Turbulence

       It was windy when I left home on my bike last Tuesday for a quick midday ride. But the air was clear; no dust.

       To be honest, the northwest wind was significant and I knew I’d have to fight it the entire way, but I’d been dormant long enough. I needed to move.

       I road my regular route to GreenTree only to discover the main boulevard was being rebuilt. Half the road in both directions had been scraped down to the caliche base, meaning if I wanted to go my regular route I’d have to bump across a three-inch deep canyon and dodge giant road-building equipment. I was certainly on the wrong bike for that sort of thing, so I modified my route using the unaltered roads and found the distance I was looking for.

“The wind shows us how close to the edge we are” … Joan Didion

       Pleased with my problem solving ability and manly wind-fighter legs, I headed back home on Wood Street. About two blocks east of Midland Drive I looked to the northern horizon and saw an epic Dust-Bowl-Days wall of sand blowing toward Midland. It was frightening, so the first thing I did was stop and take a photo, since no difficult task or situation goes undocumented nowadays. Then, I stood up on my pedals and took off for home. Could I make it home before the sand overtook me? We’d soon find out.

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       A couple of drivers slowed as they passed me, lowering their windows and shouting advice while pointing at the approaching storm, assuming, I suppose, I hadn’t noticed it or else I wouldn’t be out riding. They wanted to talk to me, but I had no time for conversation. I was in a race against nature.

       I almost made it. I was about a half-mile from my house when the headwind and sand hit me full on, instantly dropping my speed from 15 mph to 7 mph.

“You know well enough how the wind blows this way and that. You hear it rustling through the trees, but you have no idea where it comes from or where it’s headed next. That’s the way it is with everyone born from above by the wind of God, the Spirit of God.” (John 3:8, The Message)

       Here’s the thing: It makes no sense to complain about the wind or sand. Having lived in West Texas for 53 of my 61 years, I have no excuses. Only a fool would be surprised about something as permanent and persistent as the wind. I either keep my bike in the garage until perfectly calm days, which are few, or take on the challenge.

       I use to dream of a laminar-flow life where my projects flowed smoothly through the days and weeks in unbroken parallel streams with no turbulence, like cycling on a dead-calm day. That seemed ideal to me. Who wouldn’t want a life like that?

       However, through the years I’ve learned most of my creativity comes from turbulence. That’s why I write so much about struggle and hard work. I doubt I’d have much to write if life suddenly went laminar. After an essay or two about how peaceful I felt, I would be done.

       And I often hear people complain about the roller coaster nature of life, the constant up and down, over and over. But a roller coaster on flat level ground wouldn’t be much fun. I doubt we’d ride more than once.

       My pursuit of God is born in turbulence, too. I’m afraid I would forget about God if I didn’t have to beg Him for help on a regular basis, every time I felt the wind and sand in my face.

       Had I known the wall of sand was eminent I wouldn’t have gone riding last Tuesday. But I’m glad I did.

 

“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32

How Do You Pray?

       I was in Dallas, sitting next to Cyndi in the Love Field food court, waiting for our connecting flight home from skiing with family in Brighton, Utah, just after we gave our granddaughters back to their mother, reading from Joshua 18, when Joshua was dividing up the land among the tribes of Israel after they had conquered the area.

       Joshua 18:1-3 “The country was brought under their control, but here were still seven Israelite tribes who had not yet received their inheritance. So Joshua said, “How long will you wait before you begin to take possession of the land that the Lord, the God of your ancestors, has given you?”

       God had given them land, but seven of the twelve tribes had failed to take possession of theirs. Joshua was losing patience.

       Earlier that week, before our trip, I read from Joshua 1, when Moses died and God turned leadership over to Joshua. I’m always struck by the suddenness of Joshua’s promotion, “Moses my servant is dead. Now then you,” and I’ve written about how we should be prepared when our turn comes.

       But when I read it this time I noticed something else, a different sentence a few words later, “I will give you every place where you set your feet,” implying the size of their blessing depended on how far they walked, or whether they kept pushing out the boundaries.

       I wondered if that was my story, too. Was I failing to ask God for what he has been wanting to give me? I often go round-and-round wondering how to pray for the books I’ve written. Do I humbly ask God to put them in front of the few people who need them and be content with that, or do I pray that they sell mightily around the world? I believe I write the words God gives me, and I believe that people benefit from reading, but it scares me to pray for big book sales. It makes me feel selfish and egotistical. Am I praying for my sake, or for God’s sake?

       One of my favorite authors and influences seems to tell me I should pray for inspiration and then let God decide the results. Another says I should pray boldly for God-sized miracles, so huge everyone will know that success can’t be because of me and my ability but must be the hand of God.

       In Joshua 1, God said he would give the people any place where they set their feet; the size of their nation depended on how far they walked. To stop too soon would be to shortchange themselves.

       Is God wondering when I will start walking out my edges, or taking possession of what he had already given? Is he waiting for me to ask? Is he wanting me to pray for bigger things?

