The Gift of Real Presence

 

Myke&Jenny

In January of 2017, the leadership of my congregation in Indiana graciously granted me a week of vacation. With the blessing of my wife, who did not have that week off, I made plans to return to my hometown of Virginia Beach to relax and reconnect with family and friends. But one of those friends, Myke, who I’ve known for 30 years, now lives two hours west of the beach, in Richmond. So I decided to make his domicile the first stop on my respite, and to spend 3 days with him and his beloved Jennifer.

So, on the evening of Sunday, January 11th, I flew from Indianapolis, Indiana to Richmond, Virginia. Myke was working that night, so Jenny picked me up at the airport. Strangely, it was much colder in Virginia than Indiana. The ground was covered with 12 inches of snow, but Jenny drove cautiously on the icy roads all the way back to the house. Myke arrived at the house shortly after we did, and we hugged and immediately began catching up on where our lives have traveled during the 14 months since we had last seen each other.

Time is a strange thing. In many ways Myke and I are different people than when we were teenagers. Now we have careers, mini-vans, and mortgages. We have grey in our hair, bifocals on our noses, and on the rare occasion when we run there’s definitely more jiggling than when we ran on the track during our days at Kempsville Junior High. Also unlike our lives back then, now we’re both blessed with virtuous women who keep us grounded and kids who keep us young. But regardless of the changes, the distance, and the amount of time that passes between seeing each other, we always seem to be able to pick up where we left off and to meet each other right where we are.

And so, we had three days together. Myke was off from work, and Jenny worked from home. We had no agenda, no itinerary, and we felt no pressure to do anything in particular. It was cold, so we were content to remain indoors and simply be together. In the spirit of a true winter vacation, the three of us stayed up late, slept in, and lounged around in flannel pajamas. We imbibed on homemade waffles and coffee in the morning, watched TV in the afternoon, and sipped bourbon by the fire in the evening. We laughed hysterically, and talked about theology, books, music, and movies. They filled me in on how their kids were doing, I brought them up to date on Shelley and the girls. We told stories of the past, discussed the intricacies of the present, and shared our hopes and wishes for the future. We sympathized with one another’s pain, and rejoiced in one another’s triumphs. And topping it all off, we spent hours indulging one of our favorite activities: Playing guitar and singing.

We played and sang almost all of our favorites, and taught each other a few new ones as well. The wooden floors of their Richmond home reverberated with our versions of songs by artists ranging from Jackson Browne to Colin Hay, from The Allman Brothers to Indigo Girls, from Del Amitri to David Wilcox, from Bob Dylan to Jeffrey Gaines. And given the fact that our love for all things John Denver was probably the first common interest we discovered in each other over 30 years ago, we inevitably belted out several of his hits as well, including one very fitting for the occasion: “Poems, Prayers, and Promises.”

We talk of poems and prayers and promises,
and things that we believe in.
How sweet it is to love someone,
How right it is to care.
How long it’s been since yesterday,
And what about tomorrow?
What about our dreams,
and all the memories we share?

As we played and sang that song from the comfort of the ottoman in their living room, something struck me: The sweetness of loving and caring for someone in the present seems to be strengthened by sharing our memories of the past and our dreams for the future.

This got me to thinking further: Every time I celebrate the Eucharist with my congregation, part of the ritual involves what is known in the historic liturgy as the anamnesis. It involves verbally recalling both the work of Christ in the past and his promised return in the future. And, as we do so, we believe that Jesus Christ is really with us in the present. We refer to it as “the real presence” of Christ in the Eucharist, and it is one of the most profound mysteries in the world.

But I’m wondering if perhaps a similar mystery is also at work in our relationships: Could it be that recalling the past and hoping in the future (whether through conversation, music, or dining together) makes us more present to one another in the present? Perhaps there’s something to what Jean-Pierre de Caussade called “The Sacrament of the Present Moment.”

As my time in Richmond drew to a close, Myke and Jenny made plans to meet me in Virginia Beach on Friday night at a place called Tempt Restaurant and Lounge. Several old friends and I had made reservations to eat dinner there and to stick around after dinner to see Lewis McGehee perform. Lewis is a well-known icon in the Tidewater area music scene, and has been an inspiration to Myke and me since our high school days when we first started getting serious about playing guitar and writing songs.

