Part One: “Listen to Your Father (and the Septic System Repairman)” or “I Think I Dig It”
“Listen, my sons, to a father’s instruction.” -Proverbs 4:1
The summer after my freshman year of college, I got a job working on a Texaco Tank Farm in Port Arthur, Texas. We showed up every morning at 6:30 a.m. to receive our assignment, which was never very glamorous and always grueling. The work entrusted to us usually required some kind of shovel and a very strong back. I got the position because my father was employed by Texaco in Houston. Technically, he worked for the Texas Pipeline Company, a division of Texaco. He started out literally digging ditches and laying pipe. He had an extraordinary work ethic, was likeable, smart, and motivated. The first day I showed up for work, both supervisors (Carnes and Broussard) welcomed me, looked me in the eye and told me the same thing but at different times: “Son, I knew your daddy way back in the day. If you work half as hard as your dad, you’ll do the work of two men.” I worked damn hard that summer. You have no choice with a set-up like that.
Over the years, having inherited my father’s propensity not to shy away from any arduous task, I likely spent way too many hours devoted to defining my self-worth by my working-self. However, the work I’ve spent my energy on rarely involved the back-breaking labor of digging a ditch. In fact, for many years, I didn’t even own a shovel. On the rare occasion that I needed one, I’d simply borrow one. My work required a different set of tools: a Bible, lots of books, a fast computer, a good sound system, an expansive CD collection, a writing tablet, and a skillful editor. I still need those same tools to engage in my vocation of writer, priest, and music collaborator, but now that I live on a ranch in the country, I’ve found my “practical” tool collection expanding exponentially. I’ve already acquired a barn full of farm implements (well, gardening tools, if you insist). My battery-powered string trimmer has led me into battle against the boldest barnyard varietals and the toughest Texas weeds. I now know the difference between burdock and bull nettle, and could expound on the virtues and vices of each. A lawnmower and chainsaw are next on my list, and no longer do I have to ask for directions at my nearest Lowe’s, Home Depot, Tractor Supply, or Farm and Ranch Feed Store & Mercantile.
Every day brings a new challenge – a challenge that usually requires a tool, implement, sturdy back, gloves, boots, and mosquito spray – or at least knowing someone in possession of all those items plus skill and experience. A few days ago, our septic system sprung a leak. Years ago, such a statement might’ve sent me quivering in panic toward the nearest Hyatt. Today, that awareness simply elicits a phone call to the local Ace Hardware – an amazing place that specializes in the installation and maintenance of such systems. Technically, what we have on our land is a small, onsite-wastewater treatment plant. I got a call from Hank, one of the owners of the company, who came out to our place as soon as he could work us in. He was a kindly, older gentleman with silvering hair, a mustache, and glasses. When I told him that I was new to the country lifestyle and really didn’t know much about septic systems, he took his time and began teaching me about the intricacies of breaking down waste, from the difference between aerobic and anaerobic bacteria, to evaluating the efficacy of an aerator and pump, to changing the sprinkler heads from a 360 to 180 degree spray. He gave me his cell number and told me to call if my system alarm went off or if I had issues or questions. He also confided that “my wife isn’t too happy if people call me after hours? But I’m the one who gave ‘em my number.”
I’ve learned real fast that here in rural America, when people show up to do a job, in addition to working hard and charging you a fair price, they want to talk. They want to get to know you and assume that you want to get to know them, too, which in fact, I very much do. After Hank had taught me more than I have a right to know about septic principles, he started digging down to find the leak. He used a long, narrow shovel that some might call a drain spade, not to be confused with a trench shovel, which is similar in design. My shovel inventory consists, thus far, of only one pointed digger, a traditional all-purpose shovel. But for Hank’s purposes, digging down several feet to expose a pipe, his model, combined with what my dad would’ve called “elbow grease,” got the job done. After he repaired the “leaky elbow joint” and I watered my newly planted sod, we got back together and did a little internal digging – beneath the surface, and all the way to the soul. We started talking about values, work, family, and God.
Hank told me about his father’s death not that long ago. “He was a good man at peace with his Maker and he was ready to go to the other side,” Hank said. He shared that not long after his father died, he appeared to him in a dream. It was a short dream, as his dad was not big talker. He told his son simply: “It’s all true and God sees all.” Hank found great hope in this wisdom shared by his father. “We all need some hope,” he told me. “We need to know we’re on the right path.” He shared that dream with his pastor and with his men’s bible study group. I asked him about his home church, and he told me he and his family attended “Martin Luther” in the town where the Ace Hardware is located, just fifteen minutes away. Around here, given the large German influence, it’s just assumed that everybody’s Lutheran.
