Sunday, June 04, 2006

Soul Deep

Two years ago I delivered the following sermon at Spirit of the Lakes United Church of Christ. In part by drawing on the life and music of British soul singer, Dusty Springfield (pictured at left in 1989), this sermon explores the deeper life that all people of conscience and compassion are called to cultivate and live so as to experience what John S. Dunne calls “an enduring life, a life that could last through and beyond death.” My sermon also explores how gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) people often discern through unorthodox avenues (given that many traditional forms are denied them), God’s call to discover and embody this deeper life and the inclusive and transforming love of God that infuses it.

Contemporary Reading
From Time and Myth by John S. Dunne

An enduring life, a life that could last through and beyond death, would have to be a deeper life than the ordinary. It would have to be some life that people have without knowing it, some current that runs far beneath the surface. To find it would be like seeing something fiery in the depths of life; it would be like hearing a rhythm in life that is not ordinarily heard. The question is whether a person, if he/she found such a life could bear to live it . . . could live according to that rhythm.

The deeper life would be like an undertow, like a current that flows beneath the surface, a current that sets seaward or along the beach while the waves on the surface are breaking upon the shore.

To live in accord with the deeper rhythm might be to ignore the surface rhythm of life. It might mean missing the normal joys and cares of childhood, youth, adulthood, and age. It might mean plunging down into the depths of life to follow a light as elusive as sea fire.

Scriptural Reading
Jeremiah 29:11-14

Surely, I know the paths I have in mind for you, says God. [They serve as] plans for peace, not for disaster; [plans] to give you a future and a hope. When you call to me and come and pray to me, I shall listen to you. When you search for me with all your heart, you shall find me.

Soul Deep
A Sermon by Michael J. Bayly
Spirit of the Lakes United Church of Christ
June 20, 2004

As many of you perhaps know, I have a bit of a thing for Dusty Springfield.

You know Dusty – the British pop and soul vocalist remembered primarily for her 1960s’ hits such as “I Only Want To Be With You,” “Son Of A Preacher Man,” and “You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me.”

I guess in Britain and parts of the Commonwealth, Dusty’s somewhat of a gay icon. Certainly her 60’s look, complete with beehive hairdo, heavily mascaraed eyes, and dramatic hand movements, were and remain iconic images of high camp – even today, five years after her death from breast cancer. But it wasn’t the campy aspects of her sixties’ image that originally drew me to Dusty.

My interest in Dusty Springfield actually began long after her sixties’ heyday – at 7:00 a.m. on New Year’s Day 1991, to be exact! I was with a group of friends at a Queensland beach house where we had crashed on couches and on the floor after a night of festivities. The TV had been left on all night and as I began to stir I noticed that Rage, a popular Australian music program, was playing several video clips from a recently released Dusty Springfield album.

Now I knew of Dusty as a popular and successful singer from the 1960s. So I was somewhat intrigued by the thought of her still recording and by the fact that she was looking and sounding so contemporary, so with it.

So there I was: a 26-year-old closeted gay man, surrounded by my sleeping straight companions, awakening to the 1990s Dusty coming to me through the static and snow of an old beat-up TV.

As much as I may have wanted, I couldn’t bring myself to go back to sleep. I felt myself drawn to this woman who despite the obstacles of a male-dominated, youth-oriented music industry, was seeking to transcend the hits of the past and take the risk of finding her voice within the contemporary music world.

And so I stayed awake and focused on the flickering screen and this strange woman who, with a dismissive flick of the wrist, sang knowingly of the societal forces that attempt to thwart such risk-taking and smother that which is most creative, trusting, and true within an individual:

They don’t want the real you [Dusty sang]
They’re gonna steal you
They’re gonna take my dreams away
Well you try; you look for a way of keeping your face
But the reputation isn’t worth the patience
Who cares what they’re thinking?
Who cares what they’re whispering?

That particular song, I discovered later, was entitled “Reputation,” and served as the title track for Dusty’s new album – one that I soon acquired from a Brisbane record store.

With a mixture of surprise, dismay, and relief, I discovered that many of the songs on this album acknowledge and explore the feelings of regret and frustration so typical of a closeted, inauthentic life. Yet these songs also stress the absolute necessity of transcending such an existence through self-awareness, self-acceptance, and risk-taking.

