Who I Am

My Facebook friends might recognize this photo from a post from this summer. My daughter, Kerra, and her family were visiting when then four- year-old Emaline made her singing debut at Grandaddy’s church. “Amazing Grace”–and it was a sweet sound indeed!

Just a few weeks ago I came across the printed version of this image and when I held it in my hands I was struck by two things: I am a tactile person and holding the photograph to look and reflect on the moment it was taken gave me a whole different perspective than just looking at the same photograph on a screen; and wow, how this picture tells the story of who I am.

Certainly there is more to me than a man in ecclesial vestments, clutching a guitar and a precious grandchild. Indeed! But those three things, drawn together in one place, go as far as I can imagine to speak to the deepest, truest and best me.

There is that little girl.

She is my first grandchild and my first granddaughter. She was the first to award me with the title I coveted so–first owned by my own grandfather, who I knew and loved for thirty seven of his ninety two years. It took her two iterations: “Da-da-daddy,” and “Gran-daggly” before she finally got to “Grandaddy.” [I must admit, “Gran-daggly” sure made me smile!]

Emaline stands in this photo to represent the family that I love so. As long as I can remember, I have been loved and have loved lots and lots of people that I am related to by blood, or by being married into the messiness that is sometimes known as “family.” I would not trade all of your good family memories for all of my hard ones if it meant giving up my family. I love them warts and all.

There are those fancy robes.

The green chasuble was handmade by women of my congregation. The wooden pectoral cross was hand-carved by a dear man from my congregation from local cedar. Under the chasuble I wear a pastor’s stole that was given me when I was ordained. The vestments are all symbols of what I do on Sunday mornings. But they don’t begin to speak to the honor, the joy, and the privilege of wearing them.

When I was on Sabbatical in the summer of 2018 I came to the conclusion that the book I hoped to write would still have to wait. I would not beat myself up over that unfinished and important (to me) work. I remembered that I wrestle with words for a room full of people every week. It is obviously God’s Word first, and then I listen and pray and do my best to make a connection between that Holy word and the Holy happenings of everyday life, where sometimes we notice God showing up and sometimes–to be quite honest–we wonder where God might be hiding? At the end of my Sabbatical I came to this conclusion:

I see myself as the “writer in residence“ at Faith Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Lebanon Tennessee. The good people there call me “Pastor” and I get to do all sorts of amazing things with them in addition to writing. They let me lead worship on Sunday mornings and preside at the Holy Supper and baptize their babies into the death and resurrected life of Jesus Christ. They invite me into their thoughts and hearts and joys and sorrows, and ask me to say words to God at their bedside before surgeries, and during other important events of their lives and the lives of those they love. I even have the high and holy privilege of saying the last words for their loved ones before they are laid to their final rest. I get to invite them to the table to share a meal in a specific moment and place, which, through the mystery of faith, connects all of us in every time and every place.

I have imagined myself as a pastor since I was about seven years old. After almost fifty years I finally got to be one. I have not been disappointed.

And finally, there is that guitar.

There is no way I would say the guitar is more important than anything else in the picture. But the guitar is really what nudged me to say the truth of who I am.

As I was looking at the picture (the day I first held it in my hand) I was thinking of what I needed to say about the guitar. It started something like this: “The guitar is a 1969 Gibson J-50.” I imagined in my writer’s mind telling the true story of buying it from my friend, the late Pete Cummings, the end of the summer after we had both graduated from high school in 1973. I paid $200 for the guitar–mostly to impress the girl I was taking on a date for the second time, who I thought would never go on a first date with me in the first place. But about the time I started painting a narrative picture in my mind I realized 1969 was fifty years ago.

Fifty. Years.

The guitar has accompanied me through some of the most memorable events of my life. I have played it for people I loved more than life, and people I didn’t even know. I have played it at friends’ and strangers’ weddings, funerals, church camp, camp fires, on a beach at night and by a dear friend’s deathbed. I played twice a week for five years, for tiny tots at a Mother’s Day out program. I have played it for more hours than I can count just for me–and those were some of my most important performances. It has helped me tell my story in ways I could have never imagined to people I never dreamed would hear my story.

Live at the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville

Who am I? I am a grandaddy and a pastor. I have been a student, a warehouse worker, Gospel Music business executive, worked in the TV and film production industry, had a career in insurance sales and management, worked as a lay professional at a church, and now am an ordained Lutheran pastor. All along the way–across every single one of those jobs and vocations and even between them (when that happened a time or two along the way) I have been a guitar player. And I have been a singer. And I am so thankful that who I am is held together by the strong thread of music.

The girl I wanted to impress is long gone. The guitar is still here, and has brought me so much joy and so much life in the 46 years I have owned it. Sometime in this year of 2019 that beautiful instrument turned fifty years old. I wonder if I was playing it somewhere on its actual birthday?

“Happy Birthday” seems sort of strange for an inanimate object. But then, that guitar sure seems to come to life sometimes. And it has sure brought me to life many, many times.

Gordon Kennedy, (who co-wrote the Eric Clapton hit “Change the World”) played my guitar at a songwriting workshop. So did Beth Nielsen Chapman (who co-wrote the Faith Hill hit “This Kiss”) sitting to the right in this photograph. It played as well for them as it always does for me!

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