We talked about his German heritage and the value of hard work. “I still see it in some of the younger generation” he observed. He spoke of his four children and how proud he was of each of them. One of them is a nurse, and they’re all doing good work in the world. “I’d rather my kids be famous than me. That shows that I’ve done something right.” I shared that one of my best friends is a Lutheran pastor. His face lit up. “Where’d he go to seminary?” he wondered. I told him it was the one in Minnesota, realizing later that in Minnesota there could be as many Lutheran seminaries as there are lakes. He countered, “Well, you know here in small-town Texas we have a few small differences with the seminary folks.” He reiterated that they were “small” differences in the grand scheme of things. He shared how his faith, his spiritual community, and his family all brought him great joy. He mused that someday he might retire and entertain selling the business but pointed out that anybody running such a specialized business would “have to know what they’re doing. You must have the knowledge and experience as well as work ethic. Or at least be open to learn.”
I’d add that you have to have the right tools. And you have to be willing to dig deep, beneath the surface. And it helps if you care about your customers. As I looked at my watch, a habit I engage in with far less frequency here at the ranch, I realized Hank had been with me – showing, teaching, evaluating, digging, repairing, sharing – for two hours. The time had flown past. When you work hard, love what you do and who you’re with, it always does.
“The father of a righteous child has great joy; a man who fathers a wise son rejoices in him.” -Proverbs 23:24More
Last night, Sandy and I attended the opening night concert at the Round Top Festival Institute. Each summer, close to 100 of the most promising music students from around the world gather in small-town Texas to hone their skills and learn from master musicians. The stunning concert hall is a […]More
Make it your goal to live a quiet life, minding your own business, and working with your hands, just as we instructed you before; so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and you will not be dependent on anybody.” I Thessalonians 4:11 They called this land […]More
I thought I had lost it. And that thought made me incredibly sad. It had occupied such a place of prominence in my office at St. Michael’s Kauai that it seemed inconceivable that I had misplaced it or left it behind. Our upcoming move back to Texas gave me an opportunity to dive in to forgotten boxes I’d unloaded in the storage room next to the Tiki Bar when I first arrived in Louisiana. I had hit the ground running so when I ran out of time to unpack and organize, I had simply stuck some storage bins on the shelf and never thought about them for the last six years. When I opened the container and saw it, my face lit up and I ran inside the house and immediately shared it with Sandy. “Isn’t it stunningly beautiful?” I asked her as I displayed it so proudly, holding it tenderly in my hands. She affirmed that it was a rare and lovely creation indeed.
I love art and artists. I believe they are God’s messengers, regardless of medium. But this drawing was different. Back when I served at Trinity Church Houston, we had a significant ministry to the homeless population in Houston. Folks living on the street could attend Evening Prayer and get a sandwich supper to- go five nights a week. Our partner in ministry, the Lord of Streets Mission just across the street, provided more substantial and significant assistance to those who were struggling in the city. It was not unusual to meet and greet folks who were barely surviving as I’d enter and exit my church office. This man approached me, just like thousands had before him, I assumed to ask me for a handout. Instead, it was the man who handed me something. He placed a simple pen and ink drawing on a piece of cardboard in my hands.
“I’m just trying to make it,” he said to me, “and I draw these kinds of things. It’s not much,” he shared. It was so beautiful to me that I nearly broke down and wept. The simplicity of the “lovebird’s” song: Tweet, Tweet, Tweet, I love you. The detail on the finch, a common bird, sometimes featuring radiant colors, often endowed with the gift of song. And then he ended with the quote from Psalm 106, especially poignant given the man’s circumstances: “Oh, give thanks unto the Lord because He is good. And His love and mercy endure forever.” Here he was out on the streets, paying attention to the common beauties of creation, capturing them with his extraordinary talent, all the while giving thanks to God for what he saw and what he was able to capture and share.
I paid him for the drawing. I knew immediately that I had just been granted the bargain of a lifetime. It wasn’t much money but he seemed elated and thanked me profusely. And then he wandered off down the streets of Midtown Houston. I placed the unexpected cardboard masterpiece in a place of prominence, where I’d see it often, and think about the beauty in our midst, the birds that sing despite the challenges they must face just to survive, and the homeless man who used his talent to add even more beauty to our world. And I’d ponder the loveliness of gratitude and giving thanks to the Source of every blessing, the One who imagined a world that could be beautiful at every turn –if we are willing to behold it.
