Thursday, August 14, 2008

James Chapin

when red mountain was just beginning as a church, when we were nothing but a few families and friends, all wondering what the new church was going to look like, james was with us.

he was impossible to miss. he drove a motorized wheelchair, an orange flag firmly attached to the end. his head was covered in thin grey hair, and he had a massive dent in his skull, and a glass eye that would sometimes not be in. he spoke often and obtrusively, and loudly. and nobody could forget what came to be known as "the rising of james". he would inevitably, at some point during the service, rise out of his wheelchair, stand up and look around as if to say "I've been healed" and then he would sit back down and usually drive away. he was the most distracting man I've ever known. and those who would visit would often think that a man was being healed here in our church service, just as we all did during the first rising.

I got to know james as well as he would let me. he was apart of a group of friends that met every week over at charles and andrea's apartment. and then again, he was apart of another group of friends that met at john and molly's house. we would all take turns going to pick him up and bring him to join us. I remember how frustrating james was. I remember how he would always interrupt. I remember how the conversation was always about him. I remember how much we would talk about him behind his back, and how happy we were on the weeks when he wasn't with us. being friends with james was like being friends with sickness.

and I remember also, the things that kept me in friendship with james for several years. the moments in the car when he was still, when he would turn and ask me a real question. and when I would respond and he would sit and be still for a moment, listening. and the times when he would tell me about his life before the accident. most of it was made up. apparently he couldn't remember anything so he just made up his life. he had the best life ever. he drove a fleet of ferraris and lamborghinis and he dated famous, beautiful women, and he did every drug imaginable and he was a great athlete and of course, an excellent musician, though he was always careful to add that he was not as good a musician as me. and actually, remembering now, I remember how clearly he would communicate that to me. he would grab my hand and tell me how much he loved to hear me play the piano. and it meant more coming from james than just about anybody. thinking about that now makes me cry.

and his stories, though incredible, ultimately were sad, because after the stories was a man you could never know. james was a man who always looked like he was waiting to die.

james health deteriorated, and we helped him move from a bad apartment to a worse one, and then ultimately to a nursing home where I never went to visit him.

I used to think of visiting. brooke and I would talk about it. but we never went.

and then this week, I found out in an email newsletter, small print at the very bottom, that james had died. it was right between the announcement about a book club and someone trying to sell their house in crestwood.

James is dead. His funeral is tomorrow.

And I can't help but think that red mountain's failures (which are many) are very summed up in the idea that there are so fewer james chapin's among us than there used to be.

I haven't recorded solo piano in a long time, but tonight the mics were already set up in the house from a recording session I've been working on this week, and so I decided to turn them on while I was playing. this is some of the music that was on my mind as I thought about james. its not as good as I want it to be. it never is.

if for some reason the music doesn't play, click here.


The Halls said...

oh, brian. you have summed up so much of what I have been thinking today. sad that there are fewer james chapin's and tommy's with us every week. as much as we have complained about how crazy or annoying they may have been - they were a part of us and now they are not.

what are we to do with this?

Elisa M said...

I was so, so sad about this. Especially sad that it was a mere mention in the bulletin, and that so many people at RMC probably have no idea who he is. I often wonder about Tommy and the guy in the back with dreads who sometimes came (and whose name I, unforgivably, cannot remember or possibly never learned). I hear all this talk about RMC being a happier place these days...but is it really? Have we forgotten the 1for the 99? such are the thoughts going through my mind. Thanks for remembering James.

jeff k said...

that's some nice music brian. you should play it for communion sunday.

i also had a similar thought when i saw the announcement in the newsletter.

oh how far we've come...

The Shulls said...

I was shocked when I read the newsletter too... didn't he qualify to a separate email? I don't know... it made me feel really sad...

The music was so beautiful... I enjoyed every bit of it... I would love if you get to play it at church some time...


Brian T. Murphy said...

here is a comment out of an email I received today that I totally resonate with, and I will post it here, but I will post it without the writer's name:

"James was a gift to RMC. To me, his absence and the absence of others like him is a good indicator of who we are as a body.

I'm pretty cynical about RMC's ability to be the church it intended to be when it started. As a whole I think there is more concern about how great the sermon is, how correct our theology is, how beautiful the music is (no offense--and I think you've got this one covered), and whether or not you have people with whom you "connect." There's nothing wrong with all of that. Maybe we should just be honest about it & quit calling RMC a "church for the city."

The people of RMC do a good job of caring for each other. Maybe as that continues, we will be more comfortable caring for others."

Brian T. Murphy said...

here's another one:

"Jesus forgive me for letting James die alone."

Clint Wells said...

It's tough to be a human being. And even tougher having a moral compass constantly reminding us how much we fail at loving people well.

