Tuesday, December 13, 2011

No more school for me (probably) forever

Last Thursday I defended my master's thesis. It was a score for the first 23 minutes (roughly a third) of an album of songs called Welcome Oklahomagain. The project is unsurreptitiously an unofficial installment in Sufjan Stevens's (probably) abandoned "Fifty States Project".

The defense went better than well. It was actually quite fun. All three professors on my committee had encouraging things to say, and each of their critiques of the project in its current state were well-needed and accurate. Nobody didn't sign the piece of paper that tells OU I am "satisfactory", so I guess the Graduate College is satisfactored with me now.

The School of Music, however, must still be sated. A year ago I enrolled in a self-invented independent study called "The Concept Album in Popular Music". Sounds like a fun class, eh? Well, mostly it just meant I got to go to a History of Rock Music class without having to do any assignments or take any tests, which WAS fun. The part that meant I still got 1 hour of graduate elective credit was that I had to write a 25-page paper by the end of it, which I did not do.

I took an incomplete for the course, figuring I could put the paper together in my spare time and turn it in at my leisure. Well, a year's worth of spare time has come and gone and I have found plenty of other things to do at my leisure that are NOT writing a research paper.

So now I've got three days till the end of the semester (and the end of my window of opportunity to receive my master's degree), and I've written nine pages. Six of those happened within the last day. The paper itself is about the two state-themed albums that Sufjan made before he stopped making state-themed albums, so it is directly related to my thesis. But writing something that sounds like research about someone who doesn't get talked about in books is REALLY HARD. So I've abandoned the goal of sounding academic. The paper is a complete hodge-podge of writing styles, meandering in and out of fictional storytelling, music theory analysis, personal anecdotes, biographical sketches, American history, lyrical commentary, and Christian devotion. In other words, the paper reads about how Sufjan's albums sound. 

As long as I make a C on it, they won't withhold my degree. I'll let you know how that pans out...

Saturday, November 12, 2011

There are reasons I'm not a writer

Mostly I don't have the habits for it. This blog is evidence of that, even if negative evidence is all that could testify to that particular sort of laziness.

I still have a (mostly useless) fascination with the craft of writing. I received my undergraduate minor in English composition and sat in a variety of writers' workshops and thoroughly enjoyed myself. I count Mystery and Manners, a posthumously published collection of Flannery O'Connor's essays and lectures on the craft of writing (primarily on that subject anyway) among the books that has had the most profound influence on me.

Why, as someone who only reads in fits and starts and writes even less consistently, I should enjoy the subject of writerliness I couldn't say. Every English professor I had (and Flannery, herself at times) talked about a special breed of person who had a hazy notion of wanting to be a writer but little interest in the discipline of actually sitting in front of a blank page and filling it with words.

I'm one of those.

Tonight I finished writing the lyrics to my children's musical. It took me four and a half months, which is four months longer than I had hoped.

And for the first time in my life, I am facing down the possibility that I may truly struggle with the sin of sloth.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Tune Up Our Heartstrings; We'll Sing a Song of Six Wings

Well, attempt number two at a congregational song is miles closer to the target than the first, but I still don't think I've hit it.

This one's got the unfortunate working title that you see at the top of this post. The title alone borrows from one well-known hymn and an bizarre English folk song, and the lyrics (as you will see) pull from the broad span of the Bible as well as moments from my amateur's imagination of physics, child-birthing, and obscure English idioms. The very end of this recording is lifted wholesale (and played incorrectly) from another well-known hymn.

General wordiness is not necessarily a problem; plenty of good hymns have been heavy on the verbiage. But I think this one may just not be focused enough on a single topic to invite the singer into meaningful meditation on the nature of God. It's sort of a fly-over tour of the whole span of scripture with a verse devoted to each person of the Trinity. There's also a weird implication in the line "until we learn to sing along, we'll sing..." implying that the refrain is a sort of sub-par hackneyed way to praise. The implication is intentional, but as a critique of my own laziness in writing a chorus, not of the song of the strange creatures in Isaiah 6 and Revelation 4.

Critical self-reflection on the part of a singer of a song is tremendously important if it leads to repentance. Critical self-reflection on the part of a songwriter has no place in the song itself.

Also, on the whole, this just doesn't repeat anything enough. And I think the melodic range is too wide. And there are too many vocal ornaments...

Oh, and it still sounds terribly sad. That's mostly my voice; in the mouth of another singer in the midst of a full rock band this might be pretty lively.

We'll see where I end up next!

Tune Up Our Heartstrings; We'll Sing a Song of Six Wings (<-again, click here to listen)

"You spoke a word.
The emptiness heard and burst into being.

