8 A Change of Seasons

tree

“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens…”Ecclesiastes 3:1

I love trees. Some of the most enjoyable moments of my boyhood revolve around trees, whether climbing, swinging, camping beneath, decorating or being around them. True, I was once knocked unconscious as a result of a fall from a small pin oak, but that was no fault of the tree. As a woodworker and builder of furniture, I even love what they can become. Wood speaks to me in some primitive way that connects me with my own roots. I love to feel its varying textures in my hands; see the unpredictable beauty of its different grains; smell its dusty fragrances as I cut and shape and sand. Okay, so I’m not too fond of the sanding part, but I digress.

One of my favorite trees ever is the cherry tree that stands right outside our front window. When my wife, Carmen, and I planted it during our first year of marriage, it was just a twig and now, ten years later, it stands taller than our house, it’s branches wrapping around the front porch as though embracing it. We especially love that tree in the spring when, after standing stark and bare through a cold, dreary winter, it quite suddenly bursts to life with beautiful large blossoms as white as freshly popped popcorn. Some years the blossoms hold on for nearly two weeks before falling like gentle snowflakes to the green grass below.tree

Other years we are not so lucky. This year we had only a couple of days to enjoy the tree in all its springtime glory when a bitter storm rolled through and blew most of the blossoms off prematurely. I suppose that’s how it is with life. Everything has a season and change is inevitable. Some seasons, like the coming of spring, are quite predictable while others, like the storms, come suddenly and unexpectedly.

Such was the case with the storm that came our way ten years ago this week. We were just shy of our second wedding anniversary, still enjoying the early bloom of marriage when Carmen was involved in a very serious and life threatening injury that left her with a severe spinal cord injury. In an instant our lives were forever changed. We went from “Marriage 101” straight to the advanced course with little warning or preparation.

We are not alone. Everyone experiences unexpected storms in this life. Jesus, himself, warned.

“In this world you will have trouble. But be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world”.

He also talked of the need to prepare for the inevitable storms of life.

“The wise man builds his house on the solid rock…”

Carmen and I long ago made the decision to build our lives and home upon the firm foundation of faith in Jesus Christ. This does not mean that the storms are less fierce, the winds less powerful or the waters less raging. It does mean that we are anchored on something stronger than ourselves; something that will never move, never shift; never give way even in the midst of the strongest tempest. Our lives and our marriage are built upon the One who controls the storm and though He may not always choose to calm it or even deliver us from it, he will always, always support and strengthen us through it.

5 Behind the Song – Flying

Sometimes, songwriting is struggling, plodding and painfully slow work. And then sometimes it is simply trying to get out of the way while the song writes itself.

Paraglider

“Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.”Leonardo DaVinci

As a writer, ideas are gold. One can spend countless hours mining and sifting through the raw materials of life for that one nugget which will serve as the basis for a song or story. And then sometimes you’re just going through your day when you trip over an idea and fall headlong into inspiration.

Several years ago, I got a call from my friend Brian, an avid outdoorsman who had been learning the sport of paragliding. For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, paragliding involves strapping one’s person into a harness attached to a banana shaped kite before proceeding to run off the side of a perfectly good mountain. Turns out Brian was training in Flagstaff at the same time I happened to be playing a gig in Phoenix and, since I had a couple of days off, I decided to drive up and watch the action. Paraglider

It was a beautifully bright blue day at the site where a young instructor worked with a handful of students. At the top of the mountain, they would talk and practice through various techniques before, one by one, raising their kites and taking off towards the waiting valley below. I hopped in the truck with the instructor and rode down the dusty red road to meet the students at the bottom and ferry them back to the top. After the second or third trip down, he pulled me aside.

“Normally, I’ve got a driver here for the day, but he was called in sick, which is why I’ve been doing it myself. I sure would rather fly than drive, and you seem like a pretty responsible guy. You mind taking over and driving us back up the mountain? I can’t pay you, but If you want I’ll take you flying at the end of the day.”

“I’d be happy to”, I said. “I’m riding anyway. I’d just as soon drive.”

“Be real careful”, he said. “It’s not a great road”.

“That’s okay, I’m not a great driver”, I said as I grabbed the keys and headed towards the extended cab dually pickup that would be my office for the rest of the day.

For the next few hours, I watched as each flier left the safety of the mountain peak then maneuvered my way down to the bottom in time to watch them land at the designated pick-up spot only to repeat the process over and over again. Finally, towards the end of the day, it was my turn. I strapped myself into the harness of a tandem kite with the instructor behind and after a few minutes of training, mostly on what not to do, we were ready.

