When Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ came out in 2004, I went to see it so I’d know what I was talking about if I were in a conversation about it with someone. The film was a grossly morbid ‘snuff’ film made by someone claiming to be faithful to his faith.
But all I could see was the imprint of violence throughout, and tried my best to come away with ‘something’ redeemable about it, or about the death of Jesus on the cross to begin with. As my friend Ken Sehested recently said, “The Romans didn’t kill Jesus because he called people to get right with God.”
So the best I could come up with is this – the image of the cross – any day of the week, or on Good Friday – bears witness to every helpless soul who has been attacked violently in the commission of injustice. Lynchings, honor-killings, imprisoning political dissidents, separating children at the border from their families, and more.
Gruesome crucifixion (or lynching) of anyone bears witness to the brutality of injustice in the world, and in Jesus’ case, an otherwise redemptive response to it – forgiveness and love, even.
Meanwhile, whether one regards the Resurrection as an historical event, or as a symbol or an encounter with the mystical, the image of Resurrection is one where the Love of the Divine and our own acts of love, represent the utter defeat of the kind of violence that lynched Jesus of Nazareth.
Both violence and redemption are present in the accounts of Jesus’ demise and Resurrection – and so they are in our own actions and outlook on the world. I’ve done my best over the years to incorporate these ideas in song, but rarely with a specifically religious connotation included – but definitely with a decidedly spiritual connection.
My wife and I visited one of our favorite haunts for local live music here on the coast, today – the San Gregorio Store – and listened to one of our favorite bands, there – The Atkinson, Kincheloe and Beynon Band – of which all the members, as well as the store’s owner, are dear friends.
The guys graciously asked me beforehand to bring my guitar, and to come up and do a number with them – one of my original songs, perhaps. On previous occasions I’ve chosen to do Upside Down – a song I wrote during the Reagan years and rebooted by putting it on a CD during the W-Bush years, and now, singing it again in the era of Trump.
Upside Down takes to task both Church and State, and their abuses of power on the most vulnerable, and speaks to the very ‘upside down’ nature of the way I view the Divine’s will for how we should live with one another – and that way does not include the violence that both the Church and State have perpetrated on its victims.
But today I sang Nightlights (from my Jump! album), a song deliberately celebrating my own resurrection from a proverbial ‘dark night of the soul’, where a very small faith community was there for me, when things were pretty rough.
There is no mention of God nor Jesus in either one, but then again, it seems to me that Jesus himself actually said more about how we treat one another than he did about God by the way he so linked one with the other.
This great model is something I’ve attempted to replicate in my songs – not specifically religious – countering the violence of those perpetrating it. Upholding those who might be victims and celebrating the deep life-giving sense of community people create in order to see each other through.
I was honored beyond compare when the owner of the San Gregorio Store came up to me after I’d sung, and said, “Your songs represent perfectly how music is medicine for the soul.”
Good to know – and glad that comes across in my music – I was hoping it would.
Peace and Blessings for the Celebration of Passover, Good Friday, and a Happy Easter…
While pretty much all of my songs are personal, not all of them are directly-so – or at least not as directly as From Here to You. For instance, songs involving love that didn’t work out, (i.e. Shadow Talk, et al from other albums) – those I’m involved with right up to my eyeballs. But a song like Got a Notion is an indirect description of the frustration of trying to ever know what any woman wants, and why it’s so hard to communicate.
That introduction aside, suffice to say that From Here to You fits perfectly with at least the title of the album, since it came about after a 50+ year lapse of being in the life of my birth-father, as it had indeed been ‘the longest time’ since either of us were in the same room together, until Wednesday, November 25, 2015 – the day before Thanksgiving, nearly 3 years ago, now.
The song was inspired primarily while I was considering using a drawing I had done many years ago as part of the cover art for the new record. As I chewed on whether or not to use it, and reminisced over the drawing’s history (drawn shortly after I began dealing with some of my good ol’ family-of-origin ‘issues’), I began musing about how it was that I inherited my ability to draw at all, from my father, Bernal, (or ‘Pop’ as I call him).