Over the next few months, as I listened to and absorbed the music of Reputation, I found myself wondering about the woman behind the music. Who was she? What was her story, her journey? A quest was underway, and I soon began discovering some very interesting things about Dusty Springfield – things that spoke to my own situation as a closeted gay man.

Take for instance the observation of one music critic who upon listening to Dusty’s singing on Reputation, stated that she “still sings as if lost inside a world enclosed by both her headphones and her own private loneliness.”

Or this insight offered by another writer commenting on Dusty’s 1960s’ image: “Dusty Springfield was the object of an oddly furtive adolescent interest. She seemed too old for straight mod stardom, for mini-skirts and knee boots, for her black, black mascara and pale lipstick. Her image, like her hair, was brittle; the crack in her voice suggested a crack in her star masquerade. Her songs hinted at unspoken, desperate truths about sexuality that weren’t there for discussion by little boys.”

Now what closeted gay person wouldn’t resonate with observations like these?

Of course, the most significant piece of information I was to discern about Dusty Springfield was that she was the first artist in pop music to openly identify as bisexual. “I know that I’m perfectly capable of being swayed by a girl as by a boy,” she famously told a reporter in 1970.

Up until that time, Dusty, like so many of us – myself included – had spent valuable time and energy building and hiding behind an elaborate persona. I guess for all of us, however, there comes a time when such personas, such facades, become just too much to bear. There comes a time when, as Dusty sings on Reputation, we have to . . .

Break away
And take the time and know your mind
And leave it all behind you and say
That’s the way I am
I was born this way

In recognizing and resonating with Dusty’s life and music, I was experiencing what writer Charles Taylor identifies as pop music’s ability to offer “a distilled and transcendent version of experience – [one] that can seem both shared and startlingly personal.”

Indeed, when Dusty sang Hey boy, it’s alright / Someone understands . . ., I had the unnerving yet exhilarating sense that she was singing directly to me – hiding fearfully as I was, behind the heterosexual persona that
my career in teaching had forced me to create and maintain.

But now, Dusty’s “songs of experience,” as one critic labeled the music of Reputation, were pushing me to question this closeted existence of mine – to the extent that I realized that it really wasn’t worth the patience. This discernment played a fundamental role in my coming out process and my decision to relocate to the United States. Perhaps you could say that in singing along with Dusty Springfield’s soulful “songs of experience,” I not only discerned a kindred spirit, but also began finding my own soul-deep voice.

In the years since, I’ve experienced first-hand just what a difficult and ongoing journey it is for GLBT people to find and lift up their unique voices within a homophobic society. It’s still a very scary endeavor to recognize, claim, and be who we truly are. In the face of a society that pushes false and inadequate life-images upon us, that demands, in other words, conformity to a heterosexual ideal, it can be difficult and dangerous to step out from behind our facades and envision and embody an alternative image – one that enables us to function from our deepest nature.

I don’t believe it is inaccurate or elitist to say that as GLBT people we are blessed with unique opportunities to live more deeply than perhaps those whose lives and experiences match the dominant heterosexual culture. Furthermore, I believe that responding to this deeper rhythm of life means that we often find ourselves on the margins.

Of course, it’s not just GLBT people who can find themselves marginalized. It’s also women, people of color, those at the lower end of our socio-economic system, and anyone who doesn’t quite fit into the mainstream. I also realize that not all people who are marginalized choose to respond to their situation in life-giving ways.

Yet I firmly believe that it we remain open and trusting of God’s love in and among us, our living on the margins can facilitate remarkable transformations – transformations not possible elsewhere; transformations that we can experience in our personal lives and which, I believe, we’re called to extend to the wider world: transformation from rigidity to openness, from external authority to personal integrity, from disconnection to interrelatedness, and from self-centeredness to generosity.

And are not these the types of transformation our world so desperately needs? Are not these the types of transformation that our brother Jesus modeled for us and calls us to embody?

Yet the paradox, the mystery, is that embodying such transformation requires long and difficult travels – soul deep travels. We all know this. Many of us have lived this truth – and continue to live it.

We know that this living can involve experiencing feelings of loss, regret, and even resentment about things we’ve missed or have had to sacrifice in order to take the time to discover who we are in a world hostile to our presence and to such self-discovery. A conscious life is not an easy one. Yet I believe that such a life is what Jesus meant when he said we are called to experience “the fullness of life.”

