Thursday, October 13, 2011
I couldn't have said it better, and I began reading what Jim Wallis had to say back in the 'Seventies. So I quote:
An Open Letter to the Occupiers from a Veteran Troublemaker
by Jim Wallis
10-13-2011 10:18 am
You have awakened the sleeping giant, too long dormant, but ever present, deep in the American democratic spirit. You have given voice and space to the unspoken feelings of countless others about something that has gone terribly wrong in our society. And you have sparked a flame from the embers of both frustration and hope that have been building, steadily, in the hearts of so many of us for quite some time.
Throughout history, often it has been left to the youth of a society to do that, and you boldly have stepped into the role of the emerging generation, which sometimes means saying and doing what others only think. You have articulated, loudly and clearly, the internal monologue of a nation.
Some of you have told me that you expected only to foment a short-lived protest and that you were as surprised by this “movement” as anyone else. Try to listen and learn from those whose feelings and participation you are evoking by encouraging more reflection than certainty.
While there are some among us who may misunderstand your motives and message, know that you are an inspiration to many more.
One of you told me in New York City last week, “This is not a protest, but a think tank.” Another of your compatriots wanted me to understand that you are trying to build something in Liberty Square that you aspire to create for our global village — a more cooperative society.
Most telling to me was the answer to the first question I asked of the first person I talked to at the Wall Street demonstrations. I inquired of one of the non-leaders who helped lead the first days of Occupation as to what most drew him to get involved in the demonstration and he replied, “I want to have children someday, and this is becoming a world not good for children.”
My 13- and 8-year-old boys came to mind when I heard his answer, and I felt thankful. It is precisely those deepest, most authentic feelings and motivations that should preoccupy you, rather than how best to form and communicate superficial political rhetoric.
You are raising very basic questions about an economy that has become increasingly unfair, unstable, unsustainable, and unhappy for a growing number of people. Those same questions are being asked by many others at the bottom, the middle, and even some at the top of the economic pecking order.
There are ethics to be named here, and the transition from the pseudo-ethic of endless growth to the moral ethics of sustainability is a conversation occurring even now in our nation’s business schools (if, perhaps, secreted inside the official curriculum).
Keep pressing those values questions because they will move people more than a set of demands or policy suggestions. Those can and must come later.
And try not to demonize those you view as opponents, as good people can get trapped in bad systems and we’ve seen a lot of that. Still, you are right for saying that we all must be held accountable — both systems and the individuals within them. It is imperative that we hear that message right now.
The new safe spaces you have created to ask fundamental questions, now in hundreds of locations around the country and the world, are helping to carve out fresh societal space to examine ourselves — who we are, what we value most, and where we want to go from here.
Instead of simply attacking the establishment “economists,” you can become the citizen economists, like the young economics major I met at the Wall Street occupation who discussed with me new approaches for society’s investment and innovation. We desperately need new vision like hers to come up with alternative ways of performing essential functions.
Keep asking what a just economy should look like and who it should be for. They are noble questions. But you’d do well to avoid Utopian dreaming about things that will never happen. Look instead at how we could do things differently, more responsibly, more equitably, and yes, more democratically.
Don’t be afraid to get practical and specific about how we can and must do things better than we have in recent years. One of our best moral economists, Amartya Sen, says that “being against the market is like being against conversation. It’s a form of exchange.” You have begun such a conversation about what markets could and should be. Keep talking.
Even in forums where business and political leaders meet, they too are asking those questions and using terms like “a moral economy” as a way to interrogate our present and failed practices. I’ve been in such a gathering this week — just days apart from visiting yours — where the participants slept on featherbedding in five star hotels rather than in pup tents on the sidewalk. And yet, surprisingly, they were asking many of the same questions you are.
Keep driving both the moral and practical questions about the economics of our local and global households, for that is what the discipline was supposed to be about in the first place.
I know you believe that the leadership on Wall Street, and Constitution and Pennsylvania avenues have all failed you. Indeed, they have failed us all. But while you feel betrayed by both our business and political leaders, don’t give up on leadership per se.
We need innovative leadership now more than ever. And you are providing some of it.
Think of stewards rather than masters of the universe as the model for leadership.
And remember, non-violence is not just a critical tactic but a necessary commitment to moral and civil discourse that can awaken the best in all of us. There is much to be angry about, but channeling that energy into creative, non-violent action is the only way to prevent dangerous cynicism and nihilism that also can be a human response to the injustice and marginalization many people now feel.
The anarchism of anger has never produced the change that the discipline and constructive program of non-violent movements has done again and again.
I remember what it feels like to see your movement as a lead story on the evening news every night, and the adrenaline rush that being able to muster 10,000 people in two hours time to march in protest against injustice and inhumanity can bring. I was in your shoes 40 years ago as a student leading demonstrations against the Vietnam War, racism, and nuclear proliferation.
I would advise you to cultivate humility more than overconfidence or self indulgence. This really is not about you. It’s about the marginalized masses, the signs of the times, and the profound yearning for lasting change. Take that larger narrative more seriously than you take yourselves.
Finally, do not let go of your hope. Popular movements are the only force that truly brings about change in society. The established order is never as secure and impervious to change as those who preside over it believe it to be.
Remember that re-action is never as powerful as re-construction. And whatever you may think of organized religion, please keep in mind that change requires spiritual as well as political resources, and that invariably any new economy will be accompanied by a new (or very old) spirituality.
So I will say, may God bless you and keep you.
May God be gracious to you and give you -– and all of us — peace.
Thursday, December 16, 2010
“Hi, I’m Gwen. I’m a recovering Pelagian…” What an opener for a 12-step meeting! Many times I have remembered a sermon from my youth. I knew then that it was misguided but I had no theological label for the belief system behind it. A much-beloved Bible professor from my college, also the minister at my parents’ church, did a series on the Beatitudes. He focused on each one in turn and admonished the congregation to “try harder” to demonstrate those qualities that Jesus called “blessed”. I knew even at that age I could never achieve blessedness by my own efforts. I had been trying, and failing, to do better ever since I was five. And I had begun to hear rumblings of a different way of life, a life dependent upon and empowered by the indwelling Holy Spirit. I sensed it was real, and I wanted it.
I never knew until today that I grew up Pelagian. I did know that I have long struggled against a tendency within myself to think will power is the key to success in the spiritual and well as the natural life. I saw in scripture, particularly in Romans and Galatians, that such self-reliance was counter to the message of the gospel. It has required a life-long series wrestling matches for me to relinquish my imagined strength and determination to achieve spiritual goals by my own efforts.
