Oct 5, 2007

My Personal Influences: From a Distance

The vast majority of the people who have made a difference in my life are people I know and who know me. They are friends, family members, and teachers who had an active personal role in my life. In general, the rich and famous, the "stars" haven't had much real influence of over me. I had no teen idols, no high-flying heroes. The bands I liked, I liked for their music; the authors, for the books they wrote. I made it a personal point of pride that I didn't admire the artist personally. After all, I didn't know them personally. I didn't know what they were really like. The song was not a relaible indicator of the character of the singer, the story not a reflection of the writer, the sermon not a statement on the preacher.

But over time, there were a few people that I came to admire from a distance. It's true I don't really know any of the people on this list, nor would I claim to know what they are really like. But I do know they all have had a profound influence on my life and I know that regardless of whether any of them were to "fall from grace", their impact on my life would in no way be lessened or compromised. Their influence does not come from their position on a particular pedestal. In fact, more often than not, it's the opposite. It's their very human-ness, their frailty that they've shared in some public way, that has led me to admire and respect them. I think it's no accident that almost everyone on this list has had a spiritual impact on my life. After all, there can be no danger in a looking up to a person who only points you higher.

Normally, when I complete a "Personal Influences" blog, I'll send out an e-mail to all the people I wrote about, to tell them thank you and to invite them to read what I wrote. For most of the people on this list, I won't be doing that. Some are dead, and are thus beyond the reach of my gratitude. Others are so famous, that the fact that they made a difference in my life is probably passe to them. They probably get stacks of fan mail everyday from people saying essentially the same things I said. What's one more paen of appreciation amidst the general chorus of adulation? But whether they know or not isn't so important. What matters is not that they make a difference to lots of people, but that they made a difference to me.

So here they are: three musicians, two authors, one preacher, and a cybertribe of ordinary human beings who've made an anonymous and extraordinary difference in my life.

Rich Mullins
The People from Interference
Keith Robertson
Keith Green
Dwight Nelson
John Grisham

Rich Mullins
"Save me from those things that might distract me
Please take them away and purify my heart
I don't want to lose the eternal for the things that are passing
Because what will I have when the world is gone
If it isn't for the love that goes on and on. . ."

--"My One Thing" by Rich Mullins

I asked Rich Mullins for directions to the bathroom once. I ran into him right after my first time seeing him in concert. Here I had the brief opportunity to talk to one of the most influential men in my life and all I could to do ask was ask him to point me in the direction of the nearest toilet. He didn't know where the facilities were, but we talked for a few minutes and I was impressed to hear the same grace, humility, and generosity of spirit in "real life" that I heard in his songs and during his onstage patter.

I'll never forget the first time I heard Mullins' classic album A Liturgy, A Legacy, and a Ragamuffin Band. I was vacationing in Pohnpei, during my year as a student missionary, when a fellow SM handed me a battered dubbed cassette tape. I popped it into my walkman that night as I lay in the darkness on my couch guest bed. I pressed the play button and the tape began in mid-album, mid-song and, even so, immediately, I was blown away. The combination of gorgeous, organic melodies and eloquently poetic and heartfelt lyrics was unlike anything I'd ever heard before. It was as if he'd given voice to my most heartfelt prayers and put them to music. Some thirteen years later, Rich's songs still have the same affect on me and his unique expressions of life and faith have become my own as well. When "the morning came too soon and the day could be so hot, there was so much work left to do and so much you'd already done" I still sang with Rich, "O God you are my God and I will ever praise you, I will seek you in the morning and I will follow you all of my days." When I returned to the U.S. after my stint as a student missionary, I promised "I'll carry on" and was comforted by the fact that the "Holy King of Israel loves me here in America", the "land of my sojourn". When I felt like "sometimes my life don't make sense at all" and "I'd rather fight You for something I don't really want then take what You give that I need" I sang "Hold me Jesus, cause I'm shaking like leaf. You've been King of my glory, won't you be my Prince of Peace."