You called the tune
every sun, every moon, and every atom is ringing.

Tune our hearts to play your song
until we learn to sing along.

You called down a storm.
You dreamed of its form before the waters broke.

You cried out as you died
the opening line of a psalm your father wrote for You!

Tune our hearts to play your song.
Until we learn to sing along, we'll sing...

'Holy holy holy is the Lord God Almighty.'

You breathed into our lungs.
You burned on our tongues and set fire to the endless void.

You called out our names.
The mute and the lame will sing and dance for joy in You!

'Holy holy holy is the Lord God Almighty.'

'Holy holy holy
Lord God Almighty
All thy works shall praise thy name
in earth and sky and sea.

Holy holy holy
merciful and mighty
God in three persons
Blessed Trinity.' "

Thursday, September 29, 2011

You Alone

So, ever since I joined this church band recently I've been asking myself whether I'm able to write something we could actually sing with the congregation on Sunday morning. In my last post I mentioned the yellow legal pad with song lyrics I was working on. Well, so far I've finished two attempts at a congregational praise song. I haven't succeeded yet, but I'll share what I've got.

Today's offering is a resounding failure on almost every count: it is depressing, it is personal, it is ambiguous, it is graphic, and it is generally inelegant. There is no reason any group of people should ever (ever.) sing this song together.

That said, I do think it is a successful portrait in broad strokes of someone in utter despair finding his only possible solace in the Passion and Resurrection of Christ. I just don't know where that sort of a song has a home.

Regarding the music and not the words, the melody I sang on this recording is more than half-improvised. They are not the notes I would choose if I were to try and set the text to sing it in public, but they serve as a snapshot of a sad little creation hobbling up on its new legs to see if it can stand.

You Alone (<-click here to listen)

"When I was accused and my friends ran away,
when I stood still and I couldn't speak,

You alone...
You alone had something to say.

When my father beat me raw with his belt,
when my father threw me out of his house,

You alone...
You alone know how it felt.

When I took the knife and I held my neck on the sharp edge of suicide,
when I chose to die,

You alone...
You alone came out the other side.

You alone...
You alone..."

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Portrait of a life told in Thank-You Notes

I snapped this photograph (the first my blog has seen) on Monday morning, September 19th. I was sitting at my kitchen table when I realized how startlingly unexpected the scene before me would have appeared to an earlier version of myself. With the exception of taking a coaster off that stack in the back and placing it underneath the mug, I didn't move a single object from where it had gradually accumulated before I took the picture.

As I sat for a minute and looked at this collection, all I could think of were people I ought to thank for the blessings in front of me. I won't give an exhaustive list, but I will give a long one. I am not the sole author of my life, and I want to duly acknowledge at least one person responsible for each item on the table. Follow with me, if you will, in a sort of heart-shaped spiral from the middle out leftward then back again:

Thank you Mom for the table itself, and for helping me move into the apartment where I now live. It's a much better place than where I was before.

Thank you Sarah Todd for encouraging me to read the Bible start-to-finish this year, and for helping me find a copy of this all-important centerpiece.

Thank you Doug Castle for giving me this Strong's Concordance and Bible Dictionary years ago. It was quite a surprise when I received it, but it has served me powerfully when I've remembered to pull it off the shelf.

Thank you Sufjan Stevens for talking about Flannery O'Connor in your early interviews. As much as I love your music, I have come to love her writing even more, and this little newsletter from her homestead in Georgia (tucked underneath the concordance) is a reminder of the blessing she has been. (By extension, thank you Greg and Beth Castle for inviting me to your wedding in Georgia; elsewise I would likely never have visited O'Connor's home and had the joy of experiencing some of the sights and sounds and smells she did when she lived there.)

Thank you Tim Keller for these couple of books I checked out at the library. I have listened to hundreds of your sermons and profited plenty from them, but seldom do I read a book that causes me to weep openly, and both of these accomplished just such a feat.

Thank you John Piper for complaining so much about the NIV (forgive my choice of One-Year Bible adjacent) and for cheering for the ESV. I'm not so emotionally involved in the choice of one translation over another as you are, but I had never read from an English Standard Bible before, and now this black beauty has become my own personal standard when I'm not reading the daily scripture from the One-Year.

Thank you Daniel and Adrienne Lalli Hills for fostering my love for the state of Oklahoma. Without it I would be feeling terribly ungrounded at this stage in my life, I would not have minored in creative writing or enrolled in the honors college at OU, and possibly wouldn't have come to school here at all. I certainly would not be working on my thesis right now, and I can't imagine anywhere else I would rather be for this season. (Also, thank you Amanda Lack for giving me this sweet Frankoma mug. It's the greatest thing to drink out of I've ever owned.)

