I’ve managed once again to be in arrears on this installment to my supposed-to-be monthly newsletter. Y’all are very effective at reminding me that old news gets stale fast. So, in keeping with previous pattern, I’ll beg forgiveness again (the practice does me good) and offer just some ramblings from recent days.
I hope your holidays were meaningful and allowed for some reflection. Mine were going to be restful but somehow proved to be anything but. The activity that overtook the days, thankfully, was most enjoyable and, as it should for that time of year, centered on friends and family. I did indulge myself some hours alone on Christmas Eve to carry on a tradition of sorts.
Some years ago, when I was working for a few hours on a December 24th at my law office, I listened to a broadcast on National Public Radio of a worship service from King’s College in Cambridge, England. That service, known as “a Christmas Festival in Nine Lessons and Songs,” began in 1918 and has been an annual feature of NPR for two decades. With only a couple of exceptions, I’ve listened to that service every year since I first heard it. When one doesn’t have children and family with which to establish family traditions, they are a little more difficult to ‘make’. The service from King’s College is one of mine. This year I put on a pot of coffee, lit a blazing fire in the fireplace, emptied my hands of pen, paper, and books, and put myself in ‘listen’ mode. The nine Bible readings which make up the “lessons,” and the choral renditions of old songs and hymns, never fail to move me. Might I recommend it to you for next year?
I’m working on a couple of new CD’s just now. One is about 70% done and is akin to “Accidental Roads.” The other, a new Tyler project, is substantially written and should be completed late spring or early summer. I’ll be doing some live recordings at select venues in hopes that we can capture some good interaction with listeners. … One of the challenges, frankly, of writing as much as I do is that it is tempting to put recordings out too frequently. I’d love to be able to write and record a CD a month, and feel like it would be achievable (even if the songs were a bit unpolished), but there are practical and market reasons that make that unfeasible. Perhaps more importantly, the recording process is much more time-consuming than the writing process. We’ll let you know when the new stuff is finished. If you ever hear a song that you’d like for me to record, please let me know.
With 70 degree days being the norm of late, it’s hard to believe that we’re in the ‘dead’ of winter. Small buds are showing up on trees and, just outside my studio door, daffodils are close to blooming. As much as I enjoy the beauty and warmth of the days, I’m realizing that part of springtime magic is the sense of anticipation that only a good long winter can give us. Because I’ve not had time to ‘prepare’ for springtime with adequate longing, it’s hardly the welcome event that it would be if we’d just been through 5 cold months. But, hey, I’m not complaining; just trying to learn what I can from this unseasonable warmth.
And , yes, it has spurred thoughts for a song. “January daffodils” is almost a contradiction in terms. Daffodils are not supposed to blossom this early. The warmth has deceived them into believing it’s time. They will open their blooms, but at great peril. A cold snap, if not a proper winter, is sure to show up soon and, when it does, those overeager blooms will feel winter’s fury. It makes me think of many kids that I work with and hear about in high school and college. Regardless of what the popular culture and mainstream zeitgeist tells us, sex is, by Gods’ good design, for marriage. That holy intimacy is the reward for commitment and is a gift given to strengthen the bond between husband and wife. Up to that time in life, it is not best, it is not wise, it is not safe, to ‘bloom.’ And yet, how many kids today are, and how many of us in our younger years were, tempted by some deceptive warmth, some early spring, some irresistible heat. The bloom opens prematurely only to be met with an icy chill that scars or kills the beauty. … The song will be about virginity, about patience, about love; it will be a call not to blossom too early, but to wait until the appropriate warmth of spring.
C.S. Lewis wrote of a similar idea in a letter dated August 1, 1953. It’s good food for thought and his words are much more lucid than mine.
“It’s natural enough in our species, as in others, that the young birds should show off their plumage – in the mating season. But the trouble in the modern world is that there’s a tendency to rush all the birds on to that age as soon as possible and then keep them there as late as possible, thus losing all the real value of the other parts of life in a senseless, pitiful attempt to prolong what, after all, is neither its wisest, its happiest, or most innocent period. I suspect merely commercial motives are behind it all: for it is at the showing-off age that birds of both sexes have least sales-resistence!”
In a similar vein, I heard an interesting story on NPR, Dec. 8, 1998. As so many things which I hear and read tend to do, this one offered a metaphor for our human tendencies (or , as Tyler would put it, our ‘people things). The story told of an intricate maze which some farmers devised in a 6 acre corn field near Albuquerque NM. It was designed by a fellow named Adrian Fisher , and was/is shaped like the mythical dragon Quetzlchoatl (pronounced ‘ketsleqwattle’). People apparently came from considerable distance to spend hours weaving there way through the paths of the life-sized puzzle. Those interviewed for the story gave every indication that the maze was enjoyable and quite challenging. It struck me that the maze makes it fun to be lost, and enjoyable to be in the belly of the dragon. That depiction, much like the one in the January daffodils, strikes me as an accurate image of life sans Christ.
Books I’m reading just now in addition to scripture: Babylon Revisited (and other short stories) by F. Scott Fitzgerald; The Divine Conspiracy, by Dallas Willard; Practical Religion, by JC Ryle. All very worthwhile to me. Additionally, I continue to read and thoroughly enjoy National Geographic. For me, it is one of the clearest apologetics for the existence and majesty of God imaginable. This month’s cover story on biodiversity, with the magnificent photography, is astounding. Makes me more and more want to know deeply the One Who makes such varied, such beautiful, such intricate life forms. That’s a thought which I’ve tried to touch on in the song “why flowers?”, which I recently recorded for the new CD. Here are the words (forgive me if I’ve shared them with you before).
i well can understand why God would give us bread and water,
why He would give us coats to keep us warm,
i well can understand why, from some sense of obligation,
He would give us shelter from the storm….
but why the many colors
that fill our eyes with wonder,
why the sounds of music
that stir our hearts to tears,
unless He is a happy God
full of joy and full of beauty
why seasons, why sunsets, why flowers?
i well can understand why He would give us hands for labor,
why He would give us means to make our way,
i well can understand why He’d suit us for survival,
but why the part within us made for play?
i well can understand why He’d give us light and shadow,
we’d do just fine with different shades of gray,
i well can understand why He’d give us eyes for vision,
but why the greens and blues of every springtime day?
but why the many colors
that fill our eyes with wonder,
why the sounds of music
that stir our hearts to tears,
unless He is a happy God
full of joy and full of beauty,
why laughter, why children,
why songbirds, why kisses,
why seasons, why sunsets, why flowers?
