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.

Inauguration Day

Yesterday, according to our local weathermen, the sun came out for the first time since December 26. When Jeff got home from work, we went for a walk. I’ve been having some trouble with my back, so I couldn’t make it very far without discomfort.  When I’d had enough, Jeff went on without me and I made my way back home alone.  The sky was a fair companion and the wind shifted daubs of cumulus clouds about, rearranging the geography of heaven as I walked. Patches of azure opened and closed here and there, like pupil-less irises in the cloud sclera of sky.

I passed a row of white pines and absentmindedly plucked some needles from a bough. I lifted them to my nose and breathed in their faint scent. It was diminished by the season—tired, old. I pressed the flimsy greens between my teeth and bit down: earthy, grassy, dry.

I walked on, mouthing the needles, wondering at the day. Further along I came across an evergreen I did not recognize. It looked out of place amidst all those white pines and I was pleased to meet it.

“Hello,” I said, to be polite. “How did you end up here?” I felt a kinship with this lonely traveler on this day of days. She was a testament to my heart, a splash of truth in all the pretense.

I bent and buried my nose in a cluster of her needles. Sweet and citrusy, she offered herself to me. Her needles were long, about four inches, and in clusters—like a pine—sprayed out abundantly from the twiggy branch. The cone was open, about three inches. I plucked a cluster of needles from her upstretched arm. No sooner were they in my grasp when my fingers were sticky with the scent of orange. I bit down on acidic brightness—a fruit basket in two small stalks of green. I chewed on the resiny goodness all the way home.

This morning, in my quiet time, I read part of Luke 4. The reading took me through the temptation of Jesus (1-13), to the beginning of his ministry in Galilee (14-15), to his rejection in his home town of Nazareth (16-30). I’m reading through an old lectionary commentary, and the writer had this to say about these passages:

Today marks the midpoint of the Epiphany season, a season in which we celebrate the revelation, the manifestation (epiphania)—of God. Primarily, we celebrate how Jesus is made known—revealed to us as God’s Messiah. But something else is also revealed in this season. In this text, we, too, are made known. And we, like the congregation in Nazareth, are revealed to be a people who like to draw lines in the sand—a people with a persistent ‘we-they’ mind-set. … We can easily turn all of life into a competition—who is better than whom. …
Sometimes we would like to peg God with a certain nationality, a political party, an income level. Yet in the second half of Luke’s work, we read especially about the impartiality of God. When Peter preached about the inclusion of both Jews and Gentiles through Christ, he proclaimed, ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality’ (Acts 10:34). Literally, this reads: ‘God makes no distinction between faces.’ God does not differentiate between peoples.
No, God is not interested in faces; God is interested in hearts. Not beautiful hearts, not pure hearts, nor perfect hearts, but hearts that know their need of God …”

This morning, the sun is still shining. And I’m trying to remember to stand like my new friend—beautiful in her distinctiveness, full of grace. The freshness of such a friend can make one almost forget the pain from a tired old back, and remind to look upon this tired world with eyes of love.

A Downy Epiphany

I awakened this morning—on Epiphany—with my lower back in full spasm. This has never happened to me before, so in ignorance I did not let it slow me down. The more I moved, the better it seemed, I convinced myself. I stretched and massaged and applied heat. I hauled baskets of laundry from the upstairs to the down. There was snow on the ground for the first time this season so I took my camera outside and snapped some pictures in the cold.

As I stood in my pajamas and boots in the snow, a downy woodpecker kept fussing at me from the Maple tree. She was trying to make a meal of the suet brick I had hung there weeks ago, but the thing was frozen solid. I watched as she pecked furiously with her short, sharp beak, to no avail. I went back inside and lugged the large bin of sunflower seeds out to fill the feeders, hoping she would indulge. I took to moving about stiffly, like a robot, and thought I was doing fine until I moved a certain way and the pain of it caused the whole of me to lock up.

I talked to my doctor and he ordered me to take it easy. Take some ibuprofen, he said. No lifting or vacuuming. I sat at the kitchen table watching the cardinals and snowbirds dip in and out of the feeders, trying to ignore the mountain of boxes stacked neatly at the bottom of the stairs—all the Christmas decorations waiting to be carried back up to the attic.

Epiphany. It means, “a sudden insight into the reality or meaning of something”. Its significance for the church is that God revealed the identity of Jesus as Messiah to those Gentile magi, instead of someone of prestige in the Jewish nation. We believe this was God’s way of showing that Jesus came for all—not just for one people—and really, this is the meaning of Epiphany—that the Lord of Lords reveals himself to each one of us in a unique and personal way.

The story of Epiphany is the story of us all—each on our own long journey through life. So this morning it seemed perfectly fitting that I should be down-in-the-back on this holy day. Forced into immobility, I was faced with the vulnerability and weakness of this body, my humanity—the very thing that Christ took on himself when he came into this world and lived among us. He came as a babe—weak and frail, vulnerable in every way. The wonder of it all fell fresh over me like the light of a new star in the sky, like the fresh-fallen snow in the back yard.

I sat at the table and I wondered and my back ached and I watched as the little downy female clung to the side of the feeder and filled her beak full of sunflowers.

 

West Virginia Morning: Advent Devotion

This morning there is no sun. The white sky fills with young light but there is no warmth. The thermometer tells me it’s seventeen degrees. I go out to fill my bird feeders dressed for a blizzard. When I come back in, I light all the candles and kindle the Christmas lights. Then I sit, beside the tree, with Bonnie wedged in the chair beside me. She is a good companion for the listening, and this is what we do—close our eyes and strain hearts to hear something, anything—that still, small voice.

