The Common Good
September-October 1995

Recognizing Jesus

by Daniel Goering | September-October 1995

Ken Medema's gift of the gospel

I was walking north on 15th Street NW in Washington, D.C., when I ran into one of my former clients from the food distribution program at Sojourners Neighborhood Center. It was 6:15 a.m., and there were signs he had already been drinking. (I was headed to the 7-Eleven for coffee, to drown one of those I-don't-want-to-get-up-and-go-to-work mornings in an ocean of caffeine.)

"How ya' doin'?" I asked him.

"Fine," he answered. "How you doin'?" His words were very slurred.

"Man, I am not doin' well at all. I didn't feel like getting up this morning. I wish I were still giving out food with you guys." Having initiated my little pity party, I continued to complain and bemoan my fate. He got tired of listening.

"Hold up, man," he said, tipsily. "You woke up this mornin', right?"

"Yeah."

"You out here walkin', right?"

"Umm, yeah."

"You goin' to a job, right?"

"Yeah, that's right."

"Well, you all right then! Whatcha' complainin' for?"

Having been thusly restored to my senses, I realized that I really was all right.

Ken Medema heard this story from me in a workshop he gave at the Sojourners 20th Anniversary Festival in 1991. After exclaiming "Oh, wow!" and pausing for about five seconds, he composed the following blues lick on his synthesizer:

Come mornin', I don' wanna move
Come mornin', tireda the same ol' groove
I like t'be changin' my circumstances
I like t'have a chance t' try some other kinda chances
I got those wake-up-in-the-mornin' blues.
Saw him walkin' down the city street
Pushin' that shoppin' cart, kinda shufflin' his feet
I said, "How you boy?"
He said, "I'm as fine as I can be."
I said, "Well that's good enough for you but it ain't that good for me."
He said, "What's the matter?"
I said, "It's a bad bad mornin'."
He said, "You woke up?"
I said, "That's right, I woke up."
He said, "You're wakin', an' you're walkin', and you're workin', and you're wishin' for somp'n better
What the hell be wrong wi' you?"
Well I'm wakin' and I'm walkin' and I'm workin'
Why am I wishin' for somp'n much better?
Maybe I should just sip on my coffee and be glad
That things ain't quite so bad.

Now it was my turn to say "Oh, wow!" Medema not only had captured the words of my story, but his song conveyed the feeling of walking down the street in an early-morning funk, filled to the eyeballs with self-pity. I felt myself back on 15th Street, meeting my friend yet again-except this time I realized I had met Jesus that morning.

Ken Medema, the blind purveyor of the gospel, had once again done what he does so well. He gave me eyes to see Jesus in a situation where I probably would have missed him otherwise.

MEDEMA LOVES composing on the spot from the stories of others. "One reason," he says, "is that I'm good at it." He is not bragging. The statement is a humble one, because it is true.

In an interview with Sojourners in 1989, Medema explained that his primary focus in performing was to get church people to listen to the gospel in a way that allows them to hear something they've never heard before. While performing in churches still accounts for about 60 percent of his shows, he has now broadened his focus somewhat. In a recent interview, he said, "I am being asked to perform at a lot of non-church corporate gigs-staff development day at some corporation or a life insurance convention, for example. At these gigs many folks who wouldn't call themselves church people realize that something about this music moves them.

"What excites me about the material in these gigs is that in addition to the church stuff, it goes along with what Jim Wallis has written in The Soul of Politics. I want to elicit both the yearnings and the commitment to pursuing a spiritual solution to the sense of hopelessness and political malaise that seems to be pervading this culture.

"In the last couple of years, I have become absolutely obsessed with hope. I've been affected by performing Let Justice Roll! tours and by having a 16-year-old daughter who is going through a rebellion stage. One thing, though, that she shares with her parents is a genuine concern for the fragile lives of the kids she hangs out with-kids on drugs, kids in trouble with the law, kids who have been kicked out of their homes. They are kids without a dream. They have no concept of their own goals, let alone that there's any hope for society.

"I did In the Dragon's Jaws because I believe that if we don't maintain a joyful sense of hope, we are gone."

Then I asked Ken to talk a bit about his Let Justice Roll! work.

