There are the stories we live by.
Sometimes we become them, sometimes they haunt us, sometimes we try to drink or smoke or fuck them away, sometimes they are old friends who guide and encourage us, sometimes they are measures by which we measure what we know we should have or could have been, sometimes they are that single thread by which we still hold on to this life - the lifeline that the old Gospel songs speak of.
The scriptures contain stories that are all of the above for me.
I grew up in a home wherein there could be nothing but that imprint. This doesn't result in a love for them in any sentimental sense. I'd say most of my adult life my relationship to the scriptures has been one of anger and arrogance mixed with later-than-should-have-come epiphany and rootedness. The scriptures are my intellectual hometown, I know their act backwards and forwards - half the time I'm sick of it, but I get pissed when somebody puts them down or suggests that they are not good enough, and they know me better than I know myself, they knew and know my people, and they know I ain't so special, well, nowhere near as special as I think I am.
God's word and I frequently start conversations with a "who the hell do you think you are?" look in the eyes, but like small town neighbors, our actual conversations are more civil.
But this post isn't about scriptures, it is about the stories that make us, that linger in the middle of life and past it.
My best friend in this life is David, my old bible college roommate. I'm not sure what "best friend" really means. There are only three men I know who I would apply that designation to, and Dave is the longest and the one who most matter of factly accepts it. I sure as hell have not been "best friend" to him. Hell, I was supposed to be best man in his wedding and cancelled last minute, financially broke (life theme?), in the middle of a broken marriage, and not able to get the coverage at work to get there. I had once even advised him against marrying that girl at one point (never take my advice, I never place good bets, and you can be damn sure I ain't wise), though time since has made it clear that the marriage was and is a miracle - in the sense that two people loving each other for decades on end and bearing fruit of love, and life, and hospitality, and the welcome and peace of Christ is always, everywhere and anywhere, a miracle. No doubt I have let Dave down many times. But he never tells me that. Unlike me, condemnation is not his way. Story is.
He has made my life so rich with stories.
Years ago, Dave had cancer. Lymphoma. He was diagnosed when we lived together at college. One day he took his shirt off and asked me what I thought about a lump on his chest, not far from his collar bone. It was larger than a gold ball. Soon after he went to a doctor. I ended up going with him there. When we (his friends at college) had a bit of an impromptu service for him before he left home to get treatment, I ran off to the kitchen and back to the chapel with a little bit of canola oil, and we blessed him, and as I made the sign of the cross on his forehead with oil (what spiritual arrogance! I know), I told him that God would kill him if He had to in order to save him.
As you might imagine, dear reader, I had some confidence in my own spiritual prowess, meaning, I was a damn fool. I had seen horrible suffering in the world but other than one bad night my senior year of high school, had hardly experienced any of it. But the God who speaks through jackasses struck a nerve with Dave that moment, or so Dave has told me over the years.
Dave got engaged with Rachel shortly before he left home for cancer treatment. Rachel, who was also from Ohio like Dave and I, was from an Assemblies of God home and came to our bible college, shall we say, very Assemblies of God. I could not stand her at first (hence the early on recommendation to Dave about not hitching up with her). Later I would end up in Mexico doing mission work with her when Dave was at home doing the cancer thing and she would tell me all about abuse she suffered as a kid from an extended relative, and I would follow a pattern I have many a time in life and eat some crow. Seeing her in Mexico speaking Spanish and interacting with street kids, including young male prostitutes, also signaled to me that my previous impressions were off. Here was a young woman who was broken, who had some awareness of her brokenness, which is rather rare among young people, and, I could tell, loved Dave in part because he was so differently and wonderfully open about his own brokenness.
Some time later, my ex wife and Rachel and I would drive Rachel to Dave's house in Marion, Ohio during one of our school breaks. Dave's people are from Arkansas (another congruity in our lives) and his mother frequently sent me applesauce cookies when I was at bible college. Dave's family, with whom Dave was living during his treatment, lives in a trailer park outside Marion. I was completely exhausted that trip, having driven through the night to get there and just plain tired anyway, from work and school and life stuff that was not going well. I recall a huge fight with my ex wife on the way there, with Rachel's words finally shutting me up. That anger was so under the skin, always, then. When we got there I remember Dave's mom making pancakes in a cast iron skillet still holding a good amount of bacon grease, and serving those pancakes and bacon with sausage and biscuits, and me thinking, after over a year in Minnesota, "thank God, a woman who can cook proper food." I slept in a big bed in a bedroom at the end of the trailer a good bit of the time there.
