Blues Evangelist

We’ve returned from Memphis blues-soaked and soul-bare, stripped of all pretense. The blues can do that to you, what with roots so deep in the hard truths of human suffering. But any time I find myself poured into a sea of humanity I always emerge with a greater awareness of my own frailty. Something about rubbing shoulders with so many strangers up and down Beale Street left me with a question written on my bones.

Beale Street is a mess of neon, a seduction of the senses with all that color and noise and scent of barbeque. Music drifts from every opened door and tramps compete to charm wallets open. The air quivers with living breath, the concrete pulses a steady beat. We stayed up too late every night, breathing that air, filling our eyes and our hearts and our stomachs. There were more than 260 acts from around the world playing on Beale Street for the International Blues Challenge—the best of the best all gathered together on one street. There was music, so much music, more music than we could ever see or listen to. Through each door we entered we found delight and surprise and a gift to the spirit.

A musician once told me that creating can be a dangerous place—so much of what our culture sees as sinful can be wrapped up in the offering, that moment when the lights go low and all eyes turn to the stage. And when he said that I felt the thrill of the danger; the way I can feel music beating inside me, the pull of all that comes in with the night air.

I guess that’s why they do it, those street preachers. You know, the ones with the signs and the sandwich boards. They must feel the danger too. It must make them afraid. One night, as we made our way down Beale with throngs of other people, one of those preacher men stepped up onto a box and made a little stage for himself in the middle of the street. Lifting a sign in the air declaring the fate of all sinners, he shouted out at passers-by to repent. People filed past him on all sides, barely giving him a glance. He looked over top of the people instead of at them. He didn’t reach out to a single one.

That artist who told me creating could be dangerous? He also said “art is a liminal space.” That word, “liminal,” it means “threshold.” He was telling me that art—all beauty—creates a doorway that, when stepped into, takes us to a new place. We get to choose what that place will be. Will it be darkness or light? I believe that when we have Jesus, music—all different kinds of music—opens a doorway to a sacred space. The Celts call this a “thin place.” It’s a place where the veil between heaven and earth is a thin membrane, and the holy is felt as close as a breath on the cheek.

One of our new friends was playing in the semifinals for the IBC that night I saw the preacher on the street. It just so happened there was a Garth Brooks concert going on that evening too. As luck would have it, the concert let out just as our friend sat down to begin his set. Just he and his guitar. People began pouring into the bar, bringing with them all manner of noise and distraction. These people knew nothing about the blues competition going on. They came to drink and hang out with friends. They had no idea how nerve-shattering and exhilarating it was for our friend to make it to the semifinals. The bar was so crowded we could barely breathe without disturbing our neighbor. They just kept coming, oblivious to this big moment, filing past him on all sides, barely giving him a glance.

It was a performer’s nightmare, but our friend handled it with such grace. “God bless you all,” he said, between songs, in gratitude to the blues fans who fought their way to the front of the crowd to cheer him on. He sat on that little stage and reached out with his voice, not looking over them, but inviting them into his story by sharing songs of his life—dripping with pain and joy.

Some of the people were converted. Several folks who came from the Garth Brooks concert accepted his invitation and were drawn into the spell of the blues. A few of them filmed him with their smartphones and stopped chattering briefly to listen.

We’ve returned from Memphis blues-soaked and soul-bare, stripped of all pretense. We have heard the invitation of the blues. We stepped through the door into the light, into a sacred place.

Playdates with God: Vandalia Gathering

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Little pockets of music everywhere. Under trees, on the lawn, center stage. We walked the capitol grounds to a soundtrack of West Virginia heritage. It was the Vandalia Gathering, a festival celebrating the rich culture of our home state. Every Memorial Day weekend musicians and storytellers from all over gather to make music together, dance, and listen to the liar’s contest—a tall tale telling to take all.

I watched a young girl march the stage with her fiddle. She sat in a metal folding chair, feet dangling, toes trailing the floor. And then, just like that, she started to play. Her long hair swayed each time bow met string and I am always amazed at the lift and lilt created from this union. People were sitting on hay bales and lawn chairs, rapt. A fawn-colored hound dog sniffed my fingers and rubbed his pink nose into my palm. The air was scented with roasted corn, funnel cake, and laughter.

