Thoughts on Finishing the Work

On Good Friday, Bill Wolf and a gigantic cadre of musicians brought Wolf’s Easter: Stories & Songs show back home to Knoxville. It was the show’s first return to the city in five years and its first time at the historic Bijou Theatre. It was also the culmination of many months of effort for the players and the production team.

It ended with me driving home in the rain. Of course, even then, it was never really over.

The curtain opened on this project nearly ten years ago. My good friend Bill Wolf was studying the Gospel of John with his church. As Bill is fond of saying, John slows the pace considerably for the second half of his account of Jesus’ earthly ministry. The writing still leans toward the mystical, but whereas earlier, the author dances through a string of beguiling character developments, the denouement of the book peers through a magnifying glass at things like the Last Supper and the spiritual journey of Peter.

Slowing down in accordance with the pace of the text, Bill did what many songwriters do, which is to process life by writing. What emerged was a ten-song cycle that became an album—Easter: Stories & Songs. I was privileged to join the mix in the second year, when we took it on tour. We’ve taken the show from the scrub flats of central Florida to the ice-mottled shores of Erie and Lake Ontario. Not only has it been a way to glimpse fragments of the country I never would have seen otherwise, but the Easter Stories tour has been a yearly seminar on how to serve people.

With the slow creep of age and the upticking miles, road trips grow increasingly taxing. Schlepping gear from van to stage and back again never gets easier, though perhaps there is a kind of dependable rhythm to it. Like any trade, one’s body hardens to the work. Each night, you arrive at a new location, peopled by kind and eager strangers who are ready to labor alongside you or sit bravely and listen to music they’ve mostly never heard before. I tend to remind myself to be nice. For me, if even one person is moved by the music, it’s worth all the gas stations, the toll booths, the heavy amps, and the fast-food chicken. In the end, the real work isn’t mine anyway. While the band rehearses, drives, plays, and shakes hands, a wind is blowing overhead. It’s a wild torrent of love-crazed air pressing upon the bruises of the audience. It’s the Holy Ghost.

I don’t say that to be conceited, as though musicians possessed some animistic ability to conjure the Lord. Almighty God does what He will and works through human efforts by His own grace. More and more, though, I begin to understand why Jesus told the apostles it was better if he left, so that the Counselor, the Holy Ghost, would come to them. I’m not sure why one Person of the Trinity had to be replaced by another. It strikes me that an omnipotent God does things a certain way not because He must, but because He chooses to, perhaps because of the Story He is telling us about who He is. Whether for this reason or that, the apostles went from Immanuel—God with them—to the Holy Ghost—God in and through them. Most of this is above my head, and I’m thankful for God’s mercy that I can tread lightly in the deep waters of such speculation. One thing I do know for certain: any time a song we play rings a bell in the bones of some careful listener, that’s the truest work of the music.

The work of the Spirit is a mystery that embodies our work as the Spirit embodies us. Playing backup instruments and writing string charts are where I find the greatest enjoyment. I love taking all the elements of a show and jigsawing them so they work together to achieve one thing. If left to my own devices, I could burrow into the architecture of sound arrangement and never emerge. In the darkness of January and February, I did just that, retooling the Easter Stories live show to accommodate how the music had grown over the years. It’s come so far from where it started. Tempos have change, instruments have been added or taken away, and melodies have been refined. Yet, one reaches a jumping-off point. You work long hours after everyone else is in bed, imagining the thing coming to fruition. Then, at last, you get to hear it. The kick drum beats at the heart of a stage, guitars and organs swirl pools of sonic color, and choirs take flight in the wings. You live in the moment of a song, hear the audience respond, and you know that something happened. Something—you’re not quite sure what. I’m grateful for those times, for I suspect that whatever is happening with people in such ephemeral moments is the one part of earthly music that may outlast the fires of Judgment.

So. I packed up my gear after the show and drove home in the rain, and the real work began. Somewhere, in the darksome noise of the theater, seeds had been planted or watered or made to grow. All the artists involved had the short glory of being mere garden tools in the hands of the Gardener. I’m not sure what the end result will be. I hope one day to discover that we, by a gracious mystery, participated in the quickening of human lives at the level of the soul. If such a thing takes place, to be party to it is a gift. It’s more than worth carrying all the amps in the van.

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