And so, as I drove away from Myke and Jenny’s on Wednesday afternoon, I was excited to arrive in Virginia Beach, to spend time with my grandmother and several other close friends from my youth, and to see Lewis McGehee with Myke and Jenny.

Friday night soon arrived. The evening didn’t disappoint. I had a blast reconnecting with several close friends, whose amazing presence in my life is part of another narrative I have and will continue to write about in other posts. And of course, Lewis was fantastic as always. He played all of our requests, and he played them incredibly: These Days, Just Like a Woman, Fire and Rain, Peaceful Land, and Mostly Me.

Around 11 p.m. we decided to head out. So, I hugged Lewis goodbye, and we walked to Murphy’s Pub with my old friend Chris, and danced to “Sweet Caroline” and other assorted hits performed live by The Fighting Jamesons. Chris went home around 12:30, and Myke, Jenny and I walked across the street to our hotel. We stayed up rather late talking and laughing, until we all started to dose off. I went back to my room and fell asleep smiling, I’m sure. The next morning the three of us had breakfast together at Nic’s Diner. After breakfast, Myke and Jenny had to make their way back to Richmond. I still had a couple of days left at the beach, so we said long goodbyes, exchanged hugs, and then my two dear friends drove off towards the Expressway.

I was filled with joy from the time we had together, but I also ached with pain and sadness. I knew I would miss Myke and Jenny. I knew I would miss the songs we sang together, the meals we shared, and the stories behind all of the laughter and tears. But most of all, I knew I would simply miss their presence.

As I walked out to the beach, I was reminded of a song Lewis McGehee wrote several years ago, which he sings almost every time he performs:

So I guess we must remain
Behind this veil of ignorance and pain
Just knowing that time
Will keep us her own
And force us to live with the seeds that we’ve sown.

And still the trees bend slightly back
as the wind whispers in.
Hold on tight,
before it’s gone.
There’s nothing to fight,
and we must belong
to the growing of grass and the falling of leaves.

It’s a great metaphor, and one I’ve been thinking about a lot in recent weeks. Parts of our lives are growing, while other parts are dying. Both are necessary, and both are beautiful. The key is to be present for one another through the growing and the dying.  In fact, the most beautiful gift anyone can give us is simply the gift of their presence in our lives.

Give to Live

Sammy-HagarWhile driving to the office a few mornings ago I heard the 1987 ballad “Give to Live,” by Sammy Hagar. It was my first time hearing it in almost 30 years. It’s a fairly typical hairband ballad of the late Reagan era, but to my surprise, I found myself quite moved by what I was hearing. More specifically, it made me think of two friends of mine: Chris Litz and Liz Niehoff.

Chris and I met in Virginia Beach when we were twelve years old and in seventh grade. He sat behind me in Mrs. Eagan’s English class. We quickly discovered that we shared a common love for Tom Foolery, laughter, and being a thorn in the side of this young teacher who looked like Daryl Hanna had played Face Swap with Sally Kellerman. On a deeper level, however, Chris and I discovered that we shared a common love for something much more transcendent: music. We were both in the school band; Chris played bass clarinet and I played trumpet. But we also loved all things rock and roll. Chris looked and dressed like Joey Ramone, and he owned a cool Gibson electric guitar, which he played incredibly well. I played bass, and we would occasionally hang out at one of our houses and jam. On one occasion we even jammed with our friend Chad Hugo, who went on to be quite successful in the music industry. Chris’s proficiency on the guitar eventually inspired me to take up the six-string, which I still play today. We shared an interest in bands such as KISS, Motley Crue, and Van Halen. We had differing tastes as well, both indulging in particular styles which the other was unwilling to embrace. I liked the sappy power ballads of Bon Jovi, and Chris liked the hard core speed metal anthems by Motorhead, and we poked fun at each other for it. But in the Summer of 1987 we heard Sammy Hagar’s newly released “Give to Live,” and we both loved it immediately and agreed that it deserved high praise in the world of rock and roll.

