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

Solving Problems

       My mom once reminded me how I took encyclopedias on road trips and read them while sitting in the back seat of the car. I loved to browse through the books one page at a time, learning new things. As an elementary-school-aged student I was already a book nerd, solving problems and answering questions I was too young to understand or ask. I had no idea everyone else my age was reading comic books.

       Through the years, I searched for God the same way, spending the bulk of my early adult life in a pursuit best described by author Mike McHargue (Finding God in the Waves) as “trying to see God as an equation to be solved instead of a living being who partners with us in His creation.” Mine was a robust square-cornered problem-solving dependable and predictable faith. You could count on me to know the answers.

       Today I earn my living pursuing answers to complicated questions. Solving problems is a core motivation for me; it’s how I see the world. So during the Christmas holidays I read lots of blogs about what we get right about Christmas and what we get wrong; how our traditions are influenced, even driven, by western thought, interpretation, and modern terminology. I want to solve the puzzle of the Nativity.

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Solving the Nativity

       We try to understand what it was like for Mary and Joseph and the shepherds and the wise men. We argue over the timeline of the visits, the location of the birth (Was it a cave? A house? A stable?), and the actual time of year when it all took place. We want to know what it was really like, but we can’t possibly know. Even writers who tell the story through Middle Eastern eyes are inescapably tied to the modern ways of living and the current ways of understanding the past.

       For some reason none of the original participants in the nativity kept a personal journal, so we can’t read their eyewitness accounts. But what if they had? Would their accounts help us understand the story better? Would more believe? Or would we file it away as something that happened so long ago?

       This year our church used videos produced by The Skit Guys as part of our Sunday morning worship. Each week we saw a different video, each with a single individual dressed like you or me, speaking like you or me, as if the birth of Jesus just happened and we are watching a PBS documentary. Those videos have become my favorite nativity presentation of all time, and I’ve seen a lot of them in my 60+ years of church attendance.

       I liked them because they didn’t attempt to portray a historical context, but told the story as one-of-us. People are the part of the Nativity story that doesn’t change through time. Geography, climate, customs, language, medical treatment, clothing, all that changes many times through the millennia, but the hopes, fears, pain, or joys of everyday people change very little. We focus on the details of the nativity story because we want to get it right, we want to honor God in our telling, but it is the people themselves, who were more like us that we can know, who own the heart and soul.

Reading from John

       So on December 26th, the Second Day of Christmas, my Daily Bible served up the three letters of John. I have written in the margin, “This letter uses the word know at least 37 times. It is not a letter of uncertainty or speculations.” John’s letter is full of things we can know for certain, whether reading it in the first century when he wrote it, or in the twenty-first century when we’re reading it.

       Through the years I’ve gradually moved away from solving God (nailing down all the correct answers), and toward knowing God (being comfortable with his contradictions and paradoxes). I didn’t do it intentionally; I wasn’t even aware I was changing. I now long for the complex mysteries of God. Anything easy to explain and understand feels shallow and simple. I want God to be deeper than my own understanding.

God With Us

       Like everyone else I still want to understand the nativity. I want to feel what it was like and how they lived, but whether we have all the details exactly correct no longer bothers me. What I know for certain, what the Apostle John reminded us he knew firsthand, is that God, who is from the beginning, has come after us to bring us to himself … Immanuel, God with us, Jesus Christ the Lord. The truth of his coming shines through all the details. That is the real solution to our problems.

 

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

Surprise Blessing

       I spent last Saturday afternoon strolling around downtown Santa Fe looking for any of several bookstores that popped up when I pressed my Around Me app, but no joy. Either the data was stale, or the bookstores were too well hidden. Hiding a bookstore makes no sense if the owner intends to sell books unless it’s a Harry Potter bookstore, or in Santa Fe it relishes being hard-to-find and impossible-to-park.

       Hoping to redeem my time spent not locating a book store, I walked inside St. Francis Basilica to sit in a pew for a short while. The cathedral has a nice bookstore, so I found what I was looking for, but as a lifelong Baptist, I’ve already bought all the books from here that I’m interested in.

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       After a few minutes of sitting I lifted my head out of my Moleskine journal and noticed a couple of dozen tourists inside. I was the only one not taking a selfie.

       Of course, I felt noble and righteous because I wasn’t taking a selfie and my own phone was reverently stowed in my back pocket. However, as I sat in judgment of the selfie-takers it occurred to me how un-St. Francis it was to feel nobler-than-them. Bummer. That was a humbling moment.