Such erratic thoughts, these meanderings of mine! Thanks for letting me share them. I’ll try to be more timely with my next update. If for no other reason, I should write more frequently to thank you for your gracious words, your thoughtful encouragement, and your effectual prayers for me. A thousand thanks, once again.
Blossom when it’s time; till then, enjoy the slumber. You’re growing.
Love, joy, peace,
November 18, 1998
Greetings from the studio,
Please forgive my long overdue monthly letter. Just today, my friend David Freeman from Augusta accused me of being worse than a doctor (his own title) in managing my business. The sting of that verdict prods me to write something, anything, to clear myself of the charge. These letters are supposed to be done at the beginning of each month but have become more quarterly in appearance. I am home now after a very, very busy and transient three months which took me to lots of different cities and, gladly, allowed me to visit with a number of good friends. Time away has kept me away from my studio and I’ve fallen abit behind on some things that need to be done here. … With a great run of autumn travels behind me now, I’m at the farm until after the first of the year. What obligations I do have will be within a couple of hours of the farm, which means I get to be in one place for several weeks. As much as I enjoy getting out and playing for different groups, I do look forward to living a somewhat more sedentary life through the holidays.
INCIDENTALLY: in the next few days, we’ll be adding a new page to this site in which I introduce a new song or tell stories behind an old one. The page will include the lyrics to the song, the story behind the song, a picture of the subject matter of the song (if available), and then a complete recording of the song. We’ll call the page “A Song and a Story.”
I’m presently working on a new CD which will include some old, some new songs. Top Down Holiday, Children Need a Place to Play, We Can Still Be Friends, Love of a Different Kind (the girl with the blemished face), and Girl in the Garden have been substantially completed and others are well underway. If you’ve heard a song that is not yet on a CD, please feel free to let me know and, if possible, I’ll add it to this project or a future one. … FYI, Tyler has been busily writing some new songs of his own and it is our hope to have another Tyler project sometime this spring.
Several of you have asked about my brother Gary who lives in Skopia, Macedonia as a church planter. Just last week, my Dad returned home from two weeks there and brought home a good report about Gary personally and about the work that is in process. Macedonia is just south of Kosovo, which has been in the news a lot lately because of ethnic divisions and military conflict between the Serbs and Albanians who both claim Kosovo as their own. Please keep Gary and his team mates in your prayers, especially for the fruitfulness of the work they’re doing. If you’d like to drop him a line by email, his address is email@example.com. I’m sure he’d love to hear from you.
Among other very enjoyable events that I played at this last couple of months, I sang to a small gathering of the Columbus, Georgia Association for Literacy. As one who loves to read, I have a growing appreciation for good literature and am glad to encourage those who teach others to read. (Note: A wise teacher once advised that we should not read good books; we should read only great books.) I wrote a song for the occasion:
If you teach a child to read…
If you teach a child to read
You’ve handed him an envelope
And inside there’s a ticket to all corners of the world
To tropic island, ancient cities, to icebergs and to sandy deserts
To castles and to days gone by, to lands they’ll never see
This is what you’ve given when you teach a child to read
If you teach a child to read
You’ve granted her an interview
A time to talk with people who have somehow shaped the world
To Socrates and Martin Luther, Mother T’resa, Tiger Woods
You can introduce them if you please
This is what you’ve given when you teach a child to read
Little marks on bits of paper, keys that open treasure chests
Signs that point us to the truth, and help us all to be our best
If you teach a child to read
You’ve handed them some candlelight
a way to travel safely in the way they ought to go
A sense of time a sense of place, the way of Love, the way of Grace
The way to find the Life that’s life indeed
That is what you’ve given when you teach a child to read
(oct. 21, 1998; copyright allen levi)
(Now, to you who note and criticize my lack of punctuation, let me defend myself by stating that this was written as lyrical content to be sung. I rarely punctuate words to my songs. If I ever make a book of poetry out of them, I’ll provide the proper punctuation.)
Speaking of books, I’ve read some good ones lately. Having heard a couple of interviews on National Pubic Radio with Juliet Schor, (lecturer at Harvard and professor of economics at Tilburg University) I bought her book called The Overspent American, a study about some of the spending patterns of Americans. It is a rather humiliating recognition of the importance we attach to the “stuff” we own. Ironically, I got the book after I heard a news story reporting that 1.3 billion people in the world earn less than a dollar a day. At the same time, I was doing a flurry of fundraising banquets for Young Life, where I heard the constant concern of area directors about the difficulties of raising funds for their work of taking the gospel to high school kids. This convergence, perhaps, of information about finances caused me to think about my own tendencies toward materialism and has made me reflect on Jesus’ warning in Luke 12:15, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”
GK Chesterton, I believe it was, once observed that there are two ways to have enough: get more or want less. Wanting less does not come easily to us failed beings whose eyes “are never satisfied.” And yet, in her book, Juliet Schor talks about a sizable but unorganized movement in which many Americans are restraining or downsizing their lifestyles to regain control and upgrade their real “quality of life.” In many ways, it seems to me, that tendency can be said to have biblical support. If we are susceptible to greed, which Jesus implies by His admonition, what are the solutions? For starters, since these thoughts started with books, the Bible. A biblical perspective of life is of primary importance if we are to be wise concerning the meaning of ‘property’. At the same time, it seems to me that a practical antidote to accumulation, especially for us who have so much, is generous giving, consistent with Jesus’ teaching that it is “more blessed to give than to receive.”
