Fellow Passengers: This week’s Promise Passage* (I Samuel 4) transports me to the Dean Smith Center in May of 1992. One of the teenagers from our church in Stoneville, Brad Talley, convinced me to get my sermon prepared earlier in the week so I could take him on Saturday night to see one of our favorite musicians, Eric Clapton, in concert. Brad and I were also members of our church’s bluegrass gospel band, the String Beans, and we had just recorded Down at the Cross, a collection of instrumental old hymns. Brad had this crazy idea that we write a letter to Clapton, stick it inside a String Beans cassette, and find some way to get it to him at the concert. The letter spoke of how inspiring his music had been to us, especially noting the faith-based songs he had recorded through the years – In the Presence of the Lord, Running on Faith, Tears in Heaven. This concert tour was taking place in the early years of Clapton’s sobriety, and his recovery had already been severely tested with the untimely loss of his good friend Stevie Ray Vaughn while they were touring together, soon followed by the tragic death of his four-year-old son, Conor. We wanted to encourage him to keep the faith, and let him know we were praying for him. The concert was tremendous; the band was amazing, especially Chuck Leavell on keyboards and Ray Cooper on percussion. Two of the faith songs made it into the set list: Running on Faith and Tears in Heaven. I kept waiting for my favorite, In the Presence of the Lord, but it didn’t make the cut. I wondered if the irony of the song as it related to his life history was a little much. It was the first song Clapton had written lyrics for back in ’69 when he was in Blind Faith. He had been inspired by 2 born again believers, Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett, who were touring with him and who had prayed with him, leading him in a profession of faith. The lyrics describe his simple profession: Everybody knows the secret, everybody knows the score; I’ve finally found a way to live in the presence of the Lord. Here’s the irony: It was on the very heels of this song’s success that Clapton began a twenty-year path of self-destruction with heroin addiction, alcoholism, and a string of broken relationships. The secret of living in the presence of the Lord, as it turned out, was not so simple.
Nobody, it seems, really knew the secret to living in the presence of the Lord back in the latter stages of the period of judges in the Promised Land. It was supposed to be simple – keep the covenant and you’ll be able to conquer and live in a land flowing with milk and honey. The presence of the Lord, kept and carried in the ark of the covenant, would always be there for protection and guidance. But the covenant community never really learned the secret of living in this presence, and neither did their warring neighbors. Today’s passage describes a time when the presence of the Lord brought the woeful agony of defeat, not the blessed assurance of victory, to the Israelite army. According to the cultural narrative the Hebrew people were following, the presence of the ark was supposed to guarantee battle victory, but instead it inspired the faithless Philistines to turn it up a notch as they summarily routed the Israelites and captured the ark. The glorious ark eventually made its way back (the Philistines found they couldn’t live in its presence). This all marks the beginning stages of the Israelite’s self-destructive addiction to world power, culminating in their rejection of God as their governing leader and their request to have a king so they could be like the other nations. A long cycle of addiction and sobriety followed for the faith community, with prophets periodically posting messages indicting the community when they fell off the wagon, and encouraging them in sobering times of judgment to keep the faith.
Brad Talley and I had our plan for getting our “keep the faith” message to Clapton. We were going to wait until the end, when he came out for an encore, and make our way to the balcony just above the side of the stage where the artists would exit. We would time it just right, giving him a shout and when he looked at us, toss him the cassette. All worked as planned, we made our way to the strategic point just above the stage. I had the cassette in hand, and as the band played the encore song, Sunshine of Your Love, one by one they left the stage, until it was just Clapton. Finally, he finished the song, the crowd cheered wildly, and he came to exit. Brad and I gave our shout, he looked up and made eye contact, and the thought suddenly entered my mind that if I tossed the cassette to him, he might not catch it, and it could put an eye out. I froze, and he walked on. Brad and I just stood there as the audience began dispersing. When stage hands came on to clear the equipment, Brad told me to toss the cassette on the stage, in hopes that one of the crew would carry it to Clapton for us. I did, and immediately some stoners from the balcony above us yelled at the stage hand for him to throw them the cassette. I guess they thought it was some Clapton music. The stage hand obliged, and the stoners took the cassette and ran out of the arena. Brad and I got a kick out of imaging them getting to their car, plopping in the cassette, and hearing I Am a Poor Wayfaring Stranger and Send the Light. We hoped that they would read our letter and take some encouragement to keep the faith as they tried to find a way to live in the presence of the Lord.
How about you? Where does this Promise Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.