Thank you Dad for being a songwriter and providing that example for me from my earliest memories. It has become my own chief occupation, and I never would have thought to even try if you didn't make it seem like a perfectly ordinary way to spend your time. I still write them on the same guitar you wrote yours on, and I still (sometimes) use yellow legal pads to write out the lyrics.

Thank you Tommy Scheurich for helping me both practically and emotionally with my songs. You have listened to, complimented, critiqued, learned to play, and recorded more of my music than almost anyone, and I am terribly excited you're coming back to stay with me for the next couple weeks so we can (among other things) record your parts of my songs for bugs album. (Also, you should take this stack of bank statements or whatever they are back to Virginia when you go. I don't need them. Or your phone charger. Or the giant copper pipes you left on my porch...)

Thank you Michelle Price for inviting me to church after only knowing me for a couple of days. And thank you for inviting me to join the worship band after I had only attended a couple of services! Getting to know the four of you and having a blast learning to play the electric guitar again and having the joy of getting together to sing for the Lord as many as three or four times a week has been the best thing that could possibly happen to me. This pencil would not be resting here were I not working on writing a congregational worship song for the first time in my life. What a surprise THAT would be to any number of my former selves. (Thank you Andrew Eiler, also, for being so enthusiastic for "praise and worship music" and for being a good example to me by leading the church in it yourself. Left to my own, I have been pretty critical and skeptical of the genre, but thanks largely to you and now to my new band-mates, I'm finding myself quite at home with the stuff.)

And if you've made it this far, THANK YOU blog-reader for stopping by this page at all, and for having graciously read so many paragraphs of gratitude that is either mostly or entirely directed at someone other than yourself.

For all of you, and for the many unnamed others to whom I owe immeasurable gratitude, thanks be to God.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011


Clearly I did not finish what I started last week. I never posted for days 4 and 5, partly because I began to doubt how worthwhile or even humorous a bullet list of disparate titles would be to anyone but myself, but mostly because I didn't finish any songs last week.

I did finish one a couple of days ago, and I should have another done by this weekend. All around, the deadline for having this musical done has been pushed back a little while, which is probably good news.

In other news, I am taking a break from sermon podcasts this week. I went through a lengthy series by Alistair Begg while I read through the book of Ecclesiastes, and quite thoroughly enjoyed it. But it seemed right to let that habit rest. I'm in a period of trying to dislodge myself of the things I value too highly, and I think it quite possible (however counter-intuitive) to let preaching itself to become a sort of idol. This is an idea, ironically, that I have warmed to by way of listening to a lot of preaching on the subject, but nevertheless I need a break.

My feelings about my new church are warming, as well. I'm enjoying both band practice and my fellow band-mates themselves more than I have just about anything in a long long time. I think I was made for this.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Sermons/Songs Day 3


"A Word to the Wise"

"The Search for Satisfaction"

"Eternity On My Mind"

"All These Lonely People"

"The Meaninglessness of Mechanical Worship"

"Concerning Worship"

(These are all part of a series by Alistair Begg on the book of Ecclesiastes. I've started re-reading it this morning, and these talks have been astoundingly uplifting. When I've read the book before there's been a certain level of catharsis, but for the first time it seems liberating in a way almost to make me cheerful!)


"Home Sweet Home"

(This one is about trapeze artists who realize they would rather have dinner with their parents than live as traveling performers.)

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Sermons/Songs Day 2


"Following Jesus: Reconciled to Reconcile"

"Making Sense of Suffering" (Part 1)

"Making Sense of Suffering" (Part 2)

"Making Sense of Suffering" (Part 3)

(The first one was a short exegesis of a passage I had read this morning in 2 Corinthians. The other three were a nearly four-hour epic by D.A. Carson. It lasted through my whole shift at the library and left me with as many questions as answers. )


"Sparks Will Fly"
(a tune about a man shot out of a canon in a circus)

Sermons/Songs Day 1

I am writing a children's musical. I have never written music for the theater and I have never written music for children's voices and I have never written in response to a commission, so this has proven to be quite a challenge. I'm coming up close on the deadline, and so in an effort to finish on time, I am determined to write a song every day this week.

As I am typing the present message just moments before midnight, I assure you I did not finish today's song on time. I will not, however, have slept until it was done.

As I mentioned yesterpost, I listen to recorded sermons in my headphones a lot. While preparing meals, taking walks, washing the dishes, or any time where I do not need to be actively listening to my environment, I bombard myself with the sounds of people talking about the Bible.