These conversations of humility about our inaction with James are really the only beautiful thing we can give him now.

And maybe the hope that the next time someone like him comes into our lives, we'll be a bit more gracious with our time and our judgments.

Robert said...

Wow. Great post (and music). I can't believe its been 7 years.

Do you remember how James wanted to outlaw talking on cell phones while driving? It was like some kind of retribution for him.

I think James got a lot of pity from us, but probably very little love. It was easy to silently feel bad for him and put up with his BS, rather than to meet his needs and call his bitterness out. (Most of us were raised to believe that Christianity/love is about how we feel and not so much about what we do.)

The comment about RMC reminds me of something my roommate said the other day:
"If you look at your social community and all you see are people whom you are attracted to (b/c they are funny, successful, pretty, cool, alternative etc) then you probably should consider your motivations."

Brian T. Murphy said...

Halls – they are still with us, I hope, they just aren’t as much apart of us. and the people we have lost and do not miss (tommy) is I think a big indicator of how inward we have become. What do we do about it? I don’t know. But I think the change starts with me.

Elisa – was RMC ever a happier place? Cal and I talked about this yesterday for awhile. I think it’s a good question. I think church plants have a sort of honeymoon period that people tend to remember fondly. But there were messes then just as there are now. And the hope that existed then still exists. It just looks a little different. I still love red mountain, in many ways it is all I have. But it’s also hard to change, and to realize change, and questions about who we are and where we are going are always hard to answer honestly. I’m not sure if I’m making any sense at all.

Jeff – yeah man you know I would NEVER play that crap for communion. How far we’ve come…I’m very thankful for friends like you who’ve helped carry us with your music.

Mohana – losing james is definitely sad. and like I said to jeff – no chance I’ll ever play that crap at church.

Clint – “These conversations of humility about our inaction with James are really the only beautiful thing we can give him now.” Wow. That is really intense.

Robert – good to hear from you, man. Yeah, you were definitely with us during the early days. I do remember james wanting to outlaw cell phone driving and I remember how poignantly funny it was to hear him talk about it. totally agree about love not being about how we feel. But that’s definitely a hard thing to believe. And – my social motivations are I think 100% flawed. Thanks for that.

BB said...

K & I have been sick about not going to see him after he left the nursing home at St Vincent's... we just didn't and then 2 years went by. "I was sick and you did not visit me."

All of James' old sayings have been running through my head today.

And also the thought that he no longer "has a metal plate in his head".

Under The Mountain said...

James' death, on top of so many other disappointments, disillusionments and failures, understandably leads us to the place described in the anonymous email Brian quoted: "I'm pretty cynical about RMC's ability to be the church it intended to be when it started. . . . Maybe we should just be honest about it & quit calling RMC a 'church for the city.'"

Or maybe we had to learn the hard way that being a "church for the city" is a much bigger and more difficult thing than we initially envisioned. This morning I came across a statement that clarified this for me:

"Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves.

By sheer grace, God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world [though maybe some of us did at RMC for a little while?]. . . . God is not a God of the emotions but the God of truth. Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God's sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it. The sooner this shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community the better for both."

As Brian expressed so well, James was hard to know and hard to love. We're not very good at hard things, and (to judge from the comments here) we didn't do very well at knowing or loving James. We didn't do well at a lot of other stuff either. Now that our failures, limitations and weaknesses have been exposed (to us; I think they were visible to others all along), maybe we can begin to appreciate the absurd impossibility and incoherent dream of building a "church for the city". And then we can pour our lives into trying to build it anyway.

Mary Brocato said...

I remember those (tuesday?) nights at Charles and Andrea's. James was a messy eater, wasn't he? I love this post, and I loved being part of RMC back in the day. We're not in bham now, so we can't really be a part of this process, but I think this impromptu re-evaluation is brave and wise, (with whoever else is contributing), because we care about this church. Brian will be so sad to hear about James! Flag batting was one of his classic skills.

McCool said...

that's sad about james...he used to scooter up to my table at highland coffee almost daily and talk about his accident, bills, doctors, former life, etc... other times he would just stare off quietly, content to pass time in familiar company. his presence became so emotionally and temporally taxing that i found myself hiding behind books to avoid distraction whenever i saw him coming.

it seems ironic to be so repelled by those who need love most and so attracted to those who need it least.

Weatherly Hulsey said...

Hey might call it crap, but I found the music beautiful. Great post! Although I did not know James, I think we all have people in our lives that we can relate this too. I know that I have recently been struggling with throwing in the towel on a very difficult friendship, but your post and everyone's comments has made me reevaluate my motives. Thanks for the reminder...I know I needed it!