As a child, I would close my eyes and allow my finger to drop on the scripture that God wanted me to read. In times of need God’s revelations leaped off the pages of the PSALMS. The PSALMS gave me the poetry of the vastness of creation and the concentration of human longing. With the wail of a mother giving birth, the PSALMS cry out in joyous song. With the heartbeat of every person thrown into exile, the PSALMS take us home again.
I was born into a southern Baptist family, raised in a Jewish community, adopted by Franciscans and rediscovered God in a Dakota sweat lodge. But as Mark Twain writes, “travel is fatal to prejudice,” and so it is when one journeys through comparative translations of religious text.
What is the difference between lacking and wanting? What is the difference between justice and righteousness? What is the difference between enemy and tormentor? What is the difference between forever and long years? Each question brings us closer to the community of God. Through discussion we find each other, delighting in the span of God’s net.
My mother would sing the PSALMS to us at bed time; consoling us by affirming the presence of God in our every sleeping and waking hour. Now, with the same breath, I sing for my children. One night, while singing with my three year old daughter in a canoe beneath a full moon, she said, “Daddy, look at all the angels. Just look at all the angels.”
As my grandmother underlined in PSALMS 139 of her Bible, given to me at her death, ‘the night shall be light about me.’ Surely it is so.
I give thanks with all of my heart
I give thanks with all of my mind
In the presence of angels I sing
Calling out to you one more time.
When Gorbachev opened up what was then the Soviet Union through perestroika and glasnost in the 1980s, poets and singers began to emerge on the streets of Arbat, an historic district of Moscow dating back to 1493. On every corner in Arbat there were painters, singers, poets, jesters, people with kids, people without kids, kids with kids, walking and running free in an expression of freedom I’d not known before or since.
I was invited to sing with Kris Kristofferson in Moscow. We stayed at Hotel Russia in Moscow—one block from Red Square, the changing of the guards, the iridescent moon, and a few miles from Arbat Street. We soon discovered that some quarters of Moscow were pro-perestroika and some quarters were not.
Our first performance was in an auditorium filled with 50,000 people. In the front row were a line of police officers, who stood up when Kris’s band was ready to play, then cancelled the rest of the show. The reason, we were told, was because on that side of town they didn’t want to have American singers. The problem, for us, was that there was no way to get out of the auditorium. One of Kris’s people had a screwdriver, and he ended up unscrewing the window out of the back door so we could get out of there and into the bus.
While in the bus I told Kris about Arbat Street and suggested we should go there and do some street singing. Kris and his band agreed, but when we got to Arbat Street there were no people. It was shut down. We didn’t pay it any mind, though. We just went running out of the bus and down the street with our guitars and mandolins and voices. Pretty soon hundreds of people came out from everywhere to join us on Arbat Street.
Our Russian translator, Sasha, began to chant, “We are glasnost. We are perestroika.”
Soon the police arrived and told us that we had to break it up, but nobody listened. Everyone kept singing and chanting. The next thing we knew, three police officers had grabbed Sasha. I ran over to Sasha and grabbed his arm. Kris came over and locked his arm around the other side of Sasha. We were then engulfed by the crowd. They pushed us out the other side of Arbat Street, while blocking off the police. We all jumped into a cab and headed to Hotel Russia.
Sasha was very scared, because the authorities had taken his identification card. Kris and I met with KGB agents in the bathroom of the hotel and told them that we wouldn’t leave the country until we were assured that Sasha would get his identification card back and nothing would happen to him. By 2:00 a.m. Sasha had his identification card back.
One year later I was singing along the banks of the Mississippi River at a Soviet-American peace walk that was crossing the United States and, sure enough, there was Sasha. Then I knew it had turned out okay.
As for the former Soviet Union, I certainly hope things improve for them.