Thursday, October 16, 2014

Christmas: The Story of Stories *The Review*

Album: Christmas: The Story of Stories
Artist: Carolyn Arends
Label: 2B Records (Oct. 2014)

O little town of Bethlehem, I think it is a lie/That you were still and dreamless on that first Christmas night . . .

With those words, Carolyn Arends takes on the first of several Christmas song classics whose iconic imagery needs to be challenged in "It Was a Holy Night," the opening song on her new album, Christmas: The Story of Stories. The quiet, empty streets so long imagined give way in the mind's eye to a real place teeming with soldiers and politicians; a place far from reverent and peaceful, but rather overcrowded, cruel, and hungry. She sets the stage vividly so that she can remind us that "And then the Baby came . . . and when the Baby came . . ." Well, there probably was some crying going on away in that manger, and those herald angels we harken unto may well have gasped and trembled to see God make His home as a babe in "such poor and broken place." They truly must have wondered how we could deserve a gift like Him. "Ah, but just the same, the Baby came . . ."

Silent night? Probably not. Holy night? Most definitely!

That's just Carolyn being Carolyn. When you spend your creative life wrestling with the Holy Spirit, and your theological joints have been knocked out of place more times than you can count, you're not afraid to take on even the most sacrosanct of holiday hymns. I get what the writers of these classic songs were trying to do: create an atmosphere of holiness by bathing this crazy, radical juncture of history -- the Incarnation -- in serene, majestic splendor. I cannot help but think, though, that Carolyn's vision is much closer to the truth. God came then and comes now in the midst of the mess and the chaos and the dirt and the rebellion, and He makes it holy despite all of that, despite all of us. "Ah, but just the same, the Baby came . . ."

Christmas: The Story of Stories is, in some ways, not a very Christmasy album. That is, it eschews all the gimmicks that you usually find on even the most artistic of Christmas albums released by the most talented songwriters and sincere musicians. "Well, it sounds like a Carolyn Arends album," one of my friends told me, a quizzical look upon her face. Um, yeah. She wrote nine of the thirteen songs. The sound is quintessentially Carolyn, too: folk-pop with a laid-back vibe; heavy on the myriad strings, light on back beat; lyrically-driven, deep-rooted, authentic; with unexpected touches of funk and fun. The most Christmasy arrangements are probably on "Everything Changes at Christmas," which manages somehow to evoke church bells ringing in the middle of snowfall, and two of the classics, "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" and "O Come All Ye Faithful" which are very traditional. So, this may not be the album you put on for background music at your office Christmas party. As such, it is not an album merely to be listened to; it is an album that needs to be heard.

And what will those who have ears to hear find? Nothing less than a bold -- audacious really -- attempt to get at the core of exactly what the mystery means of a God who puts on humanity in its most vulnerable state and comes to dwell with us and eventually die for us, all because He cannot stand to let us go. Carolyn respects her listeners by assuming that we are as interested in grappling with this glorious riddle as she is; that assumption has led to a really fine collection of songs that transcends seasonal affiliation. It is the Story of stories.

"Vacancy" is one of my favorites. It is that rarest of things: a new Advent song. When I spoke with Carolyn about it this past summer, she commented on the paradox that she was immensely happy playing a song with the melancholy themes of longing and emptiness. She attributed that to the bouncy presence of the ukulele -- that interminably Pollyanna-ish instrument. Indeed. I think, too, that while the song might have been written in a "blue space," the lyrics are ultimately so hope-filled (as every Advent song should be), that it is perhaps a happier lyric than she had intended. Sometimes when you're quite hungry, but you know that soon you are going to eat something very good, you really appreciate the hunger, even if it hurts a little. Just the knowing that the fulfillment is on its way makes the hunger at once both more intense and less awful. That's Advent for you.

"Everything Changes at Christmas" was released in a different arrangement as a single a few years ago.  I was a bit disappointed when I heard the new version on the album, because I had so long loved the old. This new version has grown on me, though, as I think it matches the flavor of the album as a whole better in its latest rendition. I really like the way that it builds at the end with the sound of bells ringing out "Ode to Joy" and "Joy to the World" -- was that the glockenspiel??? -- and now my only wish is that they had run with that theme for a wee bit longer; it is over far too soon.

"Christmas Magic" could have used  a line about After Eight dinner mints, but I'm not going to go around telling Carolyn how to write her nostalgic Christmas song. I joke. It is lovely, especially the line about not being ashamed to hang dollar-store tinsel, because "there is great worth in reflecting the light."

"God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" is my favorite traditional Christmas song. What a treat and a surprise to find it on this album! This arrangement has a funky klezmer sort of sound that is a lot of fun. Comforting and joyful, indeed.

The song that most surprised me was "The Sound." I was not quite ready for the rush of emotion that overcame me when I heard, "Hush now, listen, that's the sound of the Kingdom coming, the Kingdom coming, the Kingdom coming to your town." Goose bumps and tears. I thought that the seamless transition into "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" was well-done and apropos. That could have been pulled off as an instrumental interlude, but it is always nice to hear Carolyn sing, too.

