Monthly Archives: August 2011

Irene, Goodnight…

For a change, Alabamians were watching anxiously for everyone else’s safety as Irene ripped up the Eastern seaboard.  Alabamians are used to hunkering down in our safe places with flashlights and batteries, bottled water and a weather radio, waiting for the all clear.  So we waited this time, but the memories of April were still with us.  I have a daughter in New York, so I appreciated Mayor Bloomberg’s caution.

There is a delicious sweetness in hunkering in the dark during a storm.  Routine stops, you call and gather everyone who matters most to you and let go of a frightful number of things that seem, normally, indispensable.  So, for a moment, flights grounded, schools closed, ballgames stop, traffic ceases, the world grows still as nature roars its terrible beauty and we wait.  It is delicious and sweet because the ache for life is powerful.  Anxiety, just enough to give an edge, focused toward listening and being ready. Tomorrow, when the storm passes, not only will we have the euphoria of having survived, but we will also probably see the most beautiful weather in months.  We are alive, and it feels good.  We have remembered for a moment who matters to us, and what doesn’t matter at all, and it is clear to us.

Storm names are the oddest thing to me.  Will I one day kneel in terror as “Hurricane Howard” or “Tropical Storm Myrtle Mae” bear down on me?  Weird.  We don’t name the tornadoes.  They come too quickly and they’re gone.  We only give them terrifying numbers:  F4 or F3, as though they were aliens dropped on the earth to destroy us.  Life and death, so close that we can think about it, not just abstractly.

So, glad it’s over.  But it drove me to somber singing this weekend.  Thought about old Leadbelly’s song, “Good Night Irene” when some man had painted a hasty sign he nailed to his outer banks property, “GOOD NIGHT, IRENE.”  Good night, indeed.  And goodbye.  We dodged death once more.  We are a little more alive, although some didn’t make it.  Count our blessings, clean up, and move on.

Had a little time this afternoon, so I recorded “Good Night Irene,” and remembered what a sad and tragic song it really is.  It’s odd to see what happened to it.  Leadbelly was a convicted murderer in prison who sang well enough to get a pardon or two, but the song is deeply sad, about a broken heart in an early marriage between two young, immature people.  The singer struggles with temptation to die, to throw himself into the river and drown.  Later mainstream folkies softened and sanitized it.  The Weavers’ version sounds like something from “A Mighty Wind.”  You can almost see Mitch Miller’s bouncing ball.

No, a good blues song is a serious thing–about life and death and pain and hellhounds.  No white picket fences, just the storm of some life, roaring toward you, and the sheer audacity of living when you know you’re going to die sooner or later.  Hunker down in a storm shelter, think about love and family and what matters, and your heart starts pouring out.  So you sing it and the storm passes and you’re still here, the truth is out there now, in notes and tears, and you can get up and go on a little more, relieved, glad, breathing still.  Now that’s a song.  So, goodnight Irene.  See you in our dreams, fears and all.  Good to still be here.

I Am a Flatpickin’ Pilgrim

Pilgrim’s Progress is one of my favorite spiritual writings to come from the Baptist and Puritan stream.  The longer title of the original The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come written by John Bunyan first appeared in 1678.   It was written by Bunyan while locked in jail for violating the Conventicle Act, in which the state forbid anyone but officially licensed Anglican priests from holding religious services.

I have been to that jail where Bunyan was, been to his grave in London, and visited the town where he lived as an early Baptist.  It is a holy place for me.  Pilgrim’s Progress is about an arduous, and highly symbolic, journey of a man called Christian who sets out from the security of his homeplace, the City of Destruction, to find the Celestial city to come.  He heads out carrying a huge burden on his back, his sin, and is discouraged by others at every turn, but he perseveres.

It’s incredibly hokey in one sense, an allegory that never lets you forget its allegorical-ness.  Along the way, the characters have allegory names:  Faithful, Talkative, Mr. By-ends, Hopeful, the Giant Despair, Temporary, Grim and Too-bold.  They represent sins, human failings and strengths in people.

