Just a quick note

i’m not sure if i’m on a set practice of adding to my blog every Sunday (a doubtful possibility at best) but i’ve made it a part of the past two weekends and thought i’d impress some of you skeptics (that’d be you Ben May) by making it three in a row. Problem is i’m not sure what to write. So, here’s a quick week in review …It included 3 nights in Asheville (spending time with good pal Nate, while his parents, David Wilcox and Nance Pettit are on the trip overseas), a lunch with 2 Furman University students (one from my hometown who inspired a song last fall, “You’ve been cursed with a daddy who cares”) while en route from Asheville to Greenwood SC where i played my first gig of the year on Friday night, a hospital visit in Atlanta to welcome young Landon Clark Murray to the world (he arrived on friday), and some hours late Saturday afternoon planting long leaf pines in the pasture in advance of rain that started last night and has fallen all day. Church gathering this morning, lunch with brother Gary and then quiet afternoon that included reading of Praying for Sheetrock which was on my kitchen table when i returned home yesterday afternoon. So much to be thankful for. So very much.

“Sittin’ around is hard work.”

Levi Nelson, who worked for much of his life in Hamilton as a logger, has been legally blind and unable to get around for several years now. He is the husband of Mamie who, for 13 years, delivered the local newspaper in the area that included my driveway. In describing the sedentary life that has been forced on him by his failing health, a life that renders him homebound most of the time, Levi once lamented to me that “sittin’ around is hard work.” …
For the past few months, starting during summertime of last year, I’ve tried to honor some notion of Sabbath, partly in response to several books I read, partly because of what the Bible says about observing a day of rest, partly because I just know in my bones that it’s right. On many Sundays, though not as many as you might guess, I’m out of town on work; but when I’m home I try to resist the pull to be ‘productive’ or active. At least since June, the day means gathering with the saints in the morning, returning to the house, perhaps sharing a meal with family or friends, and then staying nearby for the rest of the day. I might take a walk around the farm but, even then, try not to wander too far, knowing that if I do, I’ll find some task that needs being done, done right now. I usually write letters, read something worthwhile, visit with comers-by, doze in the hammock or on the couch. I don’t have a television, haven’t for sometime now, and don’t have to fight the temptation to leave it turned off (a temptation that I found difficult to resist when I had one) so there’s a lot of silence. Which took a lot of getting used to.
I look forward to Sundays now.
At first, my Sabbath routine was a challenge for the same reason that Levi Nelson finds it difficult to be old and disabled. “Sittin’ round is hard work.” … Even now from time to time, the get-it-done, be-productive, rest-resistant part of me found stillness uncomfortable and somehow ill-advised, despite the clear admonition of scripture and the implied lessons that creation teaches concerning rejuvenation. I’ve learned to handle silence fairly well – it’s a by product of writing – but stillness has been difficult.
On some Sundays, it is much easier than others. Take today for example: it was a rainy day and a good one for being inside. With logs on the fire, dog on the couch, coffee in the cup, letters written (one to a friend in jail, several to folks who did me kindnesses this past week, another to a writer whose work I’ve come to admire), I turned on a newly acquired CD of hymns by fellow singer-songwriter Chris Rice and read, for the second time, Treasured by Leigh McLeroy, a collection which “considers tangible reminders of God’s active presence” in our day to day lives. I highly recommend both the CD (“Peace Like a River” ) and the book. They complement one another beautifully, make for good company on a rainy afternoon, and render sittin’ around feel like something other than hard work.
It’s been a restful day, well timed to prepare me for a couple of upcoming weeks away. It’s can be work, sittin’ around, but the pay, something other than dollars and cents, is generous.

Every Word on Trial

January 3, 2010
“You have to put every word on trial for its life.”

Someone shared that phrase with me recently, to describe what good songwriters do when choosing lyrics. I’ve been undertaking that process lately (not to imply that I consider myself a good songwriter yet) as I work on a new CD project.
The project, being done at my brother’s request, is part music, part spoken parts. It is being written as an attempt to share the Gospel, in broad strokes and in a very accessible way to a wide audience. The layout for now is a letter to a niece (yes, I did one similar years ago to niece Christina). We’re looking at 6 spoken sections, each about 3 minutes long, and 7 songs, also about 3 minutes long. Sounds kind of simple, right? Hardly. My first draft of the letter, which I thought was stripped to the bare essentials, ran about an hour or so, which meant that I had to cut about 60% of it to meet our time constraints. “You put every word on trial for its life.” I’m still in the process and wonder, now that I’m close to my time goals, if there’s enough content left to make the Gospel intelligible. The exercise has been a good one in helping me ask myself, “how do I share the story of the Gospel with someone who know little or nothing of it, who is foreign to the jargon of the believer or the vocabulary of the Bible? What are the essentials? What parts, if left out, prove fatal to the message?
Every word is on trial.
i’m hoping to begin recording this month. Others are helping me choose the right words and I’m very grateful for the protection that they offer me from my mistakes, but I’d appreciate any prayers you might offer up in our behalf. The project will not be for sale. It will be a ‘give’ recording in hopes that we can get in lots of folks’ hands. We’ll let you know when it’s done.

