Sunday, April 10, 2016

"Resurrection Fields and Country Music"

On this third Sunday of Easter, we continue to celebrate the new life offered to us during this season, with the glory of spring all around us on our campus.  Oh wait, it seems to still be winter, despite the calendar.  It must be some kind of cosmic joke, but the snow did make the campus look pristine for a few days.  There is so much beauty to see when spring comes in earnest, but we get even busier.  There is so much going on, every day on this campus. 

How should we approach the new life that is all around us now?  The Easter season is all about new life, and learning how to live more fully into God’s victory over suffering and death.  In the Easter showings of the Risen Jesus, there is a gap between initial perception and a full recognition of the resurrected Jesus, as you heard in John’s gospel this morning with Peter seeing a stranger on the beach.  Then he sees that the stranger is the risen Jesus.  There is a breakthrough of seeing in all of the resurrection appearances, a beautiful new way of being with the Risen Lord, one that is surprising and deeply personal.  Resurrection makes sense of the past, even the most heartbreaking events, even our worst failures and stupid decisions.  There is still the chance to live anew, with full hearts.  These moments of encounter with Christ transfigure seemingly ordinary events, like the simple scene of fishing with Peter and the other disciples.  Simple events become loaded with joy.  New life can hit us the same way in our daily rounds.

            I know something about the dawning gap between initial perception and then spiritual recognition; of being clueless about what is really going on, and then suddenly getting the big picture.  My story, which will be very scary to some of you, has to do with music.  I’m not talking about rap, indie rock, hip hop, classic rock, house music, classical, jazz, or even Motown.  What’s left?  Uh Oh. 

That’s right.  My scary resurrection story this morning is about… country music.

            Just a show of hands: how many country music fans are in chapel today? 

            When I was young and unwise, I hated country music.  It was hate.  I was a hater.  At best, I thought it was a cultural nuisance.  But, over the many years of my life, something changed.  I changed.  Like St. Paul on the road to Damascus, I saw the light.  And I blame Easter for the change, this new life I am living.  I blame resurrection, that wild, unpredictable force that makes all things new, even musical genres once rejected by a teenager.  There is a prayer from the Good Friday liturgy which helped me understand that my world could change drastically, even overnight.  The prayer goes like this: “…let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new.”  For me, this is country music. 

So here’s my sad story, my small-change Easter miracle.  I grew up in a small, agricultural town called Turlock, California.  Actually, compared to Kent, Turlock is huge, but so is almost anywhere.  The subject matter of country music songs always seemed dangerously close to my life growing up in Turlock.  At my high school, your social status could go sky high by driving to school in a pickup truck…or having a new tractor on your farm.  You may have heard the tractor lyrics from that Kenny Chesney song.   

            “She thinks my tractor’s sexy…”  You’ve heard this one? 

            “She thinks my tractor’s sexy

She’s always starin’ at me

as I’m chuggin’ along.”

That was my hometown.  I didn’t have a pickup truck or a tractor: I was the outsider, the persecuted intellectual.  I actually rode a bicycle to school.   

            What scared me most about country music was the twang.  You know exactly what I mean.  It seemed to emanate from an agrarian madness, undoubtedly classifiable as a type of mental illness.  And yes, I feared the fever because it was Southern.  Forgive me, Lord, I knew not what I did.  This madness might run in my family if I weren’t very, very careful.  There was a lot of pesticide used in the Central Valley of California.  I grew up in the age of crop dusters.  Who knows about the long-term effects?

            But back to the twang.  Its dangerous alchemy has finally gotten the best of me; my inner redneck has fully surfaced.  The twang for me is a kind of lunacy, a bemused and crazy peace of mind, which carries us forward more or less gracefully, even when the past wasn’t graceful or pleasant.  The twang carries with it the wounds of the past, but somehow the burden is different, transformed, even lifted.  There is a new order: our lows become highs, we have indeed rolled with the many punches that life has to offer.  I am starting to sound like a country singer myself. 

The pesticide is no doubt kicking in. 

            As an English teacher, I also couldn’t help but notice that many country songs are ballads.  They are stories about the human experience, our common ground.  Some of the funniest lyrics can also be found in country songs, and today you will hear some of them.  The weird lyrics, the wacky expression, the absolutely preposterous rhyme can wake you up—like a Zen koan—snapping you into a new reality. 

Here’s a sample of country music lyrics for you, as we continue in this Easter season.

“I bought a car from a guy who stole my girl, but it don’t run so we’re even.”

That one often hits you later.  It will sneak up on you, probably at brunch.

“If the phone doesn’t ring, that’ll be me.”

That one is also a little sneaky.

            “I’d lie to you for your love, and that’s the truth.”

            “There’s dirt roads and white lines and all kinds of stop signs, I’ll stay right where I’m at, ‘cause I wear my own kind of hat.”

            And another.

            “Easy is getting harder every day.”  Perfect for April, when we think we’re on the home stretch. 

            Here’s a good one for surviving at Kent School.

            “I know I’m crazy, but it keeps me from going insane.”

            Country singers are also obsessed with geography lessons, mostly around the Southern region of this nation. 

            “How I wish Dallas was in Tennessee.  If I could move Texas east, she’d be here with me.”

            “You walked across my heart like it was Texas and taught me how to say I just don’t care.”

            “All my x’s live in Texas, therefore I reside in Tennessee.”

            As you can see, the Texas-Tennessee dynamic is frequently referenced.

            Here’s one that manages to cross the border.

            “I’m stuck here in Mexico living on refried dreams.”           

            And no discussion of country music would be complete without the wonderful, sometimes tragic, often comic, relations between men and women.  Unfortunately, this section had to be heavily edited for chapel, especially all the honky tonk references.

            “I gotta girl who’s got her own money.  Somebody slap me, I can’t be this happy.”

            That one has a kind of feminist ring to it.  I think.  Then again, I’m not so sure.

            “You don’t have to call me darling, darling, ‘cause you never even call me by my name.”

“You can’t have your Kate and Edith too.”

“I got you on my conscience, but at least you’re off my back.”

Country music is also unafraid when it comes to religious faith and God.  The best lyrics in this category, in my opinion, come from Iris DeMent:

“Some say once gone, you’re gone forever

And some say you’re gonna come back

Some say you rest in the arms of the Savior

If in sinful ways you lack

Some say you’re gonna come back in a garden

Bunch of carrots and sweet little peas

I think I’ll just let the mystery be.”

Here’s another classic in the religion section.

“I’ve been roped and throwed by Jesus in the Holy Ghost corral.”

Here’s one that subtly combines religion and romance.

“I fell in the water that you walked on.”  I really like that one.

And this last famous line brings together religion and football, which are virtually indistinguishable in the South anyway.

            “Drop kick me Jesus through the goal posts of life.

            End over end, neither left nor right

            Straight through the heart of them righteous uprights

Drop kick me Jesus through the goal posts of life.”

            Though football no longer uses the drop kick, that song will live forever.  (Actually Doug Flutie did a drop kick with the New England Patriots.  It is still legal.).  But the twang of country is a double-edged sword.  For all of its mighty humor, country music is at its best in the expression of sadness and sorrow.

            “Dreams don’t make any noise when they die.”

            This next lyric comes from “Star of Bethlehem” by Neil Young.

            “Ain’t it hard when you wake up in the morning

            and you find out that those other days are gone.

            All you have is memories of happiness,

            Lingerin’ on.”

            And the very best of them all, from Patsy Cline.

            “I sing just like I hurt inside.”

There is a kind of moral wisdom here in all of these lyrics that steadies people through hard times.  In the language of country music, the music makes better people out of worse people.  The song allows you to get from where you are now to the person and place you’re supposed to be, even when life is at its worst.  Hard times are democratic.  They come to everyone. 

            In country music, the broken heart is never the last word.  Like the season of Easter, there is no quit in country.  It goes the distance, and so can you.  We can all grow strong at the broken places, letting our sorrow mix with the Easter joy that comes from God.  May God bless all of us--in our remaining time together this year. 

I’ll close this morning with the sweet words from a song by Tom T. Hall.

“I love honest open smiles

Kisses from a child,

Tomatoes on a vine,

And onions.

I love winners when they cry,

Losers when they try

Music when it’s good,

And Life.         

And I love you too.”

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