Rich Mullins is someone who expresses my deepest longings, struggles, and aspirations as a Christian far more eloquently than I ever could. Whenever I listen to one of his songs I always hear truth, that familiar ring that says "Yes, this is right, this is true, this is what I believe." And the remarkable thing about Rich is that it wasn't just the music. It was also the way he lived his life. The man who wrote perhaps the most famous modern Christian anthem, "Awesome God," often performed in jeans and bare feet. He lived in a traditional hogan on a Native American reservation in the Southwestern U.S. teaching music to kids. He lived a life of humble, unassuming service, eschewing the glamour and acclaim he could easily have had. He was the polar opposite of the typical, perfectly put-togther, right-leaning, praise & worship Christian celebrity. He not only sang Jesus, He lived Jesus.

Rich Mullins died in a car accident on September 19, 1997. When I found out, I felt almost as if a friend had died, and genuinely grieved the loss. While I might never write songs like Rich could, I knew I could live a life like his, one of giving to others without looking for reward or recognition, one where God was "my One Thing." While he may not have known how to find the closest restroom, He knew where to find God and he never stopped pointing people in that direction. I'd like to be able to do the same.

"I believe in the Kingdom Come
Then all the colors will bleed into one
But yes, I'm still running
You broke the bonds
You loosed the chains
You carried the cross
And my shame
And my shame
You know I believe it
But I still haven't found
What I'm looking for"
--"I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" by U2 (lyrics by Bono)

"Whoa, whoa. Did he say what I thought he said?" Rewind the tape. Listen again. Yes, there it was. Kingdom come. Carried the cross. What was this? A blatant reference to the God I believed in on an ostensibly secular rock and roll record. And not just a cheap, praise-y shout out, but words heartfelt and authentic. Real. Words that resonated with the experience of my own heart. There I was, a rather morose high school senior, having been turned on to U2 by the catchy, danceable "Mysterious Ways" all over the radio, stumbling upon an echo of my own spiritual journey. The voice? A guy in dark shades, black leather, with an earring in each ear, a cigarrete dangling from his hand, and an ironic smirk on his face. In time I would discover a man who believed in a God who wasn't short of cash, a man who waited patiently for the Lord who inclined to hear his cry, a man who longed to claim the victory Jesus won, a man who knew that grace was a thought that could change the world, a man who prayed that God would take his heart and make it break. In short, a man not so very different from me. There was one very big difference though. He went by one name, and that name was one of the most famous in the world. The name was Bono.

From Bono I've gained an understanding of the value and ministry of being real, which is ironic since this is a man who makes his living putting on a show. And yet when I think about Bono, the lead singer of one of the biggest rock bands in the world, U2, it's his honesty and realness--in his lyrics and in his life that have influenced me the most. Especially during the 90's, Bono had all kinds of onstage personas--the Mirroball Man, the Fly, Mr. MacPhisto. Yet no matter what character he took on stage, his words, his voice, and the music of his bandmates, The Edge, Adam Clayton, and Larry Mullen Jr. were always refreshingly real and soaringly down to earth. Like the music of Rich Mullins, the music of U2 is true. If Rich represented the destination, Bono represents the journey. If Rich's music, lyrics, and life embody what I aspire to be, Bono's music, lyrics and life embody where I am right now. Rich Mullins tells me what (or rather Who) I'm looking for. Bono reminds me I still haven't totally found Him yet.

I like that Bono's not a traditionally "appropriate" Christian role model, that the church often can't quite figure out what to do with this fellow who smokes and drinks and cusses and talks about God and grace, love and peace. I understand his discomfort with the failings of religion, and his frank awareness that he's probably not the best poster boy for standard Christianity. I feel the same way a lot of the time. I relate to and admire his struggle to life a faithful life. I like that he talks too much (a bit like I do) and is somewhat overly opinonated (definitely like I am). I admire his compassion, his tireless work on behalf of the poor and the sick, and I especially appreicate a funny kind of humility that he shares with all people that recognize they ultimately answer to Someone bigger than themselves. I hope to have these kinds of qualities myself. There are many things Bono can do that I can't (like write amazing, classic songs that will be sung by millions) and many things he is that I will never be (like super-charismatic and unbelievably rich). But one thing I've learned from the life of Bono, one aspect of Bono that I can be, is this: I can be real.

