“Oh, what a tangled web we weave,” wrote Sir Walter Scott in his play Marmion, “when first we practice to deceive.”
While I have had my share of such entanglements, deception is not the only road that leads in that direction. Ignorance, indifference, and even affection can put any of us into a hot mess.
And “a hot mess” is a good way to describe the many ways our lives can implode, publicly or privately. I sat in the federal courtroom many years ago and listened as U. S. Judge Joseph Hood sentenced my son to 93 months in federal prison. At the moment and many times since, I have reflected on the ways this episode and all that precipitated it had tangled up his life and mine.
Beneath the surface of so many smiles are miles and miles of tangled mess. Sometimes called loneliness and sometimes addiction; too often it escapes our efforts to name and tame.
Which is why the poetry of John Prine so touched my soul when first I heard the sounds. “Donald and Lydia” is the sad story of two lonely people, dreaming of friendship and love, but doing so “ten miles away” from any real human encounter. And there is no more plaintive line in modern America lyrics than that written by Mr. Prine about the soldier who came home from “the conflict overseas.”
“There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes,” he wrote, and we know. Then this: “Jesus Christ died for nothing, I suppose.”
Prine’s interjection of religion into understanding addiction and its aftermath is where I am and where I have been for so many years. How do we experience the presence and power of our good and gracious God in the midst of these tangled webs?
Which explains why so much of Ike Moody’s art so overwhelms my soul.
Like the piece above, of a forlorn inmate remembering, perhaps, the sounds of jazz that once marked his days. The piece itself was created using a discarded cardboard box, all that was available at the place and time of inspiration. Across the top, Tootsie Roll wrappers were positioned to evoke a city scape, and along the bottom edge, stamps torn from the letters of a prison pen pal.
To strengthen the folds of the cardboard box, Ike picked up something within reach, a piece of white poster board; he taped it to the back.
I don’t think Ike noticed the black and white pen drawing on that poster board, none other than the now famous contour outline of Jesus on the cross. He had made this piece for the late Dr. Jack Birdwhistell, then professor of religion at Georgetown College with an office directly above mine. Ike was taking a correspondence course in “The Gospels” while serving time at the Big Sandy, up near Inez, Kentucky. “Draw what you have read,” Jack wrote him; and Ike did, finishing with a flourish that spelled out the five names: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Ike.
Neither the artist nor his subject were often aware, I surmise, of the presence and power of Jesus for those behind bars. Jesus knew, of course, for he himself did time (as we say), as did many notable figures in the biblical narrative (Jeremiah the Prophet, John the Baptist, and Paul the Apostle, to name three).
“An old man sleeps with his conscience at night,” Prine wrote in his song The Late John Garfield Blues, “young kids sleep with their dreams. While the mentally ill sit perfectly still and live through life’s in-betweens.”
This introduction of mental illness brings me to yet another strand of my tangled life. Did I ever think, when sleeping with my youthful dreams, I would welcome seventy-three living 343 miles from my wife, caring for a schizoaffective son, and preaching for a micro-congregation of 30 precious souls?
Not in a minute.
If you make a mistake, get all tangled up,” a young Al Pacino advises another in Scent of a Woman, “just tango on.”
Which is what we have done, time and again. Which is what I am doing, I suppose, with The Tangle Tour of ’23, taking these two artists—one a singer, the other a son—on a road trip to reflect on life and its meaning, on love and its measures, and on hope and its moment in time.
“It gives me an ocean of mixed-up emotion,” Prine wrote in his wonderful You’ve Got Gold, “I’ll have to work it out in a song.”
Which is what I have done in this short essay, reworking the lyrics for use by the preacher, “I’ll have to work it out in a sermon… or just this series of eight hundred and seventeen words.”
Either way, thank you John, thank you Ike, and thank you Jesus. And welcome to The Tangle Tour of ’23.