Sinners Are Called to Sanctity, and Cowards Are Called to the Cross

(photo: Photo Credit: Caitlyn Ridenour, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Be kind to all of your neighbors ‘cuz they’re just like you,
And you’re nothing special unless they are too.

—Typhoon, “The Honest Truth

The lights were dimming and Lady Lamb was taking the sanctuary-stage. We were sitting about halfway back in Hope College’s chapel, and my daughter Joan threw out a question: “Should we move up front?” Her brother, Cris, and Lydia, her friend, barely even nodded before all three leaped up to press forward as close to the stage as possible.

Me? I stayed seated. In fact, when the music started and everyone around me stood up, I actually retreated further back – with the other old-timers.

I was happy to do it, for it gave me a chance to spread out a bit, to drape my arms along a pew and settle in. It was early September and plenty warm, so the poorly ventilated chapel – filled as it was with bobbing music enthusiasts – was near stifling. Only occasional ripples of air came in the side windows, and it reminded me of my Catholic Worker days (sans A/C) in summertime Chicago: To promote comfort and minimize sweat, it’s best to remain still.

Few others in attendance that evening were still, not the least being the spry headliner that we’d come up to see: Kristian Matsson – “The Tallest Man on Earth.”

“The tallest who?” I remember asking my wife when she originally suggested a concert road trip with our teens.

“That’s just his stage name – he’ll be in Detroit this July,” she informed me. “He’s a Swedish songwriter and performer – you’ve got to hear his music.” Easily done thanks to YouTube, and I was summarily impressed – Matsson’s songs punched with energy and eloquence, his blunt lyrics matched by unadorned, enchanting melodies. I glanced at the tour schedule online, and I saw that there was a later date scheduled in Holland, Michigan. “Sure, I’m game, but we’ll catch the Hope College gig instead,” I told Nancy. “It’ll be cheaper and closer.”

As we drove north, my teens took charge of the driving soundtrack, which turned out to be an indie music tutorial for me: Some Tallest Man, of course, and Lady Lamb – another stage name, this time for singer-songwriter Aly Spaltro, and the evening’s opening act. They also included several songs from Illinois, an album by Michigan native and Hope College alum Sufjan Stevens – like his “Chicago,” which is particularly poignant. “If I was crying in the van with my friend,” Stevens sings, “it was for freedom from myself and from the land.” And then this confessional refrain: “I made a lot of mistakes, I made a lot of mistakes.” Who couldn’t identify with that? It’s a given.

Once we reached Hope, we located the Dimnent Chapel – a majestic American Gothic pile and the spiritual center of the historically Reformed campus community. When the College started selling tickets for the Tallest Man concert, they apparently anticipated a more modest response because they eventually shifted the venue from a smaller auditorium to Dimnent. It turned out to be an ideal setting for the performers, for while their music did not explicitly reference faith themes, it all had an ethereal quality and an inspiring lyrical core. In fact, Matsson himself indirectly referenced this when he lightly chastised a voluble fan. “You shouldn’t yell in church,” he said – implying that it was instead a place for uplifting song.

And that’s exactly what Mattson provided. His performance was animated, and the musical images he painted, vibrant – tugging at the margins of my consciousness, calling forth, prodding, pushing. “Well if you could reinvent my name, if you could redirect my day,” he sang in my favorite song of the evening, “I wanna’ be the King of Spain.” Well, why not? Dream big – reach high. We were in a church after all. There was grace.

But let me back up a bit. As I noted, Lady Lamb was the opener, and she started by singing in the dark unaccompanied for a full five minutes – her voice filling the sacred space and piercing the blackness with her lilting, lofty melody. When the lights came up, I was struck by how young she appeared – how incongruous it seemed that she would’ve been the source of such a mature, wise vocal expression.

Later in her set came “Ten,” and it’s that song that prompted me to revisit this concert experience some five months after the fact. You see, my son Crispin finally got me his Christmas present last week, just as Lent was starting. “Sorry it took me so long,” he said, handing over a CD he burned of some of his favorite music. “I mainly chose more folky stuff for you.” I thanked him and headed out the door, bringing the disc with me. Among others, Cris had included some Sufjan, Tallest Man, and Lady Lamb, and so it naturally conjured up images of the concert road trip from last fall.

“That one song by Lady Lamb – ‘Ten’ I think it’s called,” I told Crispin later. “What a gem.” It’s one of the most evocative songs I’ve ever heard – a string of pictures, like turning pages in a scrapbook, drawing you in as if you’d been an intimate observer from the beginning. And the song’s coda is unmistakably implied throughout: “There's a sweetness in us that lives long past the dust on our eyes once our eyes finally close.” It’s an image of mercy – an epiphany of self-acceptance that subtly morphs into an embrace of the other. “It’s mesmerizing,” I said to Cris, “and I played it over and over again.”

“That’s what Tallest Man said at that concert,” Crispin reminded me. “He said that he’d put it on repeat and listened to it constantly.”

Mercy – conversion. Seeing Christ in the other – seeing yourself in the other. These were the impressions elicited by Lady Lamb’s song, and I had them in mind as I headed to the Rite of Election last Sunday. “The Christian life and the demands that flow from the sacraments,” Bishop Rhoades admonished the horde of Catholic-wannabes, “cannot be taken lightly” – a reminder to all of us there. The Faith is about sinners called to sanctity, cowards called to the Cross, by means of tapping into Love himself and embracing continual, radical transformation. In some ways, it’s like hearing a beautifully authentic song over and over again – it becomes part of you, and it permanently shapes your perceptions and the way you move through the world. “We were singing along to every word of the songs,” Lady Lamb tells us, “that helped make us who we are.”

We’re making a return trip to Hope College in April to catch another indie group – San Fermin this time. They’re slated to appear in the off-campus Park Theater, but with any luck, they’ll also have to move to Dimnent Chapel. It’ll be Eastertide by then, and just about time for another musical retreat.