This “fullness” doesn’t mean experiencing an abundance of just good things. It means being open to the full spectrum of experiences that comprise the human condition. It means responding to whatever we may encounter with compassion and with a resilient confidence in the transforming power of God alive within and among us. And as I’ve said from this pulpit before, it is not the outward events and circumstances of our life that define us, that tell who and what we really are, but rather the ways in which we chose to respond to these events.

I know this to be true and yet, sometimes, I wish I could live always just on the surface – blissfully unaware of life’s depth and complexities. I wish I could just splash around in the warm safe shallows. But such places are not where I’m ultimately called to live; they’re not where I’m called to find myself, my deepest, truest self. They’re not where I can best discern how to respond to others and to the events of my life, in ways that reflect who I truly am.

And who am I? Like each one of us, I am a unique, living, relational embodiment of God’s transforming love.

I can’t deny that the deeper life can be lonely, difficult, and even dangerous – there’s always the risk of becoming embittered and judgmental. Yet I know that when I stay open to God within myself and mediated through communities of faith and intentionality, I can find what I need to lovingly undertake such a life. I can find the strength to journey on.

It’s this sense of journey, I’ve come to realize, to which I’m naturally attuned. It’s what I believe I sense and am drawn to in the life and music of Dusty Springfield and many other people who affirm and inspire me: that sense of quest, of never quite belonging yet nevertheless always striving to live and love as fully, as passionately as one can – despite the disappointments and setbacks.

It was once written of Dusty that she forged in the 1960s a “brand of pop [music] that was as steeped in the grown-up sophistication of singers like Sinatra and Peggy Lee as it was in love with the energy and vitality of rock ‘n’ roll and soul.” The result of this fusion was something quite unique: “A purveyor of young music who doesn’t sound young; a devastating chronicler of heartache who, in some essential way, knows how to protect herself.”

My friends, in our struggle to live authentically in a world often hostile to who we are and who we love, we too are chroniclers of sorrow and heartache. Yet we are also heralds of good news – for we have opened ourselves to wondrous transformations as a result of our journeys of consciousness. Let us celebrate and share the ways we have grown, the insights we’ve gained, and the circle of compassion we’ve forged and which we expand so as to include all – even those who would mean us harm.

Let us, like Dusty, share our songs of experience – songs of perception and insight, of the truth that waves of anguish and pain can serve to lift to higher, holy ground.

Let the gift of our sharing bridge the gap between seemingly separate worlds. And let the bridges we build serve to enable those on the surface who hunger for depth and meaning, to undertake their own unique journeys to God’s deep renewing places.

These qualities and efforts of ours comprise our essential way of protecting ourselves and each other. They are sacred undertakings that reflect the nature of our loving God and thus of our deepest self. And they gently remind us that our journeys are not in vain.

I know the paths I have in mind for you, says God. They serve as paths for peace, not for disaster. When you search for me with all your heart, you shall find me.


A Soul Deep Prayer

Loving God,

At times we can harbour grief and resentment for the long and difficult journeys we have undertaken. At times we can forget the ways we’ve been enriched by our immersion into “the deeper life.” We can forget the uniqueness of our experiences and the ways we’ve been empowered by them to reach out and connect with others. We can even fear hearing your call, fear going deep and finding and being who it is we truly are.

Yet still you call to us – from the depths of our hearts and through the experiences and insights of others. Your call invites us to live consciously and compassionately.

Encourage us, loving God, to trust rather than fear this call, and guide and affirm us as we continue to journey onwards in your love.


For more information about Dusty Springfield, visit Woman of Repute, my website dedicated to her life and music.

Also, for a Reputation-era interview with Dusty, click here.

See also the Wild Reed posts:
Classic Dusty
Remembering a Great Soul Singer


Rocco said...

I wonder if it is not a little risky trying to understand her life and feelings through songs.
She was not the author, she did not write them, though she was able to sing them very well.

Michael J. Bayly said...

It may be "risky," Rocco, but I think it's both understandable and appropriate, especially considering that from the very start of her solo career in 1963, Dusty chose the songs she recorded.

Also, I appreciate what Australian music critic Bernard Zunes once said of Dusty: "She didn't write the songs, and if you had never heard her sing, you could argue Dusty was a '60s version of the non-writing, so-called divas of today, the Celine Dions, Mariah Careys, et al. But the difference is that she was an interpreter, not just someone who hit the right notes. Like Sinatra, she didn't write the songs but she sounded as if she had lived them."