Friday, December 10, 2010

The Full Monty

I sat in a Nashville coffee shop, the one across from the library, waiting for a meeting with someone who had apparently found better things to do.    I had secured a quiet table near the back, away from the ceiling speakers which were playing “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” as people my children’s age sipped sweet mocha drinks and laughed in sardonic tones, void of joy, evoking a dark, flatly cynical melody which curled through the shop like steam off a dragon’s tongue.

Waiting, I toyed with my Blackberry™, hoping for a positive sign from my wayward appointment.

I heard a low voice asking, “May I join you?” in a French accent.  I could hardly refuse; my table was large enough for several people and the one available seat was being held for my meeting.  I said, “Well, I have someone coming, but, sure, have a seat until he arrives.  By the way, I’m Phil”.

“Bon Soir, Phil.  I am Edmund.”

Interested, I said, “Nashville has many citizens of foreign blood, but I can’t say I have ever encountered a Frenchman here before.  Are you from Quebec?”

“Non, mon ami, I am from Marseilles, France.”

“Well, mon frère, I’ve done a lot of traveling, but as far as France goes, I’ve only been to Calais, and that was just a ferry stop on the way to Belgium.  I would love to see Paris someday.”

“Ah, yes, Paris.  Well, it has changed considerably since I was last there.  I hear I wouldn’t recognize it.”

Realizing my meeting was never going to happen, I asked if I could buy Edmund a coffee.

“Oh, no, thanks, it’s on me”, he said, summoning the  barista.  “Please, two caffe au laits”.

“Yes, Mr Dantès”.

Dantès?  “You must be named for the protagonist in The Count of Monte Cristo”, I said.

“Oh, no, my friend, I am The Count of Monte Cristo; I’m Edmund Dantès”.

What amazing luck to be drinking coffee with one of my favorite literary characters!

I told him that I had become aware of his story as a young boy, reading a Classics Illustrated comic book of Alexander Dumas’ wonderful book.  I had never forgotten the pictures of Edmund tunneling  through the prison rock, hoping to escape, only to meet another would-be escapee, the Abbé Faria, an old priest.  The comic tickled my fancy, swashbuckling and escapist, and centered on revenge.

I don’t know how old I was when I finally read the actual novel, but I have read it several times over the years.

Now, here I sat with the richest man of his time, the Bill Gates of the 19th Century.   I wondered if he had any interest in making a record; he could solve all my financial problems, and if he had any semblance of talent, the technology of 21st Century Nashville could make him a star, as it had plenty of mediocre singers.

“You know, Ed”, I said, “Your story is remarkable.  I mean, you were a very naïve sailor who trusted some very evil people.  Ironically, it was your naiveté  which got you into prison,  Prison, hardship, failure, and misfortune led you to becoming educated, and to your treasure, your fortune, and fame.”

“True.  No one learns much from comfort, my friend.  But isn’t it funny?  I went from being a man who believed in the goodness of humanity to a man who very nearly ruined myself by becoming obsessed with power and vengeance, the worst traits of humanity. 

I was given a choice between repaying evil with evil or taking the higher road of forgiveness.  I chose to repay evil in kind.  Despite my wealth and fame, I carry a burden of remorse."

“Okay, Ed”, I conceded, “Humanity is fallen, that’s a given.  None of us are perfect.  But it seems to me that you got lucky.   You didn’t have your moment of repentance until you’d avenged yourself against every one of those bastards who’d put you into prison.  I mean, you got richer than sin, killed all the bad guys off, and then had your ‘come to Jesus’ moment.  So, even though you’re one of my heroes of literature, it’s kind of hard to totally sympathize with how your story ended.”

“Sir, would you care to see the scars on my back?  Alas, what I wouldn’t give to have not gone to jail and been tortured for 14 years.  What I wouldn’t give to have just kept the girl in the beginning of my story, lived a simple, modest sailor’s life, and died an old man with loving grandchildren and children gathered around.  Instead, I had to lose my woman, my Mercédès, to my supposed best friend, who hated me all along.  You know, Philippe, betrayal leaves a deep gash in one’s soul.  Have you been betrayed?”

Hmm.  I didn’t know about that.  I guess everyone’s been betrayed, haven’t they?  Haven’t we all experienced the fallout of The Fall?  Sure, I’ve been stiffed, I’ve been sued, and I’ve been wrongly accused.  (I’ve been rightly accused, too, by the way.)  But I haven’t suffered, really suffered, and I don’t know many who have.  I spent a night in jail for hitchhiking one time, and the sheriff purposely left the window outside the cell open in the middle of January, just to be mean, but I’ve never suffered in the way Edmund Dantès had. 

Edmund ordered up two more decaf lattes, and some gluten free cookies as well. 

Now was as good a time as any.

“So, Ed.  How much of the treasure is left?   You were a sailor who found a lot of dough; I’m just wondering if you were good with money or if you were more like a trailer park guy winning the lottery?”

Turns out, Edmund Dantès had learned a thing or two in prison.  The Abbé had taught him several languages, mathematics, economics, and ethics, long before he revealed the secret treasure of Monte Cristo.   Edmund used this education to economically ruin his adversaries; there was suicide and murder involved.  I assume he got better grades in Calculus than in Ethics.  

It occurred to me that perhaps he was still living because he’d paid for the services of a magician, a witch, an alchemist, or wizard to keep him alive for a few hundred years.  Of course, I asked.

“No, my friend.  I live across the street.  But it gets stuffy in there, and it’s so bloody quiet with all the shushing and four-eyed glaring, that I often come here and see if anyone will remember me.  Alas, it’s quite rare to find anyone who reads these days, never mind someone who’s read my story.”

“Yeah, well, there’s the movie, right?” I asked.

Edmund’s eyebrows raised, owl-ish, and he just whispered, “Please” in an exasperated tone.

“ Sorry, man.”

With that, he made his way back to the library, while I sat in disbelief.

Why has that story held me for so many years? 

I like this man, who fights against impossible odds and wins.  Who doesn’t like the idea of finding and having more money than God?  Likewise, I don’t mind that justice finds his old enemies and has its way with them, as justice isn’t altogether a bad thing. 

My own story is one of redemption, plain and simple.  It’s unfolding as I go, and I’m not writing it, but I am turning the pages, and I do have something to say about what the protagonist does. 

Does he find his treasure?  Indeed, he’s found it in the love he gives and the love he receives.

What about revenge?  Does he get revenge?  Well, I’ve thought about my “enemies” and the vengeance that might be fun to have on those who’ve burned me or mine, and to be honest, I like me better when I’m letting go of old foes.  The scars have a better chance of healing and disappearing if I don’t speak of them.  If I can come to a place of imaging they never existed, perhaps they’ll completely heal.

Does he win in the end?  Indeed, I can assure you, he does.  I’m not leaving without a fight. 

In the meantime, I’ll have another latte.

Friday, November 12, 2010


I'm writing in a chilly hotel room in New England on a fine November day, after having just had a good walk with Rickie and Bryan, two of my bandmates in The Red Dirt Boys.  With Thanksgiving just around the corner, and with so much to be thankful for, holiday or not, I'm thinking about thankfulness.

This quote from GK Chesterton is something I might apply more heartily to my good life:

"You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing and grace before I dip the pen in the ink.”

Summer 1974, I was home in Rhode Island, trying to earn a little money before heading back to Taylor University for my junior year.  I got a job at Hasbro, the toy manufacturer  in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.  