So, the idea began to percolate for a song that would reflect having had many of his more artistic talents passed down to me (though I wish some of his mechanical abilities would have made it into my gene pool – I barely know which end of a screwdriver is the proper one to hit the nail with (grin).
I made a trip to Virginia to see my sister Kat, in November of this year, and while there, she mentioned she’d written a poem about inheriting some formidable artistic talents and traits that were clearly passed down to her from our father. She would later send me a copy of the poem, and I found it truly inspiring, and exactly the direction I wanted to go with my song.
But this was a relationship that had lots of fits and starts – it went all the way back to the early 1980s, when Pop and I were first back in touch by postal mail, but for reasons of lack of context at the time, I lost interest, and didn’t find being in touch terribly gratifying, and so we discontinued.
A decade later, my older brother Victor had gotten in touch with him more directly, even making a trip to Ohio where Pop lives, and found great fulfillment in pulling together the ties that bind that had been either non-existent in years past, or were frayed and nearly unseen.
I still had no interest at that time in getting back in touch, which caused some friction for those who thought it a near ‘must’ in rebuilding our past, and so some pushing and shoving, pulling and tugging went on, until everyone relented, and we all went our separate ways.
More conflict when we tried again in the early 2000s, only to fail over more push/pull from all sides, until Christmas of 2014, when I’d inadvertently sent a group email that I’d forgotten included my sister Kat, (I sent a short-story from an equally personal childhood experience, called Another Christmas Carol), and Kat managed to rekindle the fire with her gentle style of stoking, rather than anyone else’s efforts (including my own), to pour gasoline on it.
Email contact was made once again, and things went more smoothly this time; but ambivalence and trepidation remained, for some months – gradually subsiding as our communiques virtually went through the filter of Kat’s calming affect, and reflective demeanor – she was a fine mediator in this particularly vulnerable instance, and was very helpful towards helping both Pop and I navigate waters once riddled with debris.
We finally had our first face-to-face visit the day before Thanksgiving 2015, and while it wasn’t a Hallmark movie moment, we warmed rather quickly to one-another. When the time came to address more difficult topics that were loaded with myriad questions and potential resentments, out of respect for one-another, we planned well ahead, and created a ‘warning word’ to let the other know we were treading either too heavily, or into territory one or the other of us wasn’t comfortable with yet, and would need to end the discussion. And it worked – rather nicely, as I recall.
So by the time I actually sat down to write the song, all of what you read here, and more, was embedded into the thoughts and feelings that would go into it. The first verse was from specific memories of leaving home with our mother, as we abruptly abandoned their bad marriage and never returned; along with the memory from one other brief visit while my older brother Victor and I were still living in Maine with an adopted aunt and uncle. While this verse would also muse on the remarkable nature of coming full-circle and seeing the road rising before us all, and leading us home. As this was more or less the introduction to the song, I decided this should be the verse our older brother would sing – plus, older brother – first verse – kinda old school, but I like it.
The second verse describes the more complicated nature of dealing with strong wills, and the sense of ambivalence, and of stubbornness, until one or the other of our hearts might reconsider, and bend in a more positive direction. That would be my verse to own and sing. It still reflects the somewhat odd complexity of my relationship with my father, which while no longer contains any ambivalence, it still contains odd echoes from a past I actually find I know very little about – having heard but one ‘side’ of the story all these years. But present-day things are more complex to me as well – but only if I find myself “thinking about it too much,” maybe. Anyway…
The last verse I credit almost entirely to my beloved sis, Kathryn Tate Jacoby, for her remarkable poem was the greater catalyst for being able to complete this verse quite as well as I believe it came out – way to go, Kat. Indeed, her poem of a very similar vein was so pivotal in creating this verse, that I’ve rightly credited Kat with co-authorship of the lyrics to the song – and well-deserved that credit is.
