Might I offer a short prayer for you as we end one year (which, for me, has been full of goodness) and begin another?
One evening this past week, I entered the house after working outdoors in the hardwood bottom just west of here. I barely missed a phone call, one that had been placed a minute or two before I went inside. The message was from my mother (she and Dad, to my great pleasure, have been living at the farm, in a house across the pasture, for the past five months or so) and was just a few words long — “Look at the sky.”
It was one of those sunsets that defies description, a blend of shade and texture and composition that makes you want to put life on pause so that the sight can be inhaled somehow. I watched for the few minutes that it took for the skyscape to go from fire, to coal, to ash. The five or ten minutes were the crowning glory of a rich, simple day. But for the message on my answering machine, I’d very likely have missed the masterpiece.
My prayer for you (and for me) in ’06? That some voice, inside or out, will cause us often to “look at the sky” … and at the landscapes, the faces, the stories, the Divine fingerprints in the everyday. That the miracles of ’05 that escaped our notice might track us down and catch us in the coming year. That we’ll know aliveness as we’ve never known it before. That Jesus’ love will make the world fragrant with hope and joy in a way that spills into and out of us. That this will be a year of happy lightning for you.
That’s my prayer.
Look at the sky,
October 3, 2005
It is a gift to be able to say, day after day, that “this might well be the most beautiful day i have ever seen.” And to mean it every time you say it. The last few days here at home have been of that order. Our pastures were cut for hay a couple of weeks ago, a nice rain fell at the end of that process (insuring deep greens to follow), and hints of fall have been evident in the morning and evening air. A string of welcome visitors, some late summer days of outdoor work with my dear friend, Bobby Joe, a calendar with eagerly anticipated bookings, and a sense of God’s care and provision have made recent days especially pleasant.
And poor old Manasseh is just going to have to wait.
i might have shared, in a previous letter, that i don’t have many annual traditions, celebrations that are uniquely mine. How many years, anyway, does it take before a practice becomes a tradition? If 5 is adequate, then i have one, the most recent celebration of which ended today.
The history is this. Years ago, i wrote a song called “My Own Brother” about a North Vietnamese who i met in Marseilles, France. One of my dearest friends in life, Bart Scarborough (husband of Victoria who i sometimes call “Elvis,” father of Charlotte, area director for Young LIfe in Athens, Georgia, possessor of a singing voice that can only be described as … well … how about, inimitable, extraordinary, one of a kind, jeh-neh-seh-kwah?) would call and, in my absence, leave messages on the answering machine addressing me as “my own brother.” It was a frivolity which became standard fare between us.
At some point after that habit began, someone, probably Bart, had the idea that a small group of us (5 to be exact) who had friendship, faith and history to bind us, should get together and spend a weekend together. Ben May, Dicky Barlow, Benson Bottoms, Bart and i set a date aside for an agenda-less gathering here. And today, after what’s become a regular Sunday lunch of barbecue in Pine Mountain, we adjourned our fifth annual “My Own Brother weekend” with a commitment to do number 6 in ‘06.
i could stretch the truth and tell you that it is a two days of intense and profound reflection on the conundra of life (we do have moments that fit that description). But mostly, it’s a time where five old friends laugh, eat, watch a ball game, fish, maybe take a walk, toss a ball, rib each other good-naturedly, and, before the weekend is over, each take turns sharing the highs, lows and happenings of the past year. There’s no schedule, no planned activity, no definable goal. But it has become one of my favorite weekends of the year, one of the most looked-forward-to events on my calendar.
Since i’ve got a newsletter due (the above-mentioned Ben is my webmaster who reminds me often just how derelict i am as a contributor to allenlevi.com), and since i wanted to write a thank you note to the five “my owns” this evening, will you allow me to let this installment discharge both of those tasks?
“Brothers, for the blessing of your presence this weekend, for the surety of your friendship even though our visits are woefully infrequent, for the way that your lives encourage and inspire me to love the right things in the right order, for the proud affection that you express for your wives and children, for your faithfulness to Jesus and His work in this world, thanks indeed.
“And, oh yes, for your sheer bravery against the onslaught of one terrrified armadillo (what dexterity Gollum!), for putting your lives at danger to protect the lawn so nobly, more thanks.”
i hope you all have some good friends with whom you can share your lives, your secrets, your fears and dreams, your story.