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       In Iron Men, we have been reading A Praying Life, by Paul E. Miller, and recently we discussed the two biggest errors most often made when praying: either we ask selfishly, or we don’t ask at all.

       I’d fallen exactly into this trap. I was so afraid of praying selfishly, of slipping into a name-it-claim-it prosperity message, I didn’t ask at all. How could that possibly be the right answer?

       It’s time for me to grow up and follow God’s directive to Joshua, “every place you set your feet,” and assume God won’t bless unless I walk it out, unless I pray it out.

       What would that look like? I don’t know. My vision gets blurry quickly. I don’t see myself writing prize-winning or best-selling books. I can’t see that far over the horizon yet. I also don’t expect writing to be my sole source income. In fact, I don’t do my best work if writing is all I’m doing. I need the interchange of ideas and personal contacts that come when I am doing engineering work. Cyndi once told me, “Your writing gets small when you spend all  your time alone, when you aren’t working for someone else.”

       I used to pray that God would sell 1,000 books every month, and that as a result I would be invited around the county to speak. I don’t know if 1,000 books a month is outrageous, but in my mind,  it is a god-sized dream that only God can accomplish. I don’t know if lots of speaking engagements is best for me or my family or current ministry commitments, but I am open to the possibility.

       I think that should be my prayer going forward. What do you think? How do you pray?

 

“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32

Gathering Treasure

       There is a Spanish saying often used by pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago, Caminares atesorar, to say, “To walk is to gather treasure.” It isn’t only true for walking, though. We gather treasure when we pay attention.

       Last week, Spring Break for Texas, we spent some quality time with our family, specifically our two granddaughters, skiing at Brighton, Utah.

       We had a great time. There was plenty of snow on any trail we cared about, and no lift lines. We squeezed as much skiing into three days as we could want, and we even got fresh snow on our last day. This was our first time to ski in Utah, but I doubt it will be our last.

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       Our original plan was to ski at Santa Fe, which we’ve done the previous two Spring Breaks, mostly because they have an excellent kid’s ski program. But since New Mexico didn’t get enough snow this year, we cobbled together enough Southwest Airlines points to get us all to Salt Lake City, all seven of us: Tonya and Kevin and friend Wade, Cyndi and me, and Madden and Landry.

       We stayed in the Brighton Lodge, a ski-in-ski-out place located very near the lifts. Their webpage says it “offers comfortable rustic hotel-style accommodation;” It reminded me of a European youth hostel, with small rooms and a shared commons area. Our stay felt like a college trip with every flat surface covered by a sleeping person. We had to step over suitcases and around gear and each other to maneuver to the bathroom or front door. The commons area was shared by all the guests, so the first morning both granddaughters, still in their pajamas, ate their cereal while surrounded by a half-dozen men from Argentina. “Your girls are beautiful,” they said.

       Since we had seven people (including two teen-aged boys) and three beds, deciding where we would sleep was our most complicated puzzle. After discussing several options, including making the boys sleep outside, the best solution had me sharing a queen-sized bed with the two girls, 8 and 4-1/2 years old, which means I slept on the outside 8” and the girls tossed around the other 52“. We were usually so tired after skiing all day we fell asleep right away so the beds didn’t matter very much anyway.

       One night I was reading in bed while trying to quieten the girls when the youngest, Landry, asked, “Pops, are you stuck on a word?” In her preschool no one reads silently, so her only possible explanation for me holding a book without making a sound would be if I were stuck trying to pronounce a word. She offered, “All you have to do is sound out the letters one at a time.”

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       Thomas Merton wrote, “Every moment and every event of every man’s life on earth plants something in his soul.” Quality time happens when we are paying attention to each other, and to the details of daily life.

       For Cyndi and me, this phase of our skiing life began three years ago, when the idea of teaching the next generation popped up. That first time, we dug our gear out of the trunks we’d stored in the attic; we were the height of 1990s fashion for three days.

       Skiing used to be a big part of our life. Cyndi and I skied together before we were married, and we started skiing with our kids when they were very young. But even more than skiing itself, we love family traditions and family stories, and we’ll go to great lengths to repeat and reinforce those.

       During this past year I picked up the term, trans-generational, to describe how we should apply our priorities in life to things that will last generations. I’ve even started re-framing some of my life goals to meet that criterion. Cyndi and I want to invest in our family, to influence them toward a deeper and richer life with God. That includes granddaughters and teen-aged nephews. And last week, it included skiing.

 

“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32

All the Way to the End

       As I approach the one-year anniversary of my father’s death, people have asked how I’m doing. And the truth is, I am doing just fine. Dad died well. He left no accounts unsettled, whether financial, emotional, or family. He did what he loved best all the way to the end: cycling up to his last two weeks, and cracking jokes up to his last five days.

