Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011 Year End Inventory

As 2011 comes to a close, it’s always fun to look back on what I partook in. I keep a pretty thorough calendar, so the following is culled from glancing through my records of the past 12 months (this is what consumes time on a boring flight across the country). Here’s a sampling of what I was involved with this year…

WORK (It’s not so much a job as it is “a calling”):

7,856 needy third world children sponsored through 29 radio campaigns our

Radio Department at Compassion International organized

Represents approximately $17.9 million over the next 5 years for good health, education,

nutrition, clothing, Spiritual encouragement, and opportunities for these kids

$751,000 raised from Water of Life campaigns on 27 stations/networks that will provide

clean water for 13,600 families during their lifetimes.

5 radio marathons hosted in different cities

7 additional radio interviews regarding Compassion’s outreach

4 conventions/retreats

3 overseas trips as where I was group leader (Mexico, Nicaragua, and Guatemala)

96 conference calls


52 (including my 1,700th) flights going through 23 different airports covering 40,200


41 cities in 18 states and 7 countries

1 new country visited (Spain), for a lifetime total of 50.

16 different rental vehicles

19 different hotels

4,840 road miles while on the job/vacation

80 days on the road


60% finished with manuscript of my second book, tentatively titled, Riff Rock:

Confessions of a Not-So-Holy Roller

63 blogs for, Blogger, Facebook, MySpace

Over 5,000 e-mails/social networking posts


I read 34 books this year. Here are my faves…

What Good is God? Philip Yancey

Far and Away, Neil Peart

Jesus, My Dad, and the CIA, Ian Morgan Cron

Evolving in Monkey Town, Rachel Held Evans

Zion’s Christian Soldiers, Stephen Sizer

Dakota, Kathleen Norris

Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery, Eric


The Sermon on the Mount, Emmet Fox*

The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers*

58: Fast Living, Scott Todd

The Poverty and Justice Bible (at least 48 different authors) *


Also read…

Over 320 newspapers

Over 100 magazines

Over 150 articles on-line (research for book)

Over 500 Facebook Profiles

Over 6,000 e-mails/social networking messages


I saw 114 films in theaters and on DVD in ’11. Here are my faves….

True Grit

Black Swan

Rabbit Hole

The Illusionist

Of Gods and Men

Bill Hicks: American


Super 8

Tree of Life

Blue Like Jazz

The Help


Midnight in Paris

The Way

The Swell Season


Ides of March

Margin Call


The Descendents

We Bought a Zoo

NHL 24/7: Penguins vs. Capitals

Martin Luther King: Beyond the Dream

Stevie Wonder: Live at Last in London


Back and Forth: The Foo Fighters

Win, Win

Rush: Time Machine Tour


I purchased 35 CD’s and listened to hundreds more albums. Here are my new faves from ‘11

Transatlantic: More Never is Enough, Live in Tilburg and Manchester

Neal Morse, Testimony 2

e band, The E-Files, 1970-72

Patsy Moore, Expatriates

Foo Fighters, Wasting Light

Tally Hall, Good and Evil

Tally Hall, Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum

Shawn Phillips, Living Collaboration

Smalltown Poets, Christmas

David Wilcox: Live at Eddie’s Attic

I saw 49 concerts/speaking engagements…here are the most memorable:

Burlap to Cashmere, 3rd and Lindsley, Nashville, TN

Neal Morse Band, Hinton Hall, Murfreesboro, TN

Rush, Quicken Loans Arena, Cleveland, OH

Daniel Amos, Smyrna, TN

Bob Seger and Silver Bullet Band, Bridgestone Arena, Nashville, TN

U2/Florence and the Machine, Vanderbilt Stadium, Nashville, TN

Tally Hall, 3rd and Lindsley, Nashville, TN

Heywood Banks, Zanies, Nashville, TN

David Wilcox, Bluebird Café, Nashville, TN


45 Nashville Predator hockey games

41 gatherings of Curious Souls support group

92 business and/or friendship lunches

10th year as member of Servant Leadership Council for The Village Chapel

Interviewed for Gold Record: 50 Years of Nashville Hockey History DVD

12 parties/picnics

1 replastered/repainted dining room

1 new backyard garden yielding potatoes, lettuce, tomatoes, squash, okra, and carrots

1 lower abdominal hernia surgically repaired

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Rock Song of the Year

My selection for Rock Song of the Year is the Foo Fighter’s “Walk” from their album Wasting Light. Every time I hear this I am reminded of the story of the Prodigal Son that Christ told in the 15th chapter of Luke. Read the story then consider the lyrics from the point of view of the son as he realizes his forgiveness and the chance to start over as you listen to the song.

