Soul Music

I was 9 or 10 when my maternal grandfather died. We made the trip from Texas to North Carolina to celebrate his life and to lay him to rest. I knew him as a kind, soft-spoken southern gentleman (my mother has different memories, as usual).

I’m not sure how a 10 year old interprets “death”. Though I had visited him and spent a little time with him, we grew up in Pennsylvania before Texas, and so I didn’t have the connection I had with my dad’s parents, who grew up two houses down the road (my uncle lived in between us). My mom was pretty devastated, and it hurt to see her so torn up, but we did our best to keep it together and to mourn in a healthy way. Meals were brought; hugs were given and received; stories were through moist eyes and shaking voices.

There was a viewing; I’d never been to one before (my maternal grandmother died when I was probably 4 or 5, and I don’t remember anything about that except hearing my mother receive the phone call and knowing instantly as I heard her cry, “What?!?!?!” that something was seriously wrong. (Is there a word for that tone of voice? The tone where the unthinkable has happened? It’s not “sad”; it’s not just “shocked”; it’s something from beyond. Beyond the pale of normal, “safe” human interaction.)

Anyway, the viewing. To say it disturbed me is to understate things. The casket was open, but I was, well, horrified, as I realized what I was supposed to do: walk up and look and “pay my respects”. Shamefully, my parents had to virtually drag me up to the casket; I’m sure my mom was so embarassed, but something irrational had captured me, and I couldn’t get past it.

Somehow we got through that night. The next day was the funeral proper. I remember a typical rural southern church: white wooden walls, vaulted ceilings, pews with cushions, everything very clean and arranged. I sat down next to my mother and the service began. Everything was fine until…

… They started playing, “How Great Thou Art,” an old hymn. I don’t know if it was one of my grandfather’s favorite hymns; I don’t know if it was an afterthought: “Hey everyone knows this one!” All I know is that as the music began and people started singing, I lost it.

I mean, lost it. 

I mean, not like you get the, “Fa-fa-fas” or the tears stream silently down your face. I mean irrational, super ugly, uncontrollable wailing. 

Even to this day my mom says, “We didn’t know what was happening! It was just beyond the normal level of human weeping; you were unconsolable!”

I couldn’t tell you what had happened, except that in that moment, I realized the power of music. I was experiencing something that was communicating to me beyond words, beyond speech, beyond even a human embrace. There was something in the combination of melody, rhythm and words that drilled its way so far beyond my defenses that I was devastated before I even knew what was happening.

It was like being attacted by emotional/spiritual ninjas.

That, my friends, is “soul music.”

Believe it or not, I think in that moment I was captured by music: its power and its ability to break down walls and defenses; to speak the unspeakable and express the unexpressable.

Once you touch a moment like that (theologians might call it numinous or transcendent) you really can’t go back. It changes you; lets you know what’s truly possible, beyond this world that we can see and touch. There was something beyond all of that, and I wanted it. Not only did I want to experience it again, I wanted to be a part of creating it for others.

It’s been a long road since then, but a few days ago I stood up in a small chapel—only 45 people or so—where family and a few friends had gathered to remember “Grandma Alice.” Alice passed away at 94, the grandmother of some friends of mine from my community. Amazingly, I was also Grandma Alice’s worship pastor. Somehow, this woman in her 80s (at the time) worshiped under the leaership of a rock and rolling, guitar playing, melancholic and introspective pastor (that’s me). She was great at giving hugs and giving encouraging words, and I was honored to be a part of remembering her.

The family chose two songs for the service. I don’t know if she had a part of picking them or not. The last song in the service was “I’ll Fly Away.”

Any guess as to what the first one was? IMG_4153

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Do Not Seek the Whirlwind

In 1990 I walked to campus reciting this prayer: 

“God bring me the whirlwind. Bring the me the storm. Tear me up. Bring the pain.” 

Though this particular prayer was a response to a ridiculous relationship that was ending, it also reflected what was a deeper truth for me at the time: 

That pain and trauma was necessary to art. 