One of the reasons that all this has been of interest to me, on more than a personal level, grows out of the past few months’ events in Washington concerning our President. His sin is obvious and unfortunate, most of all for him. The moral outrage that has been expressed in the wake of his trangression, while perhaps justified, highlights for me my own tendency to compartmentalize life in a way that makes me comfortable with our own sinfulness. (I have tried to make Mr. Clinton’s dilemma an opportunity to examine my own life and these thoughts on materialism are just some of the reflections that have resulted.)
In his letter to the church at Corinth, the Apostle Paul addressed a situation involving sexual immorality. Paul’s advice, in fact his injunction, was to temporarily exclude the guilty from the church. Fair enough. Sexual sin, especially of the kind Paul was addressing (“a man has his father’s wife”), could not safely be ignored. But Paul then went on to say, (5:9,10) that within the church, the brethren were not to “associate with sexually immoral people … or the greedy.” (My emphasis added.) Paul seems to assume that greed is as easily recognizable as sexual immorality. If that is the case, (and I confess that I could be reading it wrong; let me know if you have reason to think I am) why do we hear so little moral outrage against it? Why not a bit more preaching on this type of immorality about which Jesus warned us to be on our guards? Don’t know if these thoughts have any relevance to your life, but they do to mine. … “He is most joyful I life who is thankful for least.” Lord, make me more thankful, more generous, less attached to and in love with things and more attached to and in love with You and the souls made in Your image. … just some thoughts. …
Other good books.
-North of Now, by W.D. Wetherell; some thought-provoking essays about simpler, less-hurried ways of life that are vanishing from our societal landscape.
-The Reflective Life, by Ken Gire; a Christian’s perspective on keeping the inner life healthy and the ability to perceive the presence of God in the everyday.
-All Over But the Shouting, by Rick Bragg; true and eloquently written story of author’s upbringing in rural Alabama, son of an abusive, usually absent alcoholic father and hard-working welfare mother, and of his career in journalism which has seen him rise from small local newspaper to Pulitzer prize award with New York Times; wonderful book!.
OK, enough about books. Some of you are saying to yourselves, “man, if you had kids, you wouldn’t have time for all this reading and thinking.” Aren’t you?
Speaking of kids. I played in Clemson, SC back in September and had occasion to visit with my old college room mate and good friend David Walker. In addition to enticing an angelic woman to marry him, Walker has enjoyed good fortune in many areas of life since I last saw him. He is a very successful businessman in Anderson, SC, partnering with his brother Buck in the insurance business, has two fine sons, and lives in a beautiful house. So how does this successful businessman spend his Saturdays? He works for his son, a 16 year old high school student who has a small lawn care business. Walker cuts grass, edges, does all of the dirty work that is required of yard men. Even works in the yards and on the business grounds owned by those to whom he sells insurance. Why? Because he wants to spend time with his boy. Not only does Walker’s practice give me an example of admirable fatherhood, it gives me a clear picture of what Jesus did when He left heaven to dwell among us. He just wanted to spend time with His children. Still does.
All for now.
Dr. Freeman, I expect a congratulations or suitable acknowledgement soon.
Blessings friends. I love y’all and am thankful for your lives.
September 7, 1998
I recently returned from a three week stay in Minnesota, where I worked at the Young Life property there, Castaway. I use the term “worked” with some reluctance as I’m not sure if that term fits to a circumstance where one spends days at a gloriously beautiful place with good friends doing enjoyable tasks from early morning until late at night. During the camp, we had about 800 teenagers, mostly from the midwest and upper midwest, in attendance. All heard and many responded to the call of God to have “life that is truly life” by surrendering to Jesus Christ. It was a great privilege to be part of the outreach and especially to be in the company of college and high school students who gave of their summer vacation to wait tables, clean rooms, wash laundry and do other menial tasks in service to the campers there. It was a study in servanthood and in the power of truth to reach hearts.
I’ve just returned home from a relaxing week at Hilton Head, SC where, when not dodging hurricane weather from Danielle and Earl, I managed to improve the golden brown tan for which I am so well known. (That is a joke, folks. I’m still a card-carrying member of the Organization for the Epidermally Challenged.) I was there with Greg, sister Beth, Caleb and Aron who are exceptionally good company at any time or place. We ate, swam, read books, watched videos, ate, walked, swam, ate, napped, ate and then ate. It was a real vacation. Now that it’s done, I’m prepared to begin a very busy couple of months. I’m excited about every opportunity which is before me and am thankful for those who have invited me to be in their hometowns. I hope I’ll see some of you during me travels in the next few months.
While at the beach, among other splendid sights that are always present at the seashore, there were lots of little children at play. One morning, there were some seagulls hovering close to where I was sitting, begging for someone to throw some bread or crackers their way. A little boy, I would guess he was 4 years old, noticed them and wanted to give them something. He ran to his mother and, with all the urgency he could muster up, said, “mom, hurry up, give me some bread; I want to feed the SWANS!” How different would the world be if, where we encounter gulls, we could see swans; where we encounter difficulty, we would see opportunity? Next time you’re confronted with a noisy inconvenience, something begging for attention that you don’t want to give, consider the possibility that the “gull” is a swan.
Just a thought:
As I was reading this past week, from one of the letters that St. Peter wrote to the early Christians, I was struck, as I often am, by the blunt, but loving and well-intended, honesty of the Bible. Peter was writing to Jewish people who were steeped in and proud of their traditions and yet, when assessing their ancestry, this was his judgement: “(Y)ou know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.” (I Peter 1:18,19) The phrase I’ve underlined – “the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers” – is a harsh indictment of what Peter’s audience must have considered sacred. It took some courage, and a fierce commitment to the truth, to call things as he saw them. Some ways of life, even some that are passed down to us from those we respect and many that come to us with the approval of public opinion, are empty.
Peter’s statement forces you and me, does it not, to evaluate the lives we are living: are they empty or, to use Jesus’ description of the life He came to give us, abundant? And what are we “handing down” to those who come after us? Is it a mindset of accumulation and comparison, like that described in “the game of who has more,” or is it a mindset of giving and living to bless others? What might Peter say of your life or mine?