My daughter loves "You Gotta Get Up," a Rich Mullins song which is basically a kid's take on Christmas morning -- all mixed up with reindeer and presents and peace on earth and "that Baby born in Bethlehem" -- with the recurring plea to Mom and Dad to "get up!" already. It has a nice, bright, cheerful sound and is altogether charming. What I find funny is that not once in the eleven Christmases we've now had with Sadie has she ever awoken before us on December 25. Ha!

I get a particular kick out of "Long Way to Go," because I like the lyrical device of Carolyn's using mild expressions of amazement that I usually associate with the American South to pack a punch into the chorus: Goodness gracious, have mercy! Goodness gracious, man alive! Goodness gracious, glory be! I feel in the need of a mint julep after hearing that song, bless her heart.

"Story of Stories" is the anchor here, the title song. Of course, I love the reference to Philip Yancey's summation of human history from The Jesus I Never Knew: "In a nutshell, the Bible from Genesis 3 to Revelation 22 tells the story of a God reckless with desire to get His family back." He could have just started over/Left us alone in the dark/But our God is not like that/He wants His family back/He's had a plan from the start . . . "What Kind of King?" complements "Story of Stories" in such a way that it makes sense that it follows right afterward. OK, so we know that our God wants His family back, and so He sends us -- well, what kind of king exactly? Only Himself incarnate to dwell among us in the lowliest state. What kind of plan ever goes this far?/What kind of mercy puts itself at ours?/What kind of Maker walks the earth He made/From the cradle to the cross and leaves an empty grave?/What kind of love? . . .

"Dawn on Us" was another surprise; it is a gloriously happy, radiant song featuring my favorite unsung hero of the Christmas story: Joseph. Let it dawn on us/Like the morning sun/Let it chase our night away/Let it dawn on us:/This is God with us/In the light of Christmas day. And in the light of every day. This is then followed by "O Come All Ye Faithful" which is simply done, beautifully rendered, and ends with Carolyn, a cappella, singing "Christ the Lord" into the stillness.

OK, that was another of my way-too-long reviews.  Please forgive me.  It's been five long years since I have had the immense pleasure of listening to and then writing about a new Carolyn Arends album. That's what blogs are for; I will self-edit and put a more succinct version on Amazon. I almost wish I did not love it so much -- that I could find some flaw at which to pick in a picayune way simply to bolster my reviewer creds -- but, nope; to my ears, there is not a false note.

Ah, here is one slightly disappointing thing: On the past few albums that Carolyn has done as an independent artist, she has included something funny in the midst of the typical legal warnings on CDs about unauthorized reproduction. She had five years to plan something amusing to put on the disc for this release, and I was giddy to think about what sort of secret, sly thing she would work into the fine print; and, she did not put anything. Nothing. I am sorely crestfallen.

If that's the worst I can say, though, then verily I am blessed.  You will be, too, if you make Christmas: The Story of Stories a part of your music library not only for this and every Christmas, but for random year-round listening when you just need a reminder about how glorious and seismic and extravagant this holy tide of Christmas truly is.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Christmas: The Story of Stories *The Interview*

I was enjoying a beautiful August day at Barnabas Family Ministries on Keats Island, a bucolic fragment of Eden that has surfaced off the coastline near Vancouver, British Columbia, when I got that familiar knot in the pit of my stomach: only 153 shopping left until Christmas.  More dire, though, was the fact that I hoped to write something festive and true about Christmas by October 15. How was I ever  to find anything new to say about my favorite holiday when I had less than eight weeks to do so? ‘Tis the season to try to get someone else to do your work for you.  Luckily for me, Carolyn Arends was also at Barnabas. Earlier this past summer, the Canadian singer/songwriter had been knee-deep in Yuletide joy as she completed work on her second full-length Christmas album. When I waylaid her for a little chat about her project – which she graciously supplied – I was able to glean fresh insights from her that would have otherwise eluded me. You see, of the thirteen songs on her new album, Christmas: The Story of Stories (October 2014, 2B Records), Carolyn wrote nine. You would have to walk many a mile (or kilometer) to find someone who has meditated more fully and fruitfully on the Incarnation and all its wonder than she. We found a place to sit, cracked open a box of After Eight Dinner Mints, and toasted the album with Diet Cokes. Carolyn brought the stories and perspective; I brought a questionable work ethic and a digital voice recorder; the following, interspersed with some lyrics and edited for clarity, is what came about:

O little town of Bethlehem, I think it is a lie/That you were still or dreamless on that first Christmas night . . .
Justine: When I listen to your songs, you seem to revisit a lot of themes, but with increasing depth, or complexity, or a slightly different viewpoint. I know that you have written a Christmas song for your church each year for many years. The narrative of Christmas in the Bible is basically two chapters in the Gospel According to Luke. How do you write a song from that every year? How do you face that?
Carolyn: I’ve been doing it for 20 years – which is a lot of Christmas songs – and I think that is what I like about the tradition. It’s an annual spiritual discipline of looking at the Story and saying, “What is the Story saying to me or to the people that are around me this year?” I hope in circling around and revisiting the same themes, it is going deeper. I think the last few years there has been more the vision that the story of the universe is happening in four giant acts: Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration. And, I kind of see that little passage in Luke as a fulcrum or pivot point that everything  hinges on, and that radiates out with a million implications that run backwards and forwards; and actually, that’s a lot to write about.
This is the Story of stories/This is the mystery of old/This is the Glory of glories/All that exists comes down to this: Newborn Baby Boy
Justine:  That idea seems to fit in with the title song of the album, The Story of Stories.
Carolyn: Yes, it is very much about how that story fits into the Big Story. In fact, there is a quote in the song from Philip Yancey about God’s wanting His family back. [“In a nutshell, the Bible from Genesis 3 to Revelation 22 tells the story of a God reckless with desire to get His family back" (The Jesus I Never Knew)] Also, I am in a different place every year. Some years, I can’t wait for Christmas to come; and other years . . . I can. And so, I need to sing different exhortations to myself.
There is a vacancy right here inside of me/It’s been that way for quite a while/But there’s a blessedness in this great emptiness/If it makes room here for the Child
Justine: One thing that I found very interesting in your song list was the inclusion of an Advent song. What can you tell me about the song, Vacancy?
Carolyn: I grew up in a church tradition that did not follow the liturgical calendar, so it is only in recent years that I have begun to learn about the four Sundays of Advent. I love the idea of reminding ourselves that the world was waiting – and in some ways, we’re still waiting, and in some ways, He’s come – But, yeah, in the year that I wrote that, for whatever reason, whatever was going on in my life, I was not feeling very Christmasy, and I had this little bit of an empty feeling leading up to Christmas and I was working through that, praying through that, and I was reminded that emptiness is necessary to make room for the Truth that is coming. That is why that song talks about the blessedness in the emptiness and the longing that reminds us how all of Creation waited for Him to come, and now we are waiting for Him to come again.
Let it dawn on us like the morning sun/Let it chase our night away/Let it dawn on us: This is God with us/In the light of Christmas day
Justine: I know that the song Dawn on Us came out of a series of silly puns you were torturing amusing your friends and followers with on Facebook and Twitter. I stayed up all night to see where the sun went. Then it dawned on me. Tell me about writing songs that surprise you.
Carolyn:  Yes, it really delights me that what ended up coming out of that silly joke was a serious take on the Christmas story; and, it reminds me of what Frederick Buechner said about hearing the gospel as a “wild, marvelous joke” – it really is great news, and it should involve laughter. Also the song Vacancy: I was in a fairly blue space when I wrote it, but because I ended up writing it for ukulele, now it makes me really happy to play it. You cannot be unhappy on ukulele, right? So now when I play it, I am so happy – and it’s supposed to be my melancholy song.
Friends that’s the reason we need this season/To help us remember, joy can still come/To a world often troubled and tragic . . ./So bring on the old Christmas Magic

Justine: Have you found inspiration in other unusual places? Quotes? Experiences? Readings?

Carolyn: You know, I’ve been a part of Vancouver’s Pacific Theatre’s Christmas Presence for several years. Well, there is one story that gets read almost every year – a nostalgia piece – by a local journalist who writes about his mother’s going over-the-top for Christmas; it’s very warm and sentimental. He talks about how his mom would go to the bargain basement of The Bay and find broken crystal ornaments and buy them for nothing and repair them, because she understood that things did not have to be perfect to be beautiful. At the end of the story, the writer reveals that he has cerebral palsy. Anyway, probably my current favorite song on the album is one called Christmas Magic that came out of that piece. We have a reaction to all the commercialism at Christmas and all the hype – and we do need to be careful about that stuff – but there is actually something beautiful about tradition, about having one time a year when we make the effort –imperfect as we all are – and try to come together and make something beautiful together.

May your Christmas season be merry and bright, and may your heart resound with comfort and joy as you live again the Story of stories, that pivot point of the universe when Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus turned into O Holy Night.
If you would like more information about Carolyn Arends and Christmas: The Story of Stories, please visit her website ( Merry Christmas!         

Monday, October 06, 2014

Getting a Kick out of Kickstarter

I have been privileged to support the projects of some extremely talented musicians via the crowd-funding site Kickstarter. I love their music so very much that it gives me quite a thrill to be involved, no matter how tangentially, in their creative process. Because I am shameless in promoting artists that I love, I also have been known to send out harassing e-mails to friends, trying to convince them also to kick in on Kickstarter. The fruit of my overbearing personality was in evidence the other day when one friend told me, "Thanks for getting me addicted to Kickstarter." Addicted? Oh yes. Apparently, there are nigh innumerable projects on Kickstarter, not just the ones by artists I know.  My friend's new obsession made me decide to look around a bit on the site and see what there was to be seen.