Along the path to recovery I have fallen into each of the pits which Augustine warns await us if we learn the moral law without receiving assistance from God to perform it. Pit 1: I thought that revelation and enlightenment and insight were going to change my behavior. Pit 2: I spent much too long a time under the condemnation of the Law, and then reacted by “presumptuously endeavor[ing] to accomplish [my] justification by means of free will as if by [my] own resources.” Pit 3: I was most definitely “puffed up” by knowledge, spending more than a decade in a church so characterized by religious striving that we were proud of our emphasis on humility.
I resonate with Augustine’s assertion that “the man…who has learned what ought to be done, but does it not, has not as yet been ‘taught of God’ according to grace, but only according to the law, not according to the spirit, but only according to the letter. Although there are many who appear to do what the law commands…” That was Pit 4. It was my experience and that of many in my Pelagian church that within the strictures of that setting we could perform according to the higher standard to which we had aspired, but outside it we found our old addictions and attitudes rushing back to prominence. Indeed, “That love…which is a virtue comes to us from God, not from ourselves.”
Once the veil of Pelagian self-reliance has been dissolved, one can clearly see that all one’s own efforts lead to, at best, temporary and shallow results. I bear witness to Augustine’s assertion that “it is not by law and teaching uttering their lessons from the outside, but by a secret, wonderful, and ineffable power operating within, that God works in people’s hearts not only revelations of the truth, but also good dispositions of the will.” To rely on God’s work, God’s grace, God’s sufficiency is to accept my role in our relationship as His creature. He initiated the relationship (I Jn. 4:19) and His love and grace must sustain it. As the old Sunday school song taught us, “They are weak but He is strong.”
When I read Pelagius for the first time today, I was reminded of Paul’s rhetorical question in Romans 6:1, “Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?” That’s just the kind of question Pelagius would be likely to ask. Pelagius’ concern for the bolstering of the human will reminds me of the modern concept of “learned helplessness”. He’s afraid all this talk of grace will be enervating and lead to spiritual sloth, while also reflecting badly on God Who, as the source of our competency and free will, could be blamed for our failures as well as our successes. Pelagius wants to empower people to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. Augustine would counter, with Paul, that “God is able to make all grace abound toward you; that you, always having all sufficiency in all things, may abound to every good work” (2 Cor. 9:8).
Quotes are from Aurelius Augustine, On the Grace of Christ
Wednesday, January 13, 2010
Regular meetings I cherished:
Book Club (monthly)
Artists’ Way (co-leading a group bi-weekly with Carol Pigg)
ACA Book Study (weekly; http://www.adultchildren.org/)
Yoga with Emily Lange Epstein (12 weeks)
Concerts/Events I enjoyed:
The Book of Revelation (read aloud with sfx & music at
Yale Whiffenpoofs (
Tim Keller (Christ Presbyterian)
One Night>One Voice (Women of Darfur) (
Amy Courts Koopman (French Quarter)
Tokens Shows (Lipscomb)
Madeleine Albright (Vanderbilt)
Natan Sharansky (Vanderbilt)
Carol Pigg’s 60th Birthday Gala
Shana Kohnstamm Art Show (Twist Gallery)
Women in the Round (Bluebird Café)
Nashville Film Festival (especially two shows with Chris & Jan Harris: “Thanks, kids!”)
Sojourners Mobilization to End Poverty (
A.-J. Levine (Blakemore United Methodist;
Christian Scholars Conference, where I heard authors Barbara Brown Taylor, Marilynne Robinson, Richard Hughes and Shaun Casey, among many others. (Lipscomb)
Diana Krall (Schermerhorn) (Note to self: Don’t go to this alone again!)
Michael W. Smith & Marty Goetz (
Robert Hicks’ Primitive Art show & explication (
Fred & Martha Goldners’ pre-Yom Kippur Seder
Landon Pigg’s role in Drew Barrymore’s first directorial outing, Whip It!
Southern Festival of Books: I especially enjoyed hearing from Shaun Casey, John Siegenthaler, Chip Arnold, Ben Pearson, and Robert Hicks
Anglicanism 101: 6-week class (St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church)
Our Town presented by Studio Tenn Theater Company (Loveless Barn)
John Keats Birthday Tea (Savannah Tea Room)
Doris Kearns Goodwin, award recipient (Nashville Public Library)
Lighting of the Green (Lipscomb)
50+ Christmas Dinner: Jan & Chris Harris singing Light in the Stable; Chip Arnold reading Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory. Unbelievable richness. (Thanks, TVC!)
Essays I wrote:
See http://www.gwenmoore.blogspot.com/ for most of these.
A Tribute to My Brother
Musings on Aging in Tabula Rasa (Vanderbilt literary publication)
Sharansky & Obama
A Light for the City
And That More Abundantly
Songwriting: Several co-writing sessions with new friend Laurie Smith and one song with Laurie and dear friend Gabe Pigg
Singing I did:
TNC recording session for David Huntsinger & Kris Wilkinson at RCA studio
TNC recording session for
Worship team at church (“Back in the saddle again…”; just once, but it felt good.)
The Village Chapel Choir
Christmas caroling at
Praise God, He brought these loved ones back from the brink:
Remembering this year’s graduating class:
Mabel Harding Bean Wood
Celebrating new lives:
Carla Sullivan’s nephews (newly adopted)
House guests I enjoyed hosting:
Ted and Jane-Ann Thomas
Michael and Ilona Haag
…to Mark Hollingsworth for providing this format with which to reminisce, for his community organizing and his zest for event attendance. He has been very inspirational.
…to Carolyn Naifeh for hosting me a whole week while in D.C. What a treat!
…to Rhonda Lowry for inviting me to reconnect with my roots.
…to Jeff and Amy Cary and David and Angie Lemley for giving me such hope for the next generation of my roots.
…to Clyde Barganier for deciding to write that first email.
…to all who have prayed with me and for me this year. You have touched and blessed the lives of hundreds of medical students and only God knows how many more.
I love all four seasons.
I love the exuberance of spring,
the laziness of summer,
the busyness and anticipation of fall,
and the coziness of winter,
with its magical ice
its hot drinks and crackling,
and its sacred, reverent hush.
Happy Epiphany! May we all be surprised by joy in 2010.
Monday, December 28, 2009
February 12, 2009
I would love to be there today to hear what you all are saying, see your faces, and feel the depth of friendship you are celebrating in this moment.
I have known Chip longer than you have, but from working with him day by day and year by year, you know him better than I do. I envy you that.
