Take My Hand: The Gospel and the Blues

Gospels-Spirituals-Hymns-CD2-coverBy Steve Beard

The first of several pivotal scenes in the film Selma occurs when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. makes a late night phone call to gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. The undeniable weight of what lay ahead for King and the civil rights movement was heavy on his soul. In quiet desperation, King (played masterfully by David Oyelowo) awakens the gospel music legend with the phone call and simply says, “I need to hear the Lord’s voice.”

Mahalia Jackson (played by Ledisi Young) breaks the stillness of the night with an impromptu and stemwinding plea in her housecoat and slippers:

“Precious Lord, take my hand / Lead me on, let me stand / I am tired, I am weak, I am worn / Through the storm, through the night / Lead me on to the light / Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home.”

This iconic scene in the film was indicative of King’s dependence upon spiritual strength, Jackson’s healing voice, and the Savior’s nail-scared hands. “Precious Lord” was King’s supplication, his way of reaching out for the hem of the garment. It was his last request only moments before his voice of eloquence was forever silenced on April 4, 1968, with a .30-06 bullet. King had just asked Chicago saxophonist Ben Branch to play the song at the rally later that night in Memphis.

As a farewell to her civil rights compatriot, Jackson sang “Precious Lord” at King’s funeral. This would be the last of innumerable times they would share the same stage. Whenever King requested it, Jackson was willing to lend her voice for the cause – despite the death threats. As the granddaughter of slaves, Jackson sang the gospel classic “I’ve Been ‘Buked, and I’ve Been Scorned” right before King gave his “I Have A Dream” speech in Washington D.C. Jackson is credited for steering King off his prepared text by shouting from behind the podium, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!”

Mahalia Jackson (1911-1972) was the undisputed queen of gospel music. She incurred the wrath from some church folks who resented the way she unveiled the power of gospel music outside the sanctuary in secular venues. Others thought that her soaring style, hand-clapping, and foot-stomping borrowed too much from the blues and jazz singers of vaudeville, the sin bins, and the juke joints.

Despite heavy-handed pressure, Jackson never compromised on her personal vow to only sing gospel music. “Blues are the songs of despair,” she said. “Gospel songs are the songs of hope. When you sing gospel you have the feeling there is a cure for what’s wrong, but when you are through with the blues, you’ve got nothing to rest on.”

Thomas-Dorsey2-playingNo one understood the spiritual chasm between blues and gospel more profoundly than did Thomas A. Dorsey (1899-1993), the songwriter of “Precious Lord” and the legendary father of gospel music. For more than a decade, Dorsey was also known for writing bawdy blues under the alias “Georgia Tom.” As the prodigal son of a church organist mother and a father who was a Baptist minister, Dorsey’s double life embodied a very real spiritual warfare.

“My soul was a deluge of divine rapture,” said Dorsey after hearing spirit-filled music at a revival. Not long after that, however, Dorsey was playing piano as Georgia Tom for blues legends Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Tampa Red.

Two severe and lengthy bouts with what he dubbed as “unsteadiness” incapacitated him from playing music and caused him to tailspin into depression. His mother told him to give up the blues and get back into the good graces of the Lord. But every time he would lurch in a righteous direction, it seemed as if the blues would lure him back. The war for his soul raged back and forth for many years.

After a miraculous divine encounter and prophecy at a church service, Dorsey made a heartfelt commitment to focus on gospel. A remarkable professional collaboration between Dorsey and Jackson began shortly thereafter.

In 1932, things would change forever for Dorsey. He had become the choir director of the Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago and was selling his songs to mass choirs. As he was preparing for a gospel concert in St. Louis, he received a telegram instructing him to immediately return home. By the time he arrived, his young wife Nettie had died giving birth to the couple’s son. Two days later, the baby also died.

Dorsey was crushed, despondent, and trampled underfoot. Social critic Stanley Crouch once observed that the New Testament contains perhaps the greatest blues line of all time — “Father, why hast thou forsaken me?”

It was in the forsakenness of that hour that Dorsey chipped away at the piano and wrote, “Precious Lord, take my hand …” In the sorrow of the desolation and flood of his loss, the song that inspired Dr. King was the dove that Dorsey released in search of dry land, the flight of hope. It was his blues: “I am tired, I am weak, I am worn.” It was his gospel: “Lead me on, let me stand.”

“If a woman has lost a man, a man has lost a woman, his feeling reacts to the blues, he feels like expressing it,” Dorsey told his biographer Michael W. Harris in The Rise of Gospel Blues (Oxford). “The same thing acts for a gospel song. Now you’re not singing blues; you’re singing gospel, good news song, singing about the Creator; but it’s the same feeling, a grasping of the heart.”

For Dorsey, life was both gospel and blues. He had seen it in the juke joints and the sanctuaries. “It gets low-down. Now what we call low-down in blues doesn’t mean that it’s dirty or bad or something like that,” Dorsey said. “It gets down into the individual to set him on fire, dig him up…”

“Precious Lord” became a universally beloved song because it grasped the heart. You can hear how it inspired King, energized Jackson, and bandaged up Dorsey. It enabled King to weave a civil rights message to a white audience over the growling police dogs, shouted racial slurs, and the segregated lunch counters. It empowered Jackson to take traditional gospel music to locations beyond the choir loft and to audiences beyond the black church. It inspired Dorsey to blend the juke joint blues with the Sunday morning hope of gospel.

It was both Good Friday heartbreak and Easter Sunday jubilation ­– somewhere right there in the grit and toil of life.

Steve Beard is the editor of Good News.

 

U2 observes the passing of its “North Star”: Pastor Jack Heaslip, RIP

jackBy Steve Beard

On Wednesday, February 25, members of the band U2 gathered at St. Mary’s Church outside of Dublin in order to observe the passing of the Rev. Jack Heaslip, the band’s long time friend and “traveling pastor.” The 71-year-old Anglican priest passed away after a lengthy battle with motor neuron disease.

Heaslip’s pivotal spiritual guidance and pastoral care was recognized by the band when he was referred to as “our North Star” on the liner notes of U2’s last album Songs of Innocence.

