I was raised in the Nazarene Church, a fundamentalist denomination on the far right of a continuum between Episcopalian and Southern Baptist. I went to church 3 times a week. I got to play on the church pianos before and after church and during Thursday night choir practice, but other than that, I got nothing from the experience but guilt and condemnation.
Due to my eccentric Asperger's personality I felt rejected and misunderstood by my family. My mother’s only care was for my eternal salvation, her only real world was the church, so, aside from daily warnings about Hell, she had nothing to say to me. She was proud of me for singing those Sunday school songs I performed so well, but, outside that limited repertoire, even my musical identity made me a stranger to her. She had some kind of vague idea that music was important to me, as it was to her, but, like my father, she could not imagine music as a modus operandi in this wicked world, and therefore gave me only slight encouragement. As a family member, I orbited on the periphery of all activities, just like on the school playground, and as a child of God, I was pursued by the tangy scent of sulphur.
Nobody in my extended family had any mercy either. Everybody was convinced I put on my antic disposition out of spitefulness, and there was no-one in the entire Toole clan willing to toss me a crumb of forgiveness or understanding. To my mother I was a lost soul destined to burn in Hell; indeed, Hell loomed large in her mind as the most clearly defined pre-destination of my entire future—high school, college, skid row, Hell. Hell was invoked daily as the ultimate punishment for the most minor moral infractions. She wept over me and my undone chores with an hysterical passion, sobbing, "Rickie, honey, Jesus WANTS you to take out the garbage! You don't want to go to Hell do you?" (She also told me that the Bible says, "Early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.") I was even publicly attacked from the pulpit of my church by not one, but a string of small-town ministers who made overt reference to my personal eccentricities as object lessons of evil which the other children must avoid if they didn't want to burn in Hell.
“You don't want to go to Hell do you?" Well, no, I didn't actually want to burn in Hell, so, in one incredibly momentous moment, when I was thirteen, I simply chose not to believe in Hell; which, of course meant not believing in God, in Jesus, in the afterlife, and just about every other article of my mother's fundamentalist Protestant belief system. This choice allayed a good number of my existential anxieties, but aggravated just as many other ones. I had to reject my parents' religion, because I rejected a God who sent people to Hell for not taking out the garbage; but I couldn't reject my own religion, the Church of Music, which had already, at my tender age, shown me angel faces and heavenly light. It was a quandary.
Anyway, a career of staunch atheism ensued for about ten years. The turning point came during my two and a half year tenure as a church choir director at a little Methodist church in Redondo Beach. I've told this story before, but want to tell it again, because it leads directly to my Easter message:
One particular Sunday, midway through those two and a half years, the choir was not well‑prepared, and I was nervous about the performance about to take place. I still didn't believe in God, as we know, but I did believe in good performances; so I decided to indulge in a little motivational manipulation to try and focus the choir's performance energy up to a little higher level. Right before the anthem I turned to the congregation and asked if someone wouldn't be so kind as to offer up a prayer of dedication. Of course, I didn't believe in prayer either, but I knew they did, so I figured a little cathartic adrenalin rush wouldn't hurt (a good conductor, like a good psychologist, knows it's all in your mind). A woman from the congregation rose, invoked the presence of Jesus, and asked that the choir be inspired to sing with the voices of angels.
I could feel that things were better as I raised my arms to begin the number, but I was not prepared for the surprise they had in store for me. They opened their mouths, and out poured a sound just like ANGELS! These people whom I had coached and coddled for more than a year had never even remotely approximated the sounds I heard at that moment. It was pure, it was elevated, it was IN TUNE! Not only their voices but their faces were transformed as well—there was something ecstatic, infinitely knowing about their eyes, as the piece flowed from harmony to harmony. Something had entered that space and filled those people. All the clever mind games in the world could not have induced that scene. With all my charisma and linguistic virtuosity, I could not have brought forth that kind of power from within them—this power came from OUTSIDE. There was a presence there that lent us all (me too) some extra octane in our pistons. We became vessels for the transmutation of higher intelligence into the mundane. It was one of those moments C.S. Lewis talks about, when a moment transcends its earthly definitions and vibrates with an archetypal, mythological resonance. It was by far the peak experience of my infant conducting career.
