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General Convention and Old Blues Men

By Leander Harding

I have been ordained in the Episcopal Church for 37 years. I have been to three General Conventions as an observer. This is the first time I have been a deputy. The duty is grueling. Our delegation has Morning Prayer at 6:30 each day and on most days meetings that go on until 10 p.m. It is hard physically and emotionally. On a rare free evening I decided to see if I could take in some of the famous Austin music scene. I am a Blues fan and it turned out that Antone’s, one of the most famous Blues venues in the country, was just around the corner from my hotel.

The program was a celebration of classic Chicago Blues, and the artists listed included Carl Weathersby and Billy Boy Arnold. Bob Margolis, who played with Muddy Waters, opened the show. Guitar Murphy was supposed to be there but had died on June 15.

The show was amazing but there was a sweet sadness underneath it all. They were Blues greats, mostly old black men, all of them still able to weave a spell and touch the heart. Each of them spoke about the great players and singers that are no longer with us. There were prayers that the greats who had gone before would look down on this gathering and smile. There were prayers that we would remember them and keep faith with the legacy they had left.

The Blues is music from the heart. Underneath all the songs that were sung in Antone’s that night there was another song, a song from deep in the human heart, an irrepressible song of mourning and of questioning hope. Two texts floated up in my mind, one from Scripture and one from the Blind Willie Johnson song, “You’re Gonna Need Somebody on Your Bond.” From Scripture: “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable” (1 Cor. 15:19). From Blind Willie Johnson: “When it is way in the midnight and old death comes stealin’ in the room, you gonna need somebody on your bond / You gonna need somebody on your bond.” In other words, when you die and when you come to stand before God, who will vouch for you, who will pay what you owe?

When our children were little, my wife put a motto on the refrigerator door to remind me to keep things in perspective. The motto was Quid ad aeternum? What is it in the light of eternity? Everything that comes before General Convention has a sense of urgency about it. Something is broken, and it needs to be fixed now. Everyone is intense, earnest, full of conviction. Sometimes speakers are full of righteous indignation at their own or someone else’s pain. The issues are real, the pain is real, and I understand that justice delayed is justice denied. But what is it in the light of eternity?

I don’t mean to diminish or demean anybody or anything. Still under the spell of that evening in Antone’s, I find myself less intense and less urgent. At General Convention, everything seems all important, all worthy of attention, but very little of it — if any — is of clear, eternal significance. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable, and whatever happens in General Convention, “when it is way in the midnight and old death comes stealin’ in the room, you gonna need somebody on your bond.”

That song I heard in Antone’s, on that night of old Blues musicians, comes from deep in the human heart. Yet that song of hope in the face of death — a hope both mournful and questioning — is hard to hear in our church these days. We want to change lives, and we want to change the world with love. So do I.

But I also want to go heaven when I die, and I know I’m “gonna need somebody on my bond,” and so are you. Jesus is the great bondsman.

What would it mean to our discussions and deliberations in the church if the reality of death — not death in the abstract but your death and my death — were more present to us in our deliberations? What would it mean if we were more conscious of the horizon of eternity? What would it mean if we could loosen our grip even slightly on the preoccupations of the present moment to listen more intently to this song of mourning and questioning hope that wells up in our hearts? What would it mean if we regarded each other as fellow travelers in the valley of the shadow of death?

We have this in common: we are all going to die, we are all going to need somebody on our bond, and our only hope in this life and the next is Jesus Christ. The recognition of this basic solidarity in the face of death makes me tenderhearted to my brothers and sisters with whom I disagree. It helps me keep things in perspective.

 

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