Heaslip performed the marriage ceremony between Bono and his wife Ali, baptized their children, and conducted the funeral for Bono’s father. Bono described Heaslip “as a source of inspiration and calm for us over our lives,” in the collaborative autobiography U2 by U2.

As a guidance counselor and English teacher at Mount Temple Secondary School, Heaslip is credited with helping walk Bono through the agonizing death of his mother when the singer was 14-years-old. “I liked him – more than liked him, I trusted him,” Bono writes.

Almost always outside of the glare of the spotlight, Heaslip garnered the attention of spiritually-minded fans of U2 when an audio recording was released of the blessing Heaslip offered to the band and entire crew on the night before the Elevation Tour began in March 2001. The tour consisted of 113 shows and was seen by more than 2 million fans.

Heaslip began by reading a verse from Isaiah 61 that had been read by Jesus in the Gospels. “The spirit of the sovereign Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.”

“I felt that what we want God to do tonight is to pour his anointing,” Heaslip told the band and crew. “That’s not just a dab on the forehead – that’s a rich anointing of his oil. We’re told the oil would flow down from the top of your head – and in my case into your beard – and down your front and make a mess.

“But that’s the richness of God’s anointing,” Heaslip continued. “And what I felt God wanted me to do today was to pour out, in his name, that anointing on everything to do with this tour – every body, every thing. We think of the band, but we think of every piece of equipment and everyone who works that piece of equipment, everyone who packs up, everyone who drives a car, everyone who does the catering, everyone who is responsible for technology, every joint of wire, every plug, every soffit, every light.

“So we ask for that anointing to be poured out by the power of his spirit. So we simply say: Come, Holy Spirit, and reign. Pour out your rule and anointing on this tour. Let nothing be an obstacle. Just melt away anything that is not of you, so that your power can flow without interruption. We claim your blessing and your anointing, because we ask it in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.”

According to news reports from the funeral, the Rev. Kevin Brew said that Heaslip would not have wanted the focus to be on himself. “Jack made a lasting impression on so many people in so many ways. Jack being Jack, he would have had certain views on how his funeral to be conducted.

“It was not to focus on him but rather on the Christian faith he proclaimed in so many different ways,” Brew said.

U2 members Larry Mullen, Adam Clayton and the Edge were among the congregants. Bono’s role in the service included reading a passage from Isaiah 61 – the text used as the Elevation tour blessing 14 years prior.

Last year, Heaslip wrote a meditation in Disquiet Time: Rants and reflections on the Good Book by the skeptical, the faithful, and a few scoundrels (Jericho). His devotional contribution was called “A Tale of Two Mottoes,” and was a reflection on a verse from Psalm 127 that was publicly displayed on the wall of the assembly hall at Mount Temple.

“Jack was a magnificent man with wisdom surpassed only, perhaps, by his humility,” said Cathleen Falsani, religion journalist and co-editor of Disquiet Time. “He had a way of gathering people under his wings, quietly shepherding them in courageous directions and to embrace a Creator who is exponentially more than we ever could imagine. God’s fingerprints were all over Jack’s life and in turn all over the lives of those who knew and loved him best. It was an honor to call him friend, to know him the wee bit that I did, to be kept in his heart and lifted in his prayers.

“I think about the countless concertgoers and lovers of music who never knew the gentle Irish sage — this Polaris who called attention not to himself, but pointed to the One whose lights shines upon us all — who covered them with his benedictions,” Falsani continued. “And as I give thanks for Jack’s life, the words of another great Irish sage — the late poet/mystic John O’Donohue — play in my mind: ‘You would want us to find you in presence / Beside us when beauty brightens / When kindness glows / And music echoes eternal tones.’”

Steve Beard is the founder and editor of Thunderstruck Media.

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Fitting tributes and insights about Father Jack Heaslip:

• Tim Neufeld http://www.atu2.com/news/our-north-star-tribute-to-rev-jack-heaslip.html

• Steve Garber http://www.washingtoninst.org/9607/requiescat-in-pace-jack-heaslip/

• Cathleen Falsani http://www.patheos.com/blogs/thedudeabides/2011/06/14/jack-heaslip-what-if-god-is-even-greater-than-we-think-oh-yes/

 

The Blood of the Martyrs

copts1By Steve Beard

“They were stoned, they were sawn in two; they were put to death with the sword. They [were] … destitute, afflicted, ill-treated – the world was not worthy of them.” Hebrews 11:37

Added to the ever increasing list of demonic atrocities conducted by ISIS was last week’s beheading of 21 young Coptic Christian martyrs on a beach in Libya.

“Jesus help me” were the final words from many of these Egyptian believers.

“To the last moment, the name of Jesus was on their lips,” Hana Aziz told CNN. Aziz was in the next room when his nephew and uncle were kidnapped by masked ISIS terrorists. “As they were being martyred, they were calling God’s name, saying, ‘God, have mercy on us.’ The entire village is proud.” Thirteen of the men in their 20s were from a village called Al Aour, 125 miles south of Cairo.

“The blood of our Christian brothers and sisters is a testimony which cries out to be heard,” Pope Francis said. “It makes no difference whether they be Catholics, Orthodox, Copts or Protestants. They are Christians! Their blood is one and the same. Their blood confesses Christ.”

Calling into SAT-7 Arabic Christian channel show, Beshir Kamel was grateful that ISIS failed to edit out the declarations of faith in Jesus Christ of the dying men in the brutal video. Kamel had two brothers who were martyred on the Libyan beach. He said that their faithfulness unto death “had strengthened his own faith.”

“Since the Roman era, Christians have been martyred and have learned to handle everything that comes our way,” Kamel said. “This only makes us stronger in our faith because the Bible told us to love our enemies and bless those who curse us,” he said.

“As we recall these brothers who died only because they confessed Christ,” said the Pope. “I ask that we encourage each other to go forward with this ecumenism which is giving us strength, the ecumenism of blood. The martyrs belong to all Christians,” he concluded.

Steve Beard is editor of Good News. 

LL Cool J on tithing and career longevity

CBS Summer 2009 Press TourBy Steve Beard

“Every dime I get, no matter what it is, I give 10 percent to the church,” rapper and actor LL Cool J recently said. The interviewer from Hot 97, a hip hop radio station in New York City, said that she had first heard LL Cool J (born James Todd Smith) testify about tithing at Greater Allen African Methodist Episcopal Cathedral in Jamaica, Queens, New York.