“For a Christian, there are, strictly speaking, no chances. A secret Master of the Ceremonies has been at work. Christ, Who said to the disciples ‘Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you,’ can also say to every group of Christian friends ‘You have not chosen one another but I have chosen you for one another.’ … At this feast, it is He Who has spread the board and it is He Who has chosen the guests. It is He, we may dare to hope, Who sometimes does, and always should, preside.” C.S. Lewis
Wishing you deepening friendship with Christ and with those He sends your way,
August 31, 2005
I know that I’m supposed to write some thoughts on Manasseh. And I shall, soon. For now, though, some random thoughts from the last month.
A note from August 27, 2005
I’m just in from a walk with my Dad. We drove just a mile or so north of the house, parked beside the Mountain Road, and spent about an hour meandering across some acreage that he recently acquired.
It’s a beautiful, heavily forested piece of land — lots of big hardwood, some well-watered bottom land, and nice high spots for house sites. All of that, though, was secondary to the moment. It was simply good to be with one who, as I get older, grows more and more precious to me. To walk with Dad (at 77, he can still make a stroll through the woods a veritable workout) is a gift indeed, the more obvious today after learning that the father of my friend Sammy passed away last night. Good conversation, the pleasure of breathing deeply, the strain of uphill steps, attentiveness to the details of a ‘new’ piece of land, and the sheer blessing of being with a friend and mentor make the moment, in the true sense of the word, holy, set apart.
I read a line earlier today, “To walk in the land of Israel is a holy thing to do.” The writer might be right; I’ve not yet been to Israel. I do know, though, that to walk with my Dad — on a clear Saturday morning just north of Mountain Road in Harris County, Georgia — is a sacred, if simple, treasure, “a holy thing to do.”
A note from August 6, 2005
If I were to open a college for teaching the art of conversation, Cubbie Culbertson would be the first professor I’d hire. Cubbie, of Columbia, S.C., is one of my favorite souls anywhere. We don’t get to visit very often but I never leave his company without marveling at the richness of his day to day encounters with others. He inspires me to live life more deeply, especially in the area of personal interactions. Every time I’m around Cubbie, I’m struck by how fresh and “recent” the reality of the Gospel is to him. There is always a conversation or encounter that he had just yesterday or this past week that he wants to share; there’s someone he met at a restaurant or a gas station, someone he’s had breakfast with or talked to on a job site, something he’s read or thought about that he brings to conversation. His interest in how God works in the world, especially in the lives of ordinary people, seems bottomless.
If Cubbie reads a book that moves him, he takes pains to contact the author, maybe have lunch with him. If he knows two people who would enjoy or benefit from each other’s company, he’ll go out of his way to introduce them. He pays attention to people and is selfless enough in conversation to ask a question and then be quiet. He listens expertly. He makes other people’s words seem important.
Cubbie stopped by this Saturday morning (en route to pick up his daughter from Young Life’s Sharp Top Cove) just in time to help me pick figs from some bushes outside the studio. From there, we went to the house where I wanted to try my hand at a recipe that Pat Baxley has told me about (fig preserves with strawberry jello). I’m at the stove, stirring and spooning, boiling Mason jars, and Cubbie is sitting at the table, asking and listening. It is “two or more gathered in Jesus’ name” talking, it’s “a holy thing to do.” It’s church, the saints being prepared for (and quite possibly doing) the work of ministry.
Here’s one of Cubbie’s secrets and it’s one that my Dad has taught me by example over the course of a lifetime. He asks good questions. In a recent conversation with one of his daughters, just home from her first year of college, Cubbie recounts a question he asked her: “Of all the things that surprised you about college, what was the biggest surprise, good and bad?” Imagine the exchange that followed. I could almost envision Cubbie in thought earlier that day, asking himself, “now, when I talk to Austin tonight, what would be a good question to ask her? What might give me some insight into what my child is experiencing, and who she is becoming, as she moves into adulthood?”
Or this one. Cubbie told Gary and me over BBQ about a service trip (building houses I think) that he took this year, to Mexico I think. Cubbie worked alongside a retired college professor who formerly taught in some field of animal science. What would you have asked the professor? Cubbie asked the professor what his favorite animal was. Regardless of the answer, that’s a question sure to lead somewhere. (The answer, incidentally, was ‘the pig.’)