It's pronounced Puh-tucket, by the way.  I remember when the Pawtucket Red Sox came to play the Nashville Sounds some years back, and a Sounds fan was jeering the boys from Rhode Island.

"Hey Paw-tucket!!  Where's Maw-tucket?"   I guess it could have been worse.

Pawtucket is an industrial city just north of Providence.  The Industrial Revolution in America started there with Samuel Slater's Mill.  

I was working the second shift, 4pm to 11pm, on an assembly line making accessories for the popular GI Joe dolls.  A vocal opponent of the Viet Nam War, it was an ironic job to have, making weapons of mass destruction for GI Joe, with his popular Kung Fu grip.  

Aware of the irony, I went home one night, and sat at my mother's grand piano, and wrote a Christmas Ballad called "GI Joe", about all the little children who'd be receiving him and his accessories on the birthday of the Prince of Peace.  It was a nod to two of my heroes, Jesus and Randy Newman.

Now, there's a pair.

My job was to drill a hole and insert a screw into a piece of plastic, the end product of which I can't remember.  It was the worst job on the assembly line, not quite enough work for two people, but a little too much for one, at least it seemed so to me.  The conveyor belt would bring gray pieces of plastic to me faster than I could send them along to the next person, and before I knew it, I was backed up and buried by these non-descript parts.

Most of the people on the line were speaking Portuguese, and only they and God Almighty knew what they were yelling at me.  Eventually, the line supervisor would come to my aid, inserting the screws while I vigorously drilled holes.  It was endless and futile.  Alas, I was not in the same echelon as Rosie the Riveter.  

After my first shift at the new job, I went home discouraged.  I couldn't imagine surviving a summer of being the slowest drone at Hasbro.  Here I was, a college educated, well-traveled and literate young man, being humbled by illiterate immigrants who had a way with plastic.  

I told my parents that I didn't think I could last for long; that either I'd give up on Hasbro or Hasbro would give up on me.  Either way, I'd be a Hasbro has-been.

My mother suggested that I read a book by a Pentecostal preacher named Merlin Carrothers.  I cringed, naturally.  I've been cringing for many years now, with the book suggestions from dear old Mom.   "Have you read the John Stott devotional I bawt you fuh Chrismiss yet?  I sent one to the President; I wunduh if he's read it."

It's hard enough finding time to read the books I want to read, never mind the ones she thinks I should read.  However, on this hot summer night, reflecting on a summer of futile hole-drilling, I was desperate enough to give some consideration to my mother's literary suggestions.

Reading a book by a Pentecostal would be a stretch, but the name Merlin must have softened me to the idea.  Maybe some deep magic was at work.  After all, a guy named Merlin can't be all bad.

The book was called "From Prison to Praise", just one of many "Praise" titles the good Merlin had written in his literary career.  Merlin's magic spell was really a scripture verse: In all things give thanks.  He believed one should literally thank God for everything in their lives, no matter how terrible those things were.

He would cite story after story of people whose difficult lives were transformed by thankfulness.   Torn-up lives would somehow be restored by the resolute speaking of the words "thank you"; practitioners of this rite would often move from the worst of circumstances to the best.

I'm sure Merlin was praising God Almighty all the way to the bank.

Nonetheless, it remains a radical idea, doesn't it?  

Yet, the belief that God is involved with the details of our lives raises more questions than it does answers.   Something good happens to me and I say "Thank God"; maybe I just missed getting broad-sided by a drunk driver, or maybe I just made a killing in song-writing royalties.   "Glory to God in the highest!."  But then the person who did get broad-sided comes to mind, and, on the one hand, "Thank God it was him not me", but on the other... Is the victim's family saying "Thank God"?   If I could understand the ways of God, I suppose I'd be God.

Dreadful things can happen in this world of ours, things which make us feel so far from God Almighty's care, things which make Existentialism seem palatable.  The idea that God is involved in the details has always been with me; I was raised with it.  As a bald man, I chuckle at the scripture verse which says, "He numbers the hairs on my head".   No big deal, Lord.

Thinking about a summer on the assembly line, I had few options.

So, there I sat reading story after story about miserable circumstances shifting in the light of the words "Thank you".  And I was miserable enough at my Hasbro workbench to begin meditating on the praise of God Almighty.  I started my second day on the second shift with a will to thank God for my job.  For the next 7 hours, I kept my mind busy with  the words "Thank you, Jesus".  It is an odd remembrance, the willful occupation of my thoughts with the goodness of God, because, frankly, I've GD'd unpleasant situations more than not.   I say this not with pride, but as a matter of fact.  I'm not some stellar Christian with a Sola Gloria attitude.

Back at the drill press, with the praise of God repeating silently in my mind, nothing seemed to change.  The concrete floor didn't get any more comfortable under my Converse All Stars.  I didn't get any faster and the conveyor belt didn't slow down.  The gray plastic pieces would start crowding up as workers down the line tapped their fingers.  In my mind, I thought, well, this is ridiculous, but thank you, Lord, that I'm in a job I'm unsuited for, and that it's not going great.  

Whether it was Providence or just Industry watching out for itself, my little Portuguese supervisor would come to my aid, and catch me up with the assembly line.  It must be working, I thought, and I'd keep on thanking.

Friday morning came with a new job offer from a man at Dad's church- Bob Glover.  I was offered the job of a laborer for the construction firm that Bob was a foreman for.  God be praised, I could kiss Hasbro good bye, and I did.  I can't remember, but I probably didn't even bother showing up for the second shift to say "You can't fire me, I quit!".  I was happy to move on, and of course, I thanked God, and decided that Merlin's spell worked.

I enjoyed working construction so much that it never occurred to me to continue my newfound rite of thankfulness.  It was as if annunciating the words "Thank you" were a spell which I no longer needed.   (It would seem that we learn little from good outcomes, although I would hope that's not really true.  Perhaps with some reflection, my lesson has become clear after three decades of cloudiness on the subject.)

I recently read, and unfortunately can't remember where, that God is well-suited to receive praise.  It isn't neediness which causes the Almighty to desire our thanks; but perhaps it's just as simple as God's deservedness.  When we narrowly escape from the speeding car, to whom else do we give our gratitude, whether an Almighty Hand was involved or not?   The life which God gives us continues for another sunrise, another day of enjoying the beauty of the earth, of enjoying the companionship of friends, and another day to bask in the delirium of love.

Back on the assembly line, where nothing seemed any different, perhaps the most unlikely of changes was indeed occurring, the slight smoothing over of the rocky terrain of my own heart.  

And if that's the case, may wonders never cease.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Horse Sense

Phil Bailey must have been one hell of a guy, because my parents gave their third born child his name.  That's all I know about him; I've got his name.  Nothing else.  He faded away with the state of Maine in Dad's rear view mirror on my parents' move to New Hampshire, and all that I remember are some vague stories about pranks and outhouses from days long before my time.

I had a baby sitter named Pricilla Ferrin who called me "Flip", much to my chagrin.  "Philip!" I would retort to no avail.  Pricilla was a character- very funny and witty and sweet, and I'm sure if I saw her all these years later, she would still call me "Flip", but now I'd take it a little better.  She married a mortician named Karl, and I've no doubt that she nicknames every cadaver that rolls through their doors.