I told Chip many years ago, “The only reason I can live in
Chip is one of the finest and most fascinating men I’ve ever known. Our dad exemplified the lesson that “Everyone has something he or she can teach me.” He also taught the principle that we should do our best even when no one on earth will appreciate it, because God will. Our parents left us a legacy of service, choosing work that yields rewards in people’s lives rather than in income. Chip has added to these ideals by becoming a mentor to many, freely sharing what he has learned with those who seek him out. At work, in his professional associations, through the church and in a wide range of friends and acquaintances, he has sought to help people and solve problems while making folks feel esteemed and valued for themselves, not for what they can do for him.
He works hard, and he serves faithfully, but Chip also knows how to play. He has led you on outings and adventures which have enriched your lives on many levels. I don’t know anyone else but Chip who would get tickets for a play by Euripedes at the Getty and then read it aloud to you the night before, to deepen your enjoyment of the experience. I don’t know anyone but Chip and
He does all this not to achieve an elite status in the eyes of others, but out of a genuine and contagious enthusiasm, with a childlike joie de vivre. I honor him today as we anticipate the new adventures that await him and the surprising blessings that I know God has planned for him. I’m proud to know you, Chip, and to be your favorite sister, Gwen.
It was the summer of 1985. I was thirty-two years old, way too young to have a nervous breakdown. I was sitting at my desk in my bedroom sanctuary, a terracotta-colored room in a two-story brick house on a quiet residential street. I lived a block away from the
For me, recovery had not begun. I had just hit my first “bottom” and quit my job. I had completed six years in the music industry, working for a company in which every single person but me was the adult child of an alcoholic. (My parents had made up for the lack of alcohol in our family life by using religion - "churchianity" - as our drug of choice.) We were all hurting, struggling with the demons of the past and some in the present, but we never talked about it. Most of us were in our twenties, striving in spite of immaturity and inexperience to be known as dedicated Christians in a highly secular industry. This led to obfuscations, complications and hurts that would not have occurred if we had just admitted, “I’m mostly here to make money.”
None of us had read the literature or gone to Adult Children of Alcoholics support groups, because they weren’t yet available. None of us understood why we were addicted to excitement, why we felt we were at our best amidst drama and chaos, why we therefore created unnecessary pressures for ourselves and each other, why some of us manipulated and dominated and others of us served and suffered silently, and why frustration and resentment festered. We were expected to be unquestioningly loyal to the company, but I didn’t experience the company being loyal to me. I felt used and, even worse, used up. None of us had seen our common characteristics openly and clearly described, like you can today by looking on the internet. (See a one-page description, known variously as “The Problem” and “The Laundry List” at http://www.adultchildren.org/lit/Problem.s)
In the midst of my struggles with that job and those people, I had sought help from a church friend who was “older in the Lord.” I was hoping for help, wise counsel and – honestly – sympathy. After pouring my frustration and confusion out to her, I was more than taken aback when she declared, “Your heart is black.” I didn’t really believe her, but it was so painful to hear nevertheless. I felt rebuffed, misunderstood, accused, and certainly not helped.
Most Saturday mornings I would sit in that terracotta colored room and read scripture and Oswald Chambers’ My Utmost for His Highest. I had learned the value of journaling, and I also enjoyed copying scriptures and favorite hymns in calligraphy. I was beginning to learn the meaning of the Hebrew word Shabbat. Taking a Sabbath rest was becoming more and more important to me. One morning I was reading in Proverbs when a verse jumped out at me I had never seen or heard before. “He who is loose and slack in his work is brother to him who is a destroyer and he who does not use his endeavors to heal himself is brother to him who commits suicide.” (Proverbs 18:9)
What? I never knew the word suicide was in the Bible. My Amplified translation explained that the second part of the verse does not appear in all manuscripts, but is found in the Septuagint, so named because seventy scholars worked together to translate the Hebrew scriptures into Greek. This translation of what we call the Old Testament would have been generally available in Jesus’ day.
I pondered the verse and asked myself why it struck me with such force. In a flash I realized that though I had never been tempted with thoughts of suicide, as friends of mine had, still I was not “using my endeavors to heal myself.” I was working under a great deal of stress and constant deadlines. I was not sleeping enough. I was not eating healthily. My eating was geared to emotional comfort rather than fuel. In addition to unusual stress at work, I was involved in several other creative pursuits.
I had chosen a church community that demanded commitment and attendance at large and small weekly meetings as well as private weekly meetings with a spiritual advisor. (At that time, I was meeting regularly with the woman mentioned above whose words had been so hurtful.) I had a married couple living in my home, and two other women each stayed with us for months at a time, in addition to many others who came and went. I loved the idea of an open, hospitable home but all that activity didn’t leave time for quiet, reflection, refreshment.
I realized that in order to choose life I would have to make changes. I would have to set limits. I would have to learn to say “No” to myself and others. I would have to miss out on certain relationships and experiences and opportunities. They would be hard for me to release, because letting go would feel like a death to me, a falling into the dark unknown. I knew I would have to change my ways regarding eating and sleeping and exercise. I began to chip away at these tasks, but it was very hard to deny myself short term satisfactions for these long term, unfamiliar goals. Health – emotional, mental, physical health – had never been a priority in my family, and at first it really seemed unattainable to me.
Then I contracted hepatitis A. I used up my sick time and vacation time and then went unpaid. When I even thought about responsibility, I wanted to throw up. Years later, I learned about the symptoms of burnout and realized I had come very close to a nervous breakdown. In this same terra cotta colored room I sat in the bed and wept with the surprising realization that I was free. I suddenly knew that I could leave that nutty company and that crazy industry, that I didn’t need to be a part of that system to survive, that I could separate from that “family” and be an individual and choose a more peaceful life. They didn’t own me any more. When I returned to work, I knew I could not long remain there.
During further rest and recuperation, I was sitting in my porch swing reading my Bible. A quiet awareness came to me that God wanted meet my needs Himself. I felt He was gently challenging me to trust Him. I sensed that I was not to work, I was not to seek regular employment, I was to look to Him to pay my bills instead. And amazingly I thought He might be saying this supernatural intervention would last for two years. I could hardly believe it, and yet it was so clear I could not really doubt or ignore it.
This is the scripture I was reading. “And [Hezekiah, says the Lord] this shall be the sign [of these things] to you: you shall eat this year what grows of itself, also in the second year what springs up voluntarily. But in the third year sow and reap, plant vineyards and eat their fruit. And the remnant that has survived of the house of
So much resulted from that moment on the porch. The married couple who had shared my four bedroom house with me for three years, paying rent and buying all the groceries, now decided to move out. Over a long period of prayer and seeking I became convinced that God was calling me to live in
I would wake up in the morning and my situation would hit me. “I have no income. I have no renters. I have no one buying food. I had a hard time meeting all my bills when I had those things. What have I done??” It felt like a panic attack. Slowly, slowly I became aware that nothing had changed but numbers on paper. God was still on His throne, I was still His daughter, I was not being slothful or irresponsible, I was being obedient to what I believed He wanted, and I could trust Him to show me if I were wrong about that. The panic attacks grew briefer and fewer until they went away and I learned to float in the not knowing…with occasional lapses. It was a process of taking it back and letting it go, again and again.