“I mentioned earlier longevity, versatility and originality,” LL Cool J said about his success. “What I didn’t mention was spirituality and believing in God.”

His commitment to faith in God and tithing has been highlighted in interviews over the last several years. “I tithe. I’m a life-long tither,” he told Hot 97. “For many years, I’ve been a tither. I believe strongly in giving. I believe you got to have that faith. And I’ve seen it work in my life, because as much as people in the world like to take credit and claim to be geniuses, at the end of the day there’s a higher power than you, and you’ve got to answer to that power. And you have to recognize that power.”

As a rapper, LL Cool J’s first record deal with Def Jam was in the early 1980s. Today, he is co-star of “NCIS: Los Angeles,” one of the most popular TV franchises. With songs such as “Mama Said Knock You Out” and “Goin’ Back to Cali,” LL Cool J has sold 20 million albums, with Grammy Awards and platinum albums gauging his success. He had his own sitcom in the late 1990s, and has been in more than 20 films.

“I’ve been blessed to be able to transcend eras,” he said. “That’s like a blessing. I’m kind of an anomaly. I’m unique in that way. Sometimes the stars line-up. God gives people favor in different areas, and in that particular area he’s just blessed me to be able to relate consistently to all different generations.”

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This was a very similar message that LL Cool J passed on when I first met him several years ago with a handful of journalists while he was promoting Last Holiday, a romantic comedy about how a church-going store clerk (Queen Latifah) who thinks that she is going to die spends her final three weeks. LL Cool J plays her romantic interest in the film.

Gospel music and faith are a strong part of this film. Can you talk about how you relate to that?

LL Cool J: First of all, I am Christian. So for me, faith is a huge part of everything I do on every level. And I mean from salvation to tithes to offerings to every other level and every other dynamic that you can think about.

I think that the film obviously shows you that there are many types of blessings. Obviously, health is a major kind of blessing. Living life, abundance in life, is a major blessing and obviously the type of abundance that [Queen Latifah’s character] was after was not only material abundance, but abundance of joy, happiness, and freedom.

Jesus said, “I came so you would have life more abundantly.” So, she obviously got to experience that. And I think that’s beautiful. Well on my end, I think that the fact that [his character] was continuously and constantly searching for love, the fact that he was loyal, the fact that he was willing to sacrifice and commit—those are all Christian principles.

Obviously Christ gave the ultimate sacrifice. But you know, willingness to sacrifice your life, your job, everything you know and love, to go around the world and follow someone is extremely important. Everyone knows here that true sacrifice and your level of commitment always dictates what you’re going to get. If you’re not willing to sacrifice in the hot sun and sow those seeds and go out in the field and really sacrifice your body and your time and your energy to sow those seeds, you’re not going to reap the type of harvest that you’d like to reap.

He did that. She did that. She was willing to sow the seeds of taking risk, of crossing the bridge, of fear, and dealing with fate. You know, she wasn’t fearful anymore. She operated with faith. And I think that it turned out well for her. She looked past materialism. She trusted—in the movie they don’t say God—but in reality, she trusted God more than money. Instead of taking the riches and trying to find a cure, she took the riches and tried to live life and just enjoy her last days. She was willing to detach from the money and anything worldly on certain levels, and I think that’s a pretty powerful message.

Have you ever thought about being a preacher?

LL Cool J: I believe in God completely. And it’s always refreshing to me to be able to talk about it freely with people who are on the same page and on the same wavelength. I mean, I don’t often get that opportunity.

You’re in an industry that does not nurture that faith. How difficult is that for you?

LL Cool J: It’s kind of interesting. Sometimes you have to let your life be the testimony. Sometimes you have to let your life and let yourself be the example. If I can be successful in the secular world and give God the glory, then it’s not so difficult. Because ultimately, he gets the glory, and the proof is in the pudding. If I can go out and claim a victory for God, and if I can go out and do incredibly exciting things and take my life to new dimensions and to new levels and then turn around at the end of the day, when I’m standing in the end-zone, and give God the glory, then I’m doing my job.

You have that crowd in the industry and the entertainment world that when you mention God, they want to giggle. Or you want to say religion and then they sort of peer at you with this weird face. Is it okay? Is it not okay? These are weird vibes that people have because they fear being looked upon as different from everyone else. But you know, for me, I love God. I’ve never had a problem with going out in front and saying that it’s because of the tithes and the offerings and because of the faith and because of the fact that I’m willing to step out of everything worldly that I’m able to be in this position. I don’t have a problem with saying that. It doesn’t bother me, you know.

Who nurtured you in your faith?

LL Cool J: I was raised in church. I read the Bible constantly. I stayed in the Word constantly, on every level, you know. Because I think that ultimately we need that strength. You need that power in your life, you need that wisdom in your life, you need that discernment in your life, and you need to constantly nurture the potential that God placed inside of you by watering it with that Word. You need to get it in you so that you can deal with the industry, so that you can deal with the trials and the tribulations and the temptations that come your way because of film, television, and music. For me, it started off just as a boy and here I am.

You went through some pretty tough stuff as a child. Was this the reason that you became a believer?

LL Cool J: You know what? Everybody has gone through a lot. The most God-fearing people in the world have gone through a lot, even in order to achieve victory. When Joshua was leading the Israelites and they were fighting their way through those lands that were promised to them, they were going through a lot. But they were on their way to victory. So going through a lot doesn’t necessarily mean that you didn’t believe in God, or because you went through a lot, God wasn’t with you. Even though the Israelites had to go through all those battles and all those trials and tribulations, God was with them.

I went through a lot, but it was no one thing that made me want to love God because I was going through a lot and he was with me, too. You see what I’m saying? There were a few times where God cleared certain towns and villages for them and they didn’t have to raise their swords; but not all the time. Sometimes he said, “Hey, you want those mountains and you want that promised land up there? You feel like what you have is not enough? Then you guys gotta go up there and clear the trees yourselves.” Sometimes you gotta go through things yourself. It’s not always easy, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not correct. You know what I’m sayin’? I didn’t have to be in a jail cell or be in solitary confinement or lay in a hospital bed in order to understand that God is with me. I didn’t need that.