I'm "Phil" to about 99 percent of those who know me.  Those who call me “Philip” are either related or are truly intimate friends, except for one guy named Daniel, who calls everyone their Christian name in a condescending fashion.  I call him “Dan”.

I have grown into my name, but as a young boy, I was jealous of my brother David, who was named for my father.  To make me feel better about the situation, my father told me that my name was a great name, and that it was fitting for a boy who liked horses as much as I did.  Philip, you see, is Greek for "lover of horses". 

Indeed, the horse has always been my favorite animal.  As a boy, along with pictures of Sherman tanks, pirate ships, guns, and airplanes, I was constantly illustrating my schoolwork with horses.   Somewhere in a box of boyhood treasures I have a small plastic white horse, a keepsake from a large set of Revolutionary War soldiers that Dave and I played with.  It's scratched up and imbedded with dirt from the constant handling of a red-blooded American boy's hands.

Our father grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania, and shared a horse named Tony with his brother Gene.  I used to think what a marvelous thing it was that my Dad grew up riding horses.  Sometimes, armed with a bunch of carrots, he'd pull his car up beside a horse in a random pasture, and feed it with his bare hand, which seemed brave at the time, but Dad knew horses.  He loved all animals, but like me, had a soft spot for Brother Horse.

In 1964, our family took a cross-country trip from Rhode Island to Los Angeles and back.  It took 5 weeks, and it was the greatest trip of my boyhood. 

Riding in Dad's brand new, metallic blue Chevy Bel Air wagon, we saw America's wonders- the Grand Canyon, the Grand Tetons, the Mississippi River, and Disneyland.  I have many wonderful memories of our odyssey, but the one that involves a horse is from Utah's Zion National Park.

Camping there for a day or two, my parents sent Dave and I on a horseback riding adventure- a trail ride up the walls of Zion Canyon.  We zig-zagged our way up the side of a sheer cliff on sturdy horses, sure-footed and reliable.  At one point, high above our starting point, David's horse reared, spooked by a snake.  He was all of 14, and hung on for dear life.  He was shaken, but he lived to tell about it, and it made our shared adventure a much more interesting story.  Such are the moments that make big brothers heroic.

Two years later, I was 14, and my parents had sent me to Camp Brookwoods in New Hampshire.  At the time, going to camp for a month was my reward for getting passing grades in 8th grade.  Now, I realize that my parents were the ones being rewarded by the absence of their beloved black sheep.  It was a well-deserved break.

Brookwoods was full of upper class boys in Izod shirts, boys with more money in their savings accounts than my dad made in a year.  Like many well-to-do camps, there were stables there, and horseback riding was an available activity.  Western style was beneath Brookwoods; we learned the proper "English" method, on saddles with no horns to hold on to.

I was assigned a large palomino, 16 hands high, named Butternut.  He was quiet and easy, and the tallest horse I've ever been on.  Every day of that long, hot July, I would amble from some sleepy activity- making lanyards or wallets- and find my way to the stable to see my old friend Butternut. 

To say I had a way with horses would be an enormous lie.  I believe Butternut had a way with me, patient and bemused, much like Bree in CS Lewis' The Horse and His Boy.  He never threw me, reared, or acted up.  Maybe he was too old to care; one hoof on a banana peel and the other in the glue factory, but if a horse can be kind and forgiving of a slow learning boy, Butternut certainly was.  We had a riding instructor, but Butternut was the real teacher.

When I was in college, I took a semester of horseback riding for phys ed.  It was fun saddling my horse, and galloping through the open fields of Nowhere, Indiana, the wind blowing through my hair- yes, I had hair then.  These critters had some life in them, and it was a thrill to feel the horse beneath me, surging forward with a gentle nudge of my heels, and riding like the wind.

It's been a long time since I hoisted myself onto the strong back of a horse.  I can't even remember when that might have been.  But horses will always catch my eye, perhaps knowing my name, Lover of Horses.

It's that affection for Horse that makes one shameful story all the more ironic and sad.

We'd been snowed in for a few days, a rare event in Nashville.  On the first day of the snow, my friend Tom Howard passed away, but that is a story I've told elsewhere in this collection of tales.  After a day or two, Nashville dug itself out, as it always does.  My Southern Born Woman and I decided to drive out to one of the many parks that dot Nashville's borders. 

We made our way slowly up and down the single lane drive, and rounded the bend finding ourselves grille to grille with a large pickup truck towing a horse trailer going the wrong way on a one-way road.

I was annoyed.  A woman got out of the passenger side, and was hoping to wave me past the truck, but I wasn't going anywhere; I had no idea what lay under the leaves and snow on the side of the road, and didn't feel like scraping the belly of my car on some hidden sharp rock.  Besides, I thought, what is with these self-entitled people thinking they can drag their asses and their horse the wrong way up this narrow road? 

I was too annoyed to care about the woman's story of rescuing their horse, and of having to drive the wrong way for whatever reason.  Hey, for all I know, it was just a story, right?

Of course, my genteel, properly raised passenger was aghast that my first thought wasn't to help them.  I sat, not moving, for what seemed like minutes, because of the inconvenience to me, and then finally, half-arriving at my senses (not fully, mind you), proceeded over the road's shoulder with no damage to my car, but plenty to my soul.

It was an event that she and I thankfully didn't speak of for quite some time.  I didn't wish to remember it; I had enough self-awareness to know I'd been an ass, and just wanted to move on.

Some months passed, and we found ourselves discussing why I would be so inordinately put out with these people and their horse.  It was a moment of utter shame for me, bitter and poignant and embarrassing, yet potentially pivotal and life-changing.  I was repentant and remorseful.  

A week doesn't go by in which I don't think about the horse incident.  The impact of my own selfishness on that winter afternoon continues to be real, and continues to reveal truth to me about the human heart, and about the ways nature can speak to the human condition.

Of note is that, in this unfortunate episode, I never laid eyes on Brother Horse or Sister Horse.  For all I know, perhaps that trailer carried the progeny of my old friend Butternut, who'd been such a gracious teacher to me as a young boy.  Whatever the case, once again, Horse was teaching me a lesson.

As I now think on that noble beast of burden, I wonder of my own burdens, and which of them would weigh enough to make such a beastly man of me on that cold Sunday afternoon.  Meditating on Brother Horse, I think of the dignity with which every horse carries itself, even under the greatest of loads.  And again, I wonder, what burden do I carry whose size leaves no room for me to walk with dignity? 

It's said that a tamed horse, returning to the wild, quickly sheds the habits of domestication.  With freedom, The Wild returns to the horse, who remembers its true nature.  No longer a beast of burden, Brother Horse runs free and noble, spirited and joyous.

I wonder what happened to the horse in that trailer.  Sometimes I fantasize that it was set free in some beautiful meadow, never again to feel the weight of so much as a saddle blanket or the cold steel shock of a bridle's bit.   And I pray, Love, free me of the burdens of selfishness and pride, let me run with dignity and beauty, but keep the bridle close at hand.

Friday, July 30, 2010

The Chick Upstairs

God knows she’s a mystery. She plays like a song in my head that I can’t turn off, because I’m still wrapping my mind around its meaning and its structure. She’s a complex blues tune, beyond 3 chords and the truth. She’s a melody that rolls like “Georgia On My Mind” or “Send Me Someone to Love”. And her lyric, well, don’t ask me. Maybe she taught Dylan his stuff, and William Blake, too.