My oh my.

So, it turns out that there are a lot of creative, artistic dreamers out there looking for a good kickstart. And, some of them are outrageously untalented, no matter how creative and dreamy they may be. I won't name names or give links, because who am I to rain on anyone's project parade -- or, really, to disparage anyone's dream?  If they can find backers, then more power to them and God bless.  But, still . . . it can be quite an amusing adventure to wade the congested waters of project proposals, whether they're sublime or absurd.

The best part -- the ABSOLUTE best part -- is to look over the tiered rewards.  I cannot decide whether my favorite one is the artist who promises that for $200 he would give you two front row tickets to one of his concerts that were certain to come should his album project be fully funded and he became as famous as he was surely about to be OR the musician who promised she would become an ordained minister and officiate your wedding, should you scrounge up $5000. 

So, I am toying with my own kickstarter project. Not through Kickstarter, of course. They have rules and stuff. Nope, I'll just do it on my own, through my very popular blog. You see,  I've written a few songs, and I think the showcase among them is one called "Tabby Dreams" -- at least, that is the one my husband brings up most often to mock me. He should not mock me; the song is not just about my tabbies, but also about Boudicca; mock Boudicca at your peril!   In homage to the erstwhile comic strip Bloom County, I shall call my first album project Tabby Dreams and Stranger Things. The six or seven songs will be mostly about animals*, and all will be played (very poorly, indeed) on guitar by yours truly.  The singing may or may not be on key. The rewards, though, will be amazing! 

For $5, I will plant a pea vine in my garden and name it after you.

For $10, I will cut the letters of your name out of various printed sources and mail you a collage of my creation.

For $25, I will send you one page of my daughter's Latin workbook.

For $50, I will mail you a live tadpole. And a tank ambience rock. (tank not included)

For $100, I will glue together a pasta portrait of your visage or Vincent Van Gogh's -- your choice!

For $250, I will eat the large helmet sundae at Safeco Field and send you a video of it.

For $500, I will rename one of my cats after you. (Limit 2)

For $1000, I will write you a poem in Latin that totally kind of rhymes and might be grammatically correct and make some sort of sense.

For $2000, I will tell you a secret that I have never told anyone.

For $3000, I will knit you a sweater out of my cats' hair.

For $5000, I will root for your favorite NFL team for an entire season and wear the team jersey while I watch every game. This will be done at great personal sacrifice (I hate football), but that is the kind of intense musical artist I am.

You will notice that not one of these rewards actually includes sending you my music or playing it for you in any way.  That is because they are rewards, not punishments.

My goal is $100, 000. I estimate that this project will be completed NEVER. And I shall cancel it if not fully funded by October 6, 2014 at 3 PM, PST.  So, get on it, people!

*So far the song list, in addition to the eponymous "Tabby Dreams," will include "The Duck Song," "The Dog Song," and a few that I haven't written yet about bunnies and squirrels and such. Also, there is a blues song about Latin grammar that I am sure will thrill and might be included as a bonus track.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Soft Eyes and Fractured Vision

When I was a girl, I trained for equestrian eventing. This is comprised of a dressage test, a cross-country jumping course, and a stadium jumping course. The training hours were long and intense, as my horse and I learned to move and act as one entity. More important, though, than contact with my legs or my seat or my hands was the contact that I made with my eyes. My horse, of course (of course!), had his eyes on either side of his head, which limited his field of vision so that there was a blind spot in the three to four feet directly in front of him – which is something you don’t want to contemplate too closely when you’re cantering toward a three-foot jump! I had no problem seeing what was directly in my path, but it was not enough simply to focus on what was in front of me. “Soft eyes! Soft eyes!” my trainer would yell from the arena railing, meaning that I was concentrating too hard on what was straight ahead. “Soft eyes” was a reminder that I needed to pull back the focus and see in the panorama. If you are too narrowed in on what is immediately before you when riding, you do not see what your horse sees, and he knows it. His knowing it makes him nervous and less likely to trust you. And trust is the key to a successful horse-rider relationship. His sight is fractured, and he needs yours to be whole.

I remembered this when I recently read a book that changed my life. It is called The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. I had never thought of my brain before in terms of the right-left hemisphere divide, but the author of the book, Iain McGilchrist, makes a compelling case for what this divide means, why it matters, and how a tilt culturally and intellectually toward what he sees as the usurpation of the left hemisphere into the realm of responsibilities that ought to be given to the right has diminished and impoverished us. It is not a religious book; but, I wholeheartedly agree with G.K. Chesterton’s assertion that “if Christianity should happen to be true – then defending it may mean talking about anything or everything. Things can be irrelevant to the proposition that Christianity is false, but nothing can be irrelevant to the proposition that Christianity is true.” The book is a masterpiece of scientific and philosophic scholarship, and its scope is too wide for my purpose here; however,  I want to share the central idea that Mr. McGilchrist posits, and how it has made for me a bit more translucent that glass through which we now see so darkly.

