I'm With the Band

Have you ever been to a wedding reception where the bride sang in her own wedding band? Musicians do things differently. The wedding reception was held upon the stage of a grand old theater in Buffalo, New York. Elegantly set tables dotted the wooden floor, with its stage markings and velvet curtains swagged casually aside.

We, the wedding guests, ate our wedding banquet up on that stage and looked out at hundreds of plush empty seats; we were a show with no audience. Yet on the stage full of tables, there was this smaller stage for the wedding band. This was a revolving door of musicians, who, according to a carefully planned set list, would get up from their guest tables at the appropriate song and wander up to join the band, for one song or maybe two, swapping as drummer, guitarist or lead singer.

Now, thankfully, this was not a karaoke affair, where amateurs torture one another with spur of the moment song choices and alcohol induced confidence, nearly always misplaced. No, this was a carefully choreographed, yet minimally rehearsed, set list that took experienced and gifted musicians from many bands and pulled them together in odd combinations.

Some of the musicians were former band mates to one another, now moved on to be lawyers and mothers and business people, and many of them were still in the music business. They performed to celebrate the wedding of the bride, a singer, songwriter, guitar player, and punk rock music activist, and the groom, a journalist who--thank God--loves punk rock music.

Now when punk rockers grow up and get married, the celebration is bound to be a little different. Two decades of friendship and musical history crossed the stage that night, as musical memories drew us into a wedding banquet like no other.

As a minister, I have learned that wedding receptions reflect the best and the worst of people's pasts. Here the past and the present of the gathered community of the couple and their friends was present in the setting itself, a huge theater. These were people who were comfortable on stages, either on them as performers or in front of them as fans or behind them as crew, sound and support. So to have the wedding celebration take place there was only natural. As natural as the bride taking her turn at the mike to sing a few numbers with her old friends at her own wedding reception.

The Christian wedding ceremony had taken place in the theater's lobby. The bride and groom had proceeded up this winding staircase to a balcony where I waited as the minister to perform my friend Jenny's wedding. It had been over twenty years since she and I had first met back in high school, and it had been sixteen years since we had been locked inside another old theater, in another place and another time.

Sixteen years earlier, long before I was a performer of wedding ceremonies, I was a bass player in a punk rock band with Jenny, the bride, Derek and Steve. Sixteen summers ago, we had been on tour. It was in some ways our first big break, a trek of several weeks and many shows across the United States, with two other bands. But this big tour would also be our last. For that was the summer before I started my master of divinity degree at Yale Divinity School.

Not many bands can say that they broke up because the bass player went to seminary, but there you have it. I broke up the band when I followed my call to the ministry.

In the book of Revelation, a bride and groom appear as signs of what heaven may be. "And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband." I thought of Jenny, coming up those bridal stairs so beautifully dressed in a vintage white lace gown, her red hair cut into a soft bob, when sixteen years ago it had been this wild mass of dreadlocks.

In life we are constantly moving back and forth in time, back and forth between what was and what is and what might be. But the writer of Revelation never let's you get stuck in just one time zone, saying: "And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, 'See, the home of God is among mortals.'" In other words, God's right here in the middle of ordinary life, no matter where you are. Or where you were.

Sixteen years ago in the weeks before divinity school and what would become a ministry of three churches and an old friend's wedding, life had seemed very different. If God's home is among the mortals, we mortals were leading very different lives back then.

The tour of the bands had started in Asheville, North Carolina, where drunken men had shouted at us to play softer so they could continue to have meaningful conversation. But, you know, it's hard to play electric guitars softly, particularly in the punk rock genre. Three drunken men left the place annoyed, and we were left with no audience. But given that it was the first night of the big tour, we were so excited that all three bands played full sets to a single bemused North Carolina bartender.

The crowds picked up when we played in New York City at a famous club, where meaningful conversation was not on the agenda. But during that show, my car was broken into and all my clothes were stolen. That explains why in almost every picture from that summer, I am wearing the same tee shirt, which said "bagel eater," given to me by a sympathetic New Yorker at 3 am as I picked up the smashed glass from my windshield.