       Oliver Sacks wrote in his small but profound book, Gratitude, “When my time comes, I hope I can die in harness, as Francis Crick did.” (Crick died at 88 from colon cancer, still fully engaged in his most creative work all the way to the end.) I like this contrast: retiring in leisure, which might be calm and peaceful, versus dying in harness, which sounds fun, adventurous, and fulfilling. I prefer the latter.

       Sacks left me wondering what would dying in harness look like for me? Does it mean I might die …

       … at my engineer desk, working on a problem, face pressed into my computer keyboard?

       … at some Whataburger booth, while writing in my journal? If so, I hope whatever I am writing is good and not stupid. I don’t want people to think my writing became so incoherent I committed suicide in the restaurant rather than keep trying.

       … on my bicycle? If so, I hope I have a heart attack and slip off into the barrow ditch, and not get blown away by some big truck while the driver is texting. And I hope I’m flying with a tailwind so at least I’ll be smiling.

       … while hiking? That would be great. Of course, it might be days before they find my body, which could be unpleasant for the finders.

       … while playing trombone? I usually play in public so it would be traumatic. Especially if I keeled over while on stage at church. (We actually had a musician go down during a Sunday morning worship service in December; fortunately, he has recovered and rejoined the orchestra.)

       … climbing the stairs in my office building? Again, it might be a long time before I am missed and even longer before I am located in a seldom-used stairwell. I suppose if they find my pickup abandoned in the parking garage someone would think to look in the stairs.

       … while teaching? It would be dramatic, that’s for sure, and it might leave emotional scars on my class. I would hope to go out while making a significant point.

       … while skiing? Crashing into a tree would be preferable to having a heart attack while riding the lift and leaving hundreds of people stranded while the ski patrol unloaded me from the chair.

       Of course, Sacks didn’t mean he wanted to literally be in harness when his time comes, but he wanted to be actively engaged in the important things of his life all the way to the end.

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       Sacks also wrote about his own father, who lived to age ninety-four, and who often said “the eighties had been one of the most enjoyable decades of his life. He felt, as I begin to feel, not a shrinking but an enlargement of mental life and perspective.”

       I’m certainly not in my eighties, yet. I still have another third of my life to go before then, but regardless of where I might be on my timeline, with each passing year I feel the same enlargement of mental life and perspective experienced by Mr. Sacks.

       I recently pulled my copy of Soul Salsa, by Leonard Sweet, from my bookshelf, to browse through it again. I first read this book in 2005, and then used it in Iron Men that same year. I found some notes I’d written in the front of the book: “As I get older, I want to: lean forward not backward, be less dogmatic, default to grace, give away more (money, time, energy, creativity, life (music, books, insight)).”

       The Apostle Paul admonished in 2 Corinthians 8:11, “Now finish the work, so that your eager willingness to do it may be matched by your completion of it, according to your means. (NIV)” Maybe that is what staying in harness all the way to the end of life really means. We should stay engaged in the purpose and calling God has given to us, finishing as strong as we began.

 

“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32

Favorite Things

       Last week I got to combine three of my favorite things: hanging with good men, skiing, and teaching.

       I was part of my church’s men’s ski trip to Crested Butte, Colorado. It was great: the group of men was great, the structure and organization was great, the leadership was great, and the skiing was great.

Watching Out For Each Other

       I was surprised how much of the time we all ten skied together. My experience with groups has been they quickly divide themselves by skill and speed, but this group stayed together, helped each other, and watched out for each other.

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       Paul gave me skiing lessons the first day, helping with traverse positioning and deliberate weight transfer, and Stacy drug me up and down the mountain the third day, testing my courage and stretching my skills. The second day, however, was when I lost my mind and reverted to old bad technique, which is one more argument why this introverted solitude-lover needs to be around other men.

       Personally, skiing felt better than I remember from previous trips. I never got winded (only afterward, when climbing the stairs to our fourth-floor condo), and my legs and quads didn’t burn out on me like they used to do. My new knees (which are now 2-1/2 years old) performed perfectly, as they continue to do. I give credit to lots of cycling miles ridden and office stairs climbed for me not getting tired or sore.

       Here’s the thing: I’m not an athlete. My only native athletic skill is perseverance, which might be better described as stubbornness. In all my physical pursuits – running, backpacking and hiking, cycling, skiing – I’m at the intermediate level at best. Through the years I’ve learned enough basic techniques so I can perform at a level that keeps me happy (and keep up (mostly) with Cyndi), but I have none of the natural athleticism needed to excel.

       But having said that, I left with the first group up the mountain each morning, and skied until the lifts closed each afternoon. It’s our family tradition. The Simpsons start vibrating if the lifts are running and we are still goofing around at the base. Some of the guys  in our group quit early so they could enjoy the hot tub, but not me. I don’t care that much about hot tubs unless I have a hot date.

