There is so much, on this Christmas morning, that i could write about as i think about the past year. It has been rich and meaningful, bitter and sweet, memorable and yet a blur in some ways.
i’ll keep this short and simply share a recent conversation with you, both as a reflection and a benediction.
Two days before Thanksgiving, i talked at some length with dear friend, Ben May. Ben is on my “board,” a thankless and rather bothersome role which gives me excuse to call him, on a weekly basis, with all manner of ridiculous questions, concerns, and ideas. When i cannot visit with him (and Sally and the boys) in person, it is one of the joys of my life to visit with Ben on the phone (and i do not at all like to talk on the phone).
Just before Thanksgiving, Ben’s dad, Mr. Earle, was visited with some life-threatening heart problems that put him unexpectedly in a Birmingham intensive care unit. There was grave doubt about Mr. Earle’s survival. Moments like these, Ben offered in our conversation, are our schooling in “Reality 101.” They are the place where faith becomes concrete, or proves itself paperthin.
Ben made a statement that i wrote in my journal that night. It’s one of those phrases that define a life well-lived and offers a goal worth daily pursuit. Ben candidly confessed that, while the thought of losing his dad (and friend) would be heartbreaking, he could rest in his own and in his dad’s Faith. And then of Mr. Earle’s life, Ben offered this verdict – and this is the phrase – “he loves the right things.”
“He loves the right things.”
In Matthew 22, a lawyer asked Jesus, perhaps in earnest inquiry or perhaps to simply be argumentative, “what is the greatest commandment?” Jesus answered directly, concisely, clearly. His answer? Well, in essence, His answer was, “love the right things.” Love God first and foremost. Love others, as you desire and need to be loved yourself. Do those things and we’ll have done all that God’s law ever commanded.
“Love the right things.”
i hope that those words will apply increasingly to your life and mine.
As we close another year, and perhaps pause to revisit where we’ve been, what more could we hope for than to say that we loved, lived for, gave ourselves to, “the right things?” As we start a new year, what more can we pray for ourselves, and for those who we love, than that we would invest our lives daily, moment by moment, small encounter by small encounter, in things that last.
Merry Christmas and every blessing to you for the new year. … And thanks again, a thousand thousand times, for all that you do to enrich my life and encourage my work. i’m amazed by the Grace that fills my life with ones like you.
PS – Mr. Earle is doing fine and milking Mrs. Marcie’s nursing care for all he can. He’ll probably be “standing around” at church on some Sunday morning in Big Canoe, Georgia anyday now.
September 25, 2001
Second day of flannel, 40 degrees
Beautiful morning on the porch
Good morning friends,
It is not uncommon for my brother Gary to end his letters with the seemingly curious salutation, “perhaps today.” He means it to be a simple reminder, consistent with biblical observations about the fleeting nature of this world, that life can end at any moment. It is, more importantly, an exhortation for me as a Christian to live life for things that count eternally. (cf. Psalm 39:4-7; I John )
i was on a tractor at the farm, enjoying a beautiful Tuesday morning, when i first heard about the bombing of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. For the next several days, since my out of town work was postponed, i watched the news coverage, heard the stories, had significant conversations with friends and family, and was, like you, fairly immersed in the events of that September morning.
Since then, questions have been many: exactly how dark IS the human heart? how DOES one appropriately respond to such acts of evil (or, to invoke the armband cliché of recent years, WWJD)? Are those who bombed the Trade Center and Pentagon REALLY that different than me? What does God want me to take from this event? How can my love for Christ, for others (even my enemies) be strengthened through what’s happened?
And then, along with the questions, conclusions have been rather simple: we live in a world of fallen hearts and are in need of rescue. My faith, in ways newly reaffirmed and strengthened, tells me that God was not surprised by September 11, that He relentlessly cares for this broken world, that He has and does invade it still with the love and transforming grace of Jesus Christ, and that i live most purposefully when i seek to follow Him “in deed and in truth.”