The People of Interference

Irvine511. Unico. Melon. Yolland. BonosSaint. Mrs. Springsteen. Liesje. AEON. Anitram. Martha. U2Democrat. Angela Harlem. Deep. Vincent Vega. A_Wanderer. BonoVoxSuperstar. Sulawesigirl. DazzlingAmy. U2IsTheBest. No Spoken Words. Neverman. PhillyFan. VertigoGal. Night_and_Day. Who are these people, you ask? In one sense, I don't really know. I've never met a single one of them in real life. Almost all of them, I wouldn't recognize if I saw them on the street--I don't know what they look like. For most of them, I don't even know their real names. And yet for these apparent strangers, I feel genuine affection, real friendship, and authentic care. They, and many others (including me), are regular posters on Interference, officially a U2 fan site and message board, but in actuality so much more than that. It is perhaps the most diverse and intellectualy stimulating community I've ever belonged to. And, at least on the forums I visit regularly--especially the politics, religion, and world issues forum "Free Your Mind"--U2 is hardly ever mentioned.

I know the idea of communicating with a bunch of "cyberfriends" online can seem a little hokey--my wife certainly thought it was weird for a long time, and I'm sure I would have thought the same in the past. I wasn't looking for this, after all. What I was looking for, when I stumbled across Interference in January of 2006 was a way to get tickets to a U2 show in Japan. I found that, and a whole lot more. At any time of day or night I could find a debater's dream in the "Free Your Mind" forum discussing and debating every issue under the sun from the Iraq War to Creationism. In the Interference "Journals" forum I was able to take peeks into the diverse musings of people from all walks of life, people who were so different in their viewpoints and experiences, and yet so similar in their basic humanity, their joys and griefs, dreams and struggles. In what other way, besides the internet, could you gather believers (Christians of every stripe, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists), agnostics, atheists (of every stripe--I didn't know they came in as many varieties as believers do until Interference), conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats (and vice versa), teenagers and grandparents, college students and college professors, media professionals and blue collar workers, artists and heating and cooling systems repairmen, single, married, and divorced people, gays and heterosexuals, people from Ireland and the United States, Australia and Germany, Canada and the UK, Israel and Africa. A meeting of such a diversity of minds for thought-provoking discussion is intellectual, philosphical, and spiritual gold.

It's obvious that a group like this is going to change you. You can't possibly hold on to your presumptions and assumptions in a world this wide. And indeed, the people of Interference have had a profound influence on my thinking, on my perspectives, on my life. In discussions that are generally thoughtful and intelligent these people have challenged and strengthened my faith, both revised and reinforced my beliefs, widened and sharpened my views. They've influenced me to question more and assume less. I'd like to hope I'm doing the same for them.

I'll admitt there's a lot I don't know about the people of Interference, but what I do know is that they are thinking, feeling, loving human beings who have encouraged me to think more deeply, feel with more empathy, and love more truly. And that's really all I need to know.

