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.

Manna (and a giveaway)

The poplars are yellowing and turning brown around the edges. Soon the rest of the trees will follow suit. Chaucer is credited with saying, “Time and tide wait for no man” but I’m sure he must have been paraphrasing the wind. How long has mankind lamented the quick passing of the seasons? Moments disappear so rapidly these days that I celebrate the tiniest of accomplishments.

When we were in New Orleans on our family vacation back in July, Jeffrey wanted to go to The Museum of Death. I know, right? Morbid. He’s always had a curious mind and since we encourage him to stay curious, his dad and I consented. We walked our two sons up to Dauphine Street where the museum was but declined to participate in the tour. As Jeff and I strolled back to the hotel, we passed a little gallery. All the colorful paintings caught my eye and as I window-shopped, I noticed some movement behind the locked door. Before I knew it, a Boston Terrier approached the glass front where we stood gawking and tilted his head to the side, questioning our interest in his space.

Well, you know how I feel about Boston Terriers.

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Enough said.

We did what we call “Scooby talk” extensively to this gentle sir through the glass. Finally, his owners came into the room and unlocked the door so we could make over their boy in person. His name was Tyson and he was a rescue dog. He was recovering from a terrible case of heartworm disease, but he seemed healthy and happy during out little visit. Long story short, his daddy was the artist in residence of the little gallery, Martin Welch. We loved his work so much we ended up buying three prints and some notecards.

Since my father-in-law’s death, the prints have been sitting on the kitchen counter—waiting to find a home on our walls. I mentioned recently how I’m working on my imagination. I’ve been taking a poetry class online. I made a new friend, who is also a poet and her words have become part of my morning prayers. This song has been singing to my heart. I’ve recently dusted off my water colors. And these prints now grace my walls.

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This is the tiny accomplishment I celebrate today.

I once heard an artist say that “The purpose of art and religion are the same: Transformation.”

“Art creates space,” he said. “Effective art creates a liminal space …”

That word, “liminal?” It means “threshold.” This friend was telling me that art—beauty—creates a doorway that, when stepped into, takes us to a new place where transformation is more likely to occur. 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.

As I listened to him talk about the ways the arts make a space for transformation, I realized how mysterious this process is. Who can name the many ways a heart might be moved? We were created in God’s image, and thus, creating is part of who we are at the deepest level.

For me, art is manna. My daily bread.

I want to celebrate that by giving away a copy of my friend Laurie’s book of poetry: Where the Sky Opens. Leave a comment by Tuesday evening, September 20st for a chance to win and I’ll announce the lucky one Wednesday morning.

Under a Different Sky: The Ministry of Imagination

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Yesterday morning when I walked the dog around the house the moon was a crooked smile in the sky. I saw Orion tipped over above me, candling the dark. The cicadas were in full strum and I listened to their morning song as we bended around back. The day began soft, sweet, and I felt summer thin on the edge. Autumn lurked—scent of wood fire on my skin.

This morning the sky is white with unshed rain and Bonnie and I hurry with her business. The air is wet against my skin, heavy. Without the stars to capture my eye, I lose my center. My mind flits through one thousand things I am doing or need to do or want to do. I feel like a mist-person—half here and half somewhere else.

Some days I long to be under a different sky. This place I toil in feels tired and I can’t help but agree with Solomon, “Nothing is new under the sun.” The days blur together and moments lose meaning. Time dissolves like sugar in water, but leaves behind no sweetness.

I’ve been reading Run with the Horses by Eugene Peterson. It’s a book about the prophet Jeremiah, the one we know as the weeping prophet. Peterson talks of Jeremiah’s creativity, seeming to describe him as a performance artist. This prophet went to alarming extremes to communicate the message of the Lord to his people. Yesterday, I read this:

 The great masters of the imagination do not make things up out of thin air, they direct our attention to what is right before our eyes. They then train us to see it whole—not in fragments but in context, with all the connections. They connect the visible and the invisible, the this with the that. They assist us in seeing what is around us all the time but which we regularly overlook. With their help we see it not as commonplace but as awesome, not as banal but as wondrous. For this reason the imagination is one of the essential ministries in nurturing the life of faith. For faith is not a leap out of the everyday but a plunge into its depths.”

For faith is not a leap out of the everyday but a plunge into its depths.

When life gets busy, this is what I tend to do: compartmentalize. I put my everyday life in one box and my spiritual life in another. Don’t we all do this? Our minds need to simplify for efficiency. Compartmentalizing is one way of doing this. But this can lead to a smaller life and narrow vision. Psychologist Ellen Langer, Ph.D. tells us this is one reason why adults lose their ability to stay present in the here-and-now—therefore losing that sense of wonder that so captivates children. We compartmentalize. We label. We oversimplify.