The ‘from here’ in the title isn’t just from Pop to Vic, Kat, and me – it goes even further back than that – knowing that these features to us all go back generations (as Pop is into tracing our family tree back to Scotland, so some of it all of course came from the Tates who walked the highlands, there).
But ‘from here’ is also meant directly from ‘this’ here – from the perspective where I sit, I wanted him (you, Pop) to know both how much he means to me (us), and how grateful I am to have the gift he is to me, even after 50+ years, and the gifts of these pretty remarkable (and very much fun) traits that do things like make music for others to enjoy.
From Here to You could also include the words “and back again” in the title, because that’s really the gist of it all – as we’ve truly ‘come full circle’.
And in our case, “it’s love,” that’s made that happen…
A sensation of apparent powerlessness and near despair has made its way like the clouds of a Midwest thunderstorm into our national consciousness, and grown, even, as we’ve witnessed what used to be regarded as a simple transfer of power from one administration to another, turn into a truly deadly & powerful Regime.
Each and every day on social media, I am reminded by my fellows, just how bad things are. There has been a great sadness and near sense of despair among so many of us, beginning with the arrival of the Regime in January of 2017, and it has only gotten worse.
On many, many levels, there are firestorms nationwide – from coming industry fissures due to trade-wars; to brutal breakdown in race-relations; to the stigmating of religious groups of those other than white evangelical Christian; to the polarization of our political discourse as a result of ‘alternative facts’; to vicious race-baiting; and to the deplorably violent treatment of asylum-seeking immigrant families being denied rights clearly laid out in the Constitution.
Before I depress you any further, let me interject a moment of redemption, here, before we continue. Fred Rogers, of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, once said that when he was a boy, and he’d hear about horrible things happening in the world, he asked his mother, “Where is God in all of this?” and her very wise reply was, “Look for the helpers; look for those who are seeking to make things better – that’s where God is.”
And so it’s true – despite the mistaken belief by our more evangelical brothers and sisters that God is in the “mighty forceful overthrow of evil, to make us all obedient to the Almighty,” the coming of God in the form of a vulnerable infant Child in a manger, who would pronounce forgiveness on the unforgiven, and would heal rather than harm, who would freely feed rather than demand proof of worthiness – the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth would teach us otherwise – that redemption comes through making things better – adding to the good, not merely excising the ‘bad’.
Since I used a Star Wars quote in the title of my sermon – “C’mon, kid – we’re not out of this yet,” from that moment in the first-ever Star Wars movie, where Han and Luke had just escaped being captured by the Death Star, and now had to face a swarm of tai fighters coming after them, I’ll use another, from the most recent movie, where Rose, a tech-support person in the Resistance tells her friend Fin, a Resistance fighter, she says to him, “Don’tcha see? This is how we’re going to win. Not by fighting what we hate. But by saving what we love.”
And so it’s true. There is a great old apocryphal story that’s not in the Bible, that tells of Lucifer and Jesus appearing before God the Father, and God asks them both, “How can I communicate with mankind just how much I love them, and want them to follow My ways, that they might have eternal Life?”
Lucifer stepped up, proudly, and declares, “That’s easy – give my demons full charge to use all our power against them, and put all those who would not obey You into prisons and cages and beat them until they obey.”
God doesn’t seem satisfied with this solution, and asks the question again, so that Jesus speaks up and replies, “Father, let me go and live among them – let me heal their ills – both spiritual, emotional, and physical – let me demonstrate your Love at every turn – in person – and then they might begin to know how deeply you care, follow your ways, and love one another.”
Clearly, we all know which route God preferred. But to some in the Church, you would think that they believe that Lucifer’s idea was much better.
For indeed, several times during the ‘culture wars’ of the last few decades, I remember hearing at least two so-called spiritual leaders from the Religious Right proclaim, almost with glee, “The Lord God does not necessarily want democracy at all – what God does want is obedience – pure and simple – and He may yet raise up a tyrant to rule us – just to bring us back to His ways.”
I think they got their wish.
