Songs I Love – Madness, “The Sun and the Rain” (1983)

I discovered Madness about the same time everyone else in North America did — the spring of 1983, when “Our House” (and the Geffen compilation) were released in the USA. But, oh, how do I put this? I became obsessed with Madness. (I still am.) I was one of the few people who found their other two US releases — One Step Beyond and Absolutely were both issued by Sire Records — in addition to the Geffen compilation. And I remember how excited I was when their 1984 LP, Keep Moving, came out.

The US edition of Keep Moving included two late 1983 singles that were not on the UK edition — “Wings of a Dove,” a song Madness wrote and recorded with an Afro-British pentecostal church choir in mind, and “The Sun and the Rain,” which was their last UK top-10 single until 1999’s “Lovestruck.”

“The Sun and the Rain” is very close to a perfect pop song. Everything about this tune just makes me happy — the bounce that begins with the piano, Daniel Woodgate’s driving drums pounding tightly with Mark Bedford’s bass, Suggs’ vocal (I’ve always found his voice a little thin, but it’s a thinness that works with just about everything he sings), the honking of Lee Thompson’s sax and Dick Cuthell’s flugelhorn, and the strings. Again, like “Will She Always be Waiting,” the strings make this song me. (It’s a little clearer in this crappy recording of the 12-inch mix, which pulls the strings out a bit and separates them from the vocals, especially toward the end.) They hold the songs together, give it a weight and a cheerfulness I don’t think it has otherwise (as the version from Madstock suggests, though this live version is better done, largely because of the horns and strings right there on stage).

If anything, this song reminds me of San Francisco, of walking — maybe even skipping (I’m asking those who know me to imagine me skipping) — along sidewalks and streets, splashing in puddles, at night, under streetlights, as busses and streetcars pass by. And even in this, there is just a slight hint of darkness in this song (I swear, there feels like there’s a minor chord in there somewhere). Not quite the cheerful little jaunt it first presents itself as. This is life in the city, in the rainy evening, when inexplicable joy has swallowed everything else, had reduced the awfulness of life and the world to absolute wet nothing. Because it’s raining, and you can feel it on your face, squishing in your shoes. You are drenched. And because of all this, you know you are still here. And alive.

Everything is wonderful. And amazing.

If this version weren’t enough, the French duo Indeed (who seem only to do Madness covers) turned a bouncy little pop song into something entirely different. And astounding. I don’t know how to categorize this version, except that’s it fragile and beautiful and possibly the most amazing thing I’ve ever heard. What is NOT to love about her voice? (Pay attention to what they do with that string arrangement…)

Songs I Love – Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, “Why I Love Country Music” (1985)

Oh, I cannot help myself. The gears in the brain are turning, turning, and will not stop. And so while this may at some point be a weekly feature, it’s going to be as often as I feel the need to write. (Because Cavanaugh remains unfinished!)

Ever been in love and know it was doomed from the start? Then you probably have some songs to go along with that feeling, songs that helped you get through it, songs that either spoke to that exact feeling or made you capable of hiding in better feelings. Me, I do the first one far more than the latter. And this collection, Easy Pieces, was my late 1985 doomed relationship album.

In fact, Easy Pieces is one of my favorite albums ever. It still is. It is one of a handful of discs I’d take with me to a desert island were I exiled (because maybe that’s what happens to crazy holy men?) to distant speck of nothing. And forced to subsist on fish and copra under the southern sky.

Lloyd Cole was one of the people I discovered watching MTV. The video for “Perfect Skin” on his first disc with The Commotions was played a time or two on MTV (or something did, because I can’t find a video for this song), and it was intriguing enough to buy his first collection Rattlesnakes. Rick Ocasek of The Cars was called in to remix three of the songs for US release, adding his star power (yes, he had that in the early 1980s, which is why he was able to marry a supermodel) in attempt by David Geffen to market this record. How well it worked, I don’t know. Probably not as well as anyone had hoped. That was 1984.

Easy Pieces came out toward the end of 1985. Back when things has sides, I bought the imported cassette on UK’s Polydor label, as it had two additional tracks — “Her Last Fling” and “Big World” — that the Geffen version for the US did not have. (And they didn’t rebalance the tracks, so the first side of the cassette had about five extra minutes on it, the two additional tracks tacked on at the end of side two, so I added OMD’s “If You Leave” on to side one — because I was 18 and that’s exactly where I was, thank you very much.) Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley produced, but managed to keep their trademark slickness to a minimum with these songs, letting Cole and his Commotions do their wonderful thing with the help of some Clanger/Winstanley regulars (Anne Dudley with strings, Gary Barnacle with horns, and Jimmies Helms and Chambers singing some backing vocals).

