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.


  1. No doubt that little San Francisco congregation will resemble heaven more than we may now realize.

  2. preach, brother. i'm right there with ya.

  3. Good stuff, Phil. Felt like I was walking the streets with you.

    An excellent book, "Love Is An Orientation," by Andrew Marin, addresses how horribly the evangelical world has responded to the gay community, and offers realistic and caring ideas for how to be more compassionate and understanding.

  4. Loved your perspective and the mental tour. I loved your take on the tea house (for which I'm sure you requested my opinion) :-). Interestingly, I have recently gotten interested in the therapy of a hot cup of tea, and taken my own guided tour through the commercial tea houses of Teavana and Franklin Tea in downtown Franklin. Both of whom receive a big "A" for enthusiasm and knowledge (it must be required training) of their blends. Hell, just the way the young man in Teavana wafted the aroma of the tea fragrance to me with the lids of the canisters caused me to buy one. However, they did seem to violently disagree about the healing value of green tea, but both had nothing disparative to say about chai. Side bar, my first taste of chai tea was on the banks of the Tigris River in Iraq after having crossed the river in a small motor boat. It was a rite of hospitality requiring that we sit in quiet for about 45 minutes until the guards on the banks determined from some inner clock that the "law" of hospitality had been fulfilled. Upon returning to the states, I saw chai offered for the first time at a Starbucks in NYC. And thus began the US chai assault. btw... Dean and DeLuca has a lovely blend (from a mix I'm sure) that includes green tea I'm told and that is one of my new favorites, when not brewing my own. OK.... now the chapel. (Good Lord... I'm going to have to start my own blog. Feel free to edit this to a simple thumbs up or down). I am starting a job as music director for a small, historic Presbyterian church in Charlotte in 2 weeks. It is 110 years old and is located currently on River Rock Road (previously known for posterity as Jack Ass Boulevard because there was a jack ass farm across the street). I just finished up a 6 month singing gig with a large Methodist Church in Charlotte (5000 plus, 5 Sunday morning services.) Working for the Presbyterians on staff will add the final jewel to my crown of church jobs. I will now have officially worked for every mainline denomination in Western Christendom. Baptist, Catholic, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Methodist, Charismatic, Lutheran, Unitarian (just as soloist), Synagogue (not a church, but definately some flavor)... I could go on. I have found that I find myself at "home" in the Episcopal church. The mix changes from city to city and even church to church within a city, but I find myself most at home in the rag tag mix of questioners. Having lived most of my church life in the sheep pen, I have grown most comfortable in a mix of sheep and goats. I like the rudeness and the questioning. I love that lions lay with lambs and gay and straight both kneel at the altar together to receive sustenance and hope and sacramental elements of mystery. I love that they don't seem to have it all figured out... and, when they do... there is always someone there to stick a pin in the bubble of certainty. I think I'll always be looking for the priests that fall down...

  5. Thanks, kind readers!

    Pamela & Edward, you may be right about that.

    Always appreciative of your regularity and support, Joan, as well as a bottle of red.

    Thank you Josiah!

    Mark, the book looks interesting; I may peruse its pages next time I stop in at Barnes & Noble.

    Beau, thank you for the extensive reply, of which the last line is my favorite, and brings me back to the Ghost of Johnny Cash -

    Some sinners need their saints to be
    survivors of the fall
    'Cause when you're down here on your knees
    Most angels look too tall

    Have a great day, everyone, and thank you all for reading.

  6. If you're in SF again, and if you haven't already discovered it, check out Glide Memorial in downtown San Francisco. I found it utterly compelling because it was so life-affirming and pro-people. And truly inclusive, no matter your situation.

  7. Thanks David; I'll have to remember to check it out next October.

  8. Glide memorial! Historic community of believers. Maya Angelou attends when in town--as does Anne Lamott.

    Phil, thank you for this post. I am so glad that I've added your blog to my links of regular reads. I met you years ago when you played our church (in a Chicago suburb). Bought your album. You joined a group of us for lunch. Of course, I've considered you a close personal friend ever since (though you wouldn't know me from Adam!).