Since family-friendly films are the ones that do well at the box office, why doesn’t Hollywood make more of them?

LL Cool J: C’mon, because a lot of people don’t believe. I mean, for every Chronicles of Narnia, which obviously, is what it is. We know what it is when we look at it. You know what that is—the resurrection of that lion! For every one of those types of things that come out, there are a lot of people who don’t agree, who aren’t on that page. Everybody doesn’t believe. While certain people are serving the one true God, there are people who are serving Baal or you have people who are serving other gods. So, that’s why. Not everybody’s serving the same God. And everybody doesn’t want to promote a product—that’s really what it is—that speaks to those principles because sometimes it doesn’t have to be direct. Sometimes those principles can be enough to promote the Spirit. Because God will come like a thief in the night as well, right? Sometimes the Spirit gets promoted without it being obvious.

In Last Holiday, you portray a working class man making a living selling barbecue grills, and you make that very believable. How different is that world from your world?

LL Cool J: Well, it rains on the rich and the poor, right? The foolish and the wise both die, right? First of all, I am a regular guy. I am a normal guy. I’ve done some things and got a name out there and had some success in the world, but I am a human being and I do have normal feelings. I have normal people in my family to think about. My lifestyle isn’t average; people know that. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t relate.

You know what, it’s a stretch. I mean, I want to do different things.

With Christ, the script came and he was able to be weak, even though it was the ultimate show of strength. When he laid on the cross it was the ultimate weakness and the ultimate strength at the same time. So you don’t always have to be the heroic guy with the gun, jumping up, flexing your muscles in order to be strong.

You played a sensitive guy, a wounded man, in Kingdom Come, with Whoopi Goldberg. Is that the kind of role you’re talking about?

LL Cool J: Being a rap artist and making the music that I make and doing the things that I do, there’s a certain preconceived notion that just comes with what I do. When I walk in the room, it’s already understood, people have an understanding in their minds of who they’re dealing with just based on my profession. But your profession is not you, that’s what you do. What you do is not you. There’s more to you than what you do. So these types of roles give me an opportunity to become someone different, to touch people in a different way. And even to actually be more relatable to people. It actually works better for me to have a make-down, than a make-up or a make-over. It works better for me to strip down and go the opposite direction. I think people can relate to me more when I get on a bicycle as opposed to jumping in a big, white limousine—especially in this capacity. You know what I’m sayin’? I mean, the blind can’t lead the blind. I’m not saying I want to be poor. I want to be as wealthy as possible and be able to fund the Kingdom and help as many people as possible. But at the same time, in order to relate to the people, it’s better for me to be considered one of the people.

You’ve got kids. How should families view the music industry and rappers?

LL Cool J: There’s that old Christian cliché that you don’t want to be so heavenly-minded that you do no earthly good. And then there’s the flipside of that. Jesus was eating with the tax collectors and he had ladies of the evening washing his feet and kissing his feet, and all different kinds of people judging who he was with and where he was at and what he was doing. And he was shining light in the darkest places.

He said, “I came to save sinners.” Not saying that I started on rap to do that, but what I’m getting at is this: There’s nothing wrong with being a part of the rap industry, there’s nothing wrong with watching videos or listening to music. You just have to keep God in your heart and have a true understanding of where your place is at in this world.

[Jesus] did not put blinders on and ignore everything that went on [while he was on] the earth. He wasn’t a monk, and he wasn’t like the Pharisees or the Sadducees who would try to be perfect and sit in high places in the synagogue and ignore all the regular people and be uppity and uptight.

I say this about rap music and hip-hop: Enjoy it. But, if you’re a Christian, you want to make something people can relate to and enjoy, but add some God in there, too. It’s alright, like on my new record. I have a song I did with [Christian recording artists] Mary, Mary. That’ll be attached to another film that’s coming out. This is how you do it—with balance. And other than that, I don’t mind if my kids watch the videos. But we’re not going to overdo it. The videos are not going to raise you; but you can watch them. If you were a young lady, like one of my daughters, and you see the girls, like what they do in the video, I’m gonna talk to you about it. But I’m not going to not expose you to it.

You have to be prepared for [spiritual] war. I mean, war. There’s swords, battles, blood, and horses getting hamstrung. There’s everything that goes on in war. So to raise your kids by themselves, isolated from everything. They’ll never be able to handle the war when it comes. We have to be prepped. And we have to be prepared for those types of situations.

 

The way of faith for Alice Cooper

By Steve Beard

Back in 2002, MTV announced that the biggest hit in its history was a program called “The Osbournes.” The half-hour show — complete with constant bleeping from excessive foul language — was a curiously fascinating docu-comedy starring the members of Ozzy Osbourne’s family — wife and two teenage siblings (the eldest child bowed out of the show). Ozzy, of course, is the British rock singer acclaimed for his ghoulish heavy metal performances.

CooperThe Osbournes had just moved into a new Beverly Hills mansion where they promptly bemoaned the loss of their former neighbor, Pat Boone. Ozzy dottered and mumbled around the house trying to figure out the TV remote control, his wife hired a pet therapist to get the dogs to stop pottying in the living room, and the kids screamed and chased one another around the Osbourne compound.

Truth be told, I found the show captivating in a strange way. Others, justifiably, hated it. The television networks were scrambling to tap into the newly minted genre of “reality” television. At that time, I recommended that the next MTV show should feature Alice Cooper’s family. That’s right, the spooky granddaddy of shock rock who festooned his stage with guillotines, electric chairs, and boa constrictors.

Imagine watching the reactions of parents as they take their sons to their very first Little League baseball practice only to discover that Alice Cooper is going to be the coach. Or where he tries to organize a carpool to his daughter’s ballet lessons (he had three kids ranging from 10 years old to 20). Or what about when he gets thrown into an unsuspecting golf foursome at the country club. It would be a hoot.

Today, Alice Cooper (born Vincent Furnier) still tours around the world doing his theatrical rock and roll show about three or four months out of the year. He still watches kung-fu movies before his performances and downs Quarter Pounders with cheese afterward. This zany character even shows up regularly at Alice Cooper’stown, his sports-n-rock themed restaurant in Phoenix, Arizona, where he serves Mom’s Tuna Casserole and Megadeth Meatloaf.