"Oh, it's been a wonderful project. I get regular reinforcement from Jim and from the people we work with about the urgency of doing the material. I've seen Jim and me be positively affected by each other. I've seen Let Justice Roll! change over the years. It has become much more efficient and eclectic-that is, the focus broadens over the years and becomes simpler. We've focused less on analysis than we did at the beginning and more on storytelling.

"Lately I've been hearing Jim emphasize the new vision. I don't think we all have recovered the imagination. We need to learn to imagine what the new vision might be like. I do three-day conferences at colleges encouraging the students to reimagine the shape of everything, trying to get at what they think the kingdom of God would look like. The key question is, What would it look like if...? We have to be able to imagine what the vision looks like before we can bring it about."

IN HIS ENDEAVORS to spread his obsession with hope and prime the pump of re-imagination, Medema uses an assortment of musical styles. He cites a wide variety of artists who have influenced his work (not all of them musicians), including Bela Bartok, Laurie Anderson, Dylan Thomas, Vachel Lindsay, Sting, Bruce Springsteen, Bruce Cockburn, and Benjamin Britain. In the 1989 interview, he cited Britain's War Requiem as a piece that literally changed his life: "I had known something about World War II, but I never felt so appalled, resigned, responsible for, forgiven for, connected to, and regretful about World War II until after I listened to that choral piece with orchestra. The power of his music swept me away."

Similarly, I have found Medema's music to be challenging, encouraging, enticing, welcoming, connecting, and eye-opening in my personal struggle to maintain a sense of hope. Hope, according to some, is, "Believing in spite of the evidence and watching the evidence change." That kind of hope is the hope with which Ken is obsessed. Keep inspiring us, Ken. We need you.

The Dance of Hope

Ken Medema is obsessed with hope. His obsession spills forth splendidly over and over again on In the Dragon's Jaws. Every song is an expression of hope in some form-in situations where it seems there is none. (Ken acknowledges that the "dancing in the dragon's jaws" image comes from Bruce Cockburn, but his album had been released before he knew of Cockburn's song. Ken asked me to apologize to Cockburn's fans on his behalf.)

Sometimes the hope is general. In the title song, we are invited to "dance in the dragon's jaws." The song leaves it to us to decide what the dragon's jaws are. For Medema they are evil and fear, but each listener will know what his or her dragon's jaws are, and will have the opportunity to draw hope from the invitation to join the dance. In "Sunday's Coming," we are told that "fear is everywhere and hope is dying." But we are not left there:

Open up your Sunday eyes
Look with wonder and surprise
You'll see the truth, you'll see the lies-
Yeah-Sunday's coming

Sometimes the hope is specific. In "She's Gonna Run," Medema sings of his 16-year-old daughter, Rachel. Her life seems to have taken some twists and turns that have caused him a lot of anguish. Yet there is hope in this scenario. Medema told me he draws great hope from the fact that Rachel shares his concern for the plight of some of her friends.

One of Medema's favorites on this album is "God Knows Why." It does well what he loves to do-combine his classical training with his love for pop and rock. It also features a rendition of Bach's "Break Forth O Beauteous Heavenly Light" by the Calvin College Alumni Choir.

For those of us who've had rough going in relationships, Medema offers "They Never Told Me," a song that speaks of unexpected romance, and "Wedding Song," dedicated to a friend whose first marriage failed and whose second is succeeding nicely. One of the lines in this song engendered hope for me: "With each new sunrise I start believing that I'm not bound by mistakes I have made."

The music in this album produced two kinds of hopeful images for me. In "Dance in the Dragon's Jaws," "Sunday's Coming," and "Too Many Gods," I felt carried by a positive, energetic drive where hope promised to overcome everything in its path. In "God Knows Why" and "Wedding Song," the images invoked were more along the lines of a rising sun burning off the fog, or a new plant growing up from old rubble.

"If we don't maintain a joyful hope," Ken told me, "we are gone." He has provided a wonderful album to help us maintain this hope, and I recommend it to anyone who needs encouragement on the journey. These days, that likely includes all of us.

In the Dragon's Jaws. By Ken Medema. Brier Patch Music, 1994.

DANIEL GOERING is a longtime member of Sojourners Community. Formerly the director of Sojourners Food Distribution Center, he is now a social worker, clown, musician, and baseball fan-though not necessarily in that order.

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