And yet, the perceptiveness of the human soul, the psychological insights into inner struggle that Bunyan shows in it are powerful.  It is still a resource I turn to now and then.  I have felt so many of the struggles he identifies.

But something never felt quite right about calling my blog, “Pilgrim’s Progress.”  First, it could be construed as a bit pretentious, as though I did what preachers always do in their sermons, make themselves the main character.  I mean, am I really so sure that I am Christian, headed for the heavenly city against all odds?  Why wouldn’t I just as well be Mr. Ready-to-Halt, or Heedless, or even Mr. Fearing?  It’s like calling yourself, “The Deserving.”  Humblebragging, as I wrote in an earlier piece.

So, since I am a musician, consider that to be a central piece of “me” and think of my art as inseparable from me, I chose a qualifier and the moment I settled on it, it felt right.  “Flatpicker.”  That may not be a term you have heard if you’re not a guitar player.  Flatpicking is a style, one of the two major ways players perform melodies on guitars, the other being “fingerstyle” or fingerpicking.  Most classical players are the latter.

Flatpickers have to do what finger players do with three or four alternating fingers with a guitar pick alternating back and forth at high speed.  When you first start to learn it, it is hard as all get out.  And there are different ways of doing it:  Alternate picking, Crosspicking, Downpicking, Economy picking, Hybrid picking, Lead guitar,    Sweep-picking and Tremolo picking.  There are other styles—strumming and fingerstyle, with little worlds of their own.

Flatpicking guitar is a world rooted in the proud chemistry of post-puberty male testosterone.  It’s often about speed, being the fastest, not far removed from NASCAR and football.

Flatpickers have their own magazine, their own heroes and a whole web of camps, festivals and venues.  But the granddaddy of them all is the one in Kansas.  It’s called the Walnut Valley Festival, but it’s known to Flatpickers as “Winfield”, as in, “He won Winfield.”  My teacher, Glenn Tolbert, competed and made it pretty far, and he is FAST.

Three different summers I went to a camp in Maryville, Tennessee, devoted to teaching instruments to disciples, but the centerpiece is guitar flatpicking.  The Founder of the camp, Steve Kaufman, a native of Maryville, and his renown is being “the only three-time champion of Winfield.”  He is a legend among guitar players.

Other instruments compete, of course.  A friend at camp told me of jamming with a 16 year old girl years ago who went on to win the fiddle competition.  Her name was Krauss, I think, Allison I believe it was.  Pretty good fiddler, he told me.

So the acoustic world is a serious little world.  Humbling, because the only way you get better is endless repetitions, learning from others who are better than you,  and yet still having to find your own pecuiliar style and physical adjustment.

Some people like Tommy Emmanuel, are so good at flatpicking that I imagine pride would be a great struggle.  More of us, though, have to aspire to confident playing.  You learn how to play with others and not play over them, how to bring out the song, do solos without always needing to attract so much attention to yourself.

Flatpicking sometimes requires that you go backwards for a while before you progress.  You learn a lot by imitation, hanging out with experts, and often, being willing to crash in front of people and laugh about it.

One of the oddest phenomena I have experienced in this journey has been learning to disengage from the conscious mind.  I know that sounds impossible to non-players, and I imagine it is not exactly that.  Maybe it’s only “shifting to the right brain” or submerging to a more primitive kind of memory, but the way I can describe it is practicing and playing for so long that you can do it without looking at your fingers, thinking about the chords, and letting your muscles do what they know to do without much thinking about it.

It is a kind of “self-forgetting” that makes for joy in playing.  It lets you look at the other singers and players in a band and smile, read what they are doing, listen to their hints, and play off their cues.  It  makes the song a mysterious and joyous journey in communion.

So, flatpicking seems like a perfect modifier to me for my blog, my life, and my religious journey, too.  A friend of mine sent me a great quote one day:  “I am still learning—Michaelangelo.”  Me, too.  Forget about what everybody thinks.  Focus on the craft, learn the tunes, feel the rhythm, soar out on your own in a jam, learn from your mistakes, don’t do what you can’t do, and stay within the song.  Follow the rules of jamming.  Respect the other players.  Hang in there.

