In his best-selling memoir, Kitchen Confidential, renowned chef Anthony Bourdain writes this about his work in the alimentary world:

“I’ve long believed that good food, good eating, is all about risk. Whether we’re talking about unpasteurized Stilton, or raw oysters. . . food, for me, has always been an adventure.”

I love this, and not just because I enjoy food. I love it because it sheds light on what Jesus meant two thousand years earlier when he told his twelve disciples to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” 

On the surface, this prayer appears to be simply a request, or, as theologians have traditionally called it, a “petition.” To some, it may even seem like a rote, or even boring prayer. But, if you choose to pray that prayer, you will soon discover that you are not simply making a rote request, but entering into an adventure.

So, the question is, why is praying this prayer an adventure?

The best place to find the answer to that question is Psalm 104. This beautiful piece of ancient poetry shows us two reasons why asking God for our daily bread is an adventure.

The first reason is because it leads us to gratefully acknowledge God’s gifts.

In Psalm 104, verses 14 and 15, the writer says to God:

You cause grass to grow for the livestock
and plants for people to use.
You allow them to produce food from the earth-
wine to make them glad,
olive oil to soothe their skin,
and bread to give them strength.

The tone in these verses is that of a person who is grateful for the tangible material gifts God gives to his creatures. But notice how ordinary these gifts are: plants, earth, wine, oil, bread. This is why we can say acknowledging God’s gifts is an adventure, because it requires us to look closely at the ordinary aspects of life, and assures us that when we do, God reveals himself. Robert Capon writes, “Only miracle is plain; it is the ordinary that groans with the weight of glory.”

A 16th Century German pastor named Martin Luther made the point that when we ask God to give us our daily bread, God doesn’t answer that prayer by magically making bread appear on the table. Rather, he works through the farmers who plant and harvest the grain, and the people who transport the flour. He works through bakers, and the local merchants.  Luther concludes his point by saying, “These are the masks of God, behind which he wants to remain concealed and do all things.” 

Every time we celebrate Communion, I read aloud to the congregation these words: “Our Lord Jesus, on the night in which he was betrayed, took bread and gave thanks.” The word for “gave thanks” is eucharisteo in Greek. It’s root word is charis, which means “grace.” So, even Jesus, on the night in which he was betrayed by a friend, the night before he would face a brutal death he didn’t deserve, still gave thanks for the ordinary gift of bread, and served it even to the very person who would betray him. That’s grace. The presence of God’s unconditional love mediated through something seemingly ordinary.

What are the ordinary gifts in your life that you are thankful for today? Are you disappointed that you seldom experience extraordinary and exciting moments in your life? Could it be that you are overlooking the sacredness of the ordinary things around you at this very moment?

Bob Dylan wrote and sang these words:

In the fury of the moment,
I can see the Master’s hand;
In every leaf that trembles,
In every grain of sand.

That’s what it means to gratefully acknowledge God’s gifts.

So, the first reason asking for our daily bread is an adventure is because it leads us to gratefully acknowledge God’s gifts. But the second reason is because it leads us to generously share God’s gifts. 

Later in Psalm 104, in verses 27 and 28, we read:

All creatures depend on you to give them food as they need it.
When you supply it, they gather it.
You open their hand to feed them,
and they are richly satisfied.

Notice the plural forms of the pronouns used: they gather it, you open their hand to feed them. Receiving daily bread from God is a communal activity, meant to be enjoyed and shared together. Remember, the prayer is “Give US this day OUR daily bread.”

This actually hearkens back to the book of Exodus, when the people of Israel needed food to survive in the wilderness and God rained down “manna” for everyone on a daily basis. Six days a week everyone was required to go out and “gather” up the manna. Chapter 16 of Exodus describes it this way:

“Some gathered a lot, some only a little. But when they measured it out, everyone had just enough. Those who gathered a lot had nothing left over, and those who gathered only a little had enough. Each family had just what it needed.”

This isn’t a political statement. It’s simply saying that the people of Israel made sure everyone had what they needed to live, and the society was better off because of that.

I saw a living example of this when I was a teenager. In the beach town where I lived, there was a nightclub called “The Fire Escape.” It’s exterior blended in with the others bars at the ocean front, but something was different about the atmosphere inside. The policy, posted on the door, read: “No cover charge, No ID, Come On Up!” Literally, everyone was allowed to come in on any night of the week and hear live music and partake of various foods and beverages, sold at an extremely reduced cost. The only rule was: no alcohol, no tobacco, no coarse language. And so, on any given night, clean-cut church teenagers came to hear live music with a Christian message, and homeless people would come to get warm. Button-down Pastors came to work behind the counter serving popcorn and soda, while drunks came in to pass out and sleep of their intoxication. Young professional Christian singles came to look for other likeminded people to date, and prostitutes came in to get away from the johns who were demanding their money. It was truly a diverse and almost frighteningly beautiful place. One evening when my my band performed there, my youth pastor introduced us to the manager of the club, an animated blonde Christian woman who could have been my mother. She asked if we would like to start volunteering there on a regular basis. When we told her yes she asked to meet with us the next day in order to brief us on what to expect. I’ll never forget what she said to Marc, Randall, and me as we sat at the square wooden table in the middle of the black and white tile checkerboard dance floor that day:

“Don’t come here thinking you’re more privileged than the others who are here each night. Everyone, including the three of you, who walk into this place, have the same thing in common: the need to be fed physically and spiritually. This place exists to meet that need.”

I am convinced this is what Christianity calls people to do; bless others because we have been blessed. Indeed, someone once summed up the church’s mission as “beggars telling other beggars where to find bread.”

