[Note: What follows is the piece I wrote for my session at Hutchmoot 2010.]
This past summer, throughout the course of a week, six adults shared their personal stories with several hundred high school students attending the camp where I played music. Their stories ranged from sexual abuse, addictions (including pornography, alcohol, drugs), abandonment, and seeking a father’s love through athletic performance, to a young woman who used to cut herself in order to feel alive. While listening to such painfully real histories, I was deeply moved by the honesty and vulnerability of those six people. I also was profoundly moved by the work of redemption each of them experienced over the course of their lives at the hands of God, at the hands of His image bearers, within the alphabet of their chronicles as it was laid bare for all to see and to read.
As I listened, I recognized, as if it were refracted light on a wall, certain echoes of my own story. Not that I related to the specifics of each and every account, but inasmuch as no two people are exactly identical, no two people are completely opposite either, meaning that we are each of us made up of more than flesh and blood, more than just the physical and tangible. We are spiritual beings – created in the image of God himself, we are told – with hopes and fears, faith and doubt, enduring traumatic loss, wild success, longsuffering joy, fleeting happiness, acedia, occasional melancholia, and sometimes a sadness so deep, so dark that even our own secret minds frighten us away from believing anything good about ourselves. I do not know from where or from what depths such despair arises, but I recognize it in my own heart, in my own soul, in the mud and mirth of my own story. What is your story?
I heard author Barbara Brown Taylor speak on this subject in referencing media, online social networks (Facebook, Twitter, etc.), and our desire for genuine community. She said:
“We have so many choices of stories to pay attention to; the risk is to choose stories that are too small. We bear one word – one narrative – on our soul; is that one word enough to save another soul?”
The question then becomes to which stories should we give heed, to which should we give credence to in our day-to-day lives? Which stories will edify and help us further construct or understand our own narrative? As for me, I must pay closest attention to stories of hope, for hope is what I need most since it is so often found lacking and withering within me. If I ignore hope, or if I pretend not to care, I know full well the cavernous darkness, its jowls wide open, awaiting me.
It’s no small irony that the songs I have written over the years have spilled over with this hope, even though I myself have struggled to cling to it or, at times, to believe anything good about myself, about the world, or even that God himself should dare call any of the scarred earth “good.” Perhaps it is catharsis – self-serving, though it may be – and a verbal reminder to my stubborn, willful self since I am the one soul who will sing that very song over and over again, even out of darkness, even out of light. I cannot speak of hope without thinking of the 1994 movie The Shawshank Redemption, in which the main character writes to fellow former prison-mate, “Remember that hope is a good thing, and a good thing never dies.”
It is very much worth recalling that Jesus himself spoke and interacted with friends and strangers alike in the form of parables and stories. In doing so he edified people by posing questions to them in what might easily have been their greatest moment of shame or guilt at the hands of anyone less gracious: “Do you want to get well?”, he asked the crippled man at the Bethesda pool; to Peter & co., “Who do you say I am?”; to the accusing crowd gathered in front of the naked woman caught in the act of adultery, “Are any of you without sin? If so, cast the first stone.” Why did Jesus interact this way? Why not just call down swift and immediate judgment? Why not deliver words on a silver platter? Was it because the posing of a question requires a response? It takes two to share a story: a bearer and a listener. To listen is to hear, is to “see”, is to be moved, is to interact, is to be changed. Words, in all their quiet, humble power, make the impossible brim with possibility. Words are resilient. They can redeem. Words can edify, they can encourage. They can also cripple and devastate. But words, in and of themselves, are rarely enough; action must follow. “He who hears my words but ignores them is like a clanging cymbal.”
The art of storytelling and the art of listening beg us to engage in our own lives as well as others’, to not ignore the inner groanings of our speechless heart or our basic human desire and need to belong. I recognize my story in author Frederick Buechner’s, and his suggestion that we “listen to our lives and to see it for the fathomless mystery it is” because, as he says, “all moments are key moments.” Buechner recognizes grace and redemption in the hubbub, skulduggery and decay of our fallen humanity. I was and still am being changed by Frederick Buechner, even some ten years after my first introduction to his work. He gave my own inner groanings and hidden secrets an alphabet, a language, from which to breathe, to speak and to make myself known.
