Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Imaginary Glass Ceiling

A friend of mine, recently leading a prayer time amongst friends, said that he felt that we hadn't "broken through". As he said it, I felt a twinge of something - maybe frustration, maybe a combination of frustration and something else. But I wondered what he meant by it.

Breaking through? Breaking through a wall that separated our prayers from God? Breaking through to a certain level of silence to where we listened to the Holy Spirit better? Breaking through? What did he mean by that?

As one who has amassed a fair amount of time having my emotions flummoxed and twisted and drenched by various events and works of art (just last week I had to leave the room to keep from weeping and wailing in a very unmanly way at the end of the hockey movie Miracle), I am sometimes distrustful of anything that seems based on emotions. This can get me into trouble, especially as a musician and a songwriter. Art definitely brushes up against something by which we are set aflame but not destroyed. So why does this bother me? Breaking through? What is there to break through? Immanuel. God is with us. Where two or more are gathered in his name, there he is with them. He will never leave us or forsake us.

I don't know why my feathers are ruffled by that, but it just raises some questions in my mind.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Mine Own Dear Religion

When it has been a while since you've swept out any corners in your life, the untidy little gremlins you find tend to be a bit larger than not. What did I find?

People sometimes ask me in our conversations if I am religious. My characteristic and usually immediate response is often, "Well, I certainly hope not." It became a sort of programmable answer, because it threw a number of people off track, and the conversation was able to continue. But, my own religion remained veiled to my eyes for some time. I'll give you a clue: Al Gore is the high priest. His film An Inconvenient Truth is the Gospel, as I am increasingly appalled to find that there are people who have not seen it. Earth Day is the great feast day. But the biggest problem that it poses is that there are a couple handfuls of heretics that I always seem to want to address. Folks who drive SUVs, and furthermore, folks who insist on driving everywhere, even to the corner store, when they could walk or take a bus, are subject to my judgments of heresy. Those who destroy the landscape for their own gain in building second-rate housing and commercial development are also indicted. People who cut down trees, litterbugs, automobile tourists through the Smoky Mountains...the list goes on beyond reckoning.

So, what's the problem with that? Why is it so bad to be against all those things? Well, it isn't, necessarily. But where the rubber hits the road, I have to admit that I have often had as much anger in my heart at these particular "sinners" as the synagogue elders had at lepers and adulteresses in the four Gospel accounts. I am as often as certain and as articulate as Judge Danforth from The Crucible in my decision about any infraction. Naturally, this can get in the way of such commands like, "Love your neighbor as yourself." Is it wrong to desire good stewardship of the world that we have been given? No, certainly not. But I must "have no other gods" before the one whom I serve.

Monday, February 11, 2008

When the Answer is No

"Now when they had gone throughout Phrygia and the region of Galatia, and were forbidden of the Holy Ghost to preach the word in Asia, after they were come to Mysia, they assayed to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit suffered them not."

                                                                                              -Acts 16:6-7, KJV

I would happily step foot on a plane, believing that it would belly-flop through the mist and scream onto the rainy tarmac of the Edinburgh airport. I would love to see my wife's face on her passport, as we fell asleep in those uncomfortable seats in the dark at thirty thousand feet, knowing that we would soon be in the company of friends. Knowing that we could lend a hand and breathe the air of Dundee and be amazed at what the Lord is doing there. But, for the moment, it is not so.

I know that a fair portion of my desire to step foot into that country again is not so that I may lend my hands to the work. I love the countryside, the people, the sound and smell. I've recently wondered what it would be like to live there permanently. But I am not at peace about it. Everywhere I turn though, little wisps of memory turn my mind toward the windy shores of that land.

The whole landscape a manuscript
We had lost the skill to read,
A part of our past disinherited;
But fumbled, like a blind man,
Along the fingertips of instinct.

                                                              -A Lost Tradition, John Montague

I am guilty of jealousy toward those whose plane tickets and itineraries are planned and paid for. I don't know if I'll ever go back, but I hope to. However, as Kat and I look to our domestic shores and the streets of our own Knoxville, there is much work to be done.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

News Items

On a small note, the show that I was playing with Greg Adkins in Berea is cancelled, because he and his family are all sick, and Kat and I are on the mend. If you were actually intending to show up there on Friday night and you read this blog (two criteria that I quite wholeheartedly doubt overlap), don't show up to see us. Show up for some spectacular soup and the latte art so perfect that you need a picture. Ahh, food - one of the few arts that is consummated only by its destruction.

In other small news, I got my first rejection letter from a publisher. AGNI Magazine sent me an email saying that they would not be publishing some poems of mine in their upcoming collection. Strange as it may seem, I'm rather pleased. The fact that they decided not to points me toward the idea that someone else might decide the other way.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Easy Bravery in a Ford Thunderbird

"So, are you ready for this one?" says Andy.

"What's that?" I say.

"You need to go home and Google J*********'s name. He was on American Idol, and he made it in a few rounds."

