As I keep working at my closing reflection re: the wisdom of Jean Vanier at 89, an essay that still needs some time to ripen, I have discovered I am singing two songs in my heart. This has often been the way I "hear" the word of the Lord in my everyday life - and so it continues even in these closing days of pastoral ministry. To note that I have been singing and playing these songs in one manner or another for most of my adult life only points to their growing importance. As I practice compassion and tenderness both for myself as well as those I am leaving in ministry, it seems wise to let these songs rise to the surface and speak to this moment.
Song number one is Lesley Duncan's "Love Song." I heard it on Elton John's second album, "Tumbleweed Connection" during my freshman year of college. It was the only tune on this 1970 masterpiece not composed by Bernie Taupin and Elton John. It stands above all the others given the gentle acoustic guitar foundation and hushed vocal harmonies. To me, it sounds mystical and prayer-like - a fresh invitation to trust God's grace in reality - even 47 years after its release. Each chorus begins with a solo voice. The song builds as two additional harmonies are added before closing with a question: do you know what I mean? Mostly this evoked the melancholia I have experienced in ministry. The lyrics and music speak to the cost of loving and staying true to love. And my take is that this looks a lot like the Cross. Christ invites us to pick up our own Cross and follow. Sometimes we are ready, sometimes not; and sometimes picking up our Cross to follow Jesus in love doesn't make linear sense at all.
I hear the joy and sorrow of this Cross in the brief instrumental interlude. Elton John sings nonsense words to an overdub of voices in competition with the ebb and flow of waves on an ocean beach. These sounds draw my attention to the mystery and misunderstanding of the Cross. The mystery of being embraced by love is mixed into - and even hidden within - our ordinary experiences. Sir Elton's voice floating over the everyday conversations of ordinary people gives this shape and form: here I am in the midst of you Jesus tells us. I have felt the Lord's presence in community and cherish it. It is a beauty that empowers me to live by trust not sight. At the same time, however, the voices, the waves, the laughter and the busyness beyond the music continues to pulse beneath the closing chorus - do you know what I mean? Have your eyes really seen? - pointing to the equally abiding loneliness that is true of a life given to the foolishness of the Cross. It is always both/and when it comes to the paradox of the love of Jesus.
Song number two, "I Am A Pilgrim," by Merle Travis, grabbed my attention on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's 1972 opus: Will the Circle Be Unbroken. With an easy country swing and stripped down accompaniment, the man behind "Dark as a Dungeon" sings clearly about his journey of faith. "I am a pilgrim and a stranger, travelin' through this wearisome land..." This, too feels like a heart song for me these days as I close one chapter but open a whole new realm of being faithful. Living the love of the Cross does make you a pilgrim - and often a stranger - in a culture built upon violence and conspicuous consumption. It is a wearisome land. At the same time, Travis sings of his hope that "if I could touch but just the hem of His garment" his soul would be whole.
I know a little about this yearning as well as the joy to come. When I hear the quiet trust in Travis' voice, it feels like home to me. I am also moved by the vibrant confidence of the instrumental solos in the middle of this tune. The instruments confess a "blessed assurance" while the vocals share a humility, trust and sense of humor born of the sweet peace of grace. For me, it is good to recall that the Dirt Band was living into a commitment to build bridges between generations, cultures and even history. Bob Dylan started it when he went to Nashville and worked with session players on Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde and Nashville Skyline. The Byrds picked up on this too when they did their Sweetheart of the Rodeo album. Scruggs and Flatt and the Dillards did it in reverse when they brought their country/roots bona fides to rock and roll. No matter which direction, however, the result was the same: real country soul and gospel became new grass as rock'n'roll reclaimed its lost twang in a genre bending experiment that drove The Band, Linda Ronstadt, The Eagles, Poco as well as Hank Jr. and the Allman Brothers.
And just so that one camp or the other got the point, this grand ol' album closed with an instrumental take on Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now." That's Randy Scruggs, 18 year old son of bluegrass master of the banjo, Earl Scruggs, doing the guitar honors. Sweeter sounds have not been heard this side of glory, my friends.
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