She defines passion. She’s got a temper, fiery and hot, but not before her graceful patience is pushed to the edge of reason. Occasionally, regret drives her to extremes, but the immensity of her heart somehow reins in her contradictions; try as I might, I can’t find fault with her.

And Lord, she’s got a killer sense of humor.

She’s as understanding as only a mother can be. Sometimes I imagine her asking, “Philip, where did you come from anyway?”, as my own mother used to ask when baffled by her bluesman son’s antics. But this woman knows the path of my pilgrimage better than anyone, because she has walked every mile of it, often leading the way, often warily tagging along. She appreciates when I stop and ask for directions, but knows that more often than not, I’ll go all male on her and seek to find my destination without help.

She’s all-loving, but never doting. Omnipresent, but not annoyingly so. She’ll give you all the space you want.

And, Lord, she’s handy, like a good shade tree mechanic. She’ll repair that aching engine of mine every so often, cooling it down just by laying her hand on my heart.

God Almighty. The Chick Upstairs.

In truth, I call Her “Him” because my picture of God is decidedly paternal. Growing up with a reasonable and loving dad never made the masculine image of God anything but good to my eyes. My mother and her mother before her wouldn’t have engendered my trust for a feminized she-god, meddlesome and insistent upon always being right. Oh, Lord, She’d be bugging me about washing my hands, and reading my Bible, and changing my underwear just in case I wind up in the emergency room. I wouldn’t be able to question Her without being accused of blasphemy.

But I’ve always said, God may be God, but he’s no narcissist.

I imagine God the Father quietly nodding as I ramble on, giving me a grin like my old man would have when I played some boogie woogie version of a hymn, and kissing me on the lips when I showed unannounced at his back door.

Nonetheless, I’m not sure what’s so riling when some Christians encounter inclusive language regarding the Person of God. I still cross myself and the brows of my woman and my children, intoning the words “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”, and am quite comfortable doing so. At Christ Church Cathedral, the traditional language of the Trinity is sometimes altered to “Creator, Savior, and Sanctifier”. I recently read of a proposal in the Presbyterian Church to use this alteration: “Mother, Child, and Womb”. What can I say? Point well taken, but... womb? I’ll take the comfort, but not the claustrophobia. What happens when that line gets translated back to male language?

The gospel narrative is beautiful to me with its perfectly loving parent, sending the willing heir to save a reckless world from itself. The language of love is hard to put into words; in our attempt to pull the Divine down to our level, we forget that God has already descended to us in Christ, coming as a servant. In Divine Servitude, perhaps God allows for our tainted images of him/her/it, if only to begin an eternal conversation. And perhaps our blurred images diffuse the blinding beam of Who God is, so that we can endure the light of his presence.

While I don’t have a particular need to see God as She, I find it amusing that believers want to limit the scope of God’s image to “The Man Upstairs.”

We like to see God as one of our type.

God Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, existed before gender, before limitations. And a great irony of the Creation, in whatever manner it occurred, is that things came into focus and definition, and Man gave those things names, from Armadillos to Zebras.

When God’s glory was exhibited to those nomadic Hebrews of old, they would proclaim him “Lion of Judah”, “Morning Star”, or “Rock of my salvation”, giving definition and understanding to an infinite and fathomless God. Someone somewhere has probably likened God unto an armadillo. If we can call him “Rock”, “Lion”, “Star”, why not “Mother”?

There are those who want to keep the masculinity of God in tact, and there are those who want to neuter him completely. Neither party seem to be in it for the praise of God but more likely for the praise of their own identity. Even so, it’s as if an involuntary muscle is acquiescing to the notion of God Incarnate, God among us, Emmanuel. Or should I say Emmanuelle?

Growing up in my father’s fairly progressive Baptist Church, it was only a matter of time before I encountered a real live Christian Feminist. Sue was a tall and very vocal woman, whose passion was the reclamation of a woman’s full measure of self and place. She and her husband would often have me over for a meal, and inevitably, conversation would turn towards Dad’s church and how not enough was happening to advance women in our congregation.

Sue would criticize a prayer that Dad had intoned, wishing it had been more inclusive, and bemoaning the word “Father”, which Dad often used in addressing God. Naturally, I was defensive of my dad, knowing his heart, and particularly knowing how often he had made strides for the advancement of women within his church governing body. It was Dad, with great encouragement of my mother, who made sure women could serve Communion and become deacons at Barrington Baptist. Sue must have sensed this, because she continued to attend.

Years later, when I was an elder in a conservative Presbyterian (PCA) church for a brief season, I cringed at the fact that PCA women were relegated to bake sales and nursery duty, and barred from leadership roles. Thus, when we elders would convene to nominate new elders and deacons, the names I threw in the hat were those of capable women. My fellow elders chuckled at my apparent lack of theological correctness, and nothing changed. At least Sue would have been proud of me for trying.

When a friend sent me a book called “The Shack”, I was intrigued by the presumably Evangelical author’s device of using a large, black woman to portray the parental image of God. Yet, the Almighty Matron was called “Papa” in the book, perhaps giving a full acknowledgment that God is all masculine and all feminine.

The male and female facets of God’s self have been distributed to humankind in ways that are manageable and portable in this lifetime. Perhaps, when the Almighty gathers us all together in that great day of Christ’s return, we will be restored to a likeness of God that is equally full of the feminine and the masculine.

We cling to what we know, good and bad. God can reveal himself in beautiful, redemptive movements, yet remain stigmatized by the images we confine him to. If being someone’s child was a less than wonderful experience, it’s likely that we’ll imagine God the Father or Mother as a killjoy who douses our passions with the glib fact of his disinterest in us.

And so, one turns away from the blurry image of a Curmudgeon God, and picks up a paintbrush and allows a canvas to dictate an unforeseeable outcome. And as if from dust, something of beauty appears, something of our own making. This is why we write, paint, compose, and imagine, and that is the only kind of predestination that makes sense to me: We were created to imitate our Creator.

Created in God’s image, we create. When it comes to theology, we tend to create God in our own image.

In our search for intimacy with the Divine, given to imagination as we are, we give our image of God a shape and an identity that we can put our trust in. The idea of a shape-shifting God is beautiful; this is a confident God, adaptable and congenial in his willingness to be seen from another angle, yet with his character remaining fully in tact. The triune God revealed as Creator, Savior, and Sanctifier, unbound by our imagination, yet bound to the integrity of who only God Almighty can be. God.

It’s hard for me to see Christ as something other than God the Son, but it’s not difficult to embrace the Oneness of the Trinity as gender-free and shapeless, magnificent in Its mystery, confident in Its mission to reconcile the world unto Itself, and earnestly being about the creative business of redemption.

So much of my own redemption has come in the form of the woman who loves me, that considering God Almighty as feminine seems plausible and attractive to me, not that God will be emasculated, but that his vastness will be made larger to me.

He, She, It. Ai ai ai. Sometimes the better names might be what God Almighty is doing: Redemption. Restoration. Rejuvenation. Revelation.

Beholding the burning bush, Moses asked God Almighty for some identification, and heard the words “I am.”

In a way, that’s all that matters. The Chick Upstairs simply is.

Painting by Phil Madeira

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

In The Wake of The Deluge

Sometimes I wonder if the people who come up with names for neighborhoods, apartment complexes, streets, and parks should be required to take a course in literary aesthetics. I think zoning boards should prohibit names which sound stupid.