But in a way, this horrible outcome really is beginning to bring the country back to Life, and even to God, in a way – at least to the God of justice, of equality, of compassion, of empathy, of solidarity with those on the margins or who are not free.
The people are rising up. ‘Christians’ – real Christians – followers of Jesus of Nazareth – from faith communities that believe in inclusiveness, not exclusion – are rising up and proclaiming the good news that God loves EVERYONE – not merely those who belong to our faith tradition, or just those who have peach-colored skin – we who are from a faith tradition or none at all, are proclaiming together the good news that we will stand with those who are victims of a tyrannical Regime – as believers, non-believers, and clergy, even, we are willingly being arrested – freely giving up freedoms for the sake of standing in solidarity with those who have no freedoms under this Regime.
The Roman persecutions of the Church began as early as 64 AD – just a few decades after Jesus’ death.
They weren’t persecuted merely because they proclaimed “Jesus is Lord,” but mostly because they proclaimed that “Cesar is NOT.”
And you’ll note that persecution did not exist before the rule of a particularly narcissistic ruler – Nero – who wanted to be the only object of attention and affection by his people who would sit up the moment he appeared or his name was mentioned and declare him ‘Lord’. Sound familiar…?
They regarded the Empire of Rome itself to be the proverbial antiChrist, because the Roman way of ‘bringing peace’ – the Pax Romana, as it was called – was through brutal force, domination, humiliation, and a complete lack of human compassion for the marginalized – all values antithetical to the ways of the young prophet from Nazareth.
Important point, here: When persecution came, the Church did not regard itself as doomed – even though it went on for decades – and off/on for centuries.
The Church saw itself as both redeemed, and as the leaven in the world that could itself redeem the world. Indeed, as you likely heard me quote one other time I preached here, the emperor Trajan wrote to his governors asking them, “Who are these people – these ‘Christians’ – they’re embarrassing us – they not only feed their own poor among them, they’re feeding ours!” For despite serious persecution, they were busily redeeming the worst of it.
Tiny communities gathered in the Name of redemption – being redeemed from the sin-and-death methods of Roman rule, that demanded allegiance to the Emperor as a god, and that one could neither buy or sell without the ‘mark’ – a little slip of paper that showed that one had made a sacrifice to the Emperor.
But as they gathered, they supported one another to carry on the mission of doing good in the world in the midst of a world-gone-mad by being forced to live and breathe the ways of the Empire.
They prayed earnestly for one another; healed one another through their presence together; fed one another; and grieved and wept with one another when they would lose some of their members to the arena, to be torn apart by wild beasts, or committed to slavery and made to commit immoral acts; not to mention they all wrestled with God, together, as they did their best to truly do the hardest requirement of following after Jesus – ‘love their enemies’ even when their enemy they were called to love, in spite of everything, were the very people persecuting them.
Same as it ever was…this is the way of history, isn’t it? We went from our brothers and sisters living through literally centuries of persecution, to the Emperor himself becoming ‘Christian’, and putting an end to all that – only to persecute those who didn’t believe in the Christian way – so life became a nightmare for pagans, or for Jews.
Centuries more of similar persecution, as the Church herself became the alleged ‘guardian of the faith’, would bring us things like the Inquisition – in which thousands of alleged heretics were rounded up and tortured – and worse-yet, Jews were forced to either convert to Christianity or be tortured or killed, even.
Which in-turn led to the Renaissance – not perfect, but a definitive improvement of things for almost everyone – and onto the Age of Enlightenment – and so-on.
For what were and still are known as 3rd world nations, however, their times of difficulty would only increase, as greater ease of living became the norm for Europeans…and slavery ensued, until Emancipation – but then Jim Crow…and finally, the Civil Rights movement here in America and the end of Apartheid in places like South Africa.