Soul Planting

       I taught each evening on how we can become more resilient. I mentioned three deliberate things we should incorporate into our daily lives, things that will help us respond and persevere through the ups and downs: (1) daily spiritual practices that become lifelong habits, (2) living with gratitude and generosity, and (3) learning to forgive and redeem our past stories. I picked this topic the same way I always pick topics, I teach on whatever I myself need most to hear.

       However, teaching is only a small part of a retreat. I’m confident that God will speak to us no matter what I teach, because he offers grace, insight, and wisdom when we do the things we love. According to Thomas Merton, “Every moment and every event of every man’s life on earth plants something in his soul.” (New Seeds of Contemplation)

All My Best

       Like I said, it was a great week of doing my favorite things. What more could I want?

       Well, there is one thing …

       As much fun as I had, it was a bit hollow and lonely skiing without Cyndi. We’ve been skiing together since 1978, and this is only the second trip where one of us went and the other didn’t. The other time, Cyndi skied and I stayed home with the kids, sometime in the 1980s, a long time ago.

       All of my best ski memories have Cyndi in them. Last week I didn’t know who to share clever ideas or spry observations with. I didn’t know who to kiss while riding the lift. I didn’t know who to sing to while cruising the flats. (Our traditional song is an ancient one by Delaney and Bonnie: I’ve Got A Never-Ending Love For You). And no one wanted to share Snickers on the lift, which is something Cyndi and I’ve done for forty years.

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Thank You

       Thank you, God, for blessing us with fun things. Thank you for keeping us safe and injury-free; thank you for giving us a heart to enjoy each other and to learn about you; and thank you, in the midst of this uncertain world, for giving us one more turn to do what we love.

“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32

 

Can You Hear?

      My hearing much better now, and thanks for asking.

      I started noticing my ears were plugged around Christmas, and it lingered as low-grade muffling through our Big Band adventure in Guatemala. It was frustrating to perform excellent music with phenomenal musicians yet unable to hear it clearly.

      After we got back home I had my annual doctor check-up to renew blood pressure medication and endure unpleasant invasive procedures; the doctor looked in my ear and said the problem was sinus buildup.

      For the next several weeks I treated my condition with nasal spray, antihistamines, prednisone, colloidal silver, and inversions. All that happened was, I kept getting worse.

      I didn’t have any pain, which was fortunate, just irritation. I could hear, but everything was muffled, as if I were wearing industrial ear protection. If you spoke softly around me, I’d never know. Even worse, I couldn’t tell how loud I was talking, so I tended to speak softly to compensate.

      The worst part about it all was I couldn’t hear myself when playing trombone in church orchestra or community jazz band except for the vibrations moving through my own head. I assumed I was playing in tune since none of my fellow musicians jerked their heads around, but I couldn’t tell if I was too loud. Not only that, practicing at home, an activity I’ve been diligently trying to reinstate in my life, was miserable. That may have been the most disappointing part of it all since I’m trying to make it a new habit.

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Just Like Magic

      I finally decided to man-up and go to an Ear-Nose-Throat doctor. I did what moderns do, asked my Facebook friends for recommendations. Following the majority advice, I set an appointment for a week out, surprised I could get one so soon.

      Then my friend Stacy, who is personal friends with the doctor I chose, substantially on her advice, sent me a text exchange she’d had with the doctor in which he told me to come see him the next day.

      Since I felt dubious walking into his office and telling them I had a special invite, I printed the text exchange so they could read for themselves. I must not have been the first person with a printout; the office didn’t seem surprised at all. They welcomed me graciously and gave me a stack of new patient forms.

      The doctor himself came to retrieve me, took me to his examining room where he asked a few questions, peered into my ears, said “Your left ear is full of wax,” and used an industrial-grade vacuum to suck it out. Just like that, I could hear.

      How often to we go to the doctor hoping for a magic wand that heals us instantly? And, of course, it never happens. Except for this time; I got magic. Thirty minutes after I walked into the front door of the doctor’s office, I left a hearing man.

      I would love to write how I soaked in the joyful sounds of singing birds when I walked outside, but it was a windy February day and there were no birds. Instead, I drove straight home to practice my trombone, and it was a delight.

Pay Attention

      Jesus often said, “He who has ears to hear let him hear,” before giving an especially important teaching. As a young boy I wondered if there were earless people in the crowd and why did Jesus make fun of them instead of fixing their missing ears.

      And then a few years later, during the 1970s CB radio era, of which was a participant, we used to ask, “Have you got your ears on?” meaning, “Are you tuned in and listening?” That’s what Jesus meant when he said, “He who has ears let him hear.” I can imagine Jesus leaning forward with a twinkle in his eye, saying, “Those of you who are tuned in and paying attention, hear this.”

      There is no magic wand solution to having a deeper life except to do what Jesus said, open our ears and listen. We don’t have to go through life hearing muffled words from God. He speaks clearly enough, we just have to clean our ears.

