Here, for example, in advance of our Good Friday experience, MISUNDERSTOOD, is what I believe I will be sharing with the gathered as way of interpretation. Additionally, we will be performing a host of varied music from Mose Allison jazz with an ironic social commentary to flat-out spirit driven rock and roll from the Police and U2. If you are in town, THIS is the gig to attend! We will open the event with my take on "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" that has a mellow funky groove and we'll close the gig with a female-driven reprise of the same song. Identical words but a VASTLY different take... as befits the event, yes?
“Don’t let me be misunderstood…” Not only are these the words chosen to shape and guide tonight’s encounter, but they are sounds that leap from the heart of the human condition. You don’t have to be religious or even vaguely spiritual to know that all too often our souls ache and our bodies tremble in fear or sadness because all throughout our lives, WE have been misunderstood.
It is a common knowledge the young people the world over feel like no one understands them. Hell, half the time they don’t even understand them-selves as emotions swirl and hormones rage and social expectations try to squeeze them into a variety of molds that just don’t work. Women know a truckload about being misunderstood by men and mothers, employers and executives, clothes designers, psychiatrists and advertising moguls who have a one size fits all understanding of beauty, femininity and what makes for a life of meaning and satisfaction. And increasingly men too are beginning to articulate their own confusion about being confined to the roles and styles of rugged individualism and social conformity.
All around us are signs of misunderstanding from the culture wars and quest for true equality in our sexuality to the wounded warriors who after returning home from serving God and country find themselves consumed by the chaos of post traumatic stress disorder, unemployment all too often homelessness. From America’s schizophrenia about race to our economic and political polarization, to paraphrase the old school dean of rock and roll Jerry Lee Lewis: there’s a whole lotta misunderstanding going on – and that fact is simultaneously frightening and discouraging. It used to that we were an optimistic and even hopeful people when it came to the future, but that is no longer true among us.
So, as artists and people of faith, we asked ourselves: how do we both talk about hope - and offer alternatives to inertia and despair - in a way that gets through to tjpse who have lost faith in technology, science AND religion? Because that is what has taken place in post-modern society: nobody trusts the market place, nobody trusts progress and nobody trusts religious institutions any longer. One of my mentors, the rock and roll genius Lou Reed, used to say: You can't depend on your family, you can't depend on your friends, you can't depend on a beginning, you can't depend on no end.
You can't depend on intelligence, oh Lord you can’t depend on God. You can only depend on one thing: you need a busload of faith to get by – so watch it, baby!
THAT, dear people, is the paradox of this moment – we need faith AND all around us those things that once held our trust have disqualified themselves through greed, violence, stupidity and fear-mongering. Enter the promise and healing potential of music.
+ The artist once called Cat Stevens who after his conversion to Islam took the name Yusuf Islam recently spoke about this before being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: After despairing for a long, long time about what I could do about the hatred and mistrust in the world… it dawned on me: Even with the entire world sinking deeper into despair, we can still sing! The spirit of humanity can be subdued, but never vanquished. And nothing brings out that spirit like a good song. As a short film on Nelson Mandela I watched recently showed, he danced and smiled from East to West, saying, "It is music and dancing that makes me at peace with the world and at peace with myself.” So in 2001, after singing "Peace Train" for a tribute concert at the Radio City Music Hall in New York, in memory of the victims of 9/11, the sleepy train of peace-making through music began to chug its way slowly uphill again!
+ That’s why WE are here tonight – and we hope that is true for you, too. We sense that by being together in song – and story and silence and solidarity – we can awaken what is human and holy not just in one another but in our culture. You see, tonight is an act of non-violent resistance to the fear and loathing that surrounds us. Like Dostoevsky proclaimed in another dark age: beauty can save the world because it awakens our souls, stirs our spirits and connects us to a love that is greater than ourselves.
Now I know that some think this is idealistic – or naïve – or some loosey-goosey hippie mumbo jumbo left over from another era. But if you know ANYTHING about movements for equality, justice and peace you know that they are ALL saturated with song. Congressman John Lewis, one of the Freedom Riders from the American anti-apartheid movement, said that without the freedom songs there would have been no soul or courage to the struggle for racial equality. On the night brother Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated in San Francisco, gay and straight allies spontaneously walked in candle light vigil through the streets weeping “we are a gentle angry people… and we are singing, singing for our lives.” And on and on it goes…
So here’s what we've tried to do tonight with our MISUNDERSTOOD creation and we’ll only know if it was successful when we’re finished: We took the Christian chronicle of Good Friday and refashioned it with song and story to explore how God – or whatever you want to call that love that is greater than fear and hatred – can take our misunderstandings and shape them into something redemptive. I asked each member of this ensemble to explore some music – and in some cases to write their own reworking of a sacred story, too – to express how human beings have ALWAYS experienced some degree of alienation and misunderstand-ing in their lives.
Much as our culture would tell us otherwise, we are neither the crown of creation nor the center of confusion: people have been wrestling with misunderstanding for at least six thousand years and probably much longer. And the distilled wisdom of people who have listened to the pain and confusion all around them and then searched for a transformative meaning to it has something to teach us: Namely that if we enter into the pain – if we embrace the confusion and pay attention to what is absurd, tragic and unjust within and among us – these very wounds can become our path into peace and hope and deeper compassion.
+ All the great religions – all the great artists – all the great musicians share an understanding that says: if we cannot find a way to make our wounds into sacred wounds, we invariably become negative or bitter. Indeed, there are bitter people everywhere. As they go through life, the hurts, disappointments, betrayals, abandonments, the burden of their own sinfulness and brokenness all pile up, and they do not know where to put it. And when we do not know how to transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it. (Richard Rohr)
+ Are you with me on this? When we do not know how to transform the agony of misunderstanding into something healing, we will transmit it to other people and hurt them! So tonight we’re going to practice sitting with our misunderstandings – and our fears – as we go into songs and stories and silence together.
+ We’re even going to practice sitting together with all of this in utter darkness so that we might grow a little more comfortable with entering our wounds rather than running away from them or blaming or wounding others.
This is art as transformation – this is taking the beauty of our songs and stories – and trusting the silence – discovering something healing in the midst of all our misunderstandings. The testimony of our elders is clear: we ought not waste our pain – it can take us into a sacred place – it can give us the strength and tenderness to be an instrument of peace for others, too. One of my favorite teachers, Richard Rohr, put it like this when he looked at Mary the Mother of Jesus:
As an example of holding the pain, picture Mary standing at the foot of the cross. Standing would not be the normal posture of a Jewish woman who is supposed to wail and lament and show pain externally. She’s holding the pain instead; think of the way Michelangelo symbolized this in the Pieta. Mary is in complete solidarity with the mystery of life and death. She’s trying to say, “There’s something deeper happening here. How can I absorb it just as Jesus is absorbing it, instead of returning it in kind?”For until you find a way to be a transformer, you will pass the pain onto other…
That’s our hope for this night: to interrupt the vicious cycle of passing on our pain to others. On behalf of these artists – whom I love and trust with my soul – let me thank you for coming out to join us. May the Spirit of all that is holy be alive in our hearts that we might transform our pain and misunderstanding and so become instruments of God’s peace in the world.