I can’t picture Jesus enjoying the company of any of the preachers I see on TV, can you? Pandering know-it-all's who’ve figured Him out- why would he want to bother? Lord knows, it wouldn’t be for the pasteurized grape juice. The men He called to be disciples were fishermen, thick-skinned tough guys, and politically incorrect zealots who probably didn’t enjoy the company of lawyers and priests anymore than Jesus did.
I realize that my inference is that, of course, I would be the Christian Jesus would want to share a bottle with. I can dream, can't I?
In my line of work, just the word “Christian” evokes negative feelings and fear; assumptions are easily made. I was producing a singer who told me that I was one of two decent Christians he knew; the rest petrified him. He was an Atheist, Left Wing, and Jewish, and I can’t say as I blame him. I took issue with his set of prejudices, and he confessed that I was on to something, yet remained unmoved in his opinions, at times being downright insensitive and rude. "It's these f***in' Christians", he'd say, when agitated about politics or just about anything. Apart from his immense talent and his charm, he's really no different than your average Fundamentalist spouting off about who controls the media, or who's a communist, but he didn't see the point.
His rational for not believing in god was that he believed there was "something bigger behind it all", to which I said, "Yeah, that's God." All of this was truly in good fun. We made two great records together, despite the chasm between our philosophies of life. Like me, he had run up against a few of God Almighty's worst sales reps; I didn't hold God responsible, and he did.
I’ve experienced just about every kind of Christian denomination one could dream up. I’ve always noticed that the church name always emphasizes the very quality that is found lacking at that particular oasis. Want to find a good place for fellowship? It won’t be at a placed called Springfield Community Church. In need of mercy? Avoid a place called Grace Church.
I'm somewhat of a bedridden Episcopalian most Sunday mornings, but the cup I occasionally drink from is served downtown at Christ Cathedral, and I am quite sure many of my evangelical brethren would have difficulty finding God Almighty there. I’ve learned to recognize Spirit in the poetry, music, readings, and silence.
Standing in this beautiful building, I like the sound of my Dearest Companion's voice quietly singing the sanctus, and reciting the Creed with a whispered certainty. Sometimes, I lean a little closer so that I can hear her voice over mine, close enough to feel her inhaling and exhaling the breath of God.
Strange as it may sound from an extravert, but one thing I like about going to the Cathedral is that few people know me. There I have no notoriety, no voice, no activity, and no responsibilities. I recite the prayers, cross myself, receive the Eucharist from a priest who didn't know my name until recently, and quietly leave without giving my soul to anyone but God Almighty.
It’s taken me a long time to finally figure out that being known is a liability in most religious circles. I like being a stranger in the strange land of Christendom, particularly when I consider some of the bizarre congregations I’ve exposed my bluesman’s heart to.
The best of the worst was a church called Love Inn, far up in the frozen North of New York State. You’d think the name alone would have sent me running, but I had good reason to wind up there.
I had a followed a friend there to play music. Phil Keaggy is one of the most amazing guitarists on the planet. We had become friends while I was a student in Indiana, and on the day we met he said, "One day we are going to be in a band together."
We corresponded for about 2 years, during which time Phil and his new bride Bernadette moved to Ithaca, New York to join the counter culture Christian church called Love Inn.
I visited them in the summer of 1975. While I was there, Phil said that I needed to have an interview with one of his "shepherds" at the church. While it struck me as odd that this was a necessity, I wanted to be a good guest, and I was also intrigued with the idea of communal Christian living.
I was interviewed by a young man named Peter, probably 5 years older than my 23 years. He was both giddy and stern for the Lord. He asked why I had come to Love Inn, and I replied that I was there to visit my friend Phil.
I scrambled for the right answer, which was something like "I want to grow closer to God". Poor God Almighty must get sick of having his or her name dragged into awkward situations like this.
I told him about my girlfriend E, who was not a Christian. "Brother", he said, "If you were a member of our church, you would not be allowed to be unequally yoked". I replied that E didn't have a problem with Jesus, but that she didn't yet understand that she didn't have to change in order to follow Him. I suggested that her process of finding God wouldn't be via an instantaneous conversion, but more likely be akin to an orphan girl being wooed by a handsome king. It would take time for her to believe in love.
At this point, Peter said, "I don't believe you know Jesus at all", which was stunning news to me.
As if to confirm his suspicions I responded eloquently, "Shit".