This is good, this is bad. This is sacred, this is secular. This is black, this is white. This is necessary, this is beautiful.

“But there have been times in history,” Peterson tells us, “when these things were done better, when the necessary and the beautiful were integrated, when, in fact, it was impossible to think of separating them.”

What if everything that is beautiful is useful? What if it inspires and unveils and pulls us deeper into relationship with God and each other? And what if everything that is useful was beautiful too? What if crafters of the utilitarian began to see their work as art? As a way to leave a mark on this world? What if?

I am working on my imagination, dipping into some of those great masters Peterson describes. I read poetry out loud every day—rub the lines between the fingers of my mind like prayer beads. I’m listening to music more, letting stories carry me away. I have found these do not take me under a new sky, but they open my eyes to the beauty of the one I am living under. Imagination opens up the sky and reveals the holy beyond.

 

White Christmas

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Christmas Day came and went and not one frail flake fell from the sky. New Year’s dawned with a white sky of promise but hope faded with the sun. Not until the Epiphany of the Lord—yesterday—did our little valley get a glimpse of the white stuff. Somehow this seems appropriate on this day that we celebrate the revelation of Christ as king. Epiphany—the “aha!” moment, the unexpected light of insight. And Jesus, like a sudden snowfall, brings wonder into our lives. Epiphany celebrates how God revealed the identity of Jesus as Messiah to the Gentile Magi. It reminds us that Jesus came for all—not just for the Jewish nation—that is the significance of Epiphany—that the Lord of Lords reveals himself to each one of us in a unique and personal way.

This morning I sit in my white chair in my white dining room and watch the sky drift down in flecks of light. It is lovely to be warm and cozy when it is twenty-one degrees outside. I’m enjoying my new quiet time corner and this morning I remembered I promised to share with you when the room was all done.

First, here’s a little of what it used to look like. This is from Christmas a few years ago. The walls were yellow and red.

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And here it is now:

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I’m not a Martha-Stewart-type but beauty does inspire me. This makeover was inspired by some original artwork that I acquired last year. I have a friend who collects art from all over the world and to visit with him is a delight for the eyes and heart. He introduced me to the work of South Carolina artist Claire McElveen and I fell in love. I was able to bid on a few of her original pieces on eBay and have started a small collection of my own.

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Well, of course when the pieces arrived I couldn’t find a suitable place in the house to display them. Such loveliness requires just the right setting, no? Like precious gems. That was when I decided I needed to paint all the dark woodwork white and create a blank slate. It’s so much brighter now and it feels roomier to me. When the walls and woodwork were done, my furniture looked out of place, so I decided to pickle my home office cabinet. You know how it goes, if you give a mouse a cookie … Then I had to do the chairs.

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The entire project took quite a while due to working around the busy schedule (who decides to re-do a room the same time their book is released?). In truth, it was only the threat of holiday visitors that propelled me to finish.

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It was quite a playdate. Amazing what a little paint and some elbow grease can do :). What do you think? Do you like it? Aren’t the paintings lovely? I’m still pinching myself every time I stand in front of them.

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Thanks for letting me share a little of what is making my heart smile on this cold, snowy morning.

Playdates with God: Art Walk


Listen! The only things that matter are your footfalls and the steady beating of your heart. Stand in a patch of sun spilling through the canopy of trees. Slide your hand across the skin of a mossy rock. Close your eyes and inhale the scent of the years of decay that created the fertile soil where you stand.

In this forest, you have everything you need for resurrection. Let your soul awaken from the long sleep.

Listen? There have been messages left behind. Paw prints and hooves, scat…initials carved in a tree. Everywhere you go someone has gone before. You will never be alone in this long journey. If you try, you can feel the unseen. Have you tried? Have you offered up your reason, have you let go of the weight of understanding? Lift up the need for proof and let the wind carry it. Then you will find evidence—deep inside of you. Open your heart to possibility. Let hope bloom in your inside places.

Today, touch everything with love. The spider spins in secret but the morning dew gives him away. There is nothing in your heart that is not known.

Listen. Is there not wonder in every living thing? Is there not beauty in every blade of grass?

Close your eyes. Do you see?

The five winners of Billy Coffey’s new novel When Mockingbirds Sing are Heather, Linda Stoll, Sharon O. Susan Etole, and Amy Jones. Congratulations! I’ll be in touch but if you see this first, email your snail to laraj@suddenlink.net. 

Today at The High Calling, Nancy Franson leads us in our discussion of Chip and Dan Heath’s book Decisive. Join us? You might want to join the network while you’re over there.

How do you embrace the God-joy? Every Monday I’ll be sharing 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 Him. Be with Him. Grab my button at the bottom of the page and join us:
 The Playdates button: