Luckenbach…Way Back:Waylon and Willie and the Saints

I recently went to a Willie Nelson concert. I will take a moment now for those of you who know my musical tastes to recover…

I went at the invitation of my friend Ronald Crutcher, who is a good theologian and lover of all things Willie. I had to lay aside all the stereotypes of Willie Nelson I had formed in my early years growing up in north Alabama in order to accept this gracious invitation, which was not hard to do since I trusted Ronald’s instincts. I’m glad I went. Had I not, I would have missed what can only describe as a sacred experience.

We arrived in downtown Nashville and went for a burger and beverage at Tootsie’s Bar and Lounge. If you’re going to see Willie, you can’t do much better than a pre-concert appetizer at that historic spot on Lower Broad. The walls are filled with photos of old Nashville country music stars, and, with its two stages, the place was hopping.

Then we made our way to the Ryman Auditorium. The Ryman is the closest thing to a country music shrine we have. All over the walls are icons of the Opry, relics that are as meaningful to country music as the bones of the saints might be to a Medieval cathedral. The pews – pews! – that serve as seating give the feel of a house of worship to this venue, which is fitting. When I finally found my seat and looked up at the stage, it was hard not to imagine the ghosts of all those performers that I often heard emanating from my grandfather’s radio on a Saturday night looking out over us with delight.

And then Willie took the stage. According to Ronald, he is around seventy-six years old, but he really hasn’t changed all that much from the Willie Nelson that I encountered from time to time growing up, mainly, again, through my grandfather. Long hair, cowboy hat and boots, weathered face, deep-set eyes – he has the look of a wise sage who has been around a block or two in his time, which he has.

The first words out of his mouth were a tribute to the Ryman. He said it was a deep honor “to be standing on this stage.” And then he said the song he was going to start with was written by someone I didn’t recognize. And he began singing. I did not know the song. And so it went for the majority of the concert. Willie would announce the song-writer, say a brief word about the song, and then sing it. Most every song was one I did not know. I also noticed that the only people who would clap or respond when he announced a song were folks who were – how to put this? – around the same age as Willie.

Because our seats were toward the front and to the right, I was also able to see that Willie was using a teleprompter for almost all the songs. At first I thought this was odd. But about half-way through the concert, I finally realized what was happening. Willie was paying tribute. He was singing songs he probably never had sung before, but had carefully selected for this venue. He was at the Ryman, and he wanted to sing the old, old songs by saints long since gone. Here was a man who for most of his life was shunned by the “Nashville Establishment,” but who, in the twilight of his career, in his tell-tale voice, was giving honor to the voices of those who made the Ryman, and Nashville, and Willie, who they were. Having only a few days earlier celebrated All Saint’s Day in church, I felt that Willie was observing his own version of that holy day when we recognize all the saints of every time and place take their places among us, and acknowledge that we are because they were.

Eventually he sang all the old favorites: “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” “On the Road Again,”etc. He ended his time with a rousing chorus of “I’ll Fly Away,” and the entire place sang with him. In that moment I swear I could hear Roy Acuff, Hank Williams, Sr., and the whole lot of those Nashville saints singing along.

Willie stayed behind to sign autographs. He was still leaning over the stage, all seventy-six years of him, smiling and laughing and signing as Ronald and I left. People of all ages and backgrounds crowded the stage to pay him homage. His selflessness, his generosity, his humility, and his grace will stay with me for a long time. Heck, I may even buy some of his Cd’s.

Again, I’ll let you recover…

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Books

Day two at Montreat, and I made a trip to the bookstore after my run. I can never get out of there without spending some money (I am what my mother would call “book poor”), and today was no exception. Some of you have asked what I am reading this week. I brought a box of books from my study, and today I purchased the following:

The Stewardship Companion, by David N. Mosser
Accompany Them with Singing: The Christian Funeral, by Thomas G. Long
Karl Barth: Theologian of Christian Witness, by Joseph L. Mangina
Theology Today: Reflections on the Bible and Contemporary Life, by Patrick D. Miller
Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work, by Eugene H. Peterson
Simply Wait: Cultivating Stillness in the Season of Advent, by Pamela C. Hawkins
While We Wait: Living the Questions of Advent, by Mary Lou Redding

Later this week I plan to go to Asheville and visit the best bookstore in the world (in my opinion anyway), Malaprops, where I hope to buy some good fiction.