So when I heard it on the radio recently, I thought of Chris, and the good times we had almost 30 years ago. But as I listened to the first verse, it also made me think of what Chris has experienced in the years since 1987:

I can see it:
You’ve got fire in your eyes
And pain inside your heart.
So many things have come
And torn your world apart.
But don’t give up, don’t give up, don’t give up.

Chris enlisted in the Army and proudly defended his country. He married and had a child. But he later experienced not only the pain of a fractured relationship with his wife, but also the horror of learning that she died a tragic death. But Chris must have taken Sammy’s advice, because he didn’t give up. He continued to give himself in raising his daughter. He found love again, with Alana, who gave him another wonderful daughter. They are a family who didn’t give up, and who give of themselves so that others would live. And thus, the song made me think of Chris.

But I also thought of Liz. I met Liz many years into adulthood. In fact, Liz wasn’t even born until “Give to Live” had been out for two years. She is a colleague, a fellow pastor in the same denomination in which I am a pastor. I met her at an annual gathering near Chicago. She currently lives in Connecticut where she works full-time as a hospice chaplain. Everyday she visits the sick and the dying, bringing them love, faith, and peace. The chorus of Sammy’s ballad brought her ministry to my mind:

If you want love you got to give a little
If you want faith you just believe a little
If you want peace turn your cheek a little

Liz gives herself to others in this way out of a deep love for God, but also because she has experienced pain and suffering firsthand. She was born with a heart condition that has at times made life much more challenging than it is for many who are her age. But she never gives up, and she presses on with tenacity and determination. She also recently lost her maternal grandfather, Wells, whom she loved deeply. I had the bitter-sweet experience of visiting him with Liz and her parents the day before he passed away. She held his hand, told him she loved him, prayed for him, and gently hugged him as he rested on his hospital bed. When I spoke to her the day after Wells died, her words were filled with love, faith, and peace as she spoke of knowing that her grandfather had lived a full life and was now in the presence of his God. And thus, the song made me think of Liz.

Two friends, known in two completely different contexts of life, but both brought to mind by a common factor: the mysterious power of music. God bless you, Chris and Liz. Thank you for the way you give yourselves so that others would experience life more fully.

And now, for your listening pleasure, here’s Give to Live.

 

 

 

 

Lewis McGehee and the Tradewinds of Time

 

LewisMcGehee

For music lovers in Virginia’s Tidewater area, Lewis McGehee has been a source of entertainment and inspiration for over 30 years. An accomplished guitarist, vocalist, songwriter and arranger, Lewis can be found teaching lessons by day and performing live by night. I first saw him perform in July of 1991 at The Jewish Mother, a legendary venue in my hometown of Virginia Beach. I was with Cathy, Myke and Elizabeth. We were teenagers, classmates, and lovers of music. I remember the evening fondly. It took place during a particularly pivotal time in my life. On the one hand, I was loving my newfound freedom: for the first time in my life I had a car, a job, and even had the house to myself for a couple of weeks that Summer. I had lots of great friends and was regularly writing and performing with a band. At the same time, I was beginning to be faced with the need to make decisions I had never been faced with, namely choosing a college and a career. Relationally, I was also learning painful but necessary lessons about faith, hope, and love. It was in the midst of all of this that I sat around a table at The Jewish Mother with three friends on a hot July night and heard Lewis McGehee sing these words by Jackson Browne:

I’ve been out walking.
I don’t do that much talking these days.
These  days. . . 
These days I seem to think a lot
about the things that I forgot to do,
and all the times I had the chance to.

Well, I’ll keep on moving. . . moving on.
Things are bound to be improving these days.
These days. . . 
These days I sit on cornerstones
and count the time in quarter tones to ten, my friend.
Don’t confront me with my failures;
I am aware of them.

As he sang that song- eyes closed, smiling slightly, strategically strumming his guitar while Mike McCarthy played percussion and sang harmony- I realized how powerfully music can describe our feelings, connect with our souls, and influence our lives in a way that nothing else can.