For example, my neighborhood is called Raintree Forest, which sounds to me like a feminine hygiene product. To my knowledge, there's no such thing as a "raintree". I'm sure of it because the spell-check on my computer keeps highlighting the word in red.

Here in Tennessee, and perhaps in America in general, there is a fixation for naming suburban developments after English towns and villages. Having traveled the UK many times, I know something about the real places that suburban planners steal names from, and often they are not as quaint in reality as one might think. Have you ever been to Sheffield, England? If you had, you wouldn't name your neighborhood after it.

When E and I separated, I moved into an apartment complex called "The Enclave". Given the isolation one feels in the throes of a marriage dissolving, the complex was aptly named. Yet, the solitude I experienced emptied me in a way which allowed my soul to be make room for the love that would come by way of friends, strangers, my children, and Spirit.

My two-bedroom place was pathetically empty- a bed in my room, and two beds in the other for my daughters. They were alarmed by the bare bones, but I liked it. The one luxury we had was a television sitting on a small wooden box.

I put an easel in the dining area, and started painting again. I had stopped painting during the first months of my 25 year marriage, and now felt myself being pulled back into what had been a contemplative exercise.

When the girls would visit, we'd eat on the floor in the living room, where I would lay towels in case there was an accident involving food. I tried to make light of the situation by comparing it to the family camping trips we'd enjoyed in years past, but it didn't lessen my daughters' concerns that my fortunes had truly gone south.

Most nights, after going to sleep, I would wake up drenched in sweat, starting at 1 AM, and continuing til about 5 or 6 until I finally couldn't take anymore. I would rise, and go for a walk, but the neighborhood surrounding The Enclave wasn't much of a walker's paradise, so eventually, I started using the treadmill in the gym of the Enclave's clubhouse.

My isolation and restless nights drove me to exercising, and before I knew it, I had dropped 40 or 50 pounds, power-walking 2 miles early every morning. Since I was already up, I now had a good 90 minutes before I needed to pick the girls up at E's for school. I discovered that my church, Saint Bartholomew's Episcopal, had a morning prayer service at 7, so following my power walk and shower, I'd head for the pews.

There were usually only 3 or 4 of us in those early morning hours, huddled in the first two pews, the sanctuary dimly lit, cold, and quiet. Led by Randy and Cathy, we would quietly work our way through prayers, creeds, and scripture readings. I remember most of these mornings as rainy Spring days which served as a metaphor for my journey, rainy with a slight chance of resurrection.

Randy, who would eventually become a full-fledged priest, had been someone I'd run from in the past. He had seemed a little too flaky to me, and was "Charismatic" like a lot of the crazies of my past who had attached themselves to me like barnacles to a boat's hull. This boat would come about, or turn around, when it saw Randy coming.

Once he told me, "The Lord's been talking to me about you. Don't worry, most of it's good."

I started building a wall right there and then, and told him I had no interest in what the Lord was telling him. And I truly didn't.

The first time I attended morning prayers, the irony of redemption greeted me in the form of Randy's hug. I was informed by our past, yet I felt strangely safe, and sensed that one or both of us had changed.

I became a morning prayer regular for that short yet excruciatingly painful period of my life. Randy and Cathy would embrace me upon arrival, and upon intoning the words "Peace be with you" at the service's end.

One day, I asked him if he remembered what God had said to him back when I had started building my wall. He said, "Oh, that? That was just crazy talk!"

Those days of early morning power walks and prayers got me through the early pain of divorce. Sometimes, departing from the church in my old Mercedes, I would experience a deluge of tears. My therapist told me my heart was thawing out, and making room for love, but I just wanted to dam up the flood of tears and get on with living.

Other times, I'd have a remembrance of a painful event that I had shoved to some dark corner of my memory. I would be taken by surprise, ambushed by a rusty, jagged remark. Often, I would be haunted by the unknown price my kids would pay for my decision to leave their mother. Of course, that is still a viable concern.

Of those tear stained days, what I remember most is the centering experience of being in a house of God Almighty in the early hours, intoning ancient prayers in the hope that I wouldn't completely lose my way.

A few months passed, and the gavel came down, and the divorce was final.

I continued my exercising, but eventually, morning prayers fell by the wayside.

Six years passed. Water under the bridge. Water over the bridge.

In the wake of the Nashville flood, I had a personal awakening. I had no personal losses as did so many other Nashvillians, but those deep waters brought with them a mystical effect on my life. Seeing the mini-islands that the flood created, I faced a reality check. How like an island was I willing to become? How willing was I to isolate from my daughters, my friends, and my dearest companion?

There were patterns of behavior that might isolate me if I continued on. No, there was nothing scandalous, nothing extraordinary, but like so many Americans, I was easily lured into feelings of self-entitlement.

Looking around at the massive damage the flood brought to Tennessee, and seeing peoples' homes and lives put in disarray, I found myself with a crowbar and a hammer at the homes of a few friends whose places had been decimated. I was reminded of how good I had it, and of how blessed I was in friends, family, love and work.

Witnessing the generous spirit unique to Middle Tennessee, and exhilarated by the experience of volunteering, even in the most basic of ways, I was reminded that this is how we're supposed to live all the time, not just while in dire straits.

The flood had swept across my eyes, and cleared my vision, and revealed the island I might be unto myself, if I didn't find my center.

So, on a Tuesday morning, 6 years to the day of my divorce, I walked into a small neighborhood church at 7 am, and bent my knee before God Almighty, hoping I'd find myself surrounded and grounded by Spirit in the wake of the deluge.

Monday, May 10, 2010


The flood came slyly, soothing my ears with its rainy, new age soundtrack tempting me to crawl back into bed on a Saturday morning, and curl up with a good novel for the third time through.

It had been a sad enough week, and like Stevie Ray Vaughn once sang, the sky was crying, perhaps for the two suicides that had rocked our town within days of each other.

One was a schoolmate of my daughter Maddy’s, who had driven to the highest bridge in these parts, the Natchez Trace Bridge, which sits high above Highway 96 near Franklin, Tennessee. I guess the fear of living fueled whatever bravery was required for her to make the 155 foot leap to her end.

A few days later, a guitarist friend was having a conversation with his parents at his Franklin home. He casually went down into his basement, and hung himself. Bill, as I remember him, had always been troubled. A few days after his death, a mutual friend and I noted that we’d both been shocked but not surprised.

The Kyrie was at the forefront of my mind, even before the deluge crept down the Cumberland. Lord, have mercy.

While I made a pot of coffee, the rain started seeping through the same old spot near my chimney.

It was the weekend, and I had work to do. Dennis Holt had come over to play drums on some music I’d recorded. As a rule, I like to record drums first and let the other instruments fall in line with their rhythm, but I had something I’d recorded “live” in my basement with John Paul White, a most passionate singer, who can croon, soar, twang or roar. We had recorded what we call a “Guitar Vocal” version of the song, and I couldn’t leave well-enough alone. I decided it needed some architectural supports, so I brought in Dennis.

If Dennis were a doctor, he’d manage to find the pulse of a corpse, so keen is his ear. I’ll often bring him in and have him play on a haphazard recording, needing the cohesion, camouflage, and excitement his drumming can bring.

I like living in this community of musicians, who can drop everything and show up 30 minutes after an idea has been spawned. In no time, Dennis delivered the elements that had seemed lacking in the original recording.

