As the Deer

Here is a cover of the classic 1991 Maranatha Christian praise song, loosely based on Psalm 42. It’s always been one of my favorites, even though more than a few renditions of it veer into cheesiness. A few days ago, I was listening to the Broken Record Podcast and I heard musician Nathaniel Rateliff and host Bruce Headlam ridiculing this song while Nathaniel recounted his fundy childhood. Well, I’m sorry but I really don’t think this song sucks as much as they say and so I decided to take a stab at producing an honest version of how I hear it. I hope you enjoy it. If you want to sing along, vanilla slides are provided.

This is my second attempt at recording a song in Logic. I’m fairly happy with how some of it turned out, but I feel like the compression and EQ on both the vocals and especially the guitar are lacking. At some point I just had to say “stop” and ship it and move on to the next thing. For the synth pads (which I’m a complete sucker for) I used Air Hybrid.

Some simple sing-along worship videos for church

Since the start of the COVID-19 virus lockdown a little over a month ago, our local church has been recording video sermons and posting them online Sunday morning, along with some announcements and an occasional testimony or scripture reading. That has all been just fine, but for worship music a YouTube playlist has been provided. The list of 3-4 songs is picked by our usual worship team leaders so they are ones everyone knows. Unfortunately, they’ve been nigh impossible to sing along with.

These are usually the official recordings or live performances of contemporary groups like Hillsong or Bethel or Chris Tomlin. They sound great. They look cool. And they are nearly impossible to sing along with, let alone “worship” along with, whatever that means. They are highly produced and usually include no lyrics. When they do include lyrics, it’s usually accompanied by busy moving sappy stock nature video, making it hard to read and visually distracting. This stuff is just fine for what it is, but it’s not for congregational singing. It’s been driving me nuts so after the first week we didn’t even try to use the provided playlist but rather sang the same songs or similar in the house with our own piano, guitar, or whatever else was around.

This week was my turn to pick songs for the Sunday worship playlist so I decided that instead of complaining, I’d try to remedy the situation by recording some really vanilla straight-ahead versions of tunes and then putting really simple slides over them. The idea was to make them easy to sing along with in your living room. I think they turned out alright.

I sang and played guitar, my wife sang and played piano, and my oldest daughter played violin and whistle. They were recorded in one take, on one track, with a stereo mic. Assuming they are well received, we’ll hopefully do some more next time!

Understanding death and resurrection

It’s Good Friday of Holy Week here in the disease quarantine that is spring 2020. I’m reading the Lenten meditations of James Kennedy in his book on Lindisfarne, the Holy Island. I’m going to quote from the passage today at length and add a few things.

Popular science guru Neil deGrasse Tyson appears in a new Master Class advertisement that’s playing a lot these days saying:

One of the great challenges in life is knowing enough to think you’re right but not enough to know you’re wrong.

He’s said the same in various tweets and interviews over the years. And he’s right! But this quote is pretty rich coming deGreass Tyson, a guy who’s made his entire career on doing just that – talking with faux-authority about crap he knows nothing about. He understands contemporary astrophysics really well. That’s great. But that knowledge often doesn’t translate well into other branches of science, and especially into psychology, philosophy, politics, economics, and theology, but that’s never stopped him from running his mouth non-stop to become one of the contemporary prophets of scientism. He’s easy to ignore though. I don’t need to pay $180 for his online video course.

Closer to home, it’s discouraging to me when pastors and Evangelical Thought Leaders do the same thing. Some do so while feigning modestly or even embedding literal prayers for humility in their talks or writing. Everyone needs to take their own advice on intellectual humility a bit more seriously. The fact is, the world contains a mountain of things that cannot be explained. Many of these things we can observe and know are real (in our heads or hearts/souls or both), but articulating exactly how they work is a much taller order. What the Resurrection of Christianity is, is one of those things:

Paul spends half the fifteenth chapter of I Corinthians trying to answer the question, “How are the dead raised up?” But to explain how the dead are raised up is as difficult as giving exact answers to questions concerning the intricate workings of nature, the fascinating discoveries of science, or even the composing of a symphony.

It would be just as simple to ask, and equally impossible to answer, how does the heart beat or how does the eye see? We could give a word picture of the eye, for example, this unique member of the body, without which man would walk in darkness. We could liken the eye to a camera which takes pictures, colored pictures and moving pictures, without once reloading, and which focuses automatically in any light, at any distance. We could note that it also develops, prints, and files away countless pictures as mental images in a vast “morgue.” But when the description is finished we still don’t know how such a complex instrument could have been conceived and executed. But it was, for God was adequate to do it. Man’s knowledge, or lack of it, does not affect his seeing. It would be foolish of any man, wouldn’t it, to say “I don’t believe it,” just because he can’t understand how the eye can possibly see?

Or take atom smashing. It is “old stuff” now, but just ask a scientist to explain what happens when an atom is smashed. He will probably say that the atom is not smashed or split at all, that it is transmuted into radiant energy. Atom smashing, which brings to mind an infinitesimal speck disappearing into nothingness, is really a process which releases something the scientists call “radiant energy,” and the atom is not destroyed at all, but transmuted, changed from one form to another.

Man can describe such miracles as sight and nuclear fission, but he cannot explain them.

So it is with the resurrection life and the question, “How are the dead raised up?” Inconceivable as all this is to finite minds, men have clung to the faith that continued existence and growth in some form after death are part of God’s plan and in them is the fulfillment of man’s deep-seated longing for completion.

God has planted within men their longings and their needs. He has also provided the means for satisfying them. The Christian faith declares that God is sufficient to satisfy all human hunger, whether for physical food or for hope beyond the curtain of time, and that men can trust Him.

Paul’s illustration of the seed dying and bringing forth life in a new kind of body is good, and refers to the spiritual body as well as the physical. “That which thou sowest is not quickened, except it die.”

Men are told that physical matter is never destroyed, but only changes its form, which is its death and resurrection, and no one questions this fact. Is it any less easy to believe that Spirit, which makes fleshly matter vibrant and creative, is not wasted eternally, but changes its form, and goes through a similar death and resurrection by God’s grace? One of the famous Compton brothers, the physicist, tells us that “Science has found no cogent reason for supposing that what is of importance in a man can be buried in a grave,” and he might have added, “forever dead.”

This was written in 1957 – a little over 60 years ago. The analogy of “smashing atoms” to describe nuclear fission was dropped long ago. I think it was already pretty much out of fashion when I was a kid in the 1980s. The analogies you hear to describe it today probably won’t be kicking around a century from now as our understanding of it improves and scientists continue to ferret out the details in more recently-built large particle accelerators. Our ways of thinking and talking about theology have of course come a long way too since the first century but they still don’t get anywhere close to uncovering the mysteries of the deep things of God. And that’s OK. We don’t have to understand something all the way or even half the way for it to be very true.

Live from Quarantine, Scottish folk ballads

1. Is There For Honest Poverty?
2. My Parents Raised Me Tenderly
3. Sweet Afton
4. Battle of Waterloo
5. Glenlogie
6. Shebeg Sheemore
7. How Can I Keep From Singing?
8. Pretty Saro
9. The Apprentice Boy
10. The Bonnie Banks o’ Fordie
11. Sir Patrick Spens
12. Concordiances