I returned home today after 11 days on the road.
Mostly it was The Tangle Tour in Kentucky. After that, Jan and I drove to Nashville for the second annual (?) “You’ve Got Gold” celebration of the life and work of the late, great John Prine (1947-2020). We attended the birthday bash in the Ryman Auditorium with about 2,000 other people. Todd and Amanada Heifner of Birmingham were with us for dinner and the show, and we had a grand time.
Prine time is always a grand time for me, especially in the Ryman and especially when the stars of the Nashville stage sing the songs of the Kentucky boy from Chicago. “I’ve always considered myself a Kentucky boy,” he said midway through his career, even though he was born and raised in Chicago.
It was an emotional two hours for me, listing to familiar songs (“In Spite of Ourselves,” “Spanish Pipedream,” and of course, “Paradise”) and songs less so (“Lake Marie,” “Long Monday,”) and. “Saddle in the Rain”) . I’m already thinking of sponsoring another John Prine Sing-a-Long in Hendersonville NC (and actually showing up for it!).
Before that, I read of the death of former Kentucky governor Brereton Jones of Midway. He raised horses before, during, and after his tenure in Frankfort, and chaired the Kentucky Equine Education Project.
I can’t say that I knew the governor personally, but he was the very first person to come to The Meetinghouse for a conversation about religion and American life. That was 1998, seven years after his governorship and one year into my eleven years as dean of the chapel of Georgetown College.
That interview, about religion and public schools, launched the radio version of my nonprofit, which later morphed into a print version (this very newsletter and website), a video version eventually recorded in studios in South Carolina, and now a road version, what I call The Tangle Tour of ‘23. I intend to continue the road version with a succession of Tangles in the new year, with the ambition of broadcasting them through the PBS platform.
Along the way of this current Tangle Tour, I attended the funeral service for my esteemed and influential teacher, Dr. Joe Lewis. He taught scripture and religion, first, at Georgetown College, and then, at Stamford University, and also served in important administrative capacities.
I can say without equivocation that Dr. Lewis was the most consequential teacher I ever had, at least past the early elementary grades. He opened up to me the Hebrew Bible, teaching me classical Hebrew language and the life and thought of the great prophets (Amos, Micah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Habakkuk, and Joel). He was he who etched into my soul the compelling summary of true religion, “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God” (Micah 6:8). A year ago, my son helped me afix to the back wall of the sanctuary where I preach every Sunday that very statement. His influence, and that of the prophet Micah, lingers long and strong.
I missed my little church this past Sunday, watching the service of “songs, hymns, and spiritual songs” while driving down the road. Jan and I sang along with many that we knew. We also talked about Israel. It was 50 years ago, the first week of October of 1973, that a united and coordinated attack by Arab neighbors brought a crisis to the state of Israel.
We were living in Jerusalem, on Mount Zion, and remember the day vividly. It was a Saturday, Shabbat. Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest of all days on the Jewish calendar.
Our one room apartment was on the third floor of what was known as the old Bishop Gobat school, housing what is now known as Jerusalem University College. I was a graduate student, and Jan was the receptionist. But that day we were strolling on the large veranda outside our room. A squadron of jets streaked overhead. I said to Jan, “That’s odd, on Yom Kippur. Something must be going on.” Two hours later, a long line of armored tanks rolled into sight, leaving Jerusalem down the Bethlehem road that runs still today along the ridge that separates the water that flows west into the Mediterranean Sea from that which rolls east, down to the Jordan River.
Something was going on, for sure. It took all our teachers, shut down all our light, and kept all of us glued to the BBC for news of the 19-day war. All that came flooding back this week as we watch the violent revolt of residents of what is called the largest open air jail in the world: Gaza.
It is all ugly, and about to get even more so. Thousands have died, and thousands more will die before this is all over. And still there will be neither justice nor peace: only power. God help us all.
These eleven days have stirred up a lot of emotion. “I’ll have to work it out in a song,” John Prine sang in “You Got Gold.” But I’m a preacher, and my version of those lyrics is simply, “I’ll have to work it out in a sermon.” Which I will do this Sunday, using the title of another John Prine song, less familiar to me but sung in the Ryman this week, “Crooked Piece of Time.”