But throughout….throughout….the outlook was rarely spoken of entirely with complete despair….for, like the Hebrew slaves of Egypt; like the early Church at the height of persecution; like the victims of lynching and cross-burnings and humiliating segregation – the word was not “we’re doomed,” but instead was often and always, “Someday – redemption…” from the great legacy of all oppressed peoples that Almighty God does not abandon the lowly – that salvation – may be long in waiting and working for – but it is near – is nigh – and is on the horizon – even tho it sometimes took decades – even centuriesA number of years since the first of many young, unarmed African American men were slain at the hands of either vigilante neighbors or law enforcement, and upon the arrival of the more recent Regime in Washington, I found myself writing a song about it all, called Backwards Land.
Admittedly, as I began writing it, I was pretty pessimistic – I was not in the least bit hopeful that anything would come out of it all, except the torturous knowledge that it would likely continue to happen, again and again – and that those involved in speaking truth to power, those who rose up and declared that Black Lives Matter, were being stigmatized as ‘uppity’, and other racist terms used for an oppressed people having the audacity to speak up for themselves.But the more I worked on the song, I began realizing that I wanted it to be a vehicle for voicing both the frustrations, anger, outrage, AND the hope of a people declaring “No more!”
When I finished writing it, I felt relatively satisfied that I had fulfilled what I intended to do – mostly.
Until I went to record it for my most recent album I was working on.
The best I could get out of it was a Pete-Seeger-meets-James-Taylor type white—guys-sings-a-spiritual-ballad. Good intentions – low impact.
But my producer, Thom Butler, had other ideas – for he’d been a resident of New Orleans, near the 9th ward that was hit hardest both by racism, poverty, and by hurricane Katrina – and he knew what ‘hope’ and ‘redemption’ meant in the Black community – and so, we began arranging the song to truly reflect that same sense of hope that resonated so well with peoples like that of the ancient Hebrews in slavery; the persecuted Church encouraging one another to keep the faith, and Love one another and the world; and so-on…
And so, today, I share this song with you, on record – with the words of Representative – Congressman John Lewis, who marched the March on Washington in 1963, and spoke to that audience right before Martin Luther King gave his I Have a Dream speech, saying things that truly inspire hope, long before nearly any kind of progress was actually made towards gaining civil rights.
But what was Pastor Ron’s definition of faith from last Sunday? – the belief that you already have that which you are praying for, and acting accordingly?
Listen to the words of now-Congressman Lewis…
“The time will come, when we will not confine our march into Washington; we will march through the South, through the streets of Jackson, through the streets of Danville, through the streets of Cambridge. And we will march with the spirit of Love and with the spirit of Dignity we have shown here, today. For we must say, ‘Wake up, America – wake up – for we will not stop, and we will not and cannot be patient.”
His words were so uplifting and inspiring, we put them at the beginning of the song – the beginning of the journey that began in the streets of Washington in 1963, would follow through the entire nation, and even more people in more recent years, in the streets declaring “Black Lives Matter!” and reminding us “No justice – no peace!”
Until arriving at the choir-loft of Beth Eden Baptist Church in the heart of Oakland, CA, where Mickala Cheadle would belt out the second verse and choruses, backed by their amazing choir, while their pastor, Rev. Dr. Dwight Webster would declare, urgently, and truly with great hope, and promise for the future…
“I want you to listen to me now – because it’s important – because you are important! We are not marching backward – we are marching forward! We are not giving up ground – we are taking new ground! We are not capitulating to the forces of interposition and nullification!
”We are instead taking a new road, where justice will flow down like water, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream!
“We do not, and will not live in a backwards land – we are taking up residence, in the Promised Land!”
These hopeful words give me hope – for the future – for our future – for the now, when the future may seem far away, sometimes – when it may be generations before real justice returns to our shores as a result of the damage being done by the Regime.
But both the people of this land, and the people of true faith in the Lord’s justice, are on the rise, and on the move. Indeed, perhaps the evangelicals were right – it has taken a tyrant to return America to God – but not to the God of oppression or white supremacy – but to the God of those willing to freely, but with great trepidation and an equal amount of Love, put our lives on the line, for true justice, mercy, and inclusion.
