Fellow Passengers: This week’s Poetry Passage* (Psalm 50) transports me to Peace Camp, aka the annual gathering of the Baptist Peace Fellowship, circa 1992, on the campus of Hollins College in Roanoke, Virginia. The Bible study leader for the week was a Cherokee Indian – seminary professor – psychiatric social worker – bluegrass singer – mandolin player – photographer, Bill Baldridge. He stepped up to the podium the first morning sporting a t-shirt that had one of those circle images with a line through it, denoting a “no” to an action of some kind. The action inside this particular circle was a bull defecating. One of the students at the seminary where Bill taught had given this to him, I believe as a reference to Psalm 50:9 in the RSV: I will accept no bull from your house. Bill said the only thing better would have been if it was scratch and sniff shirt. Staying with the theme, he went on to tell the old story of two youngsters given the task of shoveling out a very high pile of manure from a barn. One stays with the task longer than the other, telling his friend, “there’s bound to be a pony in here somewhere.” Bill went on to dig deep during that week, weaving into the biblical texts stories of people whose lives were basically full of deep doo, broken people who struggled with severe emotional disturbances, who had suffered unimaginable abuse as children, who were horrified at the thought of leaving mental institutions and facing the outside world. Bill found the pony in there; he had the capacity to see and reveal the presence of God in the midst of a messy humanity.
The Psalmist could have well been wearing a “no bull” t-shirt as he sang the poetry of today’s passage. It is a hard-driving song, critiquing the crappy faith of people who put stock in superficial rituals, in liturgies that did not address the deep wounds or the deep needs of frightened people facing the outside world. These wounds sometimes were inflicted by members of one’s own family. It was this capacity of humans to hurt each other, and mask that hurt with false religious devotion, that caused God to break silence and begin screaming a testimony against the people of Israel. It was a roaring arraignment regarding destructive behavior and disingenuous faith that stunk to high heaven. And the Psalmist was left with a shovel. The poet started digging away, in the hope that maybe there was a pony in there; maybe there was grace in there somewhere, maybe there was joy in there somewhere.
Kim and I got to be good friends with Bill Baldridge, and invited him to Stoneville to record some of the bluegrass songs he created out of his experiences with people in the trenches. We gathered a group of locals to fill out the band to back up his high tenor singing. I still get the shivers when I think about one particular song, inspired by an experience with a support group Bill facilitated, made up of ministerial students who had suffered sexual abuse as children. He said he put out the word that there would be such a meeting, not knowing if anyone would show up, and was astounded when an entire roomful of people came, and one by one started sharing testimonials of the wounds they carried. He said he went home that night and wept uncontrollably; later he wrote the song, Jesus Loves Me As I Am. It’s one of the clearest expressions of profound hope in the midst of profound hurt I have ever heard. Silent screams, hear them roar, childhood memories unpaid for, painted smiles hide the fear behind my eyes. Jesus loves me as I am. Why’d he leave me in this land? Maybe joy will come to greet me by and by. Say a word without a stutter, feel a touch without a shudder, write my name without a tremble in my hand. Jesus loves me as I am. Why’d he leave me in this land? Maybe joy will come to greet me by and by. This is the testimony of grace. Deep grace. Bill is still playing music, but these days he is spending more time bearing witness to grace more through some amazing photography. Check it out on his Flickr stream.
How about you? Where does this Poetry Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Google+, FB, Twitter, etc.