Starting at the flat plateau of the mountain we leaned backwards against the weight of the harness as the kite filled with air. The guide worked the rigging until the kite was directly above and we turned to face the cliff. His instructions had been simple enough.

“Stand as steady as you can until I give the word and then run, and don’t stop running.”

If I make it sound graceful, it was anything but. As the kite filled with air, we were pulled both by the earth and sky; caught in a powerful tug of war between gravity and the wind. I struggled hard to keep my balance and footing in the rocky sand all the while praying, “God don’t let me screw this up”

When the command came, I ran. Since I was in the front harness, I could not see anything save for the gradually receding mountain as the tug of war continued. And then quite suddenly it stopped.

“You can quit running, now”, I heard from behind me. I looked down and realized my feet were still moving as the ground and gravity quickly fell away. I pulled myself up into the seat and the struggle was over. I was weightless. The wind had won.

The next few minutes were among the most amazing of my life. I could try and describe it, but words would fail. For the briefest of time, I was no longer bound to the mother earth that had always been my home. We soared; We dove; We circled, glided and rose high above the cactus and brush below, the only sound the wind and my own heart beating in my ears.

Later that evening, in the comfort and safety of the hotel room, I picked up my guitar and began describing the feeling through song. In this new experience, It seems I had stumbled onto a nugget of truth and inspiration. Sometimes, songwriting is struggling, plodding and painfully slow work. And then sometimes it is simply trying to stay out of the way while the song writes itself.

“God, don’t let me screw this up”, I thought as the words and melody flowed.

(To listen to the song click on the video below. To purchase click on the cart tab above. Thanks for listening.)

0 Monkey in the Popcorn

Well, the holidays are over and we are off on a new year. I was reminded anew this year that the most memorable aspects of the holiday season are not the gifts and decorations, but rather the time that we spend with one another making memories. With the help of Carmen, I wrote this silly little song for my great-nephews, Dallas and Gavin. Thanks to their dad, Bracken, for laying down the beat. We had fun teaching it to them and filming the antics. I hope that your holidays were filled with child-like fun as well. Happy 2015 to all.

 

2 Ordinary Heroes

Aunt Iris uniform

Aunt Iris uniform

Aunt Iris was old the day I met her, or so it seemed. She was my grandmother’s sister, one of ten children who grew up in Muhlenberg County Kentucky at a time when life was both simpler and much harder.

She was a part of that greatest generation of Americans, ordinary young men and women who left their homes and families and joined together to do extraordinary things and in so doing, quite literally changed the world.

As a member of the Navy Nurse Corps,  Iris arrived at Pearl Harbor just days after the bombing. She would serve all around the Pacific Theater for thirty-one months.  She made the Navy her career, and  when she retired as a full colonel, she returned to her beloved Kentucky, never to leave again. For the longest time, I did not know about her distinguished service record. True heroes never act like heroes.

In the early 80’s I moved to Nashville where my uncle Marshall, her older brother, lived and worked as a graphic artist. He was a lifelong bachelor, and when he developed throat cancer, I took care of him during the last years of his life. It was then that I really got to know my aunt Iris as she took care of his bills and made many trips to see us in Nashville. We grew very close during that time and remained so until her death in 2004. She was one of the most intelligent and fascinating individuals I have ever met. An avid reader, she loved to talk about books, ideas and principles. Her desk was always stacked with newspaper clippings she would mail to her friends and acquaintances.

“I’m so afraid someone’s not going to know what I know,” she said only half jokingly.

We were at totally opposite ends of the political spectrum, and would quite often engage in spirited debates over government or policy or candidates only to end the conversation laughing over our differences, an ability that seems sorely lacking in today’s harsh political landscape. She loved birds and nature and thought that there was no place in the world like Kentucky. Often, I would try to get her to go on trips but she had traveled enough and rarely wanted to leave her home.

Scan 2Memory has a way of canonizing those who have passed away. I do not at all mean to make her out to be a saint. She was not. She was a pack rat, who rarely threw anything away. I know because I spent weeks going through every single item after she died. She was prone to paranoia and often thought that folks were stealing from her. Either that, or folks really were stealing from her. She had a hard time letting go of grudges and could be as stubborn as any person I’ve ever known, qualities my wife might tell you are family traits. But I loved that woman dearly and for some reason, she loved me in spite of my own many flaws.

Aunt Iris never married and, other than an old Mercedez Benz that she babied, lived quite simply. She often dressed in a way that might lead one to think she barely had two nickels to rub together yet when she died she left well over a million dollars to start a scholarship fund so that any student in Muhlenberg County who qualified could go to college.