As an angst-y 20-something musician (and let’s face it: what 20-something musician isn’t angst-y?), I cultivated and curated pain like a miser. It was virtually the only emotion that I could easily recognize, and that fact alone made it the most accessible to me as a guitar player and fledgling songwriter. 

I was reading this article today on the Huffington Post and it made me think of that prayer, and that time in my life. 

It was hell. 

It was hell, and it makes me sad to think about the myth that is still so pervasive: that only tortured/addicted/troubled/solitary (the list goes on and on, but you get the point) make art. 

What’s even more troubling to me is when I think about how I actually sought out pain and drugs and rejection because I thought it would make me a better musician. 

Eventually, somehow I started to wake up. I realized that the rock and roll mythology that I believed in was not quite accurate, and that:

  1. there are quite stable people who actually make quite exceptional art, and
  2. there are actually quite troubled “artists” who make horrible, unexceptional art. 

In other words, there is no correlation. 

Now, what I do still maintain is that great struggle can produce great art: when you read the stories of Michelangelo, di Vinci, the Beatles, or U2, or Wilco, etc., it’s easy to see that some kind of struggle occurs in the midst of producing art, but that struggle does not have to be emotional. 

It can be a struggle with pushing the boundaries of technology, whether it’s the number of tracks available in a recording studio or the types of paint pigment that are available. 

It can be a struggle with keeping a band together in the midst of losing record deals or changing consumer tastes. 

It can be the internal struggle of a writer who is struggling to put into words the vision that is burning inside of her. 

But it does not have to mean personal drama. 

It does not have to mean pain. 

It does not have to mean depression. 

(Obviously, for those of us who struggle with depression, we know that sometimes the isolation and melancholy that swirls around us can sometimes give rise to thoughts and feelings that lead to songs or books or poems or paintings… but the point is we don’t need to seek it out.)

Don’t cultivate the pain for the sake of “art”.

Don’t pray for the whirlwind just because you think you need to suffer to create. 

Sometimes life is indeed hard; the whirlwind will come on its own, and art may or may not come out of it, but that’s another question.

These Days.

These days I’m tired. It’s funny how fast the wind can leave my sails and a deep, soul-level fatigue can set in.

I know myself well enough to know the things that trigger it, and this past season has been full of multiple events.

I. BOUNDARY ISSUES

I am, by nature, a “gray-thinker.” Life (and thus human beings) is a mystery, and infinitely complex. This type of thinking helps me craft a “middle way” through variety of issues, and find ways to diffuse controversies in order to invite people into dialogue.

Occasionally, however, I am confronted by issues that are not nearly so easy to navigate: different aspects of spirituality or church life sometimes contain some kind of absolute that has to be dealt with.

Usually, when an absolute is involved, someone is going to get hurt. Insiders have the potential to become instant outsiders. The accepted can come to feel the pain of the rejected, in just a few short minutes.

This tears away at my soul.

I know that life is difficult. I know that “gray thinking” can, in and of itself, be a form of “black-and-white thinking”, a way to avoid the messiness of disagreement and confrontation.

But it still tends to send me into a tailspin.

II. FATIGUE

I pride myself on being a “workhorse”, particularly in the arena of public ministry. At 46, I still try to be the musician who can play the longest, most consecutive Sundays (or whatever). There is something in me that says, “Put the burden–of music, of teaching, whatever–on me; I can handle it. As Bruce said, “Baby, I’m tougher than the rest.”

(BTW, I realize that this isn’t healthy.)

Even more, this simply is no longer the case. I get tired. This Sunday marks the second Sunday I’ve been off since Easter, and a number of those Sundays have been days where I’ve both lead music and taught as well.

I started to notice the fatigue about 6 weeks ago, when I’d wake up on Monday morning with the thought, “Oh man, I have to do Sunday in 6 more days.” (Worse yet, sometimes the thought would strike me on Sunday afternoon/evening before I’d even had a chance to catch my breath from the morning.)

Fortunately, I have two Sundays off (more or less, but that’s another story), so maybe there’s a way forward through this part of the forest.