St. Basil the Great wrote this:

“The bread that is spoiling in your house belongs to the hungry. The shoes that are mildewing under your bed belong to those who have none. The clothes stored away in your trunk belong to those who are naked. The money that depreciates in your treasury belongs to the poor!”

Now, how we do this is going to look different for everyone. But that’s why it’s an adventure. The fun part is that we get to work together to creatively share the gifts of God with those in need. And the good news is we don’t have to have our lives all together in order to do it. We can go into the world as broken people, poured out in love for others, just as Jesus gave himself when he broke bread, poured out wine, and offered it others for their survival. Give us this day our daily bread. In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Jewish Mother

If you lived in Virginia Beach during the final quarter of the 20th Century, it would have been nearly impossible not to know about a restaurant called The Jewish Mother. Located a block away from the ocean front, The Jewish Mother was a New York style deli that also served as a venue for live music. It was established in 1974, the year I was born. One of the owners was Jewish, and named the restaurant in honor of his mom. It was a great place. Everything about it was hipster before being hipster was hip. My earliest memory of The Jewish Mother dates back to the summer of 1985. My family and I went there for a Sunday afternoon brunch. The chalkboard out front listed some of the items they were known for serving, such as lox, bagels, omelets, and pastrami. Upon entering the restaurant, each patron was given a box of Crayola crayons and encouraged to write or draw on the walls. After more than a decade of this ritual, the result was a one-inch-thick wax mural of several different colors and themes covering every square inch of the vertical interior of the building. It was strangely beautiful. While we ate, a local classical guitarist named Robin Welch played a variety of tunes while seated on the stage. I was captivated by his style, and hoped to one day play my own guitar on that stage.

Six years later I finished my junior year of high school. Shortly after my seventeenth birthday at the end of June, Mike, who was one of my closest friends, mentioned to me that The Jewish Mother had a weekly “Open Mic Night” for musicians. He said he recently played there with his band, Ambidextrous Rex, and had a blast. So, I immediately called Marc, who I had been playing music with since October. After practicing for a week or so, we showed up one night and put our names on the list. My mom and her fiance, my sister, and Cathy met us there. We were about 45 minutes early, so we ordered dinner and ate while a local band called “Blind Venetians” played. When they finished their set, the MC for the evening announced that Open Mic Night would be starting in 10 minutes. Marc and I were first on the list. The MC introduced us and the crowd gave a smattering of applause. We walked onto the stage, sat on wooden bar stools, adjusted the two boom microphone stands, plugged our guitars into the sound system, and began to play.

We were allowed to perform 4 songs. So, our setlist consisted of three covers and one original:

  1. “Melissa,” by The Allman Brothers (though we did the Indigo Girls version)
  2. “All Along the Watchtower,” by Jimi Hendrix (again, we did the Indigo Girls version)
  3. “Every Rose Has Its Thorn,” by Poison
  4. “But Even This Heart,” by Marc Pittman and Dale Buettner. We had written it a month earlier but had never performed it publicly. Marc wrote the music and asked me to write the lyrics. All he asked was that I entitle it “But Even This Heart.” It was code, actually. An acronym. But Even This Heart.

Beth was a girl from First Colonial High who was special to Marc at the time. I only met her once. She was petite, with long blonde hair, a nice smile, and a really tall boyfriend. She came to the show that night. With her tall boyfriend. And we sang that song. She applauded, but I don’t think she ever knew it was about her. Nonetheless, we enjoyed playing that song. I remember the tune, and I remember how to play it. Unfortunately all that remains in my memory of the lyrics are the second verse and the chorus:

Everyday I wake up and pray that someday I’ll be with you.
Oh, my darling, I wonder if you even know there’s nothing that I wouldn’t do for you.

So, my darling let me tell you this:
If you ever need a friend I’ll be there,
Forever and ever.
But even this heart can bear
To wait for you.

My mom, a mere 43 years old at the time, was our biggest cheering section that night. She clapped with vigor and told the waitress several times that her son was the one with the black acoustic guitar. I soaked it up and will never forget it.

We played again the following week. This time Kevin and Cathy came, as did Marc’s dad and Cathy’s mom. The MC that evening was Robin Welch, the classical guitarist I had seen six years earlier. It turned out Cathy’s mom knew him, which I thought was cool. He was funny, and did a great job creatively introducing each act. He introduced us and we took the stage. We opened with a song I wrote, called “Rumors.” It was fun to play–  upbeat, in the key of G, with an aggressive strumming pattern. And Marc, an amazing lead guitarist, rocked that song with impressive riffs from start to finish. He put his whole body into those lead parts. I stuck to chords and lyrics. I remember very few of the words to that song. I do remember that it had a hint of an angry edge to it, and was a plea for all people to love each other rather than gossip about each other.

Next, we played “Melissa.” True, we had performed it the previous week, but we loved doing that song. It had interesting chords, a nice melody, and it just felt like a good summertime song. It was hard not to sing it with feeling:

Knowing many, loving none,
Bearing sorrow, having fun,
But back home he’ll always run,
To sweet Melissa.

For our third song we sang “Lay Me Down,” by The Connells, an eerily enchanting ballad about dying:

Sing to me sweetly as I turn sour.
Lay me down remembering.
Let the wind and the rain play their part in that dreadful hour.

And so as I pass, I too feel the power,
Laying here under the trees.
Three days before, I danced in a summer shower.

We closed with another original I had recently finished writing. It was called “Song for Cathy,” a ballad in the key of C, thanking her being my friend. I only remember the chorus:

So, I’ll sing a song of love
And I’ll give my life to God above,
and thank you for being my friend.
I’ve tried not to run from the fact
’cause wherever I go the truth comes back
that I’m in love with you,
I’m in love with you, my friend,
to the end.

