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Princeton On Foot

This week I had the privilege of being away for most of the week to attend a conference at Princeton Theological Seminary.  Last year I had to cut my trip short due to pastoral concerns, so this was  this was the first time I’ve been able to attend the entire conference.

First, a word about Princeton. I’ve only been able to visit this storied place in recent years, and it is a feast for the eyes. This time I was accompanied by my dear wife, Vickie and our friend of many years, Pam. We decided to take a guided tour, which has 18921634_10155361597063908_2519914472517576312_nalways been my practice the first time I’ve been to a place.  Self-guided tours are okay, but I prefer a local guide when first I explore a new place.  

I have written elsewhere about a time years ago when I persuaded a group of fellow ministers to hire a tour guide of our own city of Birmingham, Alabama. We hired a young man who knew the city well and set out in the church bus to see the place where we lived. It was amazing how many significant places and stories we’d never seen in our own city.

Back to Princeton. I had read some background of the University and through my studies in history and religion of course, knew many of the great names not only of the seminary but of the early days of university itself. I set all that aside and we booked a walking tour with The Princeton Tour Company.  As it turned out, we were fortunate to get the owner,Mimi Omiecinski, to walk us through.  Mimi is a transplanted Southerner so we all lapsed into our native dialect.  What followed was a two hour walking tour of the city and university that was as memorable as any tour I’ve ever taken.  We made our way through the history and through the campus and explored its spectacular features. We heard about the people who have been shaped and molded by Princeton University through the years and who have shaped our nation to the present day. Read the rest of this entry

Uncle Vance’s Guitar

 Writing songs started for me at age 16. I have been singing, though, all my life. I sang in church, hummed to myself, started plucking guitar and piano and anything else with strings. Somehow marrying melody with words came naturally. I would memorize tunes and never forget them. So it was not completely foreign to me when I started trying to do it intentionally. I have so enjoyed in recent years the experience of learning, crafting, writing and performing original songs.

In recent years, I have completed three CDs.  My first was permanent world of pretend, the second was Overload of Bad News Blues and the third was What it Is. Recently I remastered the second and third one and re-did the artwork.  They are now available on CD Baby for purchase and download.  A few weeks ago, though, I finished my newest, four years in the writing and “trying out.” It’s titled Uncle Vance’s Guitar and it centers around the title cut, based on the story of a guitar that’s been in my family. My dad and his brothers all played and sang, and Uncle Vance had a turn playing with a well-known North Carolina performer, J. E. Maynor in the 1940s.  The song is about him, and about how music is a way to express and bear our lives.  I hope you’ll take a listen!

Last Thursday, I had an official CD release concert in Birmingham at Moonlight on the Mountain.  My good friend and fellow songwriter Keith Elder opened for me. I was joined by a very talented group of friends and supporting musicians, Brent Warren on guitars and mandolin, Don Wendorf on mandolin, banjo, drums and harmonica, Rachel Turner on bass and vocals, Mark Weldon on fiddle, and my Shades Mountain Air bandmates Nancy Womble and Melanie Rodgers were special guest artists, stepping up for some extra good work on a couple of songs.

A great crowd turned out, and now the CD is available for purchase. You can get downloads online at CD Baby by clicking here Uncle Vance’s Guitar but if you’re a CD buyer, you can order direct from me and I’ll put it in the mail to you.    The cost is $9.99 plus $3.63 for shipping.  I’ll bill you by email!  Just contact me below!

Thanksgiving, Squanto and Hope

How can you not like the story of the Pilgrims?  They came to America to find freedom, we remember.  Religious freedom.  They were “separatists,” believing that the True Church must separate itself from the corruptions of the world, in particular the Anglican church and its state-supported status as an established church.  They were known as “non-conformists,” as in non-conformity with

1911 depiction of Squanto teaching the Pilgrims how to cultivate corn.

1911 depiction of Squanto teaching the Pilgrims how to cultivate corn.

the state and with the book of Common Prayer as its guide.  As in, “Hey, one of us needs to watch for the sheriff.”

First they went to Holland, where there was greater religious freedom.  Amsterdam was a bit much for them, so next they went to Leiden.  All was going well until they realized their children were speaking fluent Dutch and fitting in a little TOO well.  They couldn’t go back to England—only jail and more trouble with the state awaited them.

So, after a lot of political and economic negotiation, they struck a deal to go to the New World.  They set sail with two ships, but one had to turn back.  Only the Mayflower made it.

During the trip there were divisions between the Pilgrims, who called themselves the Saints, and the others on the trip, designated “Strangers.”  The Mayflower Compact was struck just to keep harmony among the differing groups.

