Jesus, Joni Mitchell and Me (A Confession of Faith)
I reconnected with an old friend recently via the miracle of internet and email. It had been 30 years since we had last spoken. Her name is Margaret, but I always called her Madge, and sometimes, Midge. Back in the early 80’s, when we both attended the same college, Madge was the resident Bohemian eccentric avante-garde dance major. She was a deeply spiritual woman, with piercing green eyes and long flowing chestnut brown hair, just like Botticelli’s Venus. I looked up to her, and loved to make her laugh. There were some good memories. The other day I noticed her email address listed in a tiny sidebar of the monthly e-alumni update, announcing some theatre production she was involved with. In a moment of reminiscent weakness, I shot off an email that said “MADGE! It’s me! I’m married and living in Pennsylvania with two beautiful daughters. What are you up to?” Midge responded right away with a message typed in a huge 56-font blue that said, “I AM TRULY PSYCHED TO HEAR FROM YOU!”
Turns out Madge is a hard-core Catholic, which I respect, because I do not feel hard-core anything at the moment. Sometimes I wish my core was harder, and I envy those who are able to fully engage in their faith with relentless passion and a rock solid conviction, no questions asked. She described her life and her job, and then started talking to me like I was still that fervent, starry-eyed, evangelizing young man in college, ready to drop everything and lead a bible study at a moment’s notice. "How is your walk with God?" she asked. To be honest, my walk with God has felt more like an exhausting trek through Canyons National Park; an arid rock jungle-maze of dead-end canyons, death-defying cliffs, and very few vantage points to scout landmarks for points of reference - but every once in a while there is a breathtaking view. I have changed so much since college that I didn’t know where to begin. But I didn’t want Madge to think that I had abandoned my faith, either. Because I haven’t. It’s just, well, different than when I was nineteen.
So I responded with the only thing I could think of. “Well, Madge, a lot has happened since college. But I can safely say that the two constants in my life since 1981 have been Jesus and Joni Mitchell.” This made perfect sense to me, and I thought it would be somehow reassuring to Midge since she was also a big Joni fan then, and obviously a huge Jesus fan now. I have always loved Joni Mitchell's music. Her layered and pensive songs captured some deeper longing in me from the time I first heard "Court and Spark" when I was thirteen years old. I own just about everything she's ever recorded, and still listen frequently. Of course Jesus is still very present in my life, too, but our relationship is different now from my college years. For instance, I don’t go running to Him every five seconds whining or double-checking or asking stupid questions in an immature ranting whirl of emotions. I guess I’m not so desperate anymore to have the exact right answers for everything.
I’ll confess that there were times in the last 30 years when I probably listened more to Joni than to Jesus. Jesus became more like an acquaintance, and old chum that I recognized when I ran into him. We’d chat about a few things, and then go about our business. He no longer seemed quite relevant to my daily activities. Instead, I thought of Jesus more like an eccentric Uncle you see once in a while at family gatherings; you really love him deep down inside, but you cringe when you overhear him speaking to your friends in public, and you feel compelled to intervene. “Oh, that crazy Jesus! He said what? He sure is full of the dickens, isn't he? He’s actually a great guy, once you get to know him.” Why did I feel that way? Well, as my grown-up life unfolded, there were times when I really did start to think it all sounded a little crazy.
I have endured more than my fair share of well-meaning folk who were leaning a little to heavily on their version of Christianity to explain away a lack of common sense or ability to think in more than one dimension. You know these people -- they’re so giddy and hysterical about Jesus, constantly quoting scriptures with their air-tight answers to every situation, but they somehow can’t explain the outright psycho dysfunction that exists in their own lives. Or, they are so insulated in the incestuous Christian subculture that you can’t even have a normal conversation about life’s struggles without getting a one-line bible answer. But despite this nagging cynicism, I always had this uncanny feeling that Jesus knew me. That He was the only one who really gets who I am, who totally accepts and loves me. He’s the only one who knows what I’m supposed to be doing with my life. I could not escape the powerful undertow of His call. Jesus kept pulling me into the flow of this spiritual current, then I would start paddling like heck against it, because I didn’t want to give in. For the longest time, it was like I couldn’t help myself from taking the path of most resistance, spiritually.
Thankfully, there were plenty of other men and women swimming in the current with me, inspiring and encouraging me to go with the God-flow- friends, mentors and authors who were more spiritually mature and emotionally sound, able to think more critically about life and God’s place in the mystery of it all. And as I talked with, listened to, or read the writings of these good people, I was drawn again to this awesome and terrifying idea of being a Christian. Eventually, I realized that I had to stop the furious flailing and fighting against the stream. I had to stop striving so hard to find a sense of purpose and peace of mind on my own. I just wanted to give in. I am fifty years old now, and just beginning, slowly, to understand what it means to surrender to God. Madge and I chatted for a while about Jesus, and then turned the conversation to Joni Mitchell’s latest album, and how she has abandoned the idealistic lyrics of her youth. I didn't say anything, but I am oddly comforted by the fact that Joni has gotten quite a bit more cranky as she’s aged.