So I offer you a little instrumental I created, a little flatpicking piece.  It’s just me with a guitar, playing something I came up with just doodling around one day.  I call it, “Possibilitating.”  Enjoy, and welcome to my retitled blog.  Feels more like me.

I Was Thinking Tonight About Elvis, Hank, and Gillian

I was reading about Hank Williams, went to hear Gillian Welch, and wound up thinking about Elvis Presley.  Just finished the late Paul Hemphill’s wonderful biography of Hank Williams, Sr.   This being “the Year of Alabama Music,” I have decided to do a study of some great Alabama musicians.  It’s a pretty great list.  Anyway, sometimes secular musicians, especially in folk, country and blues, are windows into what Stephen J. Nichols calls, “the gospel in a minor key”  I call it, “the rest of creation that never finds its way into church.”  We’re pretty long on the resurrection side of things, so that means we don’t often enough spend time down in the human soul and its perplexing alleyways.

Hank Williams knew all about those hard places of life.  Dead of damage by drugs and alcohol by the age of 29, Williams was the first and arguably greatest country music star ever.  A high school dropout from South Alabama who knew how to make people feel his pain and write about pain everyone feels.  After his death, Williams’ popularity and legend grew, but about the time of his untimely death, Elvis arrived on the scene.

Hemphill says Elvis was almost the end of country music.  Both he and Hank perfectly represented their ethos and time—Hank the rural and small town world that still lived inside most people raised in the Depression, and Elvis the bombastic musical fusion of the world that America in the 1950s began to aspire to be.  Both sons of the South, about to blow wide open by the searing Civil Rights movement, all of its contradictions laid out where the whole world could see us exposed.

Last Friday, Vickie and I went with our friends Gay and Dan to hear Gillian Welch and David Rawlings at Workplay Theater on the Soundstage.  If you don’t know her, you have probably heard her somewhere.  She writes and sings a plaintive, almost “old time” style.  Their concerts usuially only feature two guitars and an occasional frail or two on the banjo.  Spare, haunting, perfectionistic, well- crafted songs and harmonies.  Gillian and David joked a lot about how “down” their music is.

They write about hard times, pregnant teenagers and careless men, broken hearts and do it in a voice she described to NPR in an interview as a “stoic” voice.  Surely she and Rawlings are the only duo to emerge from the Berklee School of Music with a sound like they have.  They seem to have plopped down into the twenty-first century by mistake.  They should have been playing on porches in 1946.  Instead, they perform for middle class lawyers in jeans and t-shirts grooving on soul music of a world they barely remember.

That was August 12, a week ago as I write.  Then, four days later, came the day Elvis died.  Especially here in the South, August 12 is still considered tragic because the federal government didn’t declare it a national holiday.  I still remember where I was—working as a carpenter in Dunn, NC, framing a house for a rich lawyer out in the country.  We listened to radio all day, the only relief to the scortching Carolina summer.   But sometime in that day, the news came.  “Elvis Presley died this morning.”

I was nothing like Elvis, but he was one of us.  His music filled our cars on long trips, helped us date, and was the background music at Myrtle Beach.  The world never understood the part we all shared with him –a Southerner out in the wider world, never really at ease with it, overwhelmed by it, ashamed of ourselves in ways we could never explain, but still having something to say.  Not unlike Hank.

Maybe that’s what keeps killing people like them, I don’t know.  They carry something heavy about them, something they would sing about and live out, but never could quite exorcise it.  Restless, haunted by hounds of heaven and hell, searching, adored and showered with wealth but never able to carry it off.  And then they were gone.