Fast forward 24 years to November of 2015. I live in Indiana with my wife and two daughters. I work full-time as an ordained minister in the oldest Protestant denomination in the United States. We have a great life at a great church in a great place to live. I have lived away from Virginia Beach ever since leaving for college in August of 1992. And yet, I still feel a strong connection to that quirky city on the Atlantic Ocean. Many of my family roots are there. My faith was formed there. I made lifelong friends there. And I fell in love with music there. That is why I was grateful to be able to spend a week there in November of 2015. In my vocation as a minister I am granted a week of study leave every year, for the purpose of professional development. As a new year in the life of my church was soon to begin, I had a lot of reading, writing, reflecting and planning I wanted to do, and my leadership board graciously enabled me to do so in the setting of my hometown.

And so, at 6 a.m. on November 18th, 2015, I boarded a plane for my hometown. That evening I met two of my lifelong friends, Myke and Neil, at a waterfront restaurant called Tradewinds. We hadn’t seen each other in years, so we were long overdue for an evening together. And we chose Tradewinds for a reason: Lewis McGehee was performing there that night.

Neil and his wife Sherry arrived early and secured a table. Myke and I arrived shortly thereafter. The four of us hugged, laughed, and ordered some various items to eat and drink. This was my first time meeting Sherry. She was pretty, friendly, and patient with us boys as we told and retold numerous stories of the excessive buffooneries of our youth. Shortly after we arrived I noticed Lewis sitting at a table tuning his guitar. I walked over to him and introduced myself and told him how a month earlier I had written a blog post about him entitled “The Jewish Mother.” He shook my hand firmly, smiled and said, “Oh, yeah. I loved it. Thank you for that.” His comments were quite endearing. I was struck by how down to earth he was, and how interested he was in getting to know people. This is probably why he has such a following in the area: he personally connects with his audiences.

It was now time for the show to begin. I sat down at the table with Myke, Neil and Sherry. Lewis stepped up to the mic, greeted the audience, and began playing. He sounded as amazing as ever. He performed several songs including “Paradise” by John Prine, “Reason to Believe” by Rod Stewart, and “Melissa” by The Allman Brothers.

Then he asked for requests. It occurred to me that another song I remember him singing in July of 1991 was Bob Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman.” It’s a ballad about two lovers who would soon part ways. I remember finding it very moving, but I couldn’t remember any of the lyrics. So, I requested it. Lewis responded, “Sure thing, Dale.” He raised a glass and toasted our table, then set it down and began the song. As he sang, the lyrics quickly came back to me, and I felt as if I had been transported back to July of 1991:

Ain’t it clear that I just can’t fit?
Yes, I believe it’s time for us to quit.
But when we meet again,
Introduced by friends,
Please don’t let on that you knew me when
I was hungry for your world.

You. . . love just like a woman,
You ache just like a woman,
But you break just like a little girl.

Throughout the rest of the show, Myke, Neil, Sherry and I alternated between eating, talking, watching Lewis, sipping wine, and sharing stories. It felt so good to be together again.

After the show we talked with Lewis again. He told me that the guitar he was playing was the same guitar he played when I saw him at The Jewish Mother in 1991. Then he said, “You play guitar, don’t you?” I responded, “I do!” He extended his arm, handed me his guitar, and said, “Here, play it, man.” I strummed and picked for a couple of minutes. Then he asked if we could help him take down and pack up his sound equipment. We did, and then he drove us to our cars and thanked us for helping. It was a surreal experience I will never forget.

As I drove back to the place where I was staying, my mind travelled through the many memories I shared with Myke and Neil, from 1986 to the present. I thought about the trouble we got into in the Summer of 1988. I thought about the marching band competitions we endured together in 1989 and 1990, and how we weren’t very nice to our band director. I thought about the night Myke and Neil came to the engagement party my mother threw for Shelley and me a few months before our wedding and how happy I was that they came. I thought about the times Neil and I spent together when he and I both lived in Raleigh, North Carolina in the late 1990’s. I thought about the many years that had passed since we last saw each other, and I wondered where the time went. I thought about my wife, Shelley, and hoped we could travel to Virginia Beach together this Summer, and maybe even see Lewis perform again.

I woke the next morning filled with a peace that far surpassed my jet lag. I showered, dressed, grabbed some breakfast, and headed to Starbucks where I would spend time on my work. Over the course of the next several days I spent time studying, writing, planning, and praying. In my free time I visited my grandmother and reconnected with several old friends. It was wonderful.

