Donald Harris is a remarkable man. While serving as a Navy chaplain, he developed an affinity for outcast sailors, finding himself drawn to those who repulsed most others—the abused and the abusers, the afflicted and the addicted, the yellers and the smashers. Hollow, angry eyes were for him a siren call for grace. But the young lieutenant had a major problem. The ones who most needed his help often had hearts of stone—impenetrable to his offer of God’s love.
It wasn’t long until Chaplain Harris got an idea. Music! He began to wonder what would happen if he cloaked his message in song. A stealth missile to the soul? So he crafted a retreat using raw and evocative songs—and a few principles of group dynamics.
He began his first experiment, a forty-eight-hour retreat, by collecting watches and radios and gathering a group of suspicious sailors in a circle. To their relief, he explained that he would not be doing any teaching or preaching. He said he had prepared some music just for them. “All that I’m going to do,” he explained, “is push play, push stop, and listen to anything you want to say. What you do with this is up to you.”
Don turned on the cassette and unleashed a torrent of rock, blues, and poetry, each line stained by anguish and punctuated with an earthy honesty that could make a Marine blush. Janis Joplin, Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Johnny Cash, and a choir of lesser-knowns bellowed out ballads about what it feels like to be abused, scorned, yelled at by parents, abandoned, drunk, drugged, and raped.
The initial blocks of music were bound loosely together by painful emotional themes. The last two collections were created to infuse hope and point to the transforming love of God. And, according to Don, for the majority of those collected in that first circle, it worked. Razor-sharp honesty and pulsating bass chiseled through hardened hearts and opened passages for grace to seep in. Perhaps Leonard Cohen summarized it best when he sang that Sunday morning:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.Leonard Cohen, vocalist, “Anthem,” by Leonard Cohen and Rebecca De Mornay, recorded June 1992, track 5 on The Future, Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, vinyl, L.P.
I discovered Don Harris after he had retired from the Navy. His program became known as “Credo,” and at its peak of popularity, twelve chaplains were employed to lead Credo groups around the world. After hearing about his creative approach to soul healing, I tracked Don down because I wanted to invite him to take a group of counselors in training through a civilian version of Credo. The retreat would be part of a class on the personal and spiritual lives of therapists. He graciously agreed, traveled to our campus, and uncorked his musical elixir for twenty or so Christian counselors, most of whom had neither been in uniform nor experienced the subterranean layers of pain so graphically described in those lyrics. Some were shocked; some were put off, offended, but the majority had an experience very similar to that of Don’s sailors. Those confessed that listening to the soulful admissions of brokenness and pain created feelings of deep empathy, dialogue, and thin cracks in the soul that allowed more light to pour in.
I often thought of Chaplain Harris and his Credo experiment as we constructed this issue of Conversations around the topic, “Means of Grace: Openness to the Experience of God.” After all, many of the elements of his experiment are themes for our articles: brokenness and suffering as openings for grace (Christie Pettit, Ashley Roberts, Gerry Braun-Douglas, Siang-Yang Tan, David Johnson, Keith Meyers and Judith Hougen); the arts as avenues for grace (Luci Shaw, Jeannette Bakke, and Juliet Benner); grace through honest dialogue (Larry Crabb and Philip Yancey); and God’s accommodations to our multifaceted nature (Ken Boa).
We’ll also explore additional themes, such as the Christian Disciplines as means of staying connected to grace (Richard J. Foster and Dallas Willard), and reclaiming ancient wisdom (Bruce Demarest, and Michael Glerup); nor did we overlook the most profound aspect of grace: it finds us (Barbara Hudspith and David Benner).
We hope you’ll experience this issue of Conversations as a means to grace.