When it was time for me, my ex Heather, and Rachel to head back to Minnesota Dave's dad shook my hand. His handshake hurt it was so firm (and I don't think I have a pansy handshake). He looked me square in the eye.
"Son, thank you for coming here. Thank you for bringing Rachel. That should cover your gas."
In his handshake was some cash. I nodded and said something politeish, I don't remember what. I put the cash in my pocket.
Later, after we were on our way, I checked the cash and it was nearly $300. I drove a Ford Escort. Gas was not that expensive then. He lived in a trailer park and his son was dying of cancer. If I had been a man of any virtue, I would have made sure some of that money went back to Dave's dad.. I didn't. Lord knows how I spent what went beyond the travel expenses. It probably went towards books I wanted. Fucking words.
5 years after Dave recovered from cancer his doctor released the records of Dave's treatment to Dave and Dave's family. In it were notes in which the doctor described having difficulty because he knew this kid was going to die, but Dave kept insisting to him that the Lord would save him. At one point in the notes the Doctor frustratedly expresses that he just doesn't know how to get through to this kid that he is going to die.
But back to Dave's dad. Stories. One time, when Dave was an elementary school aged kid living in Arkansas, they had a neighbor whose car died. Dave's dad gave him the only vehicle Dave's family had because, as Dave's dad figured, the neighbor man had seven miles each way to get to work, and Dave's dad could walk the one mile he had to cover in order to get to work and to town for needed things without as much trouble.
Dave's dad moved himself and his family from rural Arkansas to Marion, Ohio because he had gotten a word from the Lord in which he was told that the unification of all Christian churches would take place in Marion. They moved into the trailer park I visited. For some years, Dave's dad, a chain smoker then and so far as I know still now, rode a kid's style bike for miles going to and from work. The last time I visited Dave's family in Ohio, his dad was working on a house he and Dave built on a little piece of land with a tiny pond.
One time back in the day Dave's dad pastored a tiny little church on the side of his day job, when he was in Marion. When preaching one Sunday, another man in the parish challenged his interpretation of scripture during the sermon. A fist fight ensued, right during the middle of the sermon. The pastor gig didn't last much longer. Though when Dave first told me that story there was something in his eyes that shared with me a belief that the Gospel meant something more than many a suburban kid could possibly know.
Speaking of eyes, I can remember looking into Dave's dad's eyes when he gave me that cash filled handshake like it was yesterday. That moment still kind of haunts me. Here was a man. Whatever the world calls crazy, however much a hard ass he may have been and for all I know still be, here was a man. I have known some famous people in my lifetime. I have made small talk and sat beside well known politicians. I have known (at least on a nominal level) and worked for some very wealthy and powerful men. But there are perhaps a score of men I have known in my life of whom I will say, there is a man. A person who I have complete confidence will suffer whatever comes in pursuit of what he believes God demands him to do in the moment of suffering. A person who is not and never can be bought or sold. A person who sacrifices for his family (Dave's father raised four kids in that trailer) without any hint of resentment. My father is such a man. Dave's father is such a man. They both have their faults. But they are men. I'm 41 years old and I don't know that I could call myself a man yet without being facetious. I can't even support my family. Our age doesn't seem so keen on producing men.
That stubborn and straightforward spirit didn't fall far from the tree. I remember one time going to a movie with Dave when Dave let his Arkansas out. We were getting snacks before the movie and they had some deal where if you spent 25 cents more you could "upgrade" from a medium drink to an extra large drink. Dave ordered a medium size drink. The dude in the ridiculous mimicry of a train ticket taker outfit behind the counter told him about the deal - if Dave would just spend 25 cents more, he could have a cup of soda the size of a gas tank on a Volkswagen Bug. Dave said "no thanks." Odd uniform dude said "but for only 25 cents more you can get this much more" as he held up both cups. Dave said, "no thanks, I'll take the medium." Maroon velvet vested dude: "but you get so much more for just 25 cents." Dave: "I don't want more." Teenage corporate pawn: "but it is such a better deal!" Dave: "I said I want the medium, what do I have to do to get the medium?" Slightly shocked popcorn serving lackey: "But everyone gets the extra large; it's so much more for your money!" Dave: "GIVE ME THE MEDIUM OR GET ME YOUR MANAGER. THE EXTRA LARGE WILL MAKE ME HAVE TO PEE DURING THE MOVIE. I WANT TO WATCH ALL OF THE MOVIE." People all around us were staring and taking note of the situation at this point. Dave got his medium sized soft drink.