Later on, after I had time to process this unique gift, I decided I would approach him and ask him to create a dozen or so drawings, and we’d sponsor an art opening for him at Trinity Church. He’d receive 100% of the proceeds of the sales. I knew the good people of Trinity and our extended community would turn out in droves for such an event and would gladly purchase the man’s art to help him – and to enhance their own personal collections. I looked for him often and began to ask some of the men who showed up for the sandwich supper if they knew the man I was talking about. One of them knew him as “the dude who draws” and said he had not seen him in a long time. Perhaps he had moved on. Perhaps he had found a way off the streets. Perhaps, like so many who are unknown and forgotten, he had died and no one knew.
I pray that he found his way in this world. And I pray that I will never take this world for granted: the birds that sing, the people who love, the communities that care, the humans who struggle, the God who opens our eyes to see what is good, beautiful and true. I will never forget this man and his gift. His creation will ever remind me of the blessings that I enjoy and blessing found in recognizing the gifts of all people. And to listen carefully for the song of love and join in the chorus every day: Tweet, tweet, tweet.
I love you.
William Miller is an Episcopal priest living in Round Top, Texas with his beautiful wife Sandy and five lively dogs. He is the author of “The Gospel According to Sam,” “The Beer Drinker’s Guide to God,” and “The Last Howlelujah: Tails from the Trail.”More
Candle Lighting and Other Acts of Faith: A Reflection on Christmas
I Will Light Candles
Candles of joy,
despite all sadness,
Candles of hope
where despair keeps watch.
Candles of courage
for fears ever present,
Candles of peace
for tempest-tossed days,
Candles of grace to
ease heavy burdens,
Candles of love to
inspire all my living,
Candles that will
burn all the year long.
–Howard Thurman, The
Mood of Christmas
Recently I received a wonderful and kind note in the mail
from a member of our church. The card featured a dachshund wearing a bow tie
and top hat, with a caption that read, “Thank You Kindly.” The handwritten
message thanked me for “standing up for what is right, and true, and good.” The
giver acknowledged that recent months have been difficult for all of us, but
that “with all the darkness in the world right now,” God must be doing
something BIG, and that light must be just about to break through. I remembered
the old saying that “in the darkest night, the stars shine their brightest.” Then
I thought about Christmas, and the light of Christ. I recalled with reverence
the beautiful (and reassuring) passage from the Gospel of John: “The light
shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” Indeed, the darkness will never overcome.
Every year, as I approach the Christmas season, I return
to a favorite spiritual writer, Howard Thurman. There is something about the
season that seems to call for candles to illuminate one’s house (and one’s
church). Thurman is a master at taking simple seasonal moments and, from them,
creating sacred acts; deeply connected to our faith and the salvation of the
world. He elaborates on the lighting of Christmas candles, vowing to light the
candle of fellowship, even when so
many feel disconnected and cut-off from one another. He is certain that “the experiences
of unity in human relations are more compelling than the concepts, fears and prejudices
that divide.” He prays as he lights a Christmas candle, that even in his own
heart, he will “beat down the boundaries of my exclusiveness until my sense of
separateness is completely enveloped in a sense of fellowship.” The light of
Christ enables us to see past ourselves—to see our neighbor more clearly, and
to connect despite any differences.
Thurman, too, is determined to light the candle of hope this Christmas. He reminds us that
even in moments of despair and depression, when all seems lost and we are set
adrift in a sea of uncertainty, hope is the ever-present mood of Christmas. Within
the simple elements of the sacred story, the basic circumstances of familial
love, with only the raw materials of a newborn babe, family, and work, we hold
on to our faith. For “life keeps coming on, keeps seeking to fulfill itself,
keeps affirming the possibility of hope.” When we light a candle, we defiantly
pronounce that the darkness will not define us, or have the final word on our
lives and in our world.