As a fun experiment, each day this week I am going to post the titles of all the sermons I have listened to that day as well as the title of the song I have been writing. Here goes Monday:


"Hell: Isn't the God of Christianity an angry Judge?"

"Lost People Matter to Jesus"

"How Can I Believe Jesus Rose From the Dead?"

"What Is the Ministry and Mission of the Local Church? Foundations from the Pastoral Epistles"


"Gotta Have Some Giggles"
(It's about clowns.)

Sunday, August 28, 2011

"Praise Him with the Electric Guitar"*

This morning I helped the praise team at a little church in Norman, OK usher in a new era of singing to the Lord.

I made a new friend in the library my first week of working there and she invited me to church that weekend. I had not been regularly attending anywhere in over six months, and I was glad to receive the invitation, but when I left the service I wasn’t sure I wanted to come back. The folks were friendly and the preaching held the Bible in high regard, even if the style and attitude of the sermon were not what I would seek out in a pastor. The music was played quite well, but was in a sort of sad state. It was just an electric keyboard, and electric drum-set, and a CD playing a track from a live worship album. I think they had been doing it that way for several years.

Word got out that I play the guitar, I jammed with the drummer and keyboard player, and now three weeks later I’m in the band. Today was a big day. They’ve wanted to “go live” (stop playing to a CD) for a long time, and have been praying for the right people to come along. I got a lot of handshakes (and a high-five from the pastor) and people told me I was an answer to prayer. I hope it’s true. I hope I’m really able to serve at this new place, and not just by playing guitar.

I had gotten quite comfortable NOT going to church. I read the Bible (almost) every day, I spend (at least a little) time praying most hours, and I listen to recorded sermons all week long from a variety of podcasts. I sing hymns at my piano, and I write checks every month to ministries I want to support. I mean, that about covers it, right?

I thought so.

But ever since I visited this church three weeks ago, I realized how terribly lonely my entire spiritual life is, and I was thrown into a soul-plumbing fit of searching and questioning and pulling my hair out over what it means to be a part of Christ’s body on Earth. And before I’d come up with any really good answers, I received a text message saying that they’d got the thumbs up to go live and I was needed this Sunday to play.

So here I am to worship, I guess. I enjoy hanging out with the other musicians, and it feels really good to get to play electric guitar again. This morning they asked for people to volunteer with the children’s ministry and I realized that I genuinely want to do that. I wouldn’t have chosen this church as a place to call home, but for now it looks like it has chosen me.

I have a sneaking suspicion that those “really good answers” I was trying to find are probably trying to find me, too.

Friday, August 26, 2011

I'm back in the saddle again.

If you are reading this, you are either A.)Lost, B.)More patient with me than I would have guessed, or C.)Responding to me directly telling you, "Hey, maybe my blog isn't dead after all!"

My last go-round with this thing burned me out, so I’m going to try a new approach. The previous posts on here meandered between overly-calculated memoir and this:

Actually, they were nowhere near as good as Jack Handey, though I do have another blog that is just as pithy (if not half as clever) as his wealth of wisdom. It’s called “My Feelings Are Symphonic And You Should Care About Them” and it’s here:

Because I KNOW I use at least 10 times as many words as are needed to say most things, I started “My feelings are symphonic” to challenge myself to share my thoughts one sentence at a time.

But I started “the smallest of voices” for those thoughts that aren’t directed at any one friend (and thus get blogged instead of put into a letter or a conversation), but also can’t be expressed in a single sentence.

I got carried away with trying to create something of lasting value (STORY OF MY LIFE… ask me about any of the albums I’m still… still… still… trying to write and record), and so I set up a format that I wasn’t capable of maintaining. I wanted to share some little story of something that had happened to me, but ground it in two complementary passages from the Bible. I never explained this, I just put the scripture references in the “Labels” section at the bottom of each post hoping people would notice the trend, look those verses up and say “A-ha! Steven’s daily experience is rooted in his knowledge of the Bible! He’s a good guy! He knows the Book! I’m learning something from this! My life can be clarified by viewing it through the lens of Divine Revelation as well!”

The problem is that I don’t know the Bible well enough to do that for very long. I’m reading through all of it this year (for the first time in my life), but that doesn’t mean I can call up any passage to memory at any time. I spent a lot of time at bible.cc to create the posts I did.

So I’m going to try and do this more off-the-cuff now. Nobody expects anything different from me, and if any of you ARE here on purpose and are patient enough to have made it to this paragraph, 1.)Thank you, and 2.)I’ll try not to waste your time, even if I don’t spend much time writing these anymore.