Then the house sold, after five months of showing it, and though my mom recouped her down payment, the unexplained and unexpected affect of previously paid “points” on the final profit brought me a total of $500. The realtor handed me the check and I almost cried on the spot. I came home from the closing so devastated I simply curled up on the living floor in fetal position and sobbed my heart out. “But God!” I cried. “I thought You wanted me to go to
Knowing I was selling it, I had already given away, stored or sold most everything from my big house. I moved my remaining stuff into the basement room of a church elder’s home, with the agreement that I would clean their house twenty hours a week in exchange for the room and utilities. The church office shared that basement, so there were mornings I would exit my room and walk through a church staff meeting on my way to the shower. I babysat the elder’s youngest daughter, and we watched “Annie” and “The Sound of Music” probably fifty times each that summer. I ironed. I dusted. I scrubbed. I cleaned out closets and drawers. Five months later, around my birthday, on the Sabbath of Comfort (according to the Jewish calendar), friends called to say that they wanted to give me $1000 to use as I saw fit. They knew about my previous
Ironically, I now had as much cash in hand as I had five months before, but now my attitude had been changed and this same amount was now “enough” for me. I bought the airline ticket, and then more money was released from various sources. I went to
Two weeks into my stay there, I was informed that the job was not available because the man was no longer hiring non-Israelis. I had a cordial conversation with the man and his Israeli fiancée in a hotel lobby, and they took me back to the place I staying. I let myself cry a few tears. I was pretty deeply shaken, as I still didn’t know where I would be living, now knew I had no job, and my new friends, the other Feast people, would soon be leaving the country. As I stepped into the dark forest where our cabins were, I heard a voice inside my heart. “My little sister.” That’s all He needed to say. It was the voice of compassion and reassurance that met me in my trembling and fear and held me still.
That summer I had read the autobiography of a Jewish woman who had become a believe in Jesus as her Messiah. The book outlined the many struggles and losses and challenges she had faced with her family, the Jewish community, the Christian community, and on her world travels. Since arriving in
God had spoken to my heart that He wanted to pay my bills, but I had conveniently forgotten the part about “two years”. I figured that now I was in the country, it would behoove me to be productive and have a job. The author hired me at a promised salary of so many shekels per hour, but as the weeks turned into months it seemed that she was without income herself. For that whole year, donations to her ministry dried up. She was never able to pay me the promised wage. And God kept seeing to it that I was able to pay my bills.
I could write a small book about the financial aspect of this adventure. There was the stunning fact that the raise my boss had denied me was mine anyway by the grace of God in spite of the fact that I had no regular employment for seven months that year. There were people who handed me a check, or left money on the table, or mailed me an unexpected gift. One couple sent me $50 each month. (They were my only regular “support”, unsolicited.) There was the Canadian woman who approached me at a church in
Occasionally there were residuals from jingles I had sung during my employment. One can never predict whether there will be residuals (which are payments made each time a commercial airs), or when they will come, but Armour-Star and Pepsi and several other products paid part of my way through this period with no salary. Remember that the scripture had said God would feed me with “what grows of itself, also in the second year what springs up voluntarily.” I was flying blind the whole time I lived in
In May of 1987, I was sitting in a church in
Days later I was in
God gave me the priceless gift of time. He gave me the adventure of learning to trust Him, replacing my old thinking that everything was up to me. He showed me that He valued me in practical terms, even if others did not. He proved to me in dozens of situations that He was paying precise attention to my circumstances. He gave me the privilege of falling in love with His people and His Land, and literally walking where Jesus was born and lived and died and rose again.
He did me untold good by taking me out of an unhealthy job and a destructive church situation, changing me enough so I no longer fit when I tried to return to it. And He began to teach me how to “use my endeavors to heal myself.” It’s a life-long lesson, apparently, because I’m still in school. I thank Him that He intervened so long ago to show me that He came to give me life, “and that more abundantly.” (John 10:10)
Thursday, August 20, 2009
October 12, 2008
How powerfully music can return you in memory to a particular time and place! It was Belmont Church, in the early 1980s…I wasn’t a member there, so I must have been visiting for a special service or program. Michael came bounding down the aisle and gave me a hug and said, “I’ve met the woman I’m going to marry.” He was so excited. He and I had co-written a couple of songs together because we were both published by Randy Cox at Paragon Music, which later became Meadowgreen, a Sony subsidiary. These days those copyrights are administered by Universal.
My favorite of the two songs, Waiting, we recorded in the eight-track studio at Hummingbird Productions, where I worked. I had heard Kathy Troccoli sing at church (before her first album), so we hired her to sing this ballad of yearning which compares a woman’s waiting for her true love with our waiting for Jesus’ return. As far as I know, no one else has ever recorded it, but just this year I received royalties from Psalm 42, the other song he and I co-wrote. I don’t recall our recording a demo of it. I’m trying to contact Universal to find out who recently recorded it. It would be amazing to hear the song after so many years.
After the choir finished our opening songs and had been seated, the master of ceremonies for the evening took the stage. Bill Gaither is ubiquitous on TV these days with his Homecoming gospel music shows, but early on I knew of Bill and his wife Gloria as songwriters. In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s we were singing their praise choruses, He Touched Me and There’s Just Something About That Name and Because He Lives.
I am grateful that many times I have been privileged to meet and thank songwriters who have moved me and changed my life. Bill is one of those. I was on a plane to L.A. when I recognized him across the aisle. I only said a few words of thanks to him, but it meant much to me to be able to express my gratitude to him personally. I’m thankful that he used his gifts to touch the lives of so many and help us sing out our gratitude for God’s love. Gloria is the primary lyricist, but I have yet to meet her.
Next, on stage came four men who were Michael’s original touring band. So much history with the first guy! Chris Harris and I were band members together in Fireworks in 1977-78. We later worked for six years together at Hummingbird Productions. Many years and a lot of living later, Chris and I were sitting in the lobby of the Vanderbilt hospital where his son Brandon was recovering from a terrible car wreck. As he introduced me to another friend, we discovered something we hadn’t known about our shared history. We both made the decision to quit the jingle business on the same night.