From that moment I was utterly changed. The religion of music had finally presented me with a supernatural sacrament I could endorse, a sacrament totally new, totally exciting;
and lo, the Angel who chose, through grace, to reveal this sacred insight unto me, was merely pointing a tremulous finger back in the direction of my broken past, my demon, my doubt.
In that moment, my dedicated atheism was brought into serious question—where had those angel voices come from? Now, to reclaim the theology, that I had just spent the last ten years aggressively rejecting, was a hard row to hoe for me, pride and stubbornness being what they are—but, no matter how hard I tried, I could not ignore that choir performance. The more I relived the experience, the more profound it became for me. The event was deeply shocking to me and gave me much more food for thought than I had consumed in years. It reminded me of all those emotion-laden altar calls I had suffered through at my mother’s church: all that wailing and weeping for Jesus that called to me on a visceral level, but which ultimately amounted to a low-vibratory thud in the basement of my mind--an act, a feint, a pimp, a parlor trick.
This angelic event at the Methodist Church was more than a parlor trick, this was REAL, this was TRUTH; and no matter how much it conflicted with the dogmatic principles I had mentally fixed in place, no matter how much it compromised the comfortable sense of cognitive security I had installed in my mind, this REALITY refused to be ignored. It would not be consigned to a back seat. I had to consider where this experience had come from, and where it would lead me; because lead me it must, as a composer, as a conductor, as a man. The heaviest part of the revelation was that it appeared to bridge the gap, the painful yawning chasm I had struggled with my whole life, between the fantasy world of creativity (with which I was very comfortable), and the real world of people and things (with which I was extremely uncomfortable, to the point of abject denial). Here was music that not only spoke to me as a musician, but as a person. A person. A spiritual being.
Remember that, as an aspie, I still had no experience of myself as a person—my whole identity was based on my sympathetic resonance with music; I was music, only music, nothing but music. But now music had become an energy that not only sang with the voice of pure reason, an oasis of static, perfect sense, soaring above and beyond the vain illusions of terrestrial madness--it had become imbued with PERSONALITY; there was a face behind the voice, and it exalted not only the impersonal truth of itself, it EXALTED ME. ME, the pitiful, disguised, mild-mannered reporter, who had nary a phone booth from which I might spring in superhuman triumph over the pedestrian mediocrities of the world. The angels had raised the meaning of music from “the fitful tracing of a portal” to a living, individualized identity, corporate, but singular, universal yet discreet.
The event shook the foundations of my whole world view, and since I could not incorporate it into the weave of my otherwise cynical and shallow attitudes, I was plunged into a deep depression. I felt that everything I had understood about life was being called into question. I know, I should have felt joy at having the clouds lifted from my eyes, but instead I just felt insecure. Having to revamp the philosophical underpinning of your existence is a lot of work, and I did not feel quite up to it, what with U.C.L.A. and all. Nevertheless, I could not deny what I had heard—I could deny almost anything else in my life, but not what I had HEARD. It resonated in my memory every day, and twice on Sundays, ha ha, and made me hungry for more. It was no accident, I thought, that the name of the tune, through which the angels had chosen to sing to me, was "Open Our Eyes". "Open our eyes, oh loving and compassionate Jeeeeee-sus." I remembered the line, hearing it over and over, and always in conjunction with that special look I had seen on my lead soprano's face-- Betty her name was—a look of peaceful mindlessness, yet somehow knowing and seductive. It was so real—real, and deep, and beautiful, and disturbing.
This event precipitated the first major spiritual crisis I had experienced since becoming an atheist back in junior high. I began to get very depressed, burdened by many nagging questions I could not answer. I could not go back to my mother's religion, but I could not forget those angel voices. They sang to me every time I entered the sanctuary, and haunted my doubts with intimations of a dimension of existence whose reality I could not accept, nor forget.
