Monday, August 21, 2006

Typical Miracle

I have attended many Christian functions in my life - mostly for teenagers and/or young adults. Most often the main speaker is some 25 or 30 year-old who was raised in the church and fell off the Jesus wagon in college and then got pulled back on by the mercy of God. Their stories are curiously familiar. They sound like this:

“I was raised by 2 wonderful parents and had a perfect childhood. I accepted Christ when I was 9, walked down the aisle and was baptized. I went to college and started drinking and smoking pot. Then I took some acid, started having sex, dabbled in eastern religions, joined a cult, started dancing and playing canasta, got hooked on junk, bought some guns, robbed some convenience stores and reached the end of my rope. I went home one night and put a pistol in my mouth but I felt the Hand of God on me and turned my life around. I am a living miracle.”

Okay. Perhaps that’s a fabrication; or an amalgamation. Anyway, I’ve grown very weary and suspicious of these stories, not to mention that the message they convey is that you can’t really appreciate The Light until you’ve stumbled into your own Wicked Darkness. I would love to walk into some gathering someday and hear somebody say something like this:

“Hi. My name’s Madeline. My husband and I met at church camp when we were in 12th grade and fell in love. We were virgins on our wedding night and have been together for 31 years. God has blessed our marriage and our family. By popular standards we are kind of square, I guess. I’ve never taken my eyes off Jesus because He has never taken His eyes off me. God is good.”

Now, that’s a Miracle.

The Five People You'll Meet in Nashville

The Lone Star A person who believes that no one born outside the state of Texas has the heart, soul, sensibility or talent to write a song. This individual worships the ghost of Townes Van Zandt, the mystique of Rodney Crowell and the legend of Guy Clark as if they were the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Jerry Jeff Walker used to be part of this Trinity (in Texas, where everything is bigger and better, the Trinity had four members) until it was reported that he was from New York.

The Rebel Typically, a male from a deep southern state with a drinking problem, low self-esteem and an unnatural affection for his mother. This individual is still angry about ‘The War of Northern Aggression’ and is more than willing to argue with any damn Yankee way past closing time about the glory of Jefferson Davis, the tragedy at Gettysburg and the evil of Re-Construction.

The Natural A singer, writer or musician - usually from Mississippi or Georgia - who possesses extraordinary natural gifts. When encountering The Natural reasonably talented individuals will question their own self-assessment that led them to move to Nashville with confidence that they could succeed in the music business. Sadly, it is too often the case that The Natural’s nature is toward self-destruction.

The Grifter A person with one remarkable ability: Working the room. Without talent, vacuous, loud, pushy, arrogant and deceitful The Grifter will want to manage you, write with you, represent you to the media, book you, coach you, produce you, marry you and/or publish you. In recent years many Grifters have become stars. This is not surprising since many of The Grifters who arrive in Nashville end up running the companies that make these things happen.

The Companion A person who wandered far from the stability of home and family to follow some barely-illuminated star hanging over an uncertain manger in which a nameless child had not yet been born with the hope that they may somehow be delivered from a life of total obscurity in a steel mill, sock factory, patrol car, restaurant or classroom; guitar-in-hand, shy, humble, down-to-earth and hardly prepared for that which will greet them; singing for nothing, singing for anything; awkward, reticent and resilient - longing for something absurdly familiar; kind-hearted and willing to help. God bless ‘em...

Friday, August 18, 2006

Gold, Frankincense & Hair

I stood and watched as a gentleman measured 12" of my daughter’s beautiful blonde hair, gathered it into a perfect pony tail and cut it off. He bound it gently with a rubber band and laid it on a stone altar. I and the 100 other witnesses sang a song and said a prayer. Several other young women stepped forward and the act was repeated. Soon the altar was covered with a dozen Locks of Love in an array of lovely colors and textures. The tender soul holding the scissors had to stop - he was sobbing.

We had all gathered for a week in Kingston Springs, TN at a campground called Bethany Hills. We were participating in that age-old Christian practice known as church camp. I was one of 10 adult counselors privileged to be part of the high school retreat that summer. Something life-altering always seems to happen at church camp. I suspect that many ministers and missionaries made commitments to their ‘life work’ based on camp experiences. I have thought that there could have been a verse somewhere in the first chapter of Genesis that read as follows: “And God said, ‘Let there be church camp; and let this church camp have uncomfortable bunk beds and bad food; and within this church camp there shall be a campfire and a large, open field for kick ball upon which mosquitoes shall breed and snakes shall crawl; and in the midst of the gathering there shall be placed a rugged wooden cross with rough-hewn benches around which shall be scattered old hymnals and Bibles; and to this sacred ground will be called teenagers from all walks of life prepared to eat s’mores, swim and make wooden key chains; and the entire encampment shall be shrouded in the Spirit of Heaven Itself and it shall be for all time a place where I Am shall visit my young people and they shall sing songs and memorize verses and learn to love one another; and verily, there was church camp.’”