III. QUESTIONS OF CALLING

At this point I’ve been in ministry, more or less full-time for 17 years. Roughly speaking, that’s 800 Sundays of music or teaching (I left out a whole year, and used 50 Sundays/year as an estimate).

That’s a lot of stuff.

Whether it’s just getting older, or something else that’s going on, right now I am FEELING those Sundays.

Put another way, sometimes I ask myself, “Is it time to do something else? What else might God want to do?”

Relatedly, it doesn’t escape me that time keeps rolling on, and I have more years behind me, vocationally-speaking, then I do ahead.

(Not being morbid; this is simply a fact.)

In a way, this is invevitable: horizons begin to narrow: I can no longer contemplate going on tour, or entertaining all the crazy dreams that I used to.

Now is the time, for practicality, isn’t it?

Trouble is, practicality was never very motivating for me.

I’ve been reading a lot of monastic literature lately, and there’s a part of me that resonates deeply with that life: rhythm, simple work, prayer and reading.

However, I’m pretty sure you can’t take your family into a monastery.

So I’m restless. I’m hungry, but not much looks inviting or intriguing right now. I seek rhythm and peace, and hope that the light shines through that rhythm and peace, and I wait.

Waiting’s not so bad, after all.

 

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James Stayed.

Once, for a class in college, I had to look up my family tree. It wasn’t that easy, because (a) though actually in existence (surprise!), the internet was largely unavailable to a “mere” undergraduate student like me and (b) there are some decided gaps in my ancestry. For one thing, many of my ancestors came from rural North Carolina, and records were scant (my great-grandfather was murdered, which someday I’ll write a song about, but that’s another story. Literally.)

One thread of my ancestors, however, was easy to find. I actually traced our arrival in the colonies(!) to somewhere in the late 1600s. From that point on, my ancestors were actually pretty active in the birth of our country. It was pretty cool to see, but one thing stood out. Though our family did a lot of really impactful things, my direct ancestors weren’t always the ones pulling the trigger, or signing the document, or meeting the President. Most of the time, it seemed like it was a brother. My direct ancestor was at home on the farm while the famous older or younger brother was out changing the direction of this young country…

 

Some friends of mine come over every other week or so to study the bible. This year we spent a lot of time in the book of James, and something struck me early on in the discussion. James, as best we can tell, was the brother of Jesus, and though he wasn’t a follower of Jesus while he was alive, somewhere after the resurrection James came to believe, and eventually became the leader of the church in Jerusalem. In the book of Acts, we see James’ significance in chapter 15, where Paul and Barnabas come to report on their activities around rest of the region.

“The whole assembly kept silence, and listened to Barnabas and Paul as they told of all the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles. After they finished speaking, James replied…”

According to the setting here, James has authority. Because of where he speaks (after the report), his words matter (and we see later that they actually do).

Anyway, I started thinking a lot about James, especially compared to Paul, Peter, and even Barnabas:

  • Paul (and Barnabas) travel the Mediterranean, “bringing the light” to the Gentiles (and writing what becomes much of the New Testament)
  • Peter is given the keys to the Kingdom by Jesus, eventually ends up in Rome, becomes the first “Pope” and is martyred.

But you know what James did?

James stayed behind.

He stayed behind, and he became a pastor to this little splinter group of Jewish folks who believed that Jesus was the Messiah, and that something amazing had bloomed into the world. He taught them, encouraged them, warned them, and protected them as best he could.

Mostly in obscurity, for even though at least one biblical scholar called James “The true first Pope” (by virtue of his stature and authority in Jerusalem as shown in Acts 15), James is largely unknown by people today.

While Paul got top billing (and let’s be clear, a whole lot of abuse as well), James quietly, obscurely led the Jerusalem church—the first mother church—through persecution and poverty.

Sometimes, I think about James, and I think about my ancestors (the Brevards, by the way: look them up, they were pretty major players in Revolutionary War-era North Carolina), and I think about myself.

The fact is, I like it when my friends go out and do big things. I like feeling a part of their success, like my behind the scenes contributions have somehow made a difference in their work. That I helped.

But you know what?

Sometimes, I think I need to step out too.