The art of conversation, one of the sweetest things in life, “a holy thing to do.”
A note from August 16, 2005
From my diary, — “After the last several days, during which Gary’s departure was much the focus of attention and often prayed for, the morning and mid-day were filled with that butterflies-in-the-stomach sensation that is always present on days like this.” Gary began the several day trip back to Afghanistan today (Atlanta, Amsterdam, Istanbul, Kabul, Mazar) after several months at home. There is always a gnawing sense of regret on days like this, regret that I didn’t take better advantage of opportunity to be with a wise brother while he was so nearby, regret that I didn’t ask more questions and take more walks, regret that I neglected opportunities to serve and encourage him. He will, of course, forgive me, as he always does.
Would you pray for Gary’s work, for the transition, for health and those sorts of things? He is a man of loving intention, one who lives “not in word or tongue, but with actions and in truth.”
As practiced as we are at saying goodbye to one another, those moments seem to get more and more difficult. But, even these, the sting of separation, the bittersweet evidence of genuine friendship, the tearful hugs are all “holy things.”
A note from August 22-23, 2005
I was fortunate to spend two days writing with good friend, Bebo Norman. We did a wee bit of songwriting and lots of talking. Most of what I do musically, largely because I’m pretty removed geographically from other musicians, partly out of the longtime habit of working by myself, is alone. It was good to share work with a gifted friend, a kindred spirit who lives life well. Songwriting with another — “a holy thing to do.”
A strong book recommendation to you who don’t mind reading slowly and digging in deeply, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, by Eugene Peterson.
Hurricane Katrina, for all her destructive fury, has filled the sky here with some lay-down-and-look-at-me-clouds and welcome breezes.
All for now. Except to say thanks again for your kindnesses to me.
Grateful for the Holy,
July 31, 2005
I’m just home from a week at the beach with family. The time to be with people I love, to read good books, and to rest was a nice end-of-summer excursion but it’s time now to get back to work and to prepare for upcoming months. Since completing the “Live” project and working on some smaller items in the studio, I’ve done very little music work for the past 6 weeks or so. I still have a couple of weeks to finish some songs that I’ve started and hope that I’ll have some new material to share with folks this fall. I’m looking forward to getting back into the music groove and feel like the time off has done me good.
One of the very nice things about this summer has been leisurely mornings. I’ve been getting up at about 6:30 and giving myself a couple of hours to read, think and exercise before reporting to other duties. I’ve particularly enjoyed reading through the Old Testament, slowly and with no deadlines or daily minimums. The ‘plot’ of the Old Testament narrative is made-for-movie when read deliberately and with imagination.
I realized, as I was reading about the kings of Israel this past week, that three of my favorite stories in scripture, 2 OT and 1 NT, involve little known characters who were all men whose names start with “M.” Each had some physical trauma central to their story and each underwent significant transformation. Would you allow me, over the next few newsletters to share some of my reflections on Mephibosheth’s feet, Manasseh’s nose, and Malchus’ ear? You might already be intimately familiar with the stories. I hope you are, but, if you’re like most people I meet, these three M’s might not be too well-known. So …
THE FEET OF MEPHIBOSHETH
The story of Mephibosheth is found in II Samuel 9; it is part of the larger story of King David’s life.
A bit of background. When the boy David killed Goliath, he (David) became a national hero in Israel. Saul, who was Israel’s king at the time, became jealous of David and, for the rest of his life, was bent on destroying the young rival, despite David’s affection and respect for Saul. (I Samuel 18:5-12)
Well, King Saul had a son named Jonathan who, out of true friendship, risked his own safety and family standing to protect David. (I Samuel 20:17; II Samuel 1:26) On one such occasion, David made a promise to show kindness to Jonathan’s family. (I Samuel 20:13-17).
You probably know that King Saul and Jonathan were both killed in battle, an event which grieved David deeply (II Samuel 1) but which also set the stage for his ascendancy to the throne. David does, in fact, become king, as God had ordained, but only after “war between the house of Saul and the house of David lasted a long time.” (You might wonder, as I do, why David, if he loved Saul and Jonathan so, is at war with their descendants for the throne. It’s not explained in the text.) I have read or heard that it was common practice, at the time, for a new monarch to destroy all remnants of the prior ruler’s family, ostensibly to remove opposition or rivalry to his power.
