Sweet Baby James...

What a privilege it was last night to go to beautiful Tanglewood for the annual James Taylor concert with the daughter of my mentor in ministry. Her dad is slowly dying from a tragic and unknown disease that consumes his esophagus. He is not expected to live into next week. So it was a bittersweet time and yet this young woman decided to welcome us into one of the Berkshire's sweetest traditions - and I am so glad she did. For not only did Tanglewood celebrate JT's 60th birthday, but it was a joyous time to reconnect with her through music in ways that her dear dad understood well.

We had a long and lovely picnic on the lawn of this magical center for music during which we talked about letting go and remembering. My mentor, Sam was the minister of my home church during the tumult and joy of the 60s and he embraced it with open arms. In 1966 our small folk ensemble led worship with guitars singing the songs of Bob Dylan. The next year, after putting together a rock band, we shifted to electric gear and brought the music of Quicksilver, the Mothers of Invention and the Youngbloods into that old Puritan meeting house. And by the time we graduated we had done gospel - "Oh Happy Day" a la Edwin Hawkins - both Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar and everything from the Beatles' "Nowhere Man" to a rock/jazz postlude built around "Dancin' in the Street."

Under Sam's loving embrace the church became for me a "shelter from the storm" as well as a center for exploring creativity and imagination. (In fact, when life would get too weird at home, I would break into the church through a back door and pray, listen to music and cry myself to sleep because it felt that safe!) Another old mentor, Malcolm, who led our Sunday School class encouraged us to bring in the music of the day as a lense through which we learned to see God's broken heart or compassionate embrace in the "signs of the times." (NOTE: I will see Malcolm in a week as he participates in our oldest daughter's wedding celebration.)

I started to make a list of all the songs Sam encouraged us to play in worship - it began with "The Times They Are A'Changin" and included "Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance" (a Zappa ode to radical hospitality and equality), "Dust in the Wind/Eleanor Rigby" (lament) as well as Marvin Gaye's "Inner City Blues" and Bob Marley's "Get Up, Stand Up." The last music I shared in that old sanctuary with Sam was at my ordination into Christian ministry 27 years ago and we played Dylan's gospel "Saved" and "You Got to Serve Somebody." I give thanks to God for his life and that now I am becoming friends with his daughter (who was just a baby back in the day but is now a successful young business woman in Hartford!)

As the James Taylor concert deepened there were some tender surprises: Yo Yo Ma came on to support "Sweet Baby James."

Then Taylor's old buddy, Carole King, came out for show stopping versions of "Natural Woman" and "You've Got a Friend" and on and on it went.

When we left, Sam's daughter spoke about how angry she was that her father had to suffer such a horrible death. "This anger is your prayer for the moment," we said softly: "stay with what is real because that is where God is with you whether you feel it now or not." It is like Job who could not sense the presence of the Holy in all of his suffering until he finally exploded. Then he was opened to God's presence - mysterious, to be sure, but very real - and began to understand that before he had only heard of the Living God... but now he had me something of the Sacred. "Who knows how long that will take? But stay with what is real..."

I first saw James Taylor right after high school - and now he is 60. I first learned his sad songs - and now sing his more grounded and loving songs, too. I first learned to think about popular music in church with Sam - and now he is dying. I learned to play guitar in that church from my friend, Ross - and I am still playing 40 years later. It is all connected like St. Paul said:

We know that in everything God works for good with those who love God. (Not that everything IS good but it can work for good - please note the difference). That is why we are sure that neither death nor life, angels nor principalities, things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

I sang this song to bury my sister - and her son, too - may it be a part of what carries Sam from this place to the next with all my love.


Black Pete said…
Oh, where are our dear father?
Oh, where are our dear fathers?
Oh, where are our dear fathers?
Day is a-breaking, in my soul.

They are gone to heaven, shouting...

--Bright Morning Star (folk Gospel)

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