Tuesday, May 09, 2006

"Vincent, he picked up the blade and put it to his ear."

[note: This is my 100th post, which I suppose qualifies me for something, especially given the length of most of them.]

Today my wife Sami had her company picnic, a lovely opportunity for us to show off our cute son. On the way home from the picnic, since Adam, just like his Daddy, must be surrounded by music at all times, we listened to the Vigilantes of Love's album Blister Soul. Track three on that disk is called "Skin," Bill Mallonee's Vincent van Gogh metaphor for art, life and ministry. As I listened to it for, what, the 400th or so time, I knew I had to write something on it.

I've been staring at the lyrics for just a few minutes now, trying to pick some representative sample for you. But, like a good poem, I can't just cut some part of it out and let it stand in for the rest. It all kind of hangs together. Similarly, I can't exactly tell you what it's about. It isn't really about anything. Oh, sure, I could say that it is about this or that, and build an argument for that position. But as soon as I did, something would be lost. Force an interpretation on the song and, as soon as you do, all other potential interpretations are lost. I'm not yet prepared to do that.

So, in a gluttony of good words, I'm giving you the entire lyric. Like all great songs the lyric can't be easily separated from the music. But chopping off the music is less severe than chopping off the music and half the words. So, here is the lyric for the Vigilantes of Love's "Skin," written as always by Bill Mallonee:

now i'd seen him despondent
a few times as of late
sometimes the answer love gives
is the hardest one to take
now I know he was prone to paint the voice of his own fear
so vincent, he picked up the blade and put it to his ear

just look at yourself in the mirror
all rumpled red stubbled and gaunt
you walk a dead end path in a dry corn field
and now this morose response
and your princess
she don't want to see you
no your princess she don't want to hear
so vincent, he picked up the blade and put it to his ear

now look if you're gonna come round here and say those sorts of things
you gotta take a few on the chin
talking about love and all that stuff
you better bring your thickest skin

sometimes you can't please everyone
sometimes you can't please anyone at all
sew your heart onto your sleeve
and wait for the ax to fall

now you there with the paintbox
you there with paper and pen
me I got this blunt instrument
i'm gonna play on till the end
and you come with empty hands
or you don't come at all
you deal your best hand out in the marketplace
and let the chips fall
and the package, it comes wrapped up
there is a lesson here
and vincent, he picked up the blade and put it to his ear

now look if you're gonna come round here and say those sorts of things
you gotta take a few on the chin
talkin bout sin and redemption
you better bring your thickest skin

This song really speaks to me, and I'm sorry that I can't give you the music to go with these words. A great song is singular; you can't break it into its component parts, dissect it, and understand it. You have to take in the organic whole and let it live with you for a while. Then you'll see that, if it is a really great song, it doesn't just communicate some cognitive message or some emotive experience. Rather, it hits you on a level which slips right past description, touching the you that you'd forgotten about. This song reminds me of who I am, without bothering to tell me who I ought to be.

But, as the lyric says, "there is a message here." While it is impossible for me to describe everything that the song communicates (in part because what it communicates is not limited to what I hear in it or get out of it), I can draw some simple communications out of it for you. So here are some things which I hear in this song:

The first verse sets up the image of Vincent van Gogh cutting off his ear. Bill Mallonee is obviously not just relaying a historical event, but is instead taking an image from history and using it as a metaphor. Here it is easy to see how all the time we mythologize history. If history is merely relaying events, then it doesn't really speak to us, and there is no point in studying it. History is about the past, sure, but it is also about the present and the future. It is the past speaking to the present and helping to shape the future.

The van Gogh image is immediately, in the first verse, a metaphor for art. Vincent, when he picks up the blade and puts it to his ear, is doing it as an extension of his art. His art is very much like this act of self-mutilation. In his art he takes a part of himself, cuts it off or out, and places it - in paint on canvass - before us. He says, "Here, this is part of me. Take it."

This self offering is essential to art. It is the essence of art, as best as I can tell. And, as art, it transcends any particular artistic medium.

We in the blogosphere know a little something of this. One of the things which has simultaneously attracted and repelled me about blogging is that it blurs the private/public distinction. Blogging is often a very private act. It is a raw, unpolished, personal form of communication, often written like a private journal. Yet it is placed in public. Anyone with Internet access could theoretically read it.

This blurring of the private/public distinction has created many very bad blogs. I once, for instance, read a blog which consisted entirely of what a person ate for lunch every day. Clearly that blog was not interesting to a public audience, and as art failed. It should have remained private. As a creative writing teacher once scrawled on a particularly bad poem of mine, "Why should I care about this? If you need to say this, journal about it. But don't turn it in to me."

But there are parts of us, often buried deep inside us, which if made public can actually communicate something meaningful, which communicates to others. Finding these things, and presenting them in some form, can often feel very much like taking a blade to a part of your body and slicing it off. That act is a very private act. But when it is made public, both the public and the private are better off for it.

