A Scatter of Song

lakeA 19th-century chapel sits atop a hill above Lake Geneva, its octagonal walls bracing a sanctum of quietude against Wisconsin gales. Strings of lights stretch in a broad constellation above the heads of the worshipers, bulbs dangling like galaxies on a string. In the midst of empty space, each tiny, self-contained glimmer connects to all the others by a hidden current.

Among other things, the chapel and its surrounding camp have been the site of an annual gathering of musicians and listeners called Escape to the Lake. This conference has been my family vacation for two years now. My wife and I pack our growing brood of small children into the van—Fiver is its name, after the character from Watership Down—and venture the northward miles toward Chicago and beyond. With four kids, people look at us as though we are insane. This is because we are.

If there is a theme of the gathering, it is the interweaving of beauty and truth. That alone makes it difficult to categorize. Strange and wonderful things happen in such a place. The most peculiar part of the week for me was a passing comment—almost an afterthought.

A gray-haired man and his wife sat on the lawn in Adirondack chairs. I was hurrying on my way to do something that seemed important at the time, and probably was. Yet there, in the ocean of my haste, the man dropped a pebble.

“Thank you for your ministry,” he said.

“Oh,” I said, “thank you. I’m glad you guys could be a part of the weekend.”

I had nothing to offer in return except my platitudes. I meant what I said, but the mutual exchange of grace that transpires between player and listener has always been too large for me to describe with simple pleasantries. Being onstage, you never know exactly what other people are feeling and how your work affects them.

“We really appreciate your ministry,” the man and his wife continued.

It was a bit unnerving, being at the business end of such goodness. How could they know the depth they had just touched?

I’ve spent large portions of my life swimming in a soup of Christian jargon and esoterica. Words like ‘ministry’ fly by so often that I forget what they mean. For this, I blame not the speakers, but myself and my lack of attention. My temptation is to disregard any such statement out of hand. Yet, even in my relative mental gloaming, the unearthly glow of the Holy Ghost breaks through on occasion. Often, it’s through the smallest word.

My ministry? I write and play songs, for goodness’ sake. In my head, I hear Oliver Reed’s Proximo from Gladiator: “As for me, I’m an entertainer.” But is there more to art than entertainment? Could it truly be ministry? To our everlasting detriment, we American churchgoers tend to prefer our ministry neat. Being venture capitalists by tradition, we like hard numbers. We want stacks of little decision-cards from when those neon spandex clad muscle-men preached Philippians at our church. We want reports of salvation prayers from adolescent camp counselors. And who could forget official church membership as a metric for salvation? These things can be written in ledgers, filed away, and taken for granted after the initial accounting, reducing ministry to a tidy office enterprise.

The lie of neatness, for me, is that ministry only goes one direction. That is to say, I often bow to the falsity that others can minister to me in a certain fashion—through creative expression—but that I have no business calling my efforts at songs and stories ministry. Having often been brought through art to glimpses of the Gospel’s whelming magnitude, how could it be that something I made—something I touched—would become that same catalyst for someone else? The very idea seems too large and wonderful to comprehend.

Bless the Holy Ghost for being like a wind that blows. “You cannot tell whence it comes, or whither it goes.” It caresses your sweaty face one moment and tears your house away the next. It makes us work out our salvation not with certainty and brazenness, but fear and trembling.

Art, like the Spirit that often inspires it, is rarely neat, and like that same Spirit, it often both comforts and afflicts us. Consider Warner Herzog’s documentary Grizzly Man, which leaves the viewer wondering about the lines between passion and insanity. Or, take Derek Webb’s album Stockholm Syndrome, which pointed an admittedly self-incriminating finger at both the Church’s over-meticulous aversion to strong language and her failures in addressing HIV/AIDS in the homosexual community. Or look at one of my favorite books, Subjects With Objects, a collection of impressionistic and often surreal paintings by Jonathan Richter with attendant poems by DKM. Most of the dialogue is darkly comic, expressing the hopes and failures of daily human strife. The common thread running between all these is one of posing questions by forcing at least two people—the artist and the listener or viewer—to rub elbows.