The sound of this band is the sound I would love to have. The two guitars, the bass and drums, and Blair Cowan’s very accordiony keyboards are almost perfectly balanced on this record. (Those who pay close attention will hear the influence in my recordings.) The music surrounds Cole’s voice but doesn’t drown it out. (The reviewer for Spin at the time described Cole’s voice in almost orgasmic terms.) There’s not a bad song in the whole LP batch, though the A side — “Rich,” “Why I Love Country Music,” “Pretty Gone,” “Grace,” “Cut Me Down” — is about as perfect a covey of five songs could be on a slab of vinyl or two tracks of mylar tape. The B side isn’t bad either, but it doesn’t sink into my soul quite as much as the A side.

So, with five almost prefect songs on that side, why pick “Why I Love Country Music”? Mostly, it’s just everything about the song. Especially the lyrics:

Jane is fine, always fine, we’re unhappy most of the time
We don’t talk, we don’t fight, I’m just tired she’s way past caring
But she says she is fine, she tells lies most of the time
What she needs, I don’t have, that’s not in the hand that I’m holding
So we drink Spanish wine, she plays country records until the morning
This is mine, all of mine, she is not, she is not mine
But I feel fine only when I’m sleeping, only with the tv on
She and I and empty wine and whisky bottles
And she, white beneath crumpled sheets
She is everything I need but she would rather, be anyplace but here

I’m guessing most of you have been in this awkward and unhappy place too at least once in your lives. For me, those last two lines are the emotional core of the song. They are what make this song work for and in me, and Cole’s voice trails off into a small instrumental section, and the notes tumble down (especially the piano on the LP version) that allows the feeling to both just sit there and yet build. And then Cole finishes his story:

Jane is fine, always fine, we’re unhappy most of the time
We don’t talk, we don’t fight, I’m just tired, she’s way past caring
So we drink Spanish wine, we tell lies, we’re killing time
We feel fine, well, what’s the crime?

Well, what is the crime?  For me, there was always an irony in that line, since I always had a sense at the time that the sheer seeming pointlessness of it all was some kind of crime. At least against the self, if no one else. The fact that she’s still here, even though she could be anyplace at all, is less important than the interior world of the story teller. Cole is a fantastic teller of musical stories, and I think the song — like the poem — is an underrated and under appreciated means of telling a very sophisticated and complex story in a very simple way.

I could not find the LP version of “Why I Love Country Music” anywhere on line (I suppose I could have uploaded it), and so I found this recording from a recent Lloyd Cole tour with his Small Ensemble. The sound quality is terrible. I apologize for that.

This is the next song from Easy Pieces, and is also breathtakingly beautiful.

And this ends the collection. Well, aside from the B-sides tacked on at the end of the UK cassette and CD.

The No, and the Yes, and the Wonderful-Terrible Love of God

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
                             — John Donne

* * *

Well. The time has come for me to tell the story, to describe what has happened this week. To try and explain where I am. To help my friends and colleagues and those who care about me make sense of things. To help me make sense of things.

For the last almost six years, I have been studying to be a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. I was called to this church after 15 years of being Muslim, after encountering God in the fear and terror of the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, and meeting the wonderful people of Peace Lutheran Church in Alexandria, Virginia, who helped me understand the God I met was the risen and crucified one, Jesus. The program is supposed to last only four years, but I am so very special that my time took six years.

But seminary study is not all there is. Each of the geographical entities of the ELCA has what are called candidacy committees, boards of pastors and lay people who evaluate potential future pastors. This candidacy process has three formal steps: entrance, endorsement (to go on internship), and approval (for ordination). As I said, I am special, and my process has been lengthy and difficult. I had to be endorsed twice (because my first internship failed).

For the last two months, I have been at the approval stage. The first time I met with my candidacy committee (which is in Washington DC, where my home church is), they postponed approving me because of what they claimed was contradicting information. They agreed to meet again to discuss me on February 7. Which was Tuesday. And they did.

They did not approve me. Their stated reason is that I do not possess the social skills necessary for effective pastoral ministry. I believe they are wrong, and that they do not know me well enough — they have never really made the effort — to make that judgment, but it is the final judgment of the committee. It will not change in the near future. If ever. For a time, a few hours Tuesday afternoon, I thought about writing an angry screed against the folks of the Metro Washington DC Synodical candidacy committee. But a screed is not in me. Not now. Perhaps not ever.