Plus, I own both a legit camera and a phone that takes decent pictures now, so maybe I can type less and post more photos of what I’m doing. Which, frankly, isn’t much to look at. I moved into a new apartment and started a new job lately, and most of my time is spent at work, organizing my apartment, or composing. There is nothing picturesque about writing music.

And on that note, I’m going to get back to what I should have been doing the last half-hour instead of typing this; orchestrating my “songs for bugs.” I’ll be recording string parts next week for them. Maybe I’ll post the results…

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Perhaps I ought to spread out my reading every day.

This year I'm reading through the "One Year Bible." Each day presents a passage from the Old Testament, the New Testament, Psalms and Proverbs. As of today, I've journeyed from the creation of the world up until David's adultery with Bathsheba and his betrayal of Uriah. I've also followed the life of Jesus on earth through three full gospels and I'm now sitting and listening with his disciples at the last supper in the gospel of John. Because the Old Testament story is so epic and bloody and full of heavy, difficult truths, and because the gospels are so full of our Lord's radiant life, and full of heavier, more difficult truths, most days I am exhausted and I let my eyes glide over the Psalms and Proverbs and they hardly sink in.

Not so, today. I woke up early and read from 2nd Samuel, slept in a while longer and read from John, but before continuing on, I knew I was supposed to leave the Book where it was and return to it later.

This evening, now, I have returned, and much to my delight, this is what I found:

"Your decrees are the theme of my song wherever I lodge."
-Psalm 119:54

"The earth is filled with your love, O Lord; teach me your decrees."
-Psalm 119:64

"To a man belong the plans of the heart, but from the Lord comes the reply of the tongue.
All a man's ways seem innocent to him, but motives are weighed by the Lord.
Commit to the Lord whatever you do, and your plans will succeed."
-Proverbs 16:1-3

I don't have the strength of mind to lay out for you why those verses hit me so hard today, but I hope they fill you with as much wonder and conviction and encouragement as they do me.

Friday, May 6, 2011

These melodies sound OK together

By and large, composing is a lonely occupation. You spend a lot of time humming to yourself and drawing little dots and lines and if you’re distracted easily (like I usually am) you just don’t even bother with it unless you’re alone and reasonably sure to stay alone until you’ve got a good amount of work done.

But so that you, my kind readers, might have a peek into the process and say “How interesting!” I present to you a thrilling musical discovery:

Two tunes I’ve been wanting to use for Welcome Oklahomagain* overlay on top of one another in surprisingly useful counterpoint! After hitting the snooze button a few times yesterday morning, I was half awake and had one of these melodies running through my head. In a moment of strange and miraculous insight (certainly not a moment of clarity, as I was still pretty groggy), I thought “Oh, this other phrase would probably work if it comes in partway through this one…” Without leaving the bed, I reached for my clavichord (a hilariously quiet keyboard instrument that has been out of vogue for about 300 years) and twiddled my fingers through the two melodies together and realized it was a nearly perfect fit!

Here’s the first tune I had in my head (first with only the clavichord, then with me singing some words):

It has been with me since Easter 2010.

Here’s the other one (again on clavichord and then with words):

That one has been rattling around in my brain since sometime in 2007.

And then here they are together without any singing:

Can you hear both melodies? Don’t they go together nicely? If I hadn't just played them each alone and told you they came three years apart, they would probably just sound like one inseparable unit.

I don’t know yet if both lyrical ideas will gel into the same song, but I feel hopeful that they can. If so, the part about an allegorical trailer park drug bust will be near the beginning and the bit about a scissortail flycatcher will come later among a litany of other “signs that you’re going to be OK”. Even if these end up as two separate songs, it is still going to be great to be able to use that scissortail melody as the featured vocal line in one spot on the album and as a hidden bass line in another.

*Welcome Oklahomagain is my master’s thesis project, a fan-fiction third installment in Sufjan Stevens’s abandoned “50 States” album series.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Unpredictably, Indescribably Good (Part Two)

Halfway through our set of 90s alternative and 70s funk cover tunes, it was announced that the bride and groom were about to depart. The bridesmaids all jumped into action handing out sparklers to everyone so we could wave the newlyweds out in a blaze of sputtering glory. I grabbed a book of matches off one of the tables and headed for the parking lot.

