Monthly Archives: February 2007

The Navajo in the Balcony

It happened just as the ushers reached the front of the church with the offering plates. The choir had finished a powerful song called "Peace on Me," and the minister, a maestro of good timing, waited a beat and then another while stillness reclaimed the sanctuary.

He stepped to the microphone, opened his mouth to bless the offering – and a voice called out from the balcony. A man’s voice, measured, somewhat muffled, but forceful and commanding.

The minister bowed his head. The ushers, choir and congregation bowed their heads. The voice continued in a sing-song cadence, biting off the word endings, not one word of it comprehensible, and from the back and to one side of the sprawling sanctuary I think the same thing I think every time I hear it: Navajo.

But it’s not Navajo. It’s glossolalia – speaking in tongues – and this Mt. Paran Church of God in suburban Atlanta, a place where speaking in tongues is regarded with the same reverence as a good altar call and a heartfelt sermon. It’s the fourth time I’ve heard it in my sporadic attendance here, and the next step is the translation by someone in the congregation.

A woman  and a man both begin, but the man is the minister, David Cooper, and he prevails by virtue of stature and the microphone.  I would like to report that Dr. Cooper’s translation is monumental, life-changing, even, but it wasn’t. At least not for me.

Speaking in tongues is so singular and extraordinary in my experience that I expect the message must be, too. But
as best I can recall, Dr. Cooper’s translation was that God was among us here and now, there and always. Which is pretty much what I’d always heard, and I can’t say that it made me any stronger in my belief or more steadfast in faith.

Truth is, I’m still getting the hang of this Church of God thing. I have attended 12 or 15 times in the past few years, and I’m not quite sure where I stand. I’ve been told that the congregation, the choir and Dr. Cooper believe every word of the Bible to be true, a discussion I don’t attend.

On the other hand, Dr. Cooper is a lapsed Presbyterian, like myself. He is smart, droll and passionate, and he’s a member of a rock band. A Christian rock band, to be sure, but who’s drawing the line when the crossovers include Dylan, Morrison and Marley?

The seeker in me is drawn for a couple of other reasons, as well.  One, they’ve got a killer choir – 150 strong, and backed by a fine orchestra. The first time I heard them, they did what I would have sworn was an Earth, Wind & Fire song. At their Christmas concert two years ago, they hit a crescendo on a contemporary Christian song called "Mary, Did You Know?" that surely made the angels weep.

Music is worship here, and I noticed one morning that the congregation truly seemed to understand that they were singing to God, and reveled in it. As many churches as I’ve been to — Presbyterian, Congregational, Methodist, Unity, Catholic — I’d never had that feeling before.  

Further, the congregation also seems to think being in church as something to be cheerful about, and worship a joy. Not only do they speak in tongues, not a few of them  raise their hands in the air when moved and punctuate prayers and preaching with "Amen!," and "Praise the Lord!"

That’s when I know that, like Dorothy, I’m not in Kansas any more. Or, to be more accurate, up north, where you dress up your cool, dry, buttoned-down reserve in a Brooks Brothers suit, not Dockers and a pullover. Admittedly there are times when I look at how some of the men are dressed and think of David Letterman needling Tom Hanks at the Oscars a few years ago: "Would it have killed you to wear a tie?"

But the people are nice and their worship so energetic, who am I to judge? So I keep showing up, never quite sure what to expect. At some level, I suppose I expect that something will drive me off.

Churches of God, after all, are traditionally very conservative. But Mt. Paran is rather liberal, at least by COG standards, and demographically diverse. And at the last service I attended, Dr. Cooper welcomed all newcomers, even those whose beliefs might differ with the church’s.

"Doesn’t matter," he said. "This is God’s house."

As for speaking in tongues – "glossolalia"– well, Maria Muldaur told me several years ago during an interview that she’d gone to a Pentecostal church in Marin City, California, and began speaking in tongues herself. And she seemed rather pleased with her life.

Anne Lamott, a wonderful writer and reformed heroin user, writes vividly in her book "Traveling Mercies" of the fellowship and renewal she found in a charismatic church. Curiously enough, that church, too, is in Marin County.

Finally, I recall that my first spiritual mentor was a saintly part-Hawaiian woman named Hanah Veary (the Hawaii legislature declared her a living treasure) never joined a church. She stayed when the energy was good, and moved on when it faded.  I don’t know how long I’ll stay, but Dr. Cooper says Mt. Paran is "God’s house," and that’s good enough for me.

