Samuel Adam

The world without and the world within.

July Roses

Tired roses
Faded against the fence line
Blushing faces happily sunburned
Looking at the house now, or at the ground

I walked by one, I
Held out my hand, and
It dropped a pink petal, from
A long ago bloom

A petal like a soft word
Tender in my palm, whispering
Like the breeze that picked up, and
Set it aflight

I looked at the rose
Voiceless and sleepy
Under icy moonlight

The moon, dropping words about you

Thoughts for a rainy day

I see the world in blues and greys. I don't know how else to describe it. It's beautiful to me that way.

I was taken from the rich, wet Jory soil of Oregon's Willamette Valley. One day, sooner than I'd prefer maybe, my ashes will return to some crumbly stretch of soil but, until then, my red dirt soul unfolds under soft, wet skies.

My grandmother told one joke I remember, a common quip locals would tell: "How do you predict the weather in Oregon? If you can see Mt Hood it's going to rain and if you can't see Mt Hood it's already raining."

If you love rain like I do then you probably understand what I mean by blue and grey. It's as if we see things by the light of the sky rather than the sun; sometimes blue and clear, sometimes grey and sonorous with rainfall. A photographer told me once that the ambient light of the sky when the sun shines sideways at dawn or dusk brings out the nuance and richness in everything. Dawn and dusk to me are moments of beautiful melancholy that shed a richer light on the events of the day, the week, the life.

Most people I know tend to be sun lovers. They're energized by daylight and activity and would be happy enough never to see a rainy day again. They're fun to be around in doses and, at times, I envy their simple eyes. Sun lovers aren't all shallow minds but to tell one that you love rainy days invites an are-you-crazy strong enough to banish weaker hearts to the Island of Misfit Toys.

To be candid, we rain lovers see sunshine lovers as simple, binary people: on-off, good-bad, light-dark, sun-rain, happy-sad. We can't help but feel far more interesting because we're more in touch with things like nuance, metaphor, and the beauty of melancholy.  We are brunettes to your blondes, cat owners to your dog owners… and, I'm starting a fight I don't want to finish so let's move on.

Whichever you are you can admit there is something deeply soothing to the primal animal within each of us about the sound of rain falling. I imagine that in the animal kingdom, predator and prey alike rest reverently during a good rain in recognition of, if not a prayer to, a greater power and an acknowledgment of a deep, common connection. Something about it makes it feel to me as if our whole beings – spirit, mind and flesh – are inseparably woven into the same tapestry with threads that bind us at unfathomable depths.

Rain is not always a metaphor for sadness. Jesus said once that the Father, "makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust." In the agrarian culture which first heard it, rain was a blessing. It grew your crops. In other words, God blesses and he blesses. His provision is often nondiscriminatory so don't be surprised when unjust people prosper. You might be upset by the grace God shows to people who hurt and hate you. Expect it. Accept it. Like the melancholy light of dusk, it sheds a richer light on his deep mercy and reveals him as even more trustworthy – more faithful.

Of course, rain is no good without the sun. It takes both to grow forests ancient and mighty in places like Oregon. Too much or too little of anything spoils it, they say. Today though, on a soft, wet Northern California day, I'm enjoying a soothing break from the sun – the relentless mistress of summer who repels rain for months on end.

“May the road rise up to meet you, may the wind be ever at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face and the rain fall softly on your fields. And until we meet again, may God hold you in the hollow of his hand.” – traditional Gaelic blessing

Sin Boldly

My brain usually feels shell-shocked in the late-January nuclear fallout from December holidays. It’s like this for the first few weeks of every new year. I look around these days with a blank stare, no judgement, no assessments, no anything… just taking it all in, feeling less than intelligent, less than interesting, and enjoying it for what it is.

Now that I’m coming around again I’m starting to notice things I hadn’t before. Sadly, what I see this more of this year is the heartbreaking trouble that marriage can be sometimes.

I think back on a few especially terrible past marriages I’ve observed and it’s depressing.