It was a windy night, and when it came time to start the show I rifled through two or three matches that went out as soon as they were lit. In a hurry I tossed them on the ground, but then that “I’m littering!” instinct kicked in and I looked down. What I saw wasn’t a scattering of burnt matches, but a towheaded boy about five years old with a fistful of sparklers in either hand. He wasn’t smiling, and he didn’t look longingly at me; he just looked stone-faced and ready for me to light his fireworks. Immediately I knelt down and shielded the wind with my back, struck up another match that failed and then finally one that got the paper on the ends of his sparklers burning. He didn’t look me in the eye, and he didn’t say thank you; he just backed up and watched the colors explode from the ends of his fingers.

Throughout the day Saturday the image of that boy’s face haunted me. I did the right thing in helping him, I’m sure, but I almost didn’t. What if I hadn’t looked down? What if I had looked down and then turned my eyes away?  What if I had given up after one match and stood up to try and light my own sparklers again? I know myself well enough to be sure that all of those possibilities were more probable than the scenario that actually played out.

Imagine yourself as a five-year-old again, standing there, sparklers in hand and not old enough to light them yourself. Imagine a sea of older, taller people all laughing and lighting each other’s sparklers and paying no attention to you at all. Imagine me standing within arms reach and not bending down to help. It is awful, isn’t it? I’m close to crying again just thinking about it.

But the Lord is doing something to me. Steven six months ago would not have lit that kid’s fireworks. Maybe even Steven a week ago would not. I am unbelievably selfish and shortsighted unless someone approaches me and very plainly asks me for help. Left to my own, I don’t notice other people’s needs until the moment has passed for me to lend a hand. But I don’t want to be insular and myopic, and perhaps I’m beginning to see the first fruits of a new me that will not be. Maybe even a new me that already isn’t.

All glory and honor to the One who has come to make all things new.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Unpredictably, Indescribably Good (Part One)

God is so unpredictably, indescribably good to us. Tonight I will begin to share with you my testimony of his goodness to me this first weekend after Easter. Tomorrow I’ll continue the story.

Yesterday evening I attended the wedding of an old friend’s younger sister. The chapel was modest but lovely, the bride looked stunning, and the sermon was unrelenting in its seriousness about what deeply good and truly difficult work love is. These graces were bestowed upon all in attendance. But then came the reception, and with it an evening filled with reminders of how much he truly loves me.

I was not looking forward to it. As a rule my enjoyment of a party is in directly negative correlation with the number of strangers there with me, and I had seen exactly two faces of slight acquaintances in the congregation at church. I have known the family of the bride most of my life and I wanted to catch up with them, but I also knew they would have plenty of friends and family to greet from their table at the front of the room. I sat down by myself out in the hallway and started to read a book, hoping to bide my time until the family arrived and I could say hello and get out of the way. Before I’d even read a page, a guy who served as a groomsman with me in this old friend’s wedding walked up and greeted me. He was not one of the faces I had seen in the crowd. What a surprise!

We sat down at a table in the back of the room across from a couple of strangers who looked close to our age. Immediately one of them looked me in the eye and said, “You look like a Jenks person.” I’m quite sure I’d never spoken with this woman in my life, but as I did in fact graduate from Jenks Public Schools I said, “What class were you in?” “2006.” “I was in the class of 2004.” We eventually figured out we had seen each other in thespian club meetings, but long before we bothered with that trivial detail, we talked some serious history. Not personal history; Oklahoma history. She is about to begin a master’s degree in history at the University of Oklahoma, and I am about to commence the final, most intense period of research and writing on my master’s thesis at OU-an album of songs surveying the history of this state. She immediately illuminated some significant holes in my mental timeline of the place, and pointed me to the best book to read to make sure I’ve covered my bases. What a blessing!

In the midst of this conversation, my friend (the brother of the bride) came and tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Steven, you can play bass guitar, can’t you?” The dance band was about to begin their second set of tunes when their bass player got a call about a family emergency and had to leave immediately. I jumped in my car and called my dad to have him get an instrument and an amplifier ready and put them by the door. In no time I was back to the reception hall and plugged in ready to go. I spent the rest of the night with one eye trained on the guitarist’s left hand and the the other on drummer’s right foot. It was great. I got to do something I love (play in a band) and avoid an obligation I dread (dance at a social event). It was just like being a designated driver, only way more fun. Those two acquaintances I’d seen at church called out my name and said, “I know that guy!” The former fellow groomsman and the friendly historian shook it up on the dance floor and thanked me for saving the night. The bride gave me a big hug. All that would have been more than enough, but then the drummer of the band actually handed me some money. What a gift!

It was just the evening of Easter last weekend that the Lord revealed a new life and a new hope in this area of my life (making music with other people) where I had long been sinking into deeper and deeper despondency. And now less than a week later I have been given a new friend uniquely able to help me focus a set of songs I have been scatterbrained about for the past four years as well as a momentary taste again of that noisy, glorious goodness that is playing in a rock band.

