Wayne Hammel, Jr.
Listening to multiple versions of Hickory Wind, a tune written by Gram Parsons, and performed by such varied artists as The Byrds, Emmylou Harris, even Keith Richards, of all people, and of course, Gram Parsons himself, is not something that a naturally melancholy man ought to do when he is struggling with spiritual matters. It can bode nothing but ill for him. The creeping crud of nostalgia, that quintessential emotional crutch that all baby boomer former hippie types seem to carry around with them like a badge of honor, is not one that small children, or those who sicken easily, should ever be forced to observe close up. And so being the man that I am, when I become shipwrecked on the shoals of nostalgia, I try to find something that will prolong the agony for as long as possible.
So, if I am feeling particularly masochistic, I will search with trembling heart, for a PBS presentation of a Hootenanny; those miserable productions featuring broken down folk singers crooning their songs of protest and rage along with their hymns of praise to a bright new day of freedom, equality, brotherhood, and endless sex. The audience is the reason to watch these things, though. The congregations–that is what they resemble–are filled with the upraised hands of late middle-age boomers, the men balding and paunchy and glassy-eyed with regret, the women with the hard edges from too many loveless nights spent in the arms of too many indifferent lovers. They move their bodies rhythmically and in unison, a single organism desperately groping its way toward the ultimate group orgasm. They imagine they have been pursuing freedom all their lives; or at least ever since the magical, effervescent sixties. They are still looking for their identity, still trying to find themselves. They never will. They should have given up the pursuit upon leaving the angst ridden teen-age years, but they didn’t; they never grew up. The reason they still can’t find themselves? They can’t separate from the herd long enough to find much of anything except for the dung dropped by the rest of the cows walking mindlessly in front of them. They have never reached the perfect orgasm, attained ultimate freedom, or found the cherished identity they have been chasing so forlornly after all their lives. They are like drug addicts running forever after the elusive perfect high. But instead of nirvana, these adolescent fifty and sixty year olds have settled for nostalgia.
So why have I spent the better parts of more Sunday afternoons than I care to count listening to a song that can produce nothing but a cheap ache in my heart? What is it, anyway, about sad songs that evoke such a sense of place for me–a sense of being alive–in a way that happy songs and happy stuff can never produce within me? I never seem to be more awake, never really feel the warp and woof of this thing called living, the wholeness of it, than when I am hurting. Interesting, isn’t it? And pathetic as well. It is a typical baby boomer response to living. It’s all about me! It’s all about my pain, my loves, my music, my ache, my politics, my melancholy, my life, even my salvation. Even when others are included in the paradigm, even when genuinely good deeds are performed, it is all about me and my goodness!
Talkin’ ‘bout my generation! Hope I die before I get old! I haven’t heard all that much from Townsend lately. I wonder if he is glad he’s still in the land of the living, even though he is now officially a dirty, old man. That was gratuitous. I should apologize; but I won’t. I read somewhere that Townsend really didn’t mean the line about dying before he got old. What he really meant was dying before he got rich. I wonder why he didn’t just use the word rich then. I wonder why he just doesn’t die. He’s both old and rich now, isn’t he? But it was never really about wealth or dying. It was about Townsend, and my generation, sticking our tongues out at the parents who nurtured us and took care of us, and petulantly telling them, “Well, I hope I die before I become like you!” It was simply an ungrateful teen-age rebellion that has never ended.
What incredible arrogance, though! An entire generation lost in space, as the song says, and arrogantly demanding that the rest of the world pay attention to its strident pronouncements on everything from sex to religion, politics and freedom, even to life and death.
Where was the church when all this took place? The liberal ones were involved in the only thing of real value to come out of the sixties, the civil rights movement–that and destructively and systematically dismantling, in the name of preservation, all the historic, orthodox doctrines of the faith. The conservative ones were engaged in making certain that anyone with a brain would be repulsed by them. Far too many conservative churches are still in the business of doing just that. All you need to do is check out the utter imbecility of what is being passed off as Christianity on the tube to see that terrible and sad truth. Grace and this incredible thing called Christianity were hijacked by liberal gangsters hellbent on redefining the faith, and by conservative Pharisees equally hellbent on hypocritically denying anyone the slightest bit of pleasure in this life. More recently, the faith is being defined by a bunch of hucksters selling snake oil in the form of health and wealth and prosperity. And my generation? We just got loaded and examined our navels.