She loved him so young, walked down the aisle thinking it was is a mistake, walked down the aisle thinking there was no other way. She loved him though; she really did. He proved himself to her family as an upright, respectable man but at home she saw him as domineering and unbearable. Long story short, she started to act out, staying away from the one-stoplight-town he felt safe in, hanging out in bars with newfound friends. In the end, she took the fall, the blame for the divorce, and continued at a pace fast enough to avoid explaining the details.

Another one…

He loved her more truly than any I had witnessed in my short little life. She was reckless, not in love, and went through with the wedding anyway. God only knows why. “She won’t even touch me,” he said a bit into a marriage that ended in a handful of weeks. She had been intimate with another man throughout the engagement and into the marriage. Could anything be more sad?

Maybe this is more sad…

You’d be hard-pressed to find a more beautiful or better woman. She’d already been through the wringer. Her first marriage was to a pastor. He left her. I don’t know why. I imagine a lot of people don’t know why but things are what they are. Her new husband was probably an answer to prayer – not just her prayers but the prayers of the many who surrounded her in hard times. Years later, he was unable to conceal a personal addiction from her and she was left with a world of uncertainty. Two in a row? Are you ephing kidding me God?! That’s what I’d be asking anyway.

I have worse stories…

How about a woman who’s greatest fear one night long ago was that her children might hear her being murdered by men her husband hired? I’ll stop there.

Why so macabre? Why focus on the horrible parts of humanity? I ask myself these things.

I honestly don’t know. Maybe because they’re just true. They actually happened. I actually know and care for these people. I have friends going through hard marriages right now and I wish better days ahead for them. It also gives me pause to consider a greater truth.

I am no Bible thumper. I’m more skeptical than you’ll ever be, I promise you. Still, the pain of human existence as I’ve just described validates, to me anyway, a version of Jesus that the Bible itself tries to present clearly while the deafening voices of extremely religious people try to rob him from us. They’re the scowling “your doing it wrong” people. The ones that look more like nervous, arrogant, bastard children than their own Heavenly Father who is described as scandalously graceful in the Bible. If misery loves company then maybe none crave company more than the hyper-moral.

I think on this:

Jesus. God incarnate. God in the flesh. Flesh, the meaty substance of us each that eats, excretes, procreates. God in the primal human form. God, once apart from us, who once asked questions of the Old Testament greats of their humanity, and later saw it fitting that he’d experience it for himself. God who becomes a human like you, like me, in all of our primal glory, with all of our everything undesirable, make-fun-able, cry-over-able in the form of Jesus. They say you can tell the quality of a man by the company he keeps. Jesus, God incarnate, kept some shady company and shunned the types who love to be right. He was more street-wise than you’ll ever be.

Jesus, who knows the bullshit of living as much as any of us, had a real thing for screwed up people; both the victims and the offenders. He didn’t have much tolerance for the self-righteous. He gives grace to the humble, not the correct. And, if we’re inclined to believe it, sacrificed his life so we can be made new even in our pain, in our doubt, and in our floundering.

So shitty marriages, yes. They’re happening. A God who knows shitty, yes. A God full of grace, yes, as many other of my friends can attest to.

Martin Luther once wrote:

Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong (sin boldly), but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world.

Friends, this is your one and only life. Live it. Live it in the comforting shadow of Jesus, God incarnate, revealed in the messy human condition. Nobody should be faced with the choices you have to make sometimes. Still, make your choice, wrong or right as others see it, and if you must, sin boldly. You might discover it was the sin of fear, not the fear of sin, that kept you bound and that it had nothing to do with whether you left or stayed, whichever you feared more. Sometimes staying feels like the greater sin, but whichever, act boldly.

Rebirth

I died in my sleep once. It happened in my late 20s. It was absolute, sudden, and predictable. And if only metaphorical, it was more than a spiritual death; it was also mental, emotional, social and, I've come to understand, not unique at all. Many of us die this way sooner or later.

That's why I tell this very personal story – the beginning of what I called my Existential Crisis. It's not unique. Fredrick Buechner explained why he wrote his autobiographical books, "I do it because it seems to me that no matter who you are, and no matter how eloquent or otherwise, if you tell your own story with sufficient candor and concreteness, it will be an interesting story and in some sense a universal story."