Eventually, David takes the throne.
Now fast forward years later to a moment – was it at a meal, was it at a legislative session, was it in casual conversation over wine or coffee – a moment when David asks, “Is there anyone still left of the house of Saul to whom I can show kindness for Jonathan’s sake?” (II Samuel 9:1) It seems that when David’s dear friend, Jonathan, died, he was survived by a son named Mephibosheth. (Why David did not know or recall this is another unexplained detail in the story.) When David came to power, Mephibosheth was a 5 year old boy, in the care of a nurse. Apparently fearing that David would be looking to destroy the house of Saul, “(the) nurse picked (Mephibosheth) up and fled, but as she hurried to leave, he fell and became crippled.” (II Sam.4:4).
Thereafter, until the day of David’s inquiry years later, Mephibosheth lived in hiding, at a place called Lo-Debar, assuming perhaps that he’d be beyond the king’s notice in an undesirable place whose name means “land of no pasture.”
Got the picture? Mephibosheth is in exile, crippled, a frightened outcast, a presumed enemy of the royal family. He has lived for years with the lie that David is his foe, oblivious to the covenant that existed between his dad and the reigning king.
And then the knock at the door in Lo-Debar. Someone has come, in the king’s name, for Mephibosheth. Imagine the fear on the ride to David’s court. What must have been going through the young man’s mind?
And then, there they are, face to face, the cripple and the king.
David’s words? “Don’t be afraid, for I will surely show you kindness for the sake of your father Jonathan. I will restore to you all the land that belonged to your grandfather Saul, and you will always eat at my table.” (II Sam.9:7).
The parallels between Mephibosheth’s salvation and that of any Christian are obvious (a promise, an alienation, a hiding, a Sovereign call, an adoption, a realization of truth and a changed heart) but I’ll leave those for your reflection. The chapter ends with the note that “Mephibosheth lived in Jerusalem, because he always ate at the king’s table, and he was crippled in both feet.”
From the loneliness and the barrenness of LoDebar, to the court of the King – does it not sound like another deliverance? To me, the story illustrates, with vivid clarity, the words of Colossians 1:13,14: “For He has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought into the kingdom of the Son He loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”
But that’s not the end of the story. So far, the emphasis has been on David’s actions and attitude toward Mephibosheth. Fast forward to II Sam.16:1-4. A rebellion, lead by Absalom has broken out against David. David flees from Jerusalem. Mephibosheth stays behind (due to no fault of his own) and is falsely accused of betraying David. David, in a rash moment, believes the charge and strips Mephibosheth’s property from him.
Later, after Absalom’s death and David’s victory, David returns to Jerusalem. During the time David was away, Mephibosheth has mourned the king’s absence. When Mephibosheth goes out to welcome David home, it is obvious that “he had not taken care of his feet or trimmed his mustache or washed his clothes from the day the king left until the day he returned safely.” (II Sam. 19:24) David confronts Mephibosheth with the allegation of desertion. Mephibosheth explains that, he had tried to leave Jerusalem with the others but, since his disability rendered him unable to saddle a donkey, he was forced to stay behind. He was, in fact, betrayed by the very servant, Ziba, who accused Mephibosheth of unfaithfulness.
David believes and receives Mephibosheth back and offers part of his property back to him (in another unexplained detail, David said that Mephibosheth and Ziba would have to divide the property.) At this point, the heart of Mephibosheth is put on display. Standing in his king’s presence, offered valuable property, faced with opportunity to accuse his servant and make a case for himself, Mephibosheth simply answers, “Let him (the servant) take everything, now that my lord the king has arrived home safely.” (II Sam.19:30) To me, Mephibosheth demonstrates the heart of the true believer. The presence of his king is enough for him.
And it makes me ask myself, “is Jesus enough for me?” Do I forget what He has done to bring me to God? Have I forgotten my Lo-Debar? Have I become so familiar with His table that I do not see my crippled feet beneath it?