The primary idea is found in the relationship of the hemispheres. Both halves can receive information. The right brain, though, receives information in a holistic, contextual way rife with empathy, implicit meaning, and a sense of seeing things “as they are.” The left brain receives information in a more abstract or impersonal way, being analytic and reading explicit meanings. The left brain wants to classify and categorize and tends to take an outside, invariant view of information. Mr. McGilchrist contends that the human brain was originally designed to be right-hemisphere dominant. Ideally, our right brains would receive information, send it over to the left brain to organize, which would send it back to the right brain to internalize and act upon it. The title of his book, though, refers to a story Nietzsche told about a wise and loving master whose extensive realm was run to ruin and collapse when an ambitious and clever emissary, entrusted to rule on the master’s behalf with the same fairness, honesty, and kindness, wrested the power unto himself and brought tyranny instead. In such a way, McGilchrist sees the left hemisphere, made to serve the right, now in ascension over it.

All the left brain can offer without the right is a fragmented, impersonal vision of the world. And does that not ring true in our world today? Where people have 400 Facebook friends, but no one with whom to share a cup of coffee? Where families are ripped apart because the individuals rebelled against the whole? Where we run in circles, splintering our time between projects that never seem to reach completion? The right brain, with its emphasis on looking outward, seeing the Other, is our key to comprehending something very important about God and our relationship with Him. Without its point of view, we see in the shards of a mirror, reflecting only ourselves; with our right brains, God gives us a window.

We fall into a trap whenever we try to “explain God” on the left hemisphere’s terms. Isn’t that Satan’s original ploy? He fractures and makes incomplete our perceptions of the Most High. “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” Then, he narrows our focus, encouraging us to “judge” God in human terms. And even today: How can you believe in a God that would let a child die? How can you believe in a God that would let an earthquake swallow up a town? How can you believe in a God that would . . .?  The Bible may not make sense when taken in pieces. But, the Story was never meant to be told in fragments. It is a whole that is even greater than the sum of its parts. It is gestalt. Just as you cannot begin to understand the sacrifice of Jesus without an understanding of the  helplessness of your own sinful state, you cannot really get a grasp on the utter depravity of the human will until you hold it up to the light of the holiness of Christ.   

Things that stand as roadblocks to our relationship with God usually have to do with traits that are typical of left-brain dominance. One thing our left brains cannot stand is any sort of paradox – the apparent co-existence of two irreconcilable ideas or entities. Fully God and fully man? A kingdom that always was and is to come? The wisdom of fools? Losing life to find it? If we ponder these truths too closely, we start to lose the beauty of them; we begin to believe that we must justify them in human terms.  If, though, we just let them wash over us, they make perfect sense. Mr. McGilchrist writes that, perhaps, the things that our left brains tell us are paradoxes, our right brains intrinsically understand.

As I walk into my nineteenth year of faith this autumn, I think of those days long ago, training with my beloved Thoroughbred. Today, I am not preparing for a blue ribbon in an event, but for a far more glorious prize.  I am trying to retrain my eyes again to be soft, to see more than I think I can see, to behold the whole picture and not just a narrow focus. I want to see the Story – from Genesis 1:1 all the way through Revelation 22:21 – as the narrative, not only of ancient peoples, but of my life. Now, though, it is my vision that is fractured; I need to trust Jesus, day by day, to make my sight whole.


Friday, July 25, 2014

A Poem for Pippa

When I posted a wee bit of doggerel that I wrote about our kitty, Katiesocks, a few months ago, my dad sent me an e-mail saying, "You'd better post something about her sister, Pippa, now.  You know how cats are." He's right, of course.  Sibling rivalry kicks into overdrive when fostered in the breasts of tabbies.  Today, while I was roaming about the house, cleaning and doing laundry, little Pippa was following close behind me and taking advantage of any pause in my endeavors to find a flat, elevated surface onto which she could leap for loves. That is what inspired this little bit of rhyming, which I offer to all the cat lovers out there:

For Pippa
I have a soft, grey shadow
Not of my shape or size.
But one who has a stripey tail,
Four paws and two bright eyes.
And on those paws she follows
Where'er my steps may lead --
Up the stairs and down again --
For we are both agreed
That she will be my sentinel
And guard me from behind;
And I will be the best two-legged
Friend she'll ever find.
Katiesocks (left) and Pippa
Of course I had to include a picture of both! You know how cats are!

Friday, July 18, 2014

5 Reasons I Switched from Google to Bing

5. Google is a company out of California, the most stupid, morally reprehensible state in the union. Bing is out of Washington -- beautiful, beloved, often-misguided-but-never-malevolent Washington.

4. Google encourages their employees to bring their dogs to work. That is gross.

3. Bing's trivia encoded photos are intriguing and educational. Today, for example, you can learn about the Puss Moth. How about that?

