Sunday, December 05, 2010

What to Do

It's been a great weekend, and it started off with driving down to Nashville (Ind.) to see Richard Smith and his wife Julie Adams perform.

I'm not aware of any world ranking of guitarists, but Richard's ability puts him in the class of people like Tommy Emmanuel. He may or may not be the best, who knows, but he'd certainly qualify. I sat on the second row and just let myself be astounded. I had fun at the same time because Richard is a good entertainer as well as a phenomenal player.

You can learn more about Richard on his web site,

After watching a performance like that, you can go one of two ways. You can either say, "I'll never be that good; I'm never picking up my guitar again," or you can take this approach: "If I recommit myself to practice and work really hard, by the time I'm that good, I'll be dead."

I figure playing my guitar every day would be a great way to go.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

This Is Only a Test

Last Sunday I heard a sermon on the first two verses of Luke 4. That scripture passage immediately follows Jesus' baptism and introduces his forty days in the wilderness. The sermon was titled, "This Is Only a Test."

I left that service thinking about tests, and about one test in particular: the final exam in MATH 300 at Kennesaw State University. I don't remember the exact title of the course, but I remember the instructor, Dr. David Morgan. He loved teaching that class, and he had a reputation for being challenging.

It was the requisite course for upper level math classes, the one I had to take in order to delve into deeper discovery: the beauty of the world that existed in calculus, and just how much of the music theory that I loved can be expressed with algebra. (Sets and operations, Virginia. Sets and operations.) The subject matter was set theory, but the purpose of the class was to teach you how to write and read a mathematical proof.

I was completing my undergraduate degree in math by taking classes at night. Class started at 6:00 p.m. The mid-term had given us a hint of what to expect. I had finished the mid-term at 10:00, and I was not the last one to leave. Some of my classmates had requested and been given permission to come early to get a head start on the final. That didn't work for me, so I arrived at 6:00 and got started.

The exam proved to be as tough as we had anticipated, but we worked at it. As I recall, only a couple of folks gave in to despair. Along about 10:30, another member of the math faculty came into the classroom and wrote a phone number on the chalkboard. He turned to leave but then returned to the board and wrote, "Domino's."

A theorem in math takes the form, "If A, B, and C are true, then D is true," or "Given A, B and C, then D." The purpose of the proof is to use the information in the "if" part, the givens, to demonstrate the result in the "then" part. One particular proof on the exam had me and others stymied. The hypothesis--the "if" part--was very complex. I struggled to find the piece I was missing, the link that would pull A, B, C and D together.

At about 12:30 a.m., the light came on. It was right there in the hypothesis. The thing I kept trying to prove in order to make the rest of the proof work was right there. It had been given to me as being true. I didn't have to prove it; I already had it. Armed with everything I needed, the rest of the proof poured onto the paper, and at 1:00 a.m., I headed home.

Back to that sermon, the preacher pointed out something that sustained Jesus through the tests in the wilderness. He had those things that he already knew to be true. He had the givens: we do not live by bread alone, worship only the Lord your God, do not put the Lord your God to the test.

When we encounter tests and trials, how often do we struggle harder, trying to prove something that will make it all work out, when the very thing we needed to know had already been given to us?

By the way, I earned an A in Dr. Morgan's class. As a result of that work and that test, abstract algebra and real analysis became enjoyable times of deeper discovery.

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Sunday, May 02, 2010

Sacred in Every Song

Are you telling me I'm wasting my time here?

That was my question to the manager of a local winery recently. They feature live entertainment in their tasting room on a regular basis, so I wanted to get my name and music in front of them and see if it might be possible to play there. I had just given him a card and was preparing to write the address where I could send a DVD of a live performance.

My business cards contain this description of the music I perform: "An acoustic blend of folk, gospel and Americana." That prompted him to ask, "How much of what you do is gospel music?"

He went on to tell me that he was really averse to having any mention of God or religion or Jesus as part of the musical performances in the tasting room. In his mind, that's what Sunday was for. "On Saturday," he said, "people are out to sin. They can repent on Sunday."

I knew I wasn't likely to be booked there, but I thanked him for taking the time to talk with me.

Life seldom fits into neat little compartments, like we have a Saturday life and a Sunday life. The mathematician in me points out that life is continuous, not discrete. The distance between Saturday and Sunday is infinitely small. The beauty of calculus would indicate that no matter how close we think Saturday and Sunday are, they can always be closer, to the point where one may not be over before the other begins.

Our creation of boundaries between days is, in a way, arbitrary. We are who we are, regardless of how we name any particular day. Our feelings, thoughts, values and behaviors identify us each and every day. Every day has sin, and every day has repentance.

If you have seen me perform, you know that you will hear some hymns and gospel music of both the traditional and folk variety alongside everything else I do. My hope is that, like the distance between Saturday and Sunday, it's hard to tell where one leaves off and another begins.

I'm content to let a song say what it says. Quite often the song has a better message than anything I might conjure up. Whether it's Wayfaring Stranger, Love Divine, Five Foot Two or Five Pounds of Possum, a song will reach different people in different places, and performers do well to release the song into that space.

Trust the song, and you trust the Spirit. Give a song space; turn it loose, and it will stir up whatever might be in the pot. In laughter and tears, in quiet smiles and tapping feet, something sacred is happening.

Maybe I didn't waste my time after all.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Proclamation and Manifestation

Last Saturday night, musicians from Brown County, Indiana, banded together and did a benefit concert for Doctors Without Borders. It was a delightful evening at the Brown County Library, and about 200 people jammed into the library's meeting room to watch ten local acts--eleven counting young Sara Maria, actress and mandolin artist.

Kara Barnard, owner of Weed Patch Music Company and one of the people on my "when I grow up I want to be like her" list, carried the emcee duties for the evening. As she introduced each act, including her own beautiful three song set, she described how she knew each person. She talked about their connection to the community. Some she knew from the Daily Grind, a local coffee shop.

As the evening wore on and as I had a chance to reflect, I realized that the evening was not so much about the performances or the performers. It was about that community of artists, those creative musicians who chose to live, perform and work in and around that little hamlet of Nashville.

Kara remarked a couple of times during the evening about how quickly each and every performer said yes when asked if they would be part of the concert. It was a stellar example of a community within a community, supporting one another because one of them had an idea about a way to do some good for something bigger than themselves.

Most people and many artists, I think, long for that kind of connection. These few months, I've been giving a bit of time to a class on conflict and resolution at Christian Theological Seminary here in Indianapolis. The topic will certainly benefit the work I do in ministry, but the way the class has spoken into other areas of life has been a most pleasant surprise.

This week, in talking about some of the group dynamics that are present in conflict, Dr. Lyon mentioned a spirituality of proclamation and a spirituality of manifestation. Public performance carries the elements of proclamation. The performer speaks, sings and plays a word or message into the assembled audience. The spirituality of proclamation has a recognition of being out of joint with things as they should be. Hence, we have a substantial volume of music of protest.

However, a spirituality of manifestation expresses the desire to be at one with the fundamental nature of things as they are. It carries with it a longing for community. One can find musical manifestation just the same as one can create musical proclamation.

Around the country, artisans of old-time, folk and bluegrass music will gather for competitions. A national competition is held at the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, Kansas. Closer to home, the Indiana Picking and Fiddling contest is held in Princeton, Indiana, on Labor Day weekend.

This year I'm planning to make my first foray into these contests, especially now that I've come to realize that these events are more about the community than they are about the contest. Competitions afford the opportunity to gather with people who do what you do, who play and love the same music, who admire the same legendary players, as you do. Being able to say you were a finalist, or that you finished first, second or third is just gravy.

The music was fabulous at the Brown County Library last Saturday, but the connection, the manifestation of that community of artists, is what made it a special evening.

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Wednesday, February 24, 2010


Sunday was a lot of fun. I went with the choir from Southport Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), where Debbie and I attend, to a choral festival at East 91st Street Christian Church (E91) with eight other choirs.

It was a marvelous afternoon rehearsal and evening concert. Each choir sang one piece, then all nine choirs joined with the Covenant Orchestra from E91 for five more pieces.  The combined choir numbered about three hundred.

Shockley Flick, director of the choir from E91, in introducing the evening's program, said that if we talked a while, we would pretty soon see our doctrinal differences.  He was right.  My guess is that we could have gotten into some spirited discussions.

But that night wasn't about debating the finer points of theology or doctrine. It was about music and worship. It was about harmony. It was about being in tune with each other. It was as much about listening to the whole as it was about singing each individual part. All of those individual parts united in a common goal of worship through sound, tone and word. Theologically diverse as we might have been, for that night we were one church.

If you ask me, when the church is singing, it becomes truly one. My tribe of Christians is the Disciples of Christ. We come out of the same reform movement as the Churches of Christ, churches that do not use instrumental music in worship, and in a way, I think they're really on to something.

In the Churches of Christ they sing, and they sing well. They sing in four-part harmony. Each person has their part to carry, but it's the unity of the group as they sing that makes it worship.

As I was mulling this piece, I happened upon a video clip from Avon Christian Church, the same church that hosted Patchwork and I during a stop on the Tenderness Tour. Carolyn Scanlan, pastor to the congregation, and three other women from the church join together on a four-part a capella piece. You can watch the video on YouTube. (And yes, it was Super Bowl Sunday.)

Watch how the harmony, the working together, elevates the sense of worship as they move through the piece. Each individual part is important, but it becomes worship as the parts come together and depend on each other to build the whole.

Thomas Campbell said, "The church of Jesus Christ on earth is essentially, intentionally and constitutionally one." I think he knew that the church needed to sing.

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Saturday, February 13, 2010

Hard to Beat the House Concert

Tonight it was once again my honor to join up with Eli Beth to play music. You can read in early posts how I met Eli by wandering into the open stage she hosted at Corner Coffee here in Indianapolis.

Eli and I have always worked well together. Our musical tastes and styles complement one another. Quite frankly, she brings out the best in my playing, and tonight was no exception.

We played all our favorites, some originals of Eli's including Dead End Road and Dance With Me, Gillian Welch's Orphan Girl, I Only Want to Be with You, and many more. But tonight it was the audience that made the evening.

House concerts are a wonderful idea. We shared an evening of intimate music with 15 folks. We didn't use a sound system, opting for dessert and coffee or wine instead. We got to talk to everybody there and make some new friends along the way.

If you get a chance to go to a house concert, do it! It's a great experience. If you're feeling really froggy, host one. It just takes a willingness to share space with a few good friends to enjoy music up close and personal. As one of tonight's listeners put it, "It's way better than sitting in front of the hi-fi."

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Haiti Relief: CD Baby Will Donate $1 from CD Sales

For three years now, it's been my pleasure to handle online sales of CDs and song downloads through CD Baby. They are great folks who have worked to help independent musicians.

Now they're also working to help with relief efforts in Haiti. For the next two weeks, CD Baby will donate $1 from every CD sale through their web site to the American Red Cross and to Mercy Corps, a Portland-based (CD Baby is also based in Portland) relief agency. They will also donate $1 from every download sale over $8.99. (Read about it at

Of course, I'd love it if you purchase or download my recordings, but you might also discover some other great music, like Patchwork or Chris Wolf. This would also be a great time to get your copy of Give a Girl a Chance.

You certainly don't have to shop to help. Please consider making a donation to relief efforts in Haiti through the Red Cross, Mercy Corps, or join me in supporting relief efforts through Week of Compassion, the relief agency of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), my tribe of Christians.