When he left, it was raining pretty hard. A few minutes passed, and I continued working on the music. Dennis called and began talking about high water on Crockett Road and asking about alternate routes back to town. I sent him up to Concord Road and then shut my computer down, showered, and headed to town. I was thinking my Southern Born Woman and I would enjoy the cozy sound of rain on the windows while reading a book we’d started.

Also, we had some tasks that needed doing in preparation for her upcoming mixed media event called “Jezebel’s Got The Blues and Other Works of Imagination”, so I sure didn’t want to be stuck in the sticks. I was ready for an afternoon of working together, and enjoying her company.

As I drove, I checked in with my daughter Kate, to see where she was hiding out at. She was working her checkout job at Target, and couldn’t talk, so I left a message asking to be informed of her whereabouts once work let out.

About a mile from the Interstate, Concord Road was under water, and people were turning around. I took a right on Wilson Pike, a little two-lane road which crosses several streams on its way north. I’m a determined guy, and until a door slams in my face, I’ll assume its open. That character trait usually serves me well; not always, but usually.

Sure enough, I wasn’t a mile up Wilson Pike, when the low riding Lincoln in front of me slowed down and surveyed the submerged road. It didn’t look so bad to me, and I was feeling impatient. The Lincoln lurched forward and made it across the brook with me in tow.

I thought, this is nothing.    That kind of thinking relates to yet another character trait, and perhaps that has served me well, too.    Not always, but usually.

The drive was oddly beautiful, surrounded by lush lawns and trees, but muddy waters continued to rise.  Near the end of Wilson Pike, I came to a wide river burying all trace of the roadway.   I waited as a southbound sedan tested the waters and passed me, water rolling from its wheel wells.  Giving my car some gas, I faced the flood and plowed through, exactly where the southbound car had come from, while oncoming traffic waited to see what would become of me.  I could feel the water splashing against the fenders, and pushing against my tires, but I made my way through, pumping my brakes once across.

Moments later, I was in Brentwood proper, out of the woods. I drove the remaining eight miles to my dearest companion’s without incident.

She greeted me with a smile and a hug, and we chatted about her paintings and her theatre pieces which she was preparing for performance.  I was to provide the background music with my old National guitar and a slide, moaning the blues as actors gave voice to her musings about some troubled Old Testament characters, Jonah, Jezebel, Lot’s wife, and others.

She asked for details about Bill, and I gave her what sketchy information I’d been given. We wondered about his ex-wife and their sons, and talked about the impossible sadness of a funeral service when someone passes on in this manner.   We talked about the button suicide pushes with my daughters and me, about how their maternal grandmother’s choice to die raises its grotesque head when others give the gift that keeps on giving.

We worked for a while on her project, experimenting with canvas, paper, acrylic paint and other media, then drove a few blocks away to a showing of paintings of trees by her friend Mindy.  Little did we know that trees were falling fast at Radnor Lake, one of our favorite walking places. Nor did we know that the same was happening at other parks in our fair city.

We had no idea that there were neighborhoods being submerged by the overflowing Cumberland and Harpeth Rivers, or that a grass-roots rescue effort would soon be underway.   At Symphony Hall, the massive pipe organ was taking a beating, while the concert Steinway grand piano was being twisted, warped, and strangled. 

Over at Soundcheck, where I used to keep my Hammond Organ, and where many of Nashville’s musicians rehearse and store their gear, the Cumberland was rising.  Eventually the uncontained river would destroy over 1,000 instruments, including priceless vintage guitars owned by Vince Gill, Keith Urban, and other fine musicians.

The Grand Ole Opry was underwater, but the Ryman Auditorium, the Mother Church of Country Music, was on high ground, for the moment at least.

Meanwhile, we huddled under a wide umbrella and walked up Belmont Boulevard to PM Restaurant. We ordered our food and watched the TV overhead, with its sobering news, she eating sushi, and me eating a wasabi cheeseburger.  If PM Restaurant isn’t washed away one day soon, try their cheeseburger; it's the best in Nashville.

Kate called in tears, wondering where to go from Target.   I suggested she drive to our friend Derri's, who lives nearby.  He was ready for her, as is the way of Nashville in crisis.  It wasn’t the first time our family had been scattered across town in bad weather.  Instead, she hightailed it to my place, which was a blessing in disguise.  My basement was slightly wet, and she dutifully unplugged electrical gear, and moved instruments to the living room.

Maddy was stuck at Kate’s apartment, getting to be the little sister of Kate’s room mates, thoroughly enjoying her independence, yet wondering when she’d get to go home.

Over the next 24 hours, we heard rumors and news of homes being damaged, and even a few lives being lost.   My Southern Born Woman discovered 3 feet of southern bound water in her basement, destroying her furnace and her water heater, but in light of what was going on elsewhere, she was grateful.

Eventually, I was able to reach Maddy and drive her back to my place. We passed the YMCA, where cars were completely covered by water. My neighborhood was untouched, perched as it is on high ground.

The next few days, the rest of the world didn’t seem to be engaged with what has now been called The Thousand Year Flood. The only reason my family, scattered from Seattle to Connecticut to Ireland, knew anything was because I’d sent them pictures.

In the meantime, the Volunteer State lived up to its name. People with boats appeared on streets and rescued old timers and newlyweds.  Entire neighborhoods came together with a community spirit that is uniquely American, and gathered up the debris in the flood’s wake, stacking sidewalks high with sofas, televisions, and miles of carpet.

People lost all possessions, only to find out that they had no flood insurance. I know of no reports of looting or gouging.   I only know of a friend with a boat cruising up and down Sawyer Brown Road, searching for loved ones of strangers, ferrying helpless folks across a river that didn’t exist the day before.  I only know of songwriters and bands performing benefits, and tacos being delivered to volunteers who worked waist deep in rank basements, dismantling what the deluge had left behind, before any rebuilding would be possible.

They held Bill’s funeral in Alabama, where he’d grown up. It was packed with Nashvillians, but all the Volunteers in Tennessee couldn’t pick up the pieces of the deluge he’d left his children swimming in. What can you say at the funeral of someone who takes his or her life? I wanted to say, “Bill, are you happy now?”

I imagine he is.

There are some changes that come with no explanation or warning from Mother Nature.  The “Act of God” clause in insurance policies has always miffed me; why blame God?  Who’s to say who sends the sunshine or the rain?  When we need the rain, we thank God when it arrives, as we do when the sun relieves the dreary weather.  But what of the Thousand Year Flood?   I think all God has to do with it is in the hands of those who pull people to safety, who make sandwiches for workers, who clean out the debris, and who brush fingers across each other’s brow, and whisper, It’s gonna be alright.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Relatives

It’s true.  I have a cousin who is a white supremacist. 

I loved him when we were kids.  He was probably 4 or 5 years younger, the 4th born of my  Uncle Owen’s 5 children.  He was a cheerful oddball, the product of a strange upbringing by missionary parents.  Looking back, his sly grin may have revealed a mean streak, but it didn’t seem that way at the time.  He seemed quite the innocent to me.

My first memory of Jeff is from my Grandma Madeira’s living room, with the great African American singer Marian Anderson crying from the Victrola, “I Told Jesus It Would Be Alright If I Changed My Name”.  He’s sitting on the sofa with his sister Jane, and he’s smiling happily.

Those days at Grandma's were the days of two brothers reuniting, with 8 kids in tow.  The bond between Dad and Owen was strong, and typical of brothers, competitive and fun.  Dad was older, stronger, wiser, and humbler than Owen, who was nonetheless cheerful, fun, and daring.