That jingle session in 1987 was yet another in a seemingly endless stream of late nights, impossible deadlines and frustrating circumstances. The product was Kotex and it was four in the morning when we finished the vocals. The music was FedExed off to Chicago or New York or wherever the client was. As he drove away from that session, Chris prayed, “God, You’ve got to get me out of this.” He said it was only weeks later when the call came from Smitty (This is how most friends refer to Michael Whittaker Smith, the honoree of the evening.) hiring Chris to be the bass player on his first big road trip. Instead of asking God to remove me from the situation, I just decided to leave it cold. I’ve wondered what might have happened had I exercised the same wisdom Chris did.
Next on stage came Chris’s brother-in-law Mark Heimermann. I remember the night I first met the Heimermann family in the late ‘70s, so many of them crowding into my then-favorite Nashville restaurant, the Laughing Man. (It no longer exists, and nothing has taken its place.) The whole family was in town for one of Belmont Church’s Come Together Thanksgiving weekends. Chris may not have imagined when he found his wife Jan that he was marrying into a musical dynasty. Elder brother Charlie is a composer as well as a singer in the Nashville Symphony Choir; a choral composition of his was performed for the Pope in recent years. Younger brother Mark and Chris later formed a group called Prism which produced four albums of hymns, reimagined with contemporary pop arrangements. Brother-in-law Don Wise is also a gifted musician, as are many of the family’s next generation.
Following Chris and Mark onstage was Wayne Kirkpatrick. When Wayne was still a student at Belmont University, he brought a demo tape to me at Hummingbird. At that time, it was one of my jobs to review all the demos submitted and evaluate them for quality of musicianship, writing, performance, etc. I would then give the evaluation sheets and tapes to the producers to recommend a small percentage of all the demo submissions. Wayne was one I had rated highly. Years later his evaluation form surfaced in some office housecleaning and the person who found it happened to know Wayne, so I think she gave it to him as a keepsake. I had never spoken to him about the story so I enjoyed sharing it with him in the hall before rehearsal earlier that day.
The fourth guy, Chris Rodriguez, played guitar in Michael’s touring band and went on to accomplish much in his own musical career. He and I happened to share a flight to L.A. once and had an excellent discussion about Israel, which has been a subtext of my life. So there they were, his original touring band, singing another medley of Michael’s memorable ‘80s songs, Secret Ambition and I Will Be Here for You, along with a black gospel version of Nothing But the Blood.
I’m not much of a TV watcher and especially not a fan of all the talent competitions which have become such a prominent part of our culture. I find that intense desire and yearning and disappointment very difficult to watch, having lived through it in my own life and in the lives of many around me. But Michael mentioned to me that his family regularly spends time watching American Idol together. The kids’ friends come over and everyone hunkers down with popcorn.
So of course it meant much to him to have Idol winners Melinda Doolittle and Jordin Sparks sing the song he wrote in memory of the Columbine High School tragedy, This is Your Time. Jordin was one of his backup vocalists when we in the Nashville Choir sang behind him in a Christmas concert a few years ago, and she did the same amazing job on that night as she did on this, powerfully interpreting Michael’s song All Is Well. I believe it’s one of the most moving melodies he’s written.
The Nashville Choir also sang backgrounds for his most recent Christmas album, the 2007 It’s a Wonderful Christmas. I’d never recorded in quite this way before. With so many voices, there was no way each one could have headphones, so we were asked to bring personal radios with headphones and tune to a particular radio frequency, and the recording feed was broadcast to it. Amazing.
I’m not sure why Ricky Skaggs was on the program because I don’t know what his and Michael’s association has been. Ricky’s been a leader in Bluegrass music, the protégé of Bill Monroe, and is well known for his Christian witness. I’ve never met him but I pitched a country song to his company (the only country song I’ve ever written, The Laundramat Waltz) and I stood nearby as he and his wife’s family, The Whites, sang in the lobby of the Green Hills movie theater for the premiere of O Brother, Where Art Thou? I know a lot of people who know him, including his recent production company manager, whose wife is in my book club. That’s Nashville for you.
Earlier in the afternoon before the MWS gala began, I was standing in the hallway telling Wayne Kirkpatrick my story about his Hummingbird “evaluation” when Mark Heimermann, Chris Harris and his son Brandon all gathered with us. As we stood chatting, down the hall came Amy Grant looking for the dressing rooms. Amy had her Harris-Teeter grocery bag, a couple of other bags or purses, and her guitar. She looked weary and a little befuddled. You wouldn’t have imagined that she could put on a black dress and sparkly earrings and come out on stage looking like a million bucks just a couple of hours later, but she did.
Amy is the fourth daughter of one of my grandmother’s doctors, Burton Grant. Her mom, Gloria, once went to get a prescription filled for my grandmother, because the weather was so cold. That’s the kind of gracious people they are. My grandmother was in a garden club with Amy’s grandmother, Zell Grant. I didn’t know these things until I was telling my mother about singing background vocals on a young girl’s album back in the fall of 1976 and she clued me into how many ways we knew the family. At the time we met, Amy was sixteen and a member of the Belmont Church’s youth group of which Brown Bannister was a leader. (More about Brown and me later on.)
Brown had moved to Nashville, with his friend Chris Christian, after graduating from Abilene Christian University. Chris (aka Lon Christian Smith) was an ambitious young Texas businessman who saw his future in music and made a lot of things happen very quickly. That year, 1976, he had worked a deal with Word Records to produce ten artists, many of his own choosing. He charged Brown with the task of becoming a recording engineer almost overnight. Brown’s early engineering sessions included lessons from the studio musicians as to which dial on the sound board did what.
With Brown’s help, Amy made a tape of some original songs she intended as a gift to her parents. She had written these songs in an attempt to communicate with her Harpeth Hall classmates about the love of Jesus which had become so real to her. Brown played the tape for Chris, and Chris played the tape over the phone for the Word people in Waco. “Sign her up!” they said. Thus Amy became one of the ten acts Chris had contracted to produce that year.
Since it was low budget and since Amy was in high school, many of the recording sessions were done outside normal studio hours. Sessions usually ran 10-1, 2-5 and 6-9. I was one of a handful of slightly older singers who were thrilled at the opportunity to record, to invent our own background vocals, to stay up late being creative and sometimes, occasionally, make a little money. (Not union scale, but we were so poor that we were still grateful.) We were in our twenties so to Amy we were “grownups” but we didn’t feel very grown up.