2. Google's doodles are obnoxious -- especially the endless World Cup series.  That was the final straw.

1. Wouldn't you rather Bing than Google? It just sounds more genteel and sophisticated -- sort of British: "Let's Bing a bit, and then we'll stop for tea." -- where as 'google' sounds like something two teens are doing in the backseat.

Let's make a better world! Let's Bing!

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Everyday Miracles

There was so much I wanted to write about as the summer begins to take its hold, and I find it far less enjoyable to sit in front of a computer screen for any length of time.  But, this subject was too unformed in my mind; that subject was too in need of better research; those subjects needed me to actually finish the books  I was reading before I could broach them.  Plus, you know, life in all its glory comes crashing in from all sides like the relentless waves – leaving my life a breathless, wild, holy mess! So, what to write, what to write as the rains begin to fall less often and a middle-aged, web-footed Pacific Northwesterner’s fancy turns to thoughts of sun?  Why, I shall write about seeds.
Gardening, like playing guitar or writing blog posts and NaNo novels, is one of those things where my desire far outweighs my talent, but that I cheerfully pursue, nonetheless.  When I see a grand and bountiful garden, something leaps inside my heart.  Perhaps it is the echo of a memory of the Garden of my forefather and mother that brings that sudden stab of joy. To see that immense goodness filling a well-planned and ordered space is to wish to create my own; and so I try year after year.  Some years go better than others, but every garden I’ve ever planted starts in my mind as a stray piece of Eden and ends up a bit of a disappointment. I guess when you set your sights so high, you’re looking for a letdown.   
This year, I am gamely trying again.  I convinced my long-suffering husband (who points out every spring that we live within walking distance of not one, but two major grocery store chains, both of whom are stocked year-round with every imaginable type of produce) that I needed an enclosed raised bed.  The enclosure will serve the dual purposes of insulating seedlings from our chilly spring days, and later keep out the neighborhood deer that feast off of the yearly buffet.  After we had set up the bed, which I will refer to as VegTrug, because that is its name, I stared into the mixture of garden soil and compost that reached, as we had been instructed, to within 2 – 4 cm of the top and felt a thrill of anticipation.  What scrumptious veggies would I harvest in a few months’ time from its fertile reaches? What ought I to plant?
So, it was seed shopping spree time at Lowe’s.  I came home with a veritable cornucopia of possibilities.  Beets, Swiss chard, eggplants, carrots, butternut squash . . . all danced before my eyes, fully grown, ripe for picking, delectably juicy and crunchy.  But right now they were tiny, numerous, blink-and-you-miss-them seeds.  Scratch that.  Right now they were tiny everyday miracles.  And, as I poked and scattered them into the rich soil of my VegTrug, I realized that I most wanted to write about these everyday miracles – the kinds that turn seeds into smorgasbords, acorns into oaks, farmers into poets, fighters into friends, and sinners into saints.
 L.M. Montgomery wrote a trilogy about a girl named Emily Byrd Starr.  In the first book, Emily of New Moon, eleven-year-old Emily experiences “the flash.” “It had always seemed to Emily that she was very, very near to a world of wonderful beauty.  Between it and herself hung only thing curtain; she could never draw the curtain aside – but sometimes, just for a moment, a wind fluttered it and then it was as if she caught a glimpse of the enchanting realm beyond – only a glimpse – and heard a note of unearthly beauty. . . And always when the flash came to her Emily felt that life was a wonderful, mysterious thing of persistent beauty.” When I read those words as a teenager, I understood them without really knowing why I did.  I had always felt, too, that there was a kingdom of wonder just beyond my fingertips.  It surrounded me, called to me, led me gently to itself, though I could neither name it nor express it.  When I came to know Christ, it fell into place.  That “thin curtain” that separated me from the “very near world of wonderful beauty” was torn in two by my Savior, as surely has He rent the veil the terrible Friday so long ago. When I catch those glimpses of the “enchanting realm” nowadays, I know that I have just had the experience of placing one foot momentarily into eternity through His grace and love.  I live on those moments.
The thing about those moments, though, is how grounded they are in the everyday.  A seed is a wonderful miracle – something that, if contemplated long enough, would make any philosopher weak in the knees.  Yet, what could be more deceptively ordinary, more fundamental than a seed?  Reams of information are packed into the tiniest vessel that can lie dormant, inactive, and to all eyes dead, until it meets with sun, soil, and water – then, voila! You have beets!  What an amazing Creator to have thought of that!
An acorn, buried for winter to sustain a squirrel, lost and forgotten, lies under the snow.  The snow melts in spring and gives water to the acorn; it awakes and sends forth roots and stems.  Left alone, it will be an oak tree.  A rodent’s neglected snack may become his great-grand-progeny’s home.  The Father must laugh to see it happen again and again, just as He planned.
A man arises at dawn and labors his days away under sun and clouds and storm.  As he works the land, it gets into his blood; when it gets into his blood, it becomes a part of him; when it is a part of him, he needs to put it into words. We are people of the Word, that sustaining mark of God, whose ever-unfolding revelatory Word writes His redemption on our hearts. We put into words whatever we can, and give a tribute of silence to whatever we cannot.  So, the farmer becomes a poet, caught up in the grand song of life that awoke the stars and formed the mountains.
“Peace, peace,” was the cry, but there is no peace for the two sworn enemies. Their quarrel was commissioned by persons unknown to either.  They fight for God and country.  Yes, even for the same God.  And Christmas comes and falls upon them both, as quietly as the winter snow. “Peace, peace,” the angels sang near Bethlehem, “and goodwill to all men.” And one soldier picks up the old tune and begins to sing.  The other hears and joins in.  Their languages are different; their songs are the same.  They lay down their arms – and, if it is only for a night, at least it is one night where the memory of a Baby’s birth turned fighters into friends.

