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.

Rooted

 

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My mother’s father was a coal miner—a hard-drinking man with rough hands who laughed easily and loved children. Mining was hard work, and sometimes dangerous, but it paid a fair wage. That was something a man with little education and a growing family in rural West Virginia could appreciate. His daddy farmed to feed his family; now that same land would give provision in a different way.

For my grandfather, this land where I now live was about more than making a living. It was a way of life. A way of life that has been slowly seeping away.

Mechanization in the 1950s and 60s changed the face of coal mining all across Appalachia. Thousands of miners lost their jobs and left the region. As the economy and industry shifted, the population declined further in the 1980s. Once-thriving mining communities became ghost towns as young families left in search of livelihood.

Bodies broken from years of hard labor became dependent on prescriptions to get through the day. Others self-medicated to forget the pain of their bodies and the emptiness of unemployment.

Gradually, the way of life the land gave us began to fade from our memories. Hollows once blossoming with carefully-tended homes and gardens became darker places. Lonely places.

But still, there are those who chose to stay. They stayed because they are rooted deeply here. Rooted deeply in a land that has given back to its people in more ways than can be named. And they remember the old ways.

My grandfather stayed. He stayed and pieced together a living as best he could. Life was different, but he was home. This land had been faithful to his family for generations.

In April of 2013, Harlan County, Kentucky, hosted a conference for people concerned about the changing economy in Appalachia. Attendees of the three-day Appalachia’s Bright Future gathering heard stories of people from other regions that have gone through similar economic transitions. One such person was Brendan Smith, a former cod fisherman from Newfoundland.

“Economic transition is about much more than bringing in jobs,” Smith said. “ … When the cod grounds shut down, what they did was offer us money. They’d send us a check, we’d beach our boats … We took the money but what we did was lose our sense of purpose. What you find in Newfoundland now is, a fisherman gets a check, buys a brand new beautiful truck and gets up at five in the morning to drive down to the docks and drink himself to death while he wishes he was out fishing.

“Work has to be about so much more than making a paycheck,” Smith went on to say. “Fishermen, coal miners, iron workers … we’re just proud of building, powering, feeding this whole country. So, just transition plans not only have to help us feed our families but also feed our souls.”

I think of my grandfather as I walk beside the creek with my children. I don’t know what it was about this land that fed his soul. The curves of these hills move differently inside of me. As I watch my boys skip rocks from the bridge, I wonder if Grandpa’s loyalty was not so much to the work of the land as it was to the slow pace of life this land engenders. To family and the deep relationships that grow in these hills.

I gaze down at swift-moving water slipping over smooth stones and wonder if my grandfather knew that his choice to stay would bring me where I am today … walking beside my two boys in a neighborhood that stands on a former cow pasture.

Home.

In this New York Times video, residents of McDowell County, W. Va., share memories and hopes for their rural community—in jeopardy because of high unemployment and an exodus of young people. Mobile users can view the video by clicking here.

Don’t forget to leave a comment on this post for a chance to win some great books!

This article originally appeared at The High Calling.

Where Bravery is Needed

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It was a drug-related shooting. That’s what the paper said the next day. A twenty-two year old black man, shot in broad daylight. Drug-related. As if that explained it away. As if the killing of a twenty-two year old boy could ever make sense. As if he never had dreams or hopes or ever fell in love.

We were invited to an awards luncheon that day, my co-workers and I. Our team had been nominated by one of our patients for a prestigious award from the hospital where we work. We had to travel off-campus for the banquet, so we carpooled and dined on salmon, potatoes dauphinoise, and chocolate swans. We didn’t win the award but we returned to work feeling valued and full. As we walked the block from the parking lot to the hospital, we noticed there were several police cars outside of the Emergency Room, which we must pass to get to the staff entrance. As we approached, we saw there were groups of people—all African-American—in clusters around the entryway. They were varied ages; beautiful doe-eyed women held babies on their hips, gray-haired grandmothers wept on the sidewalk, young boys stood, hunched—hands in pockets. There were so many, they spilled out onto the street, standing and peering expectantly into the glass doors of the hospital. A young man leaned up against the sturdy brick of the building, sobbing uncontrollably.

We trespassed through the scene of this tragedy, silenced by grief. I passed within a breath of that weeping young man. I wanted to wrap my mama arms around him, bear up the pain just a little. Instead, I walked silently by, climbed the steps to the second floor, closed my office door behind me, gripped the edges of my desk and let tears come.

What can be done? Children are killing children. Blind to the sanctity of life, their hearts turned to stone by too many ugly days, too soon. I walked through that grieving throng, a witness.The next day was Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. And the front page of the newspaper read, “Drug-related.”

That evening, we took our son shopping for a new pair of shoes. We were getting ready to take him back to college—he needed some winter walking shoes. We went to the mall to make a night of it. When we entered the shoe-store, my boy and his dad headed over to the brown suede, heavy-tread section and I made a beeline for four-inch heels and wedge booties.

There was one other woman in the store with me—a black woman (“I’ll be sixty-two this year,” she told me) who was surrounded by a gaggle of teens. The kids kept flocking to her and then dispersing. Finally, she and I were left alone to try on shoes. Her smile was so lovely. I could feel her goodness (“I inherited two children about ten years ago, one with special needs,” she told me). We tried on steep wedges together, discussing the dangers of walking. We laughed and she never stopped smiling. I felt like I was shopping with a sister.

What is so difficult about love? What is so exceptional about seeing beauty in someone who looks different than I?

The Triune God delights in the diversity of the three-in-one. The diversity of this world is a direct reflection of the beauty of God. Belden Lane says,”The Trinity delights in all its varied communications of itself, seeing it’s beauty replicated in every species. Each one turns God’s beauty back onto its source, sharing in the dance of desire from which everything comes.”

Lane was referring to variety in nature to make a case for more responsible ecology; but if all of nature glorifies the Creator in this way, how much more does the diversity among the cultures of human kind—those very creatures extolled as bearing the image of God?

I wish this story had a different ending. I wish I could say I wrapped my arms around that weeping young man and my embrace was welcomed. I wish I could say there haven’t been several more shootings on that same end of town. I wish I could say I asked the lovely smiling woman in the shoestore her name, took her number, or even a selfie to post on Facebook later. But life has these invisible lines we rarely inconvenience ourselves to cross over, doesn’t it? And it is inconvenient, frightening even, to enter into another’s world, to let myself be vulnerable to rejection. I know it’s much more complicated than having courage to put myself out there, but how much of the way things are might be changed by the bravery of an embrace? By taking the time to truly connect with a stranger? By letting someone know I see the Holy in them?

Maybe not much, but I want to find out. I’m praying for another chance. And for courage.

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