The two loves of my life are working in the church and playing music.
I have never done a very good job at bringing them together. And I’m about at a point in my life where I’ve pretty well decided I never will. That doesn’t trouble me the way it used to. In some ways, it’s because I’m somewhat more comfortable in my own skin than I used to be. But this is an essay I’ve needed to write for a while, and it’s time to do it now. I blog a lot of stuff, but this one’s really close to the heart, and is probably going to be VERY long. So, bear with me….
For those few who have never realized it, my “day job” (there are people who hate that I call it that, even in jest…) is that I’m a United Methodist Minister. I serve a church in Dallas, Texas.
It’s a wonderful place, really….full of lots of musicians, artists, poets, writers, etc. Many of them love the fact that I have this other love in my life: music.
And, as I’m sure you know if you’re reading this website, the other love of my life IS music. I can’t really even remember a time when the two weren’t woven together in some ways; church and music. And I can’t really remember a time when they ever “meshed” 100 percent either.
I first learned to play the guitar in the seventh grade. Took a class at Westwood Junior High, and then took private lessons from a teacher at a strip mall music store up the road. Only took lessons for a few months. Most of the rest I’ve picked up through the careful study of others.
Once I learned to play guitar, the first regular “gig” I ever had was playing songs for our church youth group. They were mostly “Christian songs.” And I still love much of that music from those late-70s youth groups. But, I’ve also found that my musical interests have moved away from “Christian” music, and that Christian music has moved away from me too.
In fact –and I know this will probably stun some folks reading this– I don’t really like “Christian” music too much. I’m talking popular music here…you know, the stuff known as “CCM.” There have only been a few artists that I’ve ever been able to really listen to, and I just don’t really care for the rest. Years ago, an old friend summed it up by calling it “Jesus is my boyfriend music.”
I shared this with my good friend, Bill Nash, and he’s come up with a good description for why he thinks this is so. He said that most of the “CCM” he hears assumes that the listener has already “arrived” somewhere…as if the listener and the musician share some secret handshake of faith. The music doesn’t as much tell good stories as it makes declarations.
That’s a compelling insight. It’s always seemed to me that there are a lot of good stories that could be told by CCM music, but that the chasm between “telling stories” and “singing praises” never gets bridged very well. For example, instead of a “praise and worship” style, a CCM writer could tell us a story of how a person got from some low point in their life, to some point of faith. Or, tell us a story about how they fell from a point of faith to a place of doubt. Or, tell us a story about how they struggle every day to resolve faith and doubt. All these would be good story songs, and could have very interesting “character development” in them.
Part of the problem (and I’m digressing here, bear with me…) is the whole CCM world. From the little I know of it, talking to musician friends, it’s a very closed and insular world and there is a very narrow range of topics that are tolerated. One really talented person I know, who is loved by thousands of fans, once shared with me his frustration at having written some powerful story songs on edgy social topics (war, homosexuality, etc…). In fact, he once played me a really wonderful story song about a man “coming out” to his adult parents. It was a powerful song. But after he got done playing it for a small group of friends –who all loved it– he said to me, “and where else can I play this song!?”
One answer, of course, is the folk/acoustic music world. Such amazing story-songs are what makes that world go round. And it’s what attracts me to it Somewhere in the mid-80s, I found that the singer-songwriters of the 70s that I had so loved had completely fallen off the radio dial. Everything was syntho-pop (with perhaps an occasional Tom Petty or Don Henley song for old time’s sake..). Then, during the late 80s and early 90s, there was a powerful resurgence of what I call singer-songwriters, but what many others called “new folk” artists.
Suddenly, after years in the wilderness, it seemed like there was a home for the music I loved again.
But in the meantime, my life had changed. I had gone off to college playing guitar and writing songs. I even had a few gigs now and then…even played at the Student Union at UT one time. But I also had an experience in a dormitory stairwell where a woman criticized a song I’d written, leaving me so wounded that I never played the song again, and never played ANY songs for a couple of years.
In the meantime, I was feeling the tug of seminary and the call of ministry. I kept writing songs, but was too afraid to play them for anyone. For some crazy reason, though, it was easy to preach in front of large groups (easier…). That’s still the case to this day. I can speak before a group of thousands (and have) but a song circle of eight terrifies me. (Jay Mankita and I talked a lot about this on the way to Kerrville this year…he’s a pretty good therapist, actually…)
So, I went to seminary. But I also kept writing songs. They weren’t “CCM” songs, they were “singer-songwriter/folk songs. That really IS the music I love. I certainly write songs that speak of spiritual matters, there’s no questioning that. But I try to NOT write “sectarian” songs because I usually don’t enjoy hearing them.