The following Wednesday morning, Myke and his girlfriend Jenny took me to breakfast at Doc Taylor’s, a great little place at the beach. We ate waffles, drank coffee, and talked about faith, family, friends, and our favorite bands. Afterwards the three of us got into Myke’s car and went for a drive. It was a sunny day, about 60 degrees. Perfect. We lowered all of the windows. The wind blew Jenny’s long blonde hair in a thousand different directions as we made our way to Virginia Beach Boulevard, while at full volume we listened to and sang along with our favorite song by The Connells: “Stone Cold Yesterday.” For those few minutes, it was as if the three of us we were in another world, and we loved it. When the song was over I said, “Ya know… Lewis McGehee is playing at Tradewinds again tonight. You guys wanna go?” 

And so, after we sang several more songs together at Myke’s house, I did some more work that afternoon, and that night we met at Tradewinds to see Lewis again. This time Kevin joined us, too. Kevin was another great friend and fellow Kempsville classmate from my youth. He resides in Arizona but was back in Virginia Beach for a visit. We had several dinners together during our coinciding week and it was incredible to be together again. And so, the four of us met at Tradewinds, got a table, ordered some drinks and appetizers, and talked and laughed while we waited for Lewis to begin his first set for the evening. This particular evening Lewis had his daughter with him, the talented Kayce Laine McGehee, an amazing musician and recording artist in her own right. He also had two other guitarists with him.

The show began promptly at 7 p.m. and did not disappoint. The music was full-bodied: three guitars, a keyboard, and incredible vocal harmonies. They opened with Lewis’s arrangement of Dylan’s “Tomorrow is a Long Time,” followed by Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here,” James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain,” and George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun.” They also performed several of Lewis’s original songs, such as “Brave New World,” “Katie Don’t Go,” and my personal favorite that has deeply resonated with me ever since I first heard it in 1991: “Mostly Me.” Kayce, while impressively pounding away at the keyboard, sang three of her originals as well, all of which were passionate, melodic, and lyrically rich.

The highlight of that evening, however, came towards the end, when Kayce strapped on her dad’s guitar and sang “Landslide” by Steve Nicks. She brought the audience to tears with this one. I even noticed Kayce herself shedding a few tears near the end. It was simply beautiful. But a few of the lines in particular struck me more profoundly than the many times I had heard that song over the years:

Can I sail through the changing ocean tides?
Can I handle the seasons of my life?

Time makes you bolder,
Even children get older,
And I’m getting older too.

In all of our lives, the tides often change. And like that ocean in my hometown, sometimes the tides are fierce, and sometimes they are calm. And yet, rather than sink, we somehow manage to continue to sail, all the while growing older, which is a good thing. Meanwhile, time keeps moving forward, like the “trade winds” that sailors depend upon in order to reach their desired destination. God only knows what the future will bring for any of us, but that’s what makes the journey worth taking. We look back at the past, celebrate with old friends and new friends in the present, and look forward to a future where great music will never stop playing.

 

 

Werther’s, Wine, and Warm Friendships

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Spending a recent evening with Kevin and Caroline filled me with a happiness that I’m still feeling three weeks later. The three of us were friends in high school and we attended the same church during those years. The last time we had seen each other was in 1993, when Caroline and I were 19 and Kevin was 21. In the 22 years since then the three of us have lived all over the country, with many miles between us.

Kevin and I were together a lot in those days. I can still vividly see him at my mom’s outdoor wedding in July of 1991, wearing a bowtie and singing “More Than Words” while I accompanied him on the guitar. Caroline and I had our share of fun together in those days as well. I still have this vision of her in November of 1991, sitting on a patchwork quilt in my front yard on a sunny afternoon, her long blonde hair blowing in the breeze as we ate cheese and crackers and drank iced tea my mom had brewed for us that morning.

So, in November of 2015 when Kevin and I were both back in Virginia Beach for work and to visit family, we gladly accepted Caroline’s invite to hang out for an evening. After giving us a tour of the beautiful Norfolk home she share’s with her wonderful spouse, Matty, we sat on stools at the island in the kitchen, snacking on Werther’s and drinking Coke. We texted silly pictures of ourselves to Greg, April, and Becky. They reciprocated with humorous texts of their own. When Kevin and I started getting jittery from the overload of sugar we were imbibing upon, it occurred to us that all we had eaten that day was a smallish bowl of soup. Laughing at this announcement, Caroline said, “You boys want me to put a pizza in the oven?” With high blood sugar levels evident in our voices, Kevin and I enthusiastically said, “Oh, yeah.” After placing the pizza in the oven, Caroline said, “I’ll open a bottle of wine, too.”