Keith Robertson

I couldn't remember Keith Robertson's name. I had to look it up when I was preparing this blog. What I did remember was the name of one the characters he created, Henry Reed. The books that Robertson wrote that Henry starred in, beginning with Henry Reed Inc. (for which Robertson won the William Allan White award) completely changed my life. Henry Reed was a skinny guy with glasses who spent his summers with his aunt and uncle in Grover's Corner, New Jersey. Each year he'd get together with his friend Midge Glass and cook up some scheme to make some money for that summer (thus the "Incorporated" in the title of the first book of the series). Henry was a little bookish, he was about the age I was when I read his books, and his best friend was a girl, so I suppose, I another skinny guy with glasses, related to him in a way. His buisness plans were always entertaining, but what I found most fascinating about Henry Reed was that he wrote a journal. All the stories in the book were written as if they were Henry's journal entries. For some reason, that concept--of writing down the details of your life every day, captured my imagination. Though I'd been "writing books" since I could remember, this was different. This was not a made-up story that I had to work at. This was telling the story of my life, as it happened. This, I could do. I could write a journal just like Henry Reed. And so in the summer of 1985, I did exactly that. And 41 notebooks and 22 years later, I'm still at it. I've added an online presence with my Interference journal, and of course, this blog. But it all began with a man whose name I couldn't remember. Keith Robertson.

I did a little research on Keith Roberston and found he was born in 1914, served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, wrote several books (including the Henry Reed series), mostly for children, and died in 1991. I couldn't find out much beyond that (he doesn't even have a Wikipedia entry), but I know that largely because of him, journaling is a regular and vital part of my day, and writing in general is a passion for life.

Keith Green
"Well I know the loneliness I had before
Is gone now
I'll never feel it anymore
Cause your love has released me
From all that's in my past. . ."
--"You Put This Love in My Heart" by Keith Green

Keith Green was crazy. "Bananas for Jesus" was the way he described it during one concert. This guy was 100% sold out for Jesus. He was uncompromising, fiery, almost prophetic in his zeal. Naturally he made some people uncomfortable, but he also drew people with his fierce sincerity and galvanizing passion. A lot of people felt both discomfited and drawn. I was one of those people.

By the time I discovered Keith Green, he'd been dead for almost 15 years. I heard Keith Green's story before I heard his music. Well, actually I had heard some of his songs on a tribute album by modern Christian contemporary artists (I especially liked Rich Mullins' cover of "You Are the One") introduced to me by Carl Waldron (see Personal Influences: Catalysts) but the music didn't really register with the artist. My friend Clari Worley (See Personal Influences: Spiritual Guides) had lent me a copy of his biography No Compromise written by his wife Melody Green. "You have to read this book," Clari had said in her trademark charistmatically earnest style. So I did and found myself profoundly moved by this story of an aspiring musician coming of age in the early seventies in Southern California. Here was a man who tried it all--sex, drugs, and rock and roll, every religion under the sun--and had found it all wanting until he found Jesus. And when that happened, he jumped in headfirst and never looked back. I was amazed and challenged by the depth of his commitment, the intensity of his passion for Christ, and all that he accomplished in the few short years from the time he became a Christian until his untimely death at the age of 28 in a plane crash in 1982.

A few months after I read his biography, I finally had the chance to hear Keith for myself. It was probably best that I heard his music last, because it was certainly an acquired taste. He had a rather nasal, high pitched voice and the production values of his records were definitely vintage 1970's. But there was something about his songs, just like the story of his life, that was utterly compelling. It was that same sense of complete and total commitment, of heartfelt love for Jesus. When you listened to most of the stuff on Christian radio, after listening to Keith, everything else just sounded so tepid and shallow. Keith sang with heart and it came across in his lyrics and in the very way he sang. I had heard that Keith was often a favorite among new converts to Christianity, especially younger ones, and I understood why. His music was spiritually real and that's what they--and I--were hungry for. As a college student longing to know more of Jesus, Keith Green's music was the soundtrack to my deepening faith.

What's interesting though, is that now, at a time in my life where I've come to be very wary of religious fanaticism and zealotry of any type, I still find myself compelled by Keith Green. Maybe it's because Keith wasn't ever crazy about being religious. His craziness wasn't the madness of a Bible thumper intent on pushing a partiuclar doctrinal or political position. He wasn't about "taking back America" or building a particular megachurch. He was crazy about a Person, the way one is crazy in love. And he was in love, with Jesus. And every time I listen to him, it makes me want to love Jesus as much as he did.