(UPDATE: I should note, I suppose, that my candidacy committee did not approve me despite an unconditional recommendation for approval from both the seminary and my second internship supervisor.)

Now, I need to tell you a story. The story of the story of my life. (That looks strange on the face of it. Just go with me.)

The story I had used to tell me who I was, what the world meant, to show me where I fit in the scheme of things, begins even before I have any conscious memories. My mother told once that when I was very, very young, I came to her and asked: “Why doesn’t my daddy love me?” That is where my story begins. It was added to some more by my father, who became incredibly physically violent when I was six and seven. (His violence would last on and off until I was 15.) It was added to when I was nine, when we arrived in Southern California and I began school at Citrus Elementary in Upland. Where the kids bullied me incessantly from the moment I arrived, belittling me, threatening me, tormenting me. The teachers were no help. It was as if the kids ran Citrus Elementary.

And then I entered the fifth grade. It was hell. Because the teacher joined in with the kids in belittling me, threatening me, bullying me. If you’ve not been told by a teacher, in front of God an everyone, that you are stupid, that she will fail you and make you repeat the fifth grade, you have no idea what it is to be reduced to utter and complete nothing.

Because of my father’s violence, which alternated with indifference, I was scared of boys. Terrified of them. So scared that I was actually unable to go into a restroom. So — and this is possibly the hardest and most embarrassing thing I’ve ever said publicly — I peed my pants a lot. It started, I think, when I was at La Mesa Elementary in Monterey (where my father was at his most violent), was lessened somewhat at R.O. Nelson Elementary in Newport News, Virginia (I actually had some very protective friends who, while they would talk about it and even laugh — I eventually deciphered their code — they never made fun of me for it). But like everything else in my life at the time, at Citrus it was out of control. It was just one more thing everyone could bully and make fun of me about. Which they did. And it did not help that the preferred way of dealing with the problem, on the part of teachers (and earlier, by my parents), was to try and humiliate me out of the habit.

I don’t remember many adults being terribly compassionate. Or willing to take much time to get to know me. In fact — and here’s a horrible story — the most positive adult attention I remember from that time was a creepy man who hung around the General Dynamics sports complex (where my dad played softball) and liked to pull up my shirt rub my stomach with his hands, telling me all the time how pretty I was. That’s all he did, and there but for the grace of God nothing worse ever happened to me. But it’s a horrible thing to consider — at 10, I was perfect pedophile bait.

I do not know if I can communicate the extent to which I felt alone and abandoned when I was 10 years old. I had one friend, Marck Weiss, who had it at least as bad as I did. I survived the fifth grade almost entirely because of Marck, and I cannot thank him enough for being human in the midst of inhumanity. But also I did so because one day I decided that if lonely, unhappy, and despair were all I were going to feel, then they wouldn’t hurt. Because they hurt, it meant there was something else to feel — something that was not hurt. I had no idea when that would be. But I would live to get there. I would wake up and live through the nightmare — and it was a nightmare — to get to whatever the absence of in my life then promised me would be in the future.

To survive, I looked inward. I developed my intellect, I read books, and my mother helped with all this (in part, I think, because I was her intellectual companion in my parent’s less-than-pleasant marriage). The world around me was either utterly indifferent to my existence or relentless cruel to me. It was not a place where I was cared for or about. The adults had all the power, could make their decisions, were never accountable, and I never mattered. I was at best a tolerated nuisance. I internalized this understanding of who I was. I was and am exceptionally bright — often times I was the smartest person in the room. That was almost never a good thing. (What I loved most about my two years at Georgetown is, for the first time in my life, I was not. You cannot know how wonderful that was if you’ve never had your intellect be just one more thing people hold against you and torment you about.)

Things would get better after fifth grade, especially when I arrived at Upland Junior High School. Most of my tormentors were not there (I do not know why), and tired of taking the abuse, I started fighting back. I got suspended for fighting a few times, but once I started fighting, I stopped peeing my pants almost immediately. High school was a little better — I was bullied some as a freshman, but mostly after that it was all about not being included. Not belonging.

Along the way, I found myself looking for surrogate daddies to fill that hole. William Turner, a shop teacher and the man who ran the Upland High School auditorium, first filled that role. I think he understood what I needed and he provided it. He taught me how to work, helped me develop a sense of personal honor. I first figured out I had this daddy hunger at San Francisco State, when I had to puzzle through why I wanted more than I was getting in a relationship with one of my journalism professors. After that, ever conscious of this, I always carefully watched and evaluated the emotional nature of my relationship with male supervisors. I couldn’t help wanting to bond, but I could watch it and keep tabs on it, so it didn’t go out of control.