 

“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32

Follow Me

       In a dream, I found myself sitting inside a band hall full of chairs and music stands scattered randomly, like all band halls between rehearsals. I was the only musician in the room, and I was holding my trombone and sitting in the third chair from the end of the row when I heard a sharp rapping sound known to all musicians as the conductor calling his group to attention.

       It seemed a little strange to me since I was apparently alone in the room, but I put my horn up out of habit and prepared to play. I didn’t even have any music.

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       The conductor said, “Let’s begin.”

       “Begin what? I don’t have any music.”

       “Just follow Me and it’ll be fine.”

       “Follow where? What do You want me to play?”

       “Just improvise. Follow My lead. Start in A-flat and try to keep up through the changes in the chorus.”

       “You want me to improvise in the key of A-flat? That means I have to play in 5th position. Nobody plays 5th in tune. Let’s do something else.”

       “You always want to do something else, don’t you? You always want to pick the music. I’m the conductor. Just follow Me. Trust Me.”

       “I do trust You. I just want to you to pick a key I can play well. How about something in F? I always play better in F.”

       “Not as often as you think.”

       “What? How often do You hear me play?”

       “Well, I’m the one who gave you that horn. I’m the one who gave you music.”

       “My parents gave me this horn back in 1970.”

       “But I put it in your heart, and I gave you the music. It’s because of Me that you still play. And, by the way, it wouldn’t have hurt if you’d’ve practiced a little more through the years.”

       “You wanted me to practice?”

       “I gave you a gift; don’t you think I expected you to practice a little?”
       “Well, I did practice. I made All State, I played in college, I play in church orchestra … “

       “I gave you a gift, and I wanted you to use it more often. But, that is beside the point. Let’s play!”

       “I don’t have any music.”

       “Improvise.”

       “You want me to play jazz?”

       “Why do you always want a plan, a direction, a piece of music to look at? Is it so you won’t have to follow Me? You don’t want to be a musician; you want to be a technician … a plan follower. I want you to follow Me.”

       “OK, I’m ready. Should we tune?”

       “Oh, suddenly you want to tune. All these years you didn’t worry that much about tuning. You just wanted to play the notes.”

       “Should we tune?”

       “We’ll tune as we go. You’re playing a trombone, the easiest instrument to play in tune. Remember, you’re holding your tuning slide in your hand.”

       “Yea, yea, I’ve heard that my whole life. If I’m holding my tuning slide in my hand, it also means a trombone is the easiest instrument to play out of tune.”

       “Don’t get Me started. You wanted choices. You wanted free will. You wanted to be independent. You could’ve played an instrument with structure and no obligation for tuning … like the triangle.”

       “But I’d only get to play one note.”

       “Do you want freedom or not? If you want to play a lot of notes, play them in tune. Let’s go.”

       “Well, I’m sorry I’ve played out of tune so often. My ear isn’t as good as it used to be.”

       “Your ear was never that good. Maybe if you’d practiced more … “

       “The thing is, I can usually tell when I am out of tune … I just can’t tell if I am sharp or flat. I can tell I’m off, I just don’t know how to fix it.”

       “That’s the smartest thing you’ve said since we started. You play the horn and let Me tune for you as we go.”

       “You can tune my horn while I am playing?”

       “I don’t care about your horn. I’ll tune your heart. You just play.”

       “How will tuning my heart make me play well?”

       “Stop worrying about whether you play well. That’s My problem. All I want you to do is practice, and play, and listen, and follow Me.”

       “So, what’s my job again?”

       “Follow me and let me tune your heart as we go.”

       “OK. So what are we playing?”

       “Just follow Me.”

 

“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32

Tune My Heart

       This week at church orchestra rehearsal we practiced a modern arrangement of one of my favorite hymns – Come Thou Fount. Playing it again resonated my heart, sending me back to the files to find this piece I wrote in October 2000. I needed to say it again.

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       What music do you like to sing in church? I've been thinking about that since reading a biography of Rich Mullins titled, An Arrow Pointing to Heaven, by James B. Smith. The author quoted Rich, who was talking about the old hymns we sing in church: "There are songs that you make and there are songs that make you." I wrote in the margin of my book: What are the songs that made me who I am?

       It's hard to know exactly why a certain song means so much. It takes a combination of melody and lyric - powerful lyrics that are hard to sing just bounce off without sticking - and beautiful melodies with shallow lyrics get sung once and then fly away never to be remembered. It takes both; that’s why some songs stand the test of time, and others don’t.

       Amy Grant used to sing, "It's not a song 'till it touches your heart, it’s not a song 'till it tears you apart." She was right about that.

       I’ve sung hymns out of the Baptist Hymnal for almost sixty years (I held a hymn book in my hands long before I learned to read), and the more I study the words of those songs, the more I realize how much they’ve defined my life. They have a permanent grip on my heart.