As we drank Caroline’s red wine and continued snacking on Werther’s, we talked about our teen years: the lovers we lost, the pranks we pulled, the inner struggles we battled. We talked about our current lives: our jobs, our families, our beliefs. And we talked about the years in between: the places we’ve lived, the lessons we’ve learned, the heartaches we’ve experienced, and the happiness we’ve found. We FaceTimed with my wife, Shelley. Caroline told Shelley about her house, her dogs, and how she and Matty would be spending Thanksgiving in New Jersey with Matty’s family. Kevin told Shelley about the fun we were having and the time he met Sandra Bullock. Shelley told us what she and the girls had been up to while I was away for the week.

The pizza was ready, so I told Shelley I loved her and the three of us said goodbye to her. Then we dug in to the pizza Caroline cooked for us.

As we ate our pizza, we continued to talk, laugh, and listen to Sirius XM’s Coffee House station. We enjoyed the all-acoustic versions of “Sunrise” by Nora Jones, “Marry Me” by Train, and “Hero in Me” by Geoffrey Gaines. That last title particularly struck me as incredibly fitting, and here’s why: Kevin and Caroline are truly heroes to me. They each have their own stories of personal triumph that inspire me in more ways than they probably realize. I won’t tell their stories here, because they are their stories. But suffice it to say that they are both courageous people that I am glad to have in my life as we grow older. My thoughts on this came to the fore when, early in the song, Geoffrey Gaines sings these words:

And as I grow older
And there’s so much that I do not know
I’m drawn to those who are bolder
And go where no one dares to go

When it was time to leave, we stood on the front porch, said our goodbyes, exchanged hugs and kisses, and then Kevin and I got into my rental car and we made our way back to the beach. As we drove back to our hotel, we cranked up the volume on the stereo and listened to “Hero in Me” once again. Kevin beautifully belted out the bridge to the song with a voice that rang above Gaines’s:

And as I grow older
So many places that I’ve never been
And time is tapping my shoulder
I hope it’s never to late to begin

Great words on a great evening. Even greater is the reality that though time is tapping our shoulder, the three of us realized that it wasn’t too late to begin reconnecting. I’m so glad we did, and, by God’s grace, I look forward to doing it again in the future. Kev, you bring the wine, I’ll bring the Werther’s. Caroline, you cook the pizza. And that’s a recipe for a warm friendship. Well, that and a lot of love and laughs.

 

From Where You Are

canstock1728230Walking on the beach that late November night, all six of us arm in arm, it was as if we were seventeen again. It was the first time we had all been together in over twenty years. We had spent that afternoon together at Mount Trashmore, a favorite park from our respective childhoods. Then we ate dinner at Il Giardino’s Italian Restaurant at the beach with several other good friends from our youth. After dinner we went to a club on 22nd Street called Luna Sea. Huddled close around a large wooden table, we sipped red wine, laughed, and told stories about the good times we had together as kids.

“Time for some corn hole,” Caroline said, after taking one last swallow of her tonic. So, we made our way to the large sand pit in the courtyard of the club, warmed our hands by one of the many fire pits, then formed teams. We played corn hole like school kids until 10:00, when the dance floor upstairs opened. Then…. we danced. Oh my how we danced. Scott and Jess fit their moves together with such grace, like they had rehearsed in preparation for the evening. Caroline, Becky, and Krista looked so peaceful, smiling continuously as they moved their feet and waved their arms according to the particular tune being played. Greg, Kevin, and I had a bit of a Night at the Roxbury vibe to our choreography. The club was loud, crowded, and we were the oldest people in the entire place. But it was sheer happiness. April was unable to join us, but Kevin kept her abreast of the happenings throughout the evening by texting her humorous clips of our shenanigans. Her responses were even more humorous.