Ministry is very much like this. You could almost call it a work of art. Done right, or almost right, it probably is. Ministry requires a degree of vulnerability, a willingness to face all of those things that most of us don't want to face, and then having face those deep dark scary fears empowering others to turn and face them as well.

I remember once preaching at a funeral, meditating on my childhood fear of death. How, well... not quite ironic, but at least appropriate that I, who had once been so afraid of death that it kept me up at night, running in circles around my bedroom scared that if I fell asleep I might not wake up, was now staring straight at death on behalf of a community of faith. Wrestling with death, trying to existentially understand our impermanent nature, and lead other people to that same constructive understanding. It was, after all, what I'd been doing my whole life. My excessive fears, my crippling anxieties, were now being put to work in my ministry.

Henri Nouwen, in his great book The Wounded Healer, writes that our wounds are the only currency we have for ministry. Whether that's true or not I don't know, but it seems to be that they are at the very least our best, our most valuable, currency for ministry. The shape us, mold us into who we are. They are what we have to offer other wounded people. And we are all wounded.

But it takes some serious vulnerability to share our wounds with others. To say how we are wounded, where we are wounded. To admit that some wounds still hurt, still bleed. To be able to expose those wounds to people who may well, like Thomas, drive their fingers into the holes to make sure they aren't some saintly mirage. That takes vulnerability, and courage. What Paul Tillich called existential or ontological courage; the courage to be. To be who you are, to be yourself. To be yourself for others, living with authentic vulnerability before them. That is ministry.

But, as Bill Mallonee reminds us, if we're going to do that we'd better "bring our thickest skin." As a pastor my skin was not so thick. I made myself vulnerable, but I couldn't accept the fruits of that vulnerability. The inevitable rejection that you get from some people. And the problem with being your authentic self for others is that when they reject you they really are rejecting you.

Some people in my church once looked straight at me and called me an agent of Satan, sent to deceive God's people. Why? Because I faced the fears they wouldn't face, and had the courage to say that the theology I grew up with wasn't working? Maybe, but that makes me sound too much like a martyr. Whatever their reasons, the problem was that I didn't bring that "thick skin." I couldn't bring it, because I'd never found it. They helped me to find it.

I'm now embracing lay ministry, seeing it not as the loss of my standing as a pastor, but rather as the gain of my standing as an authentic lay person, part of the body of Christ with a mission and purpose no less valuable than that of the clergy. I am finding my new ministry.

Elsa Tamez, as I said in this post on James, turned my attention to a couple of verses which, to me, speak to the heart of lay ministry. I won't give a full treatment of the verses here, but I will challenge those of you who are not clergy and do not desire to be clergy, to consider how these verses impact your view on your relationship with the ministry of the church:

James 5:16

Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.

Notice that all in the community are called to give and receive confession. The task of hearing confessions, and the task of praying for others, is not limited to the clergy.

James 5:17

Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth.

This is an even richer verse, and I cannot possibly here capture the depth of that richness. But there are a couple of things we should notice. First, while Elijah is perhaps the most revered figure in the Jewish tradition, he is, according to James, "like us." Just another human being.

On top of that, in terms of the clergy/laity divide, Elijah is (from a lay perspective) just like us. He is not a priest, or a king. But as a prophet, though he opposes both the religious and political power, he is one who speaks for God.

We are Elijah, and he is us.

My point is that the laity cannot defer to the clergy for "ministry." We are also ministers in our own way, and so these thoughts on ministry and vulnerability, ministry and art, do not just apply to seminarians and pastors and theologians. They apply to all.

Ultimately our very lives are our works of art and our ministry. They should be lived with a balance of vulnerability and thick skin. And when we interact with people, in some very real way, if we are truly present, we are almost cutting off a part of ourselves and trusting them with it.

That trust can become mutilated when, to go back to the van Gogh metaphor, the object of our vulnerable love takes a look at our wounds, our vulnerability, our severed ear, and decided that they can't handle it. The rejection stings, and it also leaves us with less to give the next time we decide to become vulnerable. Without grace, without mercy, without the forgiveness which is the antithesis of bitterness and resentment, our ear never grows back, our wound never heals.

I'm starting to heal. I'm finding a new ministry. This week I started as the chair of the Education team at my church. I am now responsible for (gulp) children's ministry, youth ministry, and all adult education programs, including Sunday School, small groups, and our Wednesday evening forum.

If I had not been through the pain of losing my vocation to pastoral ministry, I would not be able to do this vital job.

I'll let you know how it goes.


Amy said...

Beautiful. And, blessings on your new aspect of lay ministry.

