If your ears were burning last night, it’s because we were talking a lot about you. You were the center of an intimate evening where a group of people gathered to learn more about you and celebrate you with a house concert by Noel Paul Stookey. It was so great to meet so many old and new faces, and a warm welcome to all who are here today for the first time.
from the song, Hymn by Noel Paul Stookey
Sunday morning, very bright,
I read Your book by colored light
That came in through the pretty window picture.
I visited some houses where they said that You were living
And they talked a lot about You
And they spoke about Your giving.
They passed a basket with some envelopes;
I just had time to write a note
And all it said was “I believe in You.”
The year was 1969. It was my senior year at Wheaton College. My roommate had just purchased “Late Again” by Peter, Paul & Mary and there was a rumor out that Paul had become a Christian and that one of the songs on the new album was supposedly the story of his conversion. Being huge Peter, Paul & Mary fans — indeed, we were folk guitar players who had learned how to play every one of their hits — we were brimming with excitement. Having a celebrity come out with a clear statement of faith in Jesus Christ was like a sudden legitimization of our faith, in a prominent place in popular culture.
It was actually becoming something of a movement. PP&M had already released “Everybody’s Gonna Pray on the Very Last Day,” Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction” had been on the charts for a couple years already. Creedence had their own apocalyptic “Bad Moon Rising,” and Dylan had been singing “When the Ship Comes In” since 1963, another metaphorical song about the return of Christ, not to mention Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky” that came out that year as well. There was definitely a spiritual buzz going on in popular culture coming from people who gave no indication of being Christians. But this was different. This one was not feeding off the popular apocalyptic, end-of-the-world theme; it was a personal chronicle of belief.
Passing conversations where they mentioned Your existence
And the fact that You had been replaced by Your assistants.
The discussion was theology,
And when they smiled and turned to me
All that I could say was “I believe in You.”
There it was, as plain as day: “I believe in You.” Even in the context of liberal theology, it appears Paul had found a real faith. But at the same time, he wasn’t giving us any of the evangelical buzzwords we were looking for that would have made us feel more comfortable, like “accepting Christ,” or “say the prayer,” or “saved,” or “sin,” or “personal savior.” He just said “I believe in You,” and that phrase was conspicuously missing in the rest of the song, where it should have been had it truly been the focus of the message. Instead, our evangelical hopes were found a little wanting in the end …
I visited Your house again on Christmas or Thanksgiving
And a balded man said You were dead,
But the house would go on living.
He recited poetry and as he saw me stand to leave
He shook his head and said I’d never find You.
It almost feels like his simple childlike faith was doused by the God Is Dead movement. If your whole point was to figure out whether Paul had become a Christian, the last three lines left you a little dissatisfied. Did he or didn’t he?
My mother used to dress me up,
And while my dad was sleeping
We would walk down to Your house without speaking.
I have since come to the conclusion that our focus was wrong. We put all of our attention into trying to find out whether or not Paul was a Christian, as if that was an end in itself, when, in fact, that is God’s place to know, not ours.
So last night, when I introduced Noel (his real name is Noel Paul Stookey) at a house benefit concert for the Catch (Noel is a MemberPartner and spokesperson for the Catch, who, on his own initiative, donated all the proceeds to our ministry) — to a largely conservative evangelical audience who I knew was going to be struggling with some of the same questions, I encouraged them not to spend the evening trying to figure out if Noel was a Christian, but to merely let him walk beside them on their journey, and receive from him that which will contribute to their worldview and inspire their faith. And perhaps they would find what I have found over the years of getting to know Noel and his music — a whole body of work from a sincere, compassionate man who has deeply informed my faith and stretched my mind.
I do believe that this is the way to receive any artist, whatever they believe.