There was once a man who had two sons. The younger said to his father, 'Father, I want right now what's coming to me.'

So the father divided the property between them. It wasn't long before the younger son packed his bags and left for a distant country. There, undisciplined and dissipated, he wasted everything he had. After he had gone through all his money, there was a bad famine all through that country and he began to hurt. He signed on with a citizen there who assigned him to his fields to slop the pigs. He was so hungry he would have eaten the corncobs in the pig slop, but no one would give him any.

That brought him to his senses. He said, 'All those farmhands working for my father sit down to three meals a day, and here I am starving to death. I'm going back to my father. I'll say to him, Father, I've sinned against God, I've sinned before you; I don't deserve to be called your son. Take me on as a hired hand.' He got right up and went home to his father.

When he was still a long way off, his father saw him. His heart pounding, he ran out, embraced him, and kissed him. The son started his speech: 'Father, I've sinned against God, I've sinned before you; I don't deserve to be called your son ever again.'

But the father wasn't listening. He was calling to the servants, 'Quick. Bring a clean set of clothes and dress him. Put the family ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Then get a grain-fed heifer and roast it. We're going to feast! We're going to have a wonderful time! My son is here—given up for dead and now alive! Given up for lost and now found!' And they began to have a wonderful time (from The Message).

A million miles away

Your signal in the distance

To whom it may concern

I think I lost my way

Getting good at starting over

Every time that I return

I'm learning to walk again

I believe I've waited long enough

Where do I begin?

I'm learning to talk again

Can't you see I've waited long enough?

Where do I begin?

Do you remember the days?

We built these paper mountains

And sat and watched them burn

I think I found my place

Can't you feel it growing stronger?

Little conqueror

I'm learning to walk again

I believe I've waited long enough

Where do I begin?

I'm learning to talk again

I believe I've waited long enough

Where do I begin?


For the very first time

Don't you pay no mind

Set me free again

You keep alive a moment at a time

But still inside a whisper to a liar

To sacrifice but knowing to survive

The first to find another state of mind

I'm on my knees, I'm praying for a sign

Forever, whenever

I never wanna die

I never wanna die

I never wanna die

I'm on my knees

I never wanna die

I'm dancing on my grave

I'm running through the fire

Forever, whatever

I never wanna die

I never wanna leave

I'll never say goodbye

Forever, whatever

Forever, whatever

I'm learning to walk again

I believe I've waited long enough

Where do I begin?

I'm learning to talk again

Can't you see I've waited long enough

Where do I begin?

I'm learning to walk again

I believe I've waited long enough

I'm learning to talk again

Can't you see I've waited long enough?

(“Walk” by Foo Fighters from Wasting Light, 2011)

Here’s a version of the band playing it on Saturday Night Live. What passion from lead singer/composer Dave Grohl:

And just for good measure, an solo acoustic version by Dave Grohl :

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Risk of Birth, An Advent Poem

This is no time for a child to be born,

With the earth betrayed by war & hate

And a comet slashing the sky to warn

That time runs out & the sun burns late.

That was no time for a child to be born,

In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;

Honour & truth were trampled by scorn-

Yet here did the Saviour make his home.

When is the time for love to be born?

The inn is full on the planet earth,

And by a comet the sky is torn-

Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.

Madeleine L'Engle (1973)

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The First Time I Saw "It's a Wonderful Life"

It was a frigid night, Dec. 31, 1979. Thirty-two years have passed, but I remember it like it was yesterday. I had sulked-in to my empty apartment after yet another forgettable New Year’s Eve “celebration” with dozens of other lonely singles trying to mask our insecurities with loud music, bland party food, and tepid alcohol. I even made out with a girl I’d only met an hour earlier when the clocks and calendars made the big change. We played tonsil hockey for a while, but it was apparent that neither of our hearts were really invested.

