Lewis McGehee and the Tradewinds of Time

 

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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.

An Alimentary Adventure

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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 the bakers, and the local merchants who sell and deliver the bread. 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 it.

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 off 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 who walks into this place, including the three of you, 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 to others for their survival. Give us this day our daily bread. In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

The Jewish Mother

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.
Goodbye.
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.