In my mind’s eye, I can still see what each person at our “fan” table was doing as we performed that night. Cathy kept her gaze on Marc and me the entire show, smiling and lip syncing to every song. Every couple of minutes she sipped her glass of Coke through a clear straw while her reddish-brown curly hair slightly fluttered from the draft of the AC vent above. Kevin’s mullet did the same while he drank coffee from a white ceramic mug and bobbed his head to the rhythm of each song. Marc’s dad and Cathy’s mom periodically leaned in and made comments to each other while they watched us. It meant a lot to me that they came that night. I know, as a seventeen year old boy, my thoughts and emotions were constantly all over the map, as my mother would attest. So I found it cathartic simply to write what I was feeling, and then publicly express it to others through music. It was like therapy, in a way, or even somewhat like confession. Plus, I got to hang out with Marc and bounce the lyrics off of him as I wrote, which was always fun. It was an honor to have performed with him at that quirky deli by the Atlantic Ocean.

A week or so after that second performance, Mike and Elizabeth invited Cathy and me to join them at The Jewish Mother to see Lewis McGehee perform. Lewis was a well-known musician in the area, and had once toured with Bruce Hornsby. Mike had been taking guitar lessons from him and had been telling me how amazing he was. And so, the four of us met at the restaurant one Friday night around 8:00. It would be another 30 minutes before Lewis started his first set, so we ordered appetizers and drinks and talked. I could tell Mike enjoyed being around Elizabeth. She was a kindhearted Episcopalian girl he knew from church camp. She liked listening to Indigo Girls and reading Jospeh Girzone. I never got to know her very well, but I enjoyed hanging out with her and Mike a few times. Last I heard she lives in South Carolina in the same town as my sister.

When it was time for the show to start, Lewis McGehee walked onto the stage along with Michael McCarthy, his percussionist who also sang harmony for most of the songs. Lewis strapped on a sunburst Takamine acoustic, and Michael took his place behind a percussion contraption that looked like some type of Rube Goldberg machine. I spent the entire show in awe. The sound these two guys produced was almost unreal. I was particularly moved by their renditions of James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” and Bob Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman.” I liked Lewis’s music so much that after the show I bought his most recent tape of original songs, “Distant Voices.” I listened to it repeatedly for the rest of that summer. Lewis still plays several times a week all over the Hampton Roads area. I hope to see him perform again someday.

Mike, Cathy, and Kevin were three of my closest friends that summer. But in the coming weeks and months, life brought about some of its periodic changes. Cathy went to northern Virginia for the month of August, and we drifted apart for a time. Mike had already graduated, so once school started I only saw him once every few weeks. Kevin joined the Marines, and I rarely saw him. It just wasn’t the same. I vividly remember pondering all of this one Friday afternoon in the living room of my house in Kempsville. I wanted to write about it but I just couldn’t describe what I was feeling. So I went over to the stereo and popped in Lewis McGehee’s “Distant Voices” tape. It was on the final song of Side B. The song was called “Mostly Me,” and the final verse grabbed hold of me and took my breath away:

Now this blue ink just can’t explain
Why this old boy ain’t been the same lately;
‘Cause there ain’t enough hues in the color wheel
That could rightly paint the way I feel today.
And though I’ve tried to make it rhyme
This pen can’t write what it can’t find.
Words won’t do,
Time can’t renew.
Something is lost,
But I guess it’s mostly me.
Yes, I guess it’s mostly me.

I would not have been able to more accurately describe what I was feeling. I missed my friends. Thankfully, I still had Marc, and we continued to write and perform music together. Randall soon joined as a percussionist, which really transformed our sound. Those two guys brought much happiness to my life for the remainder of that year, which turned out to be a great one.

Years later, in 2008, after leaving a disappointing Warrant concert at the boardwalk, my brother and I, along with my sister and her husband, walked to The Jewish Mother for a drink. As soon as we were seated my sister said, “I still remember coming here 17 years ago to hear you play.” The memory she evoked brought tears of joy to my eyes, and we toasted to good memories, good friends, good music, and good food.

In 2015, I learned Mike and Cathy had both recently lost their mothers. Strangely, that same day I found out The Jewish Mother had closed down for good. When I learned all of this, it weighed heavily on me. While I know my grief was nowhere near what each of these families had suffered, I still felt as if a part of me had died. The mothers of two of my best friends from my youth, and the iconic landmark where I spent time with those friends, were gone. I suddenly identified with the line in that 1980 Dan Fogelberg song:

“Just for a moment I was back at school, and felt that old familiar pain.” 

Some of it was sorrow for the suffering my two friends and their mothers experienced. Some of it was guilt that I wasn’t there for them when their mothers passed away. Some of it was just plain nostalgia for the memory of being together at The Jewish Mother during a simpler time. As my wife and I laid in bed that night, I could tell she knew something was bothering me. I opened up to her, and with tears I told her about the strange and confusing sense of loss I was feeling. She stroked my hair and said, “These things happen, honey. We’re all getting older. But you know as well I do that a day is coming when pain and loss will be no more.”

Her words were like a healing balm to my soul. They reminded me that the Faith I profess regularly in the Apostles’ Creed contains a promise that eventually all things will be made new and will last forever. In fact, the Man who stands at the center of this Faith would have grown up hearing his Jewish Mother read to him from the Book of Isaiah, which describes the new heaven as a place filled with good memories, good friends, good music, and good food. A place that never closes down, where friends never drift apart, where mothers never die, and where the food and wine are plentiful, delicious, and free. In the mean time, we rekindle old friendships and forge new ones. Listen to old songs and write new songs. Laugh a lot, live with passion, and let your words be a healing balm to the souls of all who hurt.


