Ash Wednesday showed up early for me this year because I was given the chance, thanks to my friends Lori and Terry, to hear Garrison Keillor tell stories. Though I have listened to him on the radio for thirty years, I’ve never heard him live. Monday, he showed up unadorned, without any of his Prairie Home Companion peeps or props, without even an introduction. Promptly at 7:30, he strode onto the stage wearing dark pants, a sports jacket, a white shirt, and a red tie that matched both his red socks and red sneakers, and he began to chant. That’s the best way I can describe it. He told a story with the cadence and melody of a priest inviting congregants to the Eucharist, his rhyme and humor calling us into community. Then, for a little over two hours, he talked of family, faith, love, death, and sex in a more intimate and vulnerable way than I had ever heard him on any of those many nights when he began his tale with, “It’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon, my hometown . . . “ – a phrase he never uttered in our time together.
Through the course of the evening, he invited a bluegrass singer to join him on stage, and for us to join them in song: Tom Waits’ “Picture in a Frame,” “You Are My Sunshine,” “It Is Well With My Soul,” and, to close the evening, “Angel Band.” Our voices provided the connecting soundtrack to his stories, which eloquently told how he got from there to here: from childhood to writer, from “sanctified Brethren” to Episcopalian, from son to father, from wherever he was before to our Monday night in Durham, reminding me again of the power and purpose of ritual, or sacred road markers like Ash Wednesday and Lent and Communion that call us to ask and answer the question David Byrne asked best: “Well – how did I get here?”
“We tell two kinds of stories,” Keillor said. “We either tell bragging stories to show we’re better than everyone else, or we tell stories of confession, which are, I suppose, a kind of ostentatious humility to show we’re more honest than everyone else.” From there he meandered into a maze of faith and family, both confessional seed beds, I suppose, commenting almost in passing that Christianity “is a religion of failure.”
With those words it became Ash Monday: Lent began for me.
In the jargon of my students, Lent might be renamed “Epic Fail” – the season of coming up short, the season of stark reality, and the season of forgiveness because it is in failure that both our compassion and redemption take root.
Yes, I know God is both great and good. Yes, I trust that nothing can separate us from the love of God. Yes, I know we are only weeks away from that Great Resurrection Morning when the stone gets rolled away and up from the grave he will arise to show that Death is not the final punctuation mark on the sentence that is our human existence. Even though Death has lost its sting, our story – all the way to that Land To Which We Go – is marked, quite indelibly, by failure. The tenacious love of God calls us to faithfulness, not success. Jesus bent down to wash the feet of the disciples because, John says, he knew “he had come from God and was going to God, not because it was all a brilliant strategy for success and conquest.
The disciples left the Upper Room and failed epically in the hours that followed their gathering only to find themselves still in the circle, still called, and still loved. For the rest of their lives, they did their best work when they simply told that story. The same holds true for us. We do our best work for and with one another when we tell and listen to our stories – and that thought takes me to familiar words worth repeating: Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese”:
You do not have to be good.As Keillor differentiated between the bragging stories and the confessional ones, he said the confessional stories were the ones you could count on to be “mostly true.” When we come to the place, however we get there, that we share our despair in order to find one another and remind one another we cannot run out of or away from the love of God, we are true – even in our failure. In the longings and the losings of life we come back again and again to stones we have stacked up and songs we can sing together.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
when peace like a river attendeth my way
when sorrows like sea billows roll
whatever my lot thou has taught me to say
it is well it is well with my soul
I'm gonna love you
till the wheels come off
I love you baby and I always willWe are not beginning a sojourn to success. When we get to Easter morning, or any other day for that matter, we will still be people of constant failure. Jesus didn’t come out of the tomb to take his place on the medal stand. He went to the beach and made breakfast for his bleary-eyed followers who had failed, once again. He loved them and he fed them. And he told them stories.
I love you baby and I always will
I love you baby and I always will
ever since I put your picture in a frame
May we go and do likewise.