The Art of Stacking, new year’s day

January 1, 2010
The Art of Stacking

You might recall a song I did several years ago on “Tap the Kaleidoscope”, a song about a healing day spent splitting wood with Bobby Joe Baxley, one of my dearest friends in the world. Well, a couple of days ago, I had another such day. We were in the same field, at the farm of another dear friend Donna Rittiner, where a massive red oak recently blew over. (Our southern soil is saturated with record rainfall at present and roots have difficulty holding to the ground.) The cool, clear day was a mirror image of the one in the song. And equally as therapeutic, especially after the busyness of the holidays.
Today, New Year’s Day, I went to gather up a truck load of the wood that we had split and left on the ground. (Donna was kind enough to help me.) It’s new wood so it will have to sit for a year, drying out, before it can be used for firewood. I stacked it with some wood that I cut last summer, also to be burned in fall/winter 2010.
There is, of course, a certain randomness to the whole stacking process – you just put the wood pieces on top of one another, at the first and most obvious available space. If one has time, though, as I did today, to be a bit more methodical, the stacking almost becomes an act of artistry, in which one finds the best gap for a particular stick of wood, thinking beauty rather than mere function. The stack becomes something of a sculpture, even if it is one destined for destruction. It’s Lego blocks for adults.
I could hardly have enjoyed a New Year’s day more than I did this one. I dedicate today’s monument to the new year, an act of faith which can foresee an evening 12 months or so from now when these very logs will light the fire beside which I read, pray, or nap.

Christmas Morning 2009

The call came before sunup.
Considerably so.
No problem.
A fire was already lit to warm the room.
A call to the wrong number.
Mine.
“Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas.”
A nice chat – “weather sure is bad.” –
And other niceties.
Until she finally said what we both wondered,
“Who is this?”
A laugh and an apology.
Words of kindness on the day we celebrate
The Word of Kindness.
Soon the sun will rise.
It’s Christmas.

Rachmaninov times Three, December 15, 2009

Twice today, once in the morning and once in the evening, I sat in my truck to hear the end of a song, hoping to get the title of the piece and the name of the composer. Because the piece was a symphony, my wait was considerable, 20 or 30 minutes. Each time I listened, I teared up. On both occasions, the selection — Symphony #2 by Sergei Rachmaninov — was the same, though I didn’t realize it at the time. When I got home, I promptly purchased a copy of the recording (by Andre Previn and the London Symphony).
I don’t have a trained understanding of classical music but I listen to it a lot, usually on NPR. (I doubt that there is much threat of this happening but please don’t be impressed. If someone were to ask me for my finest technical assessment o the piece, I’d say, in my finest high-brow, “I like it. It’s really beautiful.”) That said, I recommend it highly to anyone who 1) has even an inkling of taste for orchestral music and 2) has the ability to sit and simply listen, hands empty, phone off, eyes closed (your car or pick up truck would be a great place to hear it.) If you listen to no other part, the Third Movement is quite something.
I remember the first time I was conscious of hearing Rachmaninov. I was in college, a freshman at Mercer University. An orchestra played on campus and, for reasons unknown to me now, I went. One of the selections that night was Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini, by Rachmaninov, which was somewhat popularized in the movie “Somewhere in Time.” This past summer, every night for a couple of months, I fell asleep to the beautiful music of that soundtrack. Hello Rachmaninov.
The next time I was conscious of hearing a piece by him was a Saturday afternoon about 10 or 12 years ago. I was home that weekend, in the house with the radio on, when a short (2:51) melodic choral piece caught my attention. It was, I learned, a song called “Praise the Lord from the Heavens” from a large composition called “Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom”. The music is entirely vocal, almost Gregorian sounding, austere, reverent, haunting. (I can hear myself talking to some classical music audiophile on the airplane, “I like it. It’s really beautiful, but quite different than, say, his second symphony.” Wouldn’t they be impressed?)
There are many times – during prayer, on cloudy days, when I want to rest or think through something – that “Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom” is my first choice of accompaniment. (The recording I have is by the Kansas City Chorale. You can find it at www.kcchorale.org at the “recordings” tab.)
Music taste being what it is, I can’t be certain that you’d like any of these pieces by this late 19th, early 20th century Russian pianist, but he’s been present in my pick up, at my bedside, and at my prayer altar for years. His music is good for my soul; might be for your’s too.