Last spring I had the opportunity to participate in a songwriter’s concert with some other great folks at Southern Seminary. This is a live recording from that night of Great Is Thy Faithfulness. Enjoy!
Today is a good day. Jason and I have been married 5 years. Wow. I don’t think I am old enough for this. I am so grateful for him though, for his gracious and giving self.
Five years ago our pastor preached a 7 minute homily that I remember well despite everything else that went on around it. The text was Psalm 90, and he spoke of how we would find our home in an everlasting God even though our years are fleeting. This and the psalm’s final words “establish the work of our hands” have been a rallying cry for me, for us.
Life can be disappointing and bittersweet. Life can be lovely. Life can be frail. But our prayer is that God will establish it anyway, make it worthwhile, meaningful, significant.
Over the past month or two I have been working on a setting of Psalm 90 and hoping to record it for today. I was hoping to give you a perfect copy of it but circumstances intervened (the dog whining during a take and shaking his collar during another, family coming into town, the mic breaking) and so I’m giving you a less than perfect copy of it. May God use it anyway.
I journal sporadically and when I write a new entry I usually read at least a few pages prior. Typically this means that I say to myself, “Oh yes, I forgot that I thought that!” Or “Whoops, I guess I already wrote everything I was going to write” or better yet, “Wow, I was so smart back then!” :) In other words, I have a short memory. At least for certain things. That’s why journaling is a good thing for me- it helps me remember. It helps me remember lessons learned and all the things that I am grateful for, all the ways that God has provided.
Not very long ago I told myself in my journal that I should write a blog post titled “Songwriting, Unselfishness and Happiness.” This was very helpful of myself. However, I have completely forgotten what the content of this blog post was going to be. I can surmise that I probably was going to talk about how writing for other people will bring deeper happiness than writing only for myself. That’s all I’ve got right now though.
I think the lesson here is to write everything down all at once or it’ll be gone. Something to the effect of not presuming on your future self to remember because after all that’s why you’re reminding yourself in the first place.
Let’s be honest though. You didn’t come here to read about how when I tie a string around my finger I really ought to have just done the thing then. Come to think of it, I’m not really sure why I came here…
In my last post (back in March!!) I mentioned object writing. The following is from a ten-minute exercise I did a few days ago. This may be more like place writing. It is just an exercise, not necessarily something destined for greatness but I enjoyed this particular one quite a bit since it is one of my favorite memories of time spent at my grandparents’ cabin. Hope you enjoy it to.
The tide was low, the sand wet and packed where the sea had been. Covered in squeaky boots and raincoats we wandered the beach, wet hair sticking to our cheeks and blowing in our eyes. Lanterns and flashlights bobbed and glowed up and down the shore, a thousand places where darkness was cast out. The dull roar of the ocean was our constant companion. My hands were dull too but my chest felt like one of the lanterns burning in the evening fog. My grandfather knew this place and knew what he was looking for: tiny holes in the sand were our clues. We rushed to them and pulled a tower of sand up to capture a small creature digging with all its might downward. That night we caught 12, a decent catch. The cabin was somewhere past the high struggling dunes but from where we stood all was weeds and sand and water and fire.
My schedule has been full of music: accompanying voice lessons and choir rehearsals, teaching piano lessons, playing for ballet classes. Finding time to write music has been more challenging. I recently picked up Writing Better Lyrics by Pat Pattison however, and I’ve been doing the first assignment semi-regularly- object writing. The gist of the assignment is to write for 10 minutes using all of your senses with an object as your jumping off point. For example, I have written about a bird picture on our calendar, our clock, a grand piano, melting snow and mail slots to name a few. How, you may ask, can you use your sense of smell to write about a calendar? The object is only the starting point, and then you can move on- so for the calendar, I ended up describing a woodland scene with two cardinals and the smell of the musty ground and leaves.
Object writing has been helpful as an avenue to stretch my writing as well as making me more aware of things around me even when I am not writing. Sometimes writing and music make me go off in la la land (thinking about them so much I don’t notice anything else :) ). In contrast, object writing make me notice the outside world better and I think I see beauty more frequently because of it. This alone seems like a success to me.
On another front, as I already mentioned, I accompany for the Boyce College Choir and we will be heading on tour in a week. When the director was looking for arrangements of Amazing Grace I thought I’d try my hand at putting one together. They are going to sing it and I am very excited to hear something I worked on performed by an ensemble.
Over the past year I’ve been able to participate in some songwriting workshops with Steve and Vikki Cook, and will have the opportunity to sing a piece or two at a concert of original songs on March 25th (this coming Tuesday) at Southern Seminary (in Heeren Hall). Come listen! :)
In my *free* time I throw a ball to the dog, clean the apartment, and read a bit (just finished The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains by Nicholas Carr, and thus I should probably end this internet session). I also did my first house project in a while:
I thought it was ironic since we don’t have a bathtub. Hah.