So it was good, last week, before I even knew we were about to remember that it was August 16, 1977.  Elvis was dead, and I was in Dunn, NC, putting up rafters.  Thirty four years ago, the King was gone.  Hank abdicated his throne and Elvis took it but it took him, too.  What they lived, what they sang about, what finally killed them both, is too important for us to keep out of religion or life.  So I mourn these two poets, storytellers, prophets of the broken heart, laureates of human longing.  If you don’t realize that there is something spiritual about Hank’s “Cold, Cold Heart” and Elvis singing the old “Are You Lonesome Tonight,” the old Carter family tune that Elvis turns into a soul shiver, or the maudlin “Long Black Limosine:”    

Hank Williams' goes home

So Hank, Elvis, it’s been an oddly moving time to be with you both.  You are the troubadors of where we come from and where we tried to go.  We won’t forget you.   Let me end with the song Gillian and David sang from their Time the Revelator album, “Elvis Presley Blues”.  Rest in peace.

I was thinkin that night about Elvis,
Day that he died,
Day that he died.

I was thinkin that night about Elvis,
Day that he died,
Day that he died.

Just a country boy that combed his hair,
and put on a shirt his mother made and went on the air.
And he shook it like a chorus girl.
And he shook it like a harlan queen.
And he shook it like a midnight rambler, baby,
like you’d never seen, never seen.
like you’d never seen, never seen.

Listen to it here

Words, Hell, and Rob Bell

In case theological buzz doesn’t get to the world where you live, Rob Bell is a dynamic young pastor from Michigan who is an ordained hipster that a lot of young people and non-churched people read.  He writes simply and understandably, but he has cool titles and surprising substance in what he says.  Most preachers would look gross if they dressed and cut their hair like Rob (and lots of local megachurch preachers in various towns wind up that way—looking like your Dad trying to be cool—an old white male with a buzz cut and in clothes from five years ago and a mouthpiece microphone, belly hanging ever-so-perilously over the top of his expensive jeans.  He tries to look postmodern.  He looks, well, like your Dad).  Rob pulls it off.

He has hit a firestorm (sorry for the irony of that word) with his latest book, about the subject of God’s love, hell and the damnation of the human race.  The title itself, Love Wins, already tells you which way Rob leans.  He questions our theology that seems determined that God “has to” consign most of the human race to eternal torture in hell.  How is this “good news” he asks.  Those who disagree with him argue something like this:  “The whole universe deserves to be burned up, so the fact that God saves some is completely merciful.  It all deserves eternal torture.”  To which Rob asks, “Really?  Does the Creator actually give up on the entire creation?  Does God delight in torturing us forever if we were born in the wrong place and never heard the gospel?”

Right now, I don’t want to write about his argument—it’s an interesting enough subject that I think I’ll come back at a later time and write about the doctrine of hell and my thoughts on it.  I want to comment, though, on the controversy about this book and what it says about theological conversation and the church of right now.  I do want to say, unlike a few commentators, I waited to actually read Rob Bell’s book before saying much about it.  Short take:  interesting, insightful, passionate, easy to read, and bound to be controversial.

Like I said, I’m not finally convinced by it all, even though I wish his vision were so.  I liked many parts of the book—especially some keen insights into scripture texts.  I am not surprised it has made many upset, but I remember a comment by E. J. Carnell about fundamentalism:

Fundamentalism…sees the heresy in untruth but not unloveliness.  If it has the most truth, it has the least grace, since it distrusts courtesy and diplomacy (“Fundamentalism” in A Handbook of Christian Theology (1958, p. 142).   

This argument, about whether God’s love in the end completely wins over everyone, is very old, as Bell himself mentions in the book.  Having a discussion about it is not wrong or unreasonable.  Seminary students at any school worth its salt have to have these discussions to learn church history, theology and pastoral care skills.  And here is my major interest in this piece:  Why should the larger church be damaged by publicly thinking about them?  That is not the same as saying Bell is right—only that he presents a point of view that has appeared many times in two thousand years.  I was rather surprised when I read William Barclay’s autobiography, published after his death, I think, in which he stated his belief that God would ultimately save all and that there would be continued opportunity after death (Barclay’s bible study commentaries are a staple of a massive number of very orthodox Sunday School teachers).

