Saturday, October 28, 2006


Well, this "bi-vocational ministry" of music-making and home-making has been weighted pretty heavily toward the music-making lately, with 3 events this past week, finishing up the first "delivery" of new songs, and a painful learning process about converting recordings to mp3 files (though I now know how to make brand new audio files that sound remarkably like folk records from the 40s...)

So today it was time to focus on the home-making (actually "housekeeping"... OK, laundry, errands, and CLEANING UP...). It was brought to my attention, for instance, that I had 4 different deodorant sticks (tubes? bars?) scattered throughout the bathroom, three of them empty... Do you have any idea how long it takes to go through 3 of those things? Neither do I... I guess it really was time to tidy up. (Not to worry, the vital porcelain fixtures do get cleaned more often than that...)

This "work-life balance" thing is something about which we have been thinking and talking - and occasionally making some fairly major decisions - for quite a few years, it seems. By now you hear about it and read about it all over the place. It seems to me that even this way of framing it - as though "work" and "life" are separate and opposite and competing things - is a significant part of the problem.

That's one of the reasons why I like to use the language of "vocation"...

By the way, listening to Johnny Cash at San Quentin tonight (live recording of the 1969 concert at San Quentin Prison), I couldn't help but think back to the earlier post about "the lost art of lament" ("thanksgiving... and lament"). It seems to me that, for that context, Johnny Cash pretty much nailed it in that concert.

Not sure what the guards thought, though.


Tuesday, October 24, 2006


People often ask what inspires me to write songs.

My short answer: deadlines.

This usually generates a kind of giggle – as though I can’t be serious – or a look of vague disappointment.

But it’s true, and always has been, for me.

I wrote songs – pretty bad ones – for a while in high school, but I started writing more regularly during my university years when friends started to get married and I wanted to sing something at the reception. So there I’d be, the night before, putting something together to be sung once, and then no more. Good fun, and sometimes (if I was lucky) a lot of laughs, or even an occasional poignant “Hmmm…”

I kept writing songs now and then, and when they “worked” they tended to be for a particular audience, for a particular purpose, but they often had fairly indeterminate contexts and deadlines (and, I’d say, fairly indeterminate results…).

Then I started writing songs for the use of the church. Specifically, songs of faith that we can sing with our children – that I could sing with my son - and that would be accessible and engaging and meaningful for children as well as grown-ups. Songs that are intended as tools for the church in its mission. Somehow, for me, that’s what “cracked it open” and the songs have come gushing out (or sometimes more slowly streaming, if there are no particularly pressing “deadlines”) ever since…

“We really need a song to sing when…”

“We’re planning this event… exploring this theme… struggling with this issue… and it would be great if we had a song that could help us to…”

“This is something (a concept, a passage of Scripture) that we REALLY NEED TO SING in these days…”

Ahhh... this is, literally, “music to my ears.” This is what inspires me to write songs. So I suppose it's not really about “deadlines,” but about contributing my particular gifts to a common cause, a common purpose that I believe in and to which I have dedicated my life. (This may be where you want to read the SmallTall Music mission statement… or not…)

Now I’m not saying that this is how it is or ought to be for everybody. Lots of people do art that comes from lots of different places and motives and processes – thank God! I’m just describing how it is for me.


Saturday, October 21, 2006

what does it mean?

Judging by a couple of initial responses to my last post, I'm curious about what else people might think that little poem means. I'm inclined to say, in the words of a thoughtful person whom I greatly respect (OK, it's me...):

"How should I know what it means? I only wrote it. "What it means" is for the community to decide..."


This evening we're gathering from all around the GTA for 3 hours of walking through Acts 1 and 2 together - eating, praying, singing, telling stories... and waiting to see what the Spirit might say and do... Kinda scary, but I'm looking forward to it.

I'm also figuring on trying out a new Pentecost song...

"...Amazed and confused, they kept asking each other, "What does this mean?"..." (Acts 2:12)

"...When the people heard this, they were deeply troubled and said to Peter and the other apostles, "What shall we do?"..." (Acts 2:37)

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

the quiet

This is an exceptionally busy week, as I'm working toward deadlines on a number of fronts: my first "delivery" of new songs and resources to the members of SmallTall Music is due by the end of the month (the songs and resources are ready - not all the notation and audio files are)... I'm meeting with some folks on Thursday to share some new tunes and ideas and to get their feedback... and we're preparing for a joint GTA (Greater Toronto Area) worship service on Saturday, where I'm leading the singing...

