“We are all in a process of actively dying, or not thinking about it,” to paraphrase Reverend Jennifer Aull, Co-Pastor of Greenpoint Reformed.
Don’t worry… I am not going down a dark trail here. I think, and I hope, I have something helpful to say on this subject. Within the past decade, I lost my father, my father-in-law, and all of my grandfathers. And like you (most likely) in that time I have also lost some of my favorite musicians.
Without a doubt, it has been a bracing lesson in mortality and human fragility. But moreover, experiencing death also has given me a deeper appreciation for the living, and a need to better embrace and celebrate them.
Many of the recently departed artists—including Lou Reed, David Bowie, Prince, Michael Jackson, Leonard Cohen—enjoyed long careers but it was hard to see them go. In fact, the longer their career, the harder. We’ve enjoyed lifetimes under the screen of their art, shielding, filtering and remaking the harshness of reality’s glare.
It is now 2017, Donald Trump is President of the United States, technology continues to accelerate into all aspects of our lives, longstanding industries are withering, new markets are emerging, awareness of diversity is broadening, and the future of religion and art remain “on hold” in waiting. They have been central to human society to the beginning, and so they will remain, but in what form? And who do we now look to, to be our next trusted leader? As always, we can look to what has been, in order to know what will be.
Every year sees the passing of world renown musicians and other artists dear to us, but 2016 was especially tough. We lost several major figures who were active right up until their death. They were not only successful, but what made them special was their progressive cultural influence. David Bowie, Prince and George Michael especially in their prime were interested in expanding their audience’s minds with entertainment. Not an easy feat. They helped us interpret our world, and encapsulated special times in our lives.
At Greenpoint Reformed, the Milton Street Revival Band has developed a tradition of performing a tribute song for musicians that recently died. We select songs that encourage the heart or spirit, knowing that they would want us to remember them with love and carry their work forward.
The past year produced some heart-wrenching performances of David Bowie’s “Word on a Wing,” Prince’s “Sometimes it Snows in April” and “Still Would Stand All Time,” and Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem.”
More musicians will inevitably be passing on in 2017. Some will be unexpected, some will seem more natural for their lifetimes. Many of the biggest pop stars of the past 50 years are or will soon be elderly: Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Sonny Rollins, Stevie Wonder, Willie Nelson, Aretha Franklin, Sting, Iggy Pop, Paul Simon, Stevie Nicks, Dolly Parton… just to start.
Social media and news media outlets will bewail each one. Tributes will resound their global legacy. It will seem there is nothing to replace them now. Are you ready?
The danger with experiencing “celebrity death” through the internet, is that the internet has distorted our sense of reality by microscoping every bit of information and thereby raising the world’s sense of alarm on virtually every topic. Death is actually quite normal and, in many cases, natural. Celebrities have always died ever since the notion of celebrity was created. But they often just faded away. No longer.
Social and news media will have you believe that the person who died today was the greatest to ever live and their death is the ultimate tragedy. The list of these “greats” stack up and it seems endless, but then again, there have never been so many famous people in history. For many, the peak of their fame is a fleeting thing. For others, it is a life-spanning career. Regardless, the Information Age has allowed many people to become famous, and for every artist to sustain their fame and keep their images and work available indefinitely. Our access to the lives of the famous is unprecedented, and so is our access to news of their death.
Here is my suggestion: make peace with your favorite living artist now. Say a prayer of thanks for all they have done, enjoy what is left of their work, go hear them live if you can and know that they have given all they can. And when they pass, turn off your phone, turn off your TV, and have your own moment alone to feel whatever it is you need to feel – because your relationship to that person was personal and yours alone. That is your communion with their spirit. That is the way they always reached you. Let them speak to you now and comfort you.
You will make peace with your own life and mortality that way. And you will allow that person to continue to be a part of your life. That is the ultimate afterlife for the departed.
Last, get together with actual flesh-and-blood people to share your grief and celebrate all that these artists have given us. Greenpoint Reformed is a great place to see the way of God in these events, because as a true community, we share and support without any contract or commitment other than love and trust. Just be here, and you will receive the bounty of God’s love when you need it most.
The tribute music that we have played for each beloved artist that has passed has been an act of healing and love – a knowing signal that this artist is still with us, right now in the room, as long as their music continues to play in our ears and our hearts.
I pray that our favorite musicians will live a long time, and when it is their time (or ours) that we can acknowledge that this is the way of all things and make our peace with God.
The Milton Street Revival Band, lead by Music Minister Jason Benjamin, performs music services at Greenpoint Reformed Church every Sunday at 11AM.