She believed that her actions alone were the cause of the falling out. “Well, my Mother is probably the first one to blame herself, to be responsible – for everything. She’s someone who carries around a lot of regret and guilt. She’s just hard on herself. I was able to tell her, when we got together after 25 years, ‘Mom; you never gave me anything less than your very best.’”
Though her mother remains a member of the Mormon Church, there’s no desire to try and convert her to more orthodox beliefs. “You know, I could, but the truth is, having the reconciliation at the age that I am, I no longer have that need, that adolescent need for her to be my mother, or even my friend.”
The break with her father wasn’t as dramatic, but was nonetheless painful. “I’d been very close to him… [but] we weren’t close during the years of my marriage.” Her ex-husband had encouraged her to break ties; “Typical to alcoholic behavior, they will kind of circle the wagons, and drive away anyone with an outside influence who might be able to challenge or criticize their control. So that’s what I allowed him to do with my father.”
Their relationship continues to heal. “I think I really hurt his feelings, and did some damage to the relationship. I allowed my resentments about what he did or didn’t do for me growing up to kind of fester. So I think I just have to keep on working on my resentments. But he’s been reasonably gracious. The nice thing is he writes a column for my magazine [Jams – available on her website ], and he’s still who he is, a diehard born again atheist, and sometimes I feel like he’s writing articles to kind of smack me and my beliefs.” (His column, Philosopher’s Corner, argues against “beliefs for which there is no evidence, e.g., an afterlife and eternal justice.”). She reconsiders; “But I don’t really think that. I think he’s just being very consistently himself. And so, I just told him how proud I was to have his voice in the magazine. I think that’s kind of where it’s at now, that rather than trying to make my dad proud of me, I’ve come to realize that it really means a lot to him to feel like I’m proud of him. So,” she paraphrases St. Francis of Assisi: “ask the Lord, not so much that I be loved, as to love.”
She’s recently seen a whole other side of her father. “My younger brother [Max Johnston – who in addition to playing with Michelle, is a former member of Uncle Tupelo and Wilco], he’s just had a baby, and I see my father’s response to that; very warm, very positive. He really, really enjoys it, but it’s very, very different than the role he played in my life as a father.”
On the topic of mending broken relationships, I wondered where things stood with her ex-husband. She’s momentarily at a loss for words, before commenting on how “The lawyers are still working that one out.” Realizing the statement could be taken any number of ways, she elaborates. “From what I just told you, you can’t even draw conclusions, because it is so unorthodox, it is so unusual. It is such a strange situation to be in, that it implies either there’s a lawsuit, or this, or that. It’s weirder than you can even imagine. But I can tell you this much; there is going to be a light at the end of the tunnel in November. But when the story comes out, it’s really weird.”
It is. “He disappeared.” She declares, as if still not quite believing it herself. “I hired private investigators, I scoured the internet, I contacted every friend that I could, and he not only disappeared, he deliberately went underground. He went into hiding. I’m sure it seems really rational to him. And there is a financial motivation behind it.
“But you asked if I’m on good terms, do we talk a lot? I couldn’t even find him, much less talk to him.”
Surprisingly, there’s little sense of frustration or anger on her part. “Not because of him; only by the grace of God. Because, I’m not the kind of person that could live with that kind of non-closure very easily.”
Peace came about in an unlikely way. “I kind of hate admitting this, because to non-believers this would really just seem like, you know, exhibit ‘A’ for what’s wrong with Christians, but it was a book of prayers.
“About the time of the separation, a friend gave me a book – and you’re not supposed to get your prayers out of a book – but I had so many hang-ups about how to get into a prayer life, that unlike most people, I grabbed this book, and I devoured it. It gave me a way of getting into prayer, and now, just like any alcoholic in recovery saying the Serenity Prayer, or following the Big Book or whatever, I have lived consistently by this daily prayer.”
As a result of the experience, she’s now a fervent believer in the power of prayer. “If I can get to spend an hour with my God praying each day, there’s nothing; there is no power on the face of this earth that is greater. There is nothing that will be an obstacle. So that’s what’s allowed me to have this – whatever peace you hear.” At this point, she’s almost overcome with gratitude. “It’s not me. It would have driven me back to drink a long time ago.”
Shocked is a long time member of the West Angeles Church of God In Christ.