It must have happened that when I turned the worn key to start my old VW Scirocco that my vision went as dull as the morning clouds were grey and my heart went as numb as my fingers were cold. As I drove suburban hills to the freeway I saw flashes of the previous evening as if hovering over another man's memories. I heard the familiar, "I'm so sorry I don't feel the same way" from the sandy blonde I had anguished over for so long. That must have been what did me in. It wasn't the first time I had anguished so, and not as deeply as in times past. I already had a list of girls I'd been crazy over that didn't return the same crazy, a few that wanted me that I didn't want, and one I regret sending away. No matter. My sanity walls had been breached. I felt as a body without a soul, acting out of sheer habit, driving to work like millions of other drones in the San Francisco Bay Area.

An ancient Jewish proverb makes no promises, just a simple observation, "A hope deferred makes the heart sick but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life." We are driven by primal urges as old as the ocean tide and they swell as forcefully within us. Like an oil press for our hopes, they accentuate each hope's flavor, often lending a bitter twinge of primal desire. Some hearts become so bitterly sick – Kierkegaard's "Sickness Unto Death" which endlessly consumes and is unkind to not actually kill us – that we swear it's possible to really die from anguish alone.

I was reborn that day. The word Reborn is often used by surprised, happy people to mean they were enlightened, relieved, made new, newly loved, and many beautiful things. Not for me. Not this time. I was reborn behind a steering wheel at a complete stop on a four-lane parking lot of a freeway. I was as lost as any newborn – blurry-eyed, weak-legged, disoriented, and ignorant, unable to hold my own head up. It wasn't a fresh start. It was an absolute, irreversible, stone beginning.

There we sat in our cars, parking brakes on, one man glancing the morning paper when our shared madness became plain to me. We all agree. We all just agree that we drive to work in the morning. We agree that we earn money to pay for roofs and food. Money itself has no more value than we all agree it does. We agree that come sundown we drive the other way. I wanted to roll down my windows and yell, "Does anybody else, anybody at all, see what's going on here?! Look at us!" Who made all of this up? Who's driving it? I was stunned to feel suddenly resentful that I didn't get to vote on the way the world was set up before I arrived and just as suddenly frightened that nobody was at the helm of this big ship.

Everything was dead within me, my sense of history, religion, faith, hope… everything. It was under suspicion, all of it, and if I were to return to any of it, especially the religious, it had to be completely different for me and I for it. If God were real, especially in the Christian sense, he must be different for me and me for him. I was in no hurry to reconcile any beliefs at all, secular or sacred. If I died before they were reconciled at least I'd die honest.

For the sake of brevity I'll pause the story here. It's hard to leave it half told but after talking with a good bro I realized why I wanted to risk telling this personal story in the first place.

This concept of rebirth is important. To be reborn we die. In some cases like mine we are thrust into it, in other cases some reach a point where they thrust ourselves into it. By my humble experience, I say that this kind of rebirth is a beginning, not a fulfillment. It holds the possibility of fulfillment and our chances of fulfillment are directly related to our capacity to be honest.

If at all, we are reborn blurry-eyed, weak-legged, and ignorant – all possibility ahead of us.

I have a friend to two experiencing this kind of rebirth in different ways. My hope for you, friends, is that when you are similarly reborn your previous expectations, outward and inward, are so absolutely crushed that the years ahead find you free to learn a new way, free to accept life on its own terms, that God will be new for you and you for God.

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.”

Holding Herself for Ransom

You know, he says, there's a part of you that's pure,
underneath all that prickly stuff.

Your wide-lip-glimmer-eye-winsom-smile,
your soft-skin-brush-against-my-skin gives the real you away
more often than you might like to think.

Maybe it's the Me I ache to let loose, 
she whispers in a downward-blush-gaze,
but would it would just leave me too vulnerable.

His thumb traces her eyebrow.

Your barbed-wired borders seem so terribly tall,
you'd think a girl was holding herself for ransom, 
he thought to himself.

What price the ransom?
What kind of rich the man to pay it?
Tell me and I'll pay it every day till the day you are free.

Where the Trees Stand Still

I was born with wanderlust for blood. 