    I am so glad to read of your views of GLBT brothers and sisters. I was asked to exit the church where we met when I admitted to myself an the powers that be that I am a gay man. Up until that point, I was considered a "core" member--active beyond belief, and part of the worship/music team. It was sad that my honesty suddenly made me less of a Christian in their eyes.

    I've found a new church home--Thank God--one that cares only that I wish to grow with God.

    Thank you for being the man I always assumed you to be. God bless your little pea-pickin heart! (See, your woman's not the ONLY one who is southern born!).

  9. Kevin,

    I am so glad you feel welcome in my blogworld. You are not alone. I am grateful for God's unconditional love, and for the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on behalf of all humanity. I'm furthermore grateful that there are havens in Christendom where all God's children are welcome.

    Thanks for responding, my friend.


  10. Christopher™04 December, 2010

    I really enjoyed your reflections on your visit to San Francisco and your thoughts on GLBT people in the Church, so thank you for pointing me to this.

    I grew up just north of San Francisco, so I love the wonderful kookiness that is that area of the country. Every day was a surprise, because you never knew who you'd run across or what you'd accidentally experience.

    But you're right about the Evangelical church... in my opinion, it has completely run off the rails in the last few years with its absolute obsession with homosexuality. I mean, they think more about gay sex than I do... and I'm single! And I still can't get over the fact that more than $75 million was *wasted* on the fight to keep GLBT people in California from making a state-recognized commitment to each other. Do you know how many struggling families, how many orphaned children, how many starving homeless people could have been helped with that money? It's just insane.

    I remember Tony Campolo saying recently, "The reason that gay people think that Christians despise them... is because Christians despise them." That's why I'm glad that the Family Research Council and the American Family Association finally made the Southern Poverty Law Center's list of hate groups... because they deserve it. What bothers me the most is not that conservative Christians out there "disagree with homosexuality" (which is just as nonsensical as saying that you "disagree with oranges"), but that supposedly "Christian" organizations like Focus on the Family and others *repeatedly* lie about the GLBT community, and even when their lies are pointed out to them, they still continue to repeat them. And Evangelical Christians are only too happy to believe them because it supports their animus towards gay people... which existed prior to any "faith" they may have ultimately subscribed to.

    Anyway, I ramble. But thanks for your kindness and support. And yes, I'd love to have you play at our church sometime. :-)


  11. Chris, thanks for reading, and for taking the time to leave a comment. My dear friend Mark Lowry has said regarding the statement "Love the sinner, hate the sin", "Hate your own sin", which I think is a great response.

    The Campolo quote is heartbreaking. It's human nature to fear and subsequently hate that which is either foreign to us or too close for comfort.

    Thanks again, my friend.


  12. Christopher™07 December, 2010

    Please understand (and you may already know this) that Tony Campolo is speaking from a supportive place. He was just making a blunt observation about the Church at large.

  13. Thanks Chris- I understand.


  14. Dare I jump into the conversation with a dissenting point of view? At the risk of being labeled as one of the haters you all refer to in your posts above, can I ask some questions? Not because I think I've got it all figured out. Hardly! But because I think they are questions worth asking.

    We've worked hard in our church to be a place where people can worship without feeling like they are being judged. I struggled for years with a pornography addiction. My church was a great support for me. Of course, I didn't talk to everyone about my issues, but there were enough trusted, loving, encouraging people that I was able to receive real healing for that addiction and move beyond it.

    I'd like to believe that anyone, regardless of their struggle or particular area of brokenness, would be welcome in our church and would find a community that would embrace them and encourage them in their pursuit of a more whole life.

    I believe all of this is done in the most humbling place I know, at the foot of the cross of Jesus. No one is turned away except for those too proud to see their need.

