Friday, August 21, 2009

A Long Draught of Truth

It's the greatest feeling when you're playing at an outdoor venue and innocent passersby stop in their tracks and cock their ears to catch what's happening. If one were to be slaughtering chickens in person to the music of Liszt played backwards, I think the stopping in the tracks would also occur, but for different reasons. All told, we had a great time playing at Market Square, begging like Elijah that there would be no rain for the next hour.

Here's a bit I wrote before my last trip to Scotland. Many thanks to Ted for graciously asking me to write it, even though I didn't seem a very good sport at the time. I beg your indulgence, as it's rather long as blog posts go, but I feel that it unearths many things that might help you understand whence I come where my faith is concerned. Come, let us open the bottle. 'Twas a good year.

I usually wake up every day feeling like I’m walking with all certainty toward the gates of Hell. This does not bode well for a life of faith, some would say. Others, deeply concerned for me and my pathological need to be validated, would tell me to abandon Christianity and find something that affirms me more effectively. The problem with that is that I can’t cling to Christianity. I can try, but all things around which I can wrap my mind will eventually crumble. I’ve been asked to write my testimony, my story, as a Christian. That is, what Christ has done for me. I consider myself a writer, sort of. I’ve written pieces which have been published, if only in a small collegiate anthology. I’ve written songs that people have identified with and recorded an album which has sold a few copies, but my mind balks at the task of narrating what Christ has done for me.

This is not, let us be assured, because he has done nothing for me. He has rescued me, does rescue me, and continues to rescue me from myself, from “this body of death.” (Ro. 7:24) He has changed me from a lustful, fearful, narcissistic, prideful wretch into a wretch who is still all those things, but doesn’t desire them as much anymore. The change, you might say, is negligible. But you would be wrong. I don’t really know if I’m as lustful or fearful as I used to be, but my desiring to be other than that is cataclysmic. There are other things as well that I don’t know, such as if I’m going to heaven or hell. I have many characteristic idiosyncrasies, but certainty is not among them. The irony is that, the more time I spend in the company of Christ, the less certain I am. I heard a program on the radio today that trumpeted assurance as one of only a few qualities that defines Christians against the milieu of worldly doubt. I assume that the man who preached this is a studied apprentice of Scripture and has had more education than I care to imagine, but somehow, I disagree with him. If doubt were not so human, faith would not beguile us so. I do know followers of Christ by sight sometimes. It’s a light in the eyes, a lift of the tone of voice, a choice of words, a holy silence that often gives them away. These things are only the outworking of love. Still, I couldn’t tell you who is “getting in,” myself included. My friend Doug and I laughed together about our inability to go around looking up people’s Calvinist skirts. In the midst of all my religious insecurities though, in the empty shrine of certainty, there resides a brilliant seed of hope.

Of that, I only know that God, in Christ, desires me. My company. And he desires that I should desire him. And how I am desirous of him, and how I long to hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Come and share in your master’s happiness.” In this I hope. And how I fear the quick and tasteless dismissal, “Away from me, I never knew you.” Like all loving fathers, his wrath is far better than his absence.

But, I don’t remember ever getting saved. That’s a term that church-goers use to describe those who will be in the presence of Christ at either death or ascension, whichever comes first. All others, according to the Scriptures, will experience death a second time, which doesn’t sound so bad at first, except that the second time around, death is possessed of a little more longevity. Jesus, in order to describe it, quoted Isaiah, saying that:

“… ‘their worm does not die,
And the fire is not quenched.’”
                         -(Mark 9:48)

In the same breath, he called the second death by a name: Hell. The New Testament records it as Geenna or Gehenna (Γέεννα), which is a transliteration of what Jesus was actually referencing: the Valley of Ben Hinnom. It’s remembered as the place where Canaanites sacrificed their children by burning them alive to appease the god Molech.

That’s the sort of thing we need saving from. But I grew up in a church-soaked society where getting “saved” was about praying what folks commonly call “The Sinner’s Prayer.” It usually goes something like this:

Lord Jesus, I am a sinner. I am helpless to do anything right on my own. I need you. Please forgive me of my sins. Please come into my heart and life and be my Lord and Savior.

It honestly sounds a little bit silly when you say it like that. We in the church derive this odd practice from Paul’s epistle to the Romans. He says that “if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:9) Imagine that you had a friend you had known for a couple of years. This person has taken it upon himself or herself to befriend you and listen to you and stand by you and serve you in your needs. All of a sudden, you wake up one day and decide that it’s a good time for it, so you call your friend up and ask, “Will you be my friend, from this day forth?” I would honestly be a bit hurt by that phone call. Haven’t we been friends all this time? We could say that “The Sinner’s Prayer” is a bit like a marriage vow, for our relationship with God in Christ is compared to marriage often enough in the Scriptures. But even then we must admit that the marriage vow itself is not love, which is learned over a lifetime of practice both before and after the wedding ceremony. And not all marriage vows are “[believed] with [the] heart.” But the vow is important.