I am not a parent and can only imagine the day to day challenges of raising children. But surely one of the most basic challenges must be to communicate the meaning and purpose of life to those whom God places in our charge. Note that Peter’s observation addresses itself particularly to fathers. We, especially parents, would be wise to treat ourselves as honestly as Peter did his readers, keeping in mind that we can only pass along to others what we ourselves possess?
In his bestselling 1987 treatment of education in America, The Closing of the American Mind, Dr. Allen Bloom, a professor of sociology at some of the world’s top secular universities, expressed alarm at education which failed to embrace any foundational truth or belief in moral authority. He clearly perceives an “emptiness” to much of modern education. But he didn’t restrict his observations to the classroom.
“The dreariness of the family’s spiritual landscape,” he noted, “passes belief. It is as monochrome and unrelated to those who pass through it as re the barren steppes frequented by nomads who take their mere subsistence and move on. The delicate fabric of the civilization into which the successive generations are woven has unraveled, and children are raised, not educated.
I am speaking here not of the unhappy, broken homes that are such a prominent part of American life, but the relatively happy ones, where husband and wife like each other and care about their children, very often unselfishly devoting the best parts of their lives to them. But they have nothing to give their children in the way of a vision of the world, of high models of action or profound sense of connection with others.”
Professor Bloom describes, in educational and sociological terms, what Peter speaks of in a spiritual and eternal sense. The former is simply a symptom of the latter.
The life which Jesus came to give us is more than mere survival, more than mere religion, more than superficial respectability. It is, to use St. Paul’s phrase, “life that is truly life.” (I Timothy 6:19) It is a life that is purposeful and, though often painful and disappointing, spiked with a sense of wonder. In myself, and if I might kindly say so, among many, especially teens, who I meet from town to town, I sense that we are afflicted with a disease of unamazement. The more wonderful God becomes in our thinking, the more wonderful will be His fingerprints and reflections all around us. There is, in much of the popular music and art of the present generation (as no doubt there has been in every generation), an irreverence, a cynicism, a sarcasm, a hostility about life. That attitude often shows up under the guise of enlightened thought. It takes no keen power of observation to perceive the brokeness of this world; but a view of life which fails to embrace the redemptive and eternal design which God has for His creation, and which Jesus demonstrated by His love for the world, is empty indeed. Thank God that it need not be so.
I’ve read some wonderful books lately. The Blood of the Martyrs, by Naomi Mitchison (historical fiction about the first century church in Nero’s Rome), A Place on Earth, by Wendell Berry (fiction about a rural Kentucky town during WW II), and In Freedom’s Cause, by G.A. Henty (historical fiction about William Wallace of Scotland; a great read before watching “Braveheart.”). All of these titles can be purchased at www.amazon.com.
My frequent thanks to you must seem perfunctory at times. Please know, though, that my gratitude, even to you whom I’ve never met, is genuine. I wouldn’t be able to do what I do without your encouragement and support. I hope that these little songs I write and sing with your help will be a salvo against the “empty way of life” and that, somehow, they’ll point people to the fullness that God created us to experience – lives of love, joy, and peace.
May all your gulls be swans.
July 3, 1998
Some of you might recall, from last month’s letter or from comments that i made as i played for gatherings during the springtime, that June was to be my month for vacation and the first annual camp Uncleallen. Camp was to be a time with my nieces and nephews at the farm where i live, two weeks heavy on the magic of surprise, novel recreation, and “organized chaos.” Some of you might have heard me share my hope for the week, that of wanting to create an unforgettable time, an “exclamation point,” in the kids lives. They, of course, maybe years hence, will have to be the judges of whether i accomplished my goal or not but, for me, even with the occasional bickerings and disappointments and ingratitude and fatigue, it was a memorable experience. Just a few hours into the first week, which i spent with three nephews, i wasn’t sure if my body, my mind, my patience, or my wallet would give out first. Now, a week after its completion, i’m pleased to say that everything survived and, in the process, i learned a lot about kids, a lot about myself, a lot about people and life in general.
i’ll not bore you with the details but here’s a rough rundown of some of our activities. (I’ve also put some pictures from the week on this site at the page entitled “scrapbook.”)
The boys’ camp began with a trip to Walmart (a toy spree), a meal at McDonalds, an evening at Hollywood Connection (an indoor fun park for kids with 10 movie theatres, skating rink, carousel, video arcade, laser tag, bump cars, putt putt, etc, etc, etc), a midnight snack at Dunkin Donuts to prepare for grocery shopping, and then a grocery shopping extravaganza. The rule for buying the week’s food supply was simple. The kids had their own grocery carts and were free to buy as much of whatever they wanted for the week. When the first four items turned out to be two giant Hershey bars, one bag of Hershey kisses, and a six-pack of Orville Redenbacker popcorn, i knew this was not a health food bunch. When the carts were full, i noticed no fruit, no vegetable, no meat. At my suggestion they might want to add some fruit, they got pop tarts; when i suggested that they might want to add a vegetable, they got salsa; add meat? They got pizza with pepperoni. Day one ended with bedtime about 2:30 a.m.
The boys awoke on day two to receive Camp Uncleallen tshirts, hats, to play a round of frisbee golf, to do some artwork on an outside wall of my studio, a cap-gun fight, four wheel ride, water war with new model 1500 super soakers (also known as the thirty dollar squirt gun), a pizza dinner followed by fireworks, and a late night swim.
We began day three by writing letters to Uncle Gary in Macedonia followed by a four wheel ride in which the boys rode the machines while i set the pace on my bicycle. (i had to work off those Hersheys bars somehow!) After our ride, i told the boys to put the four wheelers up and to get in the car for a ride to get lunch. We ended up two hours away in Atlanta, where we checked into a hotel, swam and ate pizza. At 5:30, a stretch limousine (which had been lined up in advance) picked us up and took us to an Atlanta Braves game. We had good club level seats and enjoyed a beautiful evening of baseball. Afterwards, we caught a tram to the Atlanta airport where we ate supper at 11:00 and then caught a shuttle to the hotel.