The sacrificial ordeal of the hair-cutting continued into the night until 35 girls and women (and a few young men, also) had contributed to the offering. This generous collection would be delivered to an organization that would, in turn, take the necessary actions to fashion wigs and hair pieces for children who had lost their hair during battles with various illnesses - mostly cancer. Tears continued to fall throughout the evening. Some were crying because they were parting with such a precious part of themselves. Most, I’m certain, were crying because of the meaning it would have to the final recipients.

The checks I’ve written in my life, for the purposes of doing good deeds, added together, multiplied many times over do not approach the benevolence I witnessed that evening. A spirit would be lifted, a smile returned, a dignity restored. Locks of Love, Locks of Love...

Tough and Tender

My mom and dad were both 33 when I was born. I was a late arrival - ten years after my closest sibling. The happy argument continues with my brothers and sister about who our parents really wanted. The conclusion: all of us.

Apparently my old man was a bit of a drinker in his younger days - used to disappear on payday and not show up for a while - not hours - days - weeks. I didn’t know that guy. Frankly, I don’t think my siblings really knew that guy either; at least, they’ve never talked about those days - weeks. Yes, there may have been some absenteeism, perhaps some neglect and avoidance; but I’ve never heard a negative word from any of them about dad’s behavior. Thank goodness.

So, there I was - 10 pounds of chubby joy - just waiting to jump into the world. I looked like a catcher the day I popped out and so I would become. A perfect round target at which to throw a fast-ball or a curve. What could possibly get by me? If the ball didn’t hit the mitt it would have lodged in one of the layers of fat that encircled my mid-section.

With the booze out of his system my dad was a wonderfully involved parent. He did everything that a dad could possibly do - including some things I wish he hadn’t done - like chaperoning my 7th grade end-of-the-year dance at Northeast Junior High School. Here’s the deal: my dad was a real good dresser. He had magnificent suits and sport coats, ties, shirts and shoes. Very hip the ‘30's. The other piece of information is that my parents were incredible dancers. They used to win contests in New York City, Philadelphia, Atlantic City, Allentown, PA. I never witnessed this, of course, but I’ve heard from aunts and uncles, friends and neighbors that Roy and Vivian were certainly ‘the cat’s meow.’ During their award-winning years they were dancing to the music of Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller and Count Basie. Now it was 1964 and I was attending my 7th grade Spring Dance. “Can’t Buy Me Love” and “Dancing in the Street” were playing on the PA system. Roy and Vivian started to cut-a-rug. I drifted off into the shadows.

But he was a good guy - attending everything I ever did. He was also a good athlete in his younger days and hoped that I would be too. I loved sports - played them all - very average. My favorite was baseball - at least in my younger years. In this I excelled - perhaps because of my afore-mentioned frame perfectly suited to be a catcher. So, how better to be near your baseball-playing kid than to be UMPIRE-IN-CHIEF of his Little League? Yep - that’s what he was, God bless him. And, he was really good at it - mostly because no one took any shit from him no how; not coaches, not parents and certainly not us kids.

Occasionally my dad and I had the unfortunate situation of being involved in the same game. My dad was always the umpire behind the plate calling balls and strikes. Chubby me, of course, was right in front of him, giving signs and trying to stop foul tips with anything other than my protective cup. There we were. I loved it.

I had a teammate who played second base who I loved as much as a nine year-old can love another kid. He was kind and sweet and was a good player on our team. His dad was an acquaintance of my dad’s from the whiskey days. This guy showed up at the game that evening and stood just outside the chain link fence along the first-base line. He was drunk. (I know that now - I didn’t then.) All I remember is that every time my pal got up to bat or made a fielding play this guy started yelling at him like he couldn’t ever do anything right. He would yell at his son and tell him he wasn’t worth a damn or he threw like a girl or he should get off the field. My buddy started crying and we all felt bad for him. This guy stopped yelling, didn’t make a sound, in fact , when my old man walked up to the chain link fence and hopped over. No punches, no screaming, no guns. Just a very quiet conversation - face-to-face. No more noise from this son-of-a bitch. My dad came back onto the field. Stillness. Silence. Local awe.

Maybe that’s the way I remember my dad and that ain’t too bad. Oh that I’ve done something in the eyes of my children that was so complete - tough, tender and redeeming.