Sunday, March 14, 2010

Love Inn

Sometimes I wonder if my cross to bear is believing in Christ while running from his people.  I’m always trying to figure out why He’d want to socialize with them in the first place.  The Gospel story doesn’t have Jesus enjoying a drink with the Scribes and Pharisees: more often than not, he’s enjoying the company of shysters, hookers, and a multitude of people whose lives have gone flat wrong.  One rarely reads of him enjoying Judea’s religious right.

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.

Wrong answer.

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.

*

17 comments:

  1. This post set off tones of a goodly number of shared feelings and experiences. I, too, have often questioned why "God's people" leave me feeling so cold. My relationship with God is the most important thing in my life, made even moreso by my 6 year self exile and vow of poverty where it was just me, my dogs, and nature. Divinity spoke to me in ways I'd never experienced before, and made me realize the folly of most who claim go know exactly what God wants for us, and then they take it upon themselves to act as our judge, jury, and yes... brother. The simple fact I walked away from this experience with was that at their core, humans are corrupt. Like this wonderful country of ours, a great idea in the beginning, but look how badly humanus walkus erectus has so completely mutated it for their own agendas. I now invest nothing and put no trust at all in the world of man. I have to exist in it, and that's my cross to bear, so I live in the world of creation of all things beautiful to bring happiness and joy into the world where and how I can. And yes, my church is nature, silence, love.
    Reading your words let me know, unequivocally, that you and I share the same sadness and disbelief in how far man has steered their boats off course.
    So those of us who've chosen a more solitary road must speak where we can, but the best is how we choose to live our lives, and hopefully there will be those who have questions based upon our example.
    We do.
    Thanks for your meticulous, heartfelt words and thoughts.
    And we continue.
    -d

    ReplyDelete
  2. Dony, so great to hear from you, and a very interesting post indeed. I don't know if I'm anymore enlightened than anyone else, but I am usually able to figure out when I'm being bullied.

    It just takes me a few decades to do anything about it ;)

    ReplyDelete
  3. Holy Cow or should I say "for the love of peata" I am so thankful that I go to a church full of sinners of which I am one. Somewhere I heard that the church is the only place that shoot their wounded. Great writing-meaningful reflections.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Well Phil, I might have put up with Peter to be in a band with Keaggy too.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Thanks everyone!

    David, that is very funny. The music definitely brought me there, and the music definitely got me through.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I saw "The Last Station" this evening with good friend Dave Perkins. This story about Tolstoy's last days, and the cult of Tolstoyians that surrounded him, was so reminiscent of my cult days.

    The metaphor of this true story is how far Christ's followers,particularly the organizers and the authority figures, have strayed from his basic message of "Love one another".

    Thanks to Buddy Greene for recommending it at the gym this AM.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Hey Phil,

    Great thanks for the candor and clarity. It seems like there was a lot of that going around then.

    Though I continue to "attend" church, I stopped being identified as a "Christian" several years ago, referring to myself as a "believer." While a matter of silly, and perhaps arrogant, semantics for some, it's a profound issue for me. Though there are oases of hope, the ecclesia, scattered throughout Christendom, Americanized Christianity has proven no better for the world than Judaism or Islam each of which have their own agencies and ministries touching the lives of people. It’s Christ in us, and that alone, which provides our “hope of Glory.” If “this man eateth with sinners” is the worst Christians have to say about me, then I believe myself in good company.

    Just wanted to say I'm grateful that God's grace continues to beckon and heal,

    ReplyDelete
  8. Joe, thanks for your comment. I think semantics are important to anyone who has passion. Semantics have everything to do with why I enjoy the Book Of Common Prayer, versus the extemporaneous and often misguided prayers of the person in charge of a Sunday morning.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Phil, I grew up 45 minutes from Ithaca, and actually went on a field trip to the Love Inn when I was in high school. It royally creeped me out. But then, I was equally uncomfortable with spontaneous prayer for the misguided heathen in the 10/40 window "where Satan is most active in the world" in the church where we first met - which often struck me as more like the Love Inn than Christ Church Cathedral.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Thanks Paula,

    When the church you speak of split, a lot of the craziness went with it. It's a pretty gracious place now, with a good priest and a healthy congregation.

    That's amazing that you grew up in Ithaca. I was at the Love Inn around 76-78.

    ReplyDelete
  11. I did not know about the split. Or if I did, I have forgotten the details. Did the faction go nondenominational, or did they align themselves with the ACA? I remember P. referring once to the African bishops who were coming over to do confirmations and ordinations as the ICBB - the Inter Continental Ballistic Bishops.

    Actually I grew up in a little town called Horseheads, New York. (Weird name, I know. I blogged about that too, in "Two Fallng Voices." http://ordinarytime.livejournal.com/16490.html.) I guess I beat you to the Love Inn, then, because that field trip was probably 1972, when I was 16. The year you were smoking hash with Wheaton students.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Paula,

    Essentially, the faction who left St B's joined the Anglican Mission To America (I think that's what it's called), in what I call an "end run", joining the Rwandan Anglican Church.

    There is a part of me which finds this completely disturbing- the finding of a "loophole" in which to escape being related to the part of Christ's Body you no longer wish to be related to.

    Of course, I can also look at all the "loopholes" that Biblical people employed, such as Jacob winning his father's blessing by tricking Esau out of his birthright, etc... How does God fit into deception and trickery? I just don't like viewing God as sneaky...