       Taking a selfie is not unholy or irreverent. We all experience the sacred in our own way. Who knows the stories of all these people? Maybe they just recently turned their life around and entered a church for the first time in their lives and documented the experience for themselves and for their support group, or they promised their dying aunt a photo since she wanted to attend this church her entire life and now she is unable to come so the selfie taker was doing the next best thing. I’m sure many of those same people wondered why a gray-haired man would sit in a cathedral writing in his journal. Was their method of documenting the experience less righteous than mine, they might ask?

Hunter Peak

       Later, on the drive home, as I was telling this story to Cyndi, I started listing other places that have become holy and sacred for me. The first that came to my mind was Hunter Peak in the Guadalupe Mountains.

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       We hike in the Guadalupes several times every year, but Hunter Peak is not our most frequent destination. We hike Guadalupe Peak more often. I always encourage people to make this hike because all Texans owe it to themselves to summit the highest point in Texas at least once in their lifetime. But standing on top is an accomplishment, a celebration; it isn’t holy.

       However, Hunter Peak is different. I’ve been up there many times, and often by myself. Even when I’m with a group, they’re always my people and we hiked up here together, to be there together. It is personal and holy to be on those flat rocks, whether by myself, or with my tribe.

       I told Cyndi, when I die, if she decides not to donate my body to medical school (my first choice) because it creeps her out, and she cremates me instead (my second choice), I want my guys to scatter my ashes into the wind from Hunter Peak. Well, actually, that’s the sort of thing I would request if it was legal, which it isn’t, so I won’t.

My Rocking Chair

       My rocking chair at home, outside in our piazza, is a holy place wannabe (holy-place-in-training?), working its way up to full holiness. It’s the only place where I sit, and just sit. It is especially peaceful to sit and settle after a long hard bike ride. I’ve learned if I don’t make time for quiet in my life I won’t have close encounters with God later in Cathedrals in Santa Fe. I need one to have the other.

My Prayer

       And so, it was a surprise blessing last Saturday that I never found those bookstores. God had other, more holy, plans for me. It’s funny how often that happens.

       I pray that you will find time for quiet in these last few days before Christmas. Maybe you’ll even find a new holy place.

       And if you take a selfie, it’s OK. Send a copy to me. I’d love to see it

 

 

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

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God With Us

Cyndi and I go to an exercise class at the gym at 5:30 am Wednesdays and Fridays. She teaches; I struggle through. It’s a pattern we’ve repeated for at least twelve years.

The classes get smaller during the holiday season, and the people who attend seem to leave early even more often. This week everyone snuck out during cooldown and stretching. I stayed because I’m old enough to know how much I need the stretching and because I’m married to the instructor and we drive home in the same car.

It was their loss. Cyndi used Amy Grant’s song from 1992, Grown-up Christmas List, at the end of class. When we noticed we were the only two people left in the room, Cyndi said, “Well, everybody needs a friend.”

I’m telling this story because, once again, as happens every year when Cyndi uses this song, it changes my demeanor for the rest of the day. It has a profound effect on me, still.

No more lives torn apart,
Then wars would never start,
And time would heal all hearts.
And every one would have a friend,
And right would always win,
And love would never end
This is my grown-up Christmas list.

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Crying in Church

Sunday night was our big choir and orchestra Christmas worship service, and it was amazing. My favorite moment was the transition between the next to last song – Behold Our God, which brought down the house and left everyone standing with arms raised toward heaven – and the last song – Who Can Satisfy My Soul Like You, which settled the room. Satisfied our souls.

I love to play my trombone in church. It is one of those things that mean even more to me today than when I was younger. I guess it is partly pride that I still play after almost 50 years, but I am blessed to fill a role in worship that is peculiar and unique to me. Playing opens my heart to God, and playing at Christmastime is even better.

But this year I had big-boy tears rolling down both cheeks during the entire last song, which was a problem since I needed to see my music (I play trombone in the orchestra). Fortunately we were dressed in orchestral-black so the wet spots didn't show.

What I’ve learned is that my ears work better when I’m vulnerable. If I choose not to fight the tears like I did most of my early life, if I let the words soak into my heart and do their job, if I relax and forget how goofy I look, if I stand down my defenses, that’s when I feel the touch of God. With each passing year, my heart grows softer and tears flow quicker. Not only have I gotten used to that, but I’ve begun to look forward to it.           