And Jennifer taught me how to love. Hers was the first real nurturing, unconditional love I’ve ever gotten. I know about God’s love from her.

But mostly the story I have told about myself since is a sad and angry one. The world is an unsafe place for me. People are mean and cruel. If they aren’t now, they could be. People with power will never use it in my favor, and they will always use it against me. The great question of my life was: “Will anyone ever love and want me?”

So, I arrive at LSTC six years ago in this condition as an adult who’d had something of a career as a journalist. I wouldn’t call myself a roaring success, but I wasn’t a staggering failure either. For two years, I’d been at church where almost immediately, people came up to me and said: “You should be a pastor.” It was an overwhelming experience, living in a mental world of no one wanting me and finding myself in a world where it was beginning to seem like people most certainly did.

Because the amazing thing about Lutherans is that they actually do care about each other. To a certain extent, I think they take that for granted. Because of that, life in the seminary community here pushed all my buttons. My desire to be nurtured and cared for, especially my daddy hunger? David Miller, Kurt Hendel and even Pastor Craig Mueller set that off. (Mueller, strangely, reminds me of my mother.) After my first internship went kablooey, I found myself looking back and finding in Rosanne Swanson and Sister Barbara Sheehan mommy figures as well — something I did not know I was even looking for. The lost little boy that was me was wandering around, amazed and transfixed in this world of really compassionate and caring grown-ups, and asking: “Will you care for me? Will you protect me?”

My first internship was at a small church in Wisconsin. I picked the supervisor because 1) we seemed to gel theologically and 2) he was young (nine years younger than me) and so I wasn’t gonna have daddy issues with him. It was not a wise choice — he was not up to the task of supervising an intern and he certainly wasn’t up to the task of supervising me. Jennifer and I found a congregation that while not quite knowing what to do with me (because no one really does at first), they opened to us and cared for us. It was overwhelming because, for Jennifer and me, it was so unexpected. One woman in the congregation essentially inserted herself into our lives as a kind-of mom. I knew about my daddy hunger, but I had no idea that I was open to being mommed. It was too much. I hugged her. She did not want to be hugged. She never told me. No one ever told me. And that’s why my first internship ended. Almost three years ago.

The abrupt ending of my first internship, without any warning, was my worst adult nightmare. In that moment, I ceased being 41 years old and reverted to being 10. No one wanted us. The adults were all mean. Decisions were made capriciously. No one talked to me or even asked me what had gone on. It didn’t help we faced homelessness as a result because we had nowhere to go. Everything I ever feared about the world, had worked hard to make sure would never happen again, I was facing. Living in. Every button I had was pushed. It was horrific.

And I wanted to run. I tried. (I had tried to run away and never go back to school when I was 11, but I got caught.) I flung several dozen resumes in the general direction of Washington, D.C., and if someone had bit, I’d of gone. But in the back of my soul was the notion: “Charles, you would only be running from yourself. And you’ll be back here in a few years anyway, since this is what you are called to do. So stay. However hard it will be, stay.” So, I did. I did what was asked of me by the school and by my candidacy committee.

But mostly, I stayed. I faced the mean grown-ups and slowly, ever-so-slowly, told my story and they got to know me. And I got to know them. It took a lot of courage. On the other hand, waking up and going to Citrus Elementary School every day of the 5th grade took far more courage than that.

And so I began to truly comprehend what it meant to live in the midst of people who cared — who cared about me. People for whom I could care. People who actually seemed to mean it when they said they would take the time to get to know me. I will not say it was easy, as I was having to learn a whole bunch of things people normally learn in their teens and then not under harsh lighting and constant adjudication with the threat of final judgment. But I was learning, and I learn quick. The hunger to be cared for began to dissipate as I came to know that I was, in fact, cared for. The compassion and empathy I have always had — things not valued among the people I grew up with — were not just useful here, but important. Even essential. I was beginning to become the person God had made me to be. It was grueling. But it was also the most amazing and rewarding thing I’ve ever done.

So now we are here, and I stand amidst the wreckage of, well, something. In the midst of my candidacy committee’s no — a no I fully expected — something amazing happened. It’s why I hope you’ve read this far.