    The good news was that along with some very fine people, most of the disruptive, "Charismatic" types left as well, leaving St B's the opportunity to rebuild into a much more moderate congregation than ever. It's a wonderful church, and while I recently transferred my membership to Christ Church Cathedral, it was without any complaint regarding St B's.

    Thanks, Paula
    pm

    ReplyDelete
  13. Phil:

    While researching the shepherding movement, I could either buy an exhaustive $44 book on the subject, or I could come here and find this thoughtful, personal account. Glad I found this. I saw the trailing end of the discipleship movement in the 80s, but always avoided it, reluctant to let these overzealous guys who wanted me to be "accountable" that deep into my life. Had Keaggy been the guitarist of the club, things would've been different, surely. (Which speaks to the cult-like following Phil has to this day.)

    Incidentally, I wonder if Peter was the wardrobe coordinator for the album photo shoot on "Emerging." Lynn Nichols' pants were pretty damned scary.

    ReplyDelete
  14. I left the Shepherding Movement, but was spiritually oppressed by it and by the memories of all my friends they had hurt and damaged. I could hardly talk about anything else. It was like a tar baby. I could not shed the continuous horrible thoughts of all that had happened. This went on around a year. I went to a Phil Keaggy concert (in Kansas City?) and something happened. While Phil was leading the audience to start worshiping, I got a Jumbo Touch from the Holy Spirit. I was surrounded and enclosed, and I felt the weight, oppression, and negative influence of the whole Shepherding experience lift away from me and leave. I knew beyond doubt that I had just been healed and delivered from all of this pain. Phil Keaggy, standing at the mic, went on alert. "Someone in the audience has just received a special touch from God. I want this person to come up to the front." He was waiting for me up there, and he was quite sure of himself--he kept asking for about 2 minutes. He began to look a bit confused, nonplussed. He knew he was right. He knew I was out there. But what was I going to do? You guys were standing up there, and I knew that all of you are still subject to this thing--maybe heavy into it, and I knew there was a "shepherd" up there (Teddy Sanduist or some other) keeping you on a very short leash. What was I going to do? Maybe go up there and say. "Praise God! I have just been delivered from the horrible spiritual oppression of the Ft. Lauderdale heresy, in which I was formerly trapped as a miserable slave! No, no, no! The situation was just too hot to handle for a person who had been burned so seriously and so recently. I knew that I needed to stop thinking and talking about this, starting right now. So, I just stood there and did not go up. But I later had questions and twinges of guilt, wondering if had denied Phil some opportunity to gain clarity more quickly and shorten his own time of pain. It was indeed an ironic situation--a Ft. Lauderdale cult member ministers healing and deliverance to a victim of the Ft. Lauderdale cult. But, it could only have been Phil Keaggy. He had the gift within him that reached out and somehow brought me the things I needed.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Heavy remarks, and I understand, to a degree. I'm eternally grateful that I left that insanity and the huge egos involved, as did Phil K and most of us in the band. I have dear friendships that were developed in those dark years, so I am grateful.
    pax
    pm

    ReplyDelete
  16. Hi Phil. I, too, am a survivor of Love Inn, having left in 1976-ish. I was married to Joe L. Who was an "elder" but we were breaking ith the group because of the increasing discipleship decrees and the increased power that wew were supposed to exercise over those in our 'discipleship' group. Not for us. Nor did we want the other elders to tell how where we should live and how. All this is long gone for me. I still have fond memories of some of my brothers and sisters from Love inn! and am still friends with still others. But Joe L. Came out of the closet in 1983 and walked away fro me and our two daughters. This is how I know there is a loving and faithful God: I was never alone or afraid after that and raised my wonderful kids and remarried after 10 years alone. Now a grandmother with a great husband, I can still walk on in God's grace.
    The pressure obey and stay was heavy at LI and so many of those who came there and submitted themselves, were in deep need and drowning in their own loss and insecurity. So, those in charge filled a need for many, I guess. But I am not certain that it was all what God wanted but what they decided god wanted. Glad to read the names of Phil, Bernadette and Lynn. I think of each of them ith love. Best to you, Ann Costello (was laiacona) Gaudreaux

    ReplyDelete
  17. Thanks, Ann. I cam after you and Joe left, later in '76. But I remember all the hubbub about Joe coming out, etc. Pretty radical back then. Ironically, these days he might have been able to make sense of his sexual identity and his faith, but back then, that was an impossibility. I'm so glad you found beauty after the ashes.

    I have very little love lost for Love Inn. I work alongside of Lynn Nichols in the music industry, and another fellow you wouldn't have known, who is a photographer. Otherwise, pretty out of touch with that scene.

    This chapter was slightly revised, and definitely put in more gracious terms in my book "God On The Rocks: Distilling Religion, Savoring Faith", as well as changing Peter's name to "Rock", which was both funny and protective of him. Perhaps he grew and changed for the better. It's definitely the saddest chapter of my book, and the one chapter in my life in which forgiveness has been difficult to play out. That being said, I don't dwell on that time in the least, and am joyously grateful for the beautiful friendships that came after those days and thrive to this day.

    Thanks so much for reading and responding.

    Pax
    pm

    ReplyDelete

Your comments are welcome, and I will try answer any questions, if possible. Thanks for reading! pkm