For a friend’s passing
I can’t remember if it was the first time I was annoyed by Vince Stults, but it was certainly one of the earliest such moments.
Vince and I sat at the sort of table deemed picturesque if it sat on a cobblestone street under a cafe’s awning. Instead, it was just a too-tiny round table in my small kitchen in the last house I’d rent during my years as a single man. Furniture was not my forte, and even now I can’t stop thinking about how silly the memory feels, two adult men huddled over this child-sized tabletop.
Vince and I had served together in leadership at the same church for a few years. Now out on my own as the pastor of new church plant, I needed his advice. Fortunately Vince never said a word about my uncomfortable setting.
What Vince did tell me was annoying. I remember that much. In hopes of confronting a couple problems within our church community, I’d asked Vince if he wanted to hang out and help. He graciously agreed to drive 30 minutes and sit in my kitchen and listen to my problems. Then came his advice: it was vague and esoteric. He wasn’t nearly as concerned with the problem as I wanted him to be. Vince, as I’d known him to be all along, was always focused on the bigger picture.
Even as I’d ask questions about the immediate need for a new place to meet in, Vince would remind me that the place would shape the ministry we were going to have. At other times, I would ask questions about specifics — about specific issues between specific people — and Vince would often take the conversation into the bigger values of community and the kingdom of God. It’s not that Vince was trying to be difficult. Rather, he could see beyond the symptoms to the virus, beyond the parts to the process. It wasn’t the short-term solution I’d wanted to hear, but it is what I needed to focus upon.
Yesterday I read the news that my old friend had passed from here into eternity. Glioblastoma. A tumor or tumors in the brain. My first thought was this memory of our conversation and myriad others like it — always over a cup of coffee, always about the bigger picture, always about the kingdom of God. I’d never brainstormed with someone so much about what real Christian community could look like. He was constantly reshaping the world in his head, from as it was to as it should be.
Reading the responses to Vince’s passing makes me realize I was hardly the only one. Vince was always available to pray and listen and share. His wife, Connie, nurtured others in the exact same way, a hospitable duo who were always friendly and faithful in their service. Vince’s heart matched his head, and he used both to encourage, to serve, to shape, to challenge the Christian communities around him.
To an old friend who shared so much of his heart and mind along the journey, I can only say that I hope you’re enjoying the biggest picture of them all.
See you then.
Toward Our Better Selves: An Invitation from Prince
He only needed one name. For a stretch, he only needed a symbol.
I fell in love with Prince at the earliest possible age. As a child of the ’80s, Prince was among the first artists who earned my attention, my devotion, my money. I was too young to accept his millenial-closing party invitations, let alone to understand the sexually charged lyrics, but those early songs of lovers and cars and good times were tied to a charisma and talent that was undeniable. I was delirious. I wasn’t the only one.
When Purple Rain fell in 1984, everything changed for Prince. Suddenly we met Prince, the actor; Prince, the deeper songwriter; Prince, the cultural icon. From his performance in the movie of the same name to the striking album cover image, Prince had truly arrived. And those songs were ubiquitous. You couldn’t avoid them, not that you wanted to. The pain of “When Doves Cry.” The longing of “Purple Rain.” The spirituality of “I Would Die 4 U.” Prince became three-dimensional on Purple Rain, and it was a journey that continued through an era that valued superficiality.
The sex and swagger were always there, and Prince gladly played those cards until the end. But Prince’s music was also painting a vision of something better — a better self, a better America, a better world. He confronted a nuclear reality in the height of the Cold War. He eschewed racial and class divides in hopes of a unified humanity. He lamented cultural ills of gang violence and drug addiction, natural disasters and wars waged.
Nearly a decade after Purple Rain, Prince invited us to envision utopia together. “There will be a new city with streets of gold,” he sings on “7,” a symbolic song straight out of the biblical book of Relevation. Everything will eventually give way to a better way, a better world. We can and will be better. It wasn’t the last time he extended this invitation to us.
Beyond the memorable performances and music videos, awards and honors, sexuality and symbol, Prince’s greatest gift was one of encouragement. No subject was taboo. No person was left out. Every aspect of life was intended to be cherished, to be enjoyed, to be celebrated. He invited us to love ourselves and each other, and to work together to fill the world with beauty.