There are obvious and encouraging pieces of that comfort-affliction paradox in my own life. After a thousand hearings, I still draw deep breaths and close my eyes with longing when I hear the late James Horner’s Braveheart soundtrack. In the end, both the opening motif and the execution motif weave together over a deep-chested throng of brass and strings, and I either tear up or weep openly. My desire is not merely for the story, nor even for Scotland—strong though those desires be. I want the country where they invented sound and made it beautiful. I feel its echo in the timbre and the chords—and I feel its absence.

Makoto Fujimura’s “Walking on Water—Azurite” is another catalytic piece for me. It’s an explosion of blue coming through a broad caul of white. It gives you the feeling that you’re lying on your back and staring at the sky. The azure is deep—too deep, as if it’s holding secrets behind its eyes—and it climbs out of the background looking like a rift of hope in a blanket of hurricane. If I stare at the painting for longer than a few seconds, redemptive stories come to mind.

I can smell the ash in Eliot’s “Burnt Norton” and “East Coker,” feeling the well of frustration at constant striving, the depression at the notion that life was somehow simpler in the bygone world. Reading Four Quartets, I taste the salt in the tears of the Fall. In Rich Mullins’ “Calling Out Your Name,” I can feel the silver weight of moonlight on the Nebraska prairie and the “fury in a pheasant’s wings.” These things do indeed tell me, as the song says, that “the Lord is in His temple.”

I feel this way when under the influence of these works because I have flesh and blood. In the main, the ministry of art is the ministry of being human. The better a piece—be it song or painting or sculpture or dance—is at expressing humanity, the more artistic it is capable of being. Thus, artists speak to listeners and to viewers, and according to Christian doctrine, when this happens within the context of the Body of Christ, the Holy Ghost in one believer speaks to the Holy Ghost in another believer. Deep calls unto deep. Iron sharpens iron. Church happens.

I don’t, of course, mean to say that I can trade looking at good paintings and listening to good music for being part of a church. But I do mean to say both church and art are great at breaking down those empirical metrics we use when we think of ministry. Mostly, I feel a rush of relief when I find that beauty and truth are valuable, in defiance of all my mustered pragmatism. It’s a value in which I’m finally beginning to trust.

“Cast your bread upon the waters,” says the teacher in Ecclesiastes, “and after many days you will find it again.”

I’ve quoted this verse innumerable times to various artists and songwriters, hoping to provide a measure of encouragement in a craft that often feels like flinging crumbs at the sea. The truth is that I have a hard time believing it myself, even after years of being encouraged at the hands of great artists. My susceptibility to lies means that work often seems futile when I’m on the other side of the song, holding the pen or the guitar in my own hands. And yet.

“Thank you for your ministry,” they said, lounging happily in their Adirondack chairs.

Older people (an increasingly thinning category as I age) tend to say things that ring true. I don’t know what my songs or anyone else’s songs did for these folks. I may never know. What I do know is that I strung together a few words and some chords. In some strange, human way, it made sense to me at the time. Thanks be to God, it made sense to someone else, too. The current between us is hidden, but it is nonetheless present. Lights, strung through the empty air of a chapel atop a hill. The wind blows where it will.

Escape to the Lake will be happening this year at Cedar Lake, IN, August 8-11! Get your tickets now at Escapetothelake.net. This year will feature Sara Groves, Mike Farris, Eric Peters, Giants & Pilgrims, and a whole host of other amazing artists. Adam Whipple will also be there, hovering over a receptacle of coffee like a moth to a flame.

1 Comment

  1. Heidi Wheeler
    Mar 24, 2016

    This was absolutely beautiful, Adam. I love this piece, it captured so much of what is in Josh and my hearts. Thank you for your ‘ministry” of writing, too. 🙂

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