In Our Rags of Light

Fredrick Buechner, my favorite author, writes his memoirs with words, which like large, fatherly, generous hands graciously hand his memories to you as if they were your own to begin with. In his book Now and Then, he shares one of his most memorable seminary professors, James Muilenburg.

He was a fool in the sense that he didn’t or wouldn’t or couldn’t resolve, intellectualize, evade, the tensions of his faith but lived those tensions out, torn almost in two by them at times. His faith was not a seamless garment but a ragged garment with the seams showing, the tears showing, a garment that he clutched about him like a man in a storm.

God I wish I had known men like Muilenburg in my early life. Instead, I grew up under the blinding spotlight of American Christian Evangelicalism, at times in its beam, at times in the shadows it cast off me, never feeling really at peace with any of it. Today, I go to a straight up Evangelical church which prides itself on its few non-Evangelical qualities but still, my connection with the Church has been and always will be people over convention. I’ve shared enough of my life with people I love that I don’t have to agree with every detail about faith and I don’t have to trouble them with my troubles.

There’s a time in my life I fondly call my Existential Crisis. It was a beginning more than a period of time that had an end. I’d say it was as painful as a new birth could be for a soul. People often use the word “reborn” with a sense of euphoria. I don’t know about you but when I point to my greatest moment of rebirth, it holds more pain, confusion, and doubt than any other event in my life. And, however less painful, it continues today. Ironically, it happened when I was in a Christian band with songs in the Top-10 Christian Alternative charts in the 90s. That’s another story though.

I avoid writing about it much because it’s too long to tell in one sitting and to tell fragments leaves my story, beliefs and personal philosophies looking half-baked. One day I will tell it but for now, suffice it to say, I know I’m not unique for having experienced it.

You know who you are. You’re involved in church, probably an artist, musician, or poet and your name is rarely spoken in a question like, “Hey so-and-so, will you pray for us before we get started?” When it is, you might resent it for reasons you can’t explain. Early on you heard about the Emergent Church movement and thought, “damn, that’s me!” only to see it chewed up and swallowed by Christian pop culture over a decade and all they left you with was shit for theology. Oh, and on that note, you have little tolerance for people who are offended by words like “shit” though you tread carefully because it’s just polite not to offend people on purpose. Few can twist matters of common courtesy into spiritual matters of black-and-white sin-and-righteousness like Evangelicals. You don’t pray like others because you have an internal monologue with God every minute of the day that sounds more like the ramblings of a drunken sailor than a believer. Occasionally you’re surprised with and transformed by shining moments the monologue turns into a dialogue. Your prayers sound like WTF more than PTL but they usually end in a poetic PTL anyway. Silently, with all your being, you say to God, “Please take me – all of me,” and to the Church in the thin layer of air on this big planet, “You will never have me.” I could go on but I think you get it already.

Maybe I’m just projecting my feelings onto a remnant that I’m making up in my head so I don’t feel alone. I’ve been obsessed lately with an idea that one of our greatest human fears is that we are uniquely alone in the universe; that to be known and understood, if even if by a faraway stranger, might be our greatest need.

In any case, if you are like me you can relate to Muilenburg as Buechner describes him, and even to Buechner himself because he wouldn’t have described anyone so well whom he did not resonate with deeply. We wear our faith like garments with seams and tears showing, like a man clutching them in a storm. We are put off by people who wear their faith like clean, pressed, royal robes because we understand their blindness in ways they’ll never see.

A verse from Leonard Cohen’s If It Be Your Will comes to mind as recorded by the Lost Dogs on their album The Green Room Serenade.

By the way, if you are a fan of modern Christian music you might not know how much you owe the Lost Dogs. You see, the members of the Lost Dogs were a few of the pioneers of Christian music in the 80s and 90s who endured the blunt force of scorn from Western Christendom to cut the way for the modern Christian music most people enjoy now. They were Mike Roe from The 77s, Derri Daugherty from The Choir, and Terry Taylor from The Daniel Amos Band and the late Gene Eugene from Adam Again. These men, unashamed in their rags of faith, deserve great respect. There are few memories I treasure more than having played bass for them on that tour. I stood behind them every show night as this song soaked in deeply.

It’s more than appropriate that Gene sang the last verse,

And draw us near and bind us tight,
All your children here in their rags of light,
In our rags of light all dressed to kill,
And end this night, if it be your will

In our rags of light.

Dressed to kill.

The last words on our lips, “If it be your will.”