Deepest Roots

      What are the deep roots of your life?

      Saturday evening Cyndi and I watched one of the movies that we tend to come back to over and over, Begin Again, starring Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo. It’s about two people, one of them a woman who was cheated and abandoned by her pop-singer boyfriend, but finds her voice again through singing and song writing. The other is a wrung-out wasted record executive who rediscovers his energy and creativity when performing and producing music.

      We like movies about music and musicians. And we like Begin Again for its original songs, and because the right people make the right decisions. For example, the record executive reunites with his estranged wife in the end. She rediscovers him while watching him play bass with their daughter during a recording session; he found the creative joy and energy that had been buried underneath alcohol and resentment for too many years. Shared music brought them back together. That always makes us happy.


      When Cyndi and I were in Guatemala last year, with the Metro Big Band, we met a local minister with Coro Philarmonico, an organization in Guatemala City that rescues kids and young adults from street gangs and violent homes by teaching them to be musicians. Manuel Lopez explained his ministry: “In this avalanche of sin, grace abounds through music.” Amen.

      Lately I’ve been looking back over our story, trying to understand the love and training circles and wounds and choices and grace that have kept us together and grown us closer. One thing that rings clear: shared music has been fundamental to Cyndi and me. It’s one of our deepest and most nourishing roots - listening and enjoying music, but even more, playing music together. In our own romance of forty-plus years, grace has abounded through music.

      Our origin story began in a high school band hall in Hobbs, NM, in August 1973. I was a senior and Cyndi was a sophomore when we first met. We kept track of each other through the years, but had little contact until we reconnected and rediscovered each other at a jazz concert in Denton, TX, with the One O’Clock Lab Band, featuring soloist Bill Watrous. Neither of us has relaxed our grip on each other from that night forward.

      Cyndi and I established a pattern after that jazz concert in 1976 that’s survived for forty-three years. We flirt with each other during every band and orchestra rehearsal we’re been part of. (Maybe that’s why our church music director separated the trombone and percussion sections with a French Horn player, of all people?)


      Stories of romance renewed and nourished through music always draw us in. Another movie we like is August Rush. The lead character, a young boy, says, “I believe in music the way some people believe in fairy tales. I like to imagine that what I hear came from my mother and father. Maybe the notes I hear, are the same ones they heard, the night they met. Maybe that’s how they found each other. Maybe that’s how they’ll find me. I believe that once upon a time, long ago, they heard the music and followed it.” It’s certainly how we found each other.

      This past Christmas season I learned to love the movie Joyeux Noel, based on a true story from World War I, when German, French, and Scottish soldiers celebrated Christmas together in no-man’s-land by singing hymns. Music was their common bond. As Mack Davis wrote, “Music is the universal language, and love is the key; To peace hope and understanding, and living in harmony; So take your brother by the hand and come along with me; Lift your voices to the sky, tell me what you see … I believe in music.”

      And of course, I can’t write about music without bringing in Cyndi’s favorite, written by Tom Johnston. “What the people need is a way to make them smile; It ain't so hard to do if you know how … listen to the music.”

      Throughout our story, Cyndi and I have continued to rediscover each other through music. We like that about us. Manuel Lopez of Guatemala City advised, “Play with excellence, and wait for the miracles of God.” That’s what we’re counting on.


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

A Future of Blank Pages

      I’m typing this with Band-Aids on my right hand: one on my right thumb, and the other on my right index finger. They’re the cloth-type Band-Aids, flexible and persistent, but collect every speck of dirt that meanders by. After a few hours my hand feels like I’m wearing bulky cotton work gloves. It’s a clumsy and awkward setup, and I don’t recommend it. The inconvenience soon surpasses any pain from the original injury, and I am tempted to pull them off and try typing without them. It’s only my years as a grown-up, which have taught me that healing takes time whether or not I’m patient, that insists I leave the Band-Aids in place.

      And it’s those years as a grown-up that I’ve pondered today.

      A couple of evenings ago Cyndi and I joined the local bike club (Permian Basin Bicycle Association) for their Urban Mountain Bike Ride. We don’t get to ride together very often, so this felt like a date. Instead of buying flowers, though, I bought Cyndi a front and back light for her bike. It was a great start.

      After we arrived at the Midland College Chap Center parking lot, I unloaded and reassembled the bikes and pedaled around a bit on each one to make sure everything worked. While I was riding my own bike and adjusting my helmet mirror, not paying attention to where I was going since it’s a huge parking lot and what could possible happen, I ran into one of those bright yellow curb bumpers. I didn’t know I’d collided with the bumper until I hit the asphalt.

      Fortunately for me I was moving very slowly, so my crash didn’t produce any road rash. However, I ended up with a cut in my thumb and finger, a knot on my right thigh, and a strangeness on my left hip.

      I could tell right away these were only superficial wounds and wouldn’t interfere with the fun of the evening. After shooing away all the potential first-aiders, I checked to make sure my bike wasn’t damaged. Both wheels and brakes worked. I was ready to go.

      As far as bike crashes go, this was mostly benign. Two Band-Aids and two days of sore quads and I should be fine. Not like my 2013 crash which left me with a watermelon-sized butt and hip and weekly visits to Wound Management for the entire summer. This time it was inconvenience rather than real injury.