Marty McCall, Gary Pigg and I found that we worked well together. We were inventive, our voices blended (mine was the fuzzy bonding material between the two unique voices of the men), and we were quick. The three of us had the privilege of singing background vocals on most of the ten projects Chris produced that year, including B. J. Thomas’ first Christian album, Home Where I Belong. (His claim to fame was the Bacharach/David hit Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head from the movie Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, and I loved his other hit from the ‘60s, Hooked on a Feelin’.)
Marty had recently moved to Nashville to become a solo artist, but when Word Records heard the three of us together, they offered us a two-record deal to become a group on their label. We named ourselves Fireworks and Chris Harris (introduced above) became our bass player and Lanny Avery our drummer. Now, sitting in the darkened auditorium listening to Amy sing Michael’s songs (Thy Word, which they co-wrote; Rocketown; Give It Away), I glanced up to the seats in the balcony to my right and there sat Gary Pigg with his son Landon, also a singer/songwriter with much success nationally in the past couple of years.
Marty now lives with his wife Vickie in Herndon, Virginia, and I have visited them twice, in 2007 and again this spring. But Gary and I see each other almost every week, as his wife Carol and I have been dear friends since 1975. I’ve watched their son Landon grow up, along with his sister and three brothers. It’s amazing to see the next generation taking off, doing what we aspired to do and doing it better. The youngest, Gabe, is a drummer.
And their daughter, Cari-Ann, married a drummer. A few years ago, their wedding was held at Michael and Debbie Smith’s country house, in a beautiful garden beside a lake. Of course her brother Landon sang, but a young lady I didn’t recognize sang too. It turned out she was Jenny Gill, Amy Grant’s step-daughter with Vince Gill.
Amy and I have never “hung out” but living in the same town has given me the opportunity to run into her at various times over the years. Once my mom and I were waiting in the airport at the same gate where Amy showed up, and I was able to introduce them and describe the family connections to Amy. Another time she and her sister Mimi were having lunch and we spoke. I was pleased to hear that they had been discussing our band, Fireworks, on her tour bus and wondering where everyone was now. When I quit the group I felt I had fallen off the face of the musical earth. Turned out I was wrong, but who could predict?
After singing backgrounds on her first album, I also had the privilege of singing backgrounds with Gary Pigg and another girl when Amy first performed with a live band. (Until then it had been just Amy and her guitar.) The concert was at Vanderbilt, where she was then in school, and it happens that I currently work in the building next door to the Langford Auditorium where we sang twenty-nine years ago. It was not much fun for me since rehearsal time was too brief, and we were singing with a girl who flew in from Texas for the event and missed rehearsal. Also the pay was minimal, and I was beginning to notice.
When it was time to record her third album, a friend and I co-wrote a song, Say Once More, which we handed on a cassette to her producer, Brown. (I still get tiny royalty checks for that song, even though it appeared on her second-least-selling album, Never Alone.) Those were the days, when you could simply walk up and hand a song to a producer! It wasn’t long until even the contemporary Christian music industry, the little brother of pop music, had become so complex and organized that all the songs came from known writers who had publishing deals. There were official song presentation meetings and the like. Of course, by that point we were talking about real money, so every Joe Schmoe and his sister were trying to get their songs cut, and there had to be some kind of filter.
I have always trusted Amy’s sincerity, but she made a huge impression on me years ago with the extra effort she took to bless a young friend of mine. She asked me for my friend’s name and actually remembered it, greeting her personally when I brought the girl to a teen fellowship/concert at Amy’s barn. I later told that story to Vince when I met him at a Belmont Church “family reunion” held in the ‘90s. He smiled and agreed, “She’s really good at the name thing.” That’s an ability some people have naturally, but Amy works at giving people this gift of recognition. She has grown up under constant public scrutiny and, despite untold harsh criticism, she has remained deeply genuine and consistently kind.
I’ve run into her at restaurants and in the grocery store parking lot, but the most significant moment for me came when I had the privilege of encouraging a creative impulse. She sang, along with our old group Fireworks and several other groups and singer/ songwriters, at a reunion concert in November, 2007. We were standing backstage and I asked her if the scripture song she had just performed was “written” or if it’s different every time she sings it. (I’ve known people with the gift of improvisation who compose new melodies on the spot, as they sing.)
She said she had many more like it and had been considering recording them. She had been discouraged that such a project could not be a commercial success. I exhorted her to do it anyway, saying, “We bought albums years ago that were musical dreck just because they were scripture. There is an audience. There are people who will buy this! Please do it.” Since she hasn’t recorded it yet, I’ve thought about writing to reinforce how moving I believe it would be to hear symphonic arrangements behind her very free, creative melodies.
Back at the Schermerhorn gala, the next artist to appear on stage carried a significant chapter of my history with her. Wynonna has had a solo career for decades now, but when she was a teenager she sang with her mother as a duo. They were known as The Judds. Neither woman is likely to remember my name, but I played a deep-background supporting role in getting their career off the ground.
In 1982 I was living alone in a four-bedroom house. One evening I went out to dinner with friends from church to meet a couple visiting briefly on their way from Florida to Rochester, New York. Their names were Don and Christine Potter. I felt an immediate, strong connection with both of them, and when I discovered they were considering moving back to Nashville (having lived here previously in pursuit of the music business), I offered without hesitation for them to stay with me while they looked for a place to live.
They loved visiting our church, but they could hardly believe it was real, so they made two or three trips down from Rochester just to go to church before they made the decision to move. When they arrived with their van full of stuff, I discovered they were in bad financial straits and would probably be staying with me longer than a few days or weeks. We couldn’t have imagined three years, but that’s what it turned out to be. Don, a fabulously talented guitarist, felt that God wanted him to lay down his guitar and work as a construction laborer for a time, and he was obedient. But one day, I believe it was Thanksgiving 1982, Don took his guitar on a visit to the home of an old music business friend, Brent Maher.
He played for Brent, and when he heard the jazz inflected brilliance of Don’s playing Brent was amazed. Just that week he had been conversing with Dan Raines, a contemporary Christian music business guy, who described his search for a new artist with precisely Don’s capabilities. Eventually, songs were written, and two albums were produced. But in the meantime, during the production process, Brent said to Don one day, “There are these two girls living out in Franklin, a mother and daughter. I think I’d like to pitch them to RCA. Why don’t you go out there and work with them to get a few songs ready for an audition?”
Wynonna and Naomi Judd had reinvented themselves as Kentucky country girls. Their real names were Christine and Diana and one of the mother’s previous jobs had been in L.A. as receptionist for the office of the Fifth Dimension (a pop group at the height of their fame in the ‘60s and ‘70s). Simple, unsophisticated country girls they were decidedly not. The mother was a nurse and had cared for Brent’s son when he was in the hospital following a car wreck. Naomi (Diane) slipped Brent a cassette of songs she and her daughter had sung into a cheap cassette recorder in their kitchen. That cassette went into the glove compartment of Brent’s car and months passed before he got the urge to pop it in and have a listen.