Mephibosheth is a beautiful OT picture of the Gospel. Might I recommend it for your thoughtful study and meditation?
Next month, the nose of Manasseh.
Hope you’ve had a great summer.
Dancing on crippled feet,
June 30, 2005
i did not know. Honestly, i did not know. i was certain that i had posted a web letter in May; and when one of my website police informed me that i’d breached my promise to post something new on this page at least once a month, i was confident that they’d simply missed the May epistle. But they hadn’t and i did and you will, i hope, forgive me again.
Monday, June 6, 2005
i arrived home from South Carolina yesterday afternoon, just took guitars out of my truck, unpacked my suitcase, and settled into the fact that i’m home for 10 weeks, a much anticipated 10 weeks. My general tendency, which might surprise some who have the perception that creative people are all bohemian, unorganized sort of folk, is to make sure that every minute of my day is somehow ‘productive’. i hope to fight that tendency some this summer, to enjoy some margins of free time and actually plan for unplanned hours. i do anticipate lots of afternoons outdoors, visits with friends, and more-than-usual time for reading. By late summer, i should be ready for the rather full calendar that Beth has planned for me.
For now, though, here on my porch with a view, surrounded by late spring in all its colorful fullness, the prospect of time at home is sweet indeed.
My brother and i recently completed a short (6 sessions) course in beekeeping, hoping to start some hives for honey-production early next year. Even if i never make an ounce of honey, though, i thoroughly enjoyed learning about the world of bees – the intricacy of their design, their social order, their efficiency and productivity, their role in the plant and animal kingdoms. It was a study in the miraculous and, in some ways, a short course in theology. Did you know, for instance, that:
– a queen honey bee can lay her weight in eggs in a 24 hour period;
– a flying worker honey bee can carry a load of nectar and pollen which is equal to 80% of her own weight;
– the honey bee is so efficient that it would use only an ounce of honey for fuel to fly around the world;
– a worker bee’s adult life in the summer is about six weeks and during that time she collects only 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey;
– a hive of bees logs over 55,000 air miles to collect one pound of honey;
– scientists have discovered that bees communicate with one another by doing different kinds of “dances” that tell other bees where they have found nectar and pollen for the colony.
It’s all pretty amazing stuff.
The course was taught by a group of local beekeepers, a community of creatures almost as colorful and interesting as that of bees. They are passionately interested in their avocation, have a keen fascination with their hives, speak their own vocabulary (broods, supers, capping, extraction, etc, etc, etc), and are eager to enlist new devotees to their circle. Their opinions vary widely and are often diametrically opposed. Catalogs and books about beekeeping abound. There are hardware and special tools and clothing and subspecies and other well-established components of honey-farming about which i was oblivious until i took this course. It’s been quite enjoyable to learn about something new and to have the prospect of making something that i’ll be able to share with others.
We learned in once session about plants that are attractive and helpful to bees in honey production.
The instructors told that during the spring, when bees are gathering nectar and pollen, a worker bee will travel within a 3 mile radius of the hive and visit 1500 flowers a day. There are approximately 50,000 worker bees in a healthy hive. Some of the beekeepers have 10 or more hives side by side at their apiaries. Do the math and you realize there have to be lots of flowers for all those bees. When i remarked that i did not think there were adequate flowers where i live, i was quickly reassured that there must be. “You just don’t see them.”
And how true that is on so many levels …
i’m still hopeful that God might use us in each other’s lives to sharpen one another’s focus, to see the small sources of sweetness and beauty that lay all around us. Maybe this summer, on this porch, there will be a moment of recognition that becomes a song that i’ll be able to share with you this fall. i hope so.
Thanks for stopping by.
Blessings and joy as you see the sweetness of Grace.
April 28, 2005
(Fellow musician Susan Schreer reminds me that i’m about to miss my “once-a-month-something-new” promise. So here’s another hurried note. Thank you, Susan, for providing just enough guilt to drive me indoors for this task.)
My hands are covered with poison ivy. A small chain saw cut is healing on my right hand. Dirt is rather constantly under my fingernails. i’ve started reading Dandelion Wine again. i passed up a chance to spend a free day in Savannah before playing there tomorrow night; i chose instead to mow the pastures here at the farm (after asking myself, “could any place anywhere be any more beautiful than this?) i’m eating most of my meals and making most of my phone calls on the outside porch. i sleep with the windows open. Fresh cut flowers from around the farm are in vases around the house.