      The morning after crashing I told my story to a surprisingly-unsympathetic friend who asked, “Aren’t you too old to be hitting the pavement?”

      My only correct answer was, “Yes, I am.”

      What I didn’t tell my friend, who is someone who would never hit the pavement because they never do anything except sit on the couch and watch TV, was that there is risk with not doing Urban Mountain Bike Rides. The risk of obesity is the most obvious, but more important are the loss of adventure and heart and soul.


      In his one-man Broadway show, Bruce Springsteen said, “The one thing I miss in getting older is the beauty of the blank page – so much of life in front of you, its promise, its possibility, its mysteries, its adventures – that blank page just lying there daring you to write on it.” It is a common complaint. Jennifer Trafton wrote that “reaching middle age felt like walls closing in – like the garbage compactor in the first Star Wars movie … life feels scrunched … I yearn for the space to let my heart and imagination stretch out again.”

      When I turned fifty, I told people it was a relief. Instead of feeling old, I felt released from the pressure of being cool, of wearing stylish clothes, of knowing the current pop songs or TV shows. I could move straight into curmudgeon. It was grand.

      And then when I turned sixty, it felt even better. It felt liberating. It felt like I got a new stack of blank pages ready to fill with promises, possibilities, mysteries, and adventures. It felt like the trash compactor walls were receding and I had a new chance at life. Old things passed away; new things were coming.

      Unfortunately, my current blank page includes a bruised thigh and two bandages on my hand. My friend was correct: I’m too old to be hitting the pavement. While I hope to have many years of risk and adventure ahead, I’m old enough and smart enough to look where I’m going and wait to adjust my helmet mirror until I stop moving. Each adventure – each blank page – requires wisdom and responsibility.


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

What Are Your Goals for 2019?


I scribbled this list on a napkin weeks ago, and since the napkin is beginning to disintegrate, I decided to type this up, so I can post it in my closet.

I have no expectation of meeting these goals every day, every week, for an entire year. But if I move confidently and steadily in these directions, I can only benefit.

The reason I am publishing this, is to hold myself accountable, and to ask for help and insight if you have any to offer.

Also – I would love to see your list. Maybe we can help each other!



My Goals for 2019

Spiritual: walk the neighborhood pond once a day; personal retreat at a monastery … possibly the Benedictine Monastery in Pecos, NM, Our Lady of Guadalupe; meditate ten minutes every day

Writing: Grow my email list; devote several days at the lake house compiling my next book; take an online writer’s course, possible the one by Outside Magazine, or Malcom Gladwell. (However, I need to make significant progress on pulling my next book together before launching a new writing project.)

Cycling: ride at least two gravel rides; do at least two of the three big rides near Granbury; ride Cyclefest if my calendar allows; think about riding Hotter Than Hell ride

Moving: Pilates with Cyndi once a week; weights at FBC once a week; gentle yoga once a week; run once a week; bike two-three times a week; climb up-and-down the stairs in my office four times per week

20 Good Books I Read in 2018

      I started keeping a list of books I read, in January 1986, following the advice of motivational speaker Jim Rohn. The first two books on my list have lost their value over the years, but the third book was Chronicles of Narnia (which I now count as seven small books) by C. S. Lewis. I reread them every four or five years, in January, which gives me a jump start on my annual goal.

      1986 wasn’t the beginning of my reading practice. I’ve been an aggressive reader for as long as I can remember, and still have my first Texas State Library Reading Club Certificate from the summer of 1963, between 1st and 2nd grades in Kermit, Texas, and it includes J. Hamilton Hamster and I Want to be a Scientist.

      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 one page at a time, learning new unexpected 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.

      I learned early that it was not only acceptable to write in the margins of books and use a highlighter to accent important passages; it was integral to the joy of reading. I do the same with my Daily Bible, and if I ever lose it, I’ll miss my own notes the most. One of my favorite writers, Austin Kleon, wrote, “The first step towards becoming a writer is becoming a reader, but the next step is becoming a reader with a pencil.” Someday, when I’m gone and they divvy up my library, those margin notes may be the most revealing thing I leave behind.


      I don’t expect everyone to love reading as much as I do. But I know all of us would be better people if we read a book or two every year. And so, here are some suggestions. These are listed in the order I read them; I didn’t try to rank them by importance or enjoyment … that’s a paralyzing and pointless exercise. However, if you’re interested, give me your email address and I’ll send you my entire Excel reading list for 2018. In fact, I’ll send you my complete list going back to 1986 if you want, but that’s a lot of list, more than 2,000 titles.

      I made one change in reading strategy this year. For quite some time I’ve been disappointed in my gradual migration to playing on my phone while sitting in a waiting room rather than reading a book like I used to do. So I downloaded the Kindle app, and now I can read without carrying a book with me. So far, in 2018, I have completed two books that way, and I’m now on my third: Letterman, The Last Giant of Late Night, by Jason Zinoman.

      This is my list of 20 Good Books I Read in 2018, the books that turned out to be the most meaningful for me over the past twelve months. Reviewing my list to find these particular twenty books helps me remember God’s providence throughout the year. What was it that I thought I needed to hear or to learn, or to remember? Sometimes these lists give me a clue.