“Some say a man ain’t happy unless a man truly dies.”
Prince, I can only hope you are truly happy now.
Everything is Magic ‘Til You Think It’s Not
“As kids we believed that the angels talked;
Everything is magic until you think it’s not.” –Cloud Cult, “No Hell”
I sat across from my friend and nodded again and again.
“I get it,” I said.
“No, that makes sense,” I added.
“No need to apologize,” I repeated.
When you’re raised to treat the things of God (or about God) with a certain reverence, it’s hard to shake such layers. Even if God is the very skin you’re trying to shed.
Two hours into the conversation had yielded one criticism after another, one point of confusion atop another as he detailed his journey away from his childhood faith. “I’m sorry, but I just don’t believe in God anymore,” he said.
“I get it,” I said.
“I’m sorry,” he responded.
“No need to apologize. God didn’t send me here to defend.”
“I know. It just feels weird.”
“Yes. Yes, it does.”
This is the middle. Leaving doesn’t seem quite right. Staying feels even worse.
* * *
The first single from Cloud Cult’s latest album, The Seeker, speaks my friend’s language. “No Hell” is the script of this middle ground he’s inhabiting, where he’s waged war for a belief in something greater. He’s glimpsed such beauty. He’s felt something beyond. Yet the world has also delivered death blows to his faith, stomach punches to his innocence, uppercuts to the truth and beauty in which he believes — or at least believed.
“We grew up believing good wins over bad.
So you gave your heart away, but then the wolves attacked.”
There’s the script. The longing. The hope. The true belief in something beautiful at work in the world and then the wolves come. They always do.
I listened to my friend detail the wolves in his world. The disgusting underbelly of church leadership he’d trusted. Unanswered prayers for an ailing friend, dead long before death should have had any say. The general toxicity of the world. When you’ve encountered a wolf, the senses are transformed. Seeing becomes looking (for them). Hearing becomes listening (for more).
“I just don’t believe all that shit anymore.”
“You’ve said that.”
“Oh, are you mad?”
“Not at all, man. I’ve said it, too”
* * *
“We grew up believing we could learn how to fly.
We came from the earth but we belong to the sky.”
These lines are my favorite within the song. The magic of our youth will disappear; the wolves will see to it. But the second line holds a tension that I appreciated the moment I heard Craig Minowa (Cloud Cult’s front man) sing it. It’s grounded yet hopeful. It’s a mature perspective of knowing both where we are and where we’re going. Yes, this is where we’ve come from. Yes, that is where we’re going.
“You’ve said it too?”
“You’re conflicted. I’ve been there. I am there. But on most days, my doubt somehow gives way to faith.”
“What do you mean?”
“I had to take everything out of the room in order to know what to put back in it. It was a painful process. It made me feel guilty as I stomped on the sacred, so to speak. It made me feel alone, isolated, depressed, angry, confused. It was everything you mentioned. And I can still feel that way. But in the end I always come back around to the mystery, to the magic.”
“I don’t know. I just don’t know.”
* * *
“Oh, my love. Oh, my hope.
The Great Mystery cannot be solved.
There will be joy and grief,
But live it all in awe.”
I drove five hours to see him for three.
A couple months had past since I last saw Kris. Our families spent New Year’s Eve together, along with some other close friends, marking another turn of the calendar the way we’ve grown to enjoy. These friends have become a lifeline, really, a community within which I’ve processed major life decisions, celebrated earned successes, grieved unexpected losses.
Between the busy-ness of our schedules and the distance between us, the frequency of meetings with Kris is far less than it used to be. There was a season, a beautiful season, when the band of us lived within a few blocks of each other. At that point, some semblance of this group would hang out nearly every day of the week. Out for drinks. Over for dinner. Together for games. Lazy movie nights. Those days are the good old days, replaced by the current realities dictated by kids and jobs and grad school and moves toward family (even though I’m closer to anyone in this circle than someone with whom I share a name).
Despite the distance of time and space, this Sunday drive was worth making. Five doesn’t equal three, save for moments like this.