… Must be springtime.
For the past nine months or so, Thursday mornings, 10 c’clock, has been one of the highlights of the average week. That’s when i drive uptown to Park Elementary School and read to Mrs. Murphy’s third grade class. i did the same thing last year, as part of a ministry of literacy that grew out of the Thursday morning men’s group which meets in my home every week. My hope has been that, if i meet kids in the community while they are young, i’ll get to watch them grow up through the school system. Maybe when they are in high school, i’ll work with them through Young Life.
This year, we’ve read a couple of books from The Chronicles of Narnia and are soon to complete The Horse and His Boy.
This morning, one of the students, Briana, shared with me that one of her aunts recently offered to give her $150 to use at Toys R Us. Briana intends to use the money instead on books. i think i felt what a teacher must feel when she senses that she’s gotten through to a young mind.
The class will be here for a field day/picnic in a few days. Can’t wait.
If you’re looking for something richly rewarding, thoroughly enjoyable, and wholly worthwhile to do with some of your volunteer time, might i recommend adopting a class for weekly reading?
Just a couple of days ago, i sent a new CD off for mastering. It’s the “live” project that i’ve been working on for the last few months. We hope to have it available soon and will post information about it on the site. There will be 14 songs (an hour and seven minutes worth) on the disc, none of which are previously recorded except for a new arrangement of “Magic of Surprise” from the Liberty CD.
Pleasant days to you.
March 31, 2005
Though there is compelling evidence to the contrary, I usually remember promises I make. Even when they are as yet unfulfilled, I remember them, am almost dogged by them. I can recall, for instance, that about three years ago, I told a good friend that I would put together a list of books that I think everyone ought to read. I did not give a deadline for the promise but will surprise him someday by sending the list to him (along with a copy of an old recording that he requested).
With that curious introduction, I begin the as-promised monthly webletter. I confess that, while most times I write out of want-to, I’m doing this out of have-to. I’ve had a busy March (you, too, I’ll bet; are your taxes done?); I’ve let the last couple of weeks lead me in unintended directions (good ones but they pushed other things off my plate); I’ve waited until the last day of the month and I’m heading out of town tomorrow; etc, etc. So, what might otherwise have been a letter enjoyable to write (as it would have involved reflecting on some pleasant themes and recollections from the last four weeks) and, I’d like to think, pleasant to read, is instead a hasty scribble.
Maybe I’ll just let you know some of the things I wanted to write about and, next month, I can flesh them out.
1.) – New puppies at the farm! Emma (a mix of unknown portions) and Tyler (a full-blooded Australian Shepherd). I’ll put their pictures up in the next few days.
2.) New Baruke guitar! A custom-made, masterpiece of an instrument by Allen Williams. Even if it weren’t remarkable, I’m sure I’d find something nice to say about it but I cannot begin to find the words to describe how beautiful this guitar is. I told Allen after playing it on the night I received it that it is exactly the guitar I’ve always wanted. While I am thankful for the fine instruments that I’ve been playing for years, they pale in comparison to this new Baruke. I’ll put pictures of it here soon and you’ll see it next time I’m in your town. If you’re a serious guitar player, can I encourage you again to visit www.Barukeguitars.com?
3.) A thank you note to the anonymous donor who gave the Baruke guitar to me. I’ll post it here when I get it done.
4.) A recent rereading of Confession by Leo Tolstoy. It’s been the catalyst for some good reflection time.
5.) The live CD. I’m hoping by the end of next week to have my work on it completed. At present, it’s looking like 14 songs. Stay tuned.
6.) Springtime. It always deepens love for life and its Maker.
I hope you’re doing well and keeping your promises.
Blessings as you live on this side of Easter. He is risen.
February 8, 2005
As I might have mentioned previously, i’ve been working on a new CD of recordings from recent concerts. While i’ve never felt terribly comfortable listening to myself on tape, it has been rather pleasant to listen to some of you. If there are new songs that you’ve eard me do, and that you’d like to have recorded, drop me a note and we’ll try to get it on the recorder.
