The Gospel of James

By Heidi Shott

Just yesterday morning, I was thinking about what to write for my monthly deadline at the Café. Several times a day I get flashes of ideas for essays – the commonplace moment somehow connects to some big idea – but then the phone rings or someone says, “hey, did you pick up my shirts at the cleaners?” or I get a pop-up on feedreader with a story about a cop in Glasgow who was attacked by an octopus and I can’t help but click. These interruptions make it hard to be faithful to all the ideas that present themselves for consideration.

But some ideas are more tenacious than others. There’s something in the way they keep rising to the top of my mind that makes them hard to ignore.

The James Taylor concert falls into that category.

In March for his birthday or perhaps in June for Father’s Day, (sadly, I can’t remember) my sons and I bought my husband Scott two tickets to see James Taylor in August. The plan was he would share the second ticket with me.

So one evening a few weeks ago, 50 miles from our quiet village, we sat down to a table at a lovely restaurant near the Civic Center in Portland. The young waiter asked if we were going to the concert.

“S’pose you have a lot of middle-aged people in tonight before James Taylor?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he grinned and concentrated on opening the wine.

Over the last 20 years we’ve been to a lot of events at the Civic Center. Once years ago I paid for my sons to ride the elephant at the circus, then they chickened out so I rode it with one of their friends. I’m against elephant riding in general, but I’d bought the damn tickets. We’ve seen Bonnie Raitt and Bruce Hornsby. We’ve gotten backstage passes to see the Barenaked Ladies twice because our only famous friend, Ned Steinberger, is a friend of the bass player.

As we took our seats on the floor of the Civic Center, eerily near the spot I bestrode the elephant, we saw that the place was sold out. It was sardined with people of the boomer persuasion. We played a game of spotting people under 30 with the couple to my left (you can do that in Maine). “There’s one!” chirped the 50-something engineer-type beside me.

“Well, yeah, she’s under 30, but look, she’s with her mom,” Scott said.

“Right,” he said, disappointed, “doesn’t count.”

“Our son is here,” said his wife. “He’s 32. But he won’t sit with us.”

One night in the lazy summer of 1982 – the summer Scott and I painted the barn on my family’s farm, played a lot of badminton and didn’t do much else – we drove to Saratoga Performing Arts Center to see James Taylor and his band. Most people were on the lawn with their blankets and buckets of beer, but we had tickets inside. It was a great show but I didn’t notice that anyone in the audience seemed particularly old, including James and Karla Bonoff who opened for him.

At this concert, however, there was no opening act, no band, just James Taylor, his guitars, and a fellow musician playing various keyboard instruments to complement the show. He started out with a wave and hello and launched into “There’s Something in the Way She Moves.” He had all 8,000 of us from the intro. His untouched voice; his deft, self-deprecating manner; all was a balm. Just about everyone in the room had either come of age with or grown up with these familiar songs, depending on their place on the boomer continuum.

I remember first hearing “Fire and Rain” played by my brother Jim, ten years my senior, around 1970. By the time I started high school in 1976, I was listening to “Greatest Hits” every night as I nodded off to sleep. “You’ve Got a Friend” was the last song on Side A and my record player would click off all by itself. The cover of the “JT” album spent several years mounted on the wall next to my bed. He still had hair back then.

In college, Scott and I listened to “Flag” and “Dad Loves His Work” on the 15-hour road trips between school in Boston and his home in West Virginia. After we were married and terribly lonely working as teachers in Micronesia, pining for mail and books we hadn’t already read, two copies of “That’s Why I’m Here” on cassette arrived from different friends on the very same day. Years later, I listened to “New Moon Shine” over and over during those first quiet winter months of doing little else but sitting and nursing our twin sons. This extended soundtrack of my life, our life together, is an odd and precious thing.

It’s crazy to think that this man who I don’t know nor will ever meet and, moreover, have no desire to ever meet, has accompanied me through these last 35 years. At the concert an alarming number of people felt compelled to shout personal greetings to him, which he absorbed graciously. The concert ran three hours with four encores. We got our money’s worth certainly. We had a nice dinner out, alone, like a real couple on a date. We talked about the first concert 25 years before in Saratoga when it took us 45 minutes to find the car, back when we never suspected we’d be together all these years later.

As a person of faith, I can’t help but wonder what it is about James Taylor – this gawky, bald, 60 year-old – that draws 8,000 busy middle-aged Mainers to buy tickets and sit on folding chairs in a dusty ice hockey rink/monster truck arena…and to be able to hold that attraction for 40 years. As someone who thinks a lot about marketing the Church, I can’t help but wonder what we’re doing wrong. The song that we’ve been gifted with is a million times sweeter than “Sweet Baby James.” If you read the Gospels with a fresh eye, it’s hard to escape that the person of Jesus is wildly attractive and charismatic. Read the Gospels cold, and you know why the fishermen of Galilee dropped their nets to follow. Talk about backstage passes!

But what are we doing in this Episcopal Church of ours? On what are we focusing our attention? We’re not so great at crafting an achingly sweet soundtrack that draws people back again and again and again.

One of the most disheartening stories I ever heard as a diocesan communications officer was from a single mom who had stopped going to one of our churches. Bumping into her after not seeing her for a few years, I asked why she’d stopped attending. She told me that she’d arrived one Sunday with her two daughters and someone caught her before she sat down to remind that it was her day to provide snacks and juice for coffee hour after the service. Her life was complicated at that time and she’d forgotten.

“I panicked,” she told me. “I had exactly $25 in my checking account, but I was too embarrassed to tell the person who chided me for forgetting. That I didn’t have any money wouldn’t have occurred to her in a million years.” Though I knew this woman was doing better now, I could see how much it cost her to recount the story. “I grabbed my girls, drove out and bought juice and crackers, and set them up in the parish hall. Then we left and we’ve never been back.”

If only we knew how to flip the switch to be better at this stuff. If only we knew how to absorb the winsome attractiveness of Jesus and offer it freely to everyone – people we agree with and people we don’t, people we find interesting and people we don’t. In the James Taylor model, despite his addictions and demons so publicly chronicled, there’s a guilelessness, a generously proffered gift, a constancy over time, that his admirers are drawn to. It’s not a bad model after all.

That night James sang:

“The secret of love is in opening up your heart

It’s okay to feel afraid

But don’t let that stand in your way

‘Cause anyone knows that love is the only road”

It sounds so dumb when you see it on the page, but it doesn’t when you hear it sung in a sweet and familiar voice. In that way, it’s a little like being a Christian. I’m open to ideas for how we can work on our song.

I started this column last night with my laptop in bed. I was going great guns when Scott said, “Time to turn out the light.” So I woke up this morning and finished it. I’m just glad I remember who to send it to.

Heidi Shott has served as press officer to Bishop Chilton Knudsen of Maine since 1998. She is also communications director of the Genesis Fund, a revolving loan fund that provides expertise and low-interest loans to nonprofits engaged in community development. Heidi’s essays about trying to live a life of faith may be found at Heidoville.

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