Theological conversation, real theological conversation, almost always pushes one to better places, and a deeper search for the existential truth of it all.  I remember going to hear Brian McLaren a few years ago to find out what all this talk of “emergent church” was all about.  I liked him, and was surprised that his journey was an opening up to things that were “new paths” for him that I had engaged thirty years ago in my theological training.  I thought, “Why is this so exciting to people?  This is old stuff.”  And the answer is, “Not if you’ve never heard it.”  The truth is, much of American religiosity and theologizing is journalistic, bloggy, tweety, and superficial.  It looks like everything else in our culture—absent of long, engaged thinking, respectful conversation, genuine intellectual depth and a spirit of openness to changing one’s mind.

Among the reviews of Bell that I came across, I liked one by John Dyer in Christianity Today called, “Not Many of You Should Presume to Be Bloggers: How social media changed theological debate.”(March 11, 2011).  It made me reflect on how much “doing theology” has changed—books are shorter and the spaces between the lines wider.  The fonts are bigger, and maybe postmodernism will lead to all pictures in our theology books.  A far cry from our doctoral seminars in theology at Baylor—three hours of keen minds tearing apart a 400 page book we were required to read.  We’re getting soft, and blog-eology might be a symptom.  The real insight is found in the “responses” section, in which a lot of the “dialogue” is vituperative name-calling, ridiculing, condemnation (of a stranger!), correcting others’ spelling and grammar, and occasional profanity—surely the most interesting response to a debate about God.  The worst, though, are the self-righteously pious, who declaim another with, “I pray that you will see the light, brother,” which means something roughly analogous to, “When you’re burning in hell for your wrong ideas, you’ll wish you’d listened to me.”

The same kind of shorthand teapot tempest occurred in response to John Piper’s “tweet” in response to Bell’s book, which said, simply, “Farewell, Rob Bell.”  Now a firestorm of debate about what “farewell” meant followed.

I wrote a song on my last CD called, “Ballad of Harley the Printer,” that’s about a guy who worked in printing and lost his job with the advent of technology.  There’s a verse that says,

Back in the days of pen and ink

Words could stain and make you think,

But words ain’t what they used to be

Today our words are short-lived things

They live on electronic screens

Flashing past too quickly to be seen

I think about this sometimes even though I, too, am blogging—does the “virtual” universe and its replacement of books, journals and papers offer us a tragic symbol that we would do well to consider, the replacement of words as ideas we pick up and “hold” and consider over time and repeatedly with “short-lived things” that flash past “too quickly to be seen”?   Worth considering in light of, “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.”

I think Rob Bell is an artist, and as such, was almost destined to create a kettle of misunderstandings.  His books are not much fun to analyze, outline and condense.  Theological engineers will not like this book, I think—people who like airtight systems and logical mousetraps.  Maybe I’m wrong.  But artists dart, highlight, ramble and mull.  “Maybe that’s what it means, maybe not.  But think about it.”

I remember something Thomas Merton said in his little book, Opening the Bible, and it applies to theology as well.  He writes something to the effect that we must be careful to distinguish, when making claims for the Bible, the claims we are also making for ourselves.  Indeed.  Oddly, humility is in danger of decreasing in our blogging time.  Speaking fewer words has not led us rightly to think, “We have less to say and with less substance” but the opposite—to assume that just because it is simpler and more immediate that it must be more universal.

Our response to Rob Bell might well be, “Interesting.  I would like to sit and talk about this.  It is a big deal and deserves some time.”

Unfortunately, we probably don’t have the time it deserves.  Or at least the right chatroom.

Christianity Today’s review of Bell’s book:  http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2011/april/lovewins.html

Blog-review in the Christian Century

http://www.christiancentury.org/blogs/archive/2011-03/rob-bell-goes-after-stumbling-blocks

Articles on the controversy at the Revealer.com

http://djword.blogspot.com/2011/03/john-piper-clarifies-tweets-regarding.html

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rev-jonathan-weyer/rob-bell-vs-john-piper-do_b_829956.html

http://therevealer.org/archives/6111

Song, “The Ballad of Harley the Printer” is on the CD “Overload of Bad News Blues”  You can hear it on iTunes or Amazon music or go here for more info:  http://garyfurr.com/Store.html 

Lessons From the Waiting Room

In all the uproar of 9-11, a lot of personal history got pushed out of view.  A month later, ten years ago, whatever was going on was dwarfed by a morning that changed the world forever.  So it is surprising to me to reconnect to anniversaries that I thought were some other time.