To respond, click below on "Post a Comment." To contact me directly, send an email to


A Touch of Scarlet

Thomas Nash and a woman named Martha are shoulder to shoulder at an easel looking at her painting. "There’s a lot right going on here," Nash says, "but you didn’t come here for me to tell you that."

"Here" is a room in a bright new community center 20 miles north of Atlanta where 10 other artists – seven women, three men – stand at easels earnestly mixing paint and applying it to canvas.

Gray-haired, erect and tanned from a recent trip to Antigua, Martha wears bifocals, blue rubber gloves and a black apron over a red flannel turtleneck and dark slacks.

Nash is a tall, lean man with dark, curly, collar-length hair, a pink complexion and an all-black wardrobe: jeans, golf shirt and athletic shoes. Now in his mid-50s, Nash is a nationally recognized portrait artist – among his current commissions is a portrait of former Atlanta mayor Maynard Jackson for the Atlanta airport – and is in the fourth day of teaching a portrait-painting workshop.

In the center of the room are two low platforms, back to back. Each has a chair facing in opposite directions bathed in light from overhead lamps and separated by a curtain. In one chair is a regal African-American woman named Mollie who is wearing a billowing multicolored outfit and purple jacket. In the other is your correspondent, wearing jeans, navy turtleneck, dark sportcoat and red paisley silk scarf.

The artists have come from Cincinnati, Miami, South Carolina, Savannah and north Georgia as well as Atlanta, paying $600 plus room, meal and gas (artists have more paraphernalia than golfers; flying is not an option) for the pleasure of Nash’s company, his seemingly inexhaustible knowledge and his boyish enthusiasm.

"Ach!" he says, clapping himself on the forehead, "I forgot to tell you you can hold your hand up to the canvas and compare your skin tone with the portrait." 

The price of admission ensures that there are no garage-band wannabes in the group, and the quality of the work is uniformly high. Several of the artists are gifted professionals, and Martha, who weathers the 18 hours on her feet without complaint despite her 80 years, is one of them. She has come from Savannah with her friend and designated driver, Sandra, whose soft, whimsical demeanor gives no hint of her remarkable talent. Says Martha, lowering her voice, "She’s much younger than I am."

The opportunity to be among artists is itself a gift. Fifteen years ago, I re-connected with a high school classmate named Claire Watson Garcia, whose accomplishments as an artist (, illustrator (three children’s books, two of which she also wrote), teacher and author ("Drawing for the Absolute and Utter Beginner") leads you to conclude that she nearly drained the talent pool before anybody else could get there. 

Claire gave me a single painting lesson before I moved to Atlanta, and took me to an art show, an experience that felt like a homecoming. Despite my lack of education, I loved the play of form and color, loved especially the use of bright colors (and still do), and reveled in the unaccustomed glow from being among kindred spirits.

I also attended a Matisse exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and while studying a huge still-life was startled to find that my eyes had filled with tears. It was in that moment that I understood what art was: taking everyday objects and infusing them with spirit and energy, finding truth and beauty in the mundane.

I felt that same energy at Nash’s workshop: expansiveness, generosity, warmth and a childlike enthusiasm, an intensity in which the artists lost all track of time and place. And no one was more generous than Nash, whose passion for his work is consuming. He nearly had to be dragged away from the lectures that preceded the painting sessions, and at lunch his sandwich lay half-eaten while he talked about John Singer Sargent and colorist Henry Henche, about half-tones and shadow, about the pecking order of light from forehead to cheek to chin, and so on.

His advice ranged from the complexities of craft — "If you get the sequence right you’ll get the form right" — to simplicity itself: "A disorganized palette makes for a disorganized painting."

"Put a touch of scarlet on your canvas," he said at another point, scandalizing the artists who had labored for hours to get the colors right. "See how your colors compare with it. You can always wipe it off later."

He moved from easel to easel, tirelessly guiding, encouraging, correcting, praising. When I complimented him on his generosity, he seemed embarrassed. "No point in holding anything back," he mumbled.

Nash used the word "discover" often. Indeed, it seemed to me that it lay at the very heart of his message, and works in any context. For all the tricks he shared about mixing colors, darkening one color to lighten another, roughing things out on a "thumbnail" canvas before starting on the big one, it was this understanding that seemed most profound.

That is, truth is not something one brings to the canvas, but rather a mystery that reveals itself in the process. To be an artist is not about having answers, but having the courage to ask the questions.  Art, like a life well-lived, is not so much about determined creation as it is an adventure of optimism, discovery and – that touch of scarlet – play.

To respond, click below on "Post a Comment." To contact me directly, send an email to