Also, I’m very excited for spring break. :)
It might seem like I have wandered… away from this domain.
Meanwhile I’ve been enjoying singing a classic. Wayfaring Stranger
I admit, it has been a while since I posted. Since April in fact, and now it is August. Perhaps I was waiting for the alliteration. Perhaps it has been summer.
In any case, while I have been silent I have still been reading, and some of my perusings I thought were worth sharing. They have a general tilt toward art, philosophy and trying to bone up my fiction reading.
Sensing Jesus: Life and Ministry as a Human Being by Zack Eswine
This is probably my favorite book I’ve read so far this year. The title may strike you as odd, but it is justified in the content of Eswine’s writing, the humanness that he expresses and calls us to, and questions such as “How did Jesus see children?” and “How did Jesus see women?” He deals with common misconceptions we have about ourselves, such as being able to fix-it-all or be everywhere-for-all. This book is poetic, personal, theological.
Create: Stop Making Excuses and Start Making Stuff by Stephen Altrogge
A small simple book, this was nevertheless very helpful and motivating to me and was filled with reminders of the possibility of creating in all kinds of circumstances from accounting to food to songwriting. A couple things that stood out to me were Altrogge’s point that we are often infatuated with the idea of [fill-in-the-blank artistic endeavor] more than we are willing to actually work at it, and (I’m paraphrasing) that we wait for the muse to arrive rather than catching the muse by the tail. In other words, we have an idea of creativity as something that either certain people just have, or as a fit that just descends on us rather than something active that we engage in and work hard at. Also, I have a new mantra that I think I somehow got from this book: when I am doing repetitive and mundane things such as showering and laundry I remind myself that I am holding back the forces of chaos. :)
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
I read this in advance of the movie coming out, but have now not yet seen said movie. Fitzgerald’s writing is really quite lovely, and left me with a sad sense of trying to catch happiness.
Solomon Among the Postmoderns by Peter Leithart
Speaking of catching happiness, one of the strengths of this book is Leithart’s translation of Solomon’s words in Ecclesiastes as “vapor of vapors” and our activities as trying to “shepherd the wind.” Leithart was also helpful in describing the failures of modernism to which postmodernism has reacted (i.e. an assumption that everything can be brought under our control and managed neatly) and pointing out that rather than relativistic, postmodernists would claim more of a agnostic stance in regards to our ability to know truth. At the same time, he shows how ultimately Solomon saw all the problems that postmodernism does, but arrived at a hopeful place of entrusting ourselves to God.
The Night Trilogy by Elie Wiesel
This broke my heart. I don’t know how else to respond to reality of the terrible things that were done to Wiesel, his family, and all of the Jews in WWII.
Art and Soul: Signposts for Christians in the Arts by Hilary Brand and Adrienne Chaplin
I really appreciated this book. The authors walked a careful but beautiful line of both affirming art and the artist and not elevating them beyond what they can handle. They started with a survey of the postmodern conception of art, which is somewhat that anything goes, and borrowing a bit from here and there, old and new (don’t you see this in everything on pinterest?) Art can be seen in both secular and Christian circles as alternately one of the highest and most spiritual things a person can engage in and something rather superfluous and cheap. Instead these authors suggest we should engage in art with integrity, doing it with love, and recognizing it’s place among human pursuits. There were a lot of other things I found helpful, “signposts” that I will go back to.
I had the privilege of singing with Nathan Bird and NorrSound Vocal Ensemble this last week in Minnesota and thoroughly enjoyed my time. The following are a few random reflections the concert brought about.
Collaborating is a gift (and a fun time!)
All of the singers for this event were alumni or currents students of Northwestern College in St. Paul, MN, as well as of the College Choir there. College Choir is one of the first places I experienced a sense of real community. Singing together brings you together (as all the “choir couples” can attest to ;) ). The shared work, time, and then resulting music is a process that is hard to describe, but is so valuable. I am sure many groups with shared goals experience some of that same community, but I am always blessed to re-experience collaborating with other musicians and see the results that come from it. Somehow collaboration seems to make the whole more than the parts. It is no surprise that a lot of creative work comes from places where artists are gathered together and fan the flames in each other’s work. It was good to sing together and laugh together and make nervous humming staying-warmed-up vocal noises together.
Sometimes I get frustrated by how much time it takes to merely stay presentable and hygienic- showers, hair brushing, sweeping up the hair off the floor, taking out the garbage. Never mind eating and getting dressed. I have been trying to tell myself that it is part of the larger work of “holding back the forces of chaos”- haha. Well, I realized Thursday I should have trimmed my bangs again when they got stuck in my eyelash in the middle of singing a heartfelt rendition of Shelter with a camera closeup on my face. I decided the graceful exit was keeping my eyes closed in a meditative look. :)
Aging can be helpful
Nathan graciously commented that my voice sounded better than on the album, which I regard as surprising given my sporadic vocal work over the past 8 mo. since completing the recording. It is rather sad, I know. In any case, if it’s true that my voice has improved, it is most likely due to aging, i.e. maturing. So, just thought I would give a shout out to the much maligned process known as aging- who knew you could do good things?