Ultimately, I’m glad James stayed in Jerusalem. He had to. Someone had to. And eventually a little piece of his story got told, in five short chapters, included right between Paul’s letters and Peter’s in the Bible.

I don’t want to be in the Bible.

But sometimes I think I should think about “leaving Jerusalem” as well.

Yes, yes, yes.

I get this, at a very deep level. This is how I approach music.

“Either you are the music or you’re not. There are a lot of people that want to do what I do, but what I do is about humility and righteousness and understanding, because music is precious. I know it’s just rock and roll, but there are moments in there. There really are and you can’t miss them. It’s got to be soulful, it’s got to speak to you, it’s got to twist your little heart, and you have to be turned on.” – Andy Johns, Producer, in September 2010 Guitar Player (see credits here)

What Goes On…

When I moved to “the big city”, one of the first things that was so shocking to me was how visible and accessible everyone’s home life was. Walking down practically any city street, you are maybe 10 feet away from someone’s living room, and their style — nouveau frat boy to OCD modernist — was on display for everyone to see. For years, frankly, I envied the clean lines and “just so” placement of people’s living rooms, their oh-so-hip furniture and general tidiness.

Over the years, I began to form stories in my mind about what happened inside those nifty spaces. “Surely,” I reasoned, “those folks are the most hip, gentle, intelligent people on the planet; surely the clean lines of their furniture match the nifty efficiency of their lives.” I could see a married couple on the couch, looking up from their copies of The Atlantic and the New York Times to debate the spiritual ramifications of post-modern literary theory while sipping cappuccinos. I saw children getting up after only 3 gentle beeps of a clever alarm clock (probably designed in Sweden), silently but quickly eating their healthy breakfast before jaunting off to a day of classical education.

Now, I like good design. Nothing major (though I do have a subscription to this, lol), just an appreciation for what goes in my living space. After saving for years, my wife and I have finally been able to put “that” kind of furniture in our house; to have “that” kind of kitchen. Though the furniture is still arriving and being unpacked, it is neat and tidy (and some of it, in fact, I believe is designed in Sweden). In fact, our house is pretty darn comfortable to be in, and I think communicates what we like about space, about art, and about life.

But guess what?

+ Parents still oversleep in this house, and have to rush around getting ready for work;
+ Kids need to be practically shoved out of bed in the morning to get ready for school;
+ Dust accumulates everywhere practically every two minutes!
+ Dinners get overcooked;
+ Homework gets struggled through…

Part of me is a little let down: having a comfortable couch doesn’t re-make your life — but part of me also realizes that all of this probably went on behind those peoples’ doors as well.

Decades

Okay, so yeah, I’m 41.

I never thought I’d be have a mid-life crisis; I always considered it so cliché. However, the truth is hard: just you try to be a relevant musician in his forties!

I’ve been struggling and wrestling with this concept of my age for at least a year now. I seemed to sneak through the actual birthday relatively unchanged, but the nagging feeling of “growing up” has been gaining power and momentum ever since, and the whispers are now beginning to become more assertive and audible.

So, yes, I’ve been having my share of “existential crises”: questions of meaning, activities, “could haves” versus “should haves” and so on and so on. I won’t bore any of you with the details (at least right now – that will happen another time over coffee or beer), but a few days ago, an encouraging thought peaked through the storm clouds:

My thirties were pretty good.

You see, I never really had a vocation or a calling until I hit 29. My twenties were pretty much a wasteland of wandering uncertainties and undemanding ambitions. However, by the time I hit 30 I’d discovered (or rather, been called) into this vocation called “ministry”, and I set off down the path. That decade was filled with: two children; two trips to Europe for ministry; a church plant; two tours around the country for ministry and music; awesome times in possibly the best city in the country (sorry NYC); intellectual curiosities and spiritual revelations; satisfaction and hunger; great vacations; some crisis; grace and forgiveness.

I’ve been running now for 10 years. It’s tempting to think that “it’s over”, but I need to remind myself that if all of that happened in the ten years–that I went from meandering to relatively focused, that I played a lot of music, grew my family up–that a lot more can happen in the next ten.

Here’s hoping.

A new decade.