She makes no secret of her preference for African American churches. “If I go to hear a white preacher talk; he better really have some Holy Ghost fire. Because, if he doesn’t, I’m looking at him as a hypocrite.”
She’s aware that might come across as politically incorrect. “You know, typically, when you take a position like this, especially in a political context, it’s seen as reverse racism. But here’s my parsing of it: they have the moral authority. As a people, as a generation, they put their lives on the line for what they believed in. And that’s not to say that white activists did not follow the same path of non-violence. It’s not like that. The way I parse it, is; somebody’s got soul, they’ve got my attention.”
It’s not exclusive to race. “A white person can have soul. We settled that question long, long ago. But, there is an inheritance.”
The fact she’s one of the few white women in the congregation does not escape her. “You know, my favorite story is when they found out I was some kind of singer; they invited me up to sing, and I did Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s…” she begins to sing in a soulful voice; “‘Come by here Lord, come by here…’ You know, and just wailin’ on it, and doing my gospel damnedest. And afterwards – so graciously – the Pastor’s wife came up and thanked me profusely, to let me know how much she appreciated hearing country music. She said, ‘We just love country music.’ Think about it; all of the cultural [differences]… it cuts both ways. We sound country to them. They sound soulful to us.”
She sings in four different groups at the church, including the 200 strong Mass Choir. “I get a chance to sing once a month guaranteed, but sometimes two and even three times.” Singing in the church takes commitment. The Mass Choir, for instance, rehearses twice before each performance, and the Sunday schedule would exhaust the most road-hardened musician; “It’s an all day ministry on Sundays. So you start at 7:00 in the morning, and you’re there until 9 or 10:00 at night.”
The Church of God In Christ takes a conservative stand on many issues, including homosexuality, and she’s uneasy about sharing her own views on the subject – especially with a publication that’s marketed to the Christian community.
“I’m a songwriter’s songwriter, but I’m not really a Christian’s Christian. And so to have stands, or points of view, or politics…it’s really not wise on my part. If I was setting myself up to be a Christian’s Christian, I would say ‘Great; find out what my position is.’ [But] the truth is I am not courting the Christian vote, I’m not courting the Christian demographic for my audience. I’m just stumbling towards grace like most people.”
With that caveat, we proceed.
Over the years she’s been critical of the church’s stand on homosexuality and opposition to gay marriage. She’s recently had a change of heart.
“I can only tell you my experience. When I first went to this church I heard [a visiting Evangelist] literally stand up there in the pulpit and say ‘In the Bible it says Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.’ And no one laughed. And I was like; ‘You’re joking, right? This is like a comedy sketch. You’re trying to show us how narrow-minded and bigoted people can be. You’re an African-American church. You know how people can be.’ No one laughed. And at that moment I had to make a decision; is this kind of thinking going to drive me away from my salvation, or am I going to just accept that this is where people are at? And so, eventually I approached my own Pastor with the question; ‘So, what about the gays?’ As a Pastor he said that he was obligated to preach what God says about it. As a man, I felt like he kind of came down on the line of ‘some of my best friends are gay.’
“But as a pastor – and where I’m currently on it – is that I was sitting in the choir stand four or five months ago, and the subject of the woman caught in the act of adultery came up, and Christ kneeling down and writing in the sand, and looking up and her accusers were gone. And it was really a call to order, because I have been in a relationship for going on five years now with a wonderful, wonderful man that involves, you know… and the preacher right then and there, he articulated in almost legal terms; the definition of adultery and the definition of fornication. And there was no avoiding it; I am a fornicator. I am a fornicator.
“For a couple of weeks, I just squirmed. Now, through this grace of forgiveness, that was no longer acceptable to just keep squirming. I went to my Pastor, and I said, ‘Look; I’m not married. And I don’t want to get married again.’ And he did exactly with me what he had done on the issue of homosexuality. He’s like; ‘I’m not here to judge you. I’m just going to tell you what God says.’ But that same Pastor did not shy away from pointing out my sin. And,” she chuckles at the memory, “he loved when he was doing it, too – he’s going; ‘It’s getting awful quiet in here…’ So, he’s fair.