My three roommates were out of town for the holidays and our place was somber. The existential ache made me restless despite the advanced hour. I flopped down on my bed and stared at the ceiling for a few moments; my deep sighs undergirded by the muted beating of my blue heart.

What am I doing with my life? What has it amounted to? I muttered to myself. In the stillness I pondered what Kierkegaard said, “We make merry noise at the beginning of each new year to distract ourselves from the macabre sound of grass growing over our graves.” The silence was deafening…an oppressive weight.

I leaned over to the dresser next to my bed and flipped-on the ten inch Zenith black and white TV to further distract my soul. I don’t know what I was expecting to find at 2:40 AM. There were only seven channels to choose from in Chicago back then, and several of them were already in test-pattern mode. But when I clicked over to Channel 32 on the UHF dial, I saw the beaming grin of Jimmy Stewart as he was describing the size of a globetrotting suitcase.

Oh, good ol’ Jimmy…I like the characters he plays, I thought. I always had an affinity for Stewart for his acting and choice of roles, but also because I was born in the same little hospital room in Indiana, PA that he was. My early years were spent in that county seat located an hour east of Pittsburgh, and always smiled in the realization that he had maintained that distinctive accent: “Awwww shucks. Whaaat’s in that bwox? “

Whether it was light comedy like The Philadelphia Story and Harvey, or westerns like Winchester 73 and Who Shot Liberty Valance, or dramas like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Rear Window, I loved the pathos that Jimmy brought to the screen. Having seen dozens of his films, many multiple times, I thought I was well versed on his repertoire. But as I watched for several minutes I realized I had never seen this one before. I didn’t have a TV Guide, and had no idea how far into the movie I was (turns out I had missed the first ten minutes or so).

Being drawn into the story of this loveable George Bailey, I crawled under my bedspread and settled-in. After one of the commercial breaks finished, an announcer said, “We now return to Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life.”

Hmmm, you learn something new every day, I thought. I had never heard of this one, but I was intrigued with how the narrative was unfolding: this likeable Everyman who kept making sacrifices for others but was feeling trapped by circumstances not allowing him to break out and do all that he had been dreaming of for decades.

I also found Donna Reed extremely fetching as Mary. Being a baby-boomer, I was quite aware of her television days as an All-American mom on The Donna Reed Show in the late fifties/early sixties, but had never seen her in her mid-twenties like in this film. What a dish! But beyond her lovely charms, I found myself drawn to her character, Mary Hatch, because of her humility, common sense, and commitment.

Different scenes with George registered with me on that first viewing:

  • - Interacting with his dad at the dinner table as they discussed breaking out of preconceived expectations.
  • - The kissing scene with Mary while they are sharing a phone receiver was so much more passionate and meaningful than the French session I had earlier that night that cute blonde.
  • - Dressing-down Mr. Potter while defending his father’s honor.
  • - Reasoning with clients not to lose hope at the Building and Loan when another bank run hit in 1933.
  • - Being greeted by his new bride in their formerly “haunted” home.
  • - His flaring temper while yelling at Uncle Billy over losing the money, as well as losing it with his children and then destroying all the architectural models and maps he had of his dreams in his den.
  • - Praying through tears at Martini’s Bar, then promptly getting punched in the mouth. “That’s what I get for praying,” he mumbled as he got off the floor from the blow.
  • - Once he is granted his wish that he’d never been born he begins to realize the interconnectedness of our lives.
  • - His wild gratefulness upon the dissipation of the frightening vision of a world without his life.
  • - The sheer exultation of all his friends and family so willing to come to his aid in a grave time of need.
  • - At the end, the celebration of a community.

As the film came to a close with that message from Clarence, his guardian angel, that “No man is a failure who has friends,” the tears were rolling down my cheeks. What a reminder that what we give for others is much more satisfying than anything we can try to posses or attain on our own.

The next day I drove over to my folk’s house for a New Year’s Day dinner, and asked them if they had ever seen It’s a Wonderful Life?

“Oh my, yes,” my Mom said. “That’s a good one, but most people have forgotten it.”