In recent months I’ve come to realize that it’s difficult to separate ourselves from the influences of our younger years. I’ve also come to see the beauty of reflecting on those influences. In my own life, music was a shaping influence from an early age. So when my long-time friend Jim Nowland and I recently conversed about an old Virginia concert venue known as The Boathouse, I started to think about a particular band I saw there in 1991. They were called The Connells. They were a Raleigh, North Carolina-based alternative rock band, with a sound slightly reminiscent of R.E.M., but less dark.

I was first introduced to The Connells by my friend Randall. We were both 16 at the time, juniors in high school. He was at Princess Anne, I was at Kempsville. It was late October. Randall and I, along with several dozen other rowdy teenagers were on a church youth retreat at a place called Eastover in Surry, Virginia, a quaint little place on the James River. Our youth director told us we could bring whatever music we wanted to listen to in our free time. So, Randall brought a boom box, and several cassettes. One evening I went into our room to wash my hands before dinner, and Randall was washing up while a song I had never heard was blaring from his boom box. The song was called “Something to Say.” I liked what I was hearing. And when the next song started, I was mesmerized. It was entitled “Fun ‘n’ Games” and was the title track of The Connells latest album. It started off with a simple but aggressively strummed chord progression on an acoustic guitar. A second acoustic guitar accompanied it with harmonics. My English teacher at the time was Mrs. Denson, and when I wasn’t staring at her, I was learning a lot about the significance of words, particularly when it came to the images artfully crafted words can evoke. So it struck a chord with me when I heard Doug MacMillan sing the first verse in his soft, distinct voice:

Let me tear down into your heart
Let me take a seat and stay awhile
Let me steal a glimpse of your eye
Let me pin it up and stare awhile

I found it haunting, yet beautiful. “Who is this?” I asked. “The Connells,” Randall said. “They’re from Raleigh and are pretty popular.” He played me a few more songs; “Uninspired,” “Fine Tuning,” and “Lay Me Down.” I was hooked. I scraped together ten bucks and the next weekend I went to Mother’s Records and Tapes and bought the tape. I loved every single song on it, and learned to play most of them on the guitar. A couple months later my friend Mike came over to the house. He was holding a cassette tape with a blue cover and different colored words splashed upon it. He said, “Check this out. It’s the latest album from The Connells. It’s called ‘One Simple Word.'” He popped the tape into my red boom box and played the song “Stone Cold Yesterday.” I loved it immediately. It had more of an electric sound than their previous albums, and was very upbeat and celebratory. Then he played the song “Waiting My Turn.” That particular acoustic ballad took me to another world, it was so beautiful. I learned it on the guitar that afternoon and a couple weeks later my friend Greg and I performed it in our high school library for an event that was taking place that day. Performing their songs would become a regular activity for several of us after that. Later that year when Randall, Marc, and I put a band together, we always opened our shows with Fun ‘N’ Games. And at the high school talent show, Mike asked me to play and sing “Lay Me Down” with his band, Ambidextrous Rex. We had a blast performing it. A.J. Booth, the MC of the show, told us he loved it, which made us feel good.

That summer, which was memorable for many reasons I’ll write about another time, Z104 announced that The Connells would be coming to The Boathouse in July. So, Randall, Jerrod, Cathy and I bought tickets that afternoon. When the day of the concert came, Randall drove us all in his navy blue Ford Escort Wagon. We stopped at Wendy’s on the way. Randall was driving so it was his job to give the order at the drive-through. He rolled down his window, and when the voice of the girl working there said the words, “May I take your order, please?,” Randall said, “I’ll have..” And then the rest of us in the car started yelling as loud as we could. We were teenagers, after all. We did stuff like that. When the chaos and laughter died down, Randall gave the order: “I’ll have four waters, please.” A silly thing to do, I suppose. But to this day we still laugh about it.

When we arrived at The Boathouse we ran into several of our friends. Randall and Jerrod saw people from Princess Anne and First Colonial. Cathy and I saw people from Kempsville, including Mike. I spotted the drummer, Peele Wimberly, leaning up against a post near the merchandise area while chatting with someone. I made my way over to him and introduced myself. We talked for a couple of minutes and then he said he needed to get backstage and prepare for the show.

Ten minutes later, the lights went dim, and the band members came onto the stage. They opened with the title track of their newest album: “One Simple Word.” Mike Connell’s guitar loudly rang out the first chord, and Doug MacMillan immediately belted out the first line in his amazing  tenor voice:

“Got the rest of the day, and I’ll share it with you.”

The drums and the bass guitar kicked in, the stage lights went bright, and the crowd erupted. The four of us who were there together raised our hands and shouted with joy. And for the next two hours we danced, sang, and shared a big paper cup of Pepsi. Hey, we were young, frugal, and not as germ conscious in those days. Don’t judge. We’re still alive.

Half-way through the show, Doug MacMillan strapped on an acoustic guitar. I yelled to my friends “Finally! He’s going to do ‘Waiting My Turn’!” But, no such luck. Instead, he played a song by The Beatles, entitled “Misery,” and I must say it was truly amazing. It was followed by a stunning performance of “Set the Stage,” one of my favorites from One Simple Word. It was a thrilling night. And when the show finally ended, we walked through the gravel parking lot to Randall’s car and he drove us all home. As I laid in bed that night I could still see the band on stage, playing, singing, and filling the air with good things. I drifted off to sleep with a feeling of happiness inside me. The next morning Cathy came over. Before going to lunch we listened to “Set the Stage” on my mom’s stereo just to try and make the euphoria from the previous night’s show last a little bit longer.