Today we met at a distillery, my first official tour along Kentucky’s official Bourbon Trail®. We took the official tour (souvenir glasses!), oohed and aahed over the process, and, of course, enjoyed the tasting room most of all. Afterwards we sat in large rocking chairs, catching up on job leads and academic hopes, recent vacations and hilarious memories. As the sun crept lower, we headed out for dinner at a local tavern.
It was there that I unfolded a bit more of the last few months of my own life. I shared struggles known by a precious few. Told a few more now known by one. We tilled one row at a time, until we’d dug up the soil of most subjects. We drank. We told jokes, relived memories, shared laughs. It’s what we always do.
When I first met Kris, he was worming his way into a summer internship. I was the founding pastor of a church that had just started a summer program with a dozen or so folks who were going to spend their summer learning through some morning classes, afternoon ministry opps, and evening community. Kris, who I presume had nothing better to do, was trying to get in despite having a full group or worrying about deadlines. It worked.
Starting that summer, he became one of my biggest supporters in every way. He’s the first-to-arrive and the last-to-leave sort. If you need it and he has it, it’s yours. If there are details, he’ll take care of them. He’ll miss an entire event fixing something that broke in another room. He’ll help you move. He’ll help you unpack. And if it’s just an impromptu road trip, he’s in for that, too.
During our last hours as Indiana residents, Kris and his wife Lisa were the last two visitors before we pulled out in a box truck headed for Nashville. They stood with us inside of our empty house, gave us a hug and asked if they could pray for us. Kris had been the support structure for so much of what we’d built during our season of ministry and life in Anderson, so it was fitting that he’d provide such support until the very end.
When I think of what I want to write about on this blog or other places, it’s always about the grand idea — whatever that is. I want to change minds, move hearts, share stories that resonate. But really that’s all vague and potentially vapid. For this once, I thought I’d at least write about something smaller, something real and immediate, something meaningful maybe only to me.
During the hours of our conversation today, Kris encouraged me toward the good things in life. He reminded me of what I’ve held to be important in the past, and warned me against believing those things were no longer true. It’s what he’s always done.
Driving home, it seemed like something worth writing about.
An Open Apology to Chris Rock
Dear Mr. Rock,
I am writing because I want to say I am sorry. So let me say it: I am sorry.
It wasn’t until the Oscars were nearly finished that I realized it. That’s how blind I am. I want to say “that’s how blind we are,” because a shared sense of responsibility lessens the impact that I feel. But I won’t apologize for a group, and I won’t share the blame. I can only speak for my own racist self.
The racist thoughts began in my head during your opening monologue. I was actually excited you were hosting the Oscars. You’re obviously a very funny and talented man, and given the recent drama around the whiteness of the ceremony — specifically the completely white list of acting nominees — I thought you were the perfect person to stand in the spotlight. I knew you would mention it. I knew you would get in a jab or two. What I didn’t realize is just how often I’d have to hear about it.
That was the thought, the specific thought: “having to hear about it.” It feels disgusting to write that now. When the majority of your monologue kept the focus on the lack of nominees of color (and the lack of opportunities for actors of color), those were the thoughts that crept in my head. “Okay, okay. We get it.” I figured a few jokes would be thrown in before continuing with Oscars-as-normal (whatever that means beyond a long, drawn-out process).
Then came the comedic sketches in between. Sasha Baron Cohen as Ali G. Angela Bassett’s bit. More jokes and more attention given to this one single issue.
I can’t remember exactly what I said to my wife, but I finally broke the silence. My thoughts came out of my mouth. It was something like, “Wow, they’re sure focusing on this a lot.” My underlying meaning: “I’m tired of hearing about this. It doesn’t affect me. You made your point and now I’m ready to move on.” It was toward the end of the show, when my own thoughts and emotions regarding all of this, reached that last specific point.
I wanted to dismiss you.
That’s how this works for people in my position. (There it is again, alluding to a group rather than owning it myself. Let’s start again.)
That’s how it works for me. As a white male, I can hear the complaints, the cries of someone not in a position of power and privilege and decide whether to “take up the cause” or summarily dismiss it. I can dismiss you. On Sunday night, I wanted to dismiss you. And I am not sure there’s a worse thing one person can do to another.