– – – – –
I read these words recently and found them thought-provoking, especially for those of us who enjoy the printed page:
“The function of a good book is to stand like a signpost directing the reader toward the Truth and the Life. That book serves best which early makes itself unnecessary, just as a signpost serves best after it is forgotten, after the traveler has arrived safely at his desired haven. The work of a good book is to incite the reader to moral action, to turn his eyes toward God and urge him forward. Beyond that it cannot go.” (A.W. Tozer, preface to The Divine Conquest. Might I recommend Tozer to you? He has become a regular, and very welcome, part of my reading intake lately.)
January 20, 2005
Last summer, when i was in something of a writing dry-spell, i visited with a fellow songwriter who shared with me that, whenever he feels stuck in the musical rut, he makes a conscious effort to hear live music, confident that, if he does, the hearing of others` songs will eventually inspire and envigorate his own writing. It’s good advice.
i love music, but there are times when it just comes alive in a new way. One occurred last night.
Against that backdrop, might i make a hearty recommendation for an evening of musical joy? I recently attended a concert of Bobby McFerrin, known most popularly for his song “Don`t Worry, Be Happy.” The concert took place at the 2000 seat Bill Heard Theatre in the Columbus Rivercenter, one of the most aesthetically and acoustically beautiful venues in the country (according to Yoyo Ma and others who should know).
The stage was simply set – one chair, a bottle of water, a handheld wireless mike. Bobby McFerrin walked onstage in jeans and t-shirt, tied his dreadlocks in a knot behind his head and began an a cappella concert that held the audience spellbound, without intermission, for over 2 hours. His singing, describable perhaps as a display of vocal gymnastics, included scat improv (with no recognizable lyrics), a Bach prelude (to which some in the audience sang Ave Maria at McFerrin’s request), a Negro spiritual, a quickly assembled choir piece with audience volunteers, and even a 10 minute musical version of “The Wizard of Oz.”
Aside from occasional sightings of him on PBS, I was unfamiliar with Bobby McFerrin`s work before last night. And while I now know something about his remarkable vocal abilities, that is not the memory that endures from the evening. It is, instead, the sheer joy of the audience as the evening progressed and people let themselves be drawn into the spontaneity of one man`s singing. His voice was unconstrained, his melodies non-linear and unpredictable, his energy unaffected, and his throat, at every number, seemed to say “this is how alive a voice can be!” No band, no choreography, no light show, just a man singing. Such giftedness, exercised without inhibition and restraint, made me grateful for God`s generosity to the world. Can there be any doubt, for those who would ask the question, that the Giver of gifts intends for His creation to experience beauty and joy as a regular part of life.
Next time he’s anywhere nearby, go see Bobby McFerrin. And if you know him, tell him thanks for me.
I hope you’re well.
Don’t worry, be happy,
If you are His,
January 17, 2005
Good morning and every blessing for the new year,
Last Friday, i had lunch with my Boss/Sister, Beth. i did not say “bossy sister,” i said Boss/Sister. It is no secret that i work for her rather than she for me. She tells me where to go, when to be there, whether i’ll be playing for free or for pay, what songs would work best, and how i am to dress. She tells me what to be working on, when to get things finished, who to call, etc, etc, etc. (Sounds like i’m a married man doesn’t it? … just kidding.) … i could not do my work without her and i would argue a convincing case that she is the world’s best employer. More than manager, more than sister, she is my friend and it’s easy to take orders from someone when you know they love you without condition. (That’s good theology.)
That said, when she tells me what i ought to do, i pay attention. So, at lunch last Friday, when she told me i should make it one of three top priorities in ’05 to keep my website current and fresh, i listened attentively. And so, ladies and gentlemen, i make the bold pledge to have a new web letter, and i hope other items of interest, at least once a month on this site. … Thanks for your patience with me.
i had a bountiful day last Wednesday at the Post Office. i received:
– a beautiful cutting board (hardly the right word for something that resembles the woodwork in a well-crafted guitar) custom made by a Dr. Bob Bonness, a good friend from Kansas;
– a black and white pencil sketch (in intricate detail of a country road here at the farm) by Michele Gray from Tennessee; and,
– an almost finished copy of a new cd by one of my favorite singer/songwriters, Matt Auten of Asheville.