I was oddly at some kind of peace with their decision. Not because I thought it was right, but because I knew it was not the final answer. And not because I trust some kind of appeals process (there really isn’t one), but because I trust God. A day later, on Wednesday, I was talking with Jennifer, trying to explain to her why I was okay with what happened (because she wasn’t), when it finally came to me in words:

This experience is pushing none of my buttons. It isn’t even trying. I’m not sure it could if it wanted to.

Loneliness, abandonment, not being wanted, cruel uncaring grown-ups making horrible decisions about me, being treated as problem to be gotten rid of rather than a person — none of those things were going off inside. I mean none of them. There was almost no emotional resonance at all. I was feeling none of the things I had grown accustomed to or expecting to feel. This experience was residing someplace completely new. And as I pondered that reality, it really hit me:

My present and my future are no longer in thrall to my past. My past no longer determines the meaning of the now. It no longer has any say on what my future means. My past is no longer writing my story. It is no longer telling me what my life means.

I was free. I was free. In a way I had never understood freedom before. It was a strange, and overwhelming place to be. I spent much of Wednesday and Thursday being almost stupidly giddy because of this. If you found that odd when meeting me, now you know why. There was an intense half hour Wednesday afternoon when I just had to sit with the deep sense there was something inside of me, something that wasn’t me, handling my soul. Washing it, maybe. It was odd, overwhelming, overpowering.

I understood that I now lived in a world where people loved, cared for and wanted me. That great question was answered. With a “yes.”

And that would be enough if it weren’t for what followed. Because since Wednesday, I feel like I’m living in a field of charged particles that keep flowing through me. I have trouble sleeping, but not out of worry. I have been living in a kind-of high. Because there’s too much energy in me right now.

Here, I need to explain my difficult relationship with forgiveness. As an act of will, I have been unable to forgive. Emotionally, it was a matter of justice and fairness for me — if I forgave all those kids at Citrus Elementary School, the teachers, then what they did would stand. I held out for some kind of cosmic justice, some hope that if I just held onto it, it could be undone. Because it wasn’t right, what they did, and if I let go I’d have to admit on some level they’d won and I didn’t want that. I wanted to win, to have the final say. I want you to appreciate this reasoning. I don’t care whether it makes any sense to you. It made sense to me. It was why I had a hard time conceiving of forgiveness in a world where the wrong done to me was allowed to stand. Even if that wrong was done by people now ghosts in a place that has long ceased to exist.

Plus, I found I was unable to forgive myself for being the person the world would do to what it did.

So… Friday, I worked at the library in the early afternoon. It was snowing as I came out, and I went out into the courtyard and stood in the snow, arms open, face up to the sky, letting the snow and the wind pour over me, around me, into me. I started walking toward my apartment. And then it happened. It was a well, a flood, a shaking, and suddenly, I found the words of forgiveness in my heart, in my mind, on my lips. I said names, names I have carried with me for 34 years. I spoke them. I forgave them. I did it several times. Each name. I meant it.

And then I told each one of those people: “I am no longer carrying you with me. From now on, you walk. You are on your own.”

I now know what forgiveness is. To forgive someone is to take from them the power to write your story, to tell you what your life means. To be forgiven by God is to become part of the redeeming story of God and God’s people. To know that hope and life are bigger than fear and death. And to have that very real story become your own.

I am in a very strange and wonderful place right now. For the first time in my life, my story is my own. The past is a book that has been shut and put away. Nothing is reaching back to touch it, push it, make sense of the now in the then. I have something of a blank page to work on. But I also have no map. The scenery no longer makes sense. The terrain is strange. I do not know quite where I am. I have no idea where I am going. And none of this was gentle, which is why I have put the Donne poem in front of this essay. Friday afternoon left me exhausted, spent, like I had been ripped open from the inside.

What the committee decided was wrong. Worse, it was a mistake. But for the first time in my life, I find myself knowing that it was not the cosmic wrong, not the latest version of some primordial wrong that I have lived with for so long. I’m also willing to accept a somewhat disturbing possibility — that their decision was absolutely the right decision for absolutely the wrong reason. I would not have been battered by God these last three days had it not been for their “no.” In their “no,” I’ve gotten more “yes” from God then I possibly could have imagined. In fact, it can stop now. Because I need to recover some. For the last few days, I have not belonged entirely to me. And that, brothers and sisters, is deeply unsettling.