I set about researching everything I could find on this Capra classic. It was the first film Stewart did after returning from service in World War II. And even though it did reasonable business at the box office and received nice reviews, it was hardly a hit during its theatrical release. As the years passed, Stewart did dozens more films, and It’s a Wonderful Life was simply a slight blurb in his massive list of cinematic accomplishments, and all but forgotten by the time the 70s rolled around.

But then, with the proliferation of UHF stations coming on the scene, many programmers were looking to fill slots at holiday time. The folks at Liberty Films, who originally financed It’s a Wonderful Life, had failed to re-register their copyright, and the film became “public domain” in 1973. So, these upstart stations could air a film like that without having to pay any royalties. With each passing year, another few stations would add it into their holiday line-ups. It wasn’t considered one of Stewart’s big hits, so it was relegated to ultra-late night viewings.

And that’s what I stumbled across on that icy evening over three decades ago. I began telling all my friends about it. I located articles, interviews, short documentaries, and eventually a book that included the entire script and hundreds of photos from behind the scenes. More and more stations began playing it each season, and legions of others were discovering it for the first time as well. By the late 80s, it was considered essential Christmastime viewing by most everyone I know. In Stewart’s pantheon on great performances, it is now hailed as his best and most beloved. Writer/Director Frank Capra made many other Oscar-winning films. But he came to embrace It’s a Wonderful Life as his most treasured offering.

I’ve seen it at least forty times, and can recite nearly every line word for word. And it has now come full-circle in that it is once again gracing the silver screen at theaters across the country every Christmas season. There’s nothing like seeing it at Nashville’s historic Belcourt Cinema with hundreds of others all reveling in the common bonds of friendship, steadfastness, and sacrifice that are modeled so powerfully in this gift of a film. As the house lights come up with the singing of “Auld Lang Syne” and the Christmas bells ringing-out the exultation of a life well lived, most of us are wiping away tears of joy as we all smile knowingly to each other.

If you’d like to join me in seeing it yet again this year in Nashville, come to the Belcourt’s 7 PM showing (one of over two dozen in the week leading up to Christmas) on Friday, Dec. 23rd. We’ll meet in the lobby at 6:40 to try to sit together. Afterwards we’ll adjourn to Fido’s for coffee or hot chocolate to discuss what this movie stirs in each of us. To find out how to order tix in advance (recommended) go here:

Let me know if you’re coming so I can be on the lookout for ya. : )

Saturday, December 17, 2011

An Open Letter to Christopher Hitchens

I am saddened at the passing of Christopher Hitchens, who died two days at age 62 after a long bout with cancer. Here is a piece I wrote regarding Hitchens five years ago…

The new book of Mother Teresa’s personal letters entitled Come Be My Light, has created a stir because many of the confessional pieces she penned over a fifty year period of her ministry to the poor in Calcutta demonstrated that she at times had doubts about God. She asks hard questions, and wrestles with God’s silence towards her appeals for intervention and encouragement. Mixed in with these struggles, however, are many statements of her contentment, her trust in Jesus, and her devotion to God and what He called her to.

Christopher Hitchens, a political pundit, literature critic, and public statesmen for atheism (in fact, he is so aggressive in his vitriol about all things transcendent that he calls himself an Anti-Theist), was asked by Newsweek to write a commentary on Come Be My Light. An interesting choice by those editors, considering that Hitchens wrote a scathing appraisal of Mother Teresa’s life and ministry in his 1995 book, Missionary Position, where he alleged she was a fake and had considerable ties to unsavory political leaders. I mean, it’s akin to asking someone who has willingly cut off both arms and legs to give the critique on cycling to those who are riding. From a different perspective, wouldn’t Christopher find it strange if Pat Robertson were asked by Time to criticize the teachings of Madalyn Murray O’Hair?

Hitchens has carved out a slice of modern media attention with his writings and regular appearances on TV and radio. Many find him intimidating because he is blessed with a stout intellect, and utilizes his acerbic wit to argue cleverly. But in many ways, he has become the Anne Coulter or Janeane Garofalo of atheists…a wonk who makes a living by complaint and stirring the pot with shrill and sweeping accusations all intended to sell more books. All the while offering little to nothing in ways to actually improve the situation. It strikes me at times that they are the ilk that William James spoke of when he stated, “A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.”