At the height of his worldwide fame, Cooper drank a bottle of whiskey a day. But the bottle almost destroyed his marriage to Sheryl, his wife of 37 years. He started heading off to church with her and felt as if God was speaking to him every Sunday. Even at the pinnacle of his ghoulish career (which he believed was no more provocative than a horror movie musical) he still believed in God. The son and grandson of preachers, Cooper’s faith was crippled by the weight of fame and the toxicity of alcoholism.

He experienced every pleasure that money could buy but found it did not satisfy. “I was the prodigal son. I left the house, achieved fame and fortune, and found out that that was not what I wanted,” he told HM magazine. “Now I read the Bible every day, I pray every day. That’s really what I’m about.” He continues: “I was one thing at one time, and I’m something new. I’m a new creature now. Don’t judge Alice by what he used to be. Praise God for what I am now.”

Cooper has taken the opportunity to speak to curious fellow musicians about the reality of the devil and the change in his life. “I have talked to some big stars about this, some really horrific characters…and you’d be surprised,” he says. “The ones that you would think are the farthest gone, are the ones that are the most apt to listen.”

Although Cooper’s shows still explore the haunting and ghastly aspects of human nature, its message carries a different twist. “It might sound absolutely insane coming from me, but what the world needs is a good shot of morality,” he said. Several of his albums have been dramatic interpretations of what the world would be like without the grace of God. The horror is there, but the message is profoundly different — redeemed. His alter ego is a theatrical prophet of doom, or a rock and roll version of a character pulled from C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters.

As for the lifestyle found in some quarters of the rock world, Cooper says, “Drinking beer is easy. Trashing your hotel room is easy. But being a Christian, that’s a tough call. That’s real rebellion,” he once told the London Sunday Times Magazine.

In describing the importance of his Christian faith, he says, “It’s everything. It’s what I live for. If you gave me a choice between rock and roll and my faith, I’d take my faith,” Cooper told The Observer in Australia. “Rock and roll is fun — it’s what I do for a living. But it’s not what I live on. I believe in classic Christianity. I’ve given my whole life to the Lord. But I don’t think that means you can’t be a rock and roller.”

After all, as Cooper said when his kids were young, “I must be the only father that bangs on the bedroom door and says, ‘Turn that music up!’”

I still think that would be a fun show to watch.

Steve Beard is the editor of Good News.

Wrestling disquietly with the Bible

By Steve Beard

“My new Bible study is really testing me. I have never studied the Bible or read my Bible and I really have no idea how to do it,” confessed my friend Tiffany on Facebook. “The language is still confusing and I feel like I’m not really getting the messages.”

grantfalsani_disquiettime_hc-2-1The 24-year-old roller derby girl, saleswoman, and mother recently began attending a new church with her husband and she joined a women’s Bible study. “No matter how you word it, the Bible still has very confusing parts. I promise you it is not the version I’m using that is the problem. It is that I am just new with this whole studying the Bible thing. I feel like a freshman that just finished basic math and got thrown into senior calculus.”

As you can imagine, there was no shortage of responses to her post. Tiffany’s Facebook confession was made on the same day I received Disquiet Time: Rants and Reflections on the Good Book by the Skeptical, the Faithful, and a Few Scoundrels, edited by Jennifer Grant and Cathleen Falsani (Jericho Books). In their introduction, the two editors describe the contributors as nonconformists and oddballs, comparing them to the characters on the Island of Misfit Toys from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Do you remember the cowboy who rides the ostrich or the toy train thunking along the track with a square wheel on its caboose? The imagery is strangely fitting for this collection of ruminations on the Bible from a wide variety of faith traditions.

With nearly 50 different contributors, this isn’t an authoritative text on biblical interpretation. Instead, it is more like a funky theological jam session – no sheet music, brother riffing off of sister, guitar solos, tooting of the horns, banging of the drums, thumping of the bass – testifying about both estrangement and enduring love for the Bible.

As I delved into the book, faces popped into my mind of people in my life who could relate to certain chapters. My son and nephews would howl at the offbeat but serious treatment of the use of “dung” in the Scripture. My mom would probably choose to skip over that chapter.

In all honesty, there is much beauty and brokenness and vulnerability in Disquiet Time. The easy endeavor would be to collect testimonies of those who’ve left the faith because of disillusionment with the Bible, hypocrisy at church, and unanswered prayers from an invisible God who is often difficult to understand. Instead, Disquiet Time lassoed up writers in the throes of wrestling with the challenges that thoughtful faith provokes. Many of them lay out their struggles with great honesty.

Anna Broadway

Anna Broadway

Describing a crisis of faith while on a Christian retreat, Anna Broadway confesses to changing lines to songs they were singing “(such as ‘I’m so grateful’) to something that felt more honest (such as ‘I’m so confused’). When I sang the more truthful refrain, I almost wept.”

Jennifer Grant flatly admits that she feels more “at home with the doubters and the skeptics than with those people who march through life with unblinking certainty, whatever their faith practices, convictions, or ideology may be.”

“What used to seem so clear cut and focused now feels murky and muddled,” writes Bill Motz. “It’s like being in a love-hate relationship with a dear old friend: some parts of the text fill me with joy and an overwhelming sense of truth, others anger me and make me feel that there’s no way God could ever have intended them to be included. Though I try to keep the discipline of daily study alive, I’ll admit to more than a little trepidation when I reach for my Bible.”

At different points in my life, those could be my words.

Susan Isaacs

Susan Isaacs

For other contributors, it seemed as though the Bible was standing between their faith and their calling in life. “I am grateful that I grew up in a church that revered the Scriptures; but sometimes it created a wall between God and me,” writes Susan E. Isaacs. “I’m a comedienne: I’ve always seen life through the skewed lens of humor, but there was no room for levity in my church. My mom suggested I write Bible skits. Seriously?” As to be expected, she delivers a hilarious and insightful chapter.

For the Rev. Sarah Heath, a United Methodist clergywoman, the issue was slightly different. When she felt the divine nudge to becoming an ordained minister, it was one of her friends from a Bible study group that said, “But you’re a girl. And that’s not okay.” Heath’s chapter on dealing with her ordination pursuit is the kind of wrestling with Scripture that is so magnificently redemptive.