Add to these activities a John Wayne movie, an afternoon of bowling and pin ball games, swimming, more four wheel rides, lots of junk food, an occasional argument (can you believe that?), and some really good conversations and you get an idea of how full the six days were.
i’ll describe the girls’ camp in less detail. It started with a grocery shopping trip ($244. worth of junk food), a first meal of banana splits, receipt of gift baskets that were waiting for them when they walked in the house, a story reading (You Are Special, by Max Lucado; wonderful story which i used to explain to the girls why i was having camp with them). During the week, we did the Hollywood connection, woke to watch a sunrise and ride bikes at Callaway Gardens, had a dancing lesson (to learn how to shag!), shot fireworks, rode four-wheelers, painted flowers on windowpanes, drew profiles on an outside wall of my studio, had a top down holiday in which we spent a day riding around town in a 1960’s convertible (caught all on tape by a professional videographer; to be used for a music video of the song “top down holiday”), ate lots of candy, and talked a lot about lots of things.
So what could be learned from such a week?
For openers, i was reminded of how blessed i am to have such wonderful nieces and nephews. As different as they are, and they are different just as their parents are, they are unique reflections of their Maker. i’m grateful that they’d hang out for a week with their old uncle and am thankful that i get to claim them in some sense as my own. Having said that, i was reminded that, again like their parents and uncles, they bear all the marks of an imperfect human race. In short, i saw me in them.
The week was a study in gratitude, and its absence. We are not naturally thankful; hence the constant injunctions and reminders in scripture that we “be thankful.” i noticed in the boys a tendency that i see all too often in myself. No sooner is a blessing sent my way that i ‘open’ it, throw away the wrapping, and start looking for “what’s next?” The boys had that very same tendency, no doubt inherited from the likes of their uncle allen. i had to ask God to forgive me of my consistent ingratitude and had some good talks with the boys about the value of a thankful heart. i once read something to the effect that “he loves life most who is thankful for least.” Would that we might be more and more appreciative for every (big word there), every blessing that comes our way, realizing, as my brother reminds me sometimes that, the only thing we deserve is hell – all else is mercy. Instead of saying “what’s next,” perhaps we can train ourselves, by God’s grace, to more sense the wonder of our moment by moment blessings and develop a true sense of gratitude.
CS Lewis observed once that God gives us pleasures, happiness, and sensory delight as “shafts of glory,” as beams of light that we can trace back to His hand. The pleasure maybe as small as the taste of fruit or as intense as sexual intimacy. Either way, we should receive them thankfully and reflectively with an awareness that they have come our way from a generous Provider. Too often, says Lewis, we are inattentive to the “smell of deity” which hangs about the good things that we’ve been given. Or, perhaps worse, we suffer from a form of greed which skips over gratitude to simply ask for “what’s next?” … O for grace to be grateful.
The day in Atlanta with the boys was instructive in trust. When we left the farm that morning, the boys complained that they didn’t want to quit riding the four wheelers. i told them, as i often did during the week, to trust me. They didn’t know it at the time, but i had a stretch limousine, Braves tickets, a hotel room, and their kind of food waiting for them, if they’d but do what i said. Based on the things that i’d already done for them, i expected them to have confidence in me. When we’d been on the road for about an hour, especially since they had only expected a ten minute ride to Hamilton, they got short-tempered and put out a bit. See the parallel?
Scripture says that the Lord knows the end from the beginning. We know only the present moment, and that only dimly and with great limitation. We too gladly cling to our perceptions of what makes life full and complete. Oftentimes, that perception leaves Christ out of the formula. And yet God desires for us, and will navigate us to, a meaningful relationship with Himself. He has spiritual riches for us if we will just leave our own agendas and surrender in obedience to His mandate for our lives. (Matt.22:34-40; Matt.28:18-20)
The boys, on the day we went to Atlanta, were unwilling at first to leave the four wheeler on a hot dusty dirt road, because they had no idea what awaited them, despite my promise that they would be glad if they came along. (Without arguing the relative merits of motorbike rides compared to a stretch limo ride and a Braves game, you can see how the boys, lacking faith in their camp director, would willingly have missed out on a pretty special event.) Again, Lewis makes the point well: “Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desire, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
Finally, i was struck at how one moment could be total exasperation followed immediately by a fit of laughter. (You parents probably know all about this phenomenon but, for one not used to having kids around for more than a few hours at a time, it was rather striking.) i had to wonder if that, in a sense, is what i put God through with my constant vacillation and foolishness? He, of course, “reacts” perfectly and is not given to the frustration which characterizes my own reactions. Still, i pray that i will cause Him more laughter than exasperation.
To those of you who have written notes of affirmation about “Accidental Roads,” many thanks. Response has been very favorable and we continue to pray that the songs will provoke thought and encourage reflection.
i hope y’all’s summer is going well and allowing time for rest. i leave for three weeks in Minnesota next week, to do a Young Life camp, and would value your prayers for our work with high school kids during the time there.
Might we always live faithfully to “know Christ and make Him known.”
i’m thankful for you.
May 26, 1998
Please forgive my tardiness in getting this May letter to you. There are no good excuses, other than the typical plea of busy-ness, but i trust your kindness to get me off the hook. Much going on these days. On the music front, i completed a new CD last week. It’s one that i’ve been working on since January and it’s my favorite collection of songs to date. We’ve titled it “Accidental Roads.” You can check our page called “Albums” to get a good idea of what’s on the project. The songs are very acoustic with guitar being front and center to every song. A couple of selections are simply one guitar and vocal. On others, my good friend and fellow musician, Ed Cash, arranged for some talented players to add clarinet, oboe, accordion, penny whistles, and background vocals to what i had recorded here in my studio. i hope that you’ll give it a try. i’m very much my own fiercest critic and, while i can think of a hundred things i could and should have done differently on this project already, i’m quite pleased with it. At present, we’re having copies of the recording made and anticipate a late June/early July arrival. We’re presently taking orders and will be sending them out as soon as we get them in hand. Should you get a copy, i ‘d really value your constructive criticism. Not having an agent, a publisher, a record company or marketing group to give me feedback and direction, i rely on folks like you to evaluate these recordings and steer me in the right direction. Believe me, any comment ever made to me, positive or negative, about the songs i write are permanently stored in my memory.