i’ve just finished reading Dakota by Kathleen Norris, a reflective autobiography which includes reference to a Benedictine monastery where she occasionally spends time. One chapter, entitled “Is It You, Again?”, gives interesting insight into the Benedictine practice of hospitality. i paraphrase, but the essence is simply this – when a person shows up at the door, no matter how uninvited or inconvenient, the monks are admonished to receive all guests as though they are Christ Himself. One older monk explains that “whatever they are in the world, a prostitute, a prime minister, it is all the same to me. But sometimes i see a stranger coming up the road and i say, ‘Oh, Jesus Christ, is it you again?’ ”
As I’ve continued to think about the uninvited and unwelcome intrusion of the bombing into our lives, I’ve wondered if, in the same way that we might receive people as the very opportunity to serve Christ, we might not see experiences, even tragedy, in a similar way? It seems to me that many of the ‘heroic’ deeds and acts of charitable kindness in the past two weeks have only occurred because of the dire need occasioned by the bombing. This awful calamity, even this, God will use and seemingly has used for good, both to those who love Him and those who have heretofore been indifferent toward Him. i’m reminded of Joseph’s words to his scheming brothers, “you intended to harm me, but God intended it or good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” (Gen.50:20)
On the morning of the bombing, i watched television coverage on the major networks. (i don’t have cable and can only get a handful of channels.) As i went back and forth from ABC and CBS, i crossed PBS (my favorite channel) and was surprised that they were not covering the breaking news. Instead, they were airing Barney, the purple dinosaur. His incongruity to the events of the morning was unsettling, almost offensive. After all, this seemed clearly a time to grieve and cry, and only grieve and cry. But, then again, maybe not … or not entirely. The appearance of Barney jarred to mind a passage from the Old Testament. In Psalm 137, the writer laments Israel’s captivity in Babylon:
“Beside the rivers of Babylon , we sat and wept as we thought of Jerusalem.We put away our lyres (harps), hanging them on the branches of the willow trees.For there our captors demanded a song of us.Our tormentors requested a joyful hymn;‘Sing us one of those songs of Jerusalem!’
But how can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?”
Admittedly, it is a difficult thing to sing (literally and figuratively) at times of loss or, for the psalmist, captivity. When the towers were falling on September 11, and in the days since then, any lightheartedness seems flippant and out of place. And yet, in another sense, it is right for us, even in the midst of loss, to be strengthened by hope and joy. Wrote the Apostle Paul, “we do not want you … to grieve like the rest of men who have no hope.” (I Thess. 4:13) The world pays a great compliment to faith, as the Babylonians did to the Israelites, when it asks us to sing ‘in a foreign land,’ in much the same way as the beggar who begs or the homeless person who sleeps at the church house door. i can only pray, for myself and my Christian friends, that people can see the gospel, good news, in us as we respond, in word, deed, and thought, to the bombing. Even now, as in the ancient days of Israel, the theme of “devastation to restoration” might be at work.
i played in Memphis four days after the bombing. Frankly, it felt a bit awkward, like maybe I was Barney this time. When i got to Memphis, having had the pleasant company and good conversation of my good friend, Ben May, on the long drive, i chose “Under the Rainbow” as my first song, a reminder to myself and friends there that, while i can hope for and believe deeply in a fair land ‘over the rainbow’, for now we are confined to a world where “lions will eat you,” where we are yet on “the imperfect side of the perfect plan.” If nothing else, this is certainly a time to be honest.
The recent days have, as you might expect, provided lots of images that might find their way into song. On the night of September 11, i sat outside, when i could tear myself away from the news, and looked into a silent sky. Even in the tranquil surroundings of country life, the average night sky is punctuated by airplanes en route to Atlanta. On that one, though, there were no contrails, no low distant hums, no red blinking lights. Silent sky. Maybe there’s a song in that phrase.
And then there has been the frequent call that we get “back to normal” or “to business as usual.” i wonder if that’s really the goal that i ought to aim for. While i know the beneficial intent of the political leaders who call us to normalcy, i wonder if, in our souls, God has not called us to leave the old “business as usual” to something higher and deeper, closer to ‘life that is truly life.’
These are just my random thoughts. More than ever, they seem so small, so irrelevant in some ways, so pretentious. Thanks though for letting me share them with you.
