‘Fatuous Twaddle’ For a Phenomenal Friend

Jamie Kelly

Jamie Kelly, 10 May 1968 – 7 August2014

Brian Marsh, Memorial Service Meditation
First Presbyterian Church Missoula, 15 August, 2014

‘It says the Word was in the beginning, and that’s right. I used to think water was first, but if you listen carefully you will hear that the words are underneath the water.’

It all began as a date with a writer.

Norman Maclean, that is. The writer of the words I just wrote above.

It was October 11th, 2009. The centennial celebration of the arrival of the Maclean family to Missoula was happening here at the church. Jamie had been assigned by the Missoulian to cover the event. He told me later that even if he hadn’t been assigned the job, he would have requested it because of his love of Maclean’s writing.

After the dedication of the beautiful polished granite monument at the front of the sanctuary and a powerful series of readings (including one from Norman’s seminal work, A River Runs Through It, by his son, John), Jamie went about talking to people and getting quotes for his story.

One of those people he needed to talk to was me, one of the host pastors at the time.

After getting something he could use as a sound bite, I mentioned to him that I had read his column, ‘Fatuous Twaddle’, with a lot of interest and laughter (anyone who would retitle Mel Gibson’s ‘The Passion of the Christ’ as ‘Lethal Weapon V’ had my immediate adoration and intrigue). I also remembered him mentioning that he was a jazz pianist. His eyes lit up and his head tilted slightly to the right and he said, ‘Oh YEAH?’ And before I knew it, I was thrust into a whirlwind of a mile-per-minute conversation, with topics ranging from our common love of Pat Metheny (and particularly his song ‘The First Circle’, which contains a piano solo by Lyle Mays that Jamie informed me was ‘the most perfect piano solo ever recorded’) to the movie ‘Life of Brian’ and all things Monty Python to the genius of Spinal Tap. (When I told him that once, as a last-minute substitute pianist for a worship service, I needed something quiet to play during the offering, and all I could think of to play was the little riff that Nigel Tufnel of Tap wrote in D minor – which, as we all know is the saddest of all keys – that sounds delicate and lovely, but is actually called ‘Lick My Love Pump’, he exploded with a laughter that rattled the windows of the Fellowship Hall.) And in that moment, I realized that I had been given the gift of a kindred, irreverent spirit, a true friend.

Jamie Kelly 2

I needed a pianist for the late Christmas Eve service here later that year, and Jamie graciously agreed to help out. He played soulfully and transcendently. Then starting with the first Sunday in January, he responded to my open invitation and just started showing up to play in the band for the late service. He would regularly play for the offering after the sermon (NOT any Spinal Tap), always improvising (with plenty of great jazz chords thrown in), responding to the spirit of the message or just what was happening in his spirit. And it never ceased to amaze me how a person who was so gifted in language could in essence ‘re-preach’ a sermon he just heard with more eloquence and power using no words whatsoever (and to present that ‘proclamation’ as a self-professed ‘atheist’…or as Woody Allen, would say, ‘The Loyal Opposition).

Those Sundays were balanced with regular times during the week to grab coffee (Diet Coke for him) at Caffe Dolce. We continued to bring up not only the things that made us laugh and the music, books, movies and sports that inspired us (including our endless argument regarding the greatness of baseball and basketball, where Jamie proclaimed that baseball is played on a field of dreams, and basketball is played on a court of thugs), but also the questions that puzzled us, the issues of life and Spirit that were the catalyst for many internal wrestling matches within both of us. The answers rarely came, and if they ever did, they did not come easy. Of course, as Maclean said, grace and art don’t come easy either. More often than not, I suppose our times together gave us some needed encouragement and empowerment to embrace and live the questions a bit more fully.

One of the things I loved most about being with Jamie was that I didn’t have to be my ‘pastor’ self with him. Often, I was my ‘bastard’ self with him. And yet, he seemed to enjoy and appreciate that even more. He loved being with people in situations where they could be REAL.

This meant that Jamie traveled into the deepest, darkest depths of existence, emotionally, relationally, spiritually, within himself and at times with others. He clearly did not always choose to do so. The journey of depression and addiction has a power of its own, and is not for the faint of heart. In experiencing the unpredictable currents of the River of life, Jamie was haunted by waters. He knew firsthand what St. Paul described in the 8th chapter of his letter to the church in Rome about how all of humanity and creation itself is groaning for release, sighing for peace, longing for hope. But it was out of those depths that he faced so often and so courageously that the incredible depth of sensitivity, passion and compassion emerged from that big ol’ heart and soul of his.

Over time, through the love of his families of origin and Spirit, he began to sense something that had been closed within him for years gradually opening up. And in his characteristic frankness, he asked me one day at Dolce, ‘So…how DOES one become a Presbyterian?’ And we talked about how the journey isn’t really about becoming a Presbyterian (or any kind of ‘-ian’) but more about being awakened to what that mysterious Presence around him and within him might be doing, how that divine Breath might be whispering to him, where that sacred Wind might be leading him, what those living words underneath the rocks in the River might be saying to him.

In essence, he responded by saying that he was discovering that those haunting waters were also hallowed and holy, and even healing. And he wanted to plunge into the River of Life and Love and emerge from those waters as a sign that he was experiencing the life and love of Jesus in a new and fresh way.

He wanted to be baptised in the Clark Fork.

His date with a writer became a date with a river.