I do very much care what you think of the songs that come from my studio. There are those, of course, who say that, if something is really “art,” then it makes no difference what, if any, response it might elicit from the viewing, reading, or listening audience. It’s the school of “art for art’s sake,” a curious idea to me. CS Lewis, who has become a great friend of mine through the pages of his books these past couple of years, wrote of his own cultural milieu, that “Many modern novels, poems, and pictures which we are brow-beaten into ‘appreciating,’ are not good work because they are not work at all. They are mere puddles of spilled sensibility or reflection. When an artist is in the strict sense working, he of course takes into account the existing taste, interests, and capacity of his audience. These, no less than the language, the marble, or the paint, are part of his raw material; to be used tamed, sublimated, not ignored nor defied. Haughty indifference to them is not genius nor integrity; it is laziness and incompetence.”
Elsewhere, Lewis opined that “an author should never conceive himself as bringing into existence beauty or wisdom which did not exist before, but simply and solely as trying to embody in of his own art some reflection of eternal Beauty and Wisdom.”If, having been made in the image of the Creator God, we are entrusted with the gifts of creativity, then perhaps our uses of that capacity are defined by how He used them – always with purpose, always for good, always to affirm life, always to promote union with us and Him. One of the great blessings of knowing and sharing the mission of Christ is that we are given lives of purpose. Just as He lived here to make the Truth of God known and to reconcile a fallen world to the good God, we too, who are Christians, exist to “know him and make Him known.” God gives us great creative freedom, and powerful tools of language, thought, sound, and sight, to fulfill His commission of telling the gospel and making disciples. Art, in whatever form, like deeds of kindness and social justice, is a mere signpost whereby the Christian points others to God. As a songwriter (the term ‘artist’ has always struck me as a bit lofty for what i do), i am thankful that there is a standard, by which i can judge, even if imperfectly, the work i set my hand to do. My prayer is that the songs i sing, even when they seem to be innocuous in their content, might somehow have about them “the smell of Deity” and provoke Godward thought from those who listen. i believe more and more that the simplest of moments in our daily lives resonate with some aspect of Who God is. i heard a speaker say earlier this year that artists have “the gift of noticing.” If that be the case, then i pray for ability to see more clearly and to notice in even smaller things the fingerprint of God. If i can somehow share that with you and others, i’m honored indeed. …. And isn’t that somehow the purpose of us all, that we might be radiant of Jesus’ love and goodness and “abundant life?” … Many of you have done that through your encouragement and kindness to me. Thanks ….
Read a wonderful short book last week, one of those that makes me ask whether i’m living or just going through the motions — Tuesdays with Morrie, by Mitch Albom. i’m looking forward to June and much of July, when i’ll stay here at the farm to rest, record, read, exercise, and host my nieces and nephews for the first ever Camp Uncleallen. i’ve had no real down time since i began music vocationally three years ago and am certain that June and July will be busy with the new CD being finished. Still, the thought of waking up in my house, drinking from my coffee cup, talking with Tyler each morning is a sweet one.
Thanks again to you for all you’ve done to make my life so rich. On my 42nd birthday two days ago, i was reminded, in the few still moments i had to reflect, that i am a blessed man.
Keep in touch.
Forgive me for my tardiness in getting this letter to you. And thanks to those of you who have written recently with words of encouragement. It is always a pleasure to hear from you.
It’s Monday morning after Easter. i’ve a few days at home before heading to Boston and Birmingham later this week. The rest of April and most of May will be quite busy as i travel to play for various engagements, finish a new CD, and study for several speaking opportunities. i’m excited about the weeks ahead and hope that i might have occasion to visit with some of you while i’m on the road.Can i tell you what a most memorable Easter Sunday looks like? Mine took place at the farm this year. After a candlelit Good Friday service at the Levi Chapel and a Saturday of playing outside, eating too much, and overseeing the annual egg hunt, my Sunday here in middle Georgia began with 8 nieces and nephews scattered around the house. The day could not have been more beautiful – cool, clear, a hundred shades of green all washed clean by last week’s heavy rain, azaleas in bloom, light breezes, songbirds. By mid-morning, when we dressed up and walked from the house to the chapel, we were joined by my parents and three more nephews (which meant that the whole family, except for Gary, was together). We had a worship time in the chapel in which we were blessed to hear a message, full of stories and reflections of the past, by my father. (Made me appreciate the oral tradition of storytelling and the value of passing along spoken memories. That, in a way, is what songs are all about.) After our time at the chapel, it was back to the house for some family photos and then we changed into jeans and play clothes. A lunch fit for royalty, southern style, for eleven adults and eleven kids was a reflection of heavenly pleasures – food, conversation, rest. Play resumed quickly after the meal and we took a walk to the hardwood bottom that i referred to in last month’s letter, a beautiful part of the farm where a stream runs though a copse of beech trees. The kids love it.
After farewells, i attended the funeral of Mrs. Grace Rodenberry who recently passed away after a bout with cancer. She lived a long, rich life and was remembered affectionately by her family and friends. There was a fitting paradox to and Easter funeral. The solid truth of the resurrection, the certain hope of eternal life, the righteous mockery which asks “death, where is thy sting,” and the joyful, if tempered, anticipation of reunion with loved ones were all underscored by the memorial to Mrs. Rodenberry. She knew the Lord Jesus as her own Messiah which afforded us the blessing of hope today.
i returned to the farm with plenty of time to sit outside and read, and time to work in the forest for awhile before sundown. Tyler and i laid in the pasture for awhile as the long shadows of dusk made a postcard of light and shadows. i don’t know that anything could be more beautiful than a cloudless Georgia April day at sunset. The affirmations of life scream that God is good, don’t they?
And now it’s Monday morning, just as beautiful today as it was yesterday.