Now, I’m not writing this to denounce “The Sinner’s Prayer” (which will ultimately be either denounced, or affirmed, or both by the Scriptures) or to say that my understanding of Romans is above and beyond yours. The point is that I’ve been saved countless times. That doesn’t mean I’ve prayed a certain way or that I’m holier than the next man. I couldn’t tell you, though, the day that Jesus breathed his Holy Spirit upon me and I became a new creation in Christ. Did it happen on one of the two or three times I walked the aisle at church to become a Christian and be baptized – my “public profession(s) of faith”? Maybe, but I doubt it. It is more likely that I was pursued by God long before those days and that I did not begin to fall in love with him until much, much later. I was, and am, the hard-to-get bride.

I suppose that a few people were blessed by my baptisms and altar-call responses. If so, that is the redemption of Christ, not the holiness of those symbolic actions. After those days, I was a little hellion. I spent a great deal of time getting into relationships that ended in terribly broken hearts and inflicting wounds on other people as well as myself. I was egotistical. I didn’t think much of the church, and I was cynical and bitter. I was interested mostly in myself.

I can’t say that God has set me free like he’s set some people free from alcohol addictions or drug addictions. This story isn’t very dramatic. It’s not movie material. Thank God, because I don’t think I’m strong enough not to become unhealthily interested in its darker chapters. What I do know is that, today, whatever day you are reading or hearing this, there have been small graces and unnoticeable instances in which God has set me free from the slow, chilly bonds of iniquity that I bring upon myself. There have been small raindrops in this desert that I am. Tiny blossoms blink from the fringes of my landscape like the faces of faeries glimmering through the grey foggy curtain of this rusty, wishful, and staggering world. I don’t know if I’m going to heaven or hell. Most days, my desire for good theology coupled with my incredible self-possession sits like a February stratus cloud upon the understanding of my soul. In the end, though, I do know a few things.

He loves me. Jesus, the Father, the Holy Ghost, loves me. They love me. Three-in-one, the Godhead, the mystery of the Trinity, loves me. And it’s too much of a blessing for my intellect to bear. My mind can’t take it in, and my heart longs for it so. Second thing, when I was saved doesn’t matter. No one’s going to buy me a bland white sheet cake with my name in salvation bracelet colored icing for my “Salvation Day.” Salvation is hardly about us. The fact that God loves us more than we can guess or measure is only secondary in matters of salvation. The primary issue is that he is able and he is Love. And though my salvation is secure in Christ, who sees this grand prism of time as merely a picture painted, it is also a daily wrestling – a daily “work[ing] out… with fear and trembling.” (Philippians 2:12-13) As my friend Kenny said it, “I was saved; I am being saved; I will be saved.” I must meet the angel daily at the ford of Jabbok, strive against him, and receive the crippling and humbling blow that becomes a blessing. (Genesis 32:22-31)

Every prayer is a sinner’s prayer. God still uses me, addicted in my own right to the feeding and numbing of myself in many ways, in his unfathomably rich and loving plan. He has used me to write music that has brought people hope and, somehow, freedom. I have connected with strangers through music. I have prayed with people and there have been cracks mended in broken spirits in some small measure (and also cracks made in my own hubris). All of this is by the working of the Holy Ghost. It is the keeping of “treasure in earthen vessels, so that we know that this all-surpassing power is from God, and not from us.” (2 Corinthians 4:7) I am still egotistical. I still want to serve only myself. All appearances to the contrary are usually self-serving in that they increase people’s view of me as a righteous person. But somehow, the work of the Spirit is deeper.

There are geothermal vents on the ocean floor, radiating heat into the frigid darkness of the deepest ocean trenches. Life explodes around them, existing in the warm afterglow of the earth’s molten flesh. That is the work of God in my life. Against all the odds, warmth and light exist in the deepest blackness. Life flourishes. Blessing is given and received. And so, I must arise and pray for grace to escape the cocoon of self that forms around my soul like a second skin in the night. And there is boundless grace. I must say with Paul, “Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God – through Christ Jesus our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25)

Friday, August 14, 2009

A Wireless Hippie

We stood under the weighty red light of the WDVX "ON AIR" sign, me with my accordion, Ethan armed with a six-string, Katie wielding a fiddle that had curves in all the right places. Behold the garden of trussed-up gyspy tune-flowers. We finally got to press some of these new songs up through the dirt and see them turn green for the first time. I remember watching an old woman in the crowd who kept bobbing her head knowingly as every lyric washed into the microphone with the whispers of l'Eau de Vivre. I had a wild idea that washed up in my mind off a sea of wild ideas, so I asked Red, the DJ, if it would be okay if I simply gave away CDs to everyone there. After they let me, I have to tell you, it's an addiction that grabs your heart with its left hand. I'm so excited to play another show just so I can try and give away some more. That said, the resident hippie has sledged yet another wall of archaic anti-technologism.

