Friday, September 18, 2015

Brothers and Sisters

I’m writing these words on September 8, the date on which, in 1973, just a few days before my fifteenth birthday, the Allman Brothers Band’s Brothers and Sisters claimed the #1 spot on the Billboard album chart. It was the first and only time in their long history that the Brothers had a #1 album. It was also the first Allman Brothers album I owned, so I was a little late to the party. They had already released their eponymous debut (1969), their second album Idlewild South (1970), the now legendary live album At Fillmore East (1971), and the tragic (Duane Allman was killed in a motorcycle accident in Macon before the album was completed) Eat a Peach (1972).

I played Brothers and Sisters so much I’m surprised I didn’t wear the grooves out. (Perhaps I should explain for my younger readers that albums once were round, had a hole in the middle, were made of vinyl, and were played on these things called “record players” that somehow extracted the sound from the record by having a needle run through the grooves.) The hit single was Dicky Betts’s song “Ramblin’ Man.” I loved it. How could a boy from Barnesville not love a song that included the line “I was born in the backseat of a Greyhound bus, rollin’ down Highway 41”? I mean, the geography of my life was defined by Highway 41, which took me north and south, and by Highway 36, which took me east and west. From “Wasted Words” to “Pony Boy,” the entire album was outstanding.

The Allman Brothers Band played what they said would be their last show on October 28, 2014 at the Beacon Theatre in New York, bringing to an end a forty-five year run of their unique style of Southern blues rock. Three founding members remained: Gregg Allman and drummers Butch Trucks and Jaimoe. Over the years, other band members have gone and come. One of the reasons that the band was able to endure was their willingness and ability to bring in new musicians who kept the old traditions alive while putting their own spin on them. Notable in that regard are guitarists Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks, who, while they did not and could not replace the late Duane or the dismissed Betts, gave of their own remarkable talents to help keep the Allman Brothers Band vital and dynamic. The Brothers were never relegated to the oldies circuit because they always kept the music fresh, alive, and evolving.

Strange as it may seem, our churches could learn something important from the Allman Brothers Band: we need to develop the ability and to embrace the opportunity to grow and to change. As with the band, so with the church: some members will die and some members will leave to pursue other projects. And new members will come in who have much to contribute to our ministry. They may put a different spin on our established ways of doing things, but that can be a good thing. The Allman Brothers matured, changed, and adapted. Our churches need to do so as well.

That’s not to say that we won’t still do and say what we’ve always done and said. You would never go to an Allman Brothers’ concert and not hear “Whippin’ Post,” “Melissa,” and “Midnight Rider.” And we’ll (hopefully) never go to church without worshiping God, reading the Bible, and learning more about following Jesus. The old, old story is the old, old story. But, if we’re willing to open our minds and our hearts, we just might hear some of the old words presented in different ways. And we just might hear a very important part of the truth that we’ve never heard before.

That’s not to say it will always be easy. Some of the changes that the Allmans went through were challenging and even traumatic. But they persevered because they were committed to being the Allman Brothers Band, because they believed that the message of their music was important, and, even though only Duane and Gregg were literally siblings, the entire band was made up of, in a very real sense, brothers.

We in the church are, to use the words of that old album title, brothers and sisters. We are in this thing together. The world needs us to be faithful together to our mission of sharing the love, grace, and mercy of Christ in every way we can.

The Allman Brothers Band’s music was based in a commitment to doing Southern blues rock and doing it right. The church’s ministry is based in a commitment to loving the Lord our God with all we are and loving our neighbor as we love ourselves.

However we do it and however we say it, let’s offer the Lord’s love and grace to the people around us who need it so desperately. That’s the heart of our message; that’s the heart of our music; that’s the heart of our ministry.

If we’ll remember that, we can finish up with the closing line from the first track on Brothers and Sisters, “Wasted Words”: “By the way this song’s for you. Sincerely, me.”

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