It’s hard for me to think right now about my call. I know I am called to preach and teach the gospel, and proclaim God’s presence and promise among God’s people in the waters of baptism and the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. I even suspect I am still called to this among Lutherans — people who cared for me and about me in a way no one has outside the Saudi student community at the Muslim Student Association masjid in Columbus, Ohio, did in the early 1990s. If I had to choose right now, I’d choose to be a mystic living in a cave, simply because that’s what I feel God’s been doing to me for the last few days. Or a crazy, itinerant holy man who prophesies and blesses. But I don’t get to choose. God does. And God has chosen for me to be in this strange, in-between place right now.

More than anything, I feel reborn. Like I have born from above. This wonderful-terrible love of God has worked its way in me, has had its way with me, has ravished me, has left me hurting and exhausted. (Let that be something of a warning to all you who yearn for such things but have not had them.) I am at the beginning of something. I do not know where I am going. It’s almost like I do not have a past anymore. (Or better, I now have a future than can tell me what the past means!) But I have a present, and a future, a new story written in and by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And I have sisters and brothers in faith and call to help walk with me and help me discover what a life lived in faith and hope really looks like.

So, now that I’ve left my ghosts by the side of the road, walk with me. Let us walk, and write, and tell our stories, together.

Songs I Love – The Bluebells, “Will She Always Be Waiting” (1984)

It is, to paraphrase Suggs, it’s four in the morning and I cannot sleep. So, I’m going to try a new weekly feature at The Featherblog — Songs I Love.

There was a time when I would have apologized for this, but I love power pop. I tried to pretend to have sophisticated musical tastes, but I don’t think I do. The songs that go here will generally fall into the category of power pop, and they were also songs that at one time had an emotional resonance for me — the kinds of things I could (back when I did) put into my little walkman and listen to over and over and over again. (That tended to ruin tapes.) Most of these songs will be from the 1980s, simply because that’s when I came of age. For those who know me, this may sound odd, but I like pretty music with a bit of a bite. Not precious, but not brutal either. (I have the odd feeling I’m not communicating well…)

So here we go. I’m going to start with something I just rediscovered. Back in 1985 or 1986, when I was either in the Army or in college at San Francisco State University, my Uncle Dave regular sent me tapes. He has one of the world’s most impressive record and CD collections, and back when vinyl was still what was spun, he would put what he thought I would (or should) like on tape and send it to me, two LPs to a 90-minute cassette.

One of those was the first record by the Scottish power pop band The Bluebells, Sisters. I already had a five-track EP by this band, and would listen to it occasionally, but they didn’t do enough for me to justify buying the LP when it came out. (But I did think highly enough of the EP to convert it to MP3s not long ago.) So, this was a nice gift.

It’s fairly innocent and unsophisticated power pop. (I’ve seen The Bluebells compared to Aztec Camera, and that’s not fair. Roddy Frame was a far more sophisticated songwriter and guitarist, and his music tends to have an edge simply because its harder to tell what Frame is writing and singing about.) I hate the LP version of “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool” when compared to the EP version — the LP version is trying too hard to be a bad 80’s dance song, I think. I don’t much like “Young at Heart,” which was the biggest UK single they had. (Volkswagen used the song to sell cars in the early 1990s.) And there’s someone I cannot help but remember fondly every time I hear the sweet little love song “Cath.” But none of those cuts really sticks with me. And none really make me hit the rewind and play button again. And again. And again.

But “Will She Always Be Waiting” … This is a song that leaves me breathless. (I spent an hour listening to this song this morning. The iPod makes this too easy…) Part of what catches me about either a song or a band is how well the recorded music holds together. How do the instruments fit? Do the parts cohere? Can you hear everything? Do the arrangement and the mix sound purposeful? Is it beautiful? This song does all of those things for me. I don’t really care what Ken McCluskey is singing about here. The two male voices just fit so well together. The strum of the guitar, the almost mournful wail of the Hammond mixed just far back enough so that it’s just there enough to stand out when everything else get quiet, the simple bass. But what really makes this song work is the string arrangement, which just accentuates this song’s fragile beauty. It’s very close to a perfect string arrangement. I’ve written and recorded enough music to wonder — was the string arrangement something they had in mind when the song was written, or did that happen by accident (and thanks to Elvis Costello’s and Colin Fairley’s production)? There’s almost no bite or edge to this song, but it is beautiful and poignant, and the strings, guitar and melody still make me shiver nearly three decades later.

