(Stuck) in the middle with you.

I have to begin this post with a confession. Ever since I saw Quentin Tarantino’s film ‘Reservoir Dogs’ I have not been able to listen to the song ‘Stuck in the Middle with You’ by Stealers Wheel without being reminded of the awful scene that accompanies it on the soundtrack. I am aware of the irony behind the choice of the song for such a harrowing scene (which seems to last forever) but it gives me a way into this subject; namely being in the middle of things. In a sense this is a false start because the ’middle’ is where most of us live; caught as Joni Mitchell put in in her song ‘Hejira’; “between the forceps and the stone”. All of us live in between the competing demands of life and work, or maybe between faith and doubt, or as Bruce Cockburn put in in his song “….the burden of the angel/ beast”. This is the finest of all tensions, as we work out the potential for grace and redemption within our human frame.

However, it strikes me that those who, like me, are involved in a public religious ministry, are involved in a particularly sort of ‘middle’, or to use another word, a particular sort of liminality. According to my dictionary the word ‘liminal’ is defined like this; “relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process” or ‘occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold”. The demands of an itinerant ministry such as the Methodist Church practices means that ministers never really seem to belong anywhere. This can place intolerable demands on family and friendships; in other words on the very things that a minister needs to be a minister. Sometimes comments like ‘the church is your family’ seem fatuous in the least, many of us know what we signed up for but that does not seem to make it easier. As I look back over twenty five years of ministry in the Methodist Church I am struck by the way that there were always ‘compensations’ for being in this position. The lows were always accompanied by highs and for every difficult situation there were times when it ‘worked’ and my ministry seemed to help and provide of focus for the grace of God. But as I approach the prospect of retirement I find myself asking the question ‘what was it all for?’, the arguments (and the agreements!), the feeling of being beholden to people in different places who did not really care about my family and myself (apart from those shining individuals who did!), and the constant pressure of living in other people’s houses (or being grateful for ‘having a roof over your head’!). It seems to me that although this ministry has given me a great deal, it has also been a search for a ‘home’- that is a search for a place to belong now rather than the “lasting city” that the writer to the Hebrews refers to (Hebrews 13: 14). This need for a home is amply illustrated by the word ‘nostalgia’ (from the word ‘nostos- to return home’ and ‘algos’ (pain)’) and its German equivalent ‘heimweh’ which means homesickness). It is also demonstrated in literature and poetry. From the journeys of Odysseus in Homer’s ‘Illiad’, to Dante’s journey in ‘The Divine Comedy’ (which interestingly begins “Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita”, or “Midway upon the journey of our life”!).

It remains true that this liminal life and the place of clergy affords a great deal of liberty- we can choose what we do and when it is done, but I sometimes think we are hardwired to be a ‘jack of all trades’ or as the apostle Paul put it, in another context, ‘all things to all people’ (1 Corinthians 9: 22), and like the myth that clergy are available 24/ 7 (which is an impossibility for even the most committed) we can end up running faster and faster to try and live up to the stereotype. I also think that sometimes clergy do not talk about their calling because of the fear that if too much is revealed then the ‘mystique’ surrounding the calling will dissipate. It is almost as though the ministry in whatever denomination is like the monarchy and, as the journalist Walter Bagehot famously described it; “Its mystery is its life. We must not let in daylight upon magic”. Yet I have seen ministers broken and burned out by the demands the church places on them because of the inability to talk about the pressures (and the joys) of this calling. Very early on in my ministry I remember receiving an invitation to join ‘the burnout club’ for Methodist ministers- perhaps the joke was ironic but it did not remove the sting from a situation that many of us recognized but actually colluded with because we were afraid of showing vulnerability or unable to recognise the limits of what we could do as ministers.