I am sorry.
In the moment I realized my own dismissive thoughts — thoughts that wanted you to stop talking about the issue — I realized just how overwhelming it must feel to never be able to dismiss something. You could never crack enough jokes that night to dismiss the whiteness of this year’s Academy Awards. You had the ability to say and do a lot on the stage that night in front of millions of viewers, but one thing that was beyond your control was the ability to dismiss it, to move on, to just not worry about it anymore.
I’ve got this phrase that I love: “criticize by creating.” The idea is simply that instead of complaining about something, a person should apply himself/herself and create the change they’d want to see in the world. That’s a very white notion, describing an ability for the person who can dismiss something. I have the choice to criticize something or to create. But when you cannot dismiss something, I can only assume it’s not nearly that easy.
Therein lies the problem. The opportunities aren’t there, and my dismissal to wish someone would just create their own opportunities is to continue to dismiss him/her. It keeps me at arm’s length, using language of “us” and “them.” It keeps us separate. It keeps love out of the equation.
The Oscars might seem like a silly event to write about, considering so many other issues and areas affected by race in this country. An open letter to you might also seem like an odd place to start. But since that night, I can’t stop coming back to my own racist thoughts — ones that wanted you to stop talking so the privileged order of things could continue as always, uninterrupted with concerns for anyone else. For that, I am very sorry.
Even worse, I am afraid it is only one single example. There must be others. There has to be others. I must admit I am very uncomfortable with the thought of taking more time to even consider other areas in which I am so dismissive, but I believe it’s that very tension that reveals the importance of the exercise.
I want to commit myself to that work as a white male. I want to listen to the cries of those oppressed and opposed and give them my full attention, my complete consideration. I want to see things as you see them, as others see them, in the hopes that I stop using that word — “them.” In this moment, it can begin with a straightforward apology to you and a confession to all that I recognize that I’ve used my privilege to dismiss others, including yourself, far too often for far too long.
I can only hope you’ll accept my apology. (And that if we ever meet in person, you’ll do a verse as Gusto from CB4.)
The Shadow Can’t Have Me
If you live long enough, you go through a season where Psalm 23 takes root.
Growing up in church a few days every week, I memorized several biblical passages as a child, Psalm 23 being one of those. For most of my life, the references of shepherd and staff, green pastures and still waters have stayed as familiar as ever. It’s a beloved section of scripture, I believed, for its peaceful refrain and comforting images.
Just over 10 years ago, however, a new meaning emerged. When you’ve entered the valley of the shadow of death, you know immediately where you are.
In my mid-twenties, I experienced my own undoing. My lack of integrity, my shallow lifestyle, my numerous character flaws all came together to wreck everything — my vocation, finances, ministry position, relationships. It’s the only time in my life where I truly didn’t care if I lived — a combination of brokenness, depression, loneliness and utter despair. There was no conceivable way out of the situation I’d put myself.
It seems that way because, by definition, it is that way. When you’re in the valley, in that valley, there is no escape under your own strength. I’ve been through valleys since and climbed my way out, at least with some degree of my own strength. Not all valleys are created the same. The valley of the shadow is one in which only a shepherd, the good shepherd, can bring you out.
There were for me in that season of life a few friends who made sure I didn’t stay in that valley. With gentle guidance, with consistent presence, they didn’t leave me to die alone when, on most days, I would have hoped for just that.
I write all of this because a dear friend of mine, Arthur Alligood, has shared his own journey into and through the valley, through that valley, on a vulnerable and beautiful new album entitled The Shadow Can’t Have Me. A series of one-take peformances document the painful journey in an authentic way. I know, because the songs ring true to my own experience. It’s easy to tell Arthur has lived his soul’s own dark night and has found beauty and purpose, hope and joy on the other side.
I am passing this along, because these songs are shepherding songs. They’re the musical rod and staff to prod and poke, moving us along to better places when we find ourselves undone. A world of my own making is really nothing more than a valley of my own digging. The shepherd can lift you up and show you the same.
If you want to invest, these songs are worth the investment, but even more, my friend’s longing is for this album to be a gift, and he’s giving it away as well. Either way, I hope these songs find you in the same way I was found