Category Archives: Writing
I am and always have loved the process of how books, music, ideas and people find me. Life, for the most part, is an odd assortment of intentional seeking and being found. Some people major on the former, others on the latter. Freedom and providence is what we call it in theology. Too much of either leads to bad theology and a distortion of reality. This is about “how the Milk Carton Kids Found Me.” I love music. Two of my parishioners, Kenny and Katherine Worley, love the Milk Carton Kids. I love Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. They figured, “he might like the MCK (Milk Carton Kids from now on!). So they had an extra ticket and invited me to Workplay, a great venue in Birmingham. I listened to them on YouTube, of course, but I was distracted by the handkerchief Pattengale tied to his Martin 000-15 and waved in a circular motion that reminds me of David Rawlings so much. I came ready to dismiss them as wannabes, to tell you the truth. I was so wrong. Wikipedia’s article about them describes them as:
…an indie folk duo from Eagle Rock, California, consisting of singers and guitarists Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan, who formed the group in early 2011. NPR has described their approach to music as “gorgeous contemporary folk”and “Gillian Welch & David Rawlings-meets-Simon & Garfunkel with a splash of The Everly Brothers“, which fairly represents the band’s music while also appealing to the intended audience[i] Read the rest of this entry
In 2001 I was invited to speak at my college, which fulfilled a dream from my college days. It was, in fact, a “two-fer,” since I was a co-presenter with Dr. Milburn Price for the Ball Institute AND spoke in the chapel. When I was a student, I
heard speakers who impressed me mighty well—Dr. Frederick Sampson, a magnificent preacher who held us spellbound for 65 minutes one day, the great Grady Nutt, and others. I imagined that I might someday, after graduate work, be important enough to come back and be one of those speakers. Now it was at hand.
I sent biographical info about me ahead of time. The conference was great, the college incredibly gracious and welcoming, and the terrain churned up wistful memories and nostalgic longing for a good and simple time in our lives. Here is what I wrote:
As a matter of information, Vickie and I met and married while at Carson-Newman. We lived in the little house behind the infirmary. Our neighbor and dear friend during those lean and happy years was Mrs. Henrietta Jenkins. You may also be interested to know that in my senior annual, while in a flippant mood, I listed my extra-curricular activities as President of Omega Omega Omega (non-existent) and captain of the Curling Team. Another bit of CN irony is that I am now pastor to Dr. John Fincher, retired President of CN, and his dear wife Ruby. The last time I saw Dr. Fincher before they visited our church was on the graduation stage in 1976!
My professors at Carson-Newman, especially Ray Koonce, Walter Shurden, Bill Blevins, L. Dan Taylor, J. Drury Pattison, Don Olive, and Ben Philbeck, had a happy and permanent effect on my life and thinking. I will always be indebted to them and to Cn for shaping our lives forever. We remember very happy days together at Carson-Newman.
Miss Jenkins, in fact, was most special to us. We took her classes while there, including Shakespeare, Milton and probably something else. Shakespeare was 8 a.m., and Henrietta had this lilting, mellifluous voice, really quite beautiful. It was always a little on the edge of singing it, although not like a hefty operatic diva. More like your grandmother singing to you while you were going to sleep, which we sometimes were at 8 am. I was married at 20, had a new baby 14 months after marriage, and working 3 jobs and going to school trying to get educated enough to come back and speak in chapel for the spellbound students.
My teachers changed my life. Years later, even though my head nodded in “Shakespeare for Dummies,” which it should have been called, given her audience. She would have been proud to see us in London years later laughing our heads off at the Royal Shakespeare company as they gave us “Twelfth Night” through their acting gifts, or when we visited Stratford upon Avon.
Henrietta loved her subject. She would stop and recite poetry in the middle of a lecture from memory, long and gorgeous passages. “By heart” was an apt discussion. When she wandered over into the bawdier passages, she would be matter-of-fact, but would get that twinkle in her eye and blush at the same time, letting us in on something terribly funny but not for polite company.