(to be continued…)

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Holy Week

We cannot know this side of Paradise (and we may not be permitted to know on the other side) how deeply grievous and utterly dejected the disciples felt during the day that passed between their Master’s crucifixion and resurrection. As Sabbath fell and they ceased their work to honor the day God Himself had rested, they laid God Himself to rest in the grave.

This week, for me, has born the same dynamic arc as that of the disciples, though my highs and lows have been immeasurably milder than theirs must certainly have been. They saw their King ride triumphantly into the capital, albeit gently on a donkey, to proclaim his eternal reign. Then they saw Him stripped, beaten, lashed, mocked and hung up to die while they ran away in fear.

I spent two glorious days in the springtime sunshine hiking through the hills, jumping fences, tumbling into gullies, catching snakes, laughing, talking about the past and the future, and driving across the border to have lunch in Arkansas with the greatest of good company.

I also spent two miserable days in my apartment with the lights off, dressing in black, crying on the phone, and plumbing the depths of my sinful soul.

But “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness,” and by his wounds I have been healed. I don’t yet feel it, but I believe it.

And Easter, of course, is what comes next…

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Good and Silent

I woke with a start quite early this morning after only sleeping a couple of hours.

I took a good and silent walk. When I got back home I took my guitar and played softly as I could so I wouldn’t wake my roommate. I half-whispered, half-sang a few songs to the Lord and felt compelled to write out the arrangement for one of them.

The song is called “Lukewarm at Best,” and this is what I was able to make of it this morning:

There’s more on either end of it, but these are the string parts for the dramatic development section without any singing. As it has happened, I worked straight on through all of first service and the beginning of second service, so I’m missing church again this morning.

I have a bevy of good sermons in my mp3 player, so I’m putting on my headphones to lay down with one of those until I drift back asleep.

Saturday, April 16, 2011


Yesterday was a blustery day in Norman, Oklahoma. The wind emphatically shook hands with every limb of every tree in town. It picked up our picnic lunches and tugged on the brims of our hats. It was a wonderful storm, really—all the excitement of a change in the air with none of the soggy inconveniences of rain. The world whirled around in sloppy synchronization like a grandiose improvised modern dance piece. I was enjoying watching the show—even feeling my own cues from the phantom choreographer—but I had almost finished my walk home from school before I really started paying attention to the score.

Through the din of rustling branches and flapping awnings, there emerged a distinct and ephemeral melodic flurry. I would have stopped right there in my tracks and kept listening if I hadn’t been halfway through crossing a busy street. I’m sure people who live in breezier places have heard this little whip of a whistle enough to ignore it when it rings, but for me it was an absolute thrill.

I have my friends and professors to thank for giving me such exceptionally low standards for what constitutes a musical performance. By extension, I owe something to their philosophical forebears, especially John Cage and Pierre Schaeffer. These two thinkers and sometimes-composers were enamored with the sounds of everyday life. Schaeffer wanted to capture these sounds and tinker with them until he heard music. Cage, however, was perfectly content to listen, enjoy, and let the sounds pass with no expectation of a repeat performance.

(As I write, the Saturday Noon Tornado Sirens are going off. I’m going outside to listen…)

Best free concert of the week! This week there was an early undercurrent of a train whistle blowing off to the east, the chatter of birds singing all around, and just as the sirens were winding down, a neighbor to the west of me started up his lawnmower.

I used to try and assemble soundscapes in a computer by layering different recordings of the outdoors on top of one another. But I became increasingly discouraged by the fact that every time I left the recording studio, I thought that what I heard going on around me as I walked home sounded better than what I was whittling away my days trying to perfect.

The last good computer piece I composed before I threw in the towel sounds like this:

I compiled it from recordings of all the little metal objects I had around the house: butter knives, music boxes, car keys, spare change. It’s called “I have become a noisy gong,” and the structure is based on I Corinthians 13. This chapter is often read at weddings so that the bride and groom will be encouraged as they begin a life of loving one another. It is certainly important for marriage to be inaugurated with a reminder of the kindness, patience, longsuffering, and so forth that charity bears out, but what struck me as I began working on this piece was what Paul says in the first verse.

For all my fussiness with words (in speech occasionally, but in writing especially), it is good to remember that loveless eloquence is neither a welcome nor a joyful noise. It is particularly important now that I am beginning to write in this blog for the handful of you patient readers who have followed me here. If I start to ramble and waste your time, if I start to brag or complain or “rejoice in unrighteousness,” stop me in my tracks and I will listen. There’s a comment box just below this paragraph; never be afraid to put it to good use.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Gift of Rest

I work as a recording technician for the University of Oklahoma School of Music. That means that somewhere between three and six nights each week I sit behind a mixing board and make tiny adjustments to the input levels for a couple of microphones hanging over all manner of recitals. I get to hear a lot of music for less than free. I also run the lights. It is a very good job.