Home is a complex word
I grew up in Minnesota, and moving away has identified it as my home, the place I come from and know well. Going back for Christmas and then for this concert are chances to be in a familiar place and more importantly see familiar faces. But the fact is I no longer have a home there, though at the same time I have many home-like places. At the airport I told my sister-in-law that we should go home, by which I meant my in-laws’ place. I went to my parents’, a place that was my home for a while, and then said I was going home when I headed to my lodging for the week. And at the end of it all, I was glad to go home to Kentucky and my husband, my dog and apartment, back to a schedule and employment. One of my piano teachers talked about a “home and away” conception of music. To be understandable and effective, music has to have a sense of going somewhere and then returning. If we were always “away” in terms of chords, melodic line and intensity there would be anxiety and stress in the music. If we are always “home” there is no variety and a sense of being stuck and oppressed by sameness. I am glad to have gone somewhere, and now I am glad to be home.
Great is thy faithfulness. I am not sure there is a better theme or anthem to sing.
I have been listening to this song a bit lately, as I am writing choral backup parts for it to be sung at an upcoming concert. The applicability of the text is perennial as the song itself describes: “Summer and winter and springtime and harvest…” This past year in my life has shown me again God’s faithfulness in all seasons. We sold a house, recorded an album, moved a few states away from home, found new jobs and a new church, and Jason started seminary classes, to name a few of the year’s happenings. Pretty much all of those events involved a little anxiety, waiting, praying, false hopes, and seeing again that God is faithful to provide for our needs.
Now nearly spring, this is the time of year in the northern hemisphere we remember that despite coldness and darkness, life will bloom. The earth will warm up, seeds again will sprout.
The sprouts will become a harvest. All that we need God’s hand has provided.
There is a new list each day of what needs to be done, what decisions need to be made. The coming year has a new list of uncertainties. But God doesn’t tire of making the sun rise, or the flowers bloom, as Chesterton points out. God “is strong enough” for this, for faithfulness, for giving life every day. He is strong enough to remain the same and not grow weary. He is strong enough to give us strength.
I was joined on the recording by David McKeen playing harmonica and Dan Lawonn playing cello, and my longtime friend Maria Schmidt singing harmony. The nostalgic harmonica and starry-eyed cello combo might strike some as odd, but perhaps they illustrate the intersection of the human and the divine, the unlikely reality of earth and heaven joined together in God’s relationship with us, each of us a mere grain of sand in the hourglass. Great is His faithfulness to me. To you.
Great is thy faithfulness, O God my Father;
There is no shadow of turning with Thee,
Thou changest not, thy compassions they fail not,
As Thou hast been, Thou forever, forever wilt be
Great is thy faithfulness!
Great is thy faithfulness!
Morning by morning new mercies I see
All I have needed thy hand hath provided
Great is thy faithfulness, Lord unto me!
Summer and winter and springtime and harvest,
Sun, moon, and stars in their courses above;
Join with all nature in manifold witness,
To thy great faithfulness, mercy, mercy and love
Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth,
Thine own great presence to cheer and to guide;
Strength for today, and bright hope for tomorrow
Blessings all mine, with ten thousand, ten thousand beside
Text by Thomas Chisholm, Copyright 1923
On the bookshelf/couch/bedside table lately- Te Deum: The Church and Music by Paul Westermeyer. I am really not far enough to give a full review or concluding thoughts. Mostly I appreciate a few things about the beginning of my reading.
1) It is always helpful to have a bit of history. As C.S. Lewis pointed out, if you join a conversation at noon that started at 8 am, you’ll be missing important parts of the conversation. This book is filling in some of the morning conversation for me.
2) Westermeyer brought out a few keys areas of theology that will necessarily be reflected in music choices: Who Christ is (divine, human, both- does our music suggest mystery, earthiness or both in “paradoxical tension”?); What Christ did (provide an example, save from brokenness, conquer sin and death, all of the above- does our music stir us to action, reflect on the brokenness and suffering of the world, or celebrate a victory?); he also reflected on perspectives of the church (ecclesiology) and our relationship to the kingdom of God (eschatology) (pp. 52-55).
3) Westermeyer emphasizes the intrinsic nature of music to humanity and its importance in worship in sections like this: “Joy inevitably breaks into song. Speech alone cannot carry its hilarity. The physical equipment we use to laugh is the physical equipment we use to sing. From laughter to song is a small step. To praise God, the highest form of joy, is to make music… The same can be said for sorrow, the opposite of joy. Sorrow also inevitably breaks into song. Speech alone cannot carry its moan. The physical equipment we use to cry is also the physical equipment we use to sing. From mourning to song is but a small step. To cry out to God in lament, the deepest form of sorrow, is to make music” (p. 28).
What a gift music is.