Christmas was when my life made sense. See, my parents have been fighting for most of my life. You could say it was because Mom took Jesus very seriously and Dad didn’t, but it’s always more complicated than that, right? Dad didn’t handle money very well; he soothed his sorrows with booze or pain pills. Mom was an idealist with a temper. And that’s just what I can understand on the surface of things. I have enough trouble making sense of my own relationships, much less my parents’ or anyone else’s.
Here’s what I know:
Mom gave me my identity as a Christian, and definitely not just a nominal Christian who shows up at Christmas and Easter; I’ve read Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Barth, the Niehbuhrs and probably dozens of other theologians you’ve never heard of; I wish I knew classic lit and world history nearly as well as I know the Bible and theology. I started writing for newspapers at 23 years old because I thought a public vocation could help me show people what Jesus is like; I later quit because I decided that was arrogant and because I wanted to tell more stories about people trying to follow Jesus and share them with people who actually wanted to read those stories rather than forcing them on people who don’t. I’ve wandered through denominations and non-denominations, trying to figure out how to be a Christian. I won’t claim to have a pure heart, but I can’t seem to get Jesus out of my head. I’m not a very good Christian, but I don’t know how NOT to be one.
Dad gave me my identity as a musician. When I was eight or nine years of age, I had an older friend who told me he was joining the church choir. I was so jealous! I had never really thought of myself as a singer, but, then, I had never thought of anyone else as a singer either. In that moment, it occurred to me that maybe my friend was some kind of musician, and maybe I wasn’t, and that just wouldn’t do at all. All my life, I’d been listening to Dad play guitar and sing The Beatles, CSNY, James Taylor, etc., and since I belonged to him, I had to be a musician. All through high school and college, I sang in choirs. I came home from college after my freshman year and found my kid brother Marco had been playing a lot of guitar with Dad. Again, I was jealous, and I didn’t just want to sing with them; I learned bass so we could have a band. Over the past 15 years since college, I’ve had an easier time making money as a writer than as a musician (though I don’t recommend trying either one, kids), but I don’t know how NOT to be a musician any more than I know how NOT to be a Christian. I have to pray, and I have to sing.
Christmas is where the dissonance between Mom and Dad resolved. We could sing carols in church, and we could sit in our living room singing the same songs while Dad played his guitar. I didn’t really think of Dad’s side of the family as religious, and yet I watched him lead them one Christmas in “Little Drummer Boy” and “Do You Hear What I Hear?” my aunts and Nana singing along, pa rum pum pum pum. Dad, Marco and I got into “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” one year, and Steven, just a preschooler then, responded to the polka rhythm with Russian Cossack leg kicks. For a few formative years in my childhood, we went to churches that forbade us from listening to the pop-rock music that Dad usually played, and it was in Christmas music where I was allowed to love everything about my Dad and everything about Jesus at the same time. And, of course, Mom had us take our show on the road, visiting nursing homes to cheer up the residents, because her faith was nothing if not service to others.
In my work as a worship leader over the past couple of years, I’ve tried to baptize the quote-on-quote secular music I’ve inherited from Dad. In my last job, I mashed up Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” with Fanny Crosby’s “Blessed Assurance.” John Lennon’s story about the writing of “Dear Prudence” reminded me of Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well. The Beatles went to an Indian ashram, and John said their friend Prudence locked herself in their hut for three weeks, “trying to reach God faster than everybody else.” Doesn’t that remind you of so many religious people, trying to lock-down their spiritual experience in this building, that mountain, this formula, that discipline. No doubt God loved the pious, prudent Pharisees, but God’s eyes were on the careless sparrows too. And so I combined The Beatles’ song with the revival chorus “Spirit of the Living God, Fall Fresh on Me.” I consider Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” to be a modern hymn in its own right. But if you mix it up with Philip Bliss’ “Hallelujah, What a Savior!” you can sing into the tension of faith and doubt that seems to define our postmodern religious experience.
St. John says the “Word” is the maker of all things. St. Paul says in Christ everything holds together. God looked at Creation and called it good. If we’re going to say we believe these things, then we too need to name what is good, true and beautiful in our world.
This is my biblical conviction, but it’s also a personal one. The Church gave me categories that put my Dad on the outside. So when I mash-up the story of humble faith in “Little Drummer Boy” with Wilco’s Beatific directive, “You have to learn how to die” in “War on War,” I’m not just making room for the Cosmic Christ sharing Gospel truth through songwriters who don’t claim him. I’m trying to see if there’s room for me and my Dad.
St. Augustine said, “He who sings prays twice.” Sometimes we Christians can’t hear the prayers that float right past us.