On March 14, 1970, Elvis Presley was at the mid-point of his biggest tour, almost more successful than anyone could imagine. On that day, Elvis played a quickly sold-out concert in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. It was a Saturday and, at the time, he took Sundays off but he could not attend church. The same rabid popularity that made this tour so successful made it difficult for him to travel or do many of the things you and I take for granted. For instance, if he wanted to see a movie, he had to rent the entire theater and go late at night. To go out to dinner and have some peace and quiet, he had to buy the whole night there and, again, go out late at night so that his fans would not see and mob him.
One day he asked another popular singer of the day, Pat Boone, about church which Boone regularly attended and, incidentally, still does at age 79. When asked what he did about the crowds, Boone said that people would eventually figure out why you’re there and leave you alone as they settle into the service. But Presley did not trust Boone on that accord and instead, handled worship the same way as movies or restaurants – he would make arrangements to show up late at night and sing gospel hymns until daylight. What a lonely existence that must have been for him.
Interestingly all three of the Grammy awards that Elvis won
were for Gospel recordings. Perhaps ironically, the undisputed King of Rock and
Roll cited gospel music as his greatest musical influence. So the best-selling
solo artist in U.S. history, nominated 18 times for Grammy awards, won only for
Gospel music which, ironically again, his record label opposed his doing in the
Smarter, and perhaps more faithful, than those who managed
his career, Elvis Presley wanted to incorporate Gospel hymns into his repertory.
His idea was to sing his popular rock and roll tunes for the first part of a
live concert, take a break, and then return with Gospel music. He wanted to
share his faith and then do a sort of altar call for those who wanted to know
Christ. Elvis’ team disagreed with the plan and they won out in a peculiar twist
of fate because, 36 years ago, he died and the Christ-centered concerts never
came to be.
I cannot imagine what impact Elvis might have had in
spreading the Christian message of hope with his concerts and popularity. What
would it be like, in all the turmoil of the early-70’s, to have Elvis’ voice and
faith countering the anxieties in American society. Would religious-groupies mob
him in restaurants and movies or would his life taken a turn to normality? Would
such concerts have lengthened his life and given him joy near the end of it?
This past week, we remembered the feast day of Bernard of Clairvaux. St. Bernard, as he is more commonly known, had nothing to do with the
large dogs that are rumored to carry a pint of brandy and rescue people trapped
in the snow. A natural and persuasive public speaker, and eloquent writer, he
was born into wealth and property but left that life to enter a Cistercian
monastery. Bernard became a defender and restorer of the faith. With his money,
influence, and talents, he probably could have been successful in government or
business, maybe as successful and wealthy in his day as Elvis Presley was in
his. Instead, he gave up his high station in life to build the Kingdom of God.
He died in the same week as Elvis Presley, only 821 years earlier.
I am not sure that Elvis Presley and St. Bernard of Clairvaux had all that much in common. Certainly Bernard did not have to buy the entire sitting at a restaurant or fight off mobs of groupies as he ascended into the pulpit. But if there is no other point of comparison, it might be this: they used their gifts differently. Elvis Presley, while he was a believing Christian, never quite got around to dedicating his entire career and life to the service of God while Bernard, perhaps sensing that life is a fragile gift, managed exactly what his 20th century counterpart did not. Or to put it another way, Bernard was not victimized by early fame and fortune while most of us, I think, believe that Elvis Presley was.
May we, following in the example of St. Bernard, all answer
the call to be builders of God’s church on earth and heed that call before it is