       The first song I thought of was "Blessed Assurance":

       Blessed Assurance, Jesus is mine!
       Oh, what a foretaste of glory divine!
       Heir of salvation, purchase of God,
       Born of His Spirit, washed in His blood.
       This is my story, this is my song,
       Praising my Savior all the day long;
       This is my story, this is my song,
       Praising my Savior all the day long

       I learned to love that song when Cyndi and I lived in Brownfield. The choir used to sing a version that wasn't as choppy as the way the congregation usually sang it. It was slower in tempo, a lilting waltz, and I loved it. Waltzes always lift my spirit.

       I also listed "There is a Fountain," even though we don't sing it much nowadays. Songs about blood are out of fashion.

       There is a fountain filled with blood
       Drawn from Immanuel's veins
       And sinners plunged beneath that flood
       Lose all their guilty stains
       E'er since by faith I saw the stream
       Thy flowing wounds supply,
       Redeeming love has been my theme,
       And shall be till I die.

       How else do we describe God's grace but by singing of His shed blood and His redeeming love? I want this to be the theme of my life, until I die.

       The third song I listed was "Come Thou Fount." I like the serious melody and ancient-sounding words like "Ebenezer" and "hither" and "melodious sonnet." Together they present the finest description of grace I can think of. And besides, this hymn has my favorite line of all, “Tune my heart to sing thy grace”

       Come, Thou Fount of every blessing,
       Tune my heart to sing Thy grace;
       Streams of mercy, never ceasing,
       Call for songs of loudest praise;
       Teach me some melodious sonnet,
       Sung by flaming tongues above;
       Praise the mount! I'm fixed upon it,
       Mount of They redeeming love.

       Here I raise mine Ebenezer;
       Hither by Thy help I'm come
       And I hope, by Thy good pleasure,
       Safely to arrive at home;
       Jesus sought me when a stranger,
       Wandering from the fold of God;
       He, to rescue me from danger,
       Interposed His precious blood.

       Oh to grace, how great a debtor
       Daily I'm constrained to be
       Let They grace, Lord, like a fetter,
       Bind my wand'ring heart to thee;
       Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
       Prone to leave the God I love;
       Here's my heart, Lord, take and seal it,
       Seal it for They courts above.

       There are hundreds of songs that I love, both old and new, and it almost hurts to start listing them because I know next Sunday I'll be reminded of another favorite I forgot to include. I also have a lot of new choruses that are "making me" even today, but I'll have to save them for another essay.

       I'll finish with a song I remember from children's Sunday School. It may be the song I've known longer than any other:

       The B-I-B-L-E
       That's the book for me
       I stand alone of the Word of God
       The B-I-B-L-E

       Isn't that great? Solid doctrine for a four-year-old. It made me who I am, and continues to make me today, day after day.

       What are the songs that made you?

 

“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32

Grace Abounds Through Music

       “Grace abounds through music,” said Manuel Lopez, one of the leaders of Coro Filarmónico Movimiento Misionero, an organization in Guatemala City that rescues kids and young adults from street gangs and violent homes by teaching them to be musicians.

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Music runs deep

       I’ve been playing trombone continuously since I was in beginner band in 1968, longer than I’ve done anything except ride a bicycle or read books.

       Not only that, music runs deep between Cyndi and me. We met for the first time in a high school band hall in 1973; we started falling in love with each other at a University of North Texas One O’clock Lab Band concert featuring Bill Watrous in 1976.

       I’ve played in jazz bands since high school, and those have always been the most fun. I’ve never been a lead player although I’ve occasionally stumbled into it by default, and I’ve never been a soloist even though my heart has always wished I were. I told people I was a utility player, meaning I played my parts but I wasn’t a soloist. That was a cowardly dodge, though. It might’ve sounded smart to me at the time, but I was hiding.

       So last December while playing with the Midland College Jazz Band I stood up and played an improvised solo in front of an audience for the first time. It was not great, but I did it. I was a beginner in public, something I’ve spent my entire adult life trying to avoid. Typically I’d rather stay seated, even if it meant missing an opportunity, than stand up as a novice in front of family and friends. Who knows how many cool things I’ve missed because of that? The Enemy certainly used that fear to stomp down my expectations and dreams.

       But then, for some reason, last fall, I decided my Fear Of Looking Foolish (FOLF) was less than my Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO). I didn’t want to live out my life having never tried.

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A Long Journey

       I told Cyndi it feels like I’ve been on a journey of reengagement with music. I date the beginning around a Wynton Marsalis concert (Oct 2015), when I started leaning into it a bit more.

       I stepped further in after we attended Camp Kirkland’s Instrumental Convergence in Tyler, Texas, in Mar 2016. It was fun and exciting to be around so many adult musicians, especially trombone players, and I came home inspired to play more and play better.

       That weekend in Tyler led to Cyndi and me traveling on a music mission trip to Israel with Global Missions Project in Nov 2016.

       And then I enrolled for trombone lessons, for the first time in forty years. I’d grown lazy and complacent as a musician and needed a professional reboot.

       My most recent move further in took place over the New Year’s holidays when Cyndi and I joined another Global Missions Project, the Metro Big Band trip to Guatemala.