“The ongoing ‘disquiet’ I’ve felt when reading about Saint Paul’s admonition that ‘women should be silent’ has been vital to my faith,” she writes. “It causes me to question, look deeper, and not just glaze over what I read. Study is a deep form of worship, and even when I question God I am drawing closer to God. My faith is growing and being stretched. In the great rabbinic tradition of midrashic reading, asking questions – even the toughest, thorniest, most disquieting ones – deepens my faith. And for that, I am thankful to Saint Paul.”

IMG_2087One of the most engaging chapters springboards off the text in Genesis 1:2: “And the spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” David Vanderveen interlaces his journey of faith with sailing and surfing. You can almost taste the salt water as he makes the point that it is deep and powerful experiences that transform our theology.

“Riding a wave fueled by an energy you cannot see, except for its effects, can be compared to Saint Peter stepping out of the boat and walking across the water to Jesus,” he writes. “You know it should drown you, as it does so many, but if you put your faith in the power of the universe and align yourself with its demands, miracles happen as tangibly as if Christ were standing next to you in human form, making the blind see and the lame walk.”

Another contributor, the Rev. Kenneth Tanner, is an old college buddy of mine. Many years ago, he gave me a small peculiar icon that has been replicated from one hanging in the chapel of Saint Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt. It is believed to have been given in the mid-sixth century by the Byzantine emperor Justinian. The uniqueness of the icon is that the right and left sides of Christ’s face are noticeably different, and one eyeball is larger than the other.

christpantocrator-sinai“The more time I spent in prayer looking at this unique image of Jesus – the Pantocrator [“Almighty”] – the more the asymmetry of the eyes troubled me,” Tanner writes. “I pondered why the artist would paint Jesus with a physical ‘imperfection.’ Eventually I realized this was not a problem with the artist or the image but rather a limitation of my imagination, a failure to see everything there is to see in Christ. After all, the word became flesh in Jesus (John 1:4) and was made like us in every respect (Hebrews 2:17).”

My icon is kept next to my computer so that I might remember to try to see everything there is to see in Christ.

“God wants to be in a relationship with us, and in order to do that, we have to keep talking,” writes Cathleen Falsani. “The Bible is one of the ways the dialogue continues. And unlike dining etiquette, polite conversation with God puts no topics off limits. Go ahead and put your elbows on the table. Use the wrong fork. It’s okay. (Who are you trying to impress?)” God knows you, after all. There are no veiled secrets before the Almighty. “God loves us,” Falsani concludes. “Madly. Just as we are.”

In the midst of all my questions and gripes about the complexity of the Bible, I was taught to find the redemption in the midst of the chaos and disarray and mystery.

“It’s true that if you haven’t stood before God and been confused, you’re probably not standing before the real God,” observes theologian Steve Brown. “But it is also true – and far more important – to realize that if you haven’t stood before God and been loved unconditionally and without reservation, you’re not standing before the real God, either.”

Cathleen Falsani

Cathleen Falsani

Make no mistake about it, not everyone in Disquiet Time is where I am – or where you are – on the theological continuum. With such a wide array of perspectives, that should be no surprise. Part of my faith is respecting the authentic testimonies, biblical insights, questions, and doubts of those who are also trying to reach the other side of the river Jordan.

We need to welcome the challenge of roller derby girls like my friend Tiffany when they venture into the sanctuary. Questions must be taken seriously, guidance needs to be offered with grace, and flashlights should be made available during dark nights of the soul.

Tiffany got a lot of feedback from friends on Facebook. Some of it was trite, but some of it was helpful. “I am so glad to hear you are muddling through it,” wrote one. “That’s pretty much what we all do, and believe it or not, the fact that you have to work at it is actually what makes those nuggets that reach your heart priceless.” I wouldn’t argue with that.

Steve Beard is the editor of Good News. 

East of Eden

2000__largeBy Steve Beard

Every morning I see a poster hanging in my home for a Triple Crown surf contest in Hawaii. During the last 25 years, I have been to several of the islands, but the small town of Haleiwa on the North Shore of Oahu has been my vision of paradise. We all envision paradise differently: The Mall of America, Fenway Park, Disneyland, Pike’s Peak, the Amazon rainforest. Mine just happens to include shave ice, pineapples, macadamia nuts, and crashing surf.

Several months ago, my family gathered in Maui to celebrate my mom and dad’s 50th wedding anniversary. Before renewing their vows in a beautiful United Methodist sanctuary, I was invited to preach the sermon at the morning service before a congregation of Tongans, tourists, and my extended family.

Because of all the sights, sounds, and smells that surrounded us, I took the opportunity to ask if it was easier or more difficult to find God in paradise. I take great comfort in knowing that the human story told in the Bible begins and ends in the gardens of paradise. The environment surrounding the Tree of Life bookends both Genesis (2:8-9) and The Book of Revelation (2:7).

I love knowing that God cared about creating “trees that were pleasing to the eye” in Eden and that it was his first choice, his first plan, and his heart’s desire. Our search for paradise is God-crafted. There are more than two dozen cities in the United States called Paradise. Why? Because the everlasting soul craves an eternal kingdom.

Choices have been set before us in life and you are free to choose according to your desires. Scripture tells us that Adam and Eve made a choice and the trajectory of history was changed forever. There are consequences to the choices we make, but – as the Bible makes clear – they are neither unforgivable nor unredeemable.

Whether you are at the entrance gate of adulthood or the exit gate of this earthly life, the Tree of Life and the garden of paradise plays a huge part in our highs and lows. Our finest moments of victory and our lowest hours of defeat can be found in the lush gardens of our lives. For Jesus, it was in a garden that he sweat drops of blood. It was in a garden that he experienced his greatest agony, his greatest suffering, his most profound loneliness, his greatest betrayal. We cannot be deceived by the beauty of our surroundings. Sometimes the garden is the anti-paradise.

But more often than not, gardens are reminders of hope. The woman who first saw the risen Christ mistook him for a gardener – in a garden. Resurrection – the literal defeat of death – was proclaimed in a garden.