Vandalia was the name of a 14th colony, proposed in 1768, that would have included most of present-day West Virginia and Kentucky. It was named for Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III, who was an avid patron of the arts, an amateur botanist, and a descendant of the Germanic tribe the Vandals. The plan never came to fruition due to the political tensions that developed between America and Britain. The word “Vandalia” came to be associated with all the richness that encompasses mountain living. This is what the Vandalia Gathering celebrates, a way of life; all that is strong, and good, and beautiful about life in these hills.

There were little pockets of music everywhere. And it made my heart sing.

Every Monday I share one of my Playdates with God. I would love to hear about yours. It can be anything: outside, quiet time. Maybe it’s solitary. Maybe it’s loud and crowded. Just find God and know joy. Click on the button below to add your link. I try to visit a few of your stories every week, so if you are a new visitor, be sure to let me know in the comments so I can welcome you. Grab my button at the bottom of the page and join us.

Laura Boggess

How Singing Heals

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The tender shoots of the greens I planted weeks ago are peeking up through the soil of my garden and filling me with hope. With the wet breath of morning, I tuck more seeds into bed between the green leafy bundles. For now, they sleep, but soon, they too will reach for the sun. The house sparrows have taken over my bluebird box again. Inside their nest are five brown-speckled eggs. No matter how many sparrow nests I pull from that box, they outwit me with perseverance every year. When I reach in to find the raspy nest filled with eggs, I haven’t the heart to pull it from the box. I utter an apology to the bluebirds as prayer.

We are tired. Tired from travel, from lifting the heavy weight of choices, from preparing for what is to come. Friday morning I will fly to Nebraska for the Jumping Tandem Retreat, and I am looking forward to seeing my sisters. But the well of activities that needs doing between here and there feels tremendous. I have been struggling against its depth.

I fill my head with the music of the Psalms and I remember a study my friend Mike told me about that showed how singing boosts our immune systems. “God made our bodies so that singing helps to heal us,” he told me.

I sing to the new greens in my garden. I listen to the birdsong of the persistent sparrows and let my heart be strengthened.

What song do you sing today?

Let’s Share Our Favorite Christmas Music

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Last night we drove the minivan up to St. Albans to see the Christmas lights. It’s a small, sweet little display and it’s been a family tradition since the boys were small. Jeff always packs them a cooler with a special drink—rootbeer for Teddy, grape soda for Jeffrey—and we all pile in (even the dog—this is Bonnie’s first Christmas, after all), play the Christmas music, and breathe deep the season. When they were tinies, I would get them all scrubbed up before we left, put them in fuzzy footie pajamas, and watch them fall asleep on the way home. So much excitement for two little boys. I’ve been a bit sentimental about these traditions this year, trying not to think, “This is the last time …” since Teddy will be going away to school next year. The treasure is in the little things.

Last night, it was important for me to drive because last year, on this same trip, with me behind the wheel, we had an accident on the way home. No one was hurt but it was scary and I’ve been going over it and over it in my mind ever since. But that’s a story for another time. The point of this story is that because I drove, Jeff was in charge of music. He turned on the Contemporary Christian Christmas station of Pandora.

And I was bored to tears.

I don’t know. Maybe I’m too particular. Music is very important in our family. We build conversations and relationships around it. Both of my boys play in the praise band on Sunday morning and Jeff leads. Little Jeffrey is in Marching Band and Indoor Drumline at the high school. When I cook dinner in the evening I’m playing Ellie Holcomb or Christa Wells or Mat Kearney or some music that feeds my soul and takes me out of the stress of the day into a new and beautiful place.

I wonder if it’s the same for you? And have you been bored with the same old ho-hum Christmas albums? All this to say, let’s share some of our favorite Christmas music, shall we? I’ll go first, and then, you. Please tell me in the comments about your favorite, favorite Christmas albums. I really want to know.

Here are some of mine, in no particular order.