      Should you choose to read one of these, I’d love to hear from you. I don’t expect you to like everything I like, but I enjoy hearing different takes on books that made my year better.


1.   The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien … Probably the first book I ever bought voluntarily with my own money, and still better than the movie(s)

2.   Fellowship of the ring, The Two Towers, The Return of the King, by J.R.R. Tolkien … I read the Chronicles of Narnia every four years or so; this year, partly influenced by Clark Moreland, I realized I need to do the same with the LOTR books

3.   The Rider, by Tim Krabbe … One of the best cycling books I've ever read. A fast-paced eyewitness chronicle of bicycle racing

4.   My Best Friend's Funeral, by Roger Thompson … recommended to me by Vern Hyndman, a memoir of a young man learning to be a grownup while navigating through family and grief

5.   The Art of Practicing, by Madeline Bruser … a recommendation from my music mentor Rabon Bewley, about living and practicing life, as well as making music from the heart

6.   Leonardo Da Vinci, by Walter Isaacson … fascinating biography of one of the smartest men ever to live

7.   Stories from the Dirt: Indiscretions of an Adventure Junkie, by John Long … wide-ranging collection of adventure stories

8.   Subversive Kingdom: Living as Agents of Gospel Transformation, by Ed Stetzer … how to live as believers, as the church, in a broken and unbelieving culture

9.   Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel, by Russell Moore … a thoughtful and practical charge to a church that speaks to social and political issues with a bigger vision in mind: that of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

10. Spaceman: An Astronaut’s Unlikely Journey to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe, by Mike Massimino … Simply the best (and most fun) astronaut book I've read

11. On Trails: An Explanation, by Robert Moor … an exploration of how trails help us understand the world

12. Everybody Always: Becoming Love in a World Full of Setbacks and Difficult People, by Bob Goff … reminder how simple it can be to follow Jesus

13. You & a Bike & a Road, by Eleanor Davis … A comic diary of Davis’s bike across the south. I enjoyed the graphics and real-time descriptions of her ride.

14. Theodore Roosevelt: A Literary Life, by Thomas Bailey … A different view of Roosevelt's life; how important writing and reading were to him

15. North: Finding My Way While Running the Appalachian Trail, by Scott Jurek … an Account of Jurek's attempt to set a speed record running the Appalachian Trail

16. Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why, by Laurence Gonzales … A mix of adventure narrative, survival science, and practical advice on how to take control of stress, learn to assess risk, and make better decisions under pressure.

17. The Man Who Walked Through Time: The Story of the First Trip Afoot Through the Grand Canyon, by Colin Fletcher … Fletcher's story of hiking the length of the Grand Canyon in 1963

18. Ghosts of the Fireground: Echoes of the Great Peshtigo Fire and the Calling of a Wildland Firefighter, by Peter Leschak … A ministry student who becomes a wildland firefighter

19. David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, by Malcomb Gladwell … a new interpretation of what things are obstacles and disadvantages, and what are strengths

20. As Kingfishers Catch Fire: A Conversation on the Ways of God Formed by the Words of God, by Eugene Peterson … strikingly beautiful prose and deeply grounded insights that bring us to a new understanding of how to live out the good news of the Bible.


     Here are six other good books I read, many of which, in another year, would be in my top 20 (again, listed in the order in which I read them):


1.   Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint, by Nadia Bolz-Weber … an unconventional life of faith that couldn't be more different than my own

2.   Lucky 666: The Impossible Mission That Changed War in the Pacific, by Bob Drury … A WW2 narrative of fliers in the Pacific, recommended by my cousin-in-law Bob Tcherneshoff

3.   The Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei, by John Stevens … An ancient tradition of seeking spiritual enlightenment through repeated endurance running

4.   41: A Portrait of My Father, by George W. Bush … a unique and intimate biography, a love story, about a President who lived family values in everything he did. I hope my own kids think as well of me when I’m gone.

5.   The Bad Food Bible: How and Why to Eat Sinfully, by Aaron Carroll … this physician, professor of pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine,  and popular NYT contributor mines the latest evidence to show that many “bad” ingredients actually aren’t unhealthy, and in some cases are essential to our well-being

6.   Tracks of a Fellow Struggler: Living and Growing through Grief, by John Claypool … This was recommended to me by Jim Dennison years ago, as “the best book I’ve read about understanding loss and grief.” I reread it this year, after our family lost a tiny baby. I needed it again.



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

100 Things That Made My Life

       I am a man of lists, and I’m proud to say it. I love making lists, whether shopping lists, to-do lists, books I read lists, books I want to read lists, miles I’ve run or biked lists, summits I’ve hiked, blood pressure and heartrate measurements, body weight, passwords, calendars, goals and dreams lists, and, as you can see, lists of lists.

       For me, having a list is relaxing, because once something is on my list I don’t have to fret about remembering it. I can let my mind wander off into something fun and creative knowing the list will do all the heavy lifting.

       This is my fourth year to make a list of things that made my year. It is a practice I learned from Austin Kleon. I don’t do it to brag about life, but to remind myself of the best that happens.