Three days prior, dangling half naked from a tree, it was Jesus who proclaimed to a thief that he would be with him in paradise. Imagine that. He merely asked to be remembered. Covered in blood and spit and humiliation, the thief knew his place. He knew his heart, he needed no sermon. Jesus responded to the humbled heart: Paradise awaits!

Corrie Ten Boom said it so clearly, “You may never know that Jesus is all you need, until Jesus is all you have!”

Several years ago, the band U2 released an album, All That You Can’t Leave Behind. The very title was an interesting concept about the spiritual life. After all, you can leave behind your Cadillac and your condo and your cash. And, you will! Your soul, however, is different. On the song “Walk On,” Bono sings, “You’re packing a suitcase for a place none of us has been / A place that has to be believed, to be seen.” This is what Jesus was saying to the thief. This is what Jesus whispers to you and me.

Our vantage point must change to perceive this alternative reality. To map the heavens, we turn to the telescope. To diagnose what is happening inside the human body, we depend upon the X-ray machine. To surmise what is coursing through your veins, we utilize a microscope. To visualize the unseen Kingdom of Heaven, we must embrace a vision of faith.

St. Paul writes, “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.” From a different angle, Voltaire observed, “Paradise was made for tender hearts; hell, for loveless hearts.”

In 1967, Elvis Presley recorded a song called “In the Garden.” We used to sing it in my United Methodist church as I was growing up.

“I come to the garden alone / While the dew is still on the roses  / And the voice I hear falling on my ear / The Son of God discloses / And He walks with me, and He talks with me / And He tells me I am His own / And the joy we share as we tarry there / None other has ever known.

“He speaks, and the sound of His voice / Is so sweet the birds hush their singing / And the melody that He gave to me / Within my heart is ringing / I’d stay in the garden with Him / Though the night around me be falling / But He bids me go; through the voice of woe / His voice to me is calling.”

That beloved hymn was written by Charles Austin Miles in 1912. It speaks of such intimacy, vividness, and beauty. According to his great-granddaughter, the song, however, was written “in a cold, dreary and leaky basement in New Jersey that didn’t even have a window in it, let alone a view of a garden.”

That should not startle us. For the Kingdom of God is both already and not yet. And it is something to believe in, in order to be seen. And yet, it is something that can be experienced without eyesight. Counter intuitively, we can walk through the garden of paradise while sitting in a windowless basement.

St. Paul reminds us that, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”

And that, my friends, will be true paradise.

Steve Beard is the editor of Good News. 

Eternity on the Sidewalks

By Steve Beard

When we are born we bear the seeds of blight;
Around us life & death are torn apart;
Yet a great ring of pure and endless light;
Dazzles the darkness in my heart.

staceSometimes poets drive me nuts. Despite my best efforts, poetry is not my first language. Nevertheless, my heart melts when the poetic swerve makes a complex matter sound wistfully sensible. The stanza above is from the late Madeleine L’Engle, the poet and storyteller behind A Wrinkle in Time, and it helps even a left-brainer like me to conceptualize the theological complexities of the human heart and our journey.

As I grow older, the more I love the image of eternity as a great ring of endless light. Perhaps it is because I am acquainted too well with the darkness and pettiness in my heart. L’Engle’s words conjure up the imagery of someone shouting “Hello!” into a dark cavern where the words are given the freedom to echo on and on.

Everlasting to everlasting is a mighty long time. That is a terrifying prospect to some, and sweet relief to others. Somehow foreverness seems to be etched into our DNA. “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every person, and it can never be filled by any created thing,” mathematician and physicist Blaise Pascal observed almost 350 years ago. Is that what gives such lasting import to words such as Hope, Mercy, Grace, Love, and Resurrection?

I was reminded of all this the other evening while watching a documentary on a remarkably interesting Australian nicknamed Mr. Eternity. His story first came across my radar screen 14 years ago while CNN was reporting on how all the major cities around the globe celebrated the Millennium. Australia’s grand finale featured the word Eternity lit up in the midst of smoke and fireworks across the Sydney Harbor Bridge. Nine months later, this peculiar one-word millennium message appeared once again during the opening night festivities of the Olympics on television. This time, Eternity was featured in lights over Sydney.

It turns out that both spectacular events memorialized the late Arthur Stace, who had written Eternity in chalk as a form of elegant graffiti on the sidewalks, streets, and buildings of Sydney. It was reported that this pavement poet wrote the word more than 500,000 times over a period of 37 years.

Born in 1884, Stace was raised in a brothel by alcoholic parents. He grew up to become an uneducated, petty criminal hooked on liquor. At the age of 45, he attended a “Meeting for Needy Men” at St. Barnabas’ Church in Sydney on August 6, 1930, in order to get something to eat. He noticed a half-dozen nicely dressed people in the front of the crowd and asked the man sitting next to him, “Who are they?”

“I’d reckon they’d be Christians,” the man replied.

“Well look at them and look at us,” Stace responded. “I’m having a go at what they have got.” He went outside, knelt below a large fig tree and cried, “God, be merciful to me a sinner.”

Miraculously, the stranglehold of booze was broken over him and Stace was finally able to keep a job. A few months later, he heard a noted “give ‘em hell” preacher named John Ridley. During his sermon, Ridley shouted: “Eternity! Eternity! I wish I could shout Eternity through all the streets of Sydney.”

Those words reverberated through Stace. “Suddenly I began crying and I felt a powerful call from the Lord to write, ‘Eternity,’” he testified. “I had a piece of chalk in my pocket and I bent down and wrote it. The funny thing is that before I wrote it I could hardly write my own name. I had no school and I couldn’t have spelled ‘eternity’ for a hundred quid. But it came out smoothly, in a beautiful copperplate script. I couldn’t understand it, and I still can’t.”

According to the profiles of Stace, he arose early in the morning throughout his life and, after praying for an hour or so, would leave his home before 5:30 a.m. and return by 10:00 a.m., after having written Eternity in various locations around Sydney.

For many years it was an unsolved Australian mystery regarding who was writing the word all over the place. It was not until 1956 that Stace was discovered by his pastor while he was scribbling the word on the sidewalk. “Are you Mr. Eternity?” the pastor asked. “Guilty your honor,” Stace replied. The identity of “Mr. Eternity” was made public on June 21, 1956, when the Sunday Telegraph published an interview with Stace.