Christmastime

The best way to guard your heart is be open to new influences, and the Christmas season is full of those. But to take advantage requires being open and vulnerable. It means ignoring the effects of over- commercialization (which means, no complaining or arguing over the true meaning) and leaning into the love and grace of Jesus (meaning, it’s OK to cry on stage).

One of Cyndi’s favorite Christmas song is All is Well by Michael W. Smith …

All is well all is well
Lift up your voices and sing
Born is now Emmanuel
Born is our Lord and Savior
Sing Alleluia
Sing Alleluia
All is well

Cyndi’s other favorite Christmas song is Emmanuel, God With Us, by Amy Grant

Travelers through a given time
Who can know what tomorrow holds?
But over the horizon
Surely you and I will find
Emmanuel, God with us

It’s my prayer that your heart will stay soft and vulnerable during these few remaining days before Christmas, so that you too will recognize Emmanuel, God with you. And also, that you’ll remember to stay for the cooldown, and wear a black shirt so the tear spots don’t show.

 

 

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

I need your help. The primary reason people read these articles is because someone like you shared with a friend, so please do. And thank you. Also, you can find more of my writing on my weekly blog, read insights on Tumblr, and follow me on Twitter and Facebook.

 Press here to find my 100 Life Goals

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Twenty Good Books 2017

Here are 20 good books I read in 2017 (sorted in the order I read them):

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The Innovators, Isaacson, Walter . . . A compelling story of the people who created the computer and the Internet.

The Creative Habit, Tharp, Twila . . . I re-read this book after hearing Ms. Tharp speak in Midland. In this book she shares her secrets for developing and honing your creative talents

The Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis, C. S. . . .  I read these books again about every three or four years. If you haven’t read them, I insist you read them in the order they were published and not in the order the box set thinks they should be. If that is confusing, write to me and I’ll send you the best order for reading.

The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, Martin, James . . . A practical spiritual guidebook based on the life and teachings of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus.

The Tummy Trilogy, Calvin, Trillin . . . Calvin Trillin was my first biggest influence as a writer. Especially these books. I realized if someone could write funny, clever, and entertaining pieces about food, I should be able to do the same with running or cycling or whatever.

Boys in the Boat, Brown, Daniel James . . . A book recommended to me by my Santa Fe friend Linda Spackman, who’s daughter was a college crew member. This book is about the University of Washington’s eight-oar crew team who won the gold medal in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Simplify, Hybells, Bill . . . Hybels identifies the core issues that lure us into frenetic living―and offers practical steps for sweeping the clutter from our souls.

The Holy Wild, Buchanan, Mark . . . speaks to one of the biggest questions of human existence: Can God be trusted?

Isaac's Storm, Larson, Erik . . . I got this through a Facebook book exchange, and thoroughly enjoyed it, and the history-changing hurricane that destroyed most of Galveston, Texas, in 1900.

Finishing Well, Buford, Bob . . . Stories of people age 40 and older who have pioneered the art of finishing well in these modern times, and who can teach us to do the same, starting today.

Finding God in the Waves, McHargue, Mike . . . A story of having faith, losing it, and finding it again through science—revealing how the latest in neuroscience, physics, and biology help us understand God, faith, and ourselves.

Racing the Rain, Parker, John L . . . A prequel to the New York Times bestselling Once a Runner—acclaimed by Runner’s World as “the best novel ever written about running”, the story of a world-class athlete coming of age in the 1950s and ’60s on Florida’s Gold Coast.

Falling Upward, Rohr, Richard . . . Seeks to help readers understand the tasks of the two halves of life

Wild Mind, Goldberg, Natalie . . . I first read this book in 1993 as part of my commitment to becoming a writer. I’ve pulled it off the shelf and re-read it twice since then.

Option B, Sandberg, Sheryl . . . After the sudden death of her husband, Sheryl Sandberg felt certain that she and her children would never feel pure joy again. This book describes her journey to recovery, facing adversity, building resilience, and eventually, finding joy.

The Last Arrow, McManus, Erwin . . . McManus’ challenge to risk everything for a life you thought you  could only imagine, and enter the life God has called you to.

Resilience, Greitens, Eric . . . A collection of letters written from one Navy SEAL to another SEAL who was struggling through PTSD.

One Friday in Jerusalem, Moubarek, Andre . . . A spiritual and historical journey down the Via Dolorosa with a Christian Arab who was born and lives in Old Town Jerusalem

We Stood Upon Stars, Thompson, Roger . . . We search mountaintops and valleys, deserts and oceans, hoping sunrises and long views through the canyons will help us discover who we are, or who we still want to be.  The language of our hearts reflects that of creation because in both are fingerprints of God.”