I was asked to speak about her at the dedication for that scholarship fund and put together this little movie of her telling her story in her own words. It’s hard to sum up eighty-nine years of a life in six minutes, but I did my best.

I offer it up on this Veterans Day, 2014 with special thanks to the many men and women – aunts, uncles, parents and children all – who have served and fought so that the rest of us can live in peace and freedom. To all of you we owe a debt of gratitude that we will never be able to fully repay.

God bless you all.

 

4 Clutter and Weeds and a Father’s Heart

Lessons from a cluttered desk, a garden and a father's heart.

weeds and rust

“Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Ephesians 4:31-32”

weeds and rust

I’m avoiding my desk. Paperwork – things to be filed, mail to be opened, bills to be paid and receipts to be itemized – are all stacked up in need of attention. In all honesty, the word “stacked” gives me way too much organizational credit. I’m not sure at this point that I can even find my desk beneath the mountain of clutter that has gathered over time. At least it keeps me from having to dust it. The truth is it’s time to roll up my sleeves and get to work.

But first, I pour a cup of coffee and walk out to my garden. I love growing things and spending time with plants, whether vegetables or flowers, is great therapy for me. But when I walk out to my garden, I see weeds. I didn’t plant them; I don’t want them, but there they are sucking up precious resources and threatening to choke out my plants.

So now I’m avoiding my garden as well. The truth is it’s time to roll up my sleeves and get to work because whether it’s clutter or weeds the principle is the same:P1050235

Neglect carries with it consequences.

And the same is true with matters of the heart. Over time clutter can accumulate when things like un-forgiveness, hurts and disappointments are ignored. Then, like weeds in a garden, even the smallest of resentments, if not dealt with can take root and grow out of control choking out the flowers of peace, love and joy we try so hard to cultivate. Over time, weeds become harder to uproot; clutter more difficult to clear away.

It’s a lesson that has taken time for me to learn as I tend to have a hard time letting go of things. I do not possess a quick temper, and I rarely blow up but I do tend to let things simmer. Much like the clutter on my desk or the weeds in my garden, I put off dealing with them until one day I come to realize that my joy has been choked out and bitterness has taken it’s place.

My father modeled for me, in a very tangible way, the right way to deal with such issues. Late in his career, he entered into an agreement with some close business associates to help develop and market a product. Always a man of his word, he had a handshake agreement with much younger men that he had known and mentored for most of their lives. The product became successful beyond everyone’s wildest expectations and the small percentage that was due my father quickly became very significant money – money with which his associates refused to part. So, my father parted ways with them and I never heard him say a cross word about it.

“Doesn’t it bother you?” I asked him.

“If they can live with it; I can live without it,” was all he would say about the matter.

That is until several years later, just weeks before he would succumb to the cancer which had ravaged his body. I was spending time with him on the farm when it just so happened that one of the very men who had cheated him stopped by for a visit. I watched as my father received him with grace and chatted with him like an old friend. After an hour or so, when the man got ready to leave, my father thanked him for coming by.  When he was gone, I sat next to my father on the golf cart he putted around the farm on and I placed my arm around him.

“I’m proud of you, dad,” I said.

Dad, who was always uncomfortable with any show of emotion, stared straight ahead and shrugged his frail shoulders.

“Live and let live, son,” he said. “Some things just aren’t worth holding on to.”

We sat in silence for a while, those healing words like water washing over and around us, sweeping away years of clutter between father and son and dropping it into the deep, vast ocean of time. I like to think that the treasure my father gained during those moments, as the November sun set over a day well spent and a life well lived, was the kind of riches men seek for their entire lives and most never attain; the type of thing that no business deal could ever acquire and no amount of lost money could ever purchase. It certainly was for me. Dad was right, some things just aren’t worth holding on to.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time for me to roll up my sleeves. I’ve got some clutter and weeds to take care of.

1 Chronic Pain And the Christian Life

Notes from the furnace.

vise

Consider it a great joy, my brothers, whenever you experience various trials,knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.But endurance must do its complete work, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing.” – James 1:2-4

vise

For the past fifteen years of my life, I have suffered from chronic and at times debilitating physical pain. Hundreds of injections and several surgeries have only made things worse. Having pain that will not go away is like living with an octopus whose tentacles reach into every aspect of your life. Some days its grip is more relentless and unyielding than others, but it is always present.

And while I realize I am not alone, it is estimated that in the U.S. nearly 70 million people suffer through some form of constant or intermittent chronic pain, anyone who experiences it will tell you that it is a very isolated and lonely feeling. While there are days in which it is manageable, there are other days which feel like marathons; where life becomes a test of endurance and hope seems as faraway as the fading light from a distant star. Of all of the effects that chronic pain has on one’s life, perhaps none is harder for me than the spiritual effects.