And as he emerged from that River of Love and Life that day, a greater depth of passion for justice and peace and compassion for others emerged from his heart through his artistry and actions. His journey to Kenya, his adventures with the Superheroes of Kindness from Missoula Community School, his interactions with everyday heroes in the community and the compelling, creative ways that he articulated these experiences and encounters were a powerful means of advocating for those who rarely have a voice and awakening and inspiring our city to embody hope and peace and love in any ways possible. Jamie’s heart beat with the heartbeat of God’s love, the rhythm of the greatest Dance of all.

Jamie Kelly 3

Which makes it all the more heartbreaking and harrowing, mystifying and maddening, disorienting and devastating to be gathered here today. Why, in God’s name (or as Jamie wrote in years past, ‘Fred’s’ name), did that loving and lovely heart stop beating? How could such a brilliant star in the universe be extinguished so suddenly and tragically?

Maclean’s father asked him, in the wake of his younger brother Paul’s untimely death, ‘Do you think I could have helped him?’ I’ve been asking myself that question about Jamie for the past eight days. I imagine all of us, a community of love gathered in Jamie’s honour, have asked that question at one point or another. And Maclean responded to his father the only way he could, with another question: ‘How can a question be answered that asks a lifetime of questions?’

‘All good things – trout as well as eternal salvation – come by grace, and grace comes by art, and art doesn’t come easy.’

Neither do answers, if they even come at all.

But I wonder if perhaps some seeds of comfort and peace and hope are buried within Maclean’s words. As his brother Paul said, ‘All there is to thinking is seeing something noticeable which makes you see something that you weren’t noticing which makes you see something that isn’t even visible.’ And centuries earlier, Jesus invited people to perceive and experience a reality that seems backwards, where life comes out of death and hope emerges out of despair, where the last are first, the weak are strong, the foolish are wise.

What if we read Maclean’s words backwards? (Not like backward masking an LP, but more sequentially.)

‘Art doesn’t come easy. And grace comes from art. And all good things come by grace.’

This is not an easy day for any of us. And the days ahead don’t look any easier from where we sit. We miss Jamie. Like Paul Maclean, ‘He was (and is) BEAUTIFUL.’ We miss his smiling face and radiant countenance, his acerbic wit and insightful wisdom, his passionate spirit and compassionate heart, his gifted fingers gliding over keyboards of ivory and plastic creating images of inspiration to empower us to be kinder, more loving people, articulating the art of life and Spirit.

That art did not come easy. But it IS still present, and it IS ALIVE.

And it is the seedbed for GRACE.

And grace is the mysterious, miraculous power that empowers comfort and hope and peace and love – all good things, even life itself – to emerge out of the soil of suffering.

As St. Paul said in the climax of that same chapter in Romans:

Who or what will separate us from the love of Jesus? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No…I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Jamie’s date with a writer became a date with a River. And that date with a River has become an eternal date with the end of all Rivers…the Ocean of divine Love.

The Ocean of boundless breadth and fathomless depth that nothing can contain, not life nor death, height nor depth, angels nor demons, philosophy nor religion, politics nor platitudes, life situation nor personal disposition, or anything else in creation or beyond creation…

The Ocean of Love from which NOTHING can separate us…

The Ocean that John Maclean proclaimed so eloquently and passionately over a century ago as he ruminated upon the Rivers that lead there…

The Ocean filled with haunted and hallowed and healing waters, teeming with mystery and majesty, memories and magnificence and magic…

The Ocean that embraces us just AS we are, loves us right WHERE we are, comforts us in our grief, gives flickers of light in our darkness and glimpses of hope in our despair, and reminds us that spaces of absence – like empty crosses and empty tombs – are actually signs of Presence.

One of Jamie’s last and greatest experiences in his life among us was seeing Paul McCartney give the concert of a lifetime in Missoula last week. It was the last time I actually saw Jamie. I’ll never forget the elation on his face and in his voice as we talked on the phone and waved to each other between the floor and the north end zone. One of the many musical and spiritual highlights of the night was when McCartney led us together in singing a very soulful version of ‘Let It Be’. As we grieve the loss of Jamie and celebrate his life, today and every day forward, may we experience the wonder of Wisdom, the healing of Hope, the light of Love, the absence that reveals Presence…

Truly, ‘Let It Be.’

Jamie Kelly 4

 

Benediction

Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is.

In the boredom and pain of it no less than the excitement and gladness:

Touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it,

Because in the last analysis, all moments are key moments

And life itself is grace. (Frederick Buechner)

 

May you be blessed by the Love of God.

May you be embraced by the Grace of Jesus.

May you be comforted and empowered by the Presence of the Spirit.

This day and every day, now and forevermore.

Let it be.

Amen.

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To see more of Brian’s writing, check out the Brian Marsh main page here at Make it Missoula. And for even more, check out his personal blog, Apocalypso Now.

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i’m a wanderer and a wonderer. a percussive and paradoxical pastor who exists happily (and hope-full-y) at the intersection of doubt and faith. journeying with my unique and special family (my wife, Kirsten, and sons, Ian and Trevor) whilst temporarily splitting my time between two unique and beautiful places (Missoula, Montana and Ukiah, California). restless and lazy, usually amazed, always in process, i’m continually surprised and usually delighted at discovering the extraordinary in the ordinary, the ‘sacred’ in the ‘secular’, the shafts of light that sneak into the shrouds of darkness. i drum decently, surf poorly, love multicultural food, music, and community, and living in the ‘Zoo.

 

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