It's the middle of the night
Near the Indiana Line
I'm pulling in a Christian station
The signal's crystal clear
But I cannot really hear
What he says about the Revelation
I am wretched, I am tired
But the preacher is on fire
And I wish I could believe
For several years I was a folk music junkie, particularly partial to angst-ridden world-weary female singer-songwriters. I think the melancholy nature of the music was an antidote to the then much too happy music promoted by Christian record labels and spun by Christian DJs. It was refreshing (well, different, at least) listening to people sing about the trials and tribulations of life, frustrations, doubt, and even disbelief. I appreciated the attention to lyric, the human connection, and the more communal aspect of the folk music scene. I even became involved in the business and, if you ask me about it, I'll wax melancholy about it, telling you some sad stories so you too can be melancholy.
I also frequented the annual convention of the North American Folk Music and Dance Alliance (Folk Alliance). The organizers chose a suitably dismal month for it, February. There was Toronto in bitter February, Washington in wet and miserable February, and Memphis dark and dim --- all came with a chill, snow, ice, or frigid rain. When we went to Albuquerque and San Diego, it didn't seem right. The folkies looked out of place. Doubtless organizers prayed to their pagan gods for rain, at least, or some calamity that would befit the occasion. Folk music seemed to belong in cold, dark places.
As much as I enjoyed the music and, sometimes, the people, I found the annual convention one of the saddest places I'd ever been. For all the passion over music, I only ever met two other Christians (other than ones I imported) at a convention. These were people who desperately believed --- in music and/or a social cause --- but could not believe the Gospel. I remember walking through the halls of our hotel one time, listening to the music, and feeling depressed, just downright morose, wanting to get as far away as I could from the place. I think that's the only way I can describe it. One Christian folk artist I brought to do a showcase at the convention began to weep in the middle of her set. Why? She described the overwhelming sense of sadness at the lostness she saw around her.
I can't say I offered much to this environment, to this annual Lost-Fest. I was overwhelmed by the sense of lostness myself and the darkness that hung over the rooms I visited. Struggling wannabes, on the road, living from gig to gig, wretched and tired. So in touch with the human experience but so far from their Creator.
Did he who made the Lamb
Put the tremble in the hand
That reaches out to take my quarter
I look him in the eye
But there isn't any time
Just time enough to pass the tender
The highway takes its toll
The green light flashes go
And it's welcome to Ohio
One of the benefits of writing is that it requires you to slow down enough to reflect. Else you have little to write about or, at least, to write very deeply about. It is, as poet Mary Oliver says, like prayer: "I don't know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields." Poets, musicians, songwriters ---- they all look pretty lazy to much of the working world. But we could take a lesson from them about being "idle and blessed." We might notice, really notice another human being, like the clerk in the supermarket with the dull expression and mechanical reply, or the overweight long-haired guy I saw many years ago get into a pickup truck plastered with 30-40 bumper stickers and sprouting two or three antennas, or the young kid waiting for the bus today who looked like a gangster in training. What are they all about, I ask myself? Who are they? What kind of life do they have? What do they dream about? I look them in the eye, just for a moment, but there really isn't time to know them.
At four a.m. on 80 East
It's the nature of the beast
To wonder if there's something missing
I am wretched, I am tired
But the preacher is on fire
I wish I could believe
When I read interviews with the "New Atheists," like Richard Dawkins, I begin to try on their self-assuredness for a moment, just to imagine what it must feel like to be so passionate about not believing. Vapid. Frightening. Those are the kind of words that come to mind. After casting all religion as an evil scourge, they wax on about the human possibilities, trying to hold out a hopeful future devoid of the evils caused by religion. But it's no use. Self-deception can exist but for a while. Sooner or later materialists confront the gnawing feeling that there is something missing in life, a hole that needs filling. They will believe in something, even if it is the absence of something. It's the nature of who we are.
Sometimes I go walking, by the lake, through the trees, past windows in homes revealing life inside, by the geese, passing each uniquely different fellow walker, each with a story. I look up and see what remains of the moon, the early morning stars, a wisp of cloud passing the moon, feel the breeze rustle the leaves and stir the water, smell a warming fire. For a moment, I try on not believing, imagining what if this is it, this is all there is, this is all I get in life. What if it is all meaningless? What if the end is darkness? I can't and won't engage in the exercise for long.
But consider this: In suffering the cross, in taking on human sin, Christ bore the weight of life apart from God, of empty existence, of the depravity of life outside God's plan. He was wretched, tired, wounded, and utterly alone. For our sake. In the end, the uncomfortable exercise makes me pity the one who can't believe and makes me thankful for the gift of belief. But for Jesus it was no exercise. For a time, he knew such darkness.
Whoever watches over all these truckers
Show a little mercy for a weary sinner
And deliver me --- Lord, deliver me
Deliver me to the next Best Western
One dreary evening at a Folk Alliance convention, a friend and I were making the rounds of clubs in the area that were hosting showcases by musicians. In one small club, maybe 30 people were huddled in a room around a singer-songwriter who was warming up to the next song with some banter with the audience. He smiled, and I thought how unusual. There wasn't a hint of irony in it, no smirk, no cynicism. I liked him. And he was good. His songs were little mini-novels set to music, with real people with names like May, Eliza, and Louise, and places like Reunion Hill, Indian Boulder, Indiana, and Ohio. And the next Best Western.
He was a Union Theological Seminary dropout. His songs brimmed with biblical references but were peopled by the lost, tired, and disillusioned.
His name was Richard Shindell. And he wishes he could believe. God deliver him and all the folkies.
If you wondered, the italicized words that formed the inspiration for this cheery meditation on lostness are the pieces of a song by Richard Shindell off his 1997 recording entitled Reunion Hill. Yes, the song is called "The Next Best Western." You can hear it here (you may need to click play twice):