Later we drove to Madison, Wisconsin, where along the highway two guitars fell off the top of one of the cars, but survived intact on the side of the highway. Losing all your clothes was one thing, but losing your guitars--that would be a disaster.

And then, finally, to Flint, Michigan, where we gasped to discover our venue, this enormous old theater that seated thousands, right in the center of town. Could this be right?

Punk rockers didn't usually play in venues that size. We played in crowded basement clubs with black walls and grottos, rarely any actual seats. When we had to sleep, if we weren't tripling up in the very cheapest motels, we were on the sofas of fans that we had never met before.

So for our motley caravan to pull up at this massive old theater was like the Beverly Hillbillies pulling up in their Appalachian jalopy to the California mansion. We could hardly believe this theater was for us.

Flint, Michigan, had fallen on hard times. Auto jobs had left the area, and the people struggled to support the meager industries that remained. This was the same time period when Michael Moore had made the documentary "Roger and Me."

As we got closer, we saw that the theater was clearly in bad shape. Thick chains on the main doors did not bode well. We saw people waiting to see us at a side door. And we were ushered in there, not to the theater, but to the lobby, which had been set up with just a few folding chairs, some plugs to use, and a stench that indicated no cleaning in years. The lobby was our venue. As for the main theater, we were told that it had been condemned.

So poor were these kids in Flint Michigan, that many of them could not afford to pay the ticket to see the show, and so they listened from outside until we insisted that they just come on in. We saw no hotels around us, and no one invited us over to their houses that night but when it was time to sleep, we were told that we were staying in the old theater.

Apparently, this was how they handled hospitality for all the bands. They simply turned off the lights and locked you in. We did not sleep easy that night. Some of us snuggled up near the door, while others snuck into the condemned theater itself and ran around on the main stage imagining an audience in the dark and grim decay.

I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away."

It was that vision that would call me to leave this life and pursue another. In the midst of a depressed city, artists danced around on a stage condemned, but with all the joy that musicians can bring to an impossible situation. In music, we transcend the reality, don't we? In music and art, we imagine a better world and imagine in an empty condemned theater a show that will rock the world. And that's also what we do in the life of faith, is it not?

When I arrived at Yale Divinity School a few weeks later, I had no idea what to expect, only that it would be different. And different it was. From the bagel eater tee shirt punk rock tour of America's dirtiest places, I now found myself at the new student orientation picnic at Yale, where we sat on this perfectly manicured green, where we were being led in song by a throng of very bad folk guitar players, urging us to sing, I kid you not, "Kum Ba Yah."

"I've made a horrible decision," I thought to myself. "I'm surrounded by geeks, who will suck me into their geeky world, and I'll never be cool again."

And I wasn't. Because, of course, part of following a calling is giving up stuff like that. I came to divinity school that summer carrying a boatful of ego and attitude and judgementalism and insecurity. In other words, all the things that in the life of faith, Jesus calls us to work on. And I left with the same list.

And, later, as I performed my old friend's wedding, the lead singer of our band, I was struck that now the lines between cool and uncool seemed so much blurrier. Today Jenny was singing in her own wedding band, but she and her new husband had also started attending church, and I was reunited with friends from the old days, and it was easy.

Sometimes in our lives, we think that there are these breaks, these moments when we make a big change. We join a new church, we make a move, we form a new relationship, we pick a new path. But, really, looking back we were always playing the same song, just different variations.

I thought about how being a bass player is a lot like being a minister. Where you lay down the beat, trying to keep it solid and true, but allowing others to shine, to sing, to play, to dance, as God wants us to.

For really, in music, the heart of it, the mystery that draws us into the music we love the most, is that we know it's not just about us. The notes and the sounds come together, the different people play their roles, and yet what is produced is somehow so much better. It's a lot like church. Where you join a band that is better than you are, and the tour is always just beginning.

Let us pray.

God, your home is among us mortals. Through your Son Jesus, reveal to us your new heaven and your new earth. Amen.