Saturday, November 3, 2018

A Number of Things

This post is named after this 1980s
Chapel Hill hardcore band, even though
it has nothing to do with them. I always
loved this album cover though!
If you are reading this, I thank you… from the bottom of my crusty old heart. It’s been really hard lately to put thoughts into words and words onto a page, for many reasons. I keep thinking the blackout is over—I write a blog post, but then I just snap right back to where I was… busy, blank-minded and bummed out. 

Actually, bummed out isn’t all that accurate… I mean, I AM bummed out about SOME things, but not most things. In general, I’d say I’m pretty content. And blank-minded? My mind isn’t so much blank as… muddled. I have a LOT of things going on in there, but they can’t be nailed down into cohesive thoughts. I thought maybe the best way to proceed is to just tell you what’s happening and some of the things I have on my mind… If you’ve read any of my past posts, these refrains will sound familiar, but it’s where I’m at.

Pumpkin spice...
it's not for everything.
1. Remember all those times you wished I would stop bringing up the menopause that loomed large on my horizon? Well, this is the last time, ‘cos that ship has sailed. You don’t have to hear about it ever again, and I can no longer blame my many failings on it. As menopauses go, mine was fairly mild, for which I am thankful.

2. Fall. Pumpkin Spice. Boots. Jackets. Jackets that I leave everywhere I go – because here in the south you never know if you’re going to need one or not. What’s the temperature now? Will the A/C be on? Will it be cold when I get out? Crap.... where the %@$!*! did I leave my jacket? (Okay, so maybe that part of menopause where you can’t remember stuff is still with me... or maybe that's just an excuse!) Anyway, despite the trail of jackets I leave behind me, ain’t fall grand? Especially after the greasy hotness of a southern summer?

Bill's new school! We love it!
3. Bill’s new school—Durham School of the Arts. We couldn’t be more pleased. He’s been working hard and he hasn’t complained once… Dare I say… he LIKES it? Let me tell you, my friend, if a 14-year-old boy likes something… well, THAT is something approaching a miracle! Along with all the standard stuff like math and history and all, he’s playing guitar every single day and learning digital design…  What’s more he KNOWS how good he’s got it. I’m so thankful, y’all… What a blessing.

4. Those are some of the good things… but lest you start to think my life is unrelentingly awesome, here are some things I am struggling with: meal planning / cooking, making / keeping our house looking presentable, having a lower salary than last year, trying to find a new client, figuring out what to get Tom for Christmas, how best to participate in taking care of my elderly mother…

For sure the Christian life
should be chock full of love
and mercy. Also, this is a good
movie if you haven't seen it yet.
5. And yes, I’m still struggling with current politics and the church. A couple of the leaders at our church are more conservative than I am, and It’s been hard to hear when these views pop up occasionally. It’s really made me feel detached from the church I’ve belonged to since the late eighties... I don’t go around spouting off about it, but listening to others has let me know that I’m not alone… and that helps. I’ve flirted with the idea of finding a place to worship Jesus that is more in line with my political views, but in the end I decided to remain in this imperfect community. Aren’t they all imperfect after all? And even though our conservative uncle has the mike right now, our church is and has always been made up of folks of all kinds, united by their love of Jesus. They have always been kind and loving and have done a lot to minister to me, to each other and to the world around them. They are, for better or for worse, my family. No, of course I’m not married to them, but dissolving our union would be more heartbreaking than simply just “going to another church.”

6. This discordance I’m experiencing has been hard, but it’s also kept me from becoming complacent and … sure of my “rightness.” Again, it would be tempting to switch to a church that always tells me what I am already thinking, wouldn’t it? Instead I listen to my conservative uncle and ponder what he says. I dissect the conclusions he’s drawn from the Bible, then read the Bible myself—and maybe some other reputable commentaries—and draw my own prayed-over conclusions, which may or may not be the same as his. Because of this push and pull in my brain, I’ve been given the occasion to really think about sin and redemption, love and social justice and what the Christian life should look like. 

Soul Asylum, y'all.
7. If you’re waiting for me to tell you what the Christian life should look like, well, you can keep on waiting. If you want to have coffee or a beer and talk about it, I’m available, but the only thing I know for sure, is that there’s a lot of love and mercy in it. I mean, there has to be… if you’re going to put up with me. If I’m going to put up with you. 

8. The song that goes with this post is Soul Asylum's New York Blackout. I don't know what THEY meant by it, but I always think about St. John of the Cross's "dark night of the soul" ... where you just feel blinded and shut out from God but you just keep looking for God... because just because the lights are out doesn't mean He's not there. "In a New York blackout, it's so hard to see / All the angels that are looking after me.... And I may never escape this darkened city / Still I'm trying to find you in this blackout." 

9. I honestly don’t know why I felt the need to put this in list format… it doesn’t really work, but maybe I’m just trying to look organized when I clearly am not! Also, with a list you can just end the tirade with the last item and not have a summation or anything. 