Then I try to do some reading. Have I mentioned I’m having trouble reading lately? My hands ache to be busy and my body begins to feel squirmy and soon my mind wanders and the words float before me like alphabet soup. I keep trying, though, and this morning I gathered some of my Advent devotionals and read a little from Scott Cairns, who is one of my favorite poets. Then I read some Wendell Berry poems out loud to Bonnie, who was rapt and appreciative. But this Advent, this season of Light, I mostly have been practicing listening.

Early on in the Advent season I told a dear friend about my struggles with reading and she made some wise suggestions. “I think you need to not read any books at all,” she said. “I think maybe you need to listen.” She went on to suggest music, or poetry, or the Psalms. And then later, she gave me a tremendous gift. Every day she reads to me a chapter from one of her favorite Advent devotionals on Voxer. I listen to her readings each morning as I drive to work. The book is quickly becoming one of my favorites too. My friend told me she is reading for herself as well as for me, but as I listen to her rich voice give me words and stories, I feel treasured. I feel loved.

I spent so many years reading aloud to my sons. It was an act of love, a sacrifice. The gift of time is enough, but the gift of story? Nothing feeds my soul more. How good it is to be cared for this way.

After my Advent listening, I wash my son’s bedclothes and put clean sheets on his bed. Tomorrow I will drive all day to bring him home for winter break. There is rain in the forecast, possible icy conditions, but the thought of his company on the way back home warms me from the inside out.

These are small things but Christmas first came to us in the small, did it not? That swaddling babe wrapped in rags, sleeping in the manger. I am finding hope in the small moments this year, cherishing my small life. And I am learning that this is no small thing.

If You’ve Ever Been Disappointed

 

fullsizeoutput_1ef7

One morning last week as I did my early reading and light spilled over the frosted earth like a glass of yellowed buttermilk, two yearling does visited the meadow behind our house. The girls were wary, and when I moved to the window to watch them nibble the frozen grass along the fence line, they lifted their heads in tandem to study me—tails twitching behind. They soon surmised I was no threat and resumed their brunching, content. It was cold outside, below freezing, and I noted the thickness of their fur, wondered how it would feel to the touch.

Since then, I moon expectantly around the window as often as I can, hoping to catch another glimpse the little girls’ doe-eyed beauty.

I am a hopeless sentimentalist—a hopeless hoper; always believing the best is yet to come, always holding out for a glimpse of wonder. I study the night sky patiently for shooting stars, search the clover patch diligently for the elusive four-leaf, linger long on the balcony by the ocean for a glimpse of the dolphin’s rounded nose to poke up out of the waves.

I’ve been disappointed too many times to name and yet, my spirit still gets its hopes up when waiting. I never seem to learn my lesson, often diving straight into hope from possibility without a second thought. God has almost cured me of wanting anything at all through the repeated blows of disappointment I have experienced over the years.

But not quite.

Recently, I suffered another disappointment and I’m having a hard time shaking this one. Even though I know there’s no simple answer, I’ve been asking myself “why?” a lot. I’ve caught myself wishing I wasn’t so full of hope. I’ve been asking God what I’m doing wrong, what I’m supposed to learn from this grief, and why does he always make me take the hard path? I tear up at the strangest times and find myself without words during my prayer time. I’ve been sitting in silence a lot. It’s quiet here, inside the walls of me. I have been touching the moments gently—feeling around inside my heart.

Romans 5:5 tells me, “… hope does not disappoint …” but I’ve been complaining to God about what I feel is a lack of truth in this statement. I’ve been identifying with God’s name for his people in Zachariah 9:12: “prisoners of hope.”

And still, I hope. I hope this disappointment was a mistake. That this thing longed for will be replaced by something of greater joy. That the reason for this “no” would be clear to me and I would feel grateful to be saved from whatever certain perils a “yes” would have brought.

Christmas is coming and this year my advent waiting feels almost desperate at times. For, lately it feels I am always waiting for a good that never arrives. This is what the word “advent” means, after all: arrival.

After some sleuthing around in the dictionary, I discovered that the words “advent” and “adventure” come from the same Latin root, advenire. But “advent” comes from the past participle stem of advenire, while “adventure” comes from the future participle.

I’ve always thought of Advent as a waiting for, but this startling etymology reminds me that this arrival we wait for is already past. Yes, we wait for the return of our Savior, but he has already come. He has already done the hard work that fills our hearts with longing—that fills our hearts with hope. He has arrived and dwells within our hearts, abiding and keeping company and strengthening us for the journey. Because even though he has arrived, we still wait for that day when all will be made right and his arrival will announce a new order of things. And it is the promise of future adventure that keeps our waiting so expectant, so alive with joy.

This is why hope does not disappoint. This is why my heart’s hopefulness cannot be quashed: Our hope is in more than earthly desires. Our hope is a person. His name is Jesus. There is much that can be said about this broken world we live in and how our lives are being made new by faith—minute by minute—how disappointment is a real and human thing … but I don’t have all the right words to say that just now.

This is the mystery of Advent, this already-but-not-yet our hearts understand better than our heads. I don’t quite understand it either, my mind almost grasps it but then it slips away as quickly as the light fades from the winter sky.

But the shimmer—this glimmer—of truth stays inside of me. This morning I touch it gently with my thoughts as I move to the window once more. I watch through the glass, my feet planted in warm, as the two yearling sisters emerge from the brush and sniff the remains of my fall pumpkin, broken open and discarded in the meadow.

The house glows soft with twinkling light and my heart floods with hope once again.