When I still had dreams of fame and fortune as a singer/songwriter 20-some-odd years ago, I had visions of recording this song and making a video, set outside in a Canadian winter, snow falling slowly and gently (the setting would have looked like the countryside in Julian Lennon’s “Say You’re Wrong” but without the railroad), a fetching young lass I knew at SFSU named Josie trying to teach me how to ice skate and one of those falling down slowed down to almost freeze frame at the very end of the middle bit where the strings really come out. (Tell me you haven’t done this kind of thing. Just tell me.) But that was all, of course, too much to hope for.

This version is actually a different mix from the original 1984 LP that my uncle sent me. There’s a vocal  in the middle part in this version and then in at the end that was not there originally. And there are, I think, some extra string flourishes as well. I recently downloaded this from a torrent site, and apparently Sisters was rereleased with some extra material at some point — including most of the mixes from the EP (but not “Aim in Life”! Grrrr!).

All Things to All People

I preached this sermon at LSTC’s Augustana Chapel today (Thursday, February 9). This is a somewhat edited version (I’ve changed a few things and made a couple of small but fairly substantial additions) from a recorded transcript, mainly because I’ve taken to not writing my sermons. The sermon is based on 1 Corinthians 9:16-23 —

16 For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! 17 For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward, but if not of my own will, I am still entrusted with a stewardship. 18 What then is my reward? That in my preaching I may present the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel. 

19 For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.

So why do we preach the gospel? Why do we do this? Why do we go to places like seminaries and spend four, or five, or six years studying to do this? I think we’d all answer because we’re called, and I know that means different things for each and every one of us. We talk about these calls, we sing about them in our hymns and our songs, and often times it is Jesus knocking so gently on our door, the “softly and tenderly Jesus is calling.” And maybe that’s your experience.

I can tell you, my call to this ministry is a little bit more like waking up one morning with a splitting headache, a really dry mouth, looking around and wondering: “Where am I? How did I get here? Why I am wearing this uniform? When did I get this tattoo?” Because the honest truth is a lot of the way God calls us is not terribly gentle. It’s not “softly and tenderly Jesus is calling.” Maybe Jesus is calling someone softly and tenderly, but that wasn’t Paul’s experience. Paul was on the road to Damascus when he was laid low and struck blind, and then delivered into the hands of the very people he was sent to kill. Into their mercy. And I fully suspect Ananias and his friends probably looked at this blind and helpless man and said: “If we kill him now, no one will know.”

And I know when we go to negotiate what it means to be a pastor in our parishes, we talk about salary packages and housing allowances. We think of pensions and health care. But what promises did Paul get? What did Jesus tell Ananias? That Paul would suffer much “in my name.” And Paul lost his head for the sake of the gospel.

All that aside, we preach, we do this as Paul said, as Martin Luther I’m certain believed and probably wrote somewhere, and many of those who came before us and will follow long after us, we do this because we have to. And woe to us if we do not. What choice to do we have? And that, brothers and sisters, is something of a really awful place to be. To know in your bones that this is what you are made to do, that this is what God intended you to be, has yanked you out and if necessary God has beaten you up and not just a little bit either. There’s a hymn that Pastor Albert Starr, Jr., has sung at Bethel: “Break me, mold me.” It’s not a gentle process sometimes. But we do this, we proclaim this word because woe to us if we don’t.

Because it’s who we are.

But that just makes us street preachers. That just makes us yahoos who stand on street corners, who go to college campuses, the kind of people I’ve seen who swing their Bibles around like sticks or clubs and usually focus on fornication and homosexuality. “Repent, or you are damned!”

There’s a little Missionary Baptist church that’s for sale on 43rd Street and Cottage Grove, we pass it just about every time we go to worship at Bethel on Sunday. And one morning, Bridget Illian, who was riding with us, said: “Well, if this doesn’t work out for you Charles, maybe you can buy that church. And make it Waters of Babylon Missionary Lutheran Church!” See, I’ve given this matter some thought. But the world is full of yahoos. You wander around the South Side of Chicago and it is full of tiny little churches lead by bishops and apostles, places with names like Acme Baptist Church and Rain or Shine Missionary Baptist Church. Who knows, maybe they aren’t all yahoos, and maybe people are hearing the word, but sometimes the world needs yahoos. People who will walk into the marketplace and proclaim to the Athenians that this unknown god that they honor is really the crucified and risen Lord of creation.

But there is an honest truth. God doesn’t just call us — or all of us, or most of us — to proclaim the word in the wilderness. God calls us to be part of community, to be in a community. God calls us to preach this gospel in the mess of humanity. And Paul understands what this means. I think we all understand what this means. This means doing the hard work of being in relationship with people. And Paul makes a rather ridiculous claim — I find it rather ridiculous — that he has become all things to all people.