Daily Chronological Bible, God, and others . . . This is the Bible I read through every year, year after year; it has had a profound impact on my life and my deepening relationship with God

 

A Change of Pace

“Be still, and know that I am God.” ... Psalm 46:10 NIV

      “I might be in trouble here,” is what I kept telling myself as my pace deteriorated toward the toppling-over point. I was on my road bike, climbing a hill, trying to get back to a hot shower and eventual recovery.

      We were spending most of the week with great friends at Bishop’s Lodge near Santa Fe, New Mexico. Everyone else in the group was attending yoga classes, but being the contrarian that I am I was cycling instead. I brought my road bike – I don’t do enough mountain biking to survive the trails around Santa Fe without beating my body to pieces - hoping to squeeze in a couple of rides in decidedly different terrain and altitude than I get at home.

      I started my first ride feeling great, full of myself, especially since the route dropped in altitude during the first mile. However, reality returned quickly, and I had to gain it all back in the second mile, already more elevation change than I accumulate in a month back home. Then a long descent between miles four and six, meaning no pedaling was required but vigilance encouraged. In situations like this I start working my breaks when speed approaches 35 mph; fast enough for someone like me. Later, my friend Wes asked if I saw the opera house while riding past, but of course I saw nothing but the white stripe in front of me. I was concentrating on not crashing.

      The thing about long descents is you eventually have to climb back up the mountain to get back home. Which I did. It was hard, but I actually enjoyed the change of pace and effort. And climbing meant I was now moving slow enough to appreciate the forest surrounding me.

      It was the last half mile that made me wonder if I was in trouble. I was barely moving up the hill, just fast enough to stay balanced but too slow to safely unclip from the pedals without fall sideways. I had no alternative but to keep pushing.

      The road was a 7.6% grade, which might as well be vertical for a flatlander like me with 61-year-old legs and lungs. In the context of local cyclists who routinely ride up the Hyde Park Road, ten solid miles of climbing, including a mile stretch at 9% grade called “The Wall,” what I did wasn’t so impressive. I blamed my difficulty on inadequate bike gearing, but it was probably more a function of wimpy legs and lousy power-to-weight ratio. However, it was a great ride. It was hard enough to clear the cobwebs from my brain and create space for new insights, which of course, was my intent all along.

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      Later that same day, after recovering a bit, I sat about five rows from the altar in the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis in Santa Fe. To my left was a statue called La Conquistadora, which has resided at this location since 1626. I heard the docent pointing out the ceiling above the statue to a group of tourists: “It was built in 1715, before George Washington was born.” The current cathedral where I was sitting was completed and dedicated in 1887.

      I must admit most of the statues and icons were a mystery to me. Catholicism is not the tradition that raised me. My life has been firmly Protestant and Baptist, where we intentionally shy away from physical representations of faith. I often wonder if we’re as noble as we think we are in that regard.

      I like to come to this cathedral and be still, to feel the space, to soak in the silence, to slow down and let my brain floaters settle, and to listen and absorb the centuries of worship. Even though my own tradition and theology is significantly different from what is represented here, the object of our worship is the same for me as for the generations who’ve sat here before me.

      I often wonder if we modern evangelicals put too much effort into making our worship centers as nonreligious as possible, with industrial grade flat black ceilings, offering no incentive to tilt our heads and follow the columns and vaults as they point upward.  We miss the nobility of architecture that draws worshiper’s eyes and hearts toward heaven.

      As much as I lean into the future, which is a core value for me, my spirit longs to tap into the ancient streams of faith, to follow the footsteps of generations, to feel the strength and power flowing through all those who’ve come before, to, as Aslan said, experience “a magic deeper still,” to sing what my new friend Matthew Clark called “an anthem born before the world began.”

      Richard Rohr writes that change and growth must be programmed into our spirituality or we’ll end up worshiping the status quo. My hope is to disrupt daily patterns and open my heart to a fresh word from God, whether that that means being physically still and quiet in a large space steeped in history, or pushing myself up a hill on an unfamiliar road.

      How about you? What have you done recently to clear the cobwebs and be still?

 

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

 

I need your help. The primary reason people read these articles is because someone like you shared with a friend, so please do. And thank you. Also, you can find more of my writing on my weekly blog, read insights on Tumblr, and follow me on Twitter and Facebook.