Keep the faith. And, as Han said, “C’mon kid…we’re not out of this yet.”
You can listen to a recording of this sermon at https://m.soundcloud.com/uccsunnyvale/cmon-kid-were-not-out-of-this-yet-782018
“You know how when you throw a party, and you think people will show up and no one will like each other? It’s like that with music – parts of your musical psyche have never met the other parts. You wonder if you should get them together.” -Tom Waits
Each record I’ve done over the years has its own persona that develops from both the original vision brought together by the songs, and the artist’s good intentions. Somehow, it winds up morphing into something else altogether, likely by the very process Mr. Waits speaks of here. But not always intentionally – most likely in the subconscious – or by magic, even.
With The Longest Time, my fifth record, I figured out that my original vision was in need of ‘something’ – something to take it from what would likely have been a middle-of-the-road collection of folk-rock material, to something that elicits a really visceral response from me as the lead performer, and from the listener.
I actually didn’t know this right away, as I was going about my usual plans to have the record produced ‘here’ or ‘there’, and with the following players on it who would add a little spice to help make the songs rise – some – but it would never really soar. Again, I could tell ‘something’ was missing already – but not what it was.
Very briefly, I’m not certain every artist has this experience, but for me, personally, time and time again, I hit a place where I’m ‘stuck’ – and I can feel it, and know it deep inside of me, but maybe not consciously. I’m longing – deeply, even – to do more – but not always sure that’s what the feeling is.
Until I see/hear another artist, that evokes something deeper inside of me to come alive. And once it does, it’s clear I’m telling myself “reach deeper,” or “try this.” Sometimes it’s even to go ‘back’ to doing something I did before (tho not writing the same song again) – reconnecting with an idea I used once before, and expanding on it – making it richer – more full and complete.
This happened for me as I was talking about this project with my friend and first-ever record producer, Thom Butler. Thom reminded me of a wider variety of possibilities for my original vision for this record, by sharing with me the latest work by Tom Waits, the cover-versions of Waits’ music by John Hammond, and an absolutely stirring new record from one of my faves I’d lost touch with, Canada’s transplant to San Francisco, Bruce Cockburn, with Bone On Bone.
In each of these performances, I could feel the ‘something’ turn into a very specific evoking of internal resonations, which translated consciously into a desire to express my music with greater depth and purpose. The more subconscious ‘other’ musical parts of me were awaiting to be introduced to the ones in the foreground, just as Mr. Waits suggested.
And so began the process – with a group of amazingly talented, and equally insightful gents who’re true collaborators. Egoless fellowship emerged as we worked the songs; each taking suggestions from the other as we moved through them like learning the steps of a beautiful new dance.
Romantic sounding, I know. But we truly experienced a genuine sense of mutual admiration and comradery as we arranged these songs to draw out and magnify their spirit and intended purpose.
This was equally true of our experience with the beautiful people at Beth Eden Baptist Church of Oakland, CA, their Celestial Voices Choir, and remarkable soloist and Director, Mickala Cheasle, on Backwards Land.
Their warmth and acceptance of an (aspiring) ally, and of this song that was intended to be my version of what their voice might say, was an auspicious example of the word grace at its finest.
My good friend and fellow writer, George Kincheloe, says, “Every writer believes the last thing they wrote is their best, ever.” We all affectionately refer to this as ‘George’s maxim’- and more often than not, we do feel that way – even if it ain’t so.
So I hope I’m not just invoking ‘George’s maxim’ in saying this, but it’s sorely tempting to, about this new record.
Never have I felt more like I’ve been at the center of helping to create a finely crafted piece of furniture – not only due to the expert deftness and technical competence of the players – but that this is, for me, a creation where myriad musical parts of me have come together and express themselves in ways I’ve never done or even imagined before.
And all of our players, our producer, engineer, and my beloved wife, Janet, our “den mother to the boyz,” all made it happen. Thank you.
And thank you all, for listening…