This immersion in the world of books causes me some pause, since I have heard the recent rumblings that books will soon go the way of eight-track cassettes, vinyl LP’s, and VCR’s. I know the many ways that an electronic reader like the Kindle will make book reading easier. I know that if I had one of them, I would not have had to haul my bag of books up the hill to sit in the rocker and read to the sound of the stream. I also know Kim expects one for Christmas, and will probably think everything that follows is pure bunk.

I know all that. And it may just be that I’m sentimental or quickly becoming irrelevant, but I like the weight of the book in my hand, and the texture of the paper, and the joy of turning one page after another. I like underlining and dog earring. I like holding my place with a finger while I hunt down a passage. Mostly, though, I like the materiality of the printed page. In a world that is fast becoming digitized, where everything can be reduced to zeros and ones, the book stands as a needed retreat; a corporeal, bulky, heavy reminder that not everything can be reduced to bits on a screen.

Like a flowing stream, a rocking chair, and the experience of the printed word.

Advent as Thin Place

I am in Montreat this week for my annual study leave/reading week. It is a Sabbath time I try and set aside each year to catch up on neglected reading in theology, biblical studies, church leadership, and fiction. I also use the time to do more intense planning for the upcoming year that begins at Advent. It is always a fruitful time, and rejuvenating. This year I placed this blog on my agenda so I can try and get back on track with posting.

The small house I am staying in is actually in Black Mountain, since smaller Montreat homes were hard to come by this time of year. This necessitates my driving over to Montreat each morning for my run. I woke up this morning and discovered that it was warmer than expected for early November in the mountains. The deck faces the rising sun, so I got the full force of the morning light and made a decision to wear shorts and a t-shirt for the run.

After a short drive down the mountain where I am staying and over to Montreat, I got out of the car and immediately noticed that it seemed ten degrees cooler. Even though I was a little cool at the start, after warming up a bit the run was perfect. I shouldn’t have been surprised. It always seems cooler and crisper in Montreat, and I’ve rarely had a bad run in that thin place.

By “thin” I don’t mean the air, though it always seems different here. No, I mean it in the ancient Celtic (and perhaps a bit overused) way. Though it is overused, it is the closest thing to truth I can think of to describe this setting. The Celtics meant it to describe a place where the veil between heaven and earth is especially thin, and one can almost sense the other side. I, and generations before me, have always experienced Montreat in just this way.

Leonard Beechy, a Mennonite writer who contributed to the latest issue of “The Christian Century” magazine, describes thin places in more chronological terms as “twilight time. Celtic folk called it ‘the time between the times,’ the enchanted moments at dusk and at dawn when the veil between this world and the world beyond us is thin, and we seem to breathe its air.”

Maybe it is the way the mountains shade everything in Montreat, or maybe it is the times I have shared here with family and friends listening to grace-filled sermons, ascending music, world-shattering lectures, long walks and runs, or jumping around in the creek that runs right through it. Whatever the reason, this is a thin place for me, a place where with each breath I sense the Kingdom coming and already present.

That is the mystery of the season of Advent, that the Kingdom is coming and already here. Advent is a thin time of year, a time between the times, a time “between what is dying and what is being born, between the ‘already’ of Christ’s reign and the ‘not yet,’ of Advent.”

All of us from time to time need to experience thin places and times. I hope you have such places, whether they are near or far away; and I hope you will see Advent this year as such a time. We all can be so distracted and dismayed by the hurry, stress, and uncertainty of the times in which we live. We can be lulled into a kind of drudgery, missing the signs of Christ’s coming Kingdom, believing that what we see is all there is and all there ever will be.

To just this kind of people, to people like us, Advent comes with a shout. Christ is coming! His Kingdom is already taking root all around for those with eyes to see. His grace is life-giving. His promises are true. His time is now.

Let us prepare together to enter a thin time, where the air feels different, full of God. Because, in truth, it is.