So in the middle of all this, I'll leave you with a little something that I wrote a while back:

It was not until

     I began to make a living

          by making noise

     that I came to love so much

the quiet.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

becoming the change

A few months before we moved to Stouffville, I discovered that some neighbours down the street had yerba mate (a traditional green tea of Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina) every afternoon from 3:30 to 4:30. Their friends and family all knew they were welcome, any day they happened to be around or felt like stopping by, and there would always be tea and conversation.

After joining in a few times I thought to myself: “What would this world be like if we all stopped for an hour, every afternoon, and drank tea, and talked with one another…?” And, recalling some wise words (“You must become the change you wish to see in the world” – Gandhi; “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single… um…coffee…” – Confucius, I think…), I decided then and there to make a change. To transform my life and the world around me.

To make conversation and hot beverages more of a priority.

So far, so good. There are various people with whom I have coffee regularly, and for whom I am very grateful... Last night I enjoyed conversation with some folks that get together now and then to talk about things musical, artistic, and churchly (though I didn’t so much enjoy the four and a half hours it took me to get home… traffic on the 401… don’t ask) … My son and I sit down for a snack and conversation when he gets home from school…

But I’ve had much less success finding someone close by who enjoys yerba mate. My spouse, for example, says it tastes like hay.

What happens when “the change you wish to see” tastes like hay?


Friday, October 06, 2006

thanksgiving... and lament

I received an e-mail this week from a friend who works as chaplain at a hospital in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania – the hospital which received the Amish girls who were shot on Monday morning in their school house.

I can only imagine what that must have been like. Actually, I can’t.

So as the Canadian Thanksgiving weekend approaches, I have been re-reading an article by John Bell (of the Iona community) called “The Lost Tradition of Lament.” (Sorry I couldn’t find a link to an online version – I have it as a chapter in the book “Composing Music For Worship,” edited by Stephen Darlington and Alan Kreider). He begins his article with a brief description of a school shooting on March 13, 1996, in Dunblane, Scotland, when a gunman “opened fire on classes of children in the school gymnasium, killing sixteen children and one teacher.”

And then, Bell says, “On Sunday 17 March 1996, throughout Scotland, if not further afield, ministers and worship leaders of all traditions were forced with a dilemma – how to reflect a nation’s anguish in liturgy and song.”

How, indeed. What can we sing at a time like this? What MUST we sing? And what is appropriate to say – and to sing – with our children?

I have been musing about this for some time. In part, I suppose, because writing songs as I do for “small and tall” to sing together, I am very aware of the kind of relentlessly upbeat tone that is so often expected of anything that’s considered “music for kids.” And while I've written songs in different "modes" (I'm thinking, for instance, of songs like "Thank You" and "Beloved Child" and "You're Not Alone"), I've never intentionally worked at writing in the form of lament.

Here's a song for worship that a friend wrote in response to 9/11, and an article by another friend in response to the recent campus shootings in Montreal.

I would love to hear from you. What resources are you aware of? What could we – should we – be singing together at such times?

John Bell’s article highlights a number of hymn texts, Scripture passages (such as Psalm 130 and Job 38), as well as a text that he wrote after a conversation with a couple whose baby died an hour after birth. He wrote this in part because of the realization that “what compounded their sorrow was not having anything to sing at the child’s funeral that represented where they were before God…” and that “their sense of abandonment by the liturgy of the church is not isolated.”


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Tuesday, October 03, 2006


On Sunday I played at the Food and Faith Festival at the Steckle Farm in Kitchener, and my belt squeaked.

You wouldn’t think this would be a big deal, but you have to understand – I’m playing a new guitar (built by Phil, a friend of mine) that is astonishingly resonant (I have to wait around all morning for the last chord to finish ringing before I can make myself some lunch)… and I’m also wearing a new belt that I bought for $5 at the Markham Fair (the old one is falling apart, so not very useful anymore, at least for holding up pants)… and it turns out that the leather on the belt is remarkably resonant as well… and I couldn’t help but wonder if those squeaks I was hearing from my side of the guitar were being amplified through the instrument… and again through the mics and speakers…

Nobody mentioned it to me (the people were very kind), but I felt self-conscious all the same…

The Festival was great, by the way. Prayers and songs and stories and workshops and conversations – all about food, where it comes from, how it’s grown, distributed, consumed… why it matters… And I got to try out a few new songs too.

Brenda Knechtel, who runs a thirty member CSA ("Community Supported Agriculture" organic farm) near Wellesley, shared this quote that she came across somewhere:

“You’re only as healthy as the food you eat, and your food is only as healthy as the soil where it’s grown.”

And the Food Localism and Food Globalism workshop asked this question: "Can spending more for food really be better for everyone, including me?"