  1. Brian Setzer’s Boogie Woogie Christmas. Yes. This is just fun. We have the dvd version of his Christmas Extravaganza, and we watch it every year. It’s a great way to get in the holiday spirit.
  2. Bing Crosby’s White Christmas. Classic. I swoon for Bing. I also love watching The Holiday Inn this time of year. What can I say? I’m a hopeless romantic.
  3. A Jolly Christmas with Frank Sinatra. Nothing smoother than Frank’s voice on this album.
  4. Johnny Cash’s Christmas with Johnny Cash. I grew up with Johnny Cash playing on the radio. I’m crazy about all things Johnny. This album is no exception.
  5. Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful Christmas. We used to play this a lot when the boys were small. They loved his “Zat You Santa Claus?” It made them erupt in fits of giggles. Ah, happy memory.
  6. A Charlie Brown Christmas. Of course.
  7. Sixpence None the Richer’s The Dawn of Grace. I just love Leigh Nash’s voice.
  8. Sarah McLachlan’s Wintersong. This album is so clean and lovely. Sarah’s voice is perfect.
  9. Casting Crown’s Peace on Earth. So many good songs on this one.
  10. Yo-Yo Ma’s Songs of Joy and Peace. Yes. Just to be different. The great artist has several guests performing with him, including James Taylor and Chris Thile.
  11. Over the Rhine’s Snow Angels and Blood Oranges in the Snow. Discovered this wonderful husband and wife team at Laity Lodge a few years ago and have been a fan ever since. Karen’s voice is butter.
  12. James Taylor At Christmas. I love James. This album makes me happy.
  13. Third Day’s Christmas Offerings. A very special album to us for the ways it weaves into our own story. This was released the Christmas after Jeff was saved and for that reason the songs will always be near to my heart.
  14. Chris Tomlin’s Glory in the Highest. A great album altogether but I mainly listen to hear Audrey Assad sing “Winter Snow.” I never get tired of that beautiful song.

Ok. So there are a few of my favorites. I’m sure I’ll think of more as soon as I publish this post. How about you? Will you share with me?

Island Music

On Thursday evenings, when I get home from work, I feed the boys a quick supper and we head back up the Charleston way for their music lessons. Usually, Teddy plugs his phone into my stereo and plays some of his music for me and I get to have a peek inside the brain of a 17-year-old for the span of our shortish-longish drive. But I’ve just recently gotten my van back from the shop—all traces of the accident I had before Christmas gone—and I forgot to put my MP3 cord back where it belongs. So, last night, they suffered slightly through some of my mom music before plugging up their ears and withdrawing into their personal devices.
We were like three islands floating side-by-side down the highway. Music is an important thing in my life. It names things in me that I don’t always have words for. Music has helped me heal—is still medicine for me—from a great many things. I hope it works that way on them too, but I learned a long time ago that I can’t make them appreciate everything I do. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.  
I’ve been listening to this cd in my car, and for reasons I could probably explain but just really don’t want to, I have to play certain songs over and over. The stories of addiction and anger and, yes, redemption, make me cry. The boys always ask why I want to listen to music that makes me cry and I say, “It’s just good songwriting, that’s all.”
When they were littles, I would play Lennie Kravitz’s Greatest Hits over and over on the way to and from preschool and around the valley. Teddy was no more than two or three at the time and he was entirely consumed with everything that had wheels. The boy learned to talk by naming the different kinds of construction vehicles that came to and fro in our neighborhood, developing the empty lots. There is a song called “Mr. Cab Driver” on that album that my boy loved because it referred to a vehicle. Unfortunately, the song is about racial issues and Mr. Kravitz uses the “f” word near the end of the song. I grew skilled in anticipating the upcoming bomb and turned down the volume every time the word was uttered.
I don’t do that anymore. Though I still fight the urge.
I know how powerful art can be.
So, last night, we were these three islands floating down the highway and I was letting that happen. I was getting lost in my music, letting it take me places I probably shouldn’t have gone. I know what the Bible says about taking captive every thought; but for me, that looks different than turning the thing off immediately. I have to push the pause button, tie the thing up, and look at it from every angle—study it until I understand. Only then can I be free.
So, last night, I heard a holy whisper … so soft … so gentle … asking me how I can connect these two parts of me—the me from the past and the me right now.
I turned the volume down.  I wanted to listen to my boys breathe.
It didn’t take long before they realized that outside of their earbuds there was silence. It must have made them wonder because shortly thereafter, a voice from the back seat said, “Tell us a story, mom. Tell us a story from your life—one we’ve never heard before.”
I closed my eyes (only briefly because I was driving) and touched the place inside that the music had left bare earlier.  I told them a story about addiction and brokenness and anger and, yes, redemption.
Even the 17-year-old turned off his personal device.
I am not an island.

Where is the art in your life taking you?

With Lyli:

Thought Provoking Thursday Linkup