Keaggy came to my aid, earnestly proclaiming that I was indeed a believer. But the damage was done. There would be no convincing Peter that I was among the Chosen.
A few days later, I drove back to Rhode Island, pondering both the loveliness of Phil and Bernadette, and the ass-holiness of Peter.
In 1976, Phil invited me to come to Love Inn to play keyboards for him. The band which we formed was an outreach of the church, traveling the country, encouraging believers, and playing innovative music. When I look back on our style, we certainly weren’t intending to sound like the Grateful Dead, but that’s the closest thing I can compare to our jam band sound to.
Love Inn’s belief system was based upon the premise that God would speak to individuals through elders we called “shepherds”, and that His will for lowly sheep like me was to “submit” to them. It's no wonder that the church was an old barn, with all these sheep running about.
It seems so foolish now, but my willingness to explore this brand of Christianity was aligned with my genuine quest for intimacy with God.
Instead, what I encountered was a group of "elders", all in their late twenties and thirties, who wanted to know every detail of my life, no matter how private. These were not trained ministers, nor were they theologically astute, but like most cult leaders, their ability to be Yes Men had led them to the top of their profession.
My earnest quest for spiritual intimacy led me to allow for the daily discomfort of spiritual cavity searches from the God squad from Hell.
The lessons I’d learned from my overly involved mother and grandmother should have been enough to send me running from this crowd, but the sound of Phil’s Les Paul guitar coming through a Fender DeLuxe amplifier drowned out the screaming angel on my shoulder.
As a member of this weird little church, being on the road was the best place I could be, away from the day to day grind of our very insulated body of fanatics. I was with friends, playing music, enjoying the road, and sharing a few glasses every night, just like the Willie Nelson song talks about.
Of course, the powers that be had sent Peter out on the road with us, a spy posing as a sound man, cracking the whip and trying to somehow snuff out the flame of joy that we were able to maintain.
As in my family of origin, in my new family of choice, I was The Funny Guy.
A man with cube-shaped skull, Peter was incapable of finding humor in any situation, which naturally made his delegated position of Baby-sitter To The Band a difficult one for him and us. Inevitably, he discovered in me a project, someone he needed to change for the glory of God Almighty. Like the matriarchs who found in me a similar challenge, Peter was, well, a real mother.
I wasn’t holy enough or serious enough, and to make matters worse, I was smitten with E, who wasn’t a member of Love Inn. When E became engaged to me, no one at Love Inn exhibited the usual delight upon seeing the simple ring I’d bought her. Their glazed Stepford eyes stared blankly, and plastic smiles turned up with effort, and I reluctantly knew I was seeing a red flag.
Instead of congratulatory remarks for our engagement, we were told “It will be good to talk about”. I sensed that this was euphemistic for “We have other plans for you, and there’s nothing you can do about it”, but said nothing to my fiancee about my feelings of dread. (Years later, I would realize that saying nothing to her about my feelings wasn’t a good idea.)
In my heart, I knew the end would come; these translucent remarks were tell tale signs and omens, black clouds, with the theme from Jaws quietly playing underneath it all. Soothed by our band’s music, I endured the oddness, and continued playing keyboards on the Titanic, partaking as little of this peculiar Eucharist as was possible.
Meanwhile, Peter’s giant eye seemed to follow me wherever I went. His chubby hand would try and brush aside any joyous declaration of love I would make, making my engagement something of a trial instead of a sweet season of transition. His paradigm of the way things should be would not allow for variation, and it was clear that it was either his way or the highway.
Peter forever ruined the word “brother” for me, because it always preceded a harshly placed word, meant to push my tiller in a direction that my small boat didn’t wish to go in. His cruel and uncaring manner were a part of the process; it was a boot camp for the Lord, and he was my drill sergeant. I wanted to go over his head in this oddly organized hierarchy of men, but when I would assess the situation, I knew it was best to keep silence.
Thirty-odd years later, I have three remaining friends from those days of touring, Keaggy, Ben Pearson, and Lynn Nichols, all of whom reside and work in the Nashville music community. We were brought together in that crucible of craziness, and have remained bonded by its white hot fire. Occasionally, over a good bottle of red, we’ll remind each other about our days of keeping one eye open for our elder Peter. Now, we laugh and shake our heads, and probably wish we’d beaten the hell out of him when he was within reach.