I give Christopher credit for pondering issues deeply, and doing research on his opinions. But when all is said and done, his opinions on God in general, and Christianity in particular, are just that: opinions.

With that in mind, here is an open letter to Mr. Hitchens…

Dear Christopher,

I have heard you on many occasions, and have read a fair amount of your work. I appreciate your keen mind, and have often chuckled at your humorous observations on things political. I’ve even found some of your views on God, and the abuses of organized religion in His name to be stimulating.

But when it comes to your attacks on Mother Teresa, I am puzzled as to your relentless dogma. It seems odd, that someone like you who is so unsure about God’s existence and any set of moral rules in which to live by would simultaneously hold someone else so accountable for having any doubts. It would seem to me that you would actually rejoice that someone else had misgivings in their faith from time to time, rather than admonishing her.

However, my point in writing goes beyond that. From my perspective, and most anyone who has walked in faith for any amount of time, the very presence of doubt should be of great solace. I don’t think you realize that faith cannot exist without doubt. And, in your case, the opposite is equally true: you cannot have doubt without a little faith being present. In our human and finite condition, we most certainly are not capable of understanding infinite truth and all encompassing knowledge. Hence, we have created Science to study all that is before us, and often to hypothesize about where we are headed. We have Philosophy and Religion to try to put all these “unanswerables” into some narrative context…attempts to systematize our feelings. We have Art and Literature to creatively reflect upon the place we find ourselves in—both good and bad. I am thankful for that outlet for our angst or celebration.

You will have to admit, Christopher, that so much of what we find ourselves swirling around in, whether the greater cosmos or the complexity of the human heart, involves a degree of the transcendent—all that lies beyond the ordinary range of perception.

Finite minds cannot understand infinity. Period. Quit trying to act like you or anyone else can. It is beyond our scope of comprehension. This is where doubt comes in. If anyone of us feels we have fully arrived at complete understanding or all-encompassing divine revelation (or in your case, a lack of one) we are sorely deceived. As Frederick Buechner said, “whether your faith is that there is a God or that there is not a God, if you don’t have any doubts you are either kidding yourself or asleep.”

I like the way Oswald Chambers looked at it, and, I think with your inquisitive mind, you will as well: “Doubt is not always a sign that a man is wrong; it may be a sign that he is thinking.”

Even your fellow atheist, John Paul Satre, recognized this when he said, “a finite point has no meaning unless it has an infinite reference point.” But since he and the rest of us cannot clearly locate the reference point on our own, let alone understand it, we are hovering in the ether of uncertainty.

This is where faith in something bigger than our understanding comes in. The immensity and order of the known universe certainly point towards something or someone who set it in motion and gave it design. Most every scientist now adheres to the “Big Bang” theory…that the universe exploded outward in a blinding instant of massive creativity billions of years ago. So if it was created from nothingness…then it had to have an instigator…a creator.

Since neither you or I or anyone else in the brief 5,000 or so years of written human history were present for this event, we can only surmise as to the When and How. That is mind-boggling enough. But when we enter into the Who and (perhaps most perplexing of all) the Why questions, that is where we wrestle with ultimate meaning.

For a pure empiricist as yourself, Christopher, you stand by the viewpoint that “seeing is believing,” and that direct knowledge is the only real knowledge. My friend Jim Thomas responds this way:

The weakness of empiricism is that it would have to exclude knowledge of things we cannot taste, touch, smell, hear, or see such as magnetism, gravity, wind, electricity, hope, love, justice, or goodness. And ultimately, the principle “seeing is believing” would have to be excluded from empiricism as well, as it is a concept and not something one can “see.”

Belief relies on observation and experience, but it also adds the element of common sense based on human reason. Belief involves raw data coming in through the five senses, which is then organized by human reasoning, evaluated for credibility, discerned morally, and then, in the end, judged by a person’s common sense. Belief involves the senses, the mind, the will, and the heart of a person. They work together to convince us that something is true. There are varying degrees of conviction in our beliefs. These sometimes fluctuate, but ultimately we choose, either actively or passively, what we will believe. Of course, what we choose to believe does not in any way affect the nature of reality. We might very well believe things which are not true. Whether you believe in God or not does not alter whether or not God actually exists. But for the rational person, the goal would be to discover and believe those things which are true, those things which correspond with reality.