Dwight Nelson

When I was in college, the big question every Sabbath was: Is Dwight preaching? If he was, well you could be sure we'd be front row center at the vast stone sanctuary of Pioneer Memorial Church. And if he wasn't? Well, that might be good week to check out All Nations Church or to skip services all together. I know that's probably the worst attitude to have when it comes to church attendance, but it does illustrate the extent of Dwight's resonance with much of the collegiate community at Andrews University where I went to school. Pastor Nelson was seemingly tailor-made for ministering and preaching at a large university church. With his trademark mustache and sharp suits he reminded me of Alex Trebek hyped up on speed. There he'd be on the platform, just vibrating with energy, heartily singing all the hymns and praise and worship choruses without regard to key or tune. And when it came time to speak and he stepped up to the trendy lucite pulpit they provided for him, he never failed to blow you away with a fresh perspective on an old truth. With his penchant for attention grabbing (and lengthy) sermon titles, his habit of salting his sermons with liberal references to the front pages of the nations newspapers and magazines, and his dynamic yet intellectually stimulating preachig style, he was perfect for an urbane, literate audience of college students and college professors. It seemed he could make any subject interesting and the oldest doctrine new. But he wasn't merely a slick theological showman. No, far more than that he seemed to have a genuine love for and connection with the Lord, one that made what might have been just a sophisticated performance into a weekly heart-to-heart encounter with the living God.

In my role as church elder at my church I have to preach from time to time, and when I do often find myself referencing Pastor Nelson, from the way I title my sermons to the way I present my message. Most of all, I pray that I will stay connected to God so that He can speak through me and do what neither I nor Dwight can do on our own--touch the hearts of our hearers with the love of God.

There's one other major way in which Pastor Dwight Nelson influenced my life. He wrote a little book called A New Way to Pray. I don't even remember how or why I got ahold of it, but somehow it fell into my possession in the spring of 1994 and completely revolutionized by spiritual life. In this little volume Pastor Nelson explains a simple method for daily prayer and Bible study designed to draw relevance from the Scriptures everyday and enable one to both speak to and listen to God in a practical, rewarding way. I've been using this devotional method for years now and it has enriched my spiritual life incaculably. So if you can find that book, A New Way to Pray, I suggest you check it out. And if you're ever in Berrien Springs, Michigan on a Saturday morning, ask around and see if Dwight's preaching. And if he is, go to church. You'll be glad you did.

John Grisham

What I love about John Grisham is that I didn't know he was a Christian for the longest time. It's that aspect of his work as a writer that has influenced me the most. I'm sure there are "better" writers, and there are certainly books and authors I like more than the "King of In-flight Read" but probably no author has had more influence in shaping the way I want to write and the kind of writer I want to be. It's not that I've got a burning desire to write legal thrillers that hew to a pretty basic formula, but I do have a desire to write stories for a wide audience, not just aim for a narrow Christian market. I do want to put the story first, rather than using the story as a tool to push my faith. I do want to write stories that are authentic and engage the reader, while still staying true to my Christian values. In my opinion, John Grisham has managed to do all of those things. Grisham may never win the Pulitzer, but read his stories. You'll find they're well-paced, entertaining, and never feel forced (though if you stop to think about it gratutious sex, and strong language are surprisingly absent in his work. Yet his books never feel neutered or self-consciously censored. This is something I would love to--but haven't yet figured out how to--accomplish. I want to write a story that's real and authentic but also one that I won't be embarrassed for my father-in-law to read.)

Lately, having made his mint in the legal thriller genre, Grisham has branched out into other types of writing including fictionalzied memoirs and even nonfiction. He's also written a few books that more directly reference his faith. I remember several years ago reading his book, The Testament, the first book of his to feature a specifically Christian character. It was standard Grisham fare, and I read it quickly and enjoyed it, as I do all of his books. But I was impressed that introducing an explicitly Christain character didn't change a thing in the way he wrote. That kind of consistency as a writer who happens to be Christian is what I would like to accomplish in my writing as well.