At its core, the Christmas story is not just a sentimental
escape—it is a fully-charged challenge to the status quo; a newborn king who
threatens those who pursue a worldly rule that is not of God or God’s values. When
we light our Christmas candles this year, remember that we engage in acts far
more powerful than a comforting devotional moment. We are empowered with the
courage of Christ: to shed light on a world of wrongs, to illuminate those
injustices that some desire to remain hidden. Candle-lighting becomes an act of
trust in God alone, thereby defying all other distractions of our time that
compete for our attention and allegiances. Whatever the context or circumstance
in which we find ourselves this Christmas, regardless of the tenor of the
emotional climate that pervades or buttresses us, the light still shines. The
candles of Christmas, in the hands of the faithful, become luminous torches
that shine with the fire of a thousand suns; an illuminated path that blesses
and makes sacred everything that it touches, including the darkness that
I will light candles this Christmas. In doing so, may I
bring light to the entire world.
A MEDITATION FOR ALL SOULS DAY
“For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen in eternal.” II Corinthians 4: 17-18
“God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” Psalm 73: 26b
A FOREVER FONDNESS – AN ETERNAL PRESENCE
I can still see him winking. Malcolm was like a father to me when I lived on the island of Kauai. He was funny, wise, open-minded and even more open-hearted. He lived a rich and beautiful life that made a difference for many. He rode a motorcycle until age 88! He always wore a Greek fisherman’s cap. There was forever a twinkle in his eye and a reassuring grin on his face. A few weeks before he died, he sent me a hand-written letter containing his funeral instructions. He concluded with: “Have fun and good luck!” and then drew a smiley face. I still smile when I think about it and when I remember him. In his hospital room, there at the end with his beloved wife Imogene, time seemed to stand still. It always does on such occasions. Just as I had experienced when sitting close to my mother as she struggled with her final breaths, there is a kind of timelessness that envelopes us in the presence of those we love as they transition to a different life. We are fully present, keenly aware of the gift of life and the love we have shared – precious memories that wash over us even as our tears fall. In those holy moments, we catch a glimpse of eternity.
Death does come. But the powerful connection shared with those who go before us does not leave. As the Burial Liturgy reminds us: Life is changed, but not ended. Things are different after death. But our relationships live on – in memories, dreams, tears, laughter, gifts, feelings, and emotions. It may be through a specific legacy left to continue their good work in this life. Or it may be experienced in the photos or mementos they leave behind. But part of them does remain with us. Their very real presence is evoked as we remember them with tender hearts and great fondness.
There is a beautiful poem by Mary Oliver titled The First Time Percy Came Back. In these lovely lines her beloved returns and reveals that life beyond is different and a joyful surprise awaits her on the other side. But what she truly desires is not revelation but intimacy – she wants simply to hold him close, as she did for so many years. Percy tells her that he misses her embrace as much as she does. Now, he assures her, she’ll be able to tell stories about his return. These tales won’t be true or false, he says, but they will be real. They will be as real as the life we shared together on this earth.
I can still see Malcolm winking at me. I can still feel my mother’s assuring embrace. I believe that our loved ones continue to reveal greater truth and call us toward a higher calling. It is from my experience as much as my faith that I know that our loved ones live on. For that is the power of a love that is real. Even death dare not diminish or defy such a force. We entrust them into the hands of our Creator, acknowledging that each of those beloved was first loved by God, created in God’s very image. So God is the strength of every heart, our Portion forever. Such is the timeless, eternal truth of a God who loves beyond time and space – whether seen or unseen – forever and ever. Amen.
Fr. William “Bill” Miller has served as Rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Covington since June of 2015. He is the author of three books: “The Gospel According to Sam: Animal Stories for the Soul,” “The Beer Drinker’s Guide to God: The Whole and Holy Truth about Lager, Loving and Living,” and “The Last Howlelujah: Tails from the Trail” (released on November 10th) He lives in Covington with his beautiful (soon to be) wife Sandy and six very lucky dogs. Learn more at: www.fatherbill.net or www.facebook.com/williammillerauthor.More
SPIRITUAL CONSISTENCY IN THE TIME OF COVID: A BENEDICTINE APPROACH
PART ONE: TOO BUSY TO PRAY?
My name is Bill and I’m a workaholic (Hello Bill). Years ago, good things were happening at my parish. Lots of creative, collaborative and contextual energy was transforming the congregation and we were growing like gangbusters. I was excited and exhilarated. But then, over time, I began to recognize that I was exhausted – so tired, in fact, I thought about retiring – at age 37! I realized that I was running on the fumes of the spirit, my prayer reservoir was drying up, and my spiritual spring had stopped flowing all the way to my soul. I knew that I needed more than a vacation (although vacations are awesome). I needed spiritual renewal. So, I booked a week-long retreat at an Episcopal Benedictine monastery in California.