Knowledge and belief show up in many areas of our lives. I know there is a car parked in my driveway, But I believe that love between two people is something that is real even though it is often unpredictable and not as verifiable or consistent. I know that fire is hot, but I believe that murder is morally wrong.

In the sense in which I have defined the terms, belief is deeper than knowledge because belief involves more human faculties than knowledge does. This does not mean that belief and knowledge must stand opposite and against each other. To the contrary, to get to the truth of a matter, especially in terms of faith, they must stand side by side. As Blaise Pascal said “Faith indeed tells what the senses do not tell, but not the contrary of what they see. It is above them and not contrary to them.”

If one truly believes that there is no God, and hence, no source of rights and wrongs, morals, or even the unpredictable emotion we know as “love,” then they should never shed a tear due to death or suffering. Because to them, ultimately, a loved one’s death should have no more significance than a rock falling into the water, since there is ultimately no point or reason behind our existence.

Even your fellow atheist, Frederich Nietzche, hit the nail on the head when he said, “He who has a WHY to live can bear almost any HOW.”

Like muscle and bone, faith and doubt are intertwined into our souls. The skeleton needs the intertwining sinew, and those chords and the surrounding flesh would have no structure without the frame. That balance is crucial. One cannot exist without the other. It is not and either/or proposition. It is both/and. Rationality and emotion…hurt and healing…anticipation and arrival…faith and doubt. It often makes no sense, and certainly does not always feel right; but it is indeed what makes us fully human.

Because Mother Teresa has shown vulnerability in these letters and in her prayers (indeed, she was open about these haunting doubts in other writings and discussions over the years), makes her all the more human, despite the nearly super-human efforts she demonstrated on behalf of the poor. And it is misleading to try and make Come Be My Light into some sort of declaration of her apostasy for there are plenty of positive confessions of her deep and abiding love for God permeating those pages in between her dark nights of the soul.

The Bible is full of people who had doubts. David, whether he was a teenager experiencing God’s provision while escaping the wrath of jealous authorities, or when he eventually became king, left prevalent testimony of his deep anguish throughout the Psalms. Those poems that bemoan his pain and open acrimony towards God---those “Psalms of Lament--- make up 40% of that entire book. And despite that rancor, the Bible later refers to David as “a man after my God’s own heart.”

John the Baptist, who had been full of so much confidence in the message of the Messiah’s impending arrival, and even baptized Christ, later became full of profound doubt when he was imprisoned and about to have his head chopped off. He sent messengers to Christ asking hard questions about whether he was truly the promised one. In his response back, Jesus didn’t admonish or even reject John for having these doubts…but he encouraged him in the midst of his pain.

Look at Jesus himself. Ultimately, this is one of the very attributes that draws people to Christ, for even He wrestled with doubt. He agonized about His impending fate in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before his mockery of a trial and barbaric crucifixion. And while hanging beaten and bleeding on that Roman cross he cried out with bitter tears “My God, why have You forsaken me?!”

Christopher, as I read your works and listen to your complaints on television, I often wonder who might have disappointed you so greatly earlier in your life. I ponder if you felt forsaken somewhere along the way, or someone claiming to represent God might have hurt you deeply. My guess is this is so, because nearly every atheist I have ever met or studied is carrying profound anger and bitterness of this sort from earlier in their life.

I am sorry this may have happened with you. I hurt for you. I have felt similar anguish at times in my life. And even as a follower of Christ now, I still experience frustration and doubt. As Bono has said, “Being a Christian does not give me all the answers…if anything, it has given me a whole new set of questions.”

I am convinced that God encourages these questions. He is not threatened by our complaints. In fact, it would seem that he even invites them, or at least allows us the right to let him know we are not satisfied with the perplexity of being finite beings with souls that ache for infinite knowledge.

But this is where faith comes into the quotient. The strength of Mother Teresa’s faith is not found in her. It was not about how much faith she had in terms of volume or quantity. It was not about drumming up a level of emotional confidence. It was not about setting her mind on a fixed course and refusing all doubt. It was more about having a humble heart, one that admitted its weakness and looked to God for refreshment and strength. It was and is about her recognizing that the object of her faith (and doubt) was also the source of her faith.