You know, Wanderlust is an interesting word.  The similar German word, Fernweh, literally means, "ache for distance."  It's one of many beautiful aches life has handed me – as if tied with a red ribbon, presented tenderly with the hope of kindredship if not love – as if Life itself wanted to share its own ache with someone who'd get it, appreciate it, and share it. 

I can't tell you when it was that I first saw a globe but I am pretty certain I remember the first time I understood what a globe meant.  I stood mesmerized by the thought of faraway browns and greens as I first realized my actual size… smooth seas and rippled continents rolling under my fingertips.  I stood there spinning the globe over and over to the background noise of, "Sammy, it's time to go … Sammy! We're leaving now…"

I was a shy kid.  Every year in grade school my mom made a piñata for me to take to school at Christmas time and I suffered the extra attention it drew me.  My 5th grade year was different though.  I completely forgot about myself because I was lost in a piñata globe my mother labored over the night before.  I could only wonder about large island in the southern hemisphere, which looked to me a lot like Gilligan's Island.  Was it a real place?  When my teacher presented the piñata to the class I couldn't help but blurt-ask, "What's that island on the other side down low?"  It sparked a moment I'll never forget as she told us, as if telling a true fairy tale, about Australia with its kangaroos, wombats, and Tasmanian devils.  Right there I prayed, "God, please please please, let me go to Australia some day."  That was a moment I forgot until my first overseas trip.  I was in my mid-20s having a bad day and while I sat in a cold room lamenting my down mood to God I remembered that piñata and that I was sitting in Melbourne, Australia at that moment.  My experiences let me believe easily that God does indeed love his children.

Wanderlust catches up to you though.  I spent the 90s playing in a band, touring the country, flying to Europe, and running sound for other bands doing the same. I took every opportunity to hit the road.  The nomadic life felt natural to me but looking back, it only revealed Life's secret about the ache of distance.  It is the ache of solitude that we all seem to fear yet long to embrace; the fear that we are truly and uniquely alone in the universe and that somehow the answer to that ache lies in drinking in all places, experiencing all moments, and living the chase – not the dream.  It was only amplified for me by sleeping on van seats, motel floors, and tour bus bunks.  The bittersweet taste of longing has always been my favorite flavor.

On a melancholy tour day I sat staring out a moving bus window playing one of those eye games we play as telephone poles race by.  The wires go down, then up, a flash of a pole then down then up… on and on.  Then I was drawn to trees close to the road as they raced by, nothing but a blur of barren Ohio branches, and in your mind's ear you can hear them whoosh by.  Then I was drawn to the trees further out which moved more slowly.  Then I saw a picture that has stuck with me ever since. 

I saw a house with trees in the yard and time slowed to a crawl.  It was a simple house with a porch.  It was a porch with a couple of chairs.  It was a house with an empty dirt driveway on a Thursday afternoon.  But I saw it all.  You see, there must have been a yellow Ford truck that belonged to that driveway but, at the moment, it was sitting in the parking lot of a factory where its owner worked a simple job.  He came home from his job every day to his wife and his two kids.  He sat on the porch with his best friend (who helped him lay a new roof on his house last fall) and drank Bud Light while children swung and laughed in the tire swing hung from a tall tree in the front yard.  He was saving for his kids' college and for retirement.  He didn't have anything fancy but he had much to love.  He was an honest man.  It's not that he didn't have unfulfilled longings and aspirations of his own.  It's that he knew better and accepted his life in honesty and he was better and wiser for it.  The people around him were better for it too.  I almost lifted a hand to wave out the window to his empty porch and empty driveway.  A small, noisy part of me wished I had been built the same simple way but the rest of me couldn't stomach the thought of risking such a change.

I looked across the bus at Bebo who had by now become a friend of mine.  (Bebo Norman is the singer/songwriter I was on tour with at the time.)  The melancholy that settles in two-thirds way through a tour is a shared experience and I knew he was feeling it too.  I said, "Hey Bebo, don't you wish sometimes you lived where the trees stand still?"

He wrote this song which describes the feeling perfectly.

Today my trees stand pretty still but they're getting restless.  I hear the wind rustling the leaves.