But even the best job is a job, and there is a distinct pleasure in being ready and on time to go to work and then to find out you don’t have to. Tonight I couldn’t find my performers anywhere. I looked on stage, backstage, and out in the lobby, but the only crowd gathered was for a dress rehearsal happening next door.

I waited until just after 8:00 when the show was supposed to start.  Nobody was in the audience and nobody stepped out into the spotlight, so I shut down my mixing board and walked home.

I have spent plenty of days in my seven years of college rushing around from one obligation to the next and seldom stopping to rest, to breathe deeply, and to thank God for all the many gifts that have sustained me through the hustle and bustle. I don’t only get frustrated for feeling like I don’t have enough time; I get angry. I feel like every conversation someone tries to start or every invitation someone extends is a sort of threat. So I clam up and stay indoors and work away in solitude until it is too late at night for anyone to bother me anymore. When I ought to be lying down to sleep, I let out a sigh of relief that I successfully eluded my friends and neighbors another evening and I get back to work. As often as not, I’m up until two or three AM reading, writing, practicing, cleaning, or wasting time on the computer and justifying it by calling it “rest.”

Tonight will not be one of those nights. Though I’ve spent a fair portion of my paid vacation writing this note, I’ll spend the rest on my bed breathing deeply and letting the Lord speak. This, I have found, is the best way to spend these unexpected free moments. How could anything be better? And how often I forget…

Friday, April 8, 2011

Requiem for a Tree

As I write, three men in my front yard are revving their chainsaws and hacking my great American Elm to pieces. I say “my” front yard and "my" elm, but this sudden destruction is a stark reminder that I do not own the place that I live. Yesterday afternoon my landlord was sitting in the yard and when I stepped outside he told me he was thinking about cutting the tree down. Last night he taped a note to the front door saying I should move my car by morning. When I first moved here five years ago I almost chose a different apartment complex, but I decided against it when that landlord told me he was thinking about cutting down the only tree on that property because “those things are a maintenance nightmare.” Which is to say, I suppose, that they require maintenance at all.

I’ve been the author of several botanical tragedies, myself. I used to possess a variety of houseplants, none of which I am savvy enough to name, and none of which I was savvy enough to keep alive, save for one tomato-sized cactus that seems to require no watering. I occasionally watered the others, and once during a rainstorm I even loaded them all up in a little red wagon and took them for a walk around the neighborhood. While they lasted, each made my apartment a little more like something to tend, something to care for. This is a task at the deepest core of human responsibility. Eden was not only a place to enjoy as God planted it; it was a place to cultivate.

Outdoors I planted the gnarly stalk of a young Tropicana rosebush, which would have been the sweetest-smelling shrub on the block had it been given time to grow. But when my mother visited and saw a black, featureless twig coming out of the ground, she presumed it dead and uprooted it. Later when I was visiting her, she loaded my trunk with a section of the shrubbery that surrounds her house so I could bring it back and put it in the rose’s place. It wouldn’t flower and it wouldn't be fragrant, but at least maybe it would be something green to look at. It turned brown within weeks. I didn’t plant it deep enough and I didn’t water it often enough, and it withered and died before I even tried to save it.

But something surprising came from that shrub. Through the tangle of brittle stems and leaves that had settled into the color of a faded paper lunchsack, one dark green thread of life worked its way up and out into the sunlight. Then it sprouted a few leaves of its own. And now two or three other stems have grown up to join it. “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse…” and thus Our Lord has made himself known to me, even in the midst of my failure as a gardener.

The hired hands are finishing their job now, and they have done all they can to ensure no second such miracle takes place on this property. My roommate and I both nailed letters to the tree last night pleading with our landlord to leave it be. His appealed to the beauty of the thing. Mine appealed to its effect on property value. As it happened, neither note mattered because our landlord himself did not come to the sacrifice until all the limbs had been severed. He didn’t really tell us why it needed to go; yesterday he only muttered something about sticks on the roof and how it had only been "this big around" when he bought the place and he didn't expect it would have become this much of a problem. In prior years, the overhanging branches were trimmed, and the tree stayed clear of both the roof and our cars. None of us had ever said a word of complaint about it.

Cultivating, it seems, is difficult work. Which is to say, I suppose, that it is work at all.