Friday, July 20, 2018

She said the answer was...

The Velvet Underground
Despite my disgruntled-ness (see previous post), I am striving to maintain my habit of communing with God of a morning, via prayer and a little Bible reading (I'm disgruntled with some of God's people, not God Himself, right)? And lucky me, I’m in the middle of the book of Romans, which… well, it’s a beautiful book – in fact, people say it goes a long way toward explaining what Jesus’s life and crucifixion meant for us… IF you can parse it out, that is… I’ve been reading it for, like, 30 years and I still have so, so many questions… Anyway, here’s what I read the other day:
So, my brothers and sisters, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God. For when we were in the realm of the flesh, the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in us, so that we bore fruit for death. But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.
And I took a sip of coffee. And another sip of coffee. And I thought, “Huh?” I mean, it’s lovely and all, but what does it mean? Any attempt I make to paraphrase it line-for-line is just a mess… Which is a shame, because I feel like understanding it is the key to something I’ve been wrestling with for a while. 

And that is… How are we saved? By our faith? By our works? or both? I mean, of COURSE faith, not works… that’s what they teach you in Protestant churches… but if the church people believe this, then why is there so much emphasis in church on our (and everyone else's) activities?

I mean, like it says in the passage above, because of Jesus’s death, we are FREE from the law. But then it also says we should be free from SIN as well? Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m definitely not sinless. I guess that’s why I struggle with this – because if salvation has anything to do with how I ACT, then I’m doomed… 

King David—dancing with his head up high.
And then there’s that part about being “released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code?” What IS this “new way of the Spirit?” HOW CAN I GET IT?!

Well, that day, as I was pondering this between coffee sips... the answer came to me like a message from God… through a song by the Velvet Underground. Seriously. The specific bit that kept invading my head space was this line from their raucous tune Head Held High*:
…the answer was to become a dancer / Hold your head up high”
I’m not really sure I can explain why this is the answer to the confusion aroused by my reading of Romans 7. It just IS, and joyfully, hilariously so… That is... don’t sit around mulling over your sins—you’re free! So ACT free!

Be yourself! Be a Christian! Be a lover of people! Be a healer of the world! Be a pray-er! Be like David, who celebrated the return of the ark to Jerusalem by a public dancing display that was so vigorous that his wife was embarrassed! Be like Jesus who ate and drank with tax collectors and prostitutes so that they would know God loved them! Be like Paul who wasn’t ashamed of the gospel or afraid of public opinion or death or snakes… Be like Sophie**, a beautiful young cancer patient who wrote a poem that says this:
Be loud
And move with grace
Explode with light

Have no fear…
In other words: You don't have to live like a refugee!
I guess the best practical analogy I've ever heard is this: Imagine that the Christian life is like being married to your soul mate. After the ceremony, would you just go back to your old single-life apartment, keep eating Lean Cuisines, dating, and doing whatever you wanted to? 

Of course not! You'd start acting married! You'd move in together, eat together, merge finances, do life together! It might be hard to get used to at first, but over the years, you'd get the hang of it!

And I'm not talking about one of those creepy abusive marriages where one spouse is abusive and the other one is always walking on eggshells—afraid of what's going to set the jerk off... No siree, this marriage... – well, it's to a Person who is ALWAYS faithful, will ALWAYS love you, and will NEVER leave you—no matter what! Heck, He's bought you with His own blood! 

He thinks you're the bee's knees, the cat's meow, the cream in His coffee, the bubbles in His champagne. He doesn't want you to be creeping around worrying about the rules... He wants to take you dancing! Dare I say it? With your head up high!

*I can't make you, but I strongly urge you to listen to the whole song (here) — it’s awesome. It’s so wild and forceful… Just HAPPY! And FREE! You'll be dancing before you know it!

**I’ll tell you more about Sophie later because it’s a story worth telling. You can read the whole poem here.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Wine in Plastic Cups

In June, or maybe earlier, magazines and newspapers always publish an article pushing books for “summer reading.” As if I might have more time in summer to read than other times... I guess the book recommendations are for beach trips and maybe plane or car rides…? Whatever the case, I can’t say I have substantially more time to read… sadly...

Nonetheless, I did manage to eye-gobble a fascinating read in June: A Spy in the House of Loud: New York Songs and Stories by Chris Stamey. Chris Stamey is this cool guy who lives here in Chapel Hill, but has been all over the world performing and recording music. He first came to my attention in the 80s when he was in a group called the dB’s. (Alexa calls them “the deci-bell-ess” before launching into one of their gorgeous, shimmery power-pop numbers like Neverland or Ask for Jill. It's in your best interest to click on these links, y'all.)