The result has been catastrophic for individuals, and for America. To say we no longer have a moral compass is to utter the silliest of cliches. The barbarians are bearing down on the gates of the city and all we can do now is wring our hands and moan, “How did this happen?” Our children are running amuck. Their values are shaped by a culture that is devoid of even the most elemental rules of behavior. They are indeed what Rousseau labeled The Noble Savage. Unfortunately, although Rousseau certainly got the savage part right, he failed miserably in his prediction of the savage’s nobility.
It is interesting, though, how little in the way of understanding the members of my generation, the ones that I know personally, anyway, have about the roots of their lifelong love affair with immaturity. And that truly is what it amounts to: the entire squalid pool of sixties silliness is more the temper tantrum of a spoiled brat loudly screaming, “No!” and flinging it at the adult world, than it ever was of a reasoned critique of a culture that did indeed have some serious problems that needed to be addressed. But we are the adults now. We are the establishment and there is no one left to clean up our messes. We form the neighborhoods, the school boards, the political parties. We are the candidates, the teachers, the philosophers, scientists, preachers, church goers, mothers and fathers. We have the power! And yet we still blame everybody else! Again, interesting, isn’t it?
“It’s Bush’s fault!” we scream.
How did one man come to be so hated? For a group of people who blather endlessly about tolerance, love, and non-violence my generation sure are a bloodthirsty and intolerant lot when it comes to W. But past presidents aren’t the subject of this little piece; my brush with the death of nostalgia is. Nostalgia is a kind of soul death, I believe. The very ache of it is not only a prelude to death, but also a real ache of pleasure as I look further and further back to a time of endless possibilities, and of dreams charged with a dangerous hope; a hope fortunately dashed on the reality of life. The hopes and dreams of a generation of potheads were really nothing more than pipe dreams. Pun intended.
I wonder if death ever intrudes on the thoughts of my peers. And not the death of a soul subsumed into the great ultimate consciousness, that impersonal force out there just waiting to gobble all of us up into its cosmic essence. No, I am talking about real death: soul screaming, horrific, mind numbing death. Not the mumbo jumbo of Shirley McClaine and the other New Age wack jobs, but the death that has all of us terrified, the death that is so personal and real most of run as hard as we can from it. Most of us are so desperate to avoid all thought of dying we eagerly enter into all sorts of silly and irrational beliefs in order to protect our minds from the ultimate horror of the Big D. And that ain’t Dallas either, Debbie!
What are some of those silly and irrational beliefs? And while it is certainly true I don’t really much care to talk about my generation’s irrational hatred of George W. Bush, and its equally irrational hope in the new Messiah, Barrack Obama, I will comment on some of my generation’s more idiotic brushes with religion.
First on my list is L. Ron Hubbard. If there was ever a more thorough con man out there than Hubbard, I haven’t found him. Here is a man who created a pseudo-psychotherapeutic religious empire based on an alien intervention in human evolution millions, or perhaps it was trillions, of years ago–I never did get the time frame straight. I hear Scientology, Hubbard’s bastard child, is popular in Hollywood. Imagine that! Lotus Land embracing a wacked out religion from a genuine nut job is hard to believe, ain’t it?
Then there is the ubiquitous Shirley McClaine; I think I will just pass on her. If McClaine’s religious pronouncements are honestly viewed as doctrines germane to a rational discussion of religion, then have at it! There is not much hope for you. Oprah Winfrey, of course, is hard at it with her new guru, old what’s his name? I can’t recall the particular man she is following this week. But with the enormous clout of her television empire, she is influencing millions of seekers with her mantra of, “Hey! We’re all ok. There is a little bit of god in all of us. Sin? No such thing! Evil? It only exists because we haven’t got in touch with our godhood yet, that divine spark that is just lurking within us only needing a little bit of help to escape; that is merely sitting in pregnant anticipation on the next stage of human evolution that can brought about by us. Yippee! We can all be god!”
Oprah is about as nutty as Shirley is. And far more dangerous.
I am, at this moment, listening to Welcome to the Jungle, by Guns and Roses. Radical switch from Hickory Wind. Why? I feel no nostalgia for this kind of hard-edged-in-your-face rock and roll. It doesn’t evoke any sadness; it actually angers. Which I suppose is what it is supposed to do. And besides, it seems to me that, although these boys are as wicked as any out there, they don’t seem to be as stupid as those who blather endlessly about the goodness of man, and the illusion of evil. They sing as if they have seen evil up close and personal. They sing as if they were proud participants!