There is no “burning bush moment” in any of these examples.  (I have always secretly wanted a burning bush to come and tell me what to do.  I say that, though a real encounter like the one on Mt. Horeb would surely leave me singed to the soul.  I do not think I could stand the holy fire like Moses did.) There is no sun standing still in the sky. There is no parting of the Red Sea. There is no water-into-wine, no bodily resurrections, no speaking new life into existence.  There is only the wonder of the everyday; the wonder that permeates everything our Lord touches. He touches us.  And when He does, the foremost so-called everyday miracle occurs: He turns sinners into saints. 
I pray that, even when I am aging and fading from this world and finding both feet straying ever further into eternity and ever more reluctant to return into time, I never forget that first miracle of my life.  Without that transformation, without that piercing, consuming  encounter with Christ almost twenty years ago, I would not even see the miracles all around me.  I feel so sorry for people who do not know the Lord and who might look at my VegTrug full of seeds and say, “Miracle?  What are you talking about?  That’s just science.”  Just science.  Sheesh.  As though all of science were not God’s giant treasure hunt to lead us to greater awe in His astoundingly creative glory! Or for those who cannot see that a farmer who recites poetry that is a paean to the One who first thought of the land that fills his soul is a more complete man than one who composes verse on nothing beyond his own belly-button lint.  Or for a man who might discount one moment of true peace in the midst of war, because war still rages on – not understanding that one moment of true peace is worth a year of a fool’s paradise. Not that I mean to be harsh to anyone. Until I knew Jesus, I might have said the same. Not now, though; not now.  One of the best gifts, of oh-so-many-wondrous gifts of belief, was when He opened my eyes to see that all that lives and breathes does so at His command and for His pleasure in a glorious harmony. There is not one mistake; there is not one forsaken. Then, by His grace, He brings us, sinners like you and me, into the dance.

If you are reading these words, I hope you have a beautiful summer, filled with times of refreshment and renewal.  Hey, I’m feeling generous: I’ll wish the same for you, even if you’re not reading these words!  In this world that truly is “a wonderful, mysterious thing of persistent beauty,” I pray that you are blessed by those everyday miracles of seeds and songs and salvation.

Monday, March 17, 2014

In Honor of My Irish Friend from Vermont

In honor of the Vermonster who is as Irish as a shamrock stuck into a Guinness that's being drunk by a leprechaun on the Hill of Slane, and is also a very proud Vermonter (hence her screen name), I have duly celebrated St. Patrick's Day by funneling a good chunk of money into her home state via two of my favorite companies: Vermont's King Arthur Flour and Vermont's Gardener's Supply Company. Behold:

Cloche-style Ceramic Baker:

VegTrug Elevated Patio Garden:
And oh-so-much-more!  Happy St. Patrick's Day to Vermonster and all!

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Each in His Own Tongue

                L.M. Montgomery wrote many short stories set in the idyllic province of Prince Edward Island.  In one of them, Felix Moore, age twelve, is a gifted violinist being raised by his grandfather. This grandfather, Mr. Leonard, is a minister, deeply devoted to the son of his only daughter; however, he refuses to allow the boy to practice his gift, as it reminds him of the boy’s vagabond father, a fiddler of popular tunes who had stolen away the minister’s daughter and had broken her heart.  Mr. Leonard fondly hopes that his grandson will follow in his steps.  Felix laments to a sympathetic ear that, “Ministers are good things to be, but I’m afraid I can’t be a minister.”

                “Not a pulpit minster. There’s different kinds of ministers, and each must talk to men in his own tongue if he’s going to do ‘em any real good,” the friend replies.

                Ms. Montgomery wrote, “Mr. Leonard thought rightly that the highest work to which any man could be called was a life of service to his fellows; but he made the mistake of supposing the field of service much narrower than it is.” In a terrible moment, the minister exacts a promise from his grandson that the boy will never again touch a violin. The very soul of the child is his music, but he makes the promise out of love and respect.