There was great illness on the ship—at least one died en route.  They left in September, went off course, and landed far off their destination—in November.  Cape Cod in November can be, well, brisk, to say the least. Read the rest of this entry

Death Grief and Hope: Songs for the Shadows (2)

So, then, to continue from my last post, If we are not to grieve as those who have no hope, and not to hope as those who have no grief, then only one conclusion is left to us.  We should grieve as people of hopeso what does that mean?

Here is where grace enters in powerfully.  “Grieving as people of hope” means that God’s grace is in the picture with us as we sorrow in life.  Grace does not magically take away our pain or make it hunky-dory wonderful.  I have heard preachers stand up and talk about heaven and hope in a glib and superficial silliness that emotionally slaps the faces of the grieving ones sitting in front of him or her.  If it gives them a moment’s comfort, the dark shadow will soon come.  If Jesus wept over Lazarus, there is something important in it for us as well. Whatever we believe about the life to come, it is always in faith, in part, clouded by the contrast between the only reality we know with some certainty against a promise that is yet to be.

Paul helps us in a second passage from the New Testament. In 2 Corinthians 4:7-9 he wrote, “But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; s_s_hopestruck down, but not destroyed; Afflicted but not crushed.”

  1. Perplexed but not driven to despair
  2. Persecuted but not forsaken
  3. Struck down but not destroyed

What sustains us in life is not to escape affliction, questions, persecution and suffering.  It is being rooted in the life that transcends it. This means accepting

  1. The reality of death—as well as the truthfulness of grace. It not only does not avoid the worst features of human life, it enters into them.  Grace is seeing the worst about us and still loving us. I once wrote a song to try to express the anguish of this, called,
  2. The necessity of grief— Grief is part of life just as death is on its path. If we are to imbibe life as a gift, we have also to taste its bittersweet transience.  In the nineteenth century, Ray Palmer wrote the great hymn, “My Faith Looks Up to Thee,” and penned these wonderful words:

When ends life’s transient dream,
When death’s cold sullen stream shall o’er me roll;
Blest Savior, then in love, fear and distrust remove;
O bear me safe above, a ransomed soul!

I have written about 110 songs at this point, bits and fragments of maybe 250 more, but looking over them, I realize how much time grieving has occupied in my mind. I am sure much of this has to do with my vocation–I cannot avoid walking through the valley of someone else’s shadow weekly–but I am also impressed with the massive  energy spent on avoiding the subject in our culture–and the price we pay for it. One song on this subject for today, “Trying to Remember” Read the rest of this entry

Death Grief and Hope: Songs for the Shadows

  We must face our losses.  Courage does not spare us from them. 

Courage’s work begins at the other end of honest acknowledgement.

          Grief can encompass many parts of life, not merely death.  It is, in many ways, our most universal experience.  It can be the death of dreams, grief of a way of life that ends, the end of a relationship, leaving home, moving to another town, divorce, a broken friendship.  The question is, “What are we to do with it?”

I can’t speak for people who have no faith in God, but I will admit that having faith in God doesn’t dispose of grief. It is just the same, just as overwhelming, the same disbelief followed by disintegration and despair and a long struggle to put life together again.

One verse of scripture I have found meaningful is  this one:

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.   1 Thess. 4:13

 I take great comfort that it does not say, “Don’t grieve, you’re a Christian,” but I have heard many a well-meaning minister stand up and talk about death like it was a flu shot. Death is real, it is irreversible, it is disheartening. I don’t think dismissing reality is a good idea. It has a way of showing up again with reinforcements.

The denial of death is, as Ernest Becker said, the most pervasive of human failings, and the most futile. The Apostle Paul said, very intentionally, that we should not “grieve as those who have no hope.” Instead, I would assume, we should grieve as people who DO have hope. Read the rest of this entry

In Memory of a Dhogg

My kids are headed our way from NY for the holiday, but had the sadness of the death of their beloved dog, Mara. Mara had lived a good, long life, and like any family pet, had the run of the house. When our oldest granddaughter was born in Seattle five years ago, I was given the couch as my sleeping quarters, and she slept next to me on the floor, licking my hand regularly through the night, which, if not a regular experience, is a bit of a start for a sleeping person. Burglar or beloved, a licked hand is terrifying.

Mara D Dhogg, late of upstate New York.

Mara D Dhogg, late of upstate New York.

Eventually over those happy days we became friends and I would return the greeting in my sleep with a perfunctory half dozen strokes. These creatures who live with us accompany us in life, become part of the furniture of our homes. We miss them when they are gone.

It was time, as that time always comes, and Mara had no regrets. I reminded my daughter that marah could be taken as the Hebrew word for “bitter,” but Mara seemed remarkably sanguine toward the discomforts and outrageous fortunes of human beings and their ways. And she had it good–her own facebook page as Mara D Dhogg, the run of the house, better medical care than any except Read the rest of this entry

A Prayer for the Victims of the Orlando Shooting

We pray today for these victims and their families— not gay or straight, black or white, Democrat or Republican, Christian or Jew or Muslim or none of the above, but as You see them–beloved sons, daughters, friends, sisters, brothers, neighbors, and most of all, fellow Americans.

