2004 Writings

November 5, 2004

Meanderings from September/October

Dear Ones,

Let me start with a thanks to an unknown benefactor.

i spoke recently with Allen Williams, founder of Baruke guitars, and was informed by him that an anonymous individual had placed an order for a new guitar, to be made for and given to me.

Whoever you are, whatever your reason for being so kind, please receive my thanks. Knowing Allen’s work as a guitar maker, i can only imagine what it will be like to own and play another of his guitars. When it is received and when i play it, when i write on it and when i use it to record, might you know that it will be as your collaborator? Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

That you have chosen to give anonymously says much about you. While i wish that i could thank you in person, or in a more fitting manner, i am moved by your choice to remain unknown. When our paths cross, which i trust they will at some point, i hope i’ll be playing ‘your’ guitar and that you’ll know the rich blessing that Jesus promises to those who give. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. A thousand times, thank you.

i spent some days in Birmingham recently, at Samford University, as a participant at a conference on Ministry and the Arts. Eugene Peterson and Calvin Miller were on the speaking panel and offered insight into the place of creativity and beauty in the spiritual formation of Christ’s church. i did a pair of workshops on songwriting to small groups of interested students. An outline which i prepared for the workshop is attached (click here). It’s in rough form and might not make much sense at parts. Others will be clear enough. The outline includes some lengthy quotes by writers about writing.
i have wrestled as a songwriter, not just with the ‘how’s’ of writing music, but the ‘why’s’ of doing so. The outline offers some of my thoughts.

A friend sent me A Season of Life by Jeffrey Marx. It’s about an acquaintance of mine from Baltimore, Joe Ehrmann, who was recently featured in the Sunday magazine, Parade, as “the most important coach in America.” It’s a remarkable story. While it deals specifically with boys and what Joe calls “the crisis in masculinity,” it’s a book i’d recommend to anyone.

i heard a hoot owl in the middle of the day recently. First time i’d ever experienced that. Is there a song in there somewhere?

How to celebrate a hurricane.
It’s been pouring rain, sheets of rain, all day as Harris county catches the eastern edge of Hurricane Ivan. A steady dose of days like this would get old quickly, but, for now, the weather, with the unexpected cancellation of all planned activities, is a welcome interruption.

i found myself earlier today – are you ever like this – nervous about losing a golden opportunity to do things that i’d not planned on. i realized i had this gift of an unscheduled holiday and was concerned that i might lose it somehow, not use it as i ought.

The erratic hours of my schedule forces me to take naps sometimes. i usually have difficulty sleeping though when i know there’s work to do, which is always.
But today, the drone of rainfall said ‘nap’.

The setting was this:
The music of Rachmaninoff, (“The Liturgy of St. John Chrysosotom.” If it is sufficiently gray outside, gray like the stones of a European cathedral, you might agree that this is some of the best music you’ve ever heard);
Phone unplugged;
Lights off;
Doors and windows open to the sound of wind and breeze;
A book called Blue Like Jazz (good read, and i highly recommend it, but it also serves, as any book would under the circumstances, as a pretty effective sedative.)

Sometimes a nap is pure laziness; others it is an act of worship. This one, i like to think, was the latter.

Years ago, i loved a beautiful girl and sometimes watched her dream. i could never have considered her sleep anything less than an act of beauty. Might God look at His children the same way, maybe even whisper “well done.”

Travels and music lately have been as enjoyable as ever. Thanks for those of you who have listened and been so encouraging.

i hope y’all are doing well.