And so it was that Don Potter met Naomi and Wynonna and worked with them to get a few songs ready to perform. The executives at RCA agreed to audition the girls in person – unheard of since decades before – and offered them a deal the same day. Their first album was released in 1983. Don went on the road with them in the early months of their career, and then continued to coproduce the majority of their records with Brent. Don’s wife Christine and I visited the studio one night to hear what they were up to and met Wynonna for the first time there. Many nights we dropped Don off in the Kroger parking lot where the bus was waiting to take the girls on the road. I recall one evening when Wynonna came over and sat in our living room and discussed her boyfriend troubles.
One morning in 1985 I was home sick and got to witness a little of the life that went on in my house when I was on Music Row working at the jingle company. The folks at RCA, or her management company, someone with clout, had decided that Wynonna needed to lose weight. They hired an Asian guy to go everywhere with her and keep her moving. He was the first personal trainer I had ever met. Dressed all in black, he reminded me more than anything of Cato, the servant of Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther movies.
Back at the gala, the Nashville Choir rose to our feet to sing Great Is Thy Faithfulness, one of my favorite hymns. It was an evening conceived to honor the ministry and career of Michael W. Smith, but I’m sure many people felt, like I did, that it was a night of looking back over our own lives as well. Indeed, God has been faithful: to teach and train, to correct and comfort, to empower and to protect through many challenges.
We ended the evening with a worship medley led by Brown Bannister. How appropriate that the last person to take the stage was the first person I met. Back in 1973, it was summer and we were gathered at the campus of Pepperdine University for a wedding. Our friend since seventh grade, Janice Hahn, was marrying a Texas boy, Gary Baucum. They had met at Abilene Christian University where Janice roomed with my best friend, Marilyn Young. Gathered to celebrate Janice and Gary’s wedding were all these precious Texas men.
We found that God’s Spirit was at work in Abilene like He was in California, wooing our hearts and drawing forth worship. We all sat in the Youngs’ living room and sang and prayed together. Brown Bannister was one of those young men. He and I, with my college boyfriend Danny, were asked by Janice to sing Noel Paul Stookey’s There Is Love in her wedding. So I met Brown in the context of worship and music three years prior to our first recording session, in the Nashville studio called the Gold Mine (the basement of Chris Christian’s home).
And a friend will not say ‘Never’ for the welcome will not end.
Though it’s hard to let you go, in the Father’s hands we know
That a lifetime’s not too long to live as friends.”
Wednesday, July 15, 2009
I was a junior in college when Anatoly Shcharansky applied for an exit visa to leave the Soviet Union and move to Israel. He was a mathematician and a chess prodigy. I didn’t hear of him until a few years after he had become involved in the Refusenik movement in Moscow. He became the spokesman of the Helsinki Watch Group and drew international attention to the failure of the Soviet Union to abide by the Helsinki Accords, which included relaxing travel restrictions on the signatories’ citizens. In 1978 he was convicted of treason and spying for the United States and began an imprisonment that lasted until 1986, much of it in a Siberian labor camp.
During the years of his imprisonment, I was involved in a church which focused much of its attention on Israel. Like many Bible-believing Christians, I felt I had a stake in that part of the world for several reasons. First, its towns and villages, its Jordan River and Galilee and Dead Sea were part of my mental geography from years of Sunday school and personal Bible study. They were more familiar and significant to me than the geography of my own country.
Second, its prophets were my prophets. Didn’t Martin Luther King move me when he declared, “Let justice roll down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream”? (Amos 5:24) Wasn’t I thrilled to hear Commander Frank Borman read from the book of Genesis as Apollo 8 orbited the moon on Christmas Eve, 1968? The first words of scripture I ever took as a personal message of comfort from God were not from the New Testament. They came through the prophet Jeremiah in his Lamentations (3:22).
Third, I had come to understand that my faith was a mostly Jewish faith until Gentiles were ushered in through the work of a Jewish Roman citizen named Paul. My Messiah was Jewish, as were his twelve apostles and the vast majority of his followers until decades following his death and resurrection.
Still, the attention I paid to Israel was out of the ordinary, and led to many friendships with Jewish people, nine months spent living in Jerusalem, and seven trips to the country. I eventually also worked for eight years as executive assistant to the rabbis of a Reform Jewish congregation in Nashville, but that came later.
Thus it wasn’t surprising that I had heard of Shcharansky and the tireless international work of his wife Avital to get him freed from imprisonment. When the moment came in 1986, he was released in exchange for two Soviet spies, and was asked to walk across a bridge from East to West Berlin. I learned from Wikipedia that “famed for his resistance in the Gulag, he was told upon his release to walk straight towards his freedom; Sharansky instead walked in a zigzag in a final act of defiance.” He was finally free to make aliyah to Israel, where he adopted the Hebrew name Natan.
In the fall of 1986, I had just moved to Jerusalem, but I didn’t see Sharansky at that time. It wasn’t until 1989, when I had returned to sing at the bris of my friends’ baby boy, that I had the privilege of witnessing his dream come true. He was already rising in Israeli politics, and I heard a crowd, upon spotting him in a local bank, crying, “Sharansky! Sharansky!” Hail, the conquering hero! What a victory of persistence and hope. More information about Sharansky’s remarkable achievements and honors can be found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sharansky
I felt privileged to hear him speak in person this past March 18, 2009 when he participated in the Impact Forum at Vanderbilt University, where I work. The Forum has hosted many national figures, including some American presidents. The first of two evenings featured Madeleine Albright, focusing on the topic “Diplomacy in the New Millenium.” The packed audience was hoping for an encouraging word from a woman of such expertise, given the state of international events challenging our young president.
I mostly gleaned from her experience a sense of the humanity upon which world-changing decisions depends. Phone calls (sometimes daily calls), friendships, the fragile ability to communicate person to person, are often the only things keeping us from tripping over the edge of crisis into chaos. She was just one woman – certainly a very bright, capable, intelligent woman, but nevertheless operating with only the same set of skills and tools any other human comes equipped with – and yet she represented our nation on the international stage and made a difference.
The following evening belonged to Sharansky. I arrived early and expected the auditorium to fill close to the hour, as folks on “Nashville time” generally arrive a minute or two late. But the auditorium did not fill. I realized I should have taken it upon myself to do some publicity. I could have invited all four synagogues to advertise the event. I could have emailed all my acquaintances with a similar interest in things Israeli, and that network could have increased the audience size. It hadn’t occurred to me that perhaps Sharansky has not been enough in the news for this generation to find his appearance compelling.