The bottom line of all my ruminations was death. I started to spend every waking moment thinking about death. It wasn't as though I had decided to contemplate death, as if it were an intellectual curiosity, a subject for academic study, a mind game—it was an irrational obsession over which I had no control, no ability to edit out, from which I could not protect himself. It was like the French fry machine at McDonald's, whistling relentlessly in my ear, which I could not turn off, from which there was no escape, in which I could find no peace. I remember sitting in that church looking up at the cross‑frosted‑white windows and imagining myself disappearing forever, never to know another thing, another sensation, another impulse of life. I did this a lot, trying to get used to it, and, each time I tried to imagine nonexistence I experienced a sinking feeling, my hands went sweaty and cold, and a panic gripped me with such ferocity I felt like screaming. The more I thought about death, the more I tried to accept it, the more terrified I became. A friend of mine once said that we already knew what it was like to dead, because we had not existed for an eternity before we were born. I cannot tell you what small comfort that was. It was not the unknown eternity I feared, it was that split second after death when I would never ever know what happened next.
Then, one Easter morning, the pastor gave a particularly thoughtful sermon from which I can remember, distinctly, only two words: "Something happened." The pastor was saying that no matter what you had to say about Jesus as the Son of God, or prophet, or philosopher, or whatever, on that very special day, "Something happened." No matter what the precise significance of Jesus' crucifixion worked out to be, you could not argue with the fact that "Something Happened." Something important. For these many years I had been so busy rejecting all the popular ramifications of what happened, that I had failed to notice that something really big had happened, and that Jesus (or somebody) had really created a Kingdom on earth. I began to suspect that a disturbed and foolish teen‑ager had thrown the baby out with the bath.
Something happened. To interpret this something has been the task of thoughtful men for 2000 years, and nobody has ever been able to measure its full significance. Clearly one big item is redemption, the restitution for original sin with a commensurate sacrifice.
Restitution for whose sin? Many New Age writers have suggested that Jesus is the reincarnation of Adam; that, therefore, His crucifixion may be seen as restitution for His own ancient failure. I am not any more interested in debating this point than I am in arguing about whether the world was created 5000 years ago or five billion years ago. I simply don't care.
However, I would like to remind you of last week's sermon about the humanity of Jesus and His ability to SYMPATHIZE with mortal man's griefs and to SHARE in his limitations. From this perspective it is not at all difficult to see how Jesus was able to claim Man's Original Sin as His own, and to take responsibility for it. Let me say that again: as a MAN, Jesus had no choice but to take responsibility for Original Sin; He therefore had no choice but to redeem it with a commensurate sacrifice. As Al Rothfuss observed last week, this was in the plan since before time began. And the fact that this debt was finally paid in full, on the cross--that an immortal being poured out His HUMAN blood on a specific spot, in a specific moment in time -- is perhaps the most miraculous thing of all.
Something happened. The flamboyance of it, the pure showmanship of it, staggers my imagination. The demonstration of Divine Love in such a dramatic symbolic gesture makes every other artistic performance, I can think of, pale to insignificance. That he could stand before the world and proclaim that the old impersonal gods are dead; that there is a now new order, never seen on Earth before; that there is now a PERSON in whom we can find comfort and help by the merest act of humble supplication. That is a very big wow.
The establishment of the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth through this magnificent demonstration of compassion was completely new, revolutionary, epoch-making. True, countless atrocities have been committed in Jesus's name; Man's ability to vulgarize every beautiful created thing is almost as mind-boggling as the Crucifixion, but still--for the disciple willing to reach out and touch the face of the PERSON Jesus, what happened is--well, we are saved. And that is enough of a bottom line for me.
There is a David Mamet movie called "We're No Angels" about a couple of convicts who escape from prison and pretend to be Catholic priests visiting a monastery. At one point they steal some clothes off a clothesline, and one of the guys forgets to take a clothespin off the collar of his stolen shirt. One of the monks at the monastery asks about the clothespin, and the convicts says, "You know what that is? You know what that is? Uh, uh, it's a reminder." The next day the gullible monk is seen wearing a clothespin on his collar. For us, the cross, the dove, the lamb, the lilies, the communion, should all serve as reminders that every day we live in peace on Earth is a gift from God--reminders that Jesus watches over us and blesses us, and invites us to take our place in His Heavenly Kingdom.
April 21, 2011