I immediately settled into their balanced routine of prayer, work, study, and rest. The bell rang five times each day calling us to community prayer. I showed up for all of them, starting at 5:30 a.m. I read each morning and evening in their fabulous library. It was there that I fell in love with the Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis. I worked on my first book, “The Gospel According to Sam,” for several hours each day. Every afternoon I would either help the brothers with chores or go for a hike in the mountains nearby. After dinner, we observed silence through breakfast the next morning. It’s amazing what you can hear when no one is talking – including yourself.
Their consistent routine, disciplined, grounded in God, centered in prayer and scripture reading, changed me. I went home renewed and recommitted to a more balanced and prayerful beginning (indeed Benedict calls his Rule “a little rule for beginners”). But being the over-achiever that I was (ok, am), I started reading Benedictine spirituality extensively, teaching classes and leading retreats on the topic. I found myself advocating and sharing Benedictine spiritual principles, but failing to live them, failing to stay grounded in God and balanced in my faith. It was easy to return to my old tricks of trying to do too much, and being “too busy to pray.” When that attitude begins to manifest itself, you can be assured that your spiritual priorities are completely out of whack.
During the Pandemic, my salvation has been adhering to a daily routine not unlike that of my monastery friends. I get up at 5:00 every day and usually walk the dogs before 6:00. Being outdoors and getting exercise helps human even more than beast. Later in the morning, Sandy and I observe our devotional time together consistently. We pray and read the Daily Office or we read a chapter from Joan Chittister’s wonderful book on living out the basics of Benedictine spirituality each day. We always conclude with spontaneous prayers of our own. Doing these devotions together has brought us closer to God and to each other, and usually closer to at least one dog who attempts to pray with us!
I admit that there are still some days on which I have a plate that runneth over, days on which there is urgent church planning or imminent parish deadlines requiring long hours and my undivided attention. So I skip out on our prayers because “I have important work that must be done NOW.” Guess what? There is no more important work than spending time with God. And I’ve discovered (again) that on those days when I rush right on through to the tasks at hand, I’m less productive, less creative, and less connected – to my God, to my faith, to my partner, and to myself.
Sister Joan reminds us how taking time to pray transforms us into what God calls us to be: “The function of prayer is to change my own mind, to put on the mind of Christ, to enable grace to break into me….Prayer leads us and leavens us and enlightens us. And changes us. It makes us something bigger than we were.”
It also makes us something better than we were. Routine is not just an antiquated ritual. A daily, disciplined, balanced approach to spirituality that always includes time, place and space for prayer, reflection, listening and meditating on God’s Word and sacred works of those inspired by God – such a consistent schedule changes everything for the better.
“There’s no reason to become alarmed, and we hope you’ll enjoy the rest of your flight. By the way, is there anyone on board who knows how to fly a plane?” Elaine Dickinson, Flight Attendant, “Airplane” (The Movie)
During this extraordinary crisis, I am profoundly grateful for the smart, wise, and caring among us. I am also grateful to be an Episcopal priest with a Bishop who possesses all three of those qualities. Every Tuesday, the clergy of our Diocese participate in a Zoom meeting with our leader. He has brought in a host of experts to help us discern best practices during an extremely difficult time, including two infectious disease specialists who keep us updated with the latest research revelations and advice, and a therapist who helps to identify potential mental health challenges that are particular to “life in the time of COVID-19” so that we are pastorally prepared to meet the evolving needs of a community in flux amid uncertain times.
In addition to these helpful meetings, I try to stay informed about what is happening in the world of pandemics. However, I intentionally do not read anything sensational, or anyone who is obviously the exception to the rule. For example, I will trust the information if 95% of epidemiologists and infectious disease specialists advocate a specific understanding. Just like one can find any passage of scripture to support the most inane theological positions if one looks hard enough and is willing to forego context, one can also find a doctor here or there who does not know what the hell they are talking about, but will quite happily film it on YouTube and share it with the world. Not helpful. Listen to those who have done their homework and their research – those who remain open to evolutions of understanding and speak with a certain level of respect and awareness that things can, and do, change.
One of the more alarming developments taking place in our world is all of the self-taught (but not well-thought) “experts” who are happy to offer their opinions (or protests) about quarantine, social-distancing, viral infections and their spread. Quite frankly, I am not interested in their signs, slogans, or anything they have to say (or shout, in this case). I will trust those with intelligence, wisdom, and real compassion, thank you very much.
