I didn’t always know Him. Thought I did.
And before that, for a long time, I didn’t know him at all.
God, that is.
I mean, I wasn’t always a disciple, a ‘servant of the Lord.’ I didn’t even attend a regular worship service- ever- until about the same time I was attending Driver’s Ed. My excitement for the latter was in inverse proportion to the former.
I didn’t make God the Master of my life until around the same time I was teaching life-saving at the neighborhood pool.
In other words, I didn’t grow up in a religious home. We didn’t intone His name at suppertime. We didn’t invoke His fickle nature when we stubbed our toes or languished in the Brew-Thru line or came up nada on the Pick 6.
For a long time, I didn’t know Him.
Before I was a teenager, I graced the doorway of the Master’s house only once, for my Aunt Lisa’s nuptials to a guy whose name I was convinced must be a joke: ‘Chet.’
I was a part of the Master’s ‘Dearly Beloved’ that day, but more so than the grim, gothic sanctuary or the ancient smells and bells or the priest’s alien incantations, what I best recall from that ceremony was the unfortunate Val Kilmer/‘Iceman’ haircut my mother imprudently allowed me to bring to the wedding.
I didn’t always know Him; I didn’t grow up in a religious family.
We never thought to begrudge the talent or treasure He had given us because He wasn’t really a part of our lives. Nor was Jesus (as in: Jesus H. Christ!!!) even a word in our vocabulary.
We were neither a spiritual nor religious family.
I never flannel-graphed the Good Shepherd in Sunday School. I never fell asleep during gassy, finger-wagging sermons. No one ever taught me to sing ‘Jesus loves me this I know, for that unread book tells me so.’
In fact, I only knew who Jesus was because my Italian Grandmother, who had a pasta-maker’s forearms and a steel-worker’s mustache- it’s true, I look just like her- she had what must’ve been a 5×6 foot Harvey Keitel-kind-of-crucifix with blood and nails and a ‘You did this to me, bastard’ look on his face.
The crucifix loomed over the head of the pine guest room bed where I slept whenever my mom worked the night shift at the hospital.
When I first saw that crucifix, I asked my grandma ‘who did that to him?’ And she replied without ambiguity: ‘I did.’
(‘What in the _________. You did? That’s crazy!’) I thought to myself.
And looking for solace, I asked her: ‘Well, he’s dead now, right?’ But she calmly replied: ‘No. No, he’s alive.’
And again I thought to myself: ‘Wait, you did that to him and he’s still alive? That does NOT sound good.’
So, needless to say, on those sleepover nights at her house I’d cover the crucifix as best I could with a pillowcase. Elementary-me thought something that looked like a ghost on the wall was less terrifying than this guy named Jesus that my paisano grandma had apparently failed to whack.
But that freaky, torture-device, 5×6 foot roadkill Jesus above the headboard of my bed was as close to meeting the Master as I ever got. We weren’t a religious family. We didn’t pray or worship. If we had a Bible it stayed in mint condition.
I was never exposed- introduced- to Him, the idea of Him; that is, not until 1990.
I was in Jr High, still playing with GI Joe after school but newly in the throes of ‘the puberty’ as it was called in gym class.
1990- it was the year Nelson Mandela was released from Robbin Island, the year Saddam was roused from Kuwait.
1990- it was the year the Simpsons first aired on TV, the year Driving Miss Daisy fooled everyone and somehow won Best Picture and the year Milli Vanilli did NOT sing ‘Girl, You Know It’s True.’
But what is true, no doubt, 1990 that was the year someone first told me about Him.
God, the Lord, the Father…the Master. 1990 was the year someone got through to me, the year someone got me thinking long and hard and always about Him.
1990- the year John McEnroe’s god-complex got him banned from the Australian Open was the same year I became God-obsessed. All because of the revelation I received from one ginger prophetess:
From a distance I just cannot comprehend
what all this fighting is for.
From a distance there is harmony,
and it echoes through the land.
And it’s the hope of hopes, it’s the love of loves,
it’s the heart of every man.
It’s the hope of hopes, it’s the love of loves.
This is the song of every man.
And God is watching us, God is watching us,
God is watching us from a distance.
Oh, God is watching us, God is watching.
God is watching us from a distance.
1990- that year, like a chanteuse evangelist, Bette Midler’s hit song ‘From a Distance’ lodged in my brain where it haunted me in a way that her overacting in Beaches never could.