                Ah, but Naomi Clark is dying. Naomi Clark is “an awful, wicked woman” who has “lived a life of shame” and “mocked and flouted” every effort of the minister to reclaim her from “the way that takes hold on hell.” But, she is dying, and she wants the preacher.  Mr. Leonard does his duty.

                “Can you help me? . . . I was skeered I’d die before you got here – die and go to hell. . . . I can’t go to God for help. Oh, I’m skeered of hell, but I’m skeereder still of God. I’m sorry for living wicked. I was driven on by the fiends of hell . . . but I was always sorry.” The woman’s voice is desperate.  The minister offers to her that all she must do is repent and God will forgive her; He is, after all, a God of love. Naomi, though, will have none of those truths.  To her, God is “wrath and justice and punishment,” and though she fears the outer darkness, she cannot let in His light.

                The minister, in great anguish of spirit, falls to his knees to pray for this sin-sick soul. “O God, our Father!  Help this woman!  Speak to her in a tongue which she can understand.” Naomi falls back on her deathbed in a spasm.

                My daughter and I were biking to her Tae Kwon Do class the other night when we passed a demonstration at the main intersection in our neighborhood.  Some church’s adherents were at every corner with signs proclaiming the Lordship of Jesus and the need of repentance.  This is an unusual sight in the Northwest in general, and our neighborhood in particular; however, I always admire those who put their convictions on the line and subject themselves to ridicule, violence, and indifference.  I mentioned the sight to my friend, Shirley, while our daughters took their class together.  She whispered thoughtfully, “Do you think that sort of thing ever really works to bring someone to God?”

                “Well, I don’t think it would have worked for me.  But,” and I paused a moment to choose my words carefully, “If it works to save just one soul . . . if it is that little nudge of consideration that starts one person onto the path of reconciliation and redemption, then it must be worth it.”

                I was reflecting upon this shortly afterward when we read over the second chapter of Acts in our family Bible study.  The apostles began to speak in tongues – known languages of the many nations of pilgrims in Jerusalem.  The people, of course, marveled at this wondrous thing in those days before Rosetta Stone and asked, “How is it that we hear, each in our own language in which we were born?” Acts tells us that the apostles spoke “the wonderful works of God” in a way that left the people amazed and perplexed.  Are we, too, not left amazed and perplexed when we first hear the truth of God spoken in a way that moves our hearts toward Him, filled with awe that He would speak to us in our own tongue?

                Ever since I became a Christian, in all my thousands of prayers lifted to the heavens, there has been one constant one: that God would use me in some way to help bring at least one sinner to His salvation.  Just one.  And, who knows?  Maybe He has.  In teaching Sunday School, my great hope is that when one of my little Kindergartners is someday at that crossroads between the narrow way and the wide one, he might just remember his Sunday School teacher who long ago showed him Jesus’ love in a real way, and that memory will help him choose to seek the Holy One.

                Some people have a natural gift for walking unbelievers through every step toward a belief that culminates in complete and true redemption; how I admire those people.  That was not how I was saved.  The final work of my salvation was done very privately through God’s Holy Word and a heart long-prepared. You see, when I look back upon my life, to those days when I walked in foolishness and pride, I remember those who planted the seeds of faith.  My soil was not yet ready to bring forth harvest; but, I had faithful sowers who showed me God’s love in real ways. Three, in particular, come to mind: Robin Stapleton, Carolyn Pon, and Juan Barba.  I write their names as a benediction; they put the goodness of His Word into my life when I was a feckless, shallow teen.  They spoke to me in my own tongue, though not one of them knew it at the time. I can hardly wait to tell them when we meet again in the Kingdom. 

                Back to Naomi: Felix appears at the door, worried about his grandfather’s long absence in the raging seaside storm. Naomi, in a last burst of consciousness, asks Felix to play her something on her old fiddle, needing music at her final moments, because “there was always something in it for me I never found anywhere else.” Felix looks at his grandfather, who nods an ashamed assent. So, Felix plays for the dying woman. The tune winds its way from mirthful innocence to rapturous love to agonized despair to indescribable evil. Then, the tune changes again to a tortured repentance and rests at last upon “infinite forgiveness and all-comprehending love.” And Naomi whispers, “I understand now . . . God is a God of love . . . He sent you here tonight, boy to tell it to me in a way I could feel it.” By daybreak, she is dead, but no longer lost, because she has heard God’s truth in her own tongue.           


Friday, January 17, 2014

A Poem About Katiesocks

A more faithful alarm than even my clock's
Is the daybreak ritual of my Katiesocks
Each morning at precisely six ante meridian
She leaps on my bed and starts up her kittyin'
Biscuit-kneading paws and whiskers that tickle
Put my half-conscious brain in a bit of a pickle
For her message is one that I both love and dread
For I've too much to do to be seductively led
By her rhythmic purring and the tilt of her head
That say so convincingly, "Just stay in bed.
Oh just stay, oh just stay, oh just stay in bed."

Katiesocks and Pippa, both of whom make getting out of bed
even harder than it already is!