As a minister, writer, and songwriter, I am always vexed when events of great magnitude happen. What words are adequate for such a moment? The shootings in Orlando, done by a single darkened soul under the sound and fury of evil ideology left us once again speechless.  Except, everywhere, we started talking, typing, blaming, searching for answers. Many offered easy ones, mostly the same ones, and few people seem to change their minds. “If only everyone would….”

But the child160612082538-08-orlando-shooting-0612-large-1691ren, sisters, brothers and friends are still dead. I have searched my own soul, and pondered, “What more can I do?” There have been, according to a report I heard 133 mass shootings in the US (four or more murdered) in this year.  Terror, violence, hatred, fear, loathing of people we don’t know or understand.

Read the rest of this entry

On Blogging Without Politics

Okay, after a long hiatus, lots of personal changes—a move, and more things than I’d tell here, I’m warily resuming my blog again!  I have been busy with work, life, family, grandchildren, parents and other miscellania (!).  I have also completed a first solo book (I’ve been part of seventeen books previously, mostly collaborative or as a contributor, and primarily theology and professional non-fiction).  This was my first foray into something of my own, creative, and self-publishing. It was a great experience!

MBBCI’m glad to be back, writing about this and that, avoiding politics, which is currently antithetical to everything I love and care about. Where my vocation is to employ words in the search for depth and life, our current American politics (at least in the media) seems bent on being the greatest cause of the death of the spoken and written word ever. Partisan politics now is mostly about obscuring things, misusing them, mischaracterizing others, or polarizing people. It is beyond distasteful. It is lifeless, a paean to piddlyness. So, no politics of the partisan variety.  Ideas are worth discussing, but they deserve respect, not domestication.

Read the rest of this entry

“The Man I Didn’t Kill” and Paying Attention

In 2008 I wrote a song called “The Man I Didn’t Kill.”  The story of the song is pretty simple in a way.  I get song ideas all the time just from observations of life.  I never mind a drive to the hospital or the million other tasks I have to do in my work as a minister.  It is an ocean of songwriting material, because it’s simply life experience.  I really admire the great songwriters who live in Nashville, sit in an office all day and crank out lyrics.  I’m not sure I’m that imaginative.

Gary Nancy Greg

My ideas come from life.  I walk through, listening to people in trouble, solving problems, managing a congregation, dealing with budgets, praying for the sick.  All along, though, the artist in my brain tries to pay attention.  I’m not looking for songs, but I’m paying attention for things that interest me. Kate Campbell talked a lot about being curious—noting things you care about and trying to understand why.

So songs, or at least ideas, pop up everywhere.  Back about 2008 or 2009, I wrote a song that ended up on my cd “Overload of Bad News Blues.”  It’s called, “The Man I Didn’t Kill.”  It came from a close call.  One day a pedestrian walked out in front of me without looking.  I was watching him, so I hit the breaks and, for the first time, he saw me.  Small bit of life. Read the rest of this entry

What’s In a Name? Or, a 59 Year Old Songwriter Finds the Milk Carton Kids

 “Gillian Welch & David Rawlings-meets-Simon & 

Garfunkel with a splash of The Everly Brothers

I am and always have loved the process of how books, music, ideas and people find me.  Life, for the most part, is an odd assortment of intentional seeking and being found.  Some people major on the former, others on the latter.  Freedom and providence is what we call it in theology.  Too much of either leads to bad theology and a distortion of reality. This is about “how the Milk Carton Kids Found Me.”  I love music.  Two of my parishioners, Kenny and Katherine Worley, love the Milk Carton Kids.  I love Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.  They figured, “he might like the MCK 800px-The_Milk_Carton_Kids(Milk Carton Kids from now on!).  So they had an extra ticket and invited me to Workplay,  a great venue in Birmingham.  I listened to them on YouTube, of course, but I was distracted by the handkerchief Pattengale tied to his Martin 000-15 and waved in a circular motion that reminds me of David Rawlings so much.  I came ready to dismiss them as wannabes, to tell you the truth.  I was so wrong. Wikipedia’s article about them describes them as:

…an indie folk duo from Eagle RockCalifornia, consisting of singers and guitarists Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan, who formed the group in early 2011. NPR has described their approach to music as “gorgeous contemporary folk”[1]and “Gillian Welch & David Rawlings-meets-Simon & Garfunkel with a splash of The Everly Brothers“, which fairly represents the band’s music while also appealing to the intended audience[i] Read the rest of this entry