He died 11 years later at the age of 83. A few years after his death, Australian poet Douglas Stewart remembered Stace in the following verse:

“That shy mysterious poet Arthur Stace
Whose work was just one single mighty word
Walked in the utmost depths of time and space
And there his word was spoken and he heard
ETERNITY, ETERNITY, it banged him like a bell
Dulcet from heaven sounding, sombre from hell.”

That is a fitting tribute to a man who captured the imagination of a nation with a singular, weighty message. As The Age editorialized: “Without asking for reward or recognition, he achieved what many artists long to do: the expression of his singular obsession is to be taken out of the shadows and placed before the public in blazing lights.”

The writer of Ecclesiastes said it well, “He (God) has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end” (3:11). The Arthur Staces of this world have been sent to remind us of the unfathomable joy that we may discover in the presence of a merciful God – and how we might begin that journey from this side of eternity.

Madeline L’Engle once wrote that “poets are born knowing the language of angels.” In this case, perhaps, Arthur Stace learned the dialect of the divine when he reached in his pocket and took hold of his first piece of chalk.

Steve Beard is the editor of Good News.

Fatherly Advice

My son John Paul just turned 18 years old. I fired off my first letter to him when he was four days old. “All of this is to simply say that you were wanted and we are so glad that you have arrived,” I concluded back in 1996. When he turned 13, family friends wrote him encouraging notes of advice as he experienced a non-kosher version of a Protestant bar mitzvah. “I don’t suppose that anything magical happened when you woke up and had officially turned 13,” I wrote. “Nevertheless, this is an important time for me to tell you again how much I love you and how unbelievably proud I am of you.” As he packs up for college, this is some of the letter I wrote to him (shared here with his permission).

–Steve Beard

Dear John Paul:

Rolling Stone recently published a fascinating profile of Annie Clark (who performs her rock ‘n’ roll under the stage name of St. Vincent). When she was young, Clark’s grandmother baptized her in a kitchen sink “with a cigarette in one hand and a martini” in the other. Her parents were not particularly devout Christians, but the baptism meant a lot to the grandmother and her parents believed “it wouldn’t do any harm.”

Steve and John Paul Beard.

I laughed because of the similarities and dissimilarities between her experience and your baptism. Your mom and I wanted your grandfather to perform this ancient ritual because it is an outward and visible sign of the inward and invisible grace that brews within you. When your grandfather baptized you in the waves of Maui, those of us on the beach and the nearby sea turtles were witnesses to this sacred moment.

The difference between Annie Clark’s parents and your own mom and dad is that we actually believe that your baptism is significant, sacred, and spectacular. When times are tough, I hope you can remember your baptism. It directly links you to innumerable generations of believers before you from every culture and from every tongue around the globe.

This letter is not meant to be a trite rah-rah cheer for Jesus. You are now an adult. Your life is a runway before you. Take off. Fly. You can choose your own path, cut your own trail, and make your own decisions. Sometimes that will be sweet relief — at other times it will be exhaustingly miserable.

Life is not easier with God, but life is better with Him. You will not be richer, more handsome, or more successful with God in your life. That is a sexy lie. But when the sludge of life gets heavy, you will have a Sacred Heart to turn to. God’s not a genie in a bottle; not that predictable. Do you remember in The Chronicles of Narnia when it was asked if Aslan was safe? Mr. Beaver responded, “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”

That may not mean much at this moment, but later on in life it will become more profound. In this life, you will be faced with those who lack decency, self-respect, and compassion. Don’t follow their example. Reject cynicism. Reject apathy. Being good is tough. Doing good is a life’s calling. Live out your calling.

“I believe there’s a force of love and logic in the world, a force of love and logic behind the universe,” Bono observed. “And I believe in the poetic genius of a creator who would choose to express such unfathomable power as a child born in ‘straw poverty’; i.e., the story of Christ makes sense to me. … As an artist, I see the poetry of it. It’s so brilliant. That this scale of creation, and the unfathomable universe, should describe itself in such vulnerability, as a child. That is mind-blowing to me.”

It is mind-blowing. There is Love and Logic and Poetry in this life. In the midst of all that animates human existence, you are about to set off on a grand adventure. Seek truth. At the same time, do not be squeamish about living in awe of mysteries. Lean on love.

Your mom and I are so proud of you. You’ve grown up into being such a great man. I rejoice in everything that you have become.

We believe that you were fearfully and wonderfully made. You were not an accident. There is a loving Creator who handcrafted you into sheer awesomeness! Don’t lose touch with Him. The very power of the resurrection literally resides within you.

Don’t lose touch with your soul. The spiritual patron of our family is St. Patrick. Remember his simple prayer: “Christ beside me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ within me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me.” If that is too cumbersome, simply remember the prayer of the old bluesman Blind Willie McTell: “Lord, have mercy.”

Always stick up for the outcast. Smile broadly. Defend the weak. Laugh frequently. Live honorably. Show respect. Tip generously. Spend wisely. Listen to James Brown and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Walk in love. Explore the world.

“Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement,” wrote Rabbi Abraham Heschel. “Get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”

You are amazing. We love you and we will always be there for you.

–Dad

NPR’s Over the Rhine interview

otrpress-photo-7-hi_wide-9dd218a703bfc379dff44bf1f4bd09d4ebc1db43-s40-c85Tremendous interview from NPR’s David Greene with Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist — the husband and wife duo behind Over the Rhine.  This conversation took place last year shortly after the band released Meet Me at the Edge of the World. This is one of my favorite questions and responses.

GREENE: Do you kind of draw a line anywhere to not get too religious because you don’t want to alienate some people? How do you deal with that?

BERGQUIST: Well, you don’t choose your audience — they choose you. And the more diverse our audience is, the better. Many different people have found our music, and I think part of that is because they are sort of landing where we are. I can summarize it best by the Rainer Maria Rilke quote that he wrote in Letters to a Young Poet where he says, “Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.” And I love that quote; I embraced it in my 20s. It really does explain where I live and, I think, where a lot of our listeners live, as well.

Please listen to their music and read the rest of the interview HERE.