My hope, Christopher, is that your questions haven’t transformed into set-in-stone attitude, because that would seem to be contradictory to your probing mind. You strike me as ultimately being curious. All I ask is that you allow others to be curious in their exploration of the transcendent…allow others to demonstrate weakness and doubt.

A one-time fellow atheist, the brilliant G.K. Chesterton, ended up reversing his belief after he was established as a writer and social commentator in turn-of-the century England. He sums up my point well: “The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man.”



Monday, December 12, 2011

The Wit, Whimsy, and Wonder of David Wilcox

A few nights ago, at the packed little artistic alcove of songwriting known as The Bluebird Café here in Nashville, I experienced David Wilcox in concert for the fifteenth time. And I was transported back to the first encounter twenty years prior at that very same locale. Very few musicians are endowed with the ability to elicit such a vast array of response and interaction. At times you can hear a pin drop, at others raucous laughter; at one turn there are sniffles as tears are fought off, and another there will be a sing-along that would make Phil Ochs proud.

In 1990, on a Compassion Artist Trip to Ecuador, my good friend Bob Bennett introduced me to David Wilcox via a cassette of his astounding major label debut on A&M Records, How Did You Find Me Here? I nearly wore the ferromagnetic oxide off that tape with repeated listens to songs about lost loves, youthful rebellion, grief, reviving dreams, relaxing in the wisdom of accepted tenderness, and longing for adventure amidst the mundane. It was like hearing James Taylor in the early 70s, but even better. Nothing was overplayed or buried in splashy arrangements; no wasted words…just the perfect verbiage and meter for each well-crafted line. It was the antithesis of everything that was going on in the music biz at that time, what with all the harpy hair metal, chest-thumping rap, and the overwrought balderdash of Michael Bolton, Taylor Dayne, or George Michael. Wilcox was such a breath of much needed fresh air.

When I heard he was coming to the tiny Bluebird, where he had been discovered, I bought several tickets, including one for Mr. Bennett, who was going to be in town for some shows in the area. Bob had heard that Wilcox was a fan of his music (David would sometimes play his “Carpenter Gone Bad”), and was excited to be able to see him for the first time, and perhaps even meet him. Right as we were arriving, I noticed David was chatting with some folks in the line outside the front door. Never one to be timid, I sauntered up and introduced myself, mentioning that Bob Bennett was with me. David’s eyes lit up. “Really?! Oh man, I dig his music so much!” I signaled for Bob to come over, and it quickly became a mutual admiration society.

As they visited, David asked about a particular chord progression on “Carpenter Gone Bad” that he had never been able to figure out. “Oh…that’s because we double tracked two guitar lines in the studio just at that point,” Bob explained.

“Well, that resolves it then!” David exclaimed, followed by his rambunctious, joy-filled laugh that has become so well known to his fans. “You don’t know how many hours I slaved trying to configure the fingering for that in the past decade! Let’s talk some more afterwards, OK?”

Bob, our mutual friend from Compassion Canada, Paul Sharrow, and I where then transported for several hours by Wilcox’s song craft, storytelling, and exquisite playing. Besides sharing all of the tunes from How Did You Find Me Here, he also played numerous other unreleased gems, and even recited folksy poems that held deep truths. Here’s one that sticks with me to this day…

"Wake up!" she said,

"You dreaming fool, 

Don’t throw your life away. 

Because life's too short and you're too smart 

To want to hurt yourself that way. 

And what's this talk about the fellow man? 

Look, its catch as catch can, understand? 

You muscle and struggle and get what you can 

Or you'll never get anywhere at all, young man. 

And what's this talk about loving everybody 

And trying to be a neighbor and helping out your brother? 

Oh, fine and dandy, but you're getting a little carried away," 
is what she'd say. 

She said, "I'm not saying that love ain't fine, 

But every little thing's got its place and time. 

Now there's people out there who want what's mine,

And they're going to try to take it away. 

So save your love for those who care, 

And buy some clothes and wash your hair. 

Just relax and don't you dare 

Start dreaming about saving the world." 