Blessings and joy,


July 14, 2004

Oh my gosh,

Has it been that long? I was recently alerted to the fact, one to which I’m alerted frequently, that I’ve let the website go ‘stale.’ “How many times to I have to tell you that the key to a good website is to keep it fresh?” … Do forgive me once again.
I wish sometimes that others could read my mail. More than once I’ve thought that one of the joys of marriage, if I ever got married, would be having someone who could read my mail with me. I get fabulous mail. In just the last month or so, I’ve gotten letters from Pat, from John R, from Michele, from Dwan, from Ken, from Debbie, and from Kristie that have been food and drink to my soul. They are letters that flow from engaged minds, from people who look at life deeply, from faithful hearts which, to quote what the preacher said at a funeral I attended this morning, “not only believe in life after death, but life after birth.” They are letters written by people who love words, letters that are thought-provoking, reflective, handwritten, and, in an appropriate way, candid. If I could, I’d just print them here and sign off with “nuff said.” That would be the easy, and satisfying way to keep this website fresh. But I don’t have permission to use those kind letters in that way, yet. But I do save them and I might just compile portions of them someday. Taken together, they would constitute a primer in the art and beauty of correspondence. (I think sometimes that, when I die, one of the best things I will leave behind are the boxes with the “best of” letters I’ve received over the years. Some family member, if they have sufficient time on their hands to peruse those boxes, will have a delightful few days.)

That said …

I might have shared previously that, a few years ago, I bought a wide-margin Bible. My thinking was that I would use the white space in the margins, not so much for study notes or sermon outlines, but for recording personal responses to particular passages. It has turned my reading of scripture into something akin to a conversation on paper, such that the columns contain reflections, prayers, questions, and ways in which the words uniquely speak to me or touch my life. (I purchased copies of wide margin Bibles for my parents and brother Gary that same year and asked them to use theirs in a similar way. At their passing, if they go before me, those Bibles are the one thing I hope they’ll leave to me.)

I was reading through Exodus last week. In chapter 12, God gives Moses instructions concerning the annual, perpetual observance of the Passover. Among other things, God tells the Jewish adults to be prepared to answer their children’s future questions. “And when your children ask you, ‘What does this ceremony mean to you?’ then tell them …” (v. 26.)

For me, the noteworthy thing about the passage is that the children are curious enough to ask questions (perhaps because the parent’s have done something clever to excite curiosity from their kids. I’ve read somewhere, maybe Edersheim, that the Passover celebration includes rituals which are specifically designed to make the kids ask questions. “Daddy, why are we looking for yeast on the windowsill?”)

Few things lead to better conversation, to richer introspection, to more serious seeking than a good question. I have spent time with people, I trust that you have too, that are delightfully inquisitive. They are interested people, people who still want to learn, to grow, to hear stories, to have the dust knocked off their hearts’ windows. Even about subjects in which they have little interest, they lean forward and listen. Conversation with them is a rare pleasure.

An example that comes to mind, one which I’ve mentioned before, was Mary and Edna Fort. They were in their nineties when I first met them. On that occasion, despite the obvious fact that theirs would be the richer lives to talk about, they had question after question about mine. Their interest not only showed a vitality about life; it made me feel like I was something special. The absence of questions, to me, seems the tragic indicator of a soul asleep. It’s tragic wherever is shows up, but seems especially sad when the victim of such disinterest is a young person.

Where am I going with this? When I read the words in Exodus, about the little Jewish kids asking their Dads and Moms about Passover, I wrote a short prayer in the margin for the kids closest to me:

“Lord, I pray for my nieces and nephews, that they will live, even as children, in such a way that they are curious and interested and engaged enough with life to ask questions. Give them a desire to learn and grant them a sense of gravity about matters of importance, about life and eternity. … And as You give them a hunger to know, give me, give their parents, their extended families, and their church communities the ability and insight to answer their questions truthfully from scripture. And with the spoken answers that we give, please give us lives that validate what we teach and lead our children Christward.”

It’s a poorly worded prayer perhaps, but it speaks my desire, not just for the children but for myself and for others in my realm, to be “truly alive.” I know that this is a drum I beat a lot. Forgive me if I’m repeating myself. ( Important thoughts, and to me this is one, can surely bear repetition. Cf. Second Peter 1:12-15.)