“And so, the comfort that I have found now, is that, as I’ve read the scriptures, it’s no greater of a sin to be a homosexual than to be a fornicator. It’s pretty clear that they’re both pretty much violations of what God’s vision for our lives are. So, what I do now is I continue to fornicate, and pray feverishly. And every time I do, [I pray]; ‘Dear God; please bring me closer to your will. Please make me a doer of your word and not a hearer only, but meanwhile, thank you for your grace because I wouldn’t make it without it – I love this man, there’s no way that I’m going to give him up.”
With great trepidation, she informed him that things would have to change. “You know, I really took a risk with him. He feels the same way about marriage that I did. And so I took a risk, and I almost lost it all. For about a month we were separated while he got his head around the idea that sooner or later this road is going to lead to marriage. I don’t know where that leaves homosexuals, but I know for us fornicators, I’m working it out.”
A wedding date is yet to be determined.
“He’s not popped the question, but he’s very keenly aware of what the standards are and I don’t think he feels as directly as I do the pain of the sin; the violation of God’s will. It really, really wears on me.”
The next time we speak, Shocked is concerned her previous comments may be misconstrued, or perceived as homophobic. She explains: “Where I really would like this understood, is that the Pharisees were trying to trap Christ. They were trying to catch him in a contradiction. And so, the way the Bible describes it, they brought before him a woman caught in the very act of adultery. I like to pause right there, and say, what did it take, for these Pharisees to catch a woman in the very act of adultery? That couldn’t have been easy. First of all, they had to catch a woman in the very act of adultery.”
Which makes it clear where their concerns lied. “They didn’t care about the woman, and they surely didn’t care about adultery. What they cared about was catching Christ in a trap. And because he’s Christ, he knew the wisdom of their heart – he knew it. So they brought her to him – we all know the story – he kneels down on the ground, and begins to write with his finger, [he] says, ‘Any of you here without sin, cast the first stone.’ Now again, pause. Would you not love to know what he was writing with his finger in the dirt? I can‘t even fathom the power of what he wrote. But I know it had something to do with judgment, and I know it had something to do with mercy. I just know it, because the consequence is, one by one, the Spirit convicted their hearts, and they walked away. And he looked up, and only she was standing there; ‘Woman, where are your accusers? Do none remain?’ ‘None, Lord.’ ‘Then neither do I. Go and sin no more.’ And then the Preacher likes to pause and say; ‘Jesus wasn’t saying it was good to commit adultery. He said go and sin no more.’’
“And up until a few months ago, I had found all the justifications that I needed for myself regarding my monogamous, faithful, committed relationship to a man that I’m not married to. And having been married, wasn’t very interested in going down that path again. After all, marriage is just a legal institution, sanctioned by the state, and has nothing to do with a spiritual bond or commitment, right?” She laughs; “Trust me, I tried parsing it every single way I could. But when the spirit convicted me, it convicted me. And I had to put down that rock, and walk away. And that’s really what I would like to say.” She imagines herself in that very same crowd; “You brought me a homosexual. And I’m standing there with a stone in my hand, ready to throw it at him? I don’t think so…” Utterly convicted, she voices the only logical response; “Goodbye.”
T Bone Burnett once said he believes the reason the conservative church focuses on abortion and homosexuality is because most of its members don’t have personal struggles with either issue. Therefore, there’s little need to examine one’s own motivations. “It’s true. But then again, the hypocrisy of it, is that they all have family who are.”
She’s well aware that her arguments and actions may at times appear inconsistent. That no longer fazes her. “I don’t think you can ever eliminate all the contradictions…I love self-justification, but it’s just not a very practical course for me to pursue. It’s better just to accept…” she starts to laugh; “that I’m in the mess with everybody else.”
The artwork for Shocked’s debut single, ‘When I Grow Up’ posed the question; ‘Why don’t people get more radical when they grow up?’ Twenty years on, she’s absolutely certain she’s accomplish that goal; “Yeah! I’m telling you! Christianity is the most radical thing going – I’m sorry that left in the hands of Christians it’s just kind of boring and mundane. But it is radical. It has the power to change the world.”
She considers her LSD-induced vision –- as a spiritual warrior on a global battlefield -– a gross distortion. “I frankly resented that. To me, the gospel is one of peace, forgiveness, and reconciliation.” Not that she disagrees with the theological premise of warfare. “I do believe that I am battling strongholds and principalities, and tearing them down mightily, but the weapons of my warfare are spiritual, and guess who the biggest enemy is?” She pauses; “It’s right inside me.”