Owen gave me my first airplane ride.  One day, Dad and Owen put all the boys (of course, just the boys) into a station wagon, and drove out to a cornfield in the Lancaster County farmlands, where a Piper Cub sat idling.

The fuselage was made of canvas, and there was room for 2 passengers.  Owen crammed into the back seat, while my cousin Ray Don and I squeezed into the front seat.  We sat idling and Owen said, "Boys, let's have a word of prayer before we take off", to which I cracked, "I'm already prayin'."

One icy winter, another stunt was played out on the slick roads of Grandma's neighborhood.  Dad or Owen would drive, while the other would lay prostrate on a sled with a few cousins sitting on top of him, hanging onto the rear bumper with one hand, skidding through the streets at midnight.  Our mothers never knew.

That was the fun side.

The mean side surfaced in odd stories like this one:  In the early 50s, when Owen was in the Army, each soldier was rationed a bottle of beer with his dinner.  A non-drinker, Owen's soldier buddies would ask for his beer.  Owen, thinking he was doing the men and God Almighty a favor, would smile as he poured the bottle into the trash.

This story was told repeatedly with immense pride.

Owen was a well meaning man who dragged his uptight religious wife Rita to Colombia and Ecuador in the Fifties to make converts for Christ.  Along the way, they had five kids, all raised on the mission field.   While I wouldn’t venture to bring my children up in a hostile environment nor prop them up as “different” than the natives, it could have been worse.

Take, for example, my Aunt Agnes’ kids, the other missionary cousins.

Agnes’ kids were left at a home for missionary children, for four years at a time, while their parents tried to make children of God out of pagans in Thailand.  This has always amazed me, the concept of leaving one’s children in a stranger’s care, while trying to show the rest of the world the love of God.  I’ve always thought the best way to show the Love of God is by loving your children, not abandoning them, but these were people for whom making heathens into children of God meant making their own children into orphans.

My parents took a great interest in Agnes’ kids, bringing them to Rhode Island for weeks at a time every summer.  It’s mind boggling, but Agnes’ kids saw my parents more often than their own, who were usually in Thailand.  We would take them to our family’s holy place, Goosewing Beach, where they were given the gift of belonging to a family, with a mom and dad who were conversant with them.  No wonder one of them named his daughter Anna-Lisa after my mother.

We saw Owen’s family once every few years, and it was a major event.  Once, I recall seeing them off in New York City where they were  boarding a merchant vessel for Ecuador.  Their life seemed exciting and exotic, and they were family celebrities for living their life in this sacrificial fashion.

While in Columbia, Owen was hanged upside down and beaten, all for being a Protestant.  To this day, he remembers what “the Catholics” did to him. 

Other unfortunate events occurred to this family as they sacrificed for the Gospel.  As an infant, Richard, their fifth and last child, needed an emergency tracheotomy.  The Colombian doctor cut Richard’s vocal cords, leaving him bereft of any natural voice for the rest of his life.  

What if my parents had followed God Almighty to some less civilized place?  What if their bluesman child had had his vocal cords cut by a surgeon’s poorly wielded scalpel?  Tell me what song I’d be singing now.

Richard’s untimely brush with a South American hack ended Owen’s days in foreign missions, so the family returned Stateside, where better doctors were available.  Owen’s new mission field was the Philadelphia ghetto of Camden, New Jersey, where his 5 children were routinely picked on as outsiders.

Owen was a lover of the downtrodden, and lived his life to share with the outcast, the minority, and the poor.  The price of this mission might have been turning his own children into outcasts and minorities.

I’ve wondered if it was during this season of sacrificing for Christ that the soil of Jeff’s soul was made fertile for racism and hatred.

After high school, Jeff graduated from the Nashville Diesel Mechanics College, and moved to South Carolina, where he enrolled in an obscure Bible school.  In a setting which made Bob Jones University look downright upright, Jeff was given a spurious scriptural basis for his hatred for all things black, all things nonwhite.

When his oldest brother Frank married a Jamaican woman in the 70s, Jeff acted out his racist leanings.  He stopped speaking with Frank, apart from cruel remarks meant to incite an argument, spoken with a wide, superior, gotcha grin. 

News of the family rift was sad, but we lost touch with Jeff for decades, until Barrack Obama came onto the national scene.  It turns out, Jeff’s “ideals” hadn’t softened with age, but had become increasingly hateful.

When Obama was running for the office of president, Jeff wrote me a taunting diatribe saying, “The book of Isaiah says that one day I will be able to look down into the Pit and see Obama, Martin Luther King, and Jesse Jackson!”.

Does this, kind reader, send a chill up your spine?  It does mine.

I guess I’m not reading the same Bible as Jeff. 

Today, Jeff’s certainty in his position is frightening, and there are times when I wonder if he will make the Madeira name famous, by going out and becoming another Timothy McVeigh or James Earl Ray.  He seems that far-gone to me.

His father, my Uncle Owen, has a good heart, but is no less stricken with the the same disease of unyielding absolutism. 

When the oldest Madeira cousin passed away a few years ago, Uncle Owen sent me the funeral program.  In the center page, a man had written of my cousin, “Steve was my best friend.  I believe that we lived many lifetimes together, and that we fought many battles side by side.” 

I’ve never been one for the idea of reincarnation.  No one ever says, “In another lifetime, I was a restroom attendant”.  No one ever believes they were a loser in another lifetime, never mind a toad. 

But I understood what Steve’s friend had written.  It wasn’t good theology.  It wasn’t even good fiction.  It was just a guy trying to say that he simply loved his best friend, and romanticizing rather than reckoning with that great loss.

Owen attached a note to the program:  “Steve wasn’t Christian.  Steve was New Age.  It must have been an awful shock when Steve woke up in Hell”.

I was stunned.  And outraged.  Steve, right along with Martin, Jesse, and Barrack, had been assigned to the Pit.

I wrote Owen a letter.

“Why is it”, I asked, “that you Fundamentalists see Heaven as a sparsely populated expanse, where only your kind will find an eternal home?”

My friend Mark says this of Hell:  I have to believe in Hell!  Why?  Hitler and Mama!

I have no need of Hell in my belief structure.  The appeal of Christ is His love, not the fear of Hell.  For some reason, most evangelists see it differently than I.

Owen backpedaled and denied that he had consigned Steve to Hell.  He also recoiled at being called Fundamentalist, and that remarked that he was an Evangelical.

By the way, I am neither.

A few years later, he emailed the known world a letter about Jane Fonda, calling her a traitor and bringing up the ancient wounds of Viet Nam.  The heading of the email read “Never Forgive”.

There is a kind of certainty that scares me, a certainty that it isn’t about faith, but about being right.  It is connected to the fear of being wrong.

This is what empty religion, theistic or atheistic, accomplishes or aids and abets: fear, wars, racism, murder, genocide, hatred, and unforgiveness. 

It boggles my mind that my cousin might as well be in the Klan.  I wish we weren’t related, wish we didn’t share our last name.  And I can rail all day long about Uncle Owen and the phrase “Never Forgive”, and I’ll remind myself that he and his brother David, my dad, were miles apart when it came to living what, to me, looks like the Christian life.

But the real struggle is my own Christian life.  Can I give some breathing room to fundamentalists, racists, and “mama”, or will I silently think “Never Forgive”?  I don’t want to be related to Jeff or Owen, but damn, we are related. 