When he was introducing Mr. Sharansky, the young Vanderbilt student warned us that we would have to listen carefully, but he assured us it would be worth the extra effort. Indeed, Sharansky speaks English like the Ukrainian he was. If one is accustomed to many accents it’s not so difficult to make the adjustment, but for some, especially the young people in the audience, it must have been a strain to get past the accent to the treasure of his thoughts.
It was awe-inspiring for me to sit and listen to this man about whom I had heard so much. In the brief time we had in his presence it became more evident to me the personal strengths with which he endured the extremities of his long imprisonment. Not only was he highly intelligent, determined and disciplined; he also has quite a sense of humor. His ability to see past externals into the meaning of the moment was deeply inspiring.
He admitted to us that it may have been “mean” of him (his word), but he often used humor to disarm his guards. He would be brought in from time to time for pointless interrogations. He would take the opportunity to tell jokes about Chairman Brezhnev, which, he noted, were easy to make as Brezhnev provided such great material. The guards, staunch representatives of the State, had to suppress their laughter, which they could scarcely do. He realized at such moments the beautiful irony that he, though a prisoner, was a free man, and his guards, though powerful officers of State-authorized terror, were not free even to laugh at a good joke.
Sharansky said so many memorable things that I was grateful I had bought his book (and had him sign it) prior to the talk. I can sum up his message, though, in just one major thought. Since the topic was “Diplomacy in the New Millenium,” of course he addressed the problem President Obama faces in dealing with so much unrest and long unresolved conflict in his own region of the Middle East as well as in many places around the globe.
Sharansky posited that there are three kinds of people in any totalitarian regime. There are those who are true believers, who fully agree with the regime. There are the dissidents who vocally and publicly stand against it. And the third group, the vast majority, are afflicted with what he calls doublespeak. They think one thing but say another. The internal conflict which this disconnect produces must be encouraged, ignited, and raised to a level where they begin to say what they truly feel.
Speaking from his own experience in the Gulag, as well as the years prior when he was an activist and still able to communicate internationally, Sharansky encouraged us to believe that our freedom is enticing. Our freedom to think and choose and speak and act on our convictions will ultimately strengthen freedom lovers in other countries to risk whatever it takes to gain those same freedoms. I wish I had taken notes that evening. It didn’t occur to me at the time that I would see his hard-won wisdom lived out so quickly on the international stage.
Less than three months had passed when on June 4, 2009, President Obama went to Cairo to deliver a major address to the Muslim world. Being a Bible-believing Christian, as well as a person who has spent thirty years thinking about the Middle East, I certainly came to the moment with a full arsenal of opinions, but also with a great deal of hope. One of the campaign slogans last fall, “Choosing hope over fear for two thousand years,” spoke my heart. If we really believe our scriptures, we must take courage from verses like Proverbs 21:1, “The king's heart is in the hand of the LORD, as the rivers of water: he turneth it whithersoever he will.” Though constrained by wisdom, we must not succumb to fear and hopelessness in the face of tyranny and oppression.
I have an unpopular conviction which my liberal arts education did not provide. I was raised in a university atmosphere where Islam was always presented as one of the three monotheistic religions, as if Christians and Jews were at least its cousins if not its brothers. In academia one doesn’t regularly hear discussion of such concepts as “the demon” and “the spirit of anti-Christ.” Yet I had come to an understanding that, since Mohammed received his revelations (or, as I perceive it, cobbled together his new religion) after Jesus had come, the underlying spirit empowering his system could be none other than the spirit of anti-Christ.
This statement sounds like something from the Crusades, a rallying cry for the Knights Templar, a horrific and benighted belief that can lead to nothing but conflict and bloodshed. Let me be quick to distinguish between my rejection of Islam as a belief system and my concern and affection for those who embrace Islam. The much maligned dictum, “Hate the sin, but love the sinner,” is easily dismissed, yet it is precisely how I see this dilemma. I believe Islam is a tyrannical system which oppresses women, appeals to men’s baser natures, and ultimately is intent upon world domination. At the same time, I am personally acquainted with people who identify themselves with Islam who are respectable, honorable, loving people.
I have confessed my inner convictions about Islam in order to demonstrated that my hope for President Obama’s Cairo speech was not easily won or lightly held. I hoped in spite of deep distrust for the system which he was addressing. I hoped for the sake of the millions of individual hearts he was addressing. I won’t quote his speech here, as hundreds of pundits have already done so. I will simply register my amazement and gratitude that I had lived to see the day that an American president would do what my Refusenik hero Sharansky had recommended. President Obama reached over the heads of the hierarchies of the Middle East, the mullahs and sheiks and imams, the councils and Ayatollahs, to speak to the vast majority of people who have been thinking one thing and saying another.
He spoke of freedom, of change, of opportunity, of new, tentative attempts at relationship. He spoke of shared history, and honored their cherished scriptures, choosing to quote tenets upon which we can all agree. His very presence in the office of President of the United States spoke more strongly than any words, since his own family tree is one of such diversity that even people in our mongrel nation are amazed by it.
Still, in my admittedly fertile imagination, I could not have come up with the scenario that now plays itself out on in internet, through cell phones, on Twitter, and eventually to the 24-hour news programs. We may be seeing the first fruits of the President’s invitation. Iranians have taken to the streets declaring their desire for freedom. They are standing up to their Supreme Leader.
It remains to be seen how this unpredicted popular uprising will end, whether in a new government for Iran or in increased oppression. Nevertheless, I feel so grateful to have been a witness to the simple, humble wisdom of Natan Sharansky. And I am grateful, and amazed, to see that wisdom demonstrated by a President whose earnest desire is for civil discourse on the road toward peace.
Some of my co-religionists who have been watching Israel play its part in the apocalyptic drama will ask me, “How can you possibly hope for peace in the Middle East? There will be nothing but war and unrest until Jesus returns.” I would counter with the psalmist’s exhortation, “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem” (Psalm 122:6) And Isaiah 62:6,7 reminds us: “I have posted watchmen on your walls, O Jerusalem; they will never be silent day or night. You who call on the LORD, give yourselves no rest, and give him no rest till he establishes Jerusalem and makes her the praise of the earth.”
Though I’ve sung about it for decades, I haven’t yet been able to imagine what the peace of Jerusalem will really look like. I’ve only known it divided, at war, on constant vigilant alert. But surely in spite of current political realities we can’t shake off the vision of the prophet Micah who saw the day when “they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid: for the mouth of the LORD of hosts hath spoken it.” (Micah 4:4)