A couple of weeks ago, i had the good pleasure of hearing five songs from “Rivertown” performed by two or three hundred kindergarten through fifth graders of Brookstone School in Columbus. As pleasurable as it was, it reminded me of the thought and care that should go into what we say and write. Do i write and sing things that i want others to repeat? Do you share thoughts, tone of voice, attitudes, words, and ideas with your friends your spouses, your kids that you’d want them to perpetuate in their lives? Hearing all those little voices singing together made me realize the exponential power, the collective volume of the little things i write. And it’s the same with us all. Imagine today a choir so three hundred voices saying the things you say, or three hundred faces wearing your countenance, or three hundred minds thinking things you encourage them to think. Humbling? God made our lives to count, even if in small ways, and endows us, to use Pascal’s phrase, with “the dignity of causality.” Please pray that we’ll use that gift to be blessings to our friends and families. Might our contributions to this world be as beautiful as the colors of a Georgia April.
Thanks again for your constant encouragement and friendship. i’m thankful that God colors my life with each of you.
Life is good.
March 2, 1998
For the past few weeks, I’ve been able to spend a good bit of time at home. I’ve been busy, but the work I’ve been doing has been close enough to home that I can drive back to the farm after playing my engagements. i’ve also had some recording tasks which have kept me in the studio. As much as I enjoy being on the road and meeting people, I really enjoy the quietness and comfort of the farm’s familiar surroundings. For relaxation, thinking time, and exercise recently, I’ve been spending some time each afternoon working in the woods. There’s a small stream that runs through our property. It is a beautiful, singing path of water that runs through a hardwood bottom and is punctuated by sections of rock that are a picture of serenity. Years ago, I began clearing out some walking trails through that bottom. The work is simple and amounts to the mere physical exertion of cutting, lifting, and dragging. As unexciting as it sounds, the work is some of my favorite to do. After the time that I’ve spent in the forest, I can see small changes taking shape. Perhaps not surprisingly, I’ve had some wonderful song inspiration and beheld some interesting object lessons. Might I share a couple with you?
Many years ago, I heard the point made that the role of the Christian in the world is to reverse the effects of Adam and Eve’s fall. Of course, only Jesus could and would do that fully, but, as His followers, our assignment is to copy Him Who came “to preach good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives, and release from darkness for the prisoners, … to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.” (Isaiah 61:1-3, Luke 4:16-30) In keeping with that, here’s what I’ve learned in the forest. A few years ago, Hurricane Opel rampaged into Georgia and knocked over some of the biggest trees on our property. Some of those were in the aforementioned hardwood bottom where I had begun clearing out some walking trails. As a result of the storm, several of the trees feel into and across the stream, blocking the water flow and covering up the water’s edge. The place, frankly, was quite a mess. Where there should have been babbling brook and flowers blooming at the streamside, there was a tangle of dead limbs and stagnant water. My task these past few weeks has been to reverse the effects of the fallen trees, to “unto the fall.” Already I’ve seen the water begin to flow and sing again. The banks of the stream are uncovered and the laurels will bloom soon. The sunlight can warm the ground that, since the hurricane, has been covered with debris. Do you get the picture? The disciple’s job is to unto the fall in the world — to let the flow of grace flow move freely in people’s lives, to let the light of God warm cold hearts and expose darkness, and to let the beauty and colors of Christ’s love transform the drabness of life without hope. … So the song will be called “undo the fall.” I tried to write one by that name years ago, didn’t consider it a keeper. This one should be.
Another thing I noticed one day while I was working in the woods. To steer the flow of the stream, and to “make” the sound of water flowing, I’ve been placing rocks across the stream to dam the water up and let it spill over the rocks. The rocks are in the stream to begin with. I’m simply arranging them in such a way to make music. Does God not do that in our lives? We all have rocks, hard things, in our lives. God designs and arranges them for our good and growth . “He will bring honey from the rock.” Be encouraged if you’re in a less than pleasant place in life. Music will follow.
I see very few movies, but recently took in “Armistad.” I recommend it highly. Also read a book called The Color of Water (by James McBride) which I found thought-provoking. The reference to Jesus in both works was striking.
I’ve been working on a new CD, perhaps for release in late spring or early summer. Selections will include Sunday Driver, the Paper Cup (about planting a seed in the cup when we’re in grade school), the bike song (about the little girl learning to ride), the Game of Who has More (about the two little boys comparing muscles), Accidental Road, and Movement of Our Moments (written for the graduating high school students). I’m really excited about the project. Ed Cash will be helping me with production of the recording. Stay tuned.
Busy March and April await me. I hope I get to visit with you. Thanksfor stopping by.
Life is good.
February 5, 1998
There’s a song that is piecing itself together in my mind today. Even though the lyrics aren’t yet totally in place, the title is. The song will be called “41 and 20.” … It was exactly 20 years ago today that i began my pilgrimage as a Christian. i was a senior at the University of Georgia and, for a couple of years, had been an inquisitive, very interested outsider to that realm of which Jesus spoke so frequently – “the Kingdom of God.” It embarrasses me to think of how little i knew when i began that journey; embarrasses me even more to think of how little, at the age of 41, i know now of that Kingdom. Few of its citizens are more imperfect in their service than this one. Still, i know that my life was “seized by a great affection” in February 1978 when God brought me to a point of surrender, when i realized my need of His salvation, and when i made a conscious embrace of Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. Since then, an awareness of God has been constantly with me, even when i did not welcome it, and a growing desire to love Him and to share His love with others have been daily realities with me. This is a special day for me. No one can more honestly say that “the boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places.” (Ps.16:5) To you who have been such a joyful part of my journey, let me once again give my thanks. You little know how much your friendships, even the very transitory ones, have meant to me.