       The world we live in is scary enough; we don’t need to be reminded. It’s easy to remember the worst that happens because we had to deal with it, survive it, expend energy and money because of it, to overcome it.

       But we do need to remind ourselves of the good things that happen, the grace-filled things, the influential things, and the things that make us human. Not just because we’re lazy or 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.


       For me, the best things that happen are often small and subtle – an insightful quote, a new practice, a particular slant of light at just the right time. I want to remember all of those. I want them to continue influencing me. So I make this list.

       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 embedding 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.       Holding hands with Cyndi

2.       James Corden’s interview with Paul McCartney

3.       Rabon Bewley’s talk at Iron Men FORGE retreat: Practicing Faith

4.       Cyndi playing the congas

5.       Reading and writing on our small private dock near the early-morning glass-smooth water at Lake Granbury

6.       Goal: “I want to age like Billy Graham aged. With every passing year he got better, more forgiving, more loving, more global, more grand.” - Leonard Sweet

7.       The Christmas parade in Granbury

8.       Warning: “I am convinced that every time a worship leader deletes “Ebenezer” from “Come Thou Fount,” an archangel sharpens his sword.” - Russell Moore

9.       Quote: “Every moment and every event of every man’s life on earth plants something in his soul.” (Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation)

10.    Book: The Art of Practicing,  Madeline Bruser

11.    Backpacking with Cyndi

12.    Movie: The Martian ("If we are going to have a secret project called "Elrond", then I want my code name to be "Glorfindel".")

13.    Movie: Joyeux Noel

14.    Bill Britt with Integrity Massage – he keeps me straight

15.    Base Camp Gathering in Colorado

16.    Kissing Cyndi “Happy New Year” under the fireworks in Guatemala City

17.    Iron Men FORGE retreat in Junction

18.    John-Mark Echols and The Field’s Edge ministry with chronically homeless in Midland

19.    Watching the movie Muppet Christmas Carol November 1st

20.    The band: Lawrence

21.    Cyndi Simpson in yoga pants

22.    Dinners with Britt and Patti Pyeatt

23.    Book: The Old Ways, by Robert McFarlane (“Caminar es atesirar – to walk is to gather treasure”)

24.    Book: Will: Parenting at the Crossroads of Disability and Joy, by Clark Moreland

25.    Playing in the FBC orchestra with Cyndi

26.    Grandkids in the pedal boat on Lake Granbury

27.    Regular phone calls from my brother, Carroll

28.    Two days talking mountains and ministry with Dan Ainsworth

29.    Walking the pond across from our house. (Wallace Stevens wrote, “Perhaps the truth depends on a walk around a lake.” (we need this on a plaque near our front door))

30.    Book: Deep Survival,  Laurence Gonzales

31.    Playing Words With Friends with Cyndi, Byron, and Joe

32.    Book: Ghosts of the Firegrounds,  Peter Leschak

33.    Cycling mountain highways near Durango Colorado

34.    Salvation Army bell ringers

35.    Playing with MC Jazz band

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

37.    Storyteller Willy Claflin’s description of his dream career, for his high school yearbook: Serendipidist

38.    Ouch: "Religion is like a swimming pool---all the noise is at the shallow end." - theologian William H. Vanstone (1923-1999)

39.    Shopping for adventure books at Whole Earth Provisions on Mockingbird in Dallas

40.    Using my new iPad Pro with ForScore and AirTurn pedal to read band and orchestra music

41.    Chile rellenos at Sweetwater Harvest Kitchen in Santa Fe

42.    Family ski trip in Utah

43.    Bear Trap Ranch

44.    Quote: "I stole everything I ever heard, but mostly I stole from the horns."- Ella Fitzgerald

45.    Quote: “There is a God; He’s up to something good; it will take some time.” – Larry Crabb (via Gary Barkalow)

46.    Book: The Rider, Tim Krabbe

47.    The peace that comes from not watching 24-hour TV news stations

48.    My Panama hat

49.    Books: The Hobbit, Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, Return of the King, J.R.R. Tolkien

50.    Blue Bell vanilla ice cream, my summertime reward for each bike ride greater than ten miles and 95*

51.    FBC Men’s ski trip – combining two of my favorite things, skiing and teaching

52.    Celebrated 40 years of running

53.    Doobie Brothers in Midland

54.    Bob Hartig playing Be Thou My Vision into the Colorado Rocky Mountains

55.    “Mountain pilgrimages on sacred peaks is the best of practices.” - eighth century Buddhist text

56.    Hiking McKittrick Canyon with David Hurta

57.    My new backpack, an Osprey Atmos 65 AG

58.    The sign inside the Santuario de Chimayo said, “Turn off your cell phone and connect with God” (Apaga to movil y conectate a Dios)

59.    Reading my Daily Bible

60.    Writing at riverside in Durango, Colorado

61.    Midland Storytelling Festival

62.    Watching our son Byron patiently teaching his nieces how to fish

63.    Verse: “Let the peace of Christ keep you in tune with each other, in step with each other. None of this going off and doing your own thing. And cultivate thankfulness. (Colossians 3:15 MSG) (this should be the prayer of all marching bands) 

64.    Granddaughter Madden Noss making her first solo airline flight

65.    Sharing my cartoon collection on Facebook

66.    Cyndi flirting with me.

67.    Book: A Praying Life, by Paul E Miller (“Learning to pray doesn’t offer us a less busy life; it offers us a less busy heart.”)

