In our excellent interview with Noel Paul Stookey (you will definitely want to visit that interview below), he spoke of two divine interventions that shaped his life and career. The first introduced him to Jesus, the second provided direction for his songwriting and already well-earned public personna as a member of the iconic ‘60s folk group, Peter Paul & Mary. The second came by way of a couple who met him after a concert and said they had a word from the Lord for him. That’s pretty direct from the mouth of God, but the message was an unexpected one. The message was simply, “Don’t use my name.”
Now usually when we hear the phrase “a word from the Lord” we are set up for some heavyweight spiritual content that leaves no doubt as to its meaning. This was surely different. This was a call to be subtle, to not be obviously “Christian,” to, as Emily Dickinson wrote, “tell it slant.” Noel was a new Christian in the public eye, and this was a word for him from God Himself not to be so obvious about his new faith. When you think about it, this was exactly what Jesus did. He spoke in parables.
There are two reasons for this. 1) God wants a relationship with those who want a relationship with Him. You don’t waste the truth on those who are not even looking for it. In Jesus’ own words, He said, “don’t give dogs what is sacred,” and “don’t throw your pearls to pigs” (Matthew 7:6). But right after this, was when He said, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (7:7). Clearly, He will meet us at the point of our need and desire for Him.
2) We simply can’t take all the truth all at once. It would overwhelm our tiny little minds. Or as Emily Dickinson has stated, in a little poem well worth digging into for its huge implications —
Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —
So God told Noel not to use His name, but to find other ways to tell the truth about Jesus and His gospel, and when this is done well, as it has been in Noel’s case, it can come home with even greater impact than with the more literal rendering.
The Jesus Movement was literal. Truth made it into song lyrics, placards on the street, and onto bumper stickers all over town. “Jesus” was on the cover of Time. Arthur Blessitt is still carrying the cross, preaching its gospel all over the world. It was a time to tell everybody to get right with Jesus. There’s always a time for that.
But there is also a time for more subtle messages, especially today, with a public sabotage of the gospel going on. Noel is writing songs that hide the truth, the same way the parables of Jesus do, making the search worth it, and the reward for seeking, bright indeed. We need to be good at both of these approaches as we see the time drawing near.
I’m reminded of Dan Peek, the late member of the group “America” and a contemporary Christian musician. He and his wife wrote a song called “Lonely People” that America recorded. It was a top 5 hit in 1975. The key lyric:
“Don’t give up until you drink from the silver cup
And ride that highway in the sky”
Later he recorded a more Christian version and “ride that highway…” was changed to “give your heart to Jesus Christ.” No other lyrics were changed.
The sad irony here is that only Christians heard the lyric about Christ. They already knew. The far better version was the one that reached the world where there is more likely to be found a lot of lonely people. I really believe many folks understood exactly what the “silver cup” is as well as how to get on a “highway in the sky” The version that reached the world had a greater impact and help more people. Yes, “don’t use my name” really is a message from God.