Two-and-a-half years later, during Christmas break of my Sophomore year of college, I made the nine hour drive from Knoxville, TN to Virginia Beach. The phone rang the morning after I arrived. It was Randall. “The Connells are in Virginia Beach today and will be signing autographs at a local music store at noon.” I called Greg and told him. The three of us met up, piled into my tiny red Nissan, and drove to the event. When we got there the band members were seated around a table next to a Christmas tree. Randall walked up to get their autographs and I snapped this picture:


I continued listening to their music throughout college. After college, Shelley and I moved to Raleigh, where I worked on my Masters Degree and served as a ministerial intern at Redeemer Presbyterian Church. One night Shelley came home from a baby shower at the home of a parishioner and said, “The party tonight was in a really cool neighborhood in the city. It’s called Boylan Heights.” When I heard those words- Boylan Heights- I was instantly reminded of The Connells second album with that same title. “Where The Connells used to live?,” I asked. “She smiled beautifully and said, “Yeah, that’s right.” For the rest of the evening I was humming “Choose a Side,” which was my favorite song on the Boylan Heights album.

As the years rolled on I eventually wore out or lost those Connells cassette tapes. But, in 2010 their music was finally released on iTunes. I felt like a kid at Christmas. I downloaded all of my favorites and listened to them repeatedly. I still listen to them. Almost daily.

Sadly, in 2011 The Boathouse was gutted and demolished. Just before the final wrecking balls would level it, however, my friend Jim snapped what was probably the last picture ever taken of the stage, which I will always treasure. The post on the far left is where I met Peele Wimberly.


After it was gone, local music columnist Paul Unger described The Boathouse as “a place that would melt your face with live music, and where you could count on running into ten of your friends on any given night.” I’d say that’s pretty accurate. It certainly was on that hot night in the summer of 1991 when The Connells played.

But it was more than that, too. As a minister in the theological tradition of the Reformation, I believe all good things come from God. Some might say this is a stretch, but as I reflect on the experiences my friends and I had with the music of The Connells, I believe something sacred was being planted in our lives. Specifically, the experience of joy. That’s what I still feel when I hear those songs. Joy. One simple word.

And now, for your listening pleasure, I give you the song “One Simple Word.” It’s best if you play it loud. And dance. And share a big paper cup of Pepsi with some friends. It’ll bring you joy.

Beale Street Night Shot

While I was working out at the gym this evening, I heard Marc Cohn’s song, “Walking in Memphis.” I couldn’t stop smiling as it played. It brings a chain of memories to mind, all of them humorous, at least to me.

I first heard it in 1991, when I was seventeen and living in Virginia Beach. A group of friends were at the house one evening and someone starting singing it.

My friend Kevin, a talented singer in his own right, said, “I don’t get that song. ‘Walking with my feet ten feet off a beer?’ That doesn’t make any sense.”
Marc chimed in, “No, goofball. It’s Beale. Ten feet off of Beale.”
“That still doesn’t make any sense. What’s a Beale?” Greg asked.
Chris and John then informed us that they had been to Memphis the previous year, and Beale was a street downtown.
“Ohhhh…” a few people said in unison, indicating that it all made sense now.
Cathy then interjected, “You know the piano part in that song? It’s actually just the chords to the song ‘Heart and Soul’ played with a slight variation.”
We were learning all kinds of things that night.
A few months later, Kevin joined the Marines. After boot camp they stationed him in Memphis for training.

Fast forwarding to Spring Break of 1993. Freshman year of college. Scott, Craig, Steve and I decided to drive from Knoxville, Tennessee to Dallas, Texas. The first night we stopped in Memphis. We walked on Beale Street, and we saw the statue of W.C. Handy, referenced in the song:

“W.C. Handy, won’t you look down over me.”

Then we spent the night in West Memphis at the most awful hotel I’ve ever seen. We stayed up most of the night laughing. The next morning we got in trouble by the manager for having four people in a two person room. We had to fork over another 10 bucks. Thanks, Memphis.

Fast forward to May of 1996. We were seniors in college and were looking forward to the annual letter from Walter Halen, the manager of the campus bookstore, announcing when he would be buying back our used textbooks. One day several of us went to the mail room and found the letter in our mailboxes. Mr. Halen stated that he would be buying back books the next day, and that he would be “looking out” for us seniors because he knew we could use the extra money. We noticed he signed the letter, “W.C. Halen.” My wife, Shelley, then lifted her hands to the air, tilted her head back, and belted out in perfect key: “W.C. Halen, won’t you look down over me.” I couldn’t stop laughing.

On to June of 2007. By that time I had been a Presbyterian minister for eight years, and our annual denominational meeting was being held in Memphis. My colleagues Andy and Aaron and I traveled there together. On the first night, we went downtown. It was bustling with people. We walked into a restaurant on Beale Street, and a musician was playing the guitar and singing “Walking in Memphis.” The hostess took us upstairs to the roof, where we ordered potato skins and beer. As my five pastor friends and I stood on the balcony above overlooking all of the happenings on Beale Street, I said, “Hey, do you realize where our feet are right now?” They all shrugged. “They’re ten feet off of Beale!” We stayed there for hours, telling stories, talking about our ministries, and enjoying the music all around us.

Funny how a song can spark so many old memories and start so many new ones.