68.    Remembering Ed Todd

69.    Book: My Best Friend's Funeral, Roger Thompson

70.    Reading in my rocking chair outside on our piazza when it’s raining

71.    Daily writing practice (“Writing by hand on paper is becoming a revolutionary act.” - Lynda Barry)

72.    Book: Subversive Kingdom,  Ed Stetzer

73.    “I don’t want to carry gratitude in seasons. I want to carry it in my bones, I want it to rest on my tongue like it is a language that I never stop speaking.”  – Arielle Estoria

74.    Movie: Arrival

75.    Wrangler Relaxed-Fit jeans

76.    Green Chile Stew at Bumblebee Grill in Santa Fe

77.    My Whataburger Yeti mug

78.    Theme: “God loves you. God is on your side. He is coming after you. He is relentless.” – Leif Peterson, describing the life-message of his father, Eugene Peterson

79.    My new trombone mouthpiece (first change my gear since 1976)

80.    Andre Moubarek in Midland

81.    Summited Guadalupe Peak for the 19th time … 3rd time with my new knees

82.    Hiking to Music Pass in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains with Dan Ainsworth

83.    Book: Spaceman,  Mike Massimino

84.    Talking about engineering, music, theology, and family, every day with Bob Liem

85.    Cyndi’s homemade apple pie at Thanksgiving

86.    Hiking Wheeler Peak, highest summit in New Mexico

87.    Cyclefest

88.    Quote: “A disciple of Jesus is a lifelong learner. A disciple’s hunger for truth is never satisfied. A pilgrim never quits the pilgrimage.” - Leonard Sweet

89.    Book: North: Finding My Way While Running the Appalachian Trail, Scott Jurek

90.    “Remove from us everything that hinders love.” - Mike Bickle, International House of Prayer (via Robert Kirk)

91.    Movie: Dan in Real Life

92.    Verse: “On your feet now—applaud GOD! Bring a gift of laughter, sing yourselves into his presence.” (Psalm 100:1-2 MSG)

93.    Joining Daryl Jensen on top of Guadalupe Peak

94.    Cycling North Texas hills near Glen Rose

95.    Tributes to Eugene Peterson and George W Bush, men I want to be like when I grow up

96.    Playing trombone with Denver and the Mile High Orchestra

97.    Attending a Natalie Goldberg writing workshop in Santa Fe

98.    Booths at Whataburger for writing and reading

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

100.  The Kindle app on my phone that has revolutionized all my waits




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


      For at least fifteen years Cyndi and I have started our Christmas season by watching holiday movies on November 1st (the first is always Muppets Christmas Carol) and keep it up until the end of December. I start listening to Christmas music in my office the Monday after Thanksgiving - my favorites are Amy Grant, Diana Krall, Pentatonix, and Michael W. Smith. We look for Salvation Army kettles so we can stuff a dollar in the slot. And even as I am typing this Cyndi is in the kitchen decorating Christmas cookies. We look forward to this season all year.

      We used to go caroling every December, but unfortunately that has fallen off our schedule. I wish we still did it. I miss it a lot. When our kids were young we sang carols while riding around town in our 1980s minivan, the most notable being Angels We Have Heard On High, trying to sing the entire chorus in one big breath.

      For several years my favorite Christmas song has been Grown-Up Christmas List as sung by Amy Grant … “time would heal all hearts, everyone would have a friend, right would always win, and love would never end.”

      For even longer, my least-favorite Christmas song has been Little Drummer Boy. I’ll admit I was too vocal with my complaints, but I never understood why any mother of a newborn would be happy to see a young boy with a drum. And I might have swallowed that objection except for the mind-numbing “Pa rum pum pum pums” that go on and on and on.

      And yet, my dissatisfaction with the Little Drummer Boy song has always made me uneasy since two people closest to me, Cyndi and Carroll, are both percussionists.


      Well, I’m making a change this year, a move that started twelve months ago while we were playing a concert with the Metro Big Band in Guatemala. I decided to change my mind about The Little Drummer Boy.  I don’t intend to complain about it anymore.

      We were playing an arrangement of LDB by Denver and the Mile High Orchestra, and in one trombone section feature I had a part with an arm-breaking lick when I had to throw my slide from 6th position to 1st to 6th to 1st playing 16th notes, which may not sound like much unless you’ve spent some time playing trombone.

sixteenth notes.jpg

      I doubt I ever played it exactly correct. I couldn’t move my arm as fast enough to guarantee every pitch. I had to hope I was close enough. And then, during one afternoon performance, as I was trying to play, it occurred to me Jesus always meets us where we are with what we have to offer. He doesn’t expect perfection, just wants us to come and try.

      Who was I to decide what gifts Jesus would want. Maybe he loved drums in the hands of young boys. Here I was hoping Jesus would be happy and honored with my meager trombone technique, but I had little patience for another musician doing his best. I was glad Jesus didn’t toss me out of the manger the way I expected him to do with the little drummer boy.

