Let Jack and Mavis take you to church


I walked outside at four in the morning, stepped down off the deck and rounded the cabin. The birds had started their predawn songs. Two robins in particular were singing to each other above the rest—a call and response across the leafy floor of their own quire. Robins, chickadees, sparrows, finches, wrens, taken together, a liturgy, without which, I’m convinced, the sun would not rise.

I stood there a long time—listening. The day brightened. Can I say I became one of them? I will say it. At least for a moment, I became—an innocent. When it’s this early in the morning, when you’re listening beyond yourself, perhaps beyond what you can hear, you feel the innocence of air, you breath it as God’s own oxygen.

In an hour the sun will hit the tops of the poplars and I’ll go to the fen, past the wild roses, to see the poppies. Their orange inflorescence almost too brilliant, as though, without shame, they can’t help themselves. There, I will apply to come under the power of a single blossom.

There are places are all over the earth, where for a million reasons, or for no reason, light streams into dark, colour and songs break out. And how we need it—always need it. And more so this week. As too much has been dumped on this world. And far too much on one particular community.

And still we long for a better place, a better time, new resolve, a filling of that ancient insatiable hole in our collective hearts. That longing longs to propel us, but confusion, or dread, or weariness, or guilt of surviving, of living, holds us.

In Jack Gilbert’s Ecclesiastes-like poem, A Brief for the Defense, while acknowledging the overwhelming suffering of so many in our world, he says, nevertheless, that if happiness comes, we must not refuse it, as it lessens the importance of their deprivation…

We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.

And so to Mavis, and to my kind of church. Because when Mavis Staples sings, “I’ll take you there,” it’s all mercy.

There’s only a few lines to this song, the rest is the magic of Muscle Shoals rhythm section, and the voice of Mavis and of the Staples family.

The song is not a remedy, it’s not an escape, it’s music, it’s mercy, it’s happy emotive beauty, it’s stepping off the veranda to risk a dark sky, out onto the street, to risk the ruthless furnace. It’s fighting for space where gladness can grow, it’s keeping faith that the world is a worthy object of our love.


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