But she was more. Henrietta was our neighbor. We lived in the little house behind the infirmary, which rented for less than $100 a month. A few doors down lived “Miss Jenkins” as we always called her. She would bring us things, sometimes, and we would go “hang out” with her. She loved our new baby (who turned out to be an outstanding English major, reader and writer). And we would talk to her poodle, Porky.
Porky was a miniature French poodle, one of the most high-strung and opinionated variety. He was an ultra-soprano yipper whose barks were, Miss Jenkins swore, decipherable and intelligible. Porky could let her know what he wanted and she got it. She told us stories about how he knew things when she was talking and would start barking to render an opinion. Certain subjects stirred him into a frenzy, so she took to spelling in front of him and us to avoid the reaction, especially saying she was going to L-E-A-V-E to go to class. “I tell you,” she solemnly said a hundred times in our presence, “He is as sharp…as…a TACK!” Every day they happily walked down the street together.
We saw one another nearly every day for 2 ½ years. She was our teacher, our friend, our neighbor. Our first real neighbor as a couple. The best. And when we went back for that speaking engagement, we went to see her. Porky had passed on by then, and she was devastated by the loss. He was buried in the backyard of her home, a different house from the one we knew. We visited the gravesite and swapped stories and remembered that, yes, he was as sharp as a tack. No doubt.
Since I am record as believing in the potential resurrection of the animal kingdom, too, I am hopeful that Porky and Miss Jenkins will be reunited, walk the streets of gold (hopefully without the inconvenience of the more unpleasant responsibilities of curbing the dog, for the former things are no more. I can’t imagine heaven being heaven without Porky for her.
But then, I can’t imagine heaven being heaven without Henrietta Jenkins, either. Kindness her way, keenness and wit her manner, love of words her craft, and a never-ending love of life and desire to learn her companions. She was a deacon in later years, active in church, a traveler and continued to know what it means to “have a life.” She was our teacher, our first neighbor, our friend.
So when we went back on the college’s dime, we had a grand time. We revisited our special spot out at the lake where we would watch the “submarine races” until the security guard shined his police light into the car through the foggy windows and send us home for the night. We sat in the parlor where we courted. And we went to see our friend, who all those years later, looked the same as we remembered—same mind, voice, twinkly smile, and gentle intensity.
* * * * * * * * *
My chapel fantasy? It was quite a letdown—like preaching and college lecturing turned out to be, too, by the way. Some students were keenly listening, some in and out, heads down, some mouths open, some secretly cramming for the quiz next period they did not prepare for, and one or two reading the paper. It dawned on me that except for Dr. Sampson and Grady Nutt, this was the fate of most chapel speakers.
Many of my teachers are physically gone—moved on in their careers to other schools, retired, or in heaven. My religion prof, Ben Philbeck died young from a brain tumor, although he came back in a dream and blessed me late one night after I co-edited my first book. Miss Mack, dictator of the cafeteria and force of nature, to whom so many owed so much, including us, was long gone. I did Dr. Fincher’s funeral as his pastor, as well as his dear wife Ruby. Life doesn’t stop. Neither does death.
People who love you even leave eventually. There is this mystery, though, about memory—Augustine mused over it considerably. It seems untouched, not altered by time. A face, a soul, a teacher and a neighbor, unchanged in us though no longer with us. How quickly these years pass and how long they stretch out sometimes. But, as Miss Jenkins’ longtime friend Shakespeare said,
‘Tis in my memory lock’d,
And you yourself shall keep the key of it.
Say hello to Porky for me, Miss Jenkins. Thank you for the keys.
There is a time for the Artist and a time for the Editor
The Editor worries about the audience, sales and attracting attention to the finished product
The Artist tries to listen to the deep, deep truth within, unfiltered and unfettered
The Editor wants it to be the best it can be and to have a chance to be heard.
The Artist wants the work to be true to what it was the first time she heard it
The Artist cannot leave himself and struggles to know how it will connect to others and sometimes what makes sense to the Artist doesn’t make sense to anyone else
The Editor is finally responsible to the publisher and the audience
The Artist is finally responsible to his Judge and Maker and himself and his art
The Editor respects the artist, may even be one herself, so it is not about bad and good.
The Artist respects the Editor, and understands that it is not just about money or pleasing others. It is also about belonging to the community and the world and being heard
Sometimes they clash and tears are shed.
The Artist’s matters of conscience can turn into stubbornness and pride
The Editor’s insistence on practicality, marketability and being liked by large numbers of people can mask a desire to please and the willingness to sacrifice integrity for success. They both labor with the burden of ego and control.
They always have to talk and pray about it and listen to each other for the best thing to happen, even when the Editor and the author live inside one person.
Video still suspended on the internet, weathermen almost screaming fear and warning,
Maps lit up with horrible storms, bright, rotating monsters
And the skycams filming it
Dark rumbling cone of cloud, wider and firmer, roaring down,
Swallowing places we all recognized, this street corner, that road, this hospital and the University itself
Gobbled into darkness
We sat watching helplessly in what passes for our safe place
Terrified for people we know and can’t call or get to
Just sat there, watching, listening, praying in a basement or a closet
Now it lives on YouTube and in children’s nightmares
Fear comes out of nowhere, rumbling into a sunny place and wipes it out
We still remember . How can you forget 63 tornadoes,
Taking down a state a town at a time? Houses blown apart, unglued matchsticks
Flying everywhere. That was the picture everyone shared
But it’s the million snapshots, most of them not taken
Sagging shoulders of an old man and his wife looking at the wreckage of sixty years
A family crying over photographs and precious pets and dead neighbors
Burying the body of a son or a mother or a friend
Who committed no crime against nature that took their life.
The foolish weakness of our lives pitted against something so vast that we shrank away
Our hearts melted, our schedules crashed, our computers went dead with no grid to hook to
Agendas changed, all the foolishness swept away into immediate priority
Only holding the people we love, finding the body of a lost daughter
Feeding a neighbor who was hungry and broke
Losing a job that blew away in a second. Going to church when it mattered
Listening for God when God seemed gone
Oh, we remember a million snapshots, of a child calling, “I’m okay,” of a house that used to be
Where a neighbor and his wife died, their bodies snapped like twigs and tossed into an undignified heap
Diapers and receipts and toys and furniture, curtains and unrecognizable slivers, trashbags and deck chairs
Wood and metal and rope and canvas, slung in no pattern, no priority and with no respect for their value
Gone, gone, gone, a house, a town, a store where we shopped, a friend we knew,
A way of life we lived, a sense of safety with which we deluded ourselves
But some things still didn’t blow away—faith and hope and love survived
Love for strangers fired up strong and woke us up to one another.
But we stood for a moment, blown away like the pieces of our lives and our world
Dazed, disbelief, daunted, discouraged, disheartened, darkened in soul
For just a moment, to take it in. We will never forget if we rebuild it all again
What happened that April day, when Alabama almost died.
“Blue Like Jazz” arrived at selected theaters this past week, an odd stepchild among usual movie fare of aliens, vampires, and things that go boom. Derived from Donald Miller’s book by the same name, “Blue Like Jazz” is a story of life and faith during a young man’s first year of college. Don, the main character, is son of a bible believing single mother who wants to protect her son and an atheist father who is emotionally disconnected, mostly absent, and religiously hostile.
Donald’s Dad wangles an acceptance from Reed College in Portland, Oregon, a school filled with intellectually brilliant and morally unfettered not-quite-adults. After struggling with it, he heads to Reed and Portland instead of the Baptist college his mother wants him to attend. Soon life is filled with Political Correctness, drugs, booze and moral haze. The professors challenge every aspect of life, and students engage in protest and outrageousness as an extracurricular activity.
From that point we follow Don as he struggles with the pain of the life he has left behind but the faith that won’t leave him alone. He is ashamed of that identity, and tries to fit in, but never really does. The church is an ambiguous presence throughout the movie. The childhood church that Don leaves behind is a stereotype of tacky children’s sermons and fear of the world. The youth pastor is glib, a know-it-all, self-assured, and, it turns out, secretly sleeping with Don’s mother, which brings a crisis into his life later in the story. Read the rest of this entry
It’s become a cliche only because it is so powerful and pervasive. Your “voice,” I once heard songwriter Pat Terry say, is what makes people say, “That’s a Gary Furr song” or “that’s a (your name here) story.’ I have thought about this for thirty years, focused when I once, during a five day solitary retreat started to say a short prayer I had been using to center myself and blurted out, “Father, help me to be myself.“
If that sounds so very self-centered in our culture already so “you-can-be-whatever-you-want-to-be,” permit me to observe that despite our coaching of selves and self-focus I sure meet a lot of broken ones out there in life. People wounded and held back by a voice in their head: “you’ll never amount to anything,” and somettimes not even traumatic voices–just ones we imbibe from our world. “So many people are better than you. What do you have to offer? What’s the point?” Read the rest of this entry
1. Perfectionists cannot stand it when something is not completed. For example, when a person…
2. There is a rigidity about things always having to be a certain way or else they become very upset. Things cannot be out of order, altered from their usual place, etc.
4. If you’re going to do your best, you can’t always worry about pleasing everyone else (“You know you shouldn’t be writing this blog. I told you to major in something else in college. You’re an idiot. Nobody cares what you think.) Pay no attention to that voice in my head…
3. Practice makes prefect. Practifect makes perfice. Aw, you know what I mean.
5. If you are a Christian, be happy all the time and when you are mad, talk more piously.
6. Almost perfect is never good enough. Perfection is so hard to reach, you often don’t try. This is so frustrating that I’m not going to list the last four. It’s too overwhelming.
I forgot the other four.
In an article by Elizabeth Scott at About.com, I came across this statement.
High achievers tend to be pulled toward their goals by a desire to achieve them, and are happy with any steps made in the right direction. Perfectionists, on the other hand, tend to be pushed toward their goals by a fear of not reaching them, and see anything less than a perfectly met goal as a failure.
That rings true. Sometimes our goals are so lofty with a song, recording, preparing a presentation, aspiring to a project, or writing, that we are immobilized. My friend, the late John Claypool, used to say that there’s a difference between wanting to do something and wanting to BE somebody. The first group accomplishes a lot. The second group tends to make themselves and everyone around them miserable. It’s all about “how you look.” Faggetaboutit!
In this culture so shaped by the visual dimension of life, are we so oriented to expectations that come from without us that we cannot find the “push” from within?
So, here is my advice to perfectionists. Lose yourself in the task once in a while. Don’t worry too much about how to sign your autographs just yet. Just write good songs. Sing your best. All that obsession with fame, stuff, adoration and making a million is too much about being PUSHED. Let yourself be pulled by something that offers so much joy you just HAVE to find it!
Accept the process and enjoy the ride. The journey of healing will not be automatic and instant. Taking something in, getting somewhere, growing, all involve time, faith, hope and love.
Strive for reality, not perfection. A friend of mine was struggling with some people whose behavior disappointed him in his church. He expressed his disappointment and I replied, “You have to learn to lower your expectations.” He asked, “How do you do it?” I answered, “From reading the Bible.” Have you ever noticed what a sorry lot of people are in the Bible–Jesus being the exception, of course? If you want to feel good, read a Bible story. But it ought to encourage you. God works with the available material.
Try on a new self-assessment based on reality, not what you have experienced, come to mistakenly believe, or adapted to as a reaction to life. Work on those voices inside your head. Turn off the editor when you want to be creative. Let it flow. You’ll be surprised what comes forth when you aren’t worried about what someone will say about it.
Finally, lie down and sleep when you run out of ideas. You’d be amazed what the acceptance of our limits can do to unleash creative power. Turn the world back over to God every night. It’s liable to still be there when you open your eyes in the morning.
I have committed, as a writer, to undertake the serious discipline of writing during the month of July each year. This is a little confusing, because I write all the time in my work, as a songwriter, just about everyday as a facebook citizen (won’t find me with those loathsome mundanities like how much mustard was on my sandwich or my farmville situation. I try to write something short and worthwhile, except when i don’t, of course. Which is why I like “like.” Cuts to the chase, and you can “unlike.”). I mean, though, that I have committed to myself to use my gift, whether anyone reads it or not. Writing, the very act of committing words to sequence, has a power.
Anyway, I have dozens of book ideas, but most of them are still in my computer. I’m one of those people Dorothy Sayers talked about in The Mind of the Maker when she said that all artistic failures correspond to defects in trinitarian theology. All artistic work begins as idea, “becomes flesh” in the act of writing (or painting, or making music) and then achieves fulness in becoming an experienced reality by those who read it, watch it or listen to it. A work of art is not complete without this fullness of being–it’s fine that you have an idea, and many people, she said, say “My book is finished. I have only to write it down.” But until you write it, it is not complete. So, if you are a writer, you don’t wait for a contract or just think about ideas. You write.
I have pondered about three projects I have in various stages of completion (whatever I do with them), but the one I have strong feelings about is “stewardship.” It’s an odd phrase, usually associated in churches with fundraising and subscribing the budget, but it has an interesting history as a word. According to the website “word origins” (http://www.word-origins.com/definition/steward.html), in Old English, where this word originated in about the 15th century, a steward was literally “in charge of a sty.” This was either connected with the word “stigweard,” a compound from “stig” (hall or house) and “weard,” meaning a guardian or keeper, thus, “keeper of the hall.” It may have been from the word “sty,”, the place where the pigs were kept. I will admit that in the current political moment someone who takes care of something dirty and unglamorous without credit is indeed, “Weard.”
Was a steward originally the guy who took care of the hogs? Interesting thought. Stewardship has a lowly dimension to it. “Taking care” of things is not glamorous, appreciated, or always understood by much of our throwaway culture. Our children may be changed by the recession we seem to be still in the midst of, but we are yet to see if it makes our children more fearful about wasting things or more attentive to taking care of what they have.
Where stewardship matters is its sense of one being responsible for many things and, presumably many other people. If the steward doesn’t do his or her job, the hogs get out, money is lost, the house runs down, and chaos results.
Stewardship has relevance to all aspects of life. It is the most powerful image I can think of for where we are in our current global situation. We sit on a fragile planet with abundant resources, but finite ones. How we treat that planet will not affect its survival in the universe, but it may have a lot to say about whether we’ll be on it for a long time. Politics, relationships, economic life, culture, food and water, all are affected by our sense of (or lack thereof) of a sense of “stewardship.”
We watch the global economy halted by our politicians’ endless manipulations, who can never seem to answer each direct question with a simple “Yes” or “No”, posturing, accusing, projecting, blaming, offering excuses, and generally carrying on what sometimes feels like the old “bull sessions” in the dorm late at night in college. Except their bull sessions affect people’s lives. And in it all, the sense of stewardship can be lost amid the tantalizing seductions of power, fame and money, the Unholy Trinity of our particular moment win out.
It is a very dangerous time, a time that more than ever asks for servants but always gives in to seducers, wasters, magicians and promisers of fantasy. Yet if they did tell the truth, give us the bad news, admit the pain that it would take to fix it, would we accept it? It costs to be a steward. No fame, no vast fortune, just this unrelenting sense of taking care of something that someone entrusted to us, because that responsibility is more important than all the pleasures to be immediately had by turning from it.
My prayer is for the rebirth of stewardship in the world–parents, families, stockbrokers, bankers, neighbors, policemen, company presidents and CEOs, workers, teachers, artists, politicians. Without that sense that something is always asked of me for the sake of the other, that something that says, “It can never be only about you,” this ship will sink. Every good ship has an officer called a “steward.” The steward is not the captain. No ship can sail with all captains. The ship steward looks after the passengers’ comfort and wellbeing, and sees after the supplies and food.
Long live the stewards. May their tribe increase. But if we merely delegate this to certain poor souls who are left to tend the hogs while we all watch cable, we will sink. As a steward of writing gifts, however small they might be, I must reject my own excuses and write as though the world depended on me. Mothering, fathering, taking care of someone else’s money, churches, schools, neighborhoods, aging parents, the poor among us–we are all called to some great and unavoidable stewardships. And if we evade them, not only might the ship run out of food or sink, we will never once before we die manage to be who we came here to become. And that is a loss of incalculable measure.