      All of that happened last December and I’ve been waiting eleven months to confess it. And, to see if I still understood it.

      This morning, while in my office spreadsheeting away and listening to my Spotify Christmas playlist, I heard Amy Grant sing Breath of Heaven from her 1992 Home for Christmas album.

      One of the blessings of music is how a melody or lyric you’ve heard hundreds of times can still surprise you. This time, when I listened to the lyrics again, I stopped entering numbers. In fact, I stopped breathing. I was captured. I was ambushed. Especially when she sang …

Do you wonder as you watch my face,
If a wiser one should have had my place,
But I offer all I am

For the mercy of your plan.
Help me be strong.
Help me be.
Help me.


      “But I offer all I am.”

      What else is there t offer Jesus? This is it. This is all I am as a writer. All I am as a musician. All I am as a teacher. All I am as a husband, father, and grandfather.

      I can’t say Little Drummer Boy will ever be my favorite Christmas carol. In fact, I’m sure it won’t. But at least, as of now, I won’t complain about it anymore. I’m starting a new tradition this year.




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

Experimenting Again

       You would think a certified professional science teacher who taught in the U.S. public education system to the leaders of tomorrow for a gazillion years would be interested in my real-life biometric experiment, but no, she wasn’t. She just rolled her eyes, a movement I’ve not only learned to recognize but even predict.

       It all started when we arrived at the Midland Memorial Hospital at 5:45 am and navigated labyrinthian hallways to the third-floor Endoscopy Department, named apparently because that is where they scope your end. We walked in the waiting room and were greeted by other people we knew, people too healthy to be in the hospital except for this particular age-triggered procedure. Smart humans get their first colonoscopy at age fifty, and then every ten years thereafter. Of course, I stalled for two years and got mine at fifty-two, so here I am, ten years later, doing my family duty.

       Young people who’ve never experienced a colonoscopy flinch when you tell them about it, but the procedure itself is painless and – other than going to the hospital at 6:00 am – trouble free. Experienced colonoscopites know the real discomfort is the foul potion they make you drink the day before.

       The evil brew comes in an almost empty gallon jug with about two inches of powder at the bottom, consisting of polyethylene glycol, sodium bicarbonate, sodium chlorate, and potassium chloride. In effect, salty antifreeze. You mix it with a gallon of water and then drink it one glass every ten minutes. They also include a small package of lemon flavoring, but it’s effect is marginal. I imagine the assembly-line workers laughed as they attached the packets to the jugs.

       I am usually skeptical of products advertised to cleanse organs. Maybe they work, but there isn’t a sure way to know. That isn’t the case with GaviLyte-N colonoscopy potion. It acts on the human body quickly and its effectiveness as a thorough cleaner is obvious.


       My first time for this endoscopic adventure, they let me watch the procedure on a TV screen. It was fascinating to see inside my own insides, and I remember noticing how effectively I’d been cleansed. This time I stared at the screen waiting for the procedure to start and then the nurse said I was finished and it was time to wheel me out. I slept through the whole thing.

       When they first started the poking and sticking and measuring that goes with any hospital procedure the nurse put a cuff on my arm, took my blood pressure, and wrote down his results. Since high blood pressure is one of my risk factors, I measure mine every morning, write it down, and, of course, enter it into Excel so I can plot a graph for my doctor. So this morning, naturally curious, I asked the nurse, “What did you get?”

       “Oh, its normal.”

       That was a completely unsatisfactory answer. Even though he was kind and competent, I knew I could never be best friends with someone who wouldn’t tell me the actual numbers when he had hard data in front of him.

       But later, when they wheeled me into the endoscopy room and attached an EKG, I could see the digital readout. Nice touch, making the real time data visible. I was with my people. My heart rate was lower than usual, 47 bpm, which told me the whole hospital experience hadn’t made me nervous. That’s good to know.

       And then I had an idea, which brings me to the experiment I referred to earlier that Cyndi should have engaged with but didn’t. Since I could see the digital heartrate readout and since I was laying on the bed completely relaxed and since I had nothing else to do until they rolled me over to get started, the game was on. How low could I push my heartrate?

       In fact, I settled it down to 38 bpm, a personal record, before the alarm sounded and the nurses interfered with my game, or rather, experiment.

       Later I tried to tell Cyndi how cool it was that I could change my body metrics by altering behavior, but like I said, she wasn’t interested. It’s a good thing she retired from teaching science so long ago or else I would worry about the quality of future leaders.


(Note: I know the photo has nothing to do with my story, but there is nothing photogenic about a colonoscopy.)



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

Giving a Blessing

I have been reading Genesis 27, preparing for Sunday’s Bible Class, and realized how little I understand about giving blessings. My study reminded me of a piece I wrote in June 2001. Here is an updated version.


      Have you ever given a blessing? Ever received a blessing from someone? I don’t mean a beautiful song or a poignant essay or a great sermon. I mean a physical blessing. Henri Nouwen wrote about giving blessings to people he ministered to, and in his case the blessings always involved touching.

