The piano went quiet as the pianist collapsed over the keys, praying or begging them to play for the next pounding, I couldn’t tell. Someone a few rows away stood up.
“It’s kind of weird,” he said to the crowd and singer, “but during that last song? Well – it’s kind of weird, but the gum melted in my mouth.” He looked confused like someone played a joke on him.
Without hesitation, the pianist, Keith Green, spun like a top toward the crowd. “Brother? Your gum melted to show you the power of G. Are you a believer?”
“Well, no, not really…”
Keith roared at the best joke he’d heard in a week. “Don’t worry, brother,” he said, grinning. “Before you go, you will be. G’s not done with you.” He gave a knowing nod and swiveled back to the piano like a man on fire. Maybe he was.
At People’s Church
It was Saturday night, and I queued into People’s Church in Tacoma with a few hundred other kids. I’d never been in a church so huge, and on Saturday nights youth pastor Brad took over to cajole hundreds of high school and college-aged kids to live lives of meaning and purpose. His message was unique for the time, as was the music. We had a glistening pipe organ where I grew up. I never cared, and I never listened. The woman who played it knew five chords and one volume: Deep Purple it wasn’t. People’s church was the first church I’d been to where drums and guitars and basses were as much a part of the service as singing and preaching. Raising hands was normal, not weird, and Brad encouraged us to develop an actual relationship with G.
Brad came out tonight, before the service, saying that he’d met a brother from California who played the piano and he was turning the service over to him. “I’m pretty sure you’ll like it,” he said, a little coy. I remember that Keith played the piano like it had never been played. Like no piano had ever been played. Like no piano was ever meant to be played. He might have cried. He certainly laughed. It’s trite to say, but this man was completely sold out. Belief poured from him like water from a hydrant.
Somewhere – maybe at People’s Church – I signed up to receive his newsletter.
Years later – married now, with children – I received a handwritten letter from Last Days, Keith’s ministry. I was used to the monthly newsletter, but this? Someone at the ministry actually sat down to write me a letter, like a dispatch from heaven. “This has to be important,” I thought. It told of a young woman who had contacted the ministry for a time. She appeared lonely and adrift and lived near us. If we were willing to meet her, here is her phone number. We told her that someone from our group might call. I hung on to that wording for days. “Someone from our group…”
Now, decades later, I marvel over this a little, like thinking about me, at ten, riding my bike three miles to school. Now? Now I worry about my girls playing in the front yard by themselves. I wonder if ministries still do this, recommend people to other people? We called her and had her over a couple times. Lonely and adrift was an understatement. She was in the Army and had no friends and no way of doing anything off-base. We ate dinner at our house on weekends and she would spend the night. We had an extra car, and we gave it to her, hoping that she might use it to extricate herself from her caged Army life. After giving her the car, we never saw her again. I don’t remember if we tried. Whatever happened to her, I hope she found a semblance of peace and meaning. I hope spending a little time with us helped her center and ground what appeared to be a mixed up life.
My family moved to Longview, Washington, for a while, and I worked across the Columbia River in Rainier, Oregon. One morning, crossing the bridge into Oregon, I heard Paul Harvey say, “…Texas, small plane, young minister, piano player, everyone dead.” Over the bridge, I pulled over, already knowing who he was talking about. I debated with myself whether I should go home and tell my wife what I knew to be true.
In time, I found it was true. Friends were visiting Keith and family and their Last Days Ministries and wanted a ride in their leased airplane. Eleven or twelve people piled in and the pilot okayed them for takeoff, and they rolled out onto the runway. I’ve never wanted to know the details of what happened, but the plane went down and everyone died, including Keith and a couple of his kids. People said that G wanted Keith home and inexplicably took him. I don’t know. I do know that having too much weight in an airplane puts you in at risk and requires G to work against all logic for the plane not to go down.
I think of this story now, during the coronavirus pandemic. Christians wondered then how anything so terrible and grisly could happen to anyone so thoroughly intubated with G’s very breath. And to his children? It’s a theme from the Psalms: “thank you for protecting me from disaster.” We routinely – and wrongly – conflate a good life, a morning spiritual practice, a marked-up shelf of self-help and mindfulness books, with immunity from life’s ills. With protection. How can G allow such a beautiful person to leave us, we wonder?
History shows that something else is afoot. I show that something is afoot. A 4,000 pound piece of steel moving sixty mph smashed into me and left me on life support for two weeks. I woke from a coma in the Shepherd Center parking lot, where brilliant people guessed I might walk in two to three years and might return to work after that. In two weeks they called me the Miracle Man. In a month, I walked. In two, I was running again. Somehow, I defied odds.
They called me the Miracle Man for the exact reason that physics and biology and geology are all true. Keith Green’s plane plummeted because of the laws of physics. I suffered six broken bones because physics and biology work every time in every case. Unless, of course, they don’t.
Coronavirus in a nutshell: we call this version of corona ‘novel’ because it is new. There are other coronas, but this one comes with unknown wrapping. It comes in three forms. In one, it appears asymptomatic. You can have it, or I can have it, and never know. The second strain is flu-like. Big deal. A little fever, a little nausea, a couple days in bed, and you’re back to it. The third strain is deadly. Somehow, it overtakes the cells of your lung and you die. It’s certainly deadly for us old folks, but there are reports of fit young athletes infected on Wednesday and dead by Sunday. Personally, I don’t want any kind of COVID using me as a landing pad. Neither do I want to learn if my twin girls have the particular constitution that makes them susceptible to infection. And I’m unimpressed with television stats saying that only 10 or 15 percent of a particular population die. I rather like life.
A note on government and your response. I am happy, you’ll be glad to know, for you to respond in any way you want to for you and your family. In almost every case, we will all be safe as a butterfly in a cocoon. All the more if you’re younger, active, and healthy. But I do like you wearing a mask at Home Depot or at the grocery store. In fact, I consider it a duty for you that honors me. My mask only gives me a bit of protection and, when I fiddle with it, that defeats the purpose. What my mask does well, though, especially when combined with distancing, is keeping me from passing my spit-borne germs to you. When you wear your mask, I’m thankful that you think of me, not wanting to spread your spit to me. It’s a useful purpose of the collective we call government. We know more than we did, now, and the virus seems a little less dangerous, but it’s good for a government who is forced to act with a blindfold on, to keep it’s citizens safe. And it’s patriotic for citizens to do so.
This will pass, and we’ll have another sometime. It’s part and parcel of living together, of generally ignoring health, and of evolution. Selah.
And yet, this morning my wife is at the hospital, laying flat for a radioactive test of her gall bladder to learn if her issues are related to her kidney cancer or something different. I’m hoping hard that biology fades into the backseat.
I say it again, Selah.