Friday, December 17, 2010

My New Commission.

I was just standing there, after a show at the Laurie Beechman, when Father Jeff Hamblin came up to me with a big smile on his face.

"Hey, I want to commission you to write a song for my upcoming consecration service. The Bishop will be there." 

It was the first time anyone ever blindsided me like before. I mean, I written songs for people and I've written songs for events. But no one ever came up to me and just said they'd pay me to write a song, at least, as far as I remember. (New World Waking was commissioned, but it was largely written before the SFGMC made the offer.)

"Sure," I said. "When is the service?"

"Next week," he responded, his grin expanding ever wider.

Next week.

"Yes. The service is on December 17th." (That's tonight, of course, as I'm writing this blog entry).

And that, dear reader, is what I've been doing for the past week: Walking around in a daze, writing and rewriting this song. (I've also been attending to some urgent personal matters that involve health care. Moving from L.A. to NY has presented some problems, which I will talk about at another time).

I asked him, "Well, what do you want the song to be about?"

He said, "The mission of the church. You know. And it's my 30th anniversary of being in the ministry."

The story grows bigger. This is not just "Hey, write me a nice tune." His consecration as pastor of the church, with Bishop in attendance, and it's his 30th anniversary in the ministry. 


In previous times, I probably would have been terrified at the prospect. But, calmly, I just said yes. Why not? I love writing songs and I've discovered, over the years, that I love writing songs about people I've met, telling  their stories.

But still, the timing. 

If anything terrified me, it was that. I usually don't know if a song I've written is any good or not until weeks after it's written. All new songs sound like The Greatest Song Ever Written while you're writing it. It has to. That's what drives you while you're in the moment of creation.

(This is also what slays many new writers. That song that they felt was the Greatest Song Ever Written, which, in the cold light of a few weeks later turned out to be The Worst Song Ever Written, makes them mistrust their talent and instincts. "How could I have been so wrong?").

But, a song about the mission of the church. 

Big subject. 

So, I wrote to him later and said, "Write me a short essay. If this song were a speech, what would you want it to say?"

As Sondheim famously said, once, Don't ask me to write a love song. Ask me to write a song about a woman with yellow purse who walks into a bar... etc. In other words, give me details. What do you want to say?

He sent me a note and the essence of it was how he believes that music is the one element in a service that actually draws God into the room. It's why he's been so fierce about establishing a strong music program there at Christ Church.



(I've posted pictures of the beautiful building, but I'm not a member of the congregation. And though I usually will sing a solo, one of my own songs, I really am, officially, just a member of the choir. A choir filled with exquisitely fine singers, by the way, all hand-picked by Mark. Last night, at rehearsal, I sat next to Adam Hemming West. You cannot believe this guy's soaring tenor voice, not to mention the fact that he's a great musician and arranger/conductor himself. He and I relate to each other, too, because he also was, in his youth, involved in Contemporary Christian music. I was doing that way back in the 70s, just after Love Song upended the Christian music market, which had, until then, consisted almost solely of Gospel quartets, ala the Oak Ridge Boys or the Imperials. But I'm trailing off here, aren't I? But, the truth is, I used to be kind of ashamed of my past, especially after came out and witnessed how horribly "my people" have been treating gay people. This whole thing about these anti-gay conservative Christian groups being designated at hate groups -- they still think it's because they oppose homosexuality, rather than how they oppose it, but all of this resides in the background as I was writing this song. Yes. Religion can be like a mental illness, and Christians seem to become mentally ill when they confront homosexuality. And all this is going around in my head.)

And here I am back in church singing. 

But what he said. That music literally brings God into a room.

It goes against every anti-supernaturalist bone in my Recovering Baptist body. 

Literally bring God into the room? Is that what Fr. Jeff was saying? 

No, wait. He said something else. "I want to bring musical healing."

I worried for a moment, because, well, I've already written "My Thanksgiving Prayer," which, thanks to the beautiful lyrics by Peter Carman, expresses musical healing. No way to top that. No, the song can contain the element of musical healing but it has to be about something else.

This brought me back to my dad, to his two ministries. Trinity Baptist in Santa Ana, California -- we lived in Anaheim -- and his small town east Texas Baptist pastorship. (I was born in Little Rock, moved to LA area when I was five, went back to Louisiana when I was a freshman in high school, and then moved to Buna, Texas a year later.

Lots of opinions on what the mission of a church should be. But what Fr. Jeff, who also works at a hospital, I think believes, is that when you bring great music to a church, if you build that program first, the music itself will become a healing instrument because you're literally bringing God into the room in a way that even post-modern skeptical people can feel. 

You don't have to "believe" in music for music it to have power. Music is just music. And maybe God is just God. 

Feeling that the word "mission" isn't particularly singable -- MSSSSSH-un. Miiiiii-shun. Amy Shapiro said to me, "How about calling?"

Ah, now that's a nice word. It's not only vocal, but the word itself describes what a voice can do. Call. To call. A calling.

And what is a calling? 30 years, Fr. Jeff has been ministering. And what does it mean to minister? What if you think of the word "minister" like this -- like a nurse ministering to a wound. What if the church thought of itself as a source of healing to a wounded community? 

I look out at the congregation there in Bay Ridge and I see very humble, kind people who don't really have a lot of money. At least, that's my perception. I see one man who comes with a little basket, and he gets some canned food to take home. 

The lyrics to a song are inscribed in the painted scrolls on the walls over the choir loft and behind the altar.
This is a humble congregation of people living and working close to the ground. And they're doing it in this gorgeous, gorgeous sanctuary. 

The thing about a calling, whether it's to minister, to be a doctor, a teacher, a lawyer -- whatever drives you to fulfill your calling is not that it's a calling, but that it's so much more. It's who you are as a person. 

If Fr. Jeff and this congregation -- and the building itself -- are being consecrated as an instrument of healing, then it's because they have no other choice. It's who they are. It's what they do. Sure, they need a leader. But I've seen the little post-service coffee fellowship grow from a few, to a few dozen over the months that I've been there. 

Musical healing. A call for life.

When I first began singing at Christ Church, I wasn't sure I really belonged. But I cannot say no to anyone who wants me to sing my music, especially if they find it to be meaningful, or healing. But as I find myself worrying about tonight, and whether I'll make a mistake, or whether the song "The Call" is any "good" or not, I realize that that's not the point. The point is that this is an honor for me. Not because some "bishop" will be there, or because it's a "big" event, though I'm sure those are marvelous things.

Something else comes to mind as I ponder all this. Thanks to Facebook, I've been reconnecting with all my old pals and roommates from Jacksonville Baptist College. Some of them want to get me saved. Some of them are horrified at how Baptists treat gays. Some don't think much about either way; they just love me and are happy to be back in contact.

But when I was at JBC, I felt utterly alone in my Fabulous Gayness. And, to this day, I still would not be welcome back there. I'm an errant sinner on the road to hell, or something.

But here. The honor is that I get to be with these people. I get to sing in a church again, with great musicians and singers, and I can come "just as I am." And, may I say,  we are having some fun. With trumpets! And a cello!

If you want to come to the mass, it starts at 6:30pm.

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For my birthday, also St. Francis of Assisi Day,

here is "Rescue" the song I sang to Erika Amato 's Buddy the dog. Imagine if we loved humans as much as we love our animals...