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