On a humid night in August of 1989, I went with my brother, Scott, along with my friends Chris and Lori, to the rough-and-tumble concert venue known as “The Boathouse” in Norfolk, Virginia, to see the band Warrant. They were the typical glam metal hairband of that era, and the concert was not without its share of shenanigans such bands were known for producing. But one thing struck me that night: The lead singer, Jani Lane, was an extraordinary vocalist. He was skinny, tattooed, with long bleached blonde hair and startling blue eyes. And man, could he sing. Most of the songs were characteristic of late 80’s metal bands, having to do with alcohol, parties, and not-so-thinly veiled references to sex. Near the end of the show, however, the rest of the band left the stage but Jani remained. He strapped on a white acoustic guitar and began playing a power ballad he wrote, entitled “Heaven.” As he sang that song, the sea of people cloaked in jean jackets, frizzy hair, acne and booze fell silent, fixated on Jani’s every move and word. I recall seeing a few tough rockers shedding tears as they held up their lighters during the chorus:

Heaven isn’t too far away
We’re closer to it every day
No matter what you’re friends might say
We’ll find our way

In watching Jani sing that song, it was clear that there was more to him than spandex, beer, women, and fame. You couldn’t help but believe that he was deeply longing for a better place beyond all of those things, and was searching for a world that could offer him a peace that passed all understanding.

19 years later I saw Warrant in concert again. This time they were playing a free concert at an outdoor stage in Virginia Beach. And it was so sad. Jani was overweight, off key, and noticeably disoriented. More noticeably, his countenance displayed such unhappiness. My brother and sister and I left before the concert was over because it was too uncomfortable to watch.

Three years later Jani died of acute alcohol poisoning. It turns out he had been a very troubled man for quite some time, and had been feeding his addictions to try and take away the pain that was so deeply imbedded in his life.

A tragic story, and not an uncommon one. It’s tempting to criticize the choices Jani made, or to feel superior to him for living a more upstanding life than he did. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in seventeen years as a Pastor, it’s this: Jesus came into this world to be close to people like Jani.

Psalm 34 states, “God is close to the brokenhearted, and he saves all those who are crushed in spirit.”

Wouldn’t that apply to Jani Lane? Isn’t it the job of the church to incarnate the grace of God and the hope of Heaven to those who struggle with guilt, depression, and other tormenting forces? The truth is, we all have our demons to battle. In fact, we all have our own addictions we run after to try and numb our pain. Many of our addictions are less noticeable than Jani’s, but no less damaging to our souls. I’ve sometimes been addicted to being liked, being right, and being successful. And I can tell you it’s a reckless and dangerous way to live. The point is, I need the Hound of Heaven just as much as Jani. I need to be reminded, through the Word and through the Eucharist, that Heaven isn’t too far away, and we’re closer to it every day. Thanks be to God.

Jani, my friend, this one’s for you.

Ecclesiastes 3I started my Junior Year of high School in late August of 1990, three weeks after my dad was deployed to Saudia Arabia for Desert Storm. That Summer had launched a new beginning in my life. In July I had attended a week-long youth retreat in Tennessee called “Centrifuge” with the youth group from the church I started going to the previous year. I spent most of the week with Greg, Kevin, Paul, Scott, Randall, Chico and Dave. Seven incredible guys who loved Jesus and had been part of the church youth group for quite some time. At some point during that week I felt my heart “strangely warmed,” as John Wesley once put it. It occurred to me that I really believed the message I had been hearing all week about the promise of forgiveness and new life, and wanted to embrace it personally and live it practically. And so, one week after my dad left for Desert Storm, I stood before the church, professed the Christian faith, and received the Sacrament of Baptism in the presence of countless friends and family. Afterwards I called Beth to let her know, because I knew she had prayed for this. The next week, school started.

It was a splendid Fall. Everything seemed new. I was excelling academically in school, loving church, and was involved on the youth council leadership team. I was learning and growing in my faith. I was attending church Sunday and Wednesday, and youth events on the weekends. One Saturday Mrs. Stokes took a bunch of us to the mountains for the day. We listened to Simon and Garfunkel in the car, and talked a lot about Christianity. We met up with several other carloads of youth from the church when we arrived. We hiked all day, and it was pure joy. A week later Marc started coming to our church. He had just moved to Virginia Beach from Washington D.C. We hit it off immediately. He played the guitar. I played the guitar. He wanted to write songs and perform them. I did too. He loved to laugh. I loved to laugh. He was a Godsend, and I loved him.

Just after Thanksgiving everything seemed to fall apart. The girl I had been dating for a year and a half called and told me we were finished. In retrospect it was the absolute best thing that could have happened to both of us, but at the time it opened the floodgates of drama, jealousy, hurtful words, and a self-inflicted emotional hell that refused to go away. A week later my mom got engaged and announced that she would marry in July. While most people would view such news as reason for celebration, I viewed it as salt in the wound, and honestly, as a threat. I had been the man in my mom’s life for the past 4 years while my brother was away at college and mom raised my little sister and me. I didn’t want someone else moving in and changing our family, or worse, telling me what to do. I was terrible at expressing to her how I was feeling, so I coped in rather unhealthy ways. I withdrew into a shell. I was unkind to her. I ignored her. I told her I might move out. I argued with her. Inside I was a wreck. I wanted to talk to my dad about it but he was in the Middle East. We didn’t have Facetime, email, texting, Facebook or Skype. On top of all of this tumult, I started struggling in school. My grades were slipping. I had trouble with math and science. My mind just didn’t work that way. I enjoyed music and english (partly because I had a crush on Mrs. Denson), but was finding it hard to apply myself. It was hard to focus as I stewed about my mom’s pending marriage, worried about whether my dad would survive the war, and tried to save face in light of the girl who dumped me and was now seeing someone else. I started to slip back into the depressiveness I had experienced the year before, which was awful.

I realize now, as a 41 year old pastor, that I have dealt with far more serious situations than what I’ve described above, both personally and with congregants. But as a sixteen year old, my world was smaller, my life experience was limited, and the issues I was facing at that time seemed utterly unbearable. The saving grace, however, was that I had my faith, my friends, and my music, and I clung tightly to all three, and I would soon learn that God’s presence came to me through all three.

