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For four years now, Andy Gullahorn has hosted a weekly event called Bowling Lunch. It’s exactly what it sounds like: men gather in a bowling alley, eat lunch, and bowl. Andy keeps a spread sheet of everybody’s scores and sends out a weekly email showing the current standings and communicating any administrative issues. The regulars have nicknames, typically assigned by Andy (Frank the Killer, Beyonce, Smoothie, Patasaurus, etc.). And once a year Andy hosts an awards ceremony complete with speeches, trophies, and printed certificates.
About two hundred men have attended Bowling Lunch since its inception. It’s a funny mix of people–musicians, retirees, the self-employed, the under-employed, and even a few people with real jobs. When the Anglican Archbishop of Rwanda visited Nashville, Andy invited him to Bowling Lunch. His Grace had never bowled before; still, he beat Andrew Osenga.
Bowling Lunch is a laugh a minute. And why wouldn’t it be? You’re bowling in the middle of the day. You’re eating bowling alley food. You’re hanging out with some very interesting people.
But now I begin to come to my point. Yes, Bowling Lunch is a laugh a minute. And yes, the whole concept, like the American Idol Fantasy League that Andy operated a few years ago, seems like a big joke. But it’s more than that. Something quite important happens at Bowling Lunch. Grown men, a notoriously lonely lot, connect with one another over terrible hot dogs and two games of bowling. I don’t want to overstate the case; Bowling Lunch isn’t church. But it is a place where men from many walks of life feel that they belong. Recently my teenage son went right by himself and had a great time bowling with a couple of retirees, a singer-songwriter, and a property manager. If you were to scan the crowd at a Bowling Lunch, you’d be hard-pressed to guess what they share in common. What they share in common is that they all know Andy Gullahorn. And Andy seems to take quite seriously his role as the bringer-together of this rag-tag group of fellow pilgrims.
I tell the story of Bowling Lunch because I think it offers real insight into the rest of Andy Gullahorn’s work. Andy has a well-deserved reputation for being a hilarious guy–the kind of guy who would originate Bowling Lunch and the American Idol Fantasy League. If you’ve ever seen him perform live, you know that his patter between songs is on the level of a stand-up comic; you laugh even before he starts talking. His funniest songs are among his best-known songs. But underneath all that hilarity is real depth and spiritual sensitivity and a genuine interest in other people’s lives and struggles. At Hutchmoot last year, when Andy and I did a session called “The Gospel Uses of Comedy,” I asked him to play his song “I Haven’t Either.” Halfway through the song, people were crying laughing. By the end of the song, a few of them were crying crying, moved by the song’s honesty about the realities of living with a broken self.
Andy’s new album, Beyond the Frame, includes one of the funniest Gullahorn songs of all time. “Skinny Jeans” posits a theory that might explain why Andy isn’t as well-known as, say, Justin Bieber. The other day somebody remarked on Facebook that “Skinny Jeans” is reason enough to buy and listen to Beyond the Frame. That’s true as far as it goes, but the person who comes to this record in order to be amused is liable to get gobsmacked.
Consider the first words you hear when you listen to Beyond the Frame:
Nothing. All you hear is silence.
Feels like you’re alone and
Drifting off of the map.
But many souls have gone
Down this road you’re on.
At least I have.
Life isn’t all bowling and skinny jeans. Andy puts the listener on notice: this is going to be a record about hard things–marital trouble, the death of loved ones, addiction, persistent shame, the growing doubts of middle age. But even more importantly, this is a record about bearing one another’s burdens, acknowledging our common humanity and our shared need of a Savior. You’re not the only one who’s been down this road, Andy says. He’s been down it too.
In the liner notes, every song is dedicated to somebody, usually a person or persons whose story inspired the song. Those little headnotes make the songs feel more personal and intimate even than songs of straight self-revelation would. It’s no rare thing for a singer-songwriter to explore his own suffering in his music. The most striking thing about Beyond the Frame is Andy’s willingness to explore the suffering of his friends, to dive into that suffering and to find hope like a glimmering pearl in its depths–not the false hope of easy answers, but hard-won hope.
Beyond the Frame is a deeply compassionate album. Like a good friend, these songs enter into the world of a hurting fellow pilgrim and feel his pain, but they also take a step back to speak words of wisdom that the sufferer may not be able to speak to himself. I especially love “Favor Is a Foreign Tongue,” which addresses a person too bound up in shame and addiction to receive proffered grace:
You’ve got friends trying to help, reaching out to you,
But it’s not adding up with the little you think you deserve.
You’re content with a loss ’cause you’ve got nothing left to lose,
So you burn every bridge ’til they can’t reach you anymore.
I hate to imagine what happened to that little child
That convinced you that goodness was too good to be true.
Who knows what it was; maybe drugs had the final say
When you took any trust and pawned it like a wedding ring.
Oh but there’s so much more that I wish you would steal away,
Like the mercy and peace and forgiveness you can have for free.
The hope of Beyond the Frame revolves around the truth that we don’t have all the answers; we cannot see what God sees. That’s what the album title means. The refrain from the title track is haunting and a beautiful end to an album that has looked at hard things without blinking:
I took a picture of the Grand Canyon
So I could remember that day.
But the beauty of the Grand Canyon
Stretches way beyond the frame.
The person in the midst of hardship can’t see the whole picture. But neither can the person who hopes to offer comfort. We speak the truth to one another, we remind one another of the big picture as best we can, but the more important thing is to come alongside one another and bear one another’s burdens.
I hope I haven’t portrayed Beyond the Frame as grim. It isn’t. Yes, it addresses hardship and suffering, but it does so in a way that brings the hope of the gospel to bear. Maybe this will help: Imagine if the coolest kid you knew in school also happened to be among the most compassionate and wisest and most generous-hearted. Wouldn’t you want to hear his record?
Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we've ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.