       It was scary at first, for both of us. Not the Central America part, but the jazz band part. All the musicians were amazing and we both felt like inadequate beginners. But we grew into our places with each performance, and by the end felt comfortable playing with the band. Now we can’t wait to take another trip.

       Here’s the thing about this deepening journey into music: It makes me happy to be 61 years old and reengaging with something I’ve loved since I was twelve. I’m glad to know I still have improvement ahead of me.

       Here’s another thing: It’s really about learning to give away what I’ve received.

Give Yourself Away Every Day

       God has placed specific gifts within each of us. For some, it’s music. For others, it might be painting, or teaching, organizing, counseling, or giving … the list of gifts is long and wide.

       It’s usually simple to identify those gifts – they are the things people notice and compliment - they make us come alive when we use them. However, we tend to discount our own gifts because they seem natural to us, and maybe because we don’t think we have the skills to use them well.

       But God didn’t give us gifts just to brighten our lives; He expects us to give them away. First Corinthians 15:3 says, “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance” (NIV) We are obligated to give away what God has given to us.

       During one of our concerts, in the Casa Bernabé Orphanage near Guatemala City, I remembered the long list of people who have invested in my heart for music: my dad, who showed me that grown men were musicians; band directors in Kermit (Mr. Gillian), Hobbs (Bob Lane), University of Oklahoma (Gene Thrailkill), and in Midland (Rabon Bewley); private teachers Worley Hines and Nick Conn. Thinking of all that God poured into me, I was grateful for the opportunity to give it away to those children and future musicians. I owed it to them. I owed it to God.

My Challenge To You

       Ask yourself, where do you need to reengage? Where have you, like me, grown lazy and complacent? Are you passing along what you received from God as of first importance?

 

 

“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32

100 Things That Made My Year in 2017

       It should come as no surprise that I am a man of lists.

       I love lists. I make a shopping list anytime my assignment has three or more items. I make to-do lists for my day. I keep lists of books I read, books I want to read, miles I’ve run or biked, summits I’ve hiked, blood pressure and heartrate measurements, body weight, passwords, calendars, goals and dreams, and, as you can see, lists of lists. I agree with the sentiments of Sheldon Cooper, who said, “If there were a list of things that make me more comfortable, lists would be at the top of that list.”

       This is my third year to make a list of things that made my year. I hope to make fifty more annual lists like this one before I’m finished. I want to continually remind myself of the best that happens

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       The world we live in is scary enough; we don’t need to be reminded. But we do need to remind ourselves of the good things that happen, the grace-filled things, the influential things, the things that make us human. Not just because we are lazy and forgetful, but because the Enemy steals them from our memory.

       Living with gratitude is the secret to a meaningful life, and this exercise of listing people, events, and things that made the year better is a powerful move toward having a habitually thankful heart.

       I encourage you to put together your own list, and don’t stop until you can identify at least 100 things. You may have to find help in order to remember the best, so dig out your journals, comb through your calendars, review your reading lists and music purchases, and ask those who are close to you. It won’t be easy, but it’s worth the effort.

       And when you do, I hope you share. A big part of imbedding gratitude in your life is making it known.

       (By the way, this list has been randomly sorted using the mathematical magic of Excel. Trying to decide which item is more important than the others is paralyzing.)