Christmas came and went uneventfully. On New Year’s Eve, Marc and I were headed to a party in his beige Mazda truck. It was rainy, cold, and dreary. He turned on the radio and we heard a few news reports about the latest fatalities in the Persian Gulf. He turned it off and we looked out the window in silence as he continued to drive. “This war, ” he said. “It… just sucks.” More silence and staring through the beads of rain on the window. Suddenly we looked at each other, and knew we were both thinking the same thing. Almost simultaneously, we said, “We’ve gotta write a song.”  Over the next couple of days we worked out the music on the guitar and then wrote lyrics. We entitled it “The Gift of Love.”  This was the refrain:

There’s an answer to this madness
There’s an answer to these factions
And there’s an answer to these rumors tearing at my brain.
It may seem too good to be true
But it all depends on you
Because the hate in this world is driving me insane
The answer is simply love and it’s given from up above
I can tell you anyone in the world can have it as their own
It doesn’t take much just to ask God above for love
And we can all live together in peace
And Saddam, I pray that you might find the gift, the gift of love

We had no idea the song would become as popular as it did. A reporter from The Virginian-Pilot came out to the school talent show when Marc and I performed the song publicly for the first time. The next day the paper ran the story about our writing and performing of the song. We went into a studio the next week and recorded the song and gave copies of it to friends and family. People requested it at every party and youth group event we attended. It was surreal.

Around that same time, Cathy entered the picture. I had actually known her since we were 12 years old, but aside from marching band and a class or two, we never really hung out. Now, however, she was suddenly part of our youth group, and in particular the same group of friends I hung out with. Her mother was a Pastor. Her brother was a friend of mine.

Her appearance on the landscape of events during that cold Winter turned out to be an important turning point in the storyline of my life that year. During the tumultuous war I was experiencing emotionally, Cathy managed to steady me. She did this not by giving me advice, but simply by being present. There’s a scene in the movie “Lars and the Real Girl” where the main character, Lars, is grieving. A few women from the community come over to his house, and they simply sit in the living room and sew. Lars comes into the room, looks around, and asks, “Is there something I should be doing?” One of the women replies, “No dear… We came over to sit. That’s what friends do when tragedy strikes. They come over and they sit.”  That’s kind of what Cathy did. She came over. A lot. She listened to me. She had a good rapport with my mom and her fiance, and her visits to our home had a way of smoothing over the tension I had created over their engagement. She was good with my little sister. Truthfully, it was nice to have a relationship with a female peer that was simply a friendship and didn’t involve romance, drama, or pretense. And so we spent almost every weekend together that winter. We drove all over Virginia Beach in her brown Toyota Corolla and listened to our favorite songs. She helped keep me away from the petty bickering that was taking place in parts of our social circles.  At school, we usually saw each other in the morning at our lockers. One morning in mid-March she handed me a folded sheet of white typing paper. I looked at her quizzically. She put her right hand on my left shoulder, kissed me, and said, “Just read it when you get a chance.” As I walked away and headed to my first class, I unfolded the piece of paper. It contained the typed lyrics to the song “Hold On” by Wilson Phillips:

I know there’s pain.
Why do you lock yourself up in these chains?
No one can change your life except for you.
Don’t ever let anyone step all over you.
Just open your heart and your mind.
Is it really fair to feel this way inside?

I know that there is pain
But hold on for one more day
And break free from the chains.

Hold on…
Hold on…

Now, that may seem to some like a sappy teenager moment, like a scene from Glee or Saved By the Bell, but I’ll tell you this: things really did change after that. Spring came. The war in the Gulf ended and my dad came back to the States. He bought me a car, and the next week I got a job at Chic-fil-a at the Military Circle Mall where I would be working with my close friend, Greg. I started getting along better with my mother, though she had been forgiving of my selfish behavior all along. I started reading the Bible through a new lens which helped me to see hardship as a blessing that can make us stronger. I’d like to think I became less self-absorbed. Greg and I helped each other out at work, gave each other rides, and laughed a lot and sang a lot. Marc and I began to use our music to try and bring hope to others who were hurting. And I became more aware and attentive to the pain Cathy was feeling when I learned her mom was going through chemo.

On the last day of school, I walked out of the building into the student parking lot, looked up at the cloudless blue Virginia Beach sky, took a deep breath, and smiled. I felt a peace come over me, a peace that I had not experienced in quite some time. I got into my 1982 white Subaru, turned the key, and made my way to Greg’s house. As I was driving, I popped in my favorite cassette tape, “Nomads, Indians, and Saints” by Indigo Girls. It started playing the last part of the song “You and Me of the 10,000 Wars,” and I immediately heard Emily Saliers sing these words:

After the battle and we’re still around
Everything lights up and the air has settled down
We sweep the ashes and let the silence find us
A moment of peace is worth every war behind us

Yes,” I said to myself, nodding. “Yes.

And then began the memorable Summer of 1991, which is a story I need to tell, and in time, I will. In the meantime, may you hold on. And may your days be filled with peace.

427eed04f223ee1bb2a4548ff3bb1475I recently heard the Bryan Adams song “Everything I Do, I Do it For You.” Interestingly, that was the number one song in the country in August of 1991 when I started my senior year of high school. I’m amazed at how quickly it took me back to the storyline of that year of my life, which once again had a lot to do with friends and music.

The school year started quite smoothly. My dad was back in the States after 8 months in Desert Storm. My mom was newly married and happy. I liked my teachers, and could drive to school in my own car. There was also a lot of excitement among our class as many of us were starting to apply to colleges. I was happy.