Some suffering, such as that which comes about as an inevitable result of our disobedient or dangerous actions is easier to understand. Actions have consequences, some of them extremely painful.  The problem for me lies in those unexplained and seemingly unwarranted experiences of suffering. I believe in a God who is loving and good. I also believe in a God that is all-powerful and omnipotent. In Matthew 19:26 Jesus states, “with God, all things are possible.”

It is when I try to merge these two things: my view of God and my personal experience with pain, that I run soul-first into one of the profound mysteries that has plagued mankind throughout its existence. If God is, indeed, all loving, he would not wish his children to suffer. And if God is all-powerful, he is most certainly able to take our pain away. In mathematical terms the equation might look something like this:

Desire + Ability = Action.

In other words: God is loving and God is able, so His love compels that He take our pain away. 

Trying to resolve the spiritual conundrum that the continued presence of chronic pain introduces into this equation might lead us to one of two possible conclusions. Either God is not all-loving or he is not all-powerful. In the case of the former if we conclude that God is not all loving, we must deny God altogether since John 1: 4 clearly states, “God is love”. This indicates that love is not simply an action that God displays; rather it is His character; His very essence. While the evidence of suffering may cause countless people to conclude there is no God, reason guided by experience has led me to conclude otherwise. I not only see evidence of His hand in the world around me, I have experienced Him in my own heart and soul in ways I cannot deny. The second conclusion, summed up by Rabbi Kushner in his best selling book “When Bad Things Happen To Good People”, is that, despite His best intentions, God is powerless to control the world he created. On one hand God lacks the desire; on the other He lacks ability.

But perhaps there is a third option – that our definition of love is much too narrow and limiting. In this case, we become like children who might say to their parents, “If you really love me you wouldn’t make me do my homework, wash behind my ears, or suffer through a myriad of seemingly torturous difficulties.” The truth is, while the parent dearly loves the child, they also know things about the world that the child does not. The wise parent understands that the world is a very difficult and dangerous place and that certain challenges must be introduced into a child’s life in order to prepare and equip them for adulthood. As such, the parent’s goals are, in most cases, totally different from those of the child. For while the child wants nothing more than to play and live a carefree life, the parent wishes to see to it that their child grow in strength and knowledge and ultimately reach maturity.

I’ll admit the analogy is not a perfect one. In the case of human parenting, the goal in a healthy relationship is to see their child ultimately become independent and able to function on their own. In our relationship with God, it is His desire that we become totally dependant upon Him. Total spiritual maturity brings about total dependence upon God and total dependence upon God is not a condition we come to easily and effortlessly. Suffering strips away the sense of self-sufficiency that would keep me from needing Him.

And so, my journey through pain has brought me closer to God, closer than I would ever have gotten in times of comfort and ease because it has driven me to truly search for Him, desiring much more than a mere casual knowledge. For that reason alone, while not always happy, I have learned to find joy through the pain – tiny nuggets of gold hidden in the barren, brittle earth.  And I am truly thankful that, as one who has put his complete trust in the work of redemption Christ accomplished on the cross, I will one day stand in His presence free from all suffering. On that day everything will be made clear and the reason for all things revealed.

I believe, however, that on that glorious day, those things will pale in comparison to the fact that I will see and experience God, the One for whom my weary, homeward-aching heart so constantly yearns.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4 Daniel

Hard work is, indeed, a virtue but in the symphony of life the rests are just as critical to purpose and order.

bigwheel

bigwheelDaniel was three and a half years old with an infectious smile and inquisitive nature. He lived with his parents, Michael and Karen, in the apartment directly below me. After gaining his confidence we became friends and although I was some 20 years older than him, Daniel would always take time out of his busy day to say hello and speak to me for a little while. One day I happened to be outside when he rode up to me on his big wheel, a brightly colored plastic tricycle.

“Hi, what’cha doin’?” Daniel said, his standard opening.

“Hey Daniel, I’m cleaning out my car, what are you doing?” I said.

“Riding my big wheel,” he said.

“I see that,” I said. “Are you pretty good on that thing?”

“I’m the best!” Daniel exclaimed with all the unbridled confidence of youth.

I crouched down beside him. “Really…can you do any tricks on it?” I asked. He nodded matter-of-factly.

“What can you do?” I prodded.

Daniel furrowed his brow deep in thought before finally asking, “You see that telephone pole over there?”

“Yes,” I said.

“I can ride up that telephone pole and down the other side,” he said.