Sometimes lost is where you need to be

Battlestar Galactica, in my humble opinion, might actually be the greatest story ever told.  I'm not kidding.  I'll save my reasons for another day but let me share this one little gem with you.  I'll try not to spoil the plot so please forgive me if my description sounds cryptic.

By the last season, every character has suffered devastating disillusionment.  Starbuck has suffered more than most because she possibly had the greatest role in humanity's hope for salvation and end of suffering.  Those hopes were left undone, untied, unsettled… for everyone.

Proverbs 13:12 says, "Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life."  Well, in the story so far, everyone's heart is sick because they don't know the end that their brilliant writers have penned for them.  They could not predict it because it's such a left turn.  Sadly, they're giving up one by one, each with a different threshold of tolerance for disappointment.

A piano player (possibly angelic) tells Starbuck, "Listen, you may feel like hell. But, sometimes, lost is where you need to be. Just because you don't know your direction doesn't mean you don't have one."

All we children of God, I think to myself sometimes, feel so lost and alone, each one.  I'm dramatic like that.  It's the One Thing I find that unifies us mortals and gives us little pieces of flat ground to stand on.  You know… like those poor sheep and cattle fenced in on the sides of tall, grassy hills. I often imagine one of them happening upon a small piece of flat ground and wondering to themselves in a flash of enlightenment, "This feels strangely normal… though I've never heard the word… but yes that must be the word… Nor-Mal… and I've never felt anything like it…"  (I digress.)  It's a touchstone of reality, this common feeling that we are uniquely alone that ironically makes us feel not so alone after we see it.  It's the "lost" part we don't do well with. Sure, we're all alone but surely I'm one of the few, the weak, the Lost.

The way I see it is that alone *is* lost.  We all feel it:  The out-of-control-ness, the out-of-my-hands-ness, the I-didn't-ephing-get-to-vote-on-how-this-life-should-go-ness.  Some of us have more of a handle on it than others but so what?  It still remains.

At the same time, I see it like this:  My story isn't over.  It has a brilliant writer.  In fact, it would be as impossible for me to guess the end as much as for our heroine, Starbuck, to guess while she sits spitefully on a piano bench defying the messenger of a greater truth.  And even if I'm wrong, I'd rather die a soul with spark than a soul whose spark extinguished long ago.  Maybe that hopeful spark is more important than "reality" because at the end of the game we die.  I'd rather die with spark.

One of my favorite quotes is, "Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle."  I would be as bold as to say that our great battles boil down to feeling lost.  I would be even bolder to suggest that we should be kind to ourselves when we feel so.  And maybe, if I were really bold, I'd take it one more step and say hey, just because you don't know your direction doesn't mean you don't have one. 

Sometimes lost is where you need to be.

Vanity

you said you wanted to dance
under the moonlight like ghosts,
but before twilight we wandered
into the woods like lost children

we pondered and wondered,
lost our handhold,
lost our foothold,
lost our way

with dusk behind us,
darkness overtaking us,
blindness threatening us,
you asked

what was that you just said about me?

My Sweetheart the Drunk

With eyes low and beautiful she wonders what time the morning curtains will slide open and ponders stretching the time between here and there.  A slender finger saunters around a martini's lipsticked-shiny-edge and tugs on the dreams of some other night's slumber.  

Head still, her eyes drift upward, lips bright and ready to speak what is about to be on her mind. "What's that?" I ask before her first word.  My gaze rests on her bare shoulder.

Tiny, tender slurs flit and flutter from her mouth.  "If I make it to bed tonight… you can have me," with an effortful wink and squeaky giggle.  Then, an abrupt turn and flailing-arm-finger-pointing, "Otherwise just leave me on the couch, over… oh… no… Here!  That's where."  "Oh, OK."

For a breath or two, the world becomes muted and slow-motioned like an outdoor-midnight-winter-minute in Montana when pillowy clouds hang low over glistening snow; sounds like you're in a closet only imagining you're outside.  Her eyes drift shut.  "Oh no, not here," I whisper-beg as she slips away.  It's not a real sleep but it might as well be.

The tv just flickers.