When I was a young gal trying to be cool in NC I heard tell of the famous boys from Winston-Salem, Peter Holsapple, Chris Stamey, Will Rigby and Gene Holder. I had no idea they were actually living in New York at the time… Every time i drove through Winston-Salem, I would get goose-bumps thinking, “This is where it all happens!”

So this book that I read is by one of the members of the dB’s — but that’s not all he’s done! He stayed in the group for a couple of years before he set out on his own as a solo artist and music producer. The book chronicles all this, while giving fascinating detail about the structure of the songs and the technical aspects of recording. I have to admit that these parts went mostly over my head, but I still reveled in having a peek inside the music that I loved when I was young. Heck, I still love it—that’s why I know what Alexa will say when you ask her to “Play music by the dB’s”!

I would also like to say that Chris (I feel like I can call him Chris because of the length of our “acquaintance”) is the man behind one of my favorite Christmas albums, Christmas Time. He’s really the man behind of a LOT of records: check out this partial list.

Anyway... in one part of A Spy in the House of Loud, Chris begins a chapter thus:
How does one write a song? I remember seventies ads for Prell shampoo that showed a pearl floating through the amorphous goop. And I used to think songwriting was like that: You had to have something loose inside you, something rattling around, and you shook it up and then followed it around and took dictation.1
And I was thinking, maybe writing blog posts is similar? And in case you haven’t noticed, the pearls in my amorphous goop haven’t exactly been rattling around… or maybe I’ve failed to shake them up… or follow them around… or take dictation… or all of the above!! In my case, it’s more like… what once might have been a pearl rattling around in there has festered, becoming something gross… like… a rotten egg… or a piece of actual crap… And when I try to take dictation from it, well… crap begets crap.

My salvation (literally) is that I also have an actual pearl in my amorphous goop… And it’s the Gospel—ie., "the pearl of great price":
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls: Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it.2
It’s in there, and It’s always worth the effort it takes to shake, follow and dictate from… It seems harder now—for a people-pleaser like myself, anyway—to present the gospel these days, what with the weird Christian support for you-know-who.* But if I believe the gospel is true, that it actually saves people, and that it is worth selling everything I own for... which I do, then don’t I kinda have to share it? 

So here I am, holding the gospel out for you to consider, as taken from the classic verse in John’s gospel: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

I have alluded to this verse a buncha times, but always after I’ve given some intro—a song, an anecdote, a movie reference… I tell the basic story (or ponder aspects of it)—that Jesus loves you and died for you, but I put a spin on it to try to express it in a more relatable way.

That is, I do the job of a “producer.” Like Chris Stamey, who takes a song and helps the artist determine how it should sound. In Chris’s book, there are many passages about producing songs like this:
I had some ideas first, specifically for the machiney groove, the “96 Tears” tap-tap-tap of the Ace Tone, the verse’s chords, and a few key lyrics. Peter and I quickly fleshed out thee ideas right before the two of us demoed it… In addition to helping with several of the lyrics, he was the one, I think, who came up with the three-bar organ hook, with a high G drone that rubs first against an F-sharp and then against the F-natural. The sound wasn’t complete without running the organ through an Orange Squeezer compressor, an obscure, dinky, lo-fi metal cube – heard previously on the guitars of both “Reeling in the Years” by Steely Dan, and “Sultans of Swing,” by Dire Straits—which exaggerated the natural “vacuum cleaner” wheezing tones of the organ.1
So I’m taking the gospel and without altering it's basic information, giving it some shimmer and running through an Orange Squeezer so that it maybe sounds good to you—or at least less stodgy… Especially these days when you might not be in the mood to trust Christians. 

Chris has another place where he says that, at least at one time, he thought about records as aural cinema, and said he considered a song a script for making a record… that is, only part of the equation… “You might even argue,” he says, “that the new aural moviemaking worked best if the song itself had come out of the oven only half-baked, if it left a lot of room for production.”1

Well, my friends, the gospel of God is anything BUT half-baked! It’s the beginning and the end of love and truth and glory... It seriously doesn't need me to add anything to it! But I think that’s part of the beauty of this thing He’s set up… He could just show Himself to everyone, but instead, He wants people to see His love and choose Him. And He lets silly people like me share His gospel... put our spin on it and spread it around… It’s like the line from the dB’s song “wine in plastic cups” … Yeah, I may be a cheap plastic cup... but, my friends, it’s WINE I'm serving!! 

*Okay so that's what the rotten egg/piece of crap is... I already hashed it out in some posts already: here and here and also tried to make sense of it here. I'm still working through it, but… the more it rattles around in there, the more bitter I get about it, and it sorta gums up the works... like in that episode of Broad City where Illana is unable to have a satisfactory sexual experience because she's so upset about, again, "you-know-who." But I refuse to let him have that much power—that he would stand in the way of the gospel? I think not!

1Stamey, Chris. A Spy in the House of Loud: New York Songs and Stories. University of Texas Press, 2018.

2Matthew 13:45-46