And Jesus said, "Yes, mom."

When the concert came to a close, he was given a two minute standing ovation…something not often seen in a cynical entertainment capital like Nashville, especially in a room full of songwriters.

Bob and I decided to stick around to hopefully visit some more with David. Once most of the crowd had filed out, there were just a handful of us left—mostly songsmiths. David then announced, “Let’s grab some chairs and circle up here on the stage. I wanna hear what each of you are creating.”

We all huddled on that tiny stage and took turns sharing songs. Some were pretty new to the genre, and Bob was certainly the most accomplished. That “guitar pull” (as it is known in the Music City) went on for another two hours. The camaraderie and mutual encouragement fostered by David was one of the most beautiful creative spaces I had ever been privileged to witness. On several occasions I looked at Bob and he back at me with tears welling in his eyes. It was nearly 1 AM when the club owner was the only staffer remaining…and we decided the fellowship needed to come to an end.

As I drove Bob back to his hotel, he was smiling, but quiet. After a few minutes, he declared, “You know, outside of my wedding day and seeing my children born, this has to be the most satisfying moment of my life.”

So, here I was two decades later in nearly the same seat as that first night in ’91. My hair is shorter and overtaken by more gray than the dark brown of yesteryear. David’s is noticeably thinning, and his smile lines are more pronounced. But the many journeys around the sun have deepened the timbre of his warm tenor, and his always-fluid guitar playing is so accomplished now that it is nearly perfection. In fact, even watching him change the strings in complex tunings after every song (sometimes utilizing two capos) in a matter of seconds is awe-inspiring in its own right. I have never seen anyone do it so often, so quickly, and with such precision all while nonchalantly speaking with his audience.

Normally Wilcox can pack out the five-times-larger Belcourt Theater when he comes to town now. I’m not sure why he chose to return for a one-off at this tiny eighty-person capacity club, other than for old time’s sake. In the course of two and a half hours he performed thirty-three songs, including five new ones, and one he had written in 1979. He told new stories and poems, and even did a hilarious seasonal street rap about Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer. Keeping with the holiday theme, he did a glowing cover of Mel Torme’s “Christmas Song” followed with bemused wonderment over the brilliance of the chord structures within.

Later in the set, as he was setting up yet another song with his trademark vignettes, he got frustrated with himself, saying “I feel like I’m interpreting for the metaphorically impaired. Someday I’ll learn to gift-wrap presents instead of describing them while giving.” With that thought in mind, here are some random notes I scribbled throughout the night, some taken from what he shared, others from my reactions…

I play guitars as shiny as a hearse.

There is evil cast around us, but it is Love that wrote this play.

The ocean grinds the stone.

It’s all rag water and blue ruin.

When it comes to debt, red is the new black.

Spin is the new no-need for proof.

Under these cobalt skies.

Rage is lazy, and “the edge” sounds dull; love like crazy…its wonderful.

Both the high view and the muddy miles.

No need to rush this drift along the river.

When the silence of sorrow won’t leave you alone.

From 2:45 to 4:15 AM, the Waffle House serves as some sort of intergalactic portal.

The waves of change are daunting; better learn to ride the waves. Surf’s up, dude.

Start with the coarse and take it down to fine.

I like putting pieces of a picture together instead of singing the same old bad news.

We keep playing poker in the panic.

I don’t get mad at poser surfers anymore, ‘cause the ocean is so big, it’ll work on ya.

We all need some musical medicine.

Songs are supposed to be about emotion, and not ideas…but here’s an idea song.

It’s impossible to get a snapshot of meaning.

You can’t capture wind in a box..

If a swan can have a song, then I think I know that tune.

Staring at a math problem that is trying to calculate the incalculable.

One hundred miles of vista represented by an inch.

The old guitars have their stories, but by now, so do I.

There is so much wit, whimsy, and wonder in a David Wilcox concert, that any of this seems like a first grader trying to diagram the inner workings of Hoover Dam. I’ll just leave it with some of David’s own words:

There's just too much view to capture

When we stand on sacred ground

Though my mind cannot explain it,

My heart's filled up to the sky

I know words could not contain it,

But I'm fool enough to try

(“No Telling Where” by David Wilcox from Airstream, 2008)