      In the Baptist churches where I grew up I don’t remember anyone “giving out blessings”. I’m pretty sure we weren’t against it – we certainly cared about each other and tried to be a blessing in our service – but I don’t remember that particular terminology.

      Maybe that’s what we were doing when we ordained someone into the ministry by laying our hands on their head and praying. Or on those occasions when we commissioned a mission group by surrounding them and praying for them; that might be the closest I remember to giving a personal blessing.

      I don’t know which part of a blessing is the most important, words or touch, but I do know the power of touch is unforgettable. Several years ago I was in a Dennis Jernigan concert in Midland Center when he asked people who were hurting to stand and then asked believers nearby to stand with them and put their hands on them and pray. I know this has been a part of worship for a long time, but the addition of touch was new to me. I had spent many prayer sessions praying for other people, but the power of touching while we prayed was new. (I am always the last to figure things out.)

      Sometimes in church we all stand up and hold hands to pray, but that doesn’t have the same sense of “blessing.” I’ll participate, but I seldom feel blessed. I figure we have to hold hands a couple of times each month so all the touch-feely folks won’t leave our church. (That sounds pretty cold, doesn’t it?) Holding hands while we sing or pray has never been especially meaningful to me. Don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t make me nervous and I don’t dread holding hands; in fact, I love to go along with any form of worship that helps me to know God better … but the truth is, the only hand I am interested in holding is Cyndi’s. (And, to be completely honest, I have often left the room when I feel a handholding session boiling up.)

      One Wednesday evening several years ago our pastor, Randall Everett, in a combined Ash Wednesday service with First Presbyterian Church, drew a cross on my forehead with ashes. It was my first experience with that, and I loved it. No, I was deeply moved by the feel of his touch on my skin. Of course, he later told me he intended to draw an X on me, instead of a cross, but he realized the Presbyterians were watching. I didn’t mind. Even the joke felt personal and close.


      Nouwen wrote about a time when a young woman under his ministry asked him for a blessing. He was taken back by her request and reached out to her and traced with his thumb the signs of the cross on her forehead. She said, “No, that doesn’t work, I want a real blessing!”

      He was wearing a long white robe with giant billowing sleeves, so when he stretched out his arms the woman ran to him and put her head on his chest. He covered her with his huge sleeves and held her and said, “Janet, I want you to know that you are God’s Beloved Daughter. You are precious in God’s eyes. Your beautiful smile, your kindness to the people in your house and all the good things you do show us what a beautiful human being you are. I know you feel a little low these days and that there is some sadness in your heart, but I want you to remember who you are – a very special person, deeply loved by God and all the people who are here with you.”

      Wow. Reading that makes me want to find a Henri Nouwen, move in close, and say, “Me too! Bless me too!” I might become a touch-feely guy myself if that’s how it went.

      We often substitute affirmations for blessings. That isn’t what Nouwen was doing. The reason we are valuable is the love of God within us; it isn’t our worthiness but His worthiness, and being blessed means being reminded of that worthiness. There was more in Nouwen’s blessing than the silly personal self-affirmations of our modern self-help world.

      I’m not sure what to do about this. I don’t know how we can bless each other. We can certainly encourage one another, and pray for each other, and show the love of God to each other. And OK, maybe hug and hold hands.

      I am fully aware how we bless each other with our teaching, our music, our service, our lives … but what Henri Nouwen did seems to be a completely different category.

      I want to learn how to give blessings and how to receive blessings. I think it’s something I ought to be doing. We are communal creatures and we were created to experience the love of God together.

      May God bless you.


“You have made us for Yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in You.” … Augustine

In The Booth

       I’m writing this in one of my favorite places: a booth in the northwest corner of Whataburger on Andrews Highway in Midland, Texas. This is a very familiar place. Not exotic or literary, no hipster qualities, not fancy or cozy, but certainly mine. Being here opens my mind and stimulates my thoughts. The restaurant is seldom quiet, but as long as there are several conversations going at the same time it all turns into gray background noise and it feels like I’m all alone.


       I regularly scope out good writing spots, both in Midland and whenever we travel. I wish I were better writing at home, but there are always distractions. As the movie, The Last Samurai warned, I have “too many mind” when at home. I mind the chores, mind the TV, mind family members I love, mind my closet that needs organizing, mind my bike and wonder if that front tire is holding air. If I leave home and go to some other place, none of the distractions follow me. Even a noisy and busy restaurant can be peaceful if none of the noise is about me.

       My first important requirement for a good writing spot is this - I prefer booths to tables. Booths are more likely to be along an outside wall or in the corner, and since I’m already doing the nerdiest of things in a public restaurant, I’d rather be on the edge of the room. Even booths in the middle of the room seem less exposed than a table. Booths feel tucked in, private, isolated, specific, and encourage me to get to work. And I find them more comfortable when I plan to stay for an hour or two.

       I often wonder if I would do better at a coffee shop. Would I have cooler insights if I were sitting in a classier place? Maybe. But my second requirement for a good writing spot is - I like free drink refills. That eliminates all cool coffee houses, and besides that, fancy (expensive) coffee is wasted on me anyway. So more often than not, I find a Whataburger and camp out in the corner booth.