But… After the excitement of the first two weeks of school had worn off, I started feeling twinges of sadness. I realized early on that it was because I was missing my friend Greg terribly. He was one of my best friends all through my junior year, but he was a year ahead of me and was now away at college on the other side of the state. It was odd to feel such a void in my life. That was before technology made it possible to stay connected as easily as we can today. So I rarely saw him, and it saddened me.

In the midst of feeling these newly unveiled twinges of sadness, the girl I was dating, who was also several hours away at college, called me one evening to tell me she had cheated on me, and not in a small way. It was a debilitating thing to hear and I didn’t know what to do. I was too stubborn and proud to talk to anyone about it, including Cathy, the friend who knew me better than anyone. And so I suffered silently, feeling hurt, angry, and alone.

Two weeks later, on a sunny Friday afternoon as I was driving on Kempsville Road, my car caught on fire. Flames erupted under the hood because of an electrical malfunction. By the time the fire was extinguished the engine was toast and the car had to be hauled away and sold for parts.

And there I stood on the roadside. Missing my good friend, feeling betrayed by my girlfriend, and not having a car. I saw a bumper sticker which read, “Life’s a Bitch.” “Sounds about right,” I mumbled to myself as I walked home alone.

But that weekend, the therapeutic presence of friends encompassed me, and it occurred to me that they were the channel of God’s grace in my life. Specifically, I remember spending much of the weekend with Cathy, Chris, and John.Though Cathy and I had spent the Summer joined at the hip, we were no longer dating. But we remained close. She steadied me during a tumultuous series of events the previous year, and though I wasn’t good at articulating it to her, I knew intuitively that I needed her in my life. Looking back, I think my mother knew this as well, and therefore she gladly welcomed Cathy as a frequent presence in our home. In fact, no matter how much trouble I got into in those days, my mother always allowed me to have friends over, and so the house was always filled with the people who meant a lot to me. I loved living in that Stratford Chase cul-de-sac. Classmates lived in every single house, and we all saw each other every day. I must have spent more time across the street at Chris and John’s house than I did at mine that year. They were twins, a year behind me, and an absolute riot to hang out with.

As I returned to school on Monday, it also occurred to me that it wasn’t just my friends who were channelling God’s grace to me. It was also the music we made together.

First, the music we made in show choir. Gordon, Nathan, Matt, Will, Laura, Cathy, Mindy, John, Adam, Anna, Heather, and Charity were the highlight of my every morning that year. We were GLEE fifteen years before GLEE was cool. We learned how to dance. We sang every day and performed throughout the city that year. Cathy and I were dance partners. Nathan, Gordon, and I were like the three amigos. We were always together. We loved each other and learned from each other. It was a wonderful friendship.

There was also the music we made at church. Marc and Randall and I each went to different high schools. But we formed a band the summer before our senior year, and we played our hearts out and loved every minute of it. In the Fall we gave a concert for the youth. We also played regularly at a club on 17th street at the beach called “The Fire Escape.” And at the church talent show that Spring each of us took turns performing: Cathy played the acoustic guitar and sang a song she had written, Marc played an amazing Van Halen solo on his electric guitar. Randall brought down the roof with a raucous drum solo that was reminiscent of Def Leppard. We all applauded for each other and it seemed like heaven was smiling on us.

By the end of the school year I was finding the thought of graduating hard to bear. And when that day came, I finally understood the meaning of the word “bittersweet.” Nathan was the Salutatorian, so he gave a speech. And it was moving. Christina’s dad, who was the pastor of a large church in Norfolk, gave the invocation. And it warmed our hearts. Heather from show choir sang the national anthem. And as we sat there, all 586 of us in our shiny blue caps and gowns, I could no longer hold back my tears. Suddenly the place of my youth I couldn’t wait to leave behind had a grip on me and it was stirring my emotions like the hurricanes that occasionally came through our town. I glanced over at Cathy. She was smiling, and her eyes were flooded with tears. I looked at Alex to my right. He smiled. I looked at Andria to my left. She winked and said, “We’re up.” Our row was called. I said a brief silent prayer of thanks, crossed myself, and walked onto the stage and received my diploma from our Principal, Dr. Lou Tonelson. As he shook my hand, he smiled at me and simply said, “Keep singing, my friend.”

Nathan, Cathy, Gordon, April, and I stayed up all night, along with hundreds of others. We danced, we sang, we laughed, we hugged, we played games. The next day my house was filled with friends: Gordon, Nathan, Cathy, April, Chris, John, Will, Heather, Adam. Greg was back in town for the Summer, so he stopped by as well. My little sister, who was 9 at the time, hung out with us as well, and my friends welcomed her as if she had been part of our crowd all along. It was a blissful day. We made virgin daiquiris, splashed around in the pool, sang songs on the back deck, and watched the movie “Doc Hollywood” until we all fell asleep in the living room. I’ll never forget it.

I’ve recently had lengthy conversations with Greg, Gordon, Cathy, and Marc. I came away from those conversations filled with joy and tears, having reminisced about the joy and pain that we all seemed to experience together, and how, I think, probably made us into better people. I’m grateful to have reconnected with them, and look forward to continuing our conversations. My wife, perhaps having intuition like my mother did in ’91 and ’92, seems to recognize the significance many of the aforementioned friends have had in my life. I’m thankful for this, and I so much want for our own kids to have such friendships in their lives that continue well into adulthood. I’m convinced we all need this. Most of my friends from those days live far away from me now, and so I’ve written this so they may know that I treasure them. If I were present with them, however, I would probably go lighter on the words and simply sing to them what Bryan Adams sang in August of 1991:

“Look into my eyes and you will see what you mean to me.”


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 202 other followers