So, tonight, I followed the trail to find a world-wide video of a fellow I know, singing in front of Simon and the gang on American Idol auditions in Atlanta. I suppose I'm kind of happy for him. He is my friend, I've asked him to open for me, watched him grow as a songwriter, laughed with his girlfriend about his quirks and hoped for his wisdom. But he is now living in his car, having dropped out of school. He drives around playing shows and convincing his family that he's staying with friends. I watched the video, and I confess myself.....hurt. Hurt for him. I confess myself glad to be staring at a kitchen full of dirty dishes that won't get done if I don't do them. I confess myself anxious to go to bed, because, although Kat and I are both on the mend from some bug goin' round, she is there, asleep, and I will soon join her. It won't be romantic, but it will be something more. Trust.

While I am in the happy company of soiled tupperware, my friend, whom I have hoped for, is curled into the seat of a Ford Thunderbird, and there is no one to wake him up tomorrow except one who longs to give peace to his heart. I am not one to discredit the chasing of dreams, but the bravery of dreams chased is an oft-debated point among folks who care for each other. Sometimes we delve when we should climb. The most impetuous course might not be the most intrepid.

I still hope that he gets somewhere with his music. He's good at it. I also hope he lives the adventure of becoming so attached to someone, that tearing away from them would rend the tightest seams of your heart.

Monday, February 04, 2008

The Holy Art of Secrecy

Our pastor gave us a set of burned cd's awhile back that contained a seminar about church planting. A man named David something-or-other (a fair amount of Googling has not revealed his name with any certainty) is teaching a group of African fellows the stripped-down Biblical principles behind church planting - and consequently, Christianity.

David constantly reminds these men that Jesus did what no good organized religion leader in his right mind would do. He cut down his numbers. In business, they call it streamlining. In religion, it seems counter-intuitive, but every time Jesus got popular, he said something slightly off kilter, such as, "If some guy smacks the fire out of you, don't defend yourself from him." (A. Whipple paraphrase) Or he'd out with something spectacularly ludicrous like, "You need to eat my body and drink my blood." (AWP) Another strange thing he did was to keep secrets. Why in the world would the Scriptures not be open to people? What was it about Jesus "opening the Scriptures" to his disciples that made it different than reading them? Why shouldn't the people he healed go and scream to the hilltops that some woodworker country bumpkin took away their leprosy? How could they hope to contain themselves?

Ann Lamott speaks of Jesus as a little white dog following her around - the complete picture of innocence that will not leave you alone. The little white dog has been looking at me lately as if I should keep my mouth shut more often. I don't know if I can tell you why. The best I can offer is that, truth isn't really something you say, and moreover, secrets are of great value, while a secret unleashed is plastic and mass-produced. There are a couple new shows out where people sit in a chair under a Gestapo-like spotlight and delve into the chambers of their indiscretion to unearth their failures and hidden distrusts, all in order to win money. Their families and friends sit by as if they're watching a murderer's house burn down, feeling their anger and bitterness mount, and at the same time wanting not to know, wanting to go on loving in plausible ignorance. I feel a little disgusted thinking about it.

Jesus warned his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Christ. For the most part, we say that he did this to prevent the gathering of a party crowd (which sometimes happened anyway). But why? Why keep the secret? What's so bad about getting the word out? Advertise, man! Nothing sells like a good flier. Pop! Umph! Zing! For the record, I think his secrets are worth a little more than ours. Our secrets tend to be along the lines of, I really do struggle with lust, or I wish that person wouldn't talk to me, I can't deal with them right now. I don't remember where it is, but I seem to remember the Biblical phrase, "The secret things of God." Give me a minute, I'll go look it up...

Here's something...

      The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and our children, that we may follow the words of this law forever. - Deut. 29:29

...and something else...

      A gossip betrays a confidence, but a trustworthy man keeps a secret. - Prov. 11:13

I say all this, because in my own life, I have the greatest desire sometimes to, as my friend Bill says, "tear away the fig leaf." I want to take things head-on and be what I define as uncompromising (although, I may often have mis-defined it). I don't know if this is an issue that pervades the Church at large, or even the Western Church, but I have felt the tendency (mostly in the younger crowd) to treat issues like a firing squad instead of a wrestling match. We might love to be honest, but we forget that our honesty requires involvement. Life is not a sport over which we are spectators. You can ask some friends of mine who work with addicts. Speaking with the double-edged tongues of angels requires love, and all the tart tastes of its self-forgetting and self-destroying.

There are words and thoughts that are between my wife and myself and our God. There are even words and thoughts that are only between God and me. Not writing them on the wall is not akin to lying. In fact, it's just the opposite. To be honest, there is not really a one-size-fits-all rule to this idea. It's something that has to follow the Holy Spirit's leading.

Perhaps this is why I have so often been frustrated with kitschy art that comes from the minds of Christians. Continuously happy people seem superficial to us in our dark hours (that being said, there is a difference between happiness and peace). The same applies to art that doesn't delve into the artist. It feels like the artist read the end of some book before the beginning, and we're being told the story from that perspective. Perhaps this is why I can't abide art that always keeps all its cards on the table. There is a time for that, but there is value in waiting for it. Tell the story. Let us grow with the characters. Don't just wrap us in the finished tapestry, weave us into it. Thread it into our skin. All the colors will bleed into one, bleed into one.