       I read a story in Austin Kleon’s newsletter about John Swartzwelder, famous writer for The Simpsons. When he was kicked out of the writer’s room for chain-smoking he found a diner he liked, and would write from the same booth every day. When California banned smoking in public places he got kicked out of his diner, so he purchased his favorite booth, installed it in his home, and continued his work as if nothing had changed.

       One of my fears is someday all Whataburgers will be remodeled by young extroverts who think customers want to sit close to each other and talk about meaningless topics, and they’ll remove booths. If that happens, I can imagine following Swartzwelder’s lead, buying my favorite booth and setting it up at home, except that I’m certain Cyndi wouldn’t go for that. So in the meantime I’m using my booth for as long as I can as often as I can.

       John Swartzwelder and I are not alone in our booth-loving. For ten years David Lynch went daily to Bob’s Big Boy, where he had a milkshake and sat in his booth and wrote. In my accounting, Whataburger trumps Bob’s Big Boy, but that may be my Texas roots showing.

       I used to enjoy going to the downtown library and holing up in one of the study carrels, especially the ones in the back corner hidden behind stacks of books. I loved the quiet intentionality of the library. Unfortunately, they removed the carrels when the library was reduced from two stories to one story. It’s now closed for a major remodeling and I’m nervous how it will turn out. Probably like most modern libraries, designed by high-energy architects who think everyone needs and wants to be entertained.

       So don’t be surprised if you find me holed up in a booth with my head down and hand moving. It’s were I like to be.


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

A Music Adventure

       Have you ever considered going to an adult fantasy camp? I did a quick google search and found a Space Academy, a Culinary Camp, a Post-Apocalyptic Camp, Mountaineering for Women, Rock ‘N Roll Fantasy Camp, and even a Wizarding Weekend. Which would you choose?

       Last Friday, I attended my own music fantasy camp: I played trombone with Denver and the Mile High Orchestra at my church. If you aren’t familiar with DMHO you need to go to You Tube right now and listen. They play hymns and other songs, blending big-band jazz with power funk, and they are monster musicians. I first heard them playing at the finish line of the Nashville Marathon in April 2003, and I’ve been a fan ever since.

       They scheduled a concert in our church, and asked three locals - Rabon, Craig, and me - to sit in with the band. I don’t know why they needed more horns. Maybe they didn’t. It could be they were being generous to the local talent … but, I didn’t care. It was a hoot, a joy, a gift to play with them, and I’ve been vibrating ever since.


       We received our parts by email a few weeks ago, and the three of us practiced together a couple of times. We started playing together at church as a three-horn combo at least fifteen years ago, and I enjoy every minute. Even practice sessions.

       The gig itself was way more fun than I expected. I started off the night jittery and nervous, praying, “Don’t let me mess this up.” It doesn’t matter how old we get (62), or how many years we’ve played (50), it’s still nerve-wracking to stand beside the big boys on varsity. By the end of the first song, however, I’d moved past nervous into fun.

       For me, the curious part is how we got to this moment. Spiritual journeys are usually long and winding paths, never obvious and never inevitable.

       It started when Ken Hughes (trombone player for DMHO) gave our names to Denver Bierman, leader of the group. One Tuesday last July, Rabon, Craig, and I each got a text from Denver asking if we knew a trumpet player who could play with the band that next Friday in Alpine. I wrote back that I’d pass his message along but was he sure he didn’t need a trombone instead? Craig drove to Alpine and played with them. Apparently he made a good showing because the next thing we knew, there was a concert scheduled in Midland with open places for us. Well done, Craig.

       Ken Hughes is the Ministry Director for Global Missions Projects (led by Camp Kirkland) and that’s why he knew the three of us. Cyndi and I traveled with GMP to Guatemala last December, I played trombone and Cyndi played congas and percussion. And before that, in the fall of 2016, Rabon and Kim Bewley, Craig and Linda Freeman, and Cyndi and I went to Israel with the GMP orchestra. That’s how we ended up on Ken’s list.

       But before that, a dozen FBC orchestra members travelled to east Texas for an Instrumental Convergence, a one-day gathering of church musicians to learn new music, draw energy from each other, and open our hearts and eyes to a larger vision of music for the Kingdom. It was there that we heard a passionate pitch to join the GMP orchestra in Israel. Our three families decided to give it a try. That’s how we got on Ken’s list.

       But even before that, we heard of the Instrumental Convergence because Rabon had been traveling with the GMP Metro Big Band since 2010. His first trip was to Russia, and since then he’s played with them six more times in Europe and South America. He has two more trips scheduled already. The rest of us followed Rabon’s lead and jumped aboard the GMP train. That’s how we got on Ken’s list, and how we got to play with Denver last Friday, we followed Rabon.

       So many adventures happen like that. Somebody is brave and takes a step forward, a couple of more people follow along, we’re brave together, and next thing you know your life is permanently changed. Your vision for musical ministry is blown apart, and you’re playing killer music with powerhouse musicians in your home church with your wife sitting on the second row radiating joy and pride.

       At least, that’s how it was for me.


P.S.      The story continues. Rabon is going to Cuba with the Metro Big Band (part of GMP) in January, and our gang of six are traveling to Hungary in May. I can’t wait to see what’s next.