And, as always, thanks for allowing me to do what i do. i’m committed, as much as ever, to share songs, words, and stories, that might provoke ‘Godward thought.’ A recent piece by Ravi Zacharias puts into words what i see my mission, at least in part, to be about –
“We need to recover the power of language once again. With the immersion into the visual and into all the other ways we have of communicating, we must work hard at the very task of language and it’s
beauty. We will need to learn to speak words that stir the imagination and demand attention.”
i’ve got a really busy few weeks coming up and would appreciate your prayers. i hope i’ll be in your town sometime.
When I see you, I might just think, “Oh, Lord Jesus, is it you again?”
May 21, 2015
The last weeks have been pleasantly full. At present, i’m home for the second of three fairly uncommitted weeks before leaving for Colorado where i’ll do music at a Young Life camp near Winter Park. Days at home have had something of a rhythm to them, unlike those when i’m traveling a lot. Of late, they have begun with porch time (where i watch sunrise, read and be still for an hour or two), move to the Pastime Café (where i drink coffee, get the small town spin on news of the day, and hear story telling from our equivalent of the Greek chorus), then to the studio (for several hours of recording work on some new things i’m putting together), and then to free time in late afternoons and evenings (which have included lots of outdoor time, high school baseball games, visits with friends, and walks with Tyler). i continue to write songs but, as always, tend to start many and finish few. … It’s been great to drink in the change of seasons at the farm.
One of the highlights of a springtime filled with highlights was a week in Mexico with a group of Young Life friends, mostly high schoolers, who spent their spring break building houses near Tijuana. Days were rather long and conveniences were few (slept in tents, showered out of milk jugs and shared community outhouses/ ‘banos’, used no power tools on the sites), but the experience was rich and enjoyable. There were about 175 in our group and we built 8 simple houses in the course of the week. While the structures were crude by American standards, they were remarkable improvements over the houses that were being replaced. The family, for example, that my team built for was a couple with three kids who lived in a small single room shack about 6 feet by 12 feet with a dirt floor, no electricity, and no conveniences. They also had a gutted out small camper trailer that was used for living space or storage. Here’s a picture of the house we built for them.
At the end of the week, after houses were done and while we were having an evening club meeting before leaving Mexico for home, one could almost sense the lightness of heart that the kids felt for the week’s work.
Bill Goans, area director for Greensboro Young Life and one of my heroes, summed it up nicely: ‘when we do the right thing, the soul rejoices.’ It was a blessing to hear kids speak of how difficult it was to choose Mexico over spring break at the beach. None regretted the decision. … Thanks, Bill and friends in Greensboro, for letting me be part of the trip.
Among the things i’m reading at present is a book by Ray Bradbury. He’s known for science fiction but, in Dandelion Wine, writes a reminiscence about summertime in a small Illinois town in 1928. It is a delightful celebration of life’s small moments and ordinary people. One of the chapters, among many which captured my imagination, dealt with old Colonel Freeleigh, an ancient resident of the town whose recollections earn him designation of “Time Machine.” His health requires that he live under the watchful eye of a nurse. He has been confined to his house for ten years. The confinement and immobility are oppressive to him, but he has a unique tool of escape. He calls an old friend in Mexico City, Jorge, who opens a window overlooking a busy street, sets the telephone on the windowsill, and lets the noises of the active city fill the receiver to the far away Colonel.
“He listened to the hooting of many metal horns, the squealing of brakes, the calls of vendors selling red-purple bananas and jungle oranges in their stalls. Colonel Freeleigh’s feet began to move, hanging from the edge of the wheelchair, making the motions of a man walking. His eyes squeezed tight. He gave a series of immense sniffs, as if to gain the odors of meats hung from iron hooks in sunshine, cloaked with flies like a mantle of raisins; the smell of stone alleys wet with morning rain. He could feel the sun urn his spiny-bearded cheek, and he was twenty-five years old again, walking, looking, smiling, happy to be alive, very much alert, drinking in colors and smells.”
A couple of things from that passage:
For one, it’s a reminder to listen more attentively, to pay attention, to gather good memories against the day that they might be my only way to dance.
And then this. … i don’t mean to be irreverent or cavalier about holy things, but it strikes me that, in some ways, prayer might be a ‘call to Jorge.’ How often do we, in our busy-ness, need God to open the window and give us the ability to hear and experience, or hear and experience again, the sights, sounds, moments, encounters that leave us “walking, looking, smiling, happy to be alive, very much alert, drinking in colors and smells.” … Mornings of late, as i watch the birds at their feeder, as i wake up to the greens all around, and as i watch the sunrise have done that for me.