What’s more, I am related to every son of Adam and every daughter of Eve, from Al Sharpton, to Madalyn Murray O’Hair, to Jerry Falwell, to Hitler, and to Mark’s Mama.


Monday, April 5, 2010

Passion Fruits

For nearly every October of the new millennium, I have traveled to San Francisco to participate in a free music festival called “Hardly Strictly Bluegrass”, given to the city by financier Warren Hellman

 In 2009, I had two Hardly Strictly appearances to make, one with Buddy Miller and Robert Plant, and the other with Emmylou Harris.  Having plenty of time to enjoy this beautiful city,  my Southern Born woman joined me for a relaxing weekend there.

Most of the October days I’ve spent in San Francisco have been fairly chilly, but this particular weekend was perfectly sunny and mild.   We exulted in the opportunity to walk as much as possible. 

It had been suggested to my dearest companion that we visit the San Francisco Art Exchange,  a gallery showing  photographs of famous musicians  from Sinatra to the Stones.   Under normal circumstances, neither of us would have cared about seeing pictures of aging rockers in the glory days, but we decided to honor her friend’s recommendation by popping in to take a look.  The curator of the collection asked if we were in town for the Festival, and upon finding out that I worked with Emmylou, he took us under his wing, and gave us the cook’s tour. 

Name dropping has its perks.

In an off limits room, we were given a glimpse of rare portraits of Elton John, Mick Jagger, and The Beatles.   The curator explained that these prints were printed from the original negatives in limited runs, and the price tags were commensurate with their rarity.

The most captivating photograph was of Frank Sinatra tying his tie backstage, with a look of fatigue and weariness.   He didn’t seem to be enthusiastic about having done it ‘his way’.   It wasn’t a flattering picture, however, it was magnetic and telling, giving credence to the idea that when someone takes one’s picture, they are stealing their essence.  Frank’s vacant blue eyes looked like his soul had been captured one too many times.

We crossed the street and entered the Weinstein Gallery, quite by chance, where a showing  of Richard Kipniss prints was premiering.  Fantastic prints, painstakingly constructed, revealed not only the stark imagery of  autumn, but also the  dedication of an artist to finding perfection, beauty, and balance.

The curator of this gallery was a twenty-something young man, who knew his stuff.  His enthusiasm was unbridled, and while we knew he hoped to find customers in us, it was apparent that he truly wanted us to be enlightened about Richard Kipniss’ work.

Embracing us as eager students, our young teacher was more than delighted to dispense knowledge, explaining the painstaking printmaking process, which involved carving a negative image onto several sets of stones.

We left with our heads full of crisp, floating autumn leaves, tree limbs emerging from blackness, taking root in the creative soil of two people who like to paint.

From the galleries on Geary Street, we walked over to Chinatown to the Red Blossom Tea Company, another recommendation.   Our host was another twenty-something man named Peter, whose family owned the business.

He stood with us at a wall of shelves on which hundreds of urns sat, full of fresh tea.

When my companion disclosed her taste for chai tea, Peter was diplomatically dismissive.  We were informed that teas such as chai were low on the food chain of tea, and he compared them to  cheap wine.

In moments like these, the “Southern” in my Southern Born Woman blooms like a fragrant rose, undeniable and undismissable. 

“Well”, she said wryly, “Can you show me a tea that you can respect?”

Caught in airs, Peter broke into a smile.

She had him, as she often has had me. 

He apologized and offered us a seat at a small table, where he methodically prepared tea.  The ritual was calming and beautiful.  As he brewed several different pots for us, he spoke of the origins of tea, taking great pleasure in dispensing knowledge on eager students.

Later in the evening, over a wonderful paella and a good bottle of red Zinfandel at the Hayes Street Grill, we noted the thread of passion that was woven from the photo gallery, to the print gallery,  to the  tea room.   How wonderful to have encountered  people whose vocations had relevance and connection to  things that they were passionate about.

“I’m not interested in what you’re against”, she often says, “Tell me what you’re for.” 


The next day, we decided to seek out a place of worship.  We found Trinity Episcopal Church nearby, and walked over.  It was a grand place, but a sign on the door pointed usaway from the sanctuary, and toward a small chapel. 
Apprehensive about the follow-through, we poked our heads in for a look, and were immediately ushered up to the second row.  We were probably 25 minutes late, arriving as congregates were exchanging The Peace. 

Too late to turn back now.

The parishioners seemed to be from two people groups:  Gay or octogenarian, with a few homeless people, and one exceedingly handsome young man and woman thrown in for good measure.  Token hetros, I assumed, provincially.

Many were there with dogs and cats, and we realized that we had probably just missed The Blessing of the Animals. 

On our left flank, not three feet away, sat a small choir, who rose for the offertory. 

I’ll give them an A for effort.

The basses and tenors were everything one would expect from a choir in San Francisco.  But the altos and sopranos, all very old women, warbled with vibratos that felt like the tremorous prelude to an earthquake. 

It was like being at a mother-son banquet for a gay men’s chorus.  Lap dogs welcome.

As we moved into the communion part of the service, the odd little band of priests and acolytes began vigorously making preparations.  The priest in charge was English, which made things feel properly Anglican.  And God knows, I’m all ears when it comes to an English accent. 

But at some point, I tuned out, gazing  about at the interesting group of worshippers.  I was transfixed by an older homeless man, who seemed blind, or perhaps blind drunk.  I was caught up in wondering about his story, probably making assumptions that had no basis in reality.

It was in this moment of daydreaming that I didn’t see the other priest, a 60-ish woman, fall over.  There was so little commotion, as if this was part of the service, perhaps a very radical form of genuflection, that I didn’t even notice it.  My Southern Born Supplicant, however, did notice, and wisely waited to tell me after the service. 

It was a small act of kindness, God Almighty blinding me in that moment of unholy disruption, so that I wouldn’t lock eyes with my woman and fall together into a spasm of laughter.

The service ended, and we left all smiles.  It was one of the oddest church experiences we’d ever had, not life changing, not particularly inspiring, but in its own way, it was lovely in its life affirming kookiness.

I wonder how that English priest feels about his crazy little flock.  Maybe he feels the same way Jesus feels about His crazy little flock. 

Some Sunday mornings, I find myself  sitting in a side pew at Christ Church Cathedral in Nashville.  It’s a vast room compared to Trinity Church’s chapel out in San Francisco.  I look around me and take note of the society types, the young couples, the widows, and even a few homeless, as is the case with most downtown churches.  I notice, with a particular amount of warmth, quite a few gay couples sitting together, reciting the Creed, kneeling for prayers, and finally bringing the chalice to their mouths to receive the Gift of God Almighty’s passion.

I am weary of a phrase many Evangelicals have beat into the ground:  Love the sinner, hate the sin.

We can talk 'til the cows come home about every person being welcome in church, but this is an untruth of Evangelicalism.  If you are gay, my friends, you are not welcome in their churches.  So insistent are they on hating your sin, that they don’t have the time nor the inclination to hate their own sins of pride, hate, gluttony, lying, misogyny, lust, and a list of isms to long to write down here.

I think I’d rather find myself in the company of displaced persons and lap dogs.

The next time my Southern Born Woman and I visit San Francisco,  we’ll seek out that little church again.  And maybe once again the Body of Christ will bring us a good laugh.