Anyone remember Woodstock 1999? It was most noted for its corporate sponsorship and its violence. There was a memorable film clip of the children of the original hippies dancing like pagans around the fires they had set, offering up as sacrifices, who knows what? Perhaps the emptiness of the gods they worshiped: sex, drugs, and death! That is what I love about my generation: its hypocrisy–peace, love, and understanding, all rolled up in a dollar bill–and its inability to raise its own children.
As I continue this piece on nostalgia, its rambling nature should now become apparent to anyone who has had the patience to get this far in it. Sometimes, depending on which side of the bed I get up on I suppose, or what kind of music I happen to be listening to, I alternately rage against the immoralties of modern liberalism, or the stupidities and rigid moral stances of modern Pharisees. I sometimes feel as if I am stuck in a proverbial shadowland: I genuinely love this Bible that I have been studying for the past ten years, and the Christ that the Bible reveals to me. The glory of grace and the wonder of redemption never ceases to thrill and amaze me. My own hypocrisy and the hypocrisy of the church never cease to cause me despair, though. Which makes grace all the more glorious.
I recently finished watching a short twenty minute film featuring Levon Helm, of The Band fame, in which songs from one his solo albums, Dirt Farmer, were showcased. Another sixties icon heard from. If you know anything about Levon Helm, his background, and his influence on The Band, then you probably know what to expect. My own expectations were more than fulfilled. The music was stunning! There was always something in Helm’s voice that evoked the essence of the sun setting on a poor sharecropper’s dirt farm. You can close your eyes, listen to the songs, and see the utter despair on the sharecropper’s face. He has lost everything. He has nothing left.
My problem is this: where, in the Christian scheme of things, does music that can paint such word pictures of, not so much despair, but real ache, have in my life? Should it even be in my life? Or should I just give in, acquiesce, to the dominant sentiment of the denominational cul-de-sac in which I find myself, and listen only to the dead soullessness of what is called Southern Gospel. Some of it, a small portion of it, a minuscule part, is quite good; most of it, to me at any rate, is so bad it almost makes me question my faith. There have been times that, when I voice my opinion on Southern Gospel, people have looked at me as if they too doubt my faith. Too bad! Most it is just pure and simple garbage. It is impossible to put an ‘I love Jesus’ lyric to horrible music and make me say it is good!
I started off writing this piece while listening to Hickory Wind, a beautiful song written by Gram Parsons; with a feeling of smug satisfaction, I proceeded to wallow in the creeping crud of nostalgia, and then launched off on a diatribe of the sins, silliness, and outright uselessness of my generation, the generation presently worshiping at the feet of President Barrack Obama. Don’t mistake me on this one, though. I desperately wanted to vote for Obama. To go, in my lifetime, from segregated schools, restaurants, rest rooms, and institutionalized racism of the worst kind, to having an African-American as President of the United States is pretty much mind-blowing. But not a single moral pygmy, even though they may sneer down their self-righteous noses, has ever been able to convince me that abortion is anything other than murder. And so, yes, if you want, you can label me a single-issue voter, but, unlike Obama, the question of abortion ain’t above my pay grade! I just happen to think that supporting anyone’s right to end an innocent’s life, regardless of the size, location, and so-called viability of that life, is the very nadir of immorality.
But it does also seem to me that we in the church have so focused on the matter of abortion, and other moral issues dear to our hearts, that we have nearly lost sight of the Gospel itself. The Gospel is Christ crucified and Him resurrected. The Gospel is for all sinners, not just the ones who support our political causes. The church’s purpose is the Gospel, not politics. And while we are on the subject of sins, let’s take a little look at sins that the Bible tells us God hates. Proverbs 6:16-19 (NKJV)
16 These six things the Lord hates,
Yes, seven are an abomination to 8Him:
17 A proud look,
A lying tongue,
Hands that shed innocent blood,
18 A heart that devises wicked plans,
Feet that are swift in running to evil,
19 A false witness who speaks lies,
And one who rsows discord among brethren.
The phrase, hands that shed innocent blood, fits nicely into my hatred of abortion, but the rest of the sins on this list are ones which many in the church struggle with–that all of us struggle with.
You know, you could ask how I square my feelings about Levon Helm’s newest recordings with my fairly snide comments earlier in this piece about the other folk singers from that bygone era. That would be an excellent question. I am not sure how to answer either; because old people grooving is repulsive regardless of whether I happen to like the music or not; or whether I think the audience is gross or not.