The first sermon I ever preached, in worship service of 40 in inner-city Spokane, was along a similar theme, using 2 Corinthians (I don't remember the chapter and verse.) I remember preaching about the necessity of vulnerability for authenticity in the church; I also remember using the image of salt-water taffy, which is created by getting stretched and battered to reach it's final consistency (would have been a great children's message if I'd remembered to explain the symbolism aftewards :) )

Then, in my own vulnerable moment under a year earlier, I returned to visit the congregation and see how they had maintained themselves during my time in Cincinnati. I was invited to sit in with them on the congregational bible study I had led, and stayed simply visit with them. Ironically, they were studying the very same text I had preached on - and not a single person realized it! That was also a humbling, and vulnerable, experience.

I think you're on to something when you compare ministry to art; each is a pouring out of yourself, giving yourself over to the power of those around you to either accept you or reject you in your most honest condition. It's a dedication to that weakness we are each called to....

That same summer, my housemates and I traveled across the state by convertible, ferry, and hithchiking to an acoustic music festival on a small island in the Puget Sound. We arrived, tired and exhilarated by our travels, to one of those beautiful hippie enclaves I miss so much. We had cast ourselves onto the mercy of traveling conditions we could not predict, with a vague idea of the location to where we were headed and the name of one of the bands to which my housemate was devoted. That, too, was a (frankly unwise) acceptance of our vulnerability and hope for grace from those around us.

As we began to settle in, and discover our surroundings, unpacking the avocado and tuna we had brought with us, an open mike began for the musicians amongst us. As the strains started, I recognized a distinctive voice I had come to admire for its own character and vulnerability.

It was the voice of Bill Mallonnee. Throughout high school, it was his music I turned too when I was hurt and distressed. That afternoon, as I had abandoned myself over in joy to a whim, I shared that same vulnerability with him.

Thank you for sharing this post. If you're ever in Washington in July, attend the Woodsong Music Festival. It will catch you unawares, and help you celebrate that same weakness in artistry. If you attend, remember me and Bill Mallonnee.

Tom said...

Happy 100th post!

Amy said...

Yes- sorry I forgot to include that - I've read every one! also, delete the second comment - I don't know why my computer keeps double posting...

Sandalstraps said...


Now deleting second comment. Thanks for wasting your time with my adventures in blogdom.

Brian Cubbage said...

Congratulations on the 100th post!

I think you (and Nouwen) are right that one ministers out of one's wounds. I have a really hard time doing that, partly because my "wounds" are rather subtle and are really more general aspects of my character. (Profound insecurity, for starters.)

I'm especially interested in lay ministry, and I want to second what you say about it here. It strikes me that too many churches see ministry as exclusively a professional function; professional ministers are the "agents," lay persons are the "patients," passively receiving what the professional ministers provide. The churches I've been a part of all realized at long last just how soul-sucking that view of ministry is and have tried to reclaim the power of the laity. My church now is doing the same. I'm eager to hear how your church fares here.

Congratulations again!

Sandalstraps said...

Lay ministry is especially important in light of the fact that, on a certain level, the laity is the church (at least congregationally speaking). Pastors and other staff members are employed by the church to fascilitate ministry, but they come and go. The laity remains.

We are facing this reality at my church in several different programs, but of the ones that I now oversee this is most apparent in the children's ministry. We have a staff person assigned to children's ministry, but that staff person essentially operates without direction from or involvement with the rest of the church. There is no overarching vision for the children's ministry, no concept of what healthy and successful children't ministry might look like, no goals (concrete or abstract) for the ministry or the staff person.

As a former church staffer I can say that is no way to operate. It isn't fair to the staff, and it is a recipe for failure in the ministry. Ideally a staff person is employed to help meet the goals outlined by the church. They should exercise some creativity in meeting those goals, but they shouldn't have to build a ministry from the groud up, with no input from the church, and no concept of whatthe church is looking for from their position.

It is a bad model for ministry to just hand over any ministry to a staff person and let them completely loose. But now we are in the unenviable position of having to establish goals for that ministry for the first time several years into the employment of the staff person. I don't envy them the transition ahead, but what's happening isn't working.

Anyway, I think that highlights the need for the laity to take ownership of the ministries of the church. If they don't then they are entirely at the whim of staff and clergy, who come and go. Times of transitions become almost impossible, and continuity is lost. That, and the staff and clergy are put in a position where, absent some definition for success, the only thing that will ever be noticed is failure.

Troy said...


I consider myself very luck, perhaps blessed, to have discovered your blog. I have lots of back reading to do! What astonishes me is the kindship I feel as I read your words. And the timeliness of the content for me.

You were an agent of Satan? Well, I can think of one other time religious legalists applied that term unfairly. The fact is your theology is driven by compassion, reason and love, and at this point in time I fail to see how the rest of the church can fail to come aboard.

In about eight more centuries, give or take.

Congrats on the 100.


Troy said...

I hate typos.

It's 'lucky' and 'kinship.'