Bette Midler’s cover of ‘From a Distance’ from the album Some People’s Lives went all the way to #1 on the adult contemporary chart. It peaked at #2 on Billboard’s Top 100.
In 1991 it won a Grammy for Best Song of the year, which meant the song was everywhere, always as near as its subject was allegedly far. Omnipresent.
Everywhere, anywhere, I went in 1990 Bette Midler and Him were there, like the prodigal parable in reverse. What was found couldn’t be shaken.
Not just on my mom’s cassette tape in her maroon Honda Accord, but wandering around the mall as an awkward adolescent, sipping an orange julius and spying on the girls shopping in Claires and- for a brief moment- thinking life looked not too bad…I heard Bette Midler pipe on the PA: ‘…God is watching us…God is watching us…’
At the Friday night skate party at the roller rink, as I took my first ever stab at talking to an actual human-style girl, I heard Bette’s voice cut through the humid darkness: ‘…God is watching us…’
Pushing the cart behind my mom at the grocery store, I even heard a muzak version of it, no words. But it didn’t need any words because by that point in 1990 I’d heard ‘From a Distance’ so many times I’d started making up my own words to it:
‘God is watching you.
God is watching you.
God is watching you, Jason- from a distance.’
Despite its commercial success- or maybe because of it- ‘From a Distance’ met with much critical derision.
VH1 ranked it #37 on its 50 Most Awesomely Bad Songs of All Time list. A critic at Rolling Stone reviewed that, even from an eternal distance, Bette Midler’s drum machine FX would sound too loud, while still another critic speculated that if God does exist then surely God hates cliches and forced rhyme schemes.
So as popular as it was on the charts, a lot of critics and aficionados hated Bette Midler’s epic, monster ballad cover of ‘From a Distance.’
Middle school- me hated it too.
Not because of the drum machine FX. Not because I was still in my Phil Collins stage and liking Bette Midler would’ve felt like a betrayal. No, the song terrified me.
Or rather, the assertion in the song terrified me: that every moment, all the time, no matter what I say or do (or 100x worse: think!), no matter where I go- that every move I make, God- like that lover in Sting’s superior song, will be watching you. Me.
Which means that with God my heart is always an open book, all desires are known, no secret is hid.
No. Secret. Is. Hid.
I don’t know what becoming a teenager was like for you, but this was NOT good news to me.
The same year Bette Midler’s ‘From a Distance’ was topping the charts and dominating the play lists of low impact aerobic studios everywhere, I was conscripted into selling chocolate bars as a fundraiser for my school.
I was gunning to hawk enough chocolate to earn the Rickey Henderson rookie card, but it turns out I’m not much of a salesman. The prize I did earn initially struck me as a little lackluster, a Sports Illustrated subscription. I like sports and all, but I didn’t think it was anything to get excited about.
That is, not until that fateful February day when I discovered, like Charlie’s golden ticket, that that Sports Illustrated subscription had hidden inside the fine print the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition.
One winter day there they were.
Elle McPherson, Rachel Hunter, Kathy Ireland (I had to look up their names because I don’t remember them) waiting in my mailbox, with my name on them, hours before my mom would come home.
In that revelatory moment, turning each diaphanous page, what middle school-me should’ve heard ringing in his pubescent head was Handel’s ‘Hallelujah’ chorus or maybe the Pointer Sisters’ ‘I’m So Excited.’
Thanks to Bette Midler, all I could think, hear, was that little voice inside my head. In her voice actually: ‘God is watching you…God is watching you, Jason.’
1990 bled into 1991and, after enduring 3 semesters of shame and abuse, I finally stood up to a bully named Frog, getting off at his bus stop and pummeling him like a 7th grade Joe Pesci, I didn’t hear the cheers erupt from the steamed-up bus windows. I didn’t hear ‘Eye of the Tiger’ start to play as the soundtrack of my life kicked-on.
No, I heard her.
Sing about Him. The Master. Watching me.
And it was the same when I knowingly ripped off my friend Jim in a baseball card trade that would make Fannie and Freddie proud, giving him my Chris Sabo (!?) for his Roger Clemens rookie card.
And when a woman in the neighborhood paid me and a friend to pull down a rival politician’s campaign signs in the cover of darkness- even in the darkness I was convinced that we were being watched. Thanks to Bette Midler.