He drapes flesh on otherwise arcane, ghosts of characters long since passed from the earth. Biblical characters who once seemed such perfect people to me on paper (even in some of their obvious imperfections), I now see as seemingly ordinary men and women who, just like us, ate, drank, bled, laughed, cried, toiled, gave birth, gave alms, and gave up hope. God used the foolish then the way he still uses the foolish today.
I think of examples like Jacob in Buechner’s The Son of Laughter: limping, panting and hip-whipped, Jacob dared wrestle with God, to go to the mat with him, and he found himself, his family, and later the world, changed forever by the event. I also think of an aging Adam seated fireside in his La-Z-Boy, taking a drag on a Marlboro, now reminiscing about that long-ago afternoon in the green, ripe orchard with that forbidden apple, a smooth-talking serpent and his beloved wife, Eve, in Buechner’s Peculiar Treasures.
Buechner’s uncanny gift for reading between the lines and for taking musty, archaic characters off the mantle and bringing them back down to earth, affords me a mercifully graceful gift: the chance to relate to those lofty characters myself amid my own humanity, my own failings and occasional successes, and to realize that their humanity is not so different from my own, even now from across a vast expanse of time, culture and religiosity.
But perhaps Buechner’s greatest gift to me is not in what he actually says, but what he does not say. He never forces me to believe or to think a certain way; he simply observes and reflects, leaving me the time, space, freedom and dignity to observe, ponder and absorb the picture myself. Never forceful, never obtuse, never condemning, never narrow-minded or shortsighted, but always vivid, poetic, genuine and with a beauty born out of humility, and a humility born of Beauty itself, Buechner allows for what many in the Church see as dichotomy: faith and doubt, light and dark, knowledge and mystery. It allows for that most dangerous of existences: the opportunity to be yourself, the fool God made you to be, and in that originality to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you are never alone.
This has been key in informing my own writing over the years. I am not called to preach or to condemn, nor am I to present my “message” on a silver platter or to spoon-feed it. I am to venture alongside those who will go me on the journey in an attempt to paint a picture, to convey a scene, however abstract or esoteric it may be, that life is much too short – too long for some – and far too treacherous to go about pretending that we, especially the Church, are entitled to a singular righteousness that has anything at all to do with our own merit. It seems to me that in offering the listener/reader the space to interpret a song – or any artistic endeavor, for that matter – themselves, I grant them the freedom, grace and dignity to employ the brain and heart God himself wove together and placed within us. To “write something that seems beautiful, lasting, and true”, as Buechner states in The Sacred Journey, is to take people on that journey. I hope to remind people that though they may feel alone in life, in their struggles, in their despair, in their darkness, even in their light, they are most assuredly not alone. None of us are. To believe that we are utterly alone is perhaps Satan’s most subtle, and therefore, greatest lie heaped upon man. The sharing of story defuses the human capacity for judgment, enabling us to respond rather than react. Story breeds empathy, and therefore mercy reminds me of the power of redemption, and healing reminds me I am not alone, softens my heart, ignites hope.
There is always a flipside to every coin so long as we give ears and eyes to its telling. At the heart of everyone’s story is the narrative of redemption being spoken and uttered into the world, whether we realize it or not, whether we purpose it or not, whether it is alive or moribund in us. We don’t always live out of such knowledge, we curse it at times, we regret the kinship, but if we ultimately believe that God is a redeemer, then all of it – all our poor choices, the mistakes, laziness, sadness, overzealousness, hypocrisy – is ultimately being reclaimed, redeemed, and blessed. And in a kingdom where no lily of the field is overlooked, every moment is a hallowed moment, and every story is sacred, hallowed ground.
Eric Peters, affectionately called “Pappy” by those who love him, is the grand old curmudgeon of the Rabbit Room. But his small stature and often quiet presence belie a giant talent. He’s a songwriter of the first order, and a catalogue of great records bears witness to it. His last album, Birds of Relocation, blew minds and found its way onto “year’s best” lists all over the country. When he’s not painting, trolling bookstores, or dabbling in photography, he’s touring the country in support of his latest record, Far Side of the Sea.