Each gift made me pause for a moment to imagine these friends of mine at their work. i could picture Bob at the woodshop in his basement, Michele at a desk or easel with music playing in the background and a hand full of pencils, and Matt in an armless, straight-back chair with guitar in hand and writing pad on his knee. They are images (maybe accurate or not) of people wrapped up in something they love to do and are exceptional at doing, people living out the image of the Creator God in ways that are beautiful, generous, and serene. That i get to be the beneficiary of the hours they spent in creative pursuit, that their work is visible and audible in this place where i live, is no small privilege.
As i mentioned in my last newsletter, i was a participant in November at an event in Birmingham, Alabama called “Christfest, A conference on ministry and the arts.” One of the featured speakers was Eugene Peterson who delivered a message entitled “Practice Resurrection,” an insightful address on the valuable role that creative expression plays in spiritual formation (which he also calls “theological aesthetics”). He makes the observations that Christian discipleship is largely explained in the metaphor of birth and growth; that the American church is effective at the birth part but less so at growth; that, whereas the birth part is quick and often celebrated, the growth part – in which we must live with unpleasant others, where we must learn to be members of community, where we must endure the slow processes that lead to Christlikeness – is often unexciting, hard to measure, and incompatible with American attachment to quick, indulgent happiness.
Dr. Peterson shared with us that some of his favorite collaborators in ministry have been people of artistic bent:
“These are the ones who are of most use to me in paying attention to what is right before me. Not in order to make it into something other than itself, herself, himself. But simply to be there in the presence of what God has done and is doing, to give myself in something like adoration, contemplation. Artists are the one group of people who are conspicuous for having no utility in American society. Was it Auden who said, ‘poetry makes nothing happen’? It takes a lot of guts to spend your time doing something that has no bottom line. i need to be in the company of men and women like this, who live by convictions and standards that are not set by greed and avarice, ambition and careerism, speed and efficiency. Pastors (might i add, ‘and others of us’) are under enormous pressure to quantify our work for the gospel in the form of statistics, to justify our existence by showing how hard we work, by being conspicuously busy. The problem is, the moment we cave into these pressures, we no longer practice resurrection, which is our main work.”
My guess is that the friends who sent drawings, recordings, thought-provoking letters and verse to me last week would not consider themselves artists. The effect, however, of their gifts on me is to make me “pay attention to what is right before me” – to the colors and texture of wood grain, to the contrast of gravel and sky, to the truth that “Love has never been an object i could get my hands around.” And i’m grateful. How rich life is because of those who see, who share, who quietly work at “something that has no bottom line,’ who know the blessedness of giving something original and unique.
i shared in a note to Michele that, several years ago, i decided that i only wanted original art pieces on my walls. With just one exception (a print of a troubador with his guitar that was given to me years ago by some close friends), all of the works i have in the house are one of a kind. Even better, they are all by individuals whom i know personally. i’ve taped small notes to the back of each frame so that, when i’m gone or when i’ve forgotten, others can know just what the piece means to me and how it got here.
Might i encourage you to find and support some little known or struggling artist in your community, your church, your school, someone who would use song or words or clay or canvas to celebrate the life that we have in Jesus? i know of individuals who try to budget a bit of money each year to give to creative, but not so prosperous, musicians, painters, writers, or others of creative persuasion. Seems like a good investment in the life of any community.
Better yet, might i encourage you to try your hand at something original: a poem for a spouse or child, a drawing of something unique to your world, a song about anything, a carving, a photograph. They are good things to enjoy in the present and they are invaluable gifts to leave behind.
One of the other priorities that Beth and i discussed is a new recording. Last year, i worked on a project for about 6 months and then just ran out of steam. The more i worked on it, the less satisfied i was with it. It’s a collection of very soft songs, some of them hymns, and it’s on the hard drive about 90% done. i might resurrect it at some point but am working in the meantime on a CD of songs from concert recordings that i have made and will be making in the coming months. We’ll keep you posted and would welcome your thoughts about songs or stories that might be included on the disc.
Book recommendation. Paul by Walter Wangerin.
i hope you’re doing well. Thanks again for visiting the site, for encouraging the creative things i get to do, for your kindness. i look forward to next time i’m in your neighborhood.