And when I refused to accept the apology of a girl in my class, Kathy, for intentionally embarrassing me in class Bette’s chorus came on in my head and in anger I grumbled to her: ‘You should be apologizing to God, Kathy. He’s watching you.’
Which…made her cry.
That song was still everywhere in 1991 when I watched my grandmother disappear behind an Alzheimer’s fog and then what I took issue with was His Distance. His watchful but ineffectual Distance.
In 1990 Bette Midler became the first person to implant the idea of Him in my head- the Source and Sustainer of all that Is, the Master of all our lives- and for that you might think I’d consider her the wind beneath my wings.
Because behind the saccharine, synthesized pop idioms and pre-K poetics, her song haunted me.
From a distance…God is watching us. Me. Big Brother is watching me. Like Dr. TJ Eckleberg, the Master’s eyes are always on me. Watching.
Checking to see if I’m nice or naughty.
Like a guard in a prison tower.
‘From a Distance’ was originally penned in 1985 by Julie Gold, a songwriter who was working as a secretary for HBO at the time.
When Nanci Griffith covered the song and made it a moderate hit in 1987, Julie Gold told a reporter that her song was about how the way things are is not the way things appear, that God is watching us.
‘But,’ she added, ‘listeners can find whatever meaning they want in the song.’
Well, I can tell you and Ms Julie Gold exactly what meaning I took away from it.
You’ve got no place to hide, no place to hide the parts of you you should hide.
He is always watching us.
Which means He must always be evaluating us. Judging us.
Marking our mistakes in His ledger like an absentee landlord.
Checking to see what we’ve done with what we’ve got every moment.
Like He’s in the tower in the center of a prison, and- if He’s always watching us- that’s where we belong, right?
When Nanci Griffith first received a demo of Julie Gold’s song in the mail in 1986, the singer told the songwriter she thought the idea of God always watching us was beautiful.
My takeaway in 1990?
That if He’s always watching us, then He must be a hard, harsh Master.
It didn’t take long after I first heard Bette Midler’s cover of ‘From a Distance’ on B103.7 (the Best Mix of Today, Yesterday and Tomorrow) for that song to change me.
Here’s the thing, here’s everything-
Who you think God is, shapes who you are.
Who you think you are.
If you think God is a hard, harsh Master, you’ll be hard on and harsh to others.
If you believe God is angry watching us, you’ll get angrier towards others.
If you think He’s always watching, always judging us, you’ll be quick to judge.
If you think He’s constantly gazing upon the sins we can’t hide, you’ll surely start to point out the logs in others’ eyes.
If you believe He’s stingy with grace and mercy after looking at a lot like us, then you be ungenerous with the same.
If you think God is like a guard in the tower at the center of a prison, then you will internalize that gaze, seeing yourself every bit as worthless as you imagine you’re seen.
You’ll want to hide from Him. You will hide your true self from others.
You’ll want to bury every good thing about you down deep because you won’t trust that it’s good.
If you think God is a hard, harsh Master- always watching, always judging- you’ll soon resent Him, begrudging how He harvests where He does not bother to grow, gathers where He hasn’t bothered to lift a finger and sow and how He’s never given you your fair share in life.
If you think God is a hard, harsh Master- never near but always spying- then eventually (take it from Middle-school me: it doesn’t take long) you’ll hate God.
And (take it from Middle School-me) hating yourself will soon follow.
Who you think God is, shapes who you are.
Conversely, or consequently:
You can’t ever really become who you truly are, until you see who the Master really, truly is.
I didn’t always know Him.
In 1990 Bette Midler introduced me to Him, got me thinking about Him. And, for a while, I thought that meant I knew Him.
But I didn’t.
And truly that’s the scary thing: you can think you know Him, serve Him even, and never actually know Him.
That way is Darkness. Teeth-grinding darkness.
For me, by the time I finally got to know Him, really know Him, was years later. By then, Bette Midler was doing guest slots on Seinfeld and re-packaging covers of ‘From a Distance’ for Christmas albums.
I didn’t come to really know Him until much later.
I won’t go into all that now. Not every parable should on a happy note.
Suffice it to say:
The story involves a church. Bread and wine. And brilliant teenager with a sexy physique.
And a guy named Dennis in a robe repeating S. Paul’s #1 hit: ‘While we were yet sinners, God died for us.’
Which of course is like an old school rap for saying that worse than any of our sins- worse than any of your sins- is thinking God a hard, harsh Master who doesn’t forgive them.
Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.”