And then I listen to a song by Sarah Sadler, How Deep the Father’s Love for Us, and weep like a woman! God have mercy on me! You know, if all I had were Christians I think I would willingly go to hell just to be away from most of them. But I want Jesus so badly my soul aches! And this pain is suffused with a joy that is nearly ferocious in its intensity. Not a happy, smiley-faced idiocy, but a fierce and grateful joy at being forgiven.
Where is the path for me, though? Not where is the path for a Fundamentalist or conservative, or for a liberal, or for anyone else. But where is my road? There are days I truly hate going into that rescue mission where I work. Why? Perhaps it is simply one more evidence of my generation’s fecklessness, of my own personal irresponsibility.
One last time, here at the end, for Hickory Wind. There is really not much point to my meanderings here in this piece, but here it is for anyone to check out. Maybe the point is that my faith, while fragile, is not dependant on me, but on the Christ who died for me. Which, of course, is a very good thing. And that the nostalgia that so infects my generation, while it might be life-threatening, need not be terminal.
The church is so rotten today. But I ain’t much better. As a matter of fact I am probably far, far worse. How to get my generation to see the beauty and glory of the Gospel is something that might not be possible for me. It will never get done if the church is determined to hold onto certain ways of looking at certain kinds of music. Because here’s the deal: some of the music, not much, but some, created by the sixties crowd is so superior to much church music of today that it will not be possible to capture certain kinds of souls while at the same time rejecting their music. We will have to go beyond the culture wars and find our way back to the cross! And then let God sort out all the rest.
I remember when change began to germinate in my thinking, blossoming into what it is today–whatever that might be. On the day that Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris slaughtered 12 high school students and one teacher, wounding another 21, I admitted something I really already knew. We were wrong! The sixties were wrong! The entire tawdry mess! And the music didn’t, couldn’t, make up for the graveness of the error. As I have said before, the only thing to come out of the sixties with any true and lasting value was the great civil rights struggle. And although many of the workers in that mighty effort were young, the leaders, the movers and shakers, were of my father’s generation, not mine!
People try to put us d-down (Talkin' 'bout my generation)
Just because we g-g-get around (Talkin' 'bout my generation)
Things they do look awful c-c-cold (Talkin' 'bout my generation)
I hope I die before I get old (Talkin' 'bout my generation)
Well, some did die: Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, Hendrix, Janis, Cobain, the list goes on and on. The problem with my generation is we think that our music has the power to save us! It never did! It never will! It only has the power to make us sad. And perhaps, I said perhaps, the power to stunt our growth, locking us forever in a time warp of love beads, utopian radicalism, teen-age romance, and a dead hope.
What’s the answer for a generation lost in space? What’s the answer for a divorce rate that is stubbornly refusing to come down? What is the answer for my generation’s inability to mature and become thoughtful adults? And not just small children willing to let the parental authority of the government take care of the things we should be taking care of, giving us the freedom to continue screaming, “Up against the wall, mother------!” Maybe that is not the phrase still being used, but the sentiment is much the same. What is the answer? There is only one! He was nailed to a bloody cross, beaten senseless, mocked, spat upon, dying for all who will come to Him in repentance. He didn’t claim His rights! He gave them all up for us. He didn’t insist on being treated fairly, He submitted to indignity piled upon indignity. He didn’t run the streets advocating destruction, He bid all men live peacefully with one another, even those who treat you unfairly, even those who hate you.
But beyond sin, what is the underlying cause of our disease? What is this sickness that keeps my generation in perpetual teen-age rebellion? Nostalgia! Not a gentle looking back with fond memories of growing up, but a bitter desperation; a despairing and frantic attempt to freeze time, to roll back the clock, thereby allowing us to be young forever. But all the botox and plastic surgery in the world will not permanently ward off the grim specter of death! He will one day come calling. And the answer for that is not sex, drugs, and rock and roll! The answer for death is not in political action, neither of the left nor the right. The answer is only to be found on a lonely windswept hill called Golgotha where God in the Person of the Son allowed Himself to nailed to a Roman cross; and where Jesus Christ, the Son of God, took the punishment and death that we deserve. And then? Miracle of miracles; this same Jesus, born of a virgin, dying on the cross after living a sinless life, this same Jesus, rose in glory from the grave on the third day.
That is the answer! That is the only answer! John 14:6 (ESV)
6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.