1.     Leaving the trailhead at Durango for a 40-day through-hike of the Colorado Trail

2.     Book: The Tummy Trilogy, by Trillin Calvin

3.     Playing in the FBC orchestra with Cyndi

4.     Somebody kept sneaking Honey Buns into my pickup and my closet and my life

5.     When friends send me photos of rock cairns

6.     Reading my Bible near the early-morning glass-smooth lake water at Granbury

7.     The hymn, Great is Thy Faithfulness, in the Villa Nueva Church, Guatemala

8.     Dancing with Cyndi at the Los Lonely Boys concert in front of the whole city of Midland

9.     Cracking jokes with my dad up until he passed away

10.  Memorial service for Deane Simpson, who passed away March 31, 2017

11.  My favorite booths at Whataburger

12.  Wrangler Relaxed-Fit jeans

13.  Reading my Daily Bible

14.  Byron’s brisket chile rellenos at Thanksgiving

15.  Iron Men FORGE retreat in Junction

16.  The term, trans-generational; it’s how I want to live

17.  Watching Cyndi play the congas

18.  Base Camp Gathering in Colorado

19.  Celebrating 14,000 days of marriage to Cyndi Simpson

20.  Kevin riding his long board

21.  Working with Tamarack Petroleum

22.  Taking family photos in Mansfield

23.  Cycling the hilly roads around Tesuque New Mexico

24.  Nick Conn, my trombone teacher

25.  Book: The Last Arrow, by Erwin McManus

26.  Climbing stairs at my office in the mornings; it’s exhausting, but victorious

27.  Singing with Cyndi on the ski lift

28.  Watching the movie Muppets Christmas Carol November 1st

29.  Specialized Tarmac Elite bicycle

30.  Taking trombone lessons for the first time since 1976

31.  Learning how to use OneDrive

32.  Hearing (reading) my essay on NPR

33.  Chicago concert in Midland with my brother Carroll

34.  Energel Liquid Gel Ink Metal Tip 0.7mm ball pens

35.  Book: Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown

36.  Salomon XA Comp trailrunners

37.  Cyndi flirting with me.

38.  Speaking at MOPS with Cyndi

39.  Watching granddaughter Madden be baptized

40.  Rappelling with Daryl Jensen at Bear Trap Ranch

41.  Quote: “I am not preoccupied with collecting more goods and services; quite simply, my desire and effort - every day - is to pay back, to give back to the world a bit of what I have received.” (Richard Rohr, Falling Upward)

42.  Summiting Guadalupe Peak again (my 18th time on top, second time with new knees)

43.  Playing with MC Jazz band

44.  Cyndi reading from The Best Christmas Pageant Ever in our adult Bible class

45.  Book: The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, by James Martin

46.  Listening to audio books with Cyndi on long road trips

47.  Cycling with Daryl on Sunday afternoons

48.  Traveling with the smallest two suitcases in the group

49.  Catching up with the Harry Potter movement, only twenty years after everyone else

50.  Quote: “It’s your own responsibility to keep your own bucket filled, to identify streams of replenishing energy that will take you from a depleted state to where your tank is filled to the brim and overflowing.” (Bill Hybels, Simplify)

51.  Keith Skaar’s story about his family connection to my family

52.  Book: Falling Upward, by Richard Rohr

53.  Our full tribe of clever, intelligent, and Godly friends

54.  Movie: Hidden Figures

55.  Bill Britt with Integrity Massage – he keeps me walking straight

56.  Book: Finishing Well, by Bob Buford

57.  Katie decorating cookies; making the world a happier place

58.  Hiking Hunter Peak with Chad and Clark

59.  Dreaming of another Colorado Trail attempt in summer 2019

60.  Commuting to work on my bike

61.  Quote: “To be a contemplative is to learn to trust deep time and to learn how to rest there and not be wrapped up in chronological time.” (Richard Rohr, Falling Upward)

62.  Carving the Thanksgiving turkey – it feels so patriarchal

63.  Music concert in our house with Mathew Clark

64.  Cyndi Simpson in yoga pants

65.  Tiny old Guatemalan women huggng my neck and saying “Gracias” after the New Year’s Eve concert

66.  Dinners with Britt and Patti Pyeatt

67.  Bacon-Lettuce-Tomato sandwiches at Sweetwater Harvest Kitchen in Santa Fe

68.  Talking about music everyday with Bob

69.  Quote: “In the avalanche of sin, grace has abounded through music.” (Manuel Lopez, Coro Philarmonico, Guatemala City)

70.  Watching Cyndi pour her heart, the full weight of her life, into the construction and design of her new yoga studio

71.  Book: Finding God in the Waves, by Mike McHargue

72.  Marmot Precip rain jacket

73.  Regular phone visits with my brother

74.  Movie: The Rewrite

75.  Question: I wonder what my life would be like if I started doing all the things I’m afraid to do?

76.  Playing trombone with the Global Missions Project Metro Big Band

77.  Book: Option B, by Sheryl Sandberg

78.  Holding hands with Cyndi

79.  Hiking McKittrick Canyon with the Compass Class and my granddaughter Madden

80.  Books: The Chronicles of Narnia, by C. S. Lewis

81.  Family ski trip at Santa Fe

82.  Granddaughter Landry in her Super Girl cape and mask, walking boldly into Einstein Bagels, ready to save the world

83.  Played my first two stand-up jazz solos – they were not great, but I was brave enough to risk it

84.  Quote: “Once you believe that it’s possible, and you start working toward it, it becomes inevitable.” (Alex Honnold, NPR All Things Considered (after free-soloing El Capitan))

85.  Sitting with Cory on the back row of orchestra

86.  Clark’s stories from his time in England

87.  Movie: Dunkirk

88.  Book: Isaac's Storm, by Erik Larson

89.  Cyndi dancing with audience members at the Arkadia Mall in Guatemala City

90.  Cyndi’s homemade apple pie at Thanksgiving

91.  Book: Simplify, by Bill Hybells

92.  My Panama hat (I want so much to be a “Hat Man”)

93.  Midland Storytelling Festival

94.  Abandoning the Colorado Trail only  a week after I began due to altitude issues, disappointed yet knowing it was the right thing to do

95.  My life verse, 1 Corinthians 15:3 … “For what I have received I passed on to you as of first importance”

96.  Movie, About Time

97.  Movie: Begin Again

98.  Black fleece pullover

99.  My brother, Carroll, reengaging with his drums

100.         Running on the Trinity River Trail in Ft. Worth