Hi everyone – I’m back from Minnesota and the Christianity21 event.
It was great – good conversation with fascinating people from diverse backgrounds. Great room for the main sessions too. The radical nature of the speakers’ slate – all female speakers – was handled in such a manner as to make it transcend the old arguments – this is the way it should be, a precedent has now been set, and hopefully there’s no going back. It was a genuine privilege to hear to so many fascinating people doing more than fascinating things.
I was particularly compelled by thoughts of the relationship between spirituality and the earthiness of our lives; questions of how ethnic and other sociological boundaries serve and fail to serve the attempt to build community; and the ongoing conversation about theology and sexuality. It was a pleasure to see old friends – Jay, Mark, Denise, Shane, Tony, Doug, Spencer, Tim (in no particular order, dear friends – I love you all equally, even if I forgot to name you here :)); meet people I’ve read or only connected to virtually in the past – Phyllis, Steve, Alyce, Nadia and talk about the remarkable diversity of experiences we’re thinking and living through. Perhaps the most striking thing was how everyone spoke in a context of action and not just talking – while language may be all we have, we’re talking about what we’re actually trying to do. As a recent export to this country, for myself it was a time of feeling welcomed among fellow travellers, all of us trying to figure out how to live in the light of a vision of God and humanity that won’t let us go. I had to leave early, and with some regret because I was enjoying myself so much. But it was meant to be. Trust me.
When I got home yesterday afternoon I had a quick nap before we headed out to a magnificent surprise. Brian Blade, one of the world’s finest jazz drummers, had organised a legacy concert for his father, the magnanimous and dominant presence of Pastor Brady Blade, from Shreveport Louisiana, to be recorded in concert with a 35 member choir, and a band including some of the most remarkable musicians I’ve seen assembled in one place. We were in a smallish room – an old AME church in Durham now deconsecrated and the home of the Hayti Heritage Center, up close to the stage, a few paces away from the elegant choir, Pastor Blade and Brian, and among others, Buddy Miller, and Daniel Lanois, who to my ears can do no musical wrong, on either side of the production desk. For two hours, the choir and band lifted me out of the melancholic and anxiety-ridden mood I’ve been in for a few weeks. I was overwhelmed by the sheer force of honest, loving voices; by the humility of musicians who could be playing much larger venues for much larger fees deciding out of communal loyalty, respect for the elder statesman, and dedication to the music; by the astonishment of Miss Ada Small, a 79 year old three time cancer survivor who plays the piano like Nina Simone and sings like nobody’s business about the struggle to get through the day in a way that leaves you wondering if it’s possible that all that stuff about God’s presence in the world, and care for humanity, and the endlessness of hope amid despair might just be the truest truth in the universe.
People who know me might suggest that my emotions are close to the surface, and I’ve no argument with that. If I’m honest, the shadow side of that kind of psycho-spiritual terrain is that feeling happiness so deeply can sometimes go hand in hand with knowing too much about depression. I haven’t written much about this before because I don’t want to be self-indulgent, or to tell you things that end up being more about my own ego than the possibilities of conversation that result in mutual benefit. But I was so dumbfounded by what happened last night at the Hayti that it would seem to disrespect it if I kept it to myself. Having said that, it’s impossible to find a way to write about it that does it justice. So I’ll just say this, on a Monday morning, at the beginning of a week that will bring who knows what to any of us: in the presence of people at the height of their musical powers, under the ministry of a man who appeared to be the co-mingling of a Sufi sage and a football coach, listening to a band that included a man whose sounds have been echoing in my brain for half my life, from his work producing ‘One’ and Dylan’s ‘Time out of Mind’, to his solo album ‘Acadie’, film work, and more*, I felt more awake, more loved, more willing to see life as a gift than I have been able to do for a very long time, and perhaps ever. There are times when artists experiencing grace permit you to join them in it. There are times when something transcendent happens in musical performance. There are times when something even better happens. For five bucks in the Hayti I got to fall in love.
* And if I were in LA this Thursday night, I know where I’d end up.