Ten years ago, on August 13, 2001, my sister underwent surgery for breast cancer.  Her situation was serious, she was young—in her thirties—for such a thing.  Our family was, like all families in such a moment, devastated and anxious.

As a minister, Wednesdays are usually the busiest day of the week for me—surpassing even Sundays.  That week, though, I was on the other side, sitting in a waiting room in an Atlanta hospital with my parents, brother-in-law, and a parade of friends and church folks coming by to check on us. This week she marked her tenth anniversary without a recurrence and we rejoice even as we encourage all those who fight against breast cancer.

I wrote about that day in the waiting room, ten years ago.  And since it got lost in what happened a month later, I went back to read it again.  As we rejoice today, I share these words again.  Maybe they will help someone who isn’t so far down the road as we are right now.  These were my “Lessons from the Waiting Room.”

  • The greatest enemy in the waiting room is boredom.  You talk, laugh, tell stories, and every now and then find yourselves staring at each other, waiting for something else to say.  Long periods of blanking it out interspersed with imagining “in there.”
  • There are so many feelings for just one day.  Fear stops by in the morning and pops back in when you least expect him.  Hope, love, frustration, weariness, impatience and irritation.  They all pass through.  All you can do is sit while they fly through your brain.
  • People have truly different ideas of what the phrase “Dress appropriately” means.
  • Family, friends and church members are a comfort.  You don’t have to say much.  Just seeing a face and knowing a connection does something for you.  All day long people came by and said, over and over in a dozen ways, “We care about you.”  It was truly humbling.  Many friends came by, and two graciously gave us over an hour of their busy lives to sit and help us laugh the time away.  Three church staff came to comfort us, and they did.
  • It is neat to just be “her brother from out of town.”
  • Hospital food must come from a single warehouse.  I had the same thing I ate the last time I had a hospital meal.  Some of the vegetables seemed to be prepared to drum up extra business for the gastro unit.
  • Time is timeless in a hospital.  That explains why nothing starts when it is scheduled and why things go on longer than you were told (reminded me of the little Catholic boy who visited a Baptist church with his buddy for the first time.  “What does it mean when the preacher takes off his watch and lays it on the pulpit?” he asked.  “Don’t mean anything at all,” sniffed the Baptist boy.)  It is why surgery feels like eternity when you are waiting on it.
  • You overhear some really interesting conversations.  Over in the corner a man from Jamaica recited the entire genealogy of his family to two kinswomen, loud enough for us to hear intermittently.  “No, no, no, your Uncle Elias, see, he was my brother’s cousin…”  That went on for two hours, forming a Caribbean Book of Chronicles until they finally, I think, got back to the present day.  I believe the conversation only started with a single question about a nephew.  “Sorry I asked,” I imagined them saying as night fell.
  • There is plenty of time to think about important things—how much you love the important people in your life, how wonderful the church can be when the chips are down, what really matters in life, and how connected we all are.
  • There are a lot of people in trouble in this world.  People from everywhere.  People who wouldn’t say hello to each other on the street smile and ask each other how it’s going.
  • Thinking about my friends back home praying for us helped.  God truly is with us, even in the waiting room.

    My wonderful sister ten years later

Practicing IS the Real Thing

Graduations are that time when we realize we will likely wind up working for or paying taxes to the kid we picked on in fourth grade for the rest of our lives.  I feel for the graduates of 2011.  Their high school or college life was lived in the shadow of the Great Recession or whatever we will call this.  They have 9/11, two wars (2 and ½ if you count Libya), Katrina, the tsunami and, oh, yeah, no jobs out there.    

