Fellow Passengers: This week’s Poetry Passage* (Psalm 49) transports me to a Doc Watson concert I went to a few years ago at Salem College in Winston-Salem. We got there early, and Kim went in to find good seats while I perused the senior art exhibit on display in the foyer. It was an avant-garde folk art theme, with random items pieced together into sculptures placed around the foyer, on the walls, scattered around on the floor. There were pieces of an old swingset that had been taken apart and reassembled, a beehive decorated with beauty parlor tools, etc. Beside each sculpture was a little sign saying “Please Don’t Touch the Art.” I noticed a group of other early birds moving around the exhibit, stroking their beards and making profound comments as they interpreted the meaning and symbolism behind these sculptures. While they were in a corner waxing intellectual about an old rainbow-painted rocking chair with only one rocker, I took out my wallet and placed a ten dollar bill on an empty space of floor. I took one of the “Don’t Touch the Art” signs off the wall and put it down next to the ten spot. The group of art critics made their way over to that part of the foyer, gathered around the bill, and started analyzing. One surmised that the placement was a brilliant statement about the love of money being the root of all evil. Another said he thought the placement might have something to do with disdain for Alexander Hamilton, the nation’s first secretary of the treasury, who created a powerful network of bankers with undue influence on national policy. I jumped into the conversation and said that while the symbolism was a riddle to me, I was impressed at how authentic the bill looked; the artist had gone to great pains in his realism. They agreed, and I wondered if he had gone to the trouble to paint the back side of the bill. As they began their conjectures on this question, I said there was only one way to find out. I reached down and picked up the bill, defying the hands off sign, and showed them the back, as real-looking as the front. As they registered their shock at my action, I gave them more to react to; I took out my wallet, reinserted the bill, and ran off into the auditorium to find Kim, who was saving me a seat.
The Psalmist wasn’t killing time waiting for a Doc Watson concert to start, but he was listening to harp music as he engaged in a discussion of the meaning of wealth and poverty. It was a riddle to be solved, but for the Psalmist, you didn’t need to stroke your beard and engage in a great deal of intellectual rigor to figure out the riddle; the answer could be easily discovered in the obviously temporary nature of financial gain. Had he looked down at that ten dollar bill on the floor, he might have weighed in with his own profound opinion: You can’t take it with you. The ground surface is as far as it can go; it doesn’t make it into the grave and beyond into eternity. People try to beat the limitations of temporal existence; seeking to buy immortality by naming lands and buildings and hospitals and schools. It’s all foolhardy, according to the Psalmist. No matter how well off we are in this world, we are all mortal. Trusting in the abundance of riches is folly. The essence of life is not to be found in the hoarding of material gain.
Doc Watson started his concert with Country Blues, giving voice to a character who lived in a Hamiltonian culture that had not learned the lesson of the Psalmist. Come all you good time people, while I have money to spend. Tomorrow might be Monday and I neither have a dollar nor a friend. When I had plenty of good money, good people, my friends were all standing around. Just as soon as my pocket book was empty, not a friend on earth could be found. In this money-obsessed world we live in, we would do well to listen to musicians like the Psalmist and Doc Watson, who taught and lived a simpler life, built on a different set of riches, relational in nature. Now there’s some art we would all do well to touch.
How about you? Where does this Poetry Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.