He describes here that to the Jews he became a Jew, to the gentiles he became a gentile, to those under the law he became as one under the law, to the weak he became as one who is weak. This is all about being in relationship. And I find myself wondering: how far will he go with this? Among Christians who do missionary work with Muslims, this is actually an important discussion — what does it mean to preach the Gospel among Muslims? How far should Christians go in adopting Islamic culture when they preach the gospel to Muslims in places like Indonesia? How much like Muslims should they live so that the word of the Lord can be preached and lived in their midst? I don’t know, and there’s no good answer. Paul doesn’t say “to the pagans I will become a pagan.” He does say “to those not under the law, I become as one not under the law.”

But for Paul, this is self-giving love, a kind of self-surrender similar to what Jesus does time and again in his ministry, his life, in his acceptance of judgment and death. Paul is, I think, echoing that self-giving love, showing it to the communities he is in the midst of, the communities who have sought his care. “To Jews,” he says, “I will become as one of them, so they are not worrying about my strangeness, my non-Jewness” — not that Paul had a problem with that — “but they’re not worrying about this, they are hearing the word of the Lord.”

Self-giving love? How easy is that? How prestigious is that? “To the losers I will become a loser. To the failures I will become a failure. To outsiders I will become an outsider. To strangers I will become a stranger.” How prestigious is it to give up one’s-self like that? More important, and something I think a lot of us have experienced, what happens when the powerful or the many demand that you give? That you surrender? That you become a Jew in order to preach to the Jews. That’s a struggle I have. And I will always have that struggle. When someone demands I become something, it is hard for me to give up myself and become what they ask. And I think part of our ongoing struggle in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America over sexuality is in part about this. Because who is willing to surrender their claims to the right understanding of scripture, to the right understanding what it means to be church, to the right preaching of the gospel. Who is going to say: “To the queers I will become queer”? Who is going to say: “to the straight I will become straight”? Who is going to say: “To the homophobes I will become a homophobe”?

This self-giving love is best when it’s mutual, but the fact that it is self-giving means we take risks that the people we are engaging will not respond with love. Because, sisters and brothers, this wonderful, terrible self-giving love is not about loved ones. Or friends. Or even strangers. It is about enemies.

And the unfortunate fact is that all too often, in the communities in which we live, in the churches in which we worship, it is the loudest voices, it is the most frightened ones, that make the most insistent demands. “You must become. You must surrender.” And they often times seem to win. And then it isn’t self-giving love anymore. It’s abuse. It’s oppression. It’s easier for the powerful to say to the powerless and marginalized “you must bend” than it is for the powerless to say to the powerful “you must too.” Because they don’t have to listen. When it’s demanded, it’s not self-giving love anymore. And it is an unfortunate reality of our human existence.

But it doesn’t end there brothers and sisters. It’s doesn’t end there because Paul surrenders anyway, and he doesn’t do it because it’s demanded of him or asked of him, but because Jesus did it. And he knows that in, with and through Jesus — the one who gave himself for all and for everything — he can. Paul can, in fact, become all things to all people. Because Christ loves, because he came and lived and surrendered and died and rose. Because Jesus did these things, we who are joined to Jesus in baptism and communion, we can do these things. We can, in fact, become all things to all people, not through our own power or means, but because of Christ. We can, in fact, become Jews to the Jews, gentiles to the gentiles, and all the categories Paul names, because Jesus has.

Because he surrendered, because he loves, we can. And we do. Every day. And not just here. But every place where people gather around the word. In Christ’s surrendering to death, to sin, to violence an oppression, he rises to show us they have no meaning. That many of the things we struggle with mean nothing. That hope and life in the resurrection of Christ win in the end. And not fear.

Does it Come With a Decoder Ring?

I. Want. One.

From the Korean Central News Agency:

Pyongyang, February 4 (KCNA) — Order of Kim Jong Il has been instituted in the DPRK on the occasion of the 70th birth anniversary of leader Kim Jong Il. 

The Presidium of the DPRK Supreme People’s Assembly on Friday released a decree on instituting the order. 

This institution is to give state commendation to officials, service personnel, working people, military units, organs, enterprises and social and cooperative organizations who have made distinguished service in the drive to accomplish the revolutionary cause of Juche, the cause of building a thriving socialist nation.

Organs? Can my liver get one too? How can my spleen contribute to “the drive to accomplish the revolutionary cause of Juche” and build “a thriving socialist nation?” I mean, so long as I can keep it?