In the spiritual tradition, it is equally alarming to see how many folks can read the words and example of Jesus and yet choose to engage in thinking and behavior that could not be more diametrically opposed to the core values of the Christian faith. We find the priorities of Jesus in the Beatitudes, the Great Commandment, and the example of his life – one of selfless service, unconditional love, generous inclusion, and concern for the well-being of others. I am not sure where such “Christians” get their marching orders; perhaps they find it on YouTube from a few rogue ministers who have decided that they know better than Jesus. Or maybe they have that bumper sticker on their cars: “God is my Co-Pilot.” That’s a theology I’ve never quite understood–if you think of God as your co-pilot, you might want to consider changing seats. I’m pretty certain God’s a “driver’s seat” kind of traveler. I would trust God to pilot a plane (and my life) much more than I’d trust my own foolishness and limited perspective.
The practice of discernment and the seeking of God’s will is impossible if all we care about is telling God and the world how it’s gonna be and what we think. As Henri Nouwen reminds us in his writings about discerning God’s will, “to know God and God’s deepest desire for each of us is to be open to God’s call, to listen, pray, pay attention – to be willing to learn, grow, adapt, pivot and change.” Now (during this health and economic disaster) seems like a particularly important time to be intentional about seeking God’s will and guidance. Nouwen reminds us that: “Divine guidance can be found in the books we read, the nature we enjoy, the people we meet, and the events we experience. Through the practice of discernment, we can test our calling and find vocation. We can open our hearts to the divine presence. We can discover who we really are. And we can ascertain when to act, when to wait, and when to be led.” That’s not just smart advice – it’s also wise, spiritually-sound and God-centered.
When I was a little boy growing up in a devout religious family, we had a good friend who was an interesting character. Brother Harris Goodwin had sold his successful jewelry and antiques store in Hollywood to become a missionary in Latin America. I made many trips to Mexico and even lived in Honduras during the summer of my senior year in High School, working as a missionary apprentice – and learning a lot. When I was small, Brother Harris would travel to our home in Houston, share a meal with us and sometimes stay in our home. Whenever he was about to depart, he would take my hand in his and say, “Vaya con Dios, Billy.” Then he’d instruct me in the ways of God. He would remind me that “Vaya con Dios” means “Go with God.” He would point out that saying “May God go with you” assumes that you are leading God. Saying “Vaya con Dios” assumes that I am following God. Brother Harris would look me in the eye and encourage me always to follow God’s lead.
God is not my co-pilot and does not cater to my whims, desires, or limited understanding. God is not to follow me, I am to follow God; let God take the wheel, the future, or the pilot’s seat in the cockpit. Sounds like good advice to me. Beyond good, actually — it sounds downright divine.
Vaya con Dios,
TO LIVE IS TO FLY (New Beginnings in a
“To live is to fly
Low and high,
So shake the dust off of your wings
And the sleep out of your eye.” Townes Van Zandt
The great Texas singer/songwriter
Townes Van Zandt died tragically on January 1, 1997. I was living in Austin at
the time and a group of us gathered the next day at sunset on Town Lake under a
railroad bridge to read his lyrics and honor his memory. His life reads like a
sad country song – battling depression, addiction, and mental illness – all the
while penning poetry that likely saved others from his eventual fate. He once
said that his songs “aren’t sad, but hopeless” – a statement that may put the
pathos back in the pathetic or may leave just enough room for individual
interpretation. Guy Clark observed that his lyrics were always “sparse enough
to let you use your imagination.”
Recently I was back in Texas not far
from Austin, hanging out in a bar owned by a ZZ-Top lookalike character that
had chucked his “successful” career in Houston (where Townes got his start
playing for ten bucks a night) and opened a bar in Round Top. We slept in a
barndominium with a view of baby bulls, lulled to sleep by the call of cattle.
It was enough to reconnect me with my inner cowboy, and I tried to remember if
I’d left my boots in Marfa (and where I’d stashed my cowboy hat since moving
from Hawaii to New Orleans). It also made me fondly recall all those years in
Austin, celebrating the Texas singer/songwriter tradition.
In that sacred movement, there is no
holier man more revered than Townes, whom Steve Earle crowned “the best
songwriter in the world,” and adds for effect, “I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s
coffee table in my cowboy boots and say it!” Van Zandt’s own life gave him all
the material he’d ever need: a dozen stints in rehab will teach you all about
rising and falling, near-death and possible-resurrection, and dusting off your
wings while wiping the slumber from your eyes. Plus, he had a dog named
Geraldine, which proves there was a fine man residing inside all along.