As you may have guessed by the elephantine 'widget' on the sidebar, I have joined up with something called NoiseTrade. This is a company started by Derek Webb and Brannon McAllister, among others, for the purpose of creating a new format for sharing songs in this day and age of just-add-water instant life. Despite what you (or I) may think, people do prefer to tote iPods around and isolate themselves in a world of personal soundtrack, as opposed to sitting and listening with all intent to a record through actual speakers. We prefer constant noise as opposed to appreciating music because it is a different sort of reflection of the world's noise than the world itself makes. So, in the interest of letting you hear the art that has been made (hopefully a good bit of that art encourages us, ironically, to unplug), Derek &co. implemented a system in which the buyer pays the artist whatever price the buyer decides. Or, you can email five people about the whole thing and download for free. You can listen to it in your iPod, and then hopefully, you'll come out to hear the artists when they play shows - the connection is much stronger there, I assure you. So we have now eliminated the middle man. No one likes being in the middle anyway.

Thank you guys so much for listening in as we got to be part of a legendary show (locally, at least, the Blue Plate is indeed a legend). When you get to stand on the same stage that has seen David Wilcox, Bela Fleck, Del McCoury, and Mary Gauthier, just to name a few, you oughta get a little nervous. That's what I tell myself anyway. Now, go get on NoiseTrade. There's good music to be heard.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Listen In

I've been added as a last-minute audition to the roster of folks playing at the Blue Plate Special next week. If you don't know about this program, it's a live radio music show on WDVX in downtown Knoxville, daughter of the old Midday Merry-Go-Round and spunky thrice removed cousin to the Grand Ole Opry. Last time I played I expected a small crowd because of the rain, but a decent and involved crowd showed up anyways. It's always a great way to spend lunch. Come out and join in. Or, if you can't make it - as it is lunchtime on a business day - you can crank up your radio to 102.9 or 89.9 FM in Knoxville or hear it streamed live at

Adam Whipple and Zachary Scott Johnson
WDVX Studios (@ Knoxville Tourism & Sports on Gay St.)
August 11th, 2009
Absolutely FREE!

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Breaking Yellow Bricks

Days upon days of rain have come upon us, blessing some and cursing others. There's a house in my neighborhood with the roof bashed in from the weight of a falling oak. Half a century of tree branches were one day beautiful and the next were a profanity upon the lips of the house's now weary former occupants. But vegetables are bubbling up from their vines and bushes like gems in an earthen diadem. And as the summer ends and children go through the chrysalid whirly-jig of becoming students, I start to get that itch to try and get shows at colleges. Smoking pipe dreams, I look at the movies in my mind of how well the students will listen and connect with the music. I get all woozy when I think of driving home to tell Kat, "I sold [insert outlandish number] CD's!" It all seems so feasible and magical until I open that email account or find that phone number, the one at which I will leave a message like a fishhook in a murky sea.

I don't like to advertise myself.

Advertising myself gathers like too much espresso in my blood and I get ahead of the one I am to walk beside. Daydreaming and money get in my head and bully into leaving that powerful but lovingly yielding peace in the sufficiency of the Lamb. I forget to listen to the task given me. I forget to create because I am created. I forget that "the worker is worth his wages," but the wages are not near worth a worker. The stories disappear, and the truth becomes a clanging cymbal.

So I am always somewhat loathe to talk to people when I play at a church. I have learned to be have grace to say "Thank you," and move on, glad that the thankful ones were blessed. But, right now, indeed for the last several months, Katrina and I have been between churches. It is certainly a journey, complete with its blessings and cursings found in both the hardship and the ease. But when you play at a church, and then are asked - as undoubtedly you will be - where you attend church, the answer I must truthfully give to this question elicits an enthusiastic suggestion that I should join whatever church it is I am helping out that week.

Please, please understand, I love to help out churches with music. The opportunities are grand, and I am learning to have the grace to be served with Thank You's and That Was Wonderful's. If these things were not given to me so graciously, I would probably topple into the ever-present trapdoor of prideful self-loathing. But I cannot follow the Thank You's like a yellow brick road to assurance of where God would have my family and I attend church. I don't know where we are supposed to be right now, but there have been blessings amongst the uncertainty. If anything, the recent wandering has given us a beautiful view of who she, the Church, is. Our horizons are certainly not broad, but they are not as constricted as they would be if we had been seated in the same pews every week. No, this is not a good reason to leave your current fellowship to experience the world like a younger brother with half an inheritance. But it is collateral blessing, and I am grateful. And I feel like we are nearer to obedience than when we began. Autumn is indeed coming. The moon feels fuller, pregnant with waiting for the harvesttime. The squash plants have succumbed to the soil, and they will hopefully be hoed back in and replaced with broccoli or cabbages - or, if I get adventurous, parsnips and pumpkins.

And the beautiful knelling of October has always been the time both for coming home and for walking until your feet take you to places you knew not where.