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.