On the way back to Louisiana from
Texas, I wanted to share his songs with a special person, so I played a few
selections from his tribute album titled “Poet.” If I had to pick a favorite,
it would likely be “To Live is to Fly,” an anthem for a new beginning in a new
year. “It don’t pay to think too much on things you leave behind,” Townes
sings. Sounds like that Night Prayer from New Zealand: “What has been done has
been done. What has not been done has not been done. Let it be.” Let it be and
leave it behind. Whether 2019 was a cause for celebration or a lost cause
altogether, it is now past. So, we move on. “We all got holes to fill” in every
year, Townes tells us, and “them holes are all that’s real.” He tells the
truth: “Some fall on you like a storm, sometimes you dig your own. The choice
is yours to make. Time is yours to take.”
The good news is that we have been
given the gift of time. We have all the time there is. What we do with it
remains to be seen. In this New Year, as in all years, there will be lows and
highs. Sometimes we’ll soar toward the heavens, other times we will crash and
burn. The better news is that the Creator has given each of us wings to fly and
eyes to see, the power to rise up and overcome what would drag us down, the
vision to see beyond the state of slumber that sleeps through its true calling
May this year find you wide awake and
aware of your wings. May you discover that to live is to fly.
There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a
quickening, that is translated through you into action, and because there is
only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it
will never exist through any other medium and will be lost. – Martha Graham
Every once in a while, America does something great. Take
PBS, for example, the Public Broadcasting System. PBS has made our lives, and
our children’s lives, better – from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood to Sesame
Street, from Great Performances to the Ken Burns documentaries. This
Sunday, my church near New Orleans is celebrating Sesame Street at 50
years. I can’t wait to preach a sermon on Cookie Monster! I also can’t wait for
the cookie reception immediately following the service!
There was a compelling moment in the recent Ken Burns film
on Country Music on PBS. A young Garth Brooks was trying to make it in
Nashville, performing mostly for tiny crowds in venues like The Bluebird. The
great Nashville producer, Allen Reynolds, heard Garth, liked what he heard, and
agreed to produce an album for him. As their recording session got going,
something didn’t sound quite right from Garth’s voice to Reynold’s ears –
Reynolds pushed the PAUSE button. When questioned, Garth told Reynolds that he
was just trying to “throw in a little of that George Strait sound.” And why not? George Strait was the King of
Country at the time and his albums sold gazillions of copies. Reynolds told the
young singer: “The world already has a George Strait. What we need is a Garth
What wisdom to live by – whether your name is Garth, or
George, or Tammy, or Emmylou. Whatever we are up to – recording an album,
teaching a class, preparing a meal, or raising a child – no one can do it quite
like you. No one else has your voice, expressions, experiences, perspectives,
personality – your calling is uniquely your own. Our Creator is so original in
his works that no creature is ever duplicated in precisely the same way. The
honest-to-God truth is that whatever you are – whatever your gift – the world
needs you. Not a version of you that tries to mimic somebody else.
Several years ago, I had the privilege of attending a
memorable concert in Las Vegas – just Garth Brooks and his guitar. A stripped
–down version of an artist sharing his stories and songs. Afterward, by the
grace of God and lax security standards, my buddy Ben and I were invited
backstage to have cookies and beer with Garth. He was kind, welcoming,
down-to-earth and interested. He asked me about my ministry, books and dogs.
There was no pretension, and no sense that, just because he was a gifted singer
who had achieved extraordinary success, he was any better or more important
than we were. I have always felt
strongly that when you appreciate people, you tell them, even if you’re not
sure they value your opinion. So just before we parted, I said to Garth: “Hey,
I just want you to know that I really do appreciate you – who you are, and what
you do – you make the world better, so thank you.” Garth Brooks looked me in
the eye and said, without missing a beat, and without a trace of insincerity:
“And I just want you to know that I really appreciate YOU – who you are and
what you do – you make the world a better place, so thank YOU.”
I will never forget that moment and will always treasure it.
Knowing that I have friends in both low and high places is the gift that keeps
on giving. Understanding that I can be myself and offer my unique gifts to the
world in my particular way is worthy of celebration. By the way, if no one has told you lately: I
appreciate you – who you are and what you do – you make the world better. Thank