Dave survived his cancer. The oncologist, in his notes, made clear that he was not a believing man, but that he didn't know what to call it other than a miracle. Which is true statement, but the secularists are so mundane with their use of that word. Dave is the miracle. His humility, his love, his forbearance, his making straight broken things, his determined and unwavering kindness, his sometimes irritating to those of us who are hurried patience - those are miracles of which I have no other explanation than divine allowance. Dave's recovery from cancer is an icing on the cake, now twenty years later, and four kids of his own after the medical professionals told him that all the radiation and chemo were such that he would never have kids.
His kids are wonderful, by the way. Human, bearing a patrimony of brokenness that they do not yet understand, but will - you can see the "but will" in their eyes. Full of love and laughter. Gems on the crown of a good life.
Years ago, when I was going through my divorce, Dave told me that I needed to become close friends with Matt Lockerby, another bible college buddy. As some of you know, I took that admonition seriously, and the Lockerbys, themselves no strangers to horrid sufferings, have been the couple closest to Joy and I over the years. When Dave first told me that I thought he was crazy. It turned out he was prescient. Matt and I share vagabond hearts. My wife and Matt's wife Esther became soul mates many years ago.
When Dave and I were freshmen in bible college Rich Mullin's album A Liturgy, a Legacy, & a Ragamuffin Band came out. We listened to it over and over and over again. I read Brennan Manning, an inspiration of that album, and went to hear him speak a half dozen times in the next few years. I had had some interactions with Mullins during my teens, and considered myself an expert on his ethos and spirituality. Dave just took his music and words in. And lived it.
Dave and I both came to bible college with guitars, but Dave actually played his. Unlike a lot of Evangelical kids at Christian colleges, Dave was never really keen on just mimicking the typical praise and worship motifs that other guitarists were into. Like Mullins, music and story were inextricable for him. The guitar has always been his language, his first voice.
Dave is a quiet soul. Which isn't to say mute or diminutive. He makes his living, at a church, talking to people and organizing social things. But as I have gone about the world looking for battles, Dave has been content to let them come to him. His initial inclination to encountered phenomenon is to sit and compose a response. After decades of keeping this all to himself, he has begun to make public his inner musical life.
Take, for instance, his song Hannabelle. Listen to it twice.
Last year Dave released his first full length album, Mountain in the Sea: A Griever's Hymnal. It brought tears to my eyes as it brought to fruition so much of the silence and words of the time that I have known Dave.
This year he released a followup, Plane Takes the Sky.
And yesterday he sent me the link to his newest single release, Hands.
When, at a bit past mid age, you have known a person for longer than you have not, a person who has known you in all the cringe-worthiness and energy of your youth, and the ordinariness and lacklusterness of your past youth years, and they continue to speak to you kindly, if you are not given to madness, you take that as something of a treasure. When that person's inner quiet is able to calm you, musically, at 41 years of age, poor, finding yourself against another wall (they don't end, do they?), with four kids you worry about providing for, living with your mother-in-law, having failed at this that and the other thing, you thank God for the miracle.
I could tell you so many stories. The legendary unkemptness of our dorm room. The time I opened the back door of the moving van when Dave and his family had to flee to Arkansas again after a bad gig once years ago. The time Dave and Rachel, then not much past newlyweds, let me sleep on the floor next to their bed in their one room married student studio dorm when I had no where else to go.
I have known, for these many years, that I have had a friend who, bearing the weight of his father's spirit, would give his car to me if I needed it, would house me and mine if we needed it, would be at my door near as soon as I needed it. He, like me, wrestles his life through words.
His recent song Hands is not autobiographical in the obvious sense. It's a song about a troubled romantic relationship, at least on its surface. Dave has known his shares of betrayals. Communities and people, myself included, have broken sacred if unspoken contracts. The song reminds me of the Minnesota winters of my youth with Dave. It reminds me of the uncertainty of relationships we knew then, in our very different manners of knowing.
I, along with my wife and kids, were able to see Dave and Rachel and their family recently. Dave and I walked our babies (both of us ended up having baby sons in the mid season of life) and some of our older kids to the park nearest his house. We passed some kids playing in the street on our way there, speaking the tongue of the hood. The park was run down, in an urban way, which is akin but not the same as the run down park in our rural Wisconsin village. Dave told me about his church's plans to have a Trunk-or-Treat near those apartments those kids playing in the street were from. He pointed to a rough field near the park and said that they would have a bunch of classic cars there for the event. We walked our babies. The older kids competed on the swings. The men's room at the park was locked but Dave's middle son discovered that the women's room was open and used it. Across the street from the park an African family played soccer in their yard. It was hot and humid. Dave and I didn't talk much.
We don't have to anymore.