You see, the truth is that the acoustic/folk world –really the world of artists as a whole– is highly suspicious of organized religion. They have good reason to be. There are a lot of Christian folk who pretend to be nice to others, while all the while judging them or trying to “convert” them. A lot have artists have suffered mightily at the hands of Christians.
But, for some artists, that means a distrust of all religious people. I remember I did a wedding for a friend in Little Rock, and I was placed next to a ballerina from Boston for the rehearsal dinner. We were having a delightful conversation about art, music, dance, etc….until she asked me what I did for a living. When I said “I’m a minister,” immediately the defenses went up and things were tense between us the rest of the night.
I’ve seen that happen a hundred times. I’ll be having a perfectly wonderful conversation with someone, and then they’ll ask me about what I do. And, when I say I’m a minister, it’s like the whole room changes temperature. Suddenly, their eyes roll to one side, as they try to remember whether or not they’ve cussed or said something offensive.
They look at you, and you can tell that they’re thinking, “Are you judging me right now?” It freaks some people out. It pisses others off. It almost always changes how folks treat you. Some folks treat you better…with a kind of smarmy deference you certainly don’t deserve. Others treat you with a distance….as if you’re a vial of slimy green toxic waste.
In any case, what happens is the same: they stop treating you like a normal person.
There is a very clear reason for why this happens. For whatever reason, people “project,” or lay on top of you the experiences they have had –positive or negative– with other ministers elsewhere. They quite literally don’t see you as a regular person, but they see you through the lense of these others they’ve known. They put you in a box…)
So, to combat this, for years I simply refused to tell folks in the music world that I was a minister. I didn’t want to go through the hassle of either needing to make them comfortable, or needing to justify myself to them.
All this reminds me of a story my friend Doug, a minister from Kansas, once told me about the time after his divorce. He was minister at a very small church in a very small town, and had begun to get very lonely. And so, he would drive several hours to Kansas City –to bars there– in an attempt to meet women. Only he was so afraid of being rejected as a minster that told women he was an elementary school principal. It never lasted, of course. Eventually, if they progressed past a date or two, they’d figure out what he really did, and were usually more freaked out about the deception than they were about the minister part.
But I so identify with that story! The first few times I went to the Kerrville Folk Festival, I lived in terror that folks would find out that I was a minister. And so, if folks were just sitting around a camp, talking, I would never linger more than ten minutes or so. I would leap up and run away, in the fear that the conversation might turn toward me. I would talk all day about someone else, but if the conversation turned to me, I would quickly turn it elsewhere. (Paradoxically, of course, this meant I never got to talk about my music either!!)
To this day, I wonder if some Kerrville-folks think I have some kind of strange “A.D.D.” because of how I used to act.
A couple of things have happened in the past few years that have helped me work on these issues:
1) I did a wedding for Michael and Kendra at Uncle Calvin’s
2) I did the funeral for Bruce Rouse ealier this year
After both of these things, I found that the sky didn’t fall, and folks didn’t shun me as a pariah. Such is the case for many of the things we fear, I suppose. It’s obviously now become clear to a lot of folks in my music-world that I am a minister. I STILL believe that this eventual acceptance of me might not have happened if I hadn’t kept it quiet for several years, and allowed folks to just see me as me. But who knows?
But, my persistent schizophrenia…er…persists.
I find myself on the margins of both worlds much of the time. Among the folk music world –which is as much a spiritual family to me as the church– I still find those who either look at my funny, as if I’m some foreign spy, or who simply don’t take me seriously. And still, with knew folks I meet, I worry that if they find out I’m a minister too soon, they’ll never “hear” my songs, really. But will only hear it through their lenses.
Then, in the church world, I find those who don’t “get” why I play folk music, and wonder why I don’t play “Christian music.” They wonder if I’ve lost my faith, or if I’m some sort of closet secularist.
In some ways, it’s sometimes a lonely place to live, in both these worlds. In other ways, it’s a good place to be in both worlds, because it’s my place. It’s who I am. And, increasingly (despite the length of this essay, or maybe because of it) I’m more comfortable, and less defensive about who I am.
Behind this whole essay, behind all this discussion (which may still strike some of you as needlessly tortured) is this simple desire: What I want, more than anything, is for people to enjoy my music for what it is.
What I want, more than anything, is for audiences to forget the me in the songs, and to just hear themselves in the songs. Because of who I am, that’s harder for me to accomplish than it is for many artists. But I try to work hard at it, trying to write and play the best songs I know how.
It’s one of the reasons I’ve never, before this blog entry, written or spoken about this publicly…it’s too hard and complicated to explain away quickly or to reduce down to a solitary sound byte. And, for many years, it’s been too personally confusing to write about.
But it’s who I am.
And I hope, if you’ve read this whole entry, that it helps you understand where I come from a little better.