Now I know it could be argued that I am protesting too much and that the church has given me far more than I can ever quantify. That may be true but I sometimes wonder if the questions I am asking are shared by colleagues. Whenever I have tried to address these vulnerabilities in the context of colleagueship I have come up against a disturbing reticence. Perhaps this is just the way it has to be and the search for what some have called ‘emotional intelligence’ amongst clergy will continue and not everyone will see the world (or ‘church world’) as I do- but as this work causes increasing levels of isolation on the part of many what price the old Wesleyan catch phrase ‘watching over each other in love’? The phrase ‘neither here nor there’ is often used to mean not very good, or something inconsequential, but ministry has to be more than that, even though it is often misunderstood, even by its committed practitioners. I hope and pray that my ministry will amount to more than Philip Larkin’s chilling words on the direction of life; “The sure extinction that we travel to/ And shall be lost in always. Not to be here, / Not to be anywhere/ And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true” (from the poem ‘Aubade’), or as Stealer’s Wheel put it so long ago; “Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right, Here I am stuck in the middle with you”. It strikes me that just as Larkin’s words are sobering in the extreme, Gerry Rafferty and Joe Egan’s lyric could also speak of the God who travels with me and in whose grace even the “jokers and the clowns” can be understood. This is the God in whose grace everything (even ministry!) finds its proper place!

Walter Becker.

Walter Becker.

I was especially sad to hear of the death of Walter Becker on the 3rd of September this year at the age of 67. The records he made with Donald Fagen as Steely Dan were part of my musical life when they first came out and have continued to be a dependable source of great playing and sometimes obtuse but always clever lyrics. It seemed to me that Messrs Becker and Fagen managed to look at life in a musical context much as the novels of Philip K. Dick do in a literary one. Music by ‘The Dan’ was also the place to go for great guitar solos- in the early years of the group these solos were performed mostly by Jeff Baxter and Denny Dias (their ‘call and response’ solos on the track ‘Bodhisattva’ (from the album ‘Countdown to Ecstasy’ in 1973) are a particular delight) but later on these duties were shared by a galaxy of the best session guitarists of the time. These ranged from Elliott Randall on ‘Do It Again’ (from ‘Can’t Buy a Thrill’ 1972) to the great Larry Carlton on ‘Kid Charlemagne’ (from ‘The Royal Scam’ 1976). However, Walter Becker was never far behind, and I discovered just today that the great solo on the title track of their album ‘Pretzel Logic’ was played by him in all its Django-esque glory!

Other writers more capable than I can write about Steely Dan’s canon and their exhaustive lexicon of cultural references- from the writer William Burroughs from whose novel ‘Naked Lunch’ they took their group name to bebop saxophonist Charlie Parker on the song ‘Parker’s Band’ from the album ‘Pretzel Logic’ in 1974), and of course the music. But in a way I always thought WB was almost the ‘unsung’ member of the band- there for the lyrics and in fashioning the music but never at the front like Brother Don. His obituaries have all focussed on this exemplary work with Steely Dan and latterly his production work with other musicians, but many have not referred to the two fine solo albums he made; ‘11 Tracks of Whack’ in 1994 and ‘Circus Money’ in 2008. They are really like Steely Dan albums without Donald F. – although he does share production duties and provide the horn arrangements for ‘Whack’- Becker’s lyrical compass is clearly turned towards the weird and I have a feeling that songs like ‘Junkie Girl’ might have come from personal experience. ‘Surf and /or Die’ contains another killer Dan- like line; “Earthbound to Jonny boy just picked up your message/ ‘bout those Balinese ikats you thought I might buy/ Now your voice on my machine is more alive than what you are/ since your daredevil hang glider fell out of the sky”. ‘Whack’ is clearly (contemporary) rock -or the Dan’s jazz inflected version of it- but ‘Circus Money’ locates its musical palette firmly in the area of dub/ reggae and although the lyrics to songs like ‘Bob Is Not Your Uncle Anymore’ and ‘Paging Audrey’ are prime Dan, 100% odd and sharing that slightly skewed view of life with the group recordings, the musical compass is decidedly Caribbean.

I always thought of Becker and Fagen as being a bit like the cool kinds at school- the ones who always knew more than you and had a different view of the same mundanities we all lived through. They were the guys with the smart answers and the right influences and for me you could read that in the music; jazz, sci- fi, novels and popular culture in general- and the bonus is that all of that produced some of what is (still) the smartest music on this or on any planet! Donald Fagen has vowed to carry on with Steely Dan’s music, and that is all to the good but Walter’s quiet presence and killer riffs are a real loss to us all. Rest in peace Walter!

The thing about ‘things’……..