Looks like the kid we picked on might have to tell us, “Sorry, I’ve laid off everyone but my brother and my sister-in-law, but be sure to email me a resume.”  It’s tough out there.  I’m not sure what to tell them.  Except maybe, “Keep living like it’s going to be fine.  Eventually, it may be.”

I once came across a listing of “graduation speeches.”  The settings ranged from high schools to prestigious colleges, universities and graduate schools.  The speakers were often famous people, usually alumni of the schools who came back to show that they had indeed done well, despite what most of the faculty and administration thought at the time.

I found speeches by Presidents, movie directors (Oliver Stone), politicians, and writers.  The coolest list of speakers had to be for the Berklee College of music—wouldn’t you like graduation better if your speaker was James Taylor, Bonnie Raitt, Billy Joel or Sting?

The one that truly caught my eye, though, was by award-winning jazz musician Pat Metheny.  Metheny is one of the most creative jazz guitarists I have ever listened to.  After a lot of typical “graduation” musings, he said the following:

Because for as much as I can stand here and claim to be a successful player, with Grammy awards and winning polls and now honorary degrees and all that stuff; one very fundamental thing has not changed, and I realized that it will never change, and that is this–that the main thing in my life, even as I stand here right now, right this second, is that I really need to go home and practice.

In music and in life–stay focused on the main thing.  And the main thing is this—to be in your life, really in it.  One shift that has happened for me in the last several years is that I am trying to enjoy getting to the goal as much as reaching it.  I know that is so “middle-agey”, but it is real.  It’s not the getting there as the being there that makes life so rich and full of promise—and also its peril and vulnerability.

Accolades, financial success and awards do not bring joy.  They can reduce some misery, and that’s something.  But they can also distract you from success and joy, even though they seem to be the very essence of success.  But true success is being who you are, doing what you do, writing what you need to write and connecting to that which is deepest and truest in your life.  A well-lived life is when you know at any moment that what you really need is to go home and practice your gift yet once more, if only God is your audience.

Ann Lamott, in her book on writing called Bird by Bird, says that she warns new writers against working too hard on “getting published.”  If you’re a writer, writing is what you do.  So WRITE and stop worrying about it!

Easily said if you aren’t trying to make a living at it, of course.  But songs written half-heartedly and only to squeeze out a living from them are like children you love only for what they can do for you—at some point you wind up either disappointed or blinded to what you really have here.  Folksinger Kate Campbell once said in a workshop, “You have to care about what you’re writing.”  Believe me, sooner or later, caring or the lack of it is evident to the sharp listener.

I’m sure the same is true of vital faith—it’s most valuable when all hell is breaking loose.  And no matter how bad or good it is, you keep practicing.  As a guitarist of 48 years, here’s what I can tell you about practicing:

  1. Money isn’t enough to make you practice.
  2. No one, even your mother, can make you practice if you don’t really want to.
  3. If you really love it, the harder thing is to stop playing.  Motivation is never a problem.
  4. The best instrument in the world will not make someone who does not love the craft play better, and the cheapest guitar made is capable of some decent sounds if you are well-practiced.
  5. You only grow by constantly taking on new challenges.  Otherwise, boredom sets in.
  6. Practice isn’t the same as performing—all those people watching!—but it sure makes screw-ups less likely.
  7. Five or ten minutes every day is somehow more valuable than three hours once per month.  Don’t ask me why.  But you have to be “touching” it for it to stay alive in your body.
  8. Practicing something you love and playing it for the sheer joy of it is not affected by Wall Street, recession, wars, or unemployment.  You can keep doing it no matter what.  Briscoe Darling, a music playing mountaineer on the old Andy Griffith show once put it this way:  “You got time to breathe, you got time for music.”
  9. You can only improvise when you know the melody, when it’s in your muscles and mind and touch so it’s “right there” when you need it.

It doesn’t take much to put “God-loving and Jesus-following” in the place of music.  Practicing that life, trying it out, staying with it, is never a problem if the motives are right.  It can’t be about getting what you want or what it does for you or that you’re a big success.  Just that the sheer doing and living of it makes us happier than anything.  Keep practicing.  Even now.  Especially now.