It amazes us that the hierarchy was such that a group of grown men would cower before such a spoiled sport as Peter H, but some moments are hard to explain, and some battles don’t get fought, even if they might be worth it.
Once, we were playing in a place called Philippi, West Virginia, high on a mountain, in a beautiful venue which looked out into the hills. We were having a particularly good evening of music, and I took a moment to publicly acknowledge our crew. I pointed to Ben, who came out from behind a stack of speakers, and told the crowd that he was the hardest working roadie in the business. Then I pointed to Peter who stood behind the sound board in the audience. I said, “Please give our soundman Peter a hand”.
After the concert, we all partook in the back-breaking task of loading our equipment onto the truck. Peter, with his ever-present snorkel-hood shielding his great square head, approached me angrily and yelled, “Brother, don’t you EVER call me the soundman again! I’m the f***ing producer!”.
Ah, thank you, Jesus. May I have another?
Another time, we were in Ypsilanti, Michigan, surrounded by walls of snow, as we filled the tanks of our two vehicles. No one knew where the key to the truck’s gas cap was, and we obviously needed fuel. Peter’s trademark impatience gave way, and he pried it off with a crowbar, disgusted with whoever of us had been so careless as to lose the key, yet himself being so careless as to ruin the gas cap and ripping the filler neck.
Later, in our hotel room, Ben put his hands in his pocket and said “Oh no”, as he pulled the key from his trousers. I told him to flush it down the toilet, but he dutifully went to Peter and confessed his guilt.
Peter’s only glimmer of joy seemed to be in the proclamation of this strange concoction of bad theology and spiritual architecture, whose advocates literally referred to what they practiced as “the Government of God”. (Good Lord, as I write these words, I’m astounded that I put up with it; the music must have been damned good.) Of course he’d be ecstatic about it; he had some of the power and, out on the road, he answered to no one.
We played our music and sang our songs, but Peter was the one who was entrusted with the enlightened message, a new improved version of Christianity. He honestly meant it, I'll give him that, but I wonder if he ever thinks of the scripture verse that warns teachers against being manipulative and untruthful.
If anyone ever signed up at Love Inn or something like it because of me, let me apologize right now. I'm sorry.
Peter was yet another representative of God Almighty that didn’t make sense to me, that made me want to flee from the people of God. I think the only thing that kept me from doing so was the Image of God Almighty that my father’s life had so beautifully manifested. Dad was the polar opposite of God’s unholy scourge, Peter.
Love Inn’s psychology of pretending to be God’s Voice in my life never took full root, yet when I went against it, I felt a sense of foreboding and fear that I had never experienced before. I didn’t want to make God or Peter or Love Inn mad.
When E and I announced our wedding date to our friend Phil Keaggy, his knee jerk advice was "Don't tell Peter!" He knew what the cost of discipleship would be.
Word of our pending nuptials eventually reached the elders who called an emergency meeting. A wedding date? This was indeed serious business. Something had to be done.
I was told by the elders that they wanted to choose the date for me, and possibly even the woman. My finding love and acting upon it without the involvement of God’s Government was an insult to the entire process of submission and discipleship, the two most intoned mantras of Love Inn.
Something had to give, apparently me.
And so, in a long, drawn-out torturous fashion, I was asked to choose between love and Love Inn. The choice was easy, but the consequences were not. Leaving the band and the friendships therein was a heartbreak, but I had to trust my own heart, and all else be damned. Luckily, the friendships I had made within that small circle survived and continue to this day.
Going against the grain simply was not done at Love Inn, and I was excommunicated from the fellowship. I knew I’d done the right thing for myself, and that I was running towards God, but psychologically, I felt as if I were running from him. The transition from cult member back to The World was one of the few times in my life where I’ve experienced depression and true loneliness.
When my new wife and I had our first fight, the first thought in my head was “The elders were right”. And many years later, when our marriage crumbled like a stale communion wafer, I pictured Peter, our man of God, nodding “I told you so”.
In 2005, I was playing with Keaggy in Rochester, New York. Imagine my shock when, in our dressing room, a friendly, square-headed, young man approached me with a grin and a handshake, and enthusiastically introduced himself as the son of Peter. Thankfully, I was polite, but so lasting was the impact of his father in my life that I took note of my double-take and with the depth and length of aversion I had at the mention of his name. My reaction reminded me that the work of forgiveness is much easier when an apology has been issued.
The poison in some communion cups is strong indeed.