Have you ever considered how frequently Jesus asked questions to make us think?

The theme of introspection was much before me a couple of weeks ago where I spent a memorable time at the Wind River Ranch in Estes Park, Colorado. One of my favorite contemporary writers, Ken Gire (www.reflectiveliving.com) spoke and I did some music for a small gathering of NFL players who are affiliated with Professional Athletes Outreach. Ken’s thoughts from the week came from his book Windows of the Soul. It, and The Reflective Life, are, for my taste, ‘must reads.’ Ken is a master of capturing life’s moments, of recognizing God’s presence in the ordinary events of everyday life. He asks good questions.

Another thought…I was working on-line recently. Gary’s dog, Banjo, was at my feet when suddenly the screen froze and the on-line connection went dead. The dog had bitten the phone line in half. My first reaction was knee-jerk irritation. Thankfully, that passed quickly. Who, after all, can get mad at a dog who just wants your undivided attention?

Have you ever seen the old movie where the girl is tied up and laid on the train track? The train is barreling down the tracks when the hero shows up and unties her in the nick of time. I wonder if the dog didn’t have similar heroics in mind when he chewed me to freedom.

I’m still hoping for some ‘slow down’ time this summer. Just this morning, in one of those unplanned moments of goodness, I came up with a couple of song ideas that made me love the work I’m privileged to do. I’ve not written too much lately, simply because the tyranny of the urgent has busied me elsewhere. When I’ve tried to write, it’s felt a bit like hard labor. But this morning, the music just came from being there. I hope for more moments like that while I’m home for three more weeks.

Well, with this hastily composed letter behind me, there is now one less thing to do. Webmaster satisfied; mission accomplished.

“When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars which You have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?”

Who? What? When? Where? Why? How?
In love with the Answer,


March 3, 2004
Dear friends,

For the past few years, there has been an undeclared tradition with occurs for me every August. It takes the form of a conversation that i have with myself. Here’s how it happens. … i walk outside, into the suffocating heat of the Georgia summer. i look around my yard where all the plants which i purchased with high hopes in March and April have turned to straw. i say to myself, “now, just look. Just LOOK! What? Was it three hundred, four hundred? How much did you spend in April on all these plants? Now just look at them! Don’t try to ignore what you see. Just look at all of them. No different than the ones you killed last year. Now, allen levi, DO NOT FORGET THIS SIGHT! DO NOT! And next year, when the local plant nursery, or the Home Depot puts out all those little trays of perfectly innocent snapdragons and salvia and dianthus, don’t – DO NOT – forget what your eyes now behold.” … That’s how it goes, that annual talk with myself.

i just bought my first hundred dollars worth of spring plants. Same beautiful selection as last year. And i am pleased to announce that, two hours into my sincere commitment to keep them alive all summer long, they are doing well. Nothing has died … yet. i know that the odds – given my history, and the terrible combination of red clay, Georgia heat, and exposure on an unforested hill – are strongly against survival. But, if only for the pleasant hours it takes to put things in the ground, and the daydream of fresh cut flowers to give away, the exercise in almost-certain failure is worth the trouble.

The warm days of this past week have made it nearly impossible to stay indoors. Daffodils are up, bluebirds are house hunting, tree frogs are filling the night with their music, and the first whippoorwill, if this year is like the past few, will be heard on an evening between March 21 and 24. (i keep record of it in my prayer journal.)

i wish i had something moving and profound to share with y’all but, right now, it’s enough simply to be alive and to be thankful. It’s enough to know that something inside me wants to participate in seeing things grow – beautiful things, glorious things, pleasant and cheerful things. It’s enough to know that, all around me all the time but especially at this time of year, Resurrection shouts and dances. Life inextinguishable has taken root in my soul and i am, to use that quaint Bible word, “glad.”

… All’s well here. i hope you’re growing, blossoming, spreading your branches in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus.

That’s all.

Yours freshly,