Speaking of memorable moments. i played for Mrs. Luker’s kindergarten class last week, at Pine Ridge Elementary School here in Harris County. i’m thankful for every group i get to visit with and sing to, but this one was extra special. Thank you, Peggy, and kids for such an enjoyable morning.
Song idea: while in San Diego for a free day after the week of work in Mexico, i met a cab driver named Raymond. Interesting story. He grew up in Tehran, Iran and moved to Oklahoma in 1977 as a young adult to get an MBA. After completing that degree, he moved to San Diego to get his doctorate in business administration, which he successfully accomplished. Since then, he’s driven a cab. We were stuck in Easter weekend traffic, which allowed us to cover lots of conversational territory, including some of a philosophical bent. More than once, he expressed his desire for lots of money, stating that it was the way to have a ‘good life.’ When i asked him what he’d do if he all the money he would ever need, he answered as though he’d not really thought about it. He said that he’d move away from everybody and he’d exercise 8 hours a day. That’s it. … The song will be called “Small Dreams.” It’s a common illness. …. Mine sure do feel withered and invalid at times. I hope that they’ll grow and that yours will be worthy of the souls that God has given us.
i hope y’all are doing well. Thanks again for all you do to encourage me in my work. What a blessed man i am. …
Live for the love of Christ. …. When you do the right thing, your soul rejoices.
And when life gets dry, call Jorge.
March 4, 2001
I’m in the middle of a pretty busy winter/spring travel schedule which has been most enjoyable. In addition to playing for an interesting assortment of groups (last week I played for a third grade class on Tuesday, for a $100 a plate dinner for a river conservation group on Thursday, and for a gathering of 3500 wild game hunters on Friday – call it musical schizophrenia, but I enjoyed all of them), I’ve had the pleasure of visiting with lots of old friends. Thanks to all of you who have hosted me and let me stay in your homes. What kind souls I meet in my travels.
Before heading out last Thursday, I spent some time working outside, planting spring flowers in the beds, working in the woods, just being in open air. It’s too early of course to be spring, but we certainly had a taste of it during the last half of February. … We’ve gotten over 6 inches of rain in the past two days here at the farm. This morning before church, I took a good walk with Tyler around the place and was struck by the beauty of the almost-springtime that has arrived in the past couple of weeks. Some of the sights brought to mind a passage which my friend, Sunny Penner of NC, shared with me recently from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard:
“I’ve been thinking about seeing. There are lots of things to see, unwrapped gifts and frees surprises. The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand. But – and this is the point – who gets excited about a mere penny? … It is dire poverty indeed when a man is so malnourished and fatigued that he won’t stoop to pick up a penny. But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted I pennies, you have with you poverty bought a lifetime of days. It is that simple. What you see is what you get.”
I’ve also read a book called Change Me into Zeus’s Daughter (forgive me for not remembering the author just now), a memoir very much like All Over But the Shouting. It’s a bittersweet, mostly bitter, story of an alcohol-ruined family in Alabama. I just finished today The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, a current popular title recommended by a friend. It might loosely be called historical fiction based on the trials of a Georgia family which goes to Congo in the late 1950’s. The dark figure at the center of the book is the father/husband who is a fanatical and tyrannical minister. … Zeus and Poisonwood feature predictably unlikable male centerpieces. Someone asked me why I read books like these. The reasons are several. For starters, they are superbly well written and I hope to learn to be a better writer myself from studying others who do it well. Secondly, they present a view of life (and particularly of fatherhood) which is totally foreign to my experience. They let me go to places where, thankfully, I have never had to spend a day. Lastly, they strengthen my faith by showing me what life without Christ looks like. And, further, they explain to me much of the sadness of the world.
And, just to be clear, I try to read everyday from scripture, from CS Lewis, and from CH Spurgeon.
If you’ve got a good read to recommend, please leave it on the message board for us.
I’ve been writing lots of new songs and still can hardly believe that I get to do this music thing for a living. Thanks for making it possible.