    So, Phil, to your litany of sins (pride, hate, gluttony, lying, misogyny, lust), I agree. They are all evil. They all need to be crucified with Christ. And anyone that is excusing such behavior needs to be taught otherwise, in a loving and affirming way.

    But on the other hand, as a church body, is it okay to just excuse sin in someone's life or to condone it? I'm glad that the people around me didn't look at my struggle with lust and accept me without challenging me to grow beyond it.

    So to the issue of homosexuality, I think sometimes the talk of welcome homosexuals into the church has two different meanings. One on hand, it can be argued that we should welcome homosexuals into the church because none of us are without sin. All sinners should be welcome into the church so that they can encounter Jesus and find forgiveness and His transforming power.

    But on the other hand, it can be argued that we should welcome homosexuals into the church because there is nothing wrong with homosexuality.

    I agree with you that it is hypocritical and wrong and (I believe) grievous to God to say to one person "Your sin is worse than mine so you are not welcome here". But I don't think that is what you are saying. I think you are saying "What others call sin is nothing of the sort so why shouldn't you worship with us?"

    Again, I'm not trying to be hateful, exclusionary or proud. Nothing could be further from the truth. I know I'm a wretch that has encountered God's grace and I'm no one to be judging others. But I also struggle with the scripture and how to respond to it with regard to homosexuality.

    Anyone have any thoughts to share?

  15. @Anonymous, this just popped up~ I've been remiss at checking the blog because I haven't been writing regularly lately. (I must amend that!)

    My view of Scripture is not a literal view. I am not an apologist, nor am I a theologian, apart from being an informal theologian like every human being.

    The most important issue is my own sin, which I write candidly about in these pages. I make a choice every time I sin, be it flipping off the guy who nearly rear-ended me, feeling self-entitled when standing in line at airport security, cursing God when life is hard... whatever the case... I am definitely a sinner.

    I don't wish homosexuality on anyone- it's a difficult life, rife with rejection, hurt, and drama. And I don't know any gay/lesbian people who consider their "preference" a choice.

    We're all sinners and we all relate to the sins listed in the 10 commandments.

    We all know what it's like to wish someone was dead. We all know what it's like to hate someone. We all know what it's like to envy. We know what it's like to lust for someone who doesn't belong to us. We know what it's like to lie.

    Homosexuality is something I don't relate to, just as my dear gay friends don't relate to heterosexuality. For this reason, I do not devote my energy to battling "the gay lifestyle"; I don't understand it.

    Maybe Jerry Falwell secretly lusted for men, and thus considered it a personal battleground. I could understand his stance if he understood the sin, but I don't know that he did. I could say, "Well, he's gay, he understands because he's experienced those feelings".

    I wish he had been gay. And I wish those nuts from Westboro Baptist were gay.

    I don't understand same-sex orientation. I feel like it's shameful to burn a cross on the lawn of that issue when I really don't understand it.

    There is so much in scripture that is good and helpful in life. But there is much that seems completely distant from Christ's attitude of humility and understanding. And that makes me wonder what parts of the Bible are spot on from the mouth of God, and what parts are a function of misunderstanding people who don't fit in.

    Scripture tells us to stone our children when they misbehave; how seriously are you going to take that?

    Thanks so much for reading.


  16. As a former San Franciscan and Church goer, I loved reading this post. You had a very San Francisco moment at Trinity. There is a complex confluence of people including those who seek Jesus. It makes for an interesting journey.
    Next time you're in Frisco, I'd encourage you to check out City Church. After my wife and I made the steeple chase in SF, we found ourselves at City Church (as a note,I was very reluctant to go to church and proclaimed myself agnostic for many years) I've felt the message is solid and the music is wonderful.
    Thanks for the music, the blogs and your insight, it's very much appreciated.


    Here's link if you might be interested in City Church for your next visit.


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