“Wow,” I exclaimed raising my eyebrows. “Are you telling me that you can ride your big wheel all the way to the top of that telephone pole and down the other side without falling off?”

“Yep,” he said, “that’s what I’m saying.”

We both stared at the pole for a moment before I spoke. “I would love to see that, Daniel, could you do that for me?”

Daniel got very quiet.  He stared intently at the telephone pole and then down at his big wheel. He looked back at the pole and then finally up at me.

“Nah,” he said, “I’m tired of riding up that pole.”

Life is full of obstacles, some of our own making, and like my little friend Daniel, sometimes I just get plain tired of overcoming obstacles. That’s why God set aside a day for us to rest. He knew that we humans would be so busy scurrying around with our little plans and big dreams that we would need to stop and take time out to renew our strength and refresh our spirit. He thought it so important that he made it a commandment for us to rest even as He, himself, did on the seventh day. It’s a lesson that I, the product of a very successful workaholic father, have had a difficult time learning as I struggle to find a balance between work and rest.

The point was driven home to me as I was writing and arranging a piece of music one day.  I placed a notation indicating a rest between two notes and realized that if those rests weren’t there, the notes would all run together and the melody would be lost in dissonance.

Hard work is, indeed, a virtue but in the symphony of life the rests are just as critical to purpose and order.

“Every person needs to take one day away. A day in which one consciously separates the past from the future. Jobs, family, employers, and friends can exist one day without any one of us, and if our egos permit us to confess, they could exist eternally in our absence.  Each person deserves a day away in which no problems are confronted, no solutions searched for.  Each of us needs to withdraw from the cares which will not withdraw from us.”
—Maya Angelou

2 Falcon Gumbo

Saint & Gumbo00900

Saint & Gumbo00900I grew up just south of New Orleans along the banks of the Mississippi River. There is something about the crescent city that gets into your blood -the food; the culture; the music; and did I mention the food? The city’s rich blend of diverse cultures and ethnicities throughout its nearly 300-year history make it quite unlike any other in the U.S. But there is another aspect of the city that gets into your system.

In 1968 my father took my mom, my older brother and me to watch the New Orleans Saints play at Tulane University’s outdoor stadium. It was the team’s second year in existence and I was eight years old. I can honestly say that I understood little of the game at the time. In fact, to this day, I can recall neither the opponent nor the final score. What I do remember is the connection I felt with my family and others sitting around us. For a few brief hours, total strangers became kindred souls. This was our city and we were cheering our team.

I would go on to watch the Saints play many games, both at Tulane stadium and later in the massive Superdome. Now, I realize that in the grand scheme of things, football ranks fairly low on the list of the most meaningful and important things in life. But in some ways it feels like more than just a game to me. It is a connection to the past and the place that helped raise and shape me. Although it has been years since I have called New Orleans home, whenever I watch the Saints take the field from wherever I happen to be, I am instantly flooded with memories: the feel of my eight-year old hand in mother’s hand as we cross a hot asphalt parking lot towards a towering red brick stadium standing against a bright blue sky; the joy on the faces around us when our guys in white and gold run into the end zone; my dad’s face smiling down at us as he asks, “Are you boys having a good time?”

Yes. Yes, we were.

But life goes on. The days that, for that young boy, seemed to drag on, now fly by. Along the way, there were new discoveries about life and love; about the world and about myself. Time has been marked by both the mundane and the milestones – learning to drive; a first kiss; a broken heart; a passing away; a goodbye. Friends have come and friends have gone. Through college and shifting jobs, from small choices to life-changing decisions, in triumphs and tragedies there has always been football and the life-lessons it taught. Work hard. Play fair. Always believe. Never give up.

This Sunday begins a new season of NFL football when the New Orleans Saints will once again take on their division rivals the Atlanta Falcons. I have, with the help of that eight year old boy who still lives somewhere inside this tired body, put together a short animated video in celebration of the game, the city, and the team I love. I hope that it somehow touches the child inside of you and that you enjoy it.

And by the way…WHO DAT!

 

2 Beginnings

Beginning is always the hardest part.

8286234829_d4563aedb6_b

8286234829_d4563aedb6_bBeginning is always the hardest part. It has been said that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. It sounds simple, but why is that first step often so difficult to take. Usually it is because we want to know that we will be successful and reach our goal. But there are no guarantees in life. The outcome of any journey is never certain but which is more important, the journey or the destination? While there may be a journey without a destination, but there can never be a destination without a journey. Focusing entirely on the destination may cause us to miss the joy of the journey. We may also miss very important detours along the way.  Here are just a few reasons we may use for putting off beginning a new venture:

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