In reflecting on my 20 years of faith this morning, i’ve been reminded of the scripture which says that God grows us from “grace to grace”. i read some commentary about that phrase this morning which says it can also be read “grace instead of, or grace in place of grace”. The commentator goes on to say that the image of “grace to grace,” indicates a “perpetual succession of supply; a displacement ever going on; ceaseless changes of need and demand. … The picture before us is as of a river. Stand on its banks, and contemplate the flow of water. A minute passes, and another. Is it the same stream still? Yes. But is it the same water? No. the liquid mass that passed you a few seconds ago fills now another section of the channel; new water has displaced it, or if you please, replaced it; water instead of water. An so hour by hour, and year by year, and century by century, the process holds; one stream, other waters – living, not stagnant, because always in the great identity there is perpetual exchange. Grace takes the place of grace (and love takes the place of love); ever new, ever old, ever the same, ever fresh and young, for hour by hour, for year by year, through Christ.” (Bishop Moule)
i can well relate to these words and can attest in my own experience to the freshness of the life that God gives to each day and year. Are there not wonders to look forward to? i am aware that this letter might be read by one who is not a Christian. Thank you for taking a look at this site and especially for letting me share about things that are, for whatever reason, foreign to you. Whether you’ve consciously rejected the Christian faith or just not taken time to look into it, it might be that there’s a reason that, at this moment on this day, you “happened” to be reading this page. Maybe the same “great affection” that caught me years ago, the affection of Christ for fallen people, is reaching out for you. (If you’re at all, interested in any of this, i’ve got a recording of some music and spoken thoughts that i made years ago to attempt, in very simple fashion, what the Christian faith is about. Leave a message on my message board or write me at PO box 642, Hamilton GA 31811, and i’ll gladly send you a copy of it at no cost.)
My brother Gary is now residing in Macedonia, having moved there last week. No matter how many times i tell him farewell, there’s no getting over the lump in the throat. Please pray for his work there. If you’re looking for a good deed to do, one guaranteed to be appreciated, you can write him at:
ul. Cvetan Dimov 29/2-43
The weather these past few days, after the false springtime of last week, has reminded me much of the 18 months i lived in Edinburgh, Scotland. There were lots of windy, gray, rainy days. Actually, i really enjoy that kind of weather and find it quite conducive to reading, writing, and other indoor activity. These past few days (and some during the past month) have been largely spent in recording new stuff. Some of you have asked for “Sunday Driver,” for the song about the little girl learning to ride her bike, for the one about planting the seed in the paper cup. i’m making good progress on them and hope to have them finished in the not too distant future. Stay tuned.
Have you heard the music of Fernando Ortega? My favorite in a long time. If you want something which is reflective, melodic, musically and lyrically rich, and calming to your soul, you might want to give him a try. Thanks to Lindsay Tucker for sharing him with me.
All for now, my friends. i do hope that our paths will cross soon. The next few months prove to be busy. How pleased i’d be if i get to visit with you.
Life is good.
PS – when I finish “41 and 20”, I’ll put it at the lyric page on this site.
January 1, 1998
Warmest greetings and every blessing for the new year. Having just finished an enjoyable four days in Winter Park, Colorado where i was privileged to be camp speaker and musician for Young Life groups from Houston, Friendswood, and San Antonio, Texas, i’m home today quietly bringing in the new year with some of my family, including Tyler, on a cool, sun-filled, gloriously beautiful Georgia day.
One of my recent New Year’s rituals is to take every thing off of my studio bulletin board to make room for the next twelve month’s deposit of smiling faces and memorable bits of paper. One of the pleasant aspects of the task is that i get to revisit the people and places that made my year so rich. (Incidentally, i save all the pictures, along with letters that i receive during the year, as an archive of blessings i’ve known.) That exercise today has been a pure joy and has provoked deep thanks for where my lines have fallen in 1997. To you who have been so supportive, so gracious, so hospitable, so generous, let me close out last year and begin the new one with yet another “thank you” for all you’ve meant to me. (And to those who sent pictures for my bulletin board, special kudos. See, i really do make use of them.)
December proved to be busy month with a number of Christmas related events on my calendar. i did find time to record some new songs and work on composition of yet others. On Christmas Eve, the day after our annual Christmas service at the chapel here on the farm, i enjoyed what has been a tradition for me the last few years. i listened to a National Public Radio broadcast of a carol and reading service at the King’s College, Cambridge, England. It is such a beautiful celebration of Christ’s birth and a rich reminder of the heritage that His church enjoys.
Along with the Savior’s birth, our family celebrated my Dad’s 70th birthday on December 21. To those of you who know my dad, you can easily understand my affection and appreciation of him. He is an exceptional person, a Jimmy Stewart personality with a refreshing sense of humor and an authentic love for Christ. He, along with the exceptional woman to whom he has now been married for 45 years, has been and continues to be a singular blessing in the life of this family. My brother Gary has been home for a few weeks and, after praying for “what next”, has decided that he’ll be leaving for Macedonia in January to help in a church planting work there. Please remember him in your prayers, along with other team members (the Barkhouses, the Osleys, and the Bolthouses) with whom he’ll be working.
i heard a story recently on NPR, which i found most thought-provoking and instructive to me for the coming year. The great classical composer, J.S. Bach, a man of deep Christian faith as well prodigious musical talent, wrote a large selection of organ music during his lifetime (1685-1790). Many of the instruments that he composed on, situated in Germany and Austria, were destroyed during World War II. The Nazi government requisitioned them to be dissembled and smelted so that their metal parts could be used to make bombs. Some of the villagers where several of the organs were located, in defiance of the order, hid the organ components. For several years now, those organs have been reclaimed, reassembled, renovated, and restored to their intended use, such that Bach’s music can be played through the instruments on which it was written. The story seems descriptive to me of the human condition. While we were created for “music” — for the beautiful purpose of loving God and making His love known to others -we have insisted, to our own destruction, on being our own gods. What was intended for good has turned in defiance against the Creator. And yet, the gospel of Christ, this year as it has always been, is that from the ash heap of our lostness, Christ has come to restore music and beauty and joy and life-giving to our being. … i pray that, as a new year begins, we might all be committed, wherever we are and in whatever we do, to be channels of blessing and makers of music. … For helping me do that in the literal sense, i thank each of you and pray that i’ll be worthy of your trust in and support of what i do. i’m eager about the year before us.
Thanks for stopping by.
All the best,
“The aim and final reason of all music should be nothing else but the
Glory of God and the refreshment of the spirit.” J.S. Bach