me.
So the acoustic world is a serious little world. Humbling, because the only way you get better is endless repetitions, learning from others who are better than you, and yet still having to find your own pecuiliar style and physical adjustment.
Some people like Tommy Emmanuel, are so good at flatpicking that I imagine pride would be a great struggle. More of us, though, have to aspire to confident playing. You learn how to play with others and not play over them, how to bring out the song, do solos without always needing to attract so much attention to yourself.
Flatpicking sometimes requires that you go backwards for a while before you progress. You learn a lot by imitation, hanging out with experts, and often, being willing to crash in front of people and laugh about it.
One of the oddest phenomena I have experienced in this journey has been learning to disengage from the conscious mind. I know that sounds impossible to non-players, and I imagine it is not exactly that. Maybe it’s only “shifting to the right brain” or submerging to a more primitive kind of memory, but the way I can describe it is practicing and playing for so long that you can do it without looking at your fingers, thinking about the chords, and letting your muscles do what they know to do without much thinking about it.
It is a kind of “self-forgetting” that makes for joy in playing. It lets you look at the other singers and players in a band and smile, read what they are doing, listen to their hints, and play off their cues. It makes the song a mysterious and joyous journey in communion.
So, flatpicking seems like a perfect modifier to me for my blog, my life, and my religious journey, too. A friend of mine sent me a great quote one day: “I am still learning—Michaelangelo.” Me, too. Forget about what everybody thinks. Focus on the craft, learn the tunes, feel the rhythm, soar out on your own in a jam, learn from your mistakes, don’t do what you can’t do, and stay within the song. Follow the rules of jamming. Respect the other players. Hang in there.
So I offer you a little instrumental I created, a little flatpicking piece. It’s just me with a guitar, playing something I came up with just doodling around one day. I call it, “Possibilitating.” Enjoy, and welcome to my retitled blog. Feels more like me.