So, as the remaining six of us walked on the beach after midnight, we watched a distant ship on the ocean, wondering aloud where it was going. We talked about our spouses, our kids, our jobs, our hopes, and our regrets. But most of all, we simply enjoyed each other’s company, content to simply be present with one another, the way we were when we were growing up. In many ways I suppose we’re still growing up, and the friendship that we rekindled at the beach that night will remain for the next several decades of growth, I am sure.

Four days later, Kevin texted us a song by Lifehouse entitled “From Where You Are.” I listened to it again today, and the tears welled up within me as I thanked God for the friends he put in my life during my formative years. And all these years later, once again we are holding each other up, making each other laugh, and even dancing at the beach.

So far away from where you are
The miles have torn us worlds apart
And I miss you
So far away from where you are
Lying underneath the stars
I wish you were here
I miss the years that were erased
I miss the way the sunshine would light up your face
I miss all the little things
I never thought that they’d mean everything to me
Yeah, I miss you

The Rembrandts Remembered

The_Rembrandts_-_The_Rembrandts_coverIn September of 1991, my friend Kevin introduced me to the music of The Rembrandts. Their only album had been released the previous year, and contained the hit, “That’s Just the Way it Is, Baby.” I had heard that song on Z104, but never thought much about it. But when I stood in my kitchen that evening in early September while Kevin played me excerpts of the other songs on that album, I was enthralled. The voices of the two singers blended beautifully, and their sound reminded me of a cross between The Waxing Poetics and The Beatles. The chord progressions were simple, the lyrics were not particularly profound, but something about it drew me in. It made me feel happy, really.

I drove all over Virginia Beach that Fall, listening to that tape in my car. To and from school, to and from work, to and from the houses of various friends. It was great driving music. I still have this vision of driving on Stratford Chase Drive, coming home from school on a sunny October afternoon, with the windows open, noticing the colorful Fall foliage on both sides of the street, while listening to “Show Me Your Love,” which was my favorite song on that album. A few months later I was asked to play guitar and sing at the “Miss Kempsville” pageant, held in the high school auditorium. Not knowing what would be a fitting song for such an occasion, I chose to sing “Everyday People” by The Rembrandts. I slightly altered the words to make it about the pageant. I sang it to Elaine after she was crowned winner.

Two years later, when I met my future wife, I discovered that she enjoyed The Rembrandts as well. And on January 1st, 1994, as I drove the eleven hour drive to Sarasota, Florida to meet her family, I listened to that same tape I had purchased in 1991. Over and over. And it made me smile.

Of course, they would soon become known for doing the theme song for the NBC Sitcom “Friends,” but I never really felt like that was The Rembrandts. Kevin, Shelley, and I listened to them before they became part of mainstream pop culture, and my memories of their music involved actual friends instead of just a show about friends.

It’s strange how some musical groups simply fade away. It’s been over a decade since The Rembrandts have actively performed or produced anything new. And yet the memories I associate with their music have never faded away. As I listened to “Show Me Your Love” while driving to work today, I couldn’t help but smile as I thought of singing it with Kevin in 1991, and with my wife in 1994. Good music, good memories. I think I’ll listen to it again right now.

This Precious Day

john-denver-3It seems unlikely that four Virginia Beach teenagers would enthusiastically attend a John Denver concert together in 1988, but that’s precisely what happened.

The music of this once-iconic folk singer was supposed to be for our parents’ generation. Aimee and I were in 9th Grade, Myke and Neil were in 10th. And this was 1988. People our age either listened to Paula Abdul and Tiffany or Metallica and Motley Crue. Not John Denver. Not only was he not cool, he was past his prime. He was 45-years-old at the time. His biggest hits had come and gone more than a decade earlier. He wasn’t even getting airplay anymore. Especially not in an east coast beach town. But his music had been an ever-present part of my childhood, and for whatever reason the same was true of these three friends of mine I knew from the school band. In Junior High, Myke, Neil and I frequently listened to his music when we hung out. On my 14th birthday they threw me a surprise party at Beth’s house, and Neil gave me a cassette tape of John Denver’s Greatest Hits (until then I only had the record, and it belonged to my mom). I played it in my walkman all summer whenever I rode my beach cruiser to one of their houses. When school started that Fall we somehow discovered that Aimee loved his music, too. It was as if the four of us now had some type of secret nerd club, except it wasn’t secret. We simply loved his music.

So when my mother came home from work one evening and told me she heard John Denver would be coming to Norfolk in December, I immediately called Myke, Neil, and Aimee. We went to the mall and bought tickets the next day. And then on a chilly mid-December night, Aimee’s mom drove the four of us to Norfolk Scope. We had decent floor level seats. The show started right on time. It did not disappoint. John had a powerful stage presence. He was personable, funny, and a great story-teller. Several of the songs were performed against the back drop of a giant screen with footage of John’s various adventures around the globe. The entire first half of the concert consisted mostly of his well-known hits: Rocky Mountain High, Matthew, Take Me Home Country Roads, Rhymes and Reasons, and of course, Annie’s Song. He also sang a few songs from the album that had just been released, “Higher Ground.”

My favorite part of that first half of the show was when he sang his long-time hit “Poems, Prayers, and Promises.” It struck me as very fitting, as it had to do with enduring friendships:

We talk of poems and prayers and promises
And things that we believe in;
How sweet it is to love someone,
How right it is to care;
How long it’s been since yesterday,
And what about tomorrow?
What about our dreams
And all the memories we share?

During the intermission we walked around the arena and talked about how much we enjoyed the first half of the show. Not surprisingly, we didn’t see anyone our age, so we did what all normal teenagers did: we made fun of how the people from our parents’ age group were dressed. Then the lights started to dim so we made our way back to our seats.

For the second half of the concert, John and his band were joined by a local children’s choir, and they sang several Christmas songs. It was quite celebratory, and actually quite moving.

For the last song, John put down his guitar and walked over to the black grand piano on the stage. He sat down and took on a serious demeanor. The crowd of 15,000 people fell silent. He proceeded to tell us of how there were many people in the world, particularly refugees, who would not be able to experience a joyful holiday season, and that we would do well to remember them. He sang a song he had recently written, called “Falling Leaves.” It was beautiful. And after he sang the last verse, he announced that he was going to sing the first verse again, and this time he was inviting everyone to stand and hold hands and sing it with him. And so there we stood, Aimee’s mom, Aimee, Myke, Neil, and me. Holding hands and singing:

Thank you for this precious day;
These gifts you give to me.
My heart so full of love for you
Sings praise for all I see.

It was an amazing way to end an already amazing night.

Nine years later, in October of 1997, Shelley and I had The Today Show on as we were getting ready in the morning. As I was making my way from the kitchen to the bedroom I glanced at the television and noticed footage of John Denver performing. Shelley was blow drying her hair, so I couldn’t hear what was being said about him. I felt a twinge of excitement, wondering if perhaps he was going on tour again. When Shelley turned off the hairdryer, I heard only these words from Katie Couric: “The legendary singer and songwriter was 53.”

I said out loud, “Was 53? What does that mean?”

Then I saw the ticker tape at the bottom of the screen: “Singer John Denver killed in plane crash.”

I was stunned. I literally couldn’t believe it. I felt a sinking sensation in my chest. I turned the channel to find it was being talked about on Good Morning America and CNN. I called out to Shelley, “He….. died…” She came into the living room. Holding her hair brush, she looked at the television screen in disbelief, then turned to me and said, “I’m sorry, honey.”

A few minutes later, Shelley left for work. I was in graduate school at the time, and I had a lot of studying to do that day. I gathered my books, went over to my desk, sat down, and cried. I couldn’t believe the death of someone I had never met was hitting me so hard. And yet in a real sense I felt I had met him. My mind raced with memories involving his music. I thought about when I was in Junior High and would learn to play John Denver songs on the guitar and perform them for my little sister. I thought about the summer of 1992, when my friend Gordon and I would drive his SUV to Sand Bridge with the windows open while we loudly sang along to the John Denver songs blaring from the stereo. I thought of the summer during college when I lived in Colorado, and how I fell in love with the Rockies that were such a big part of John’s music. I thought of how Shelley and I had danced to Annie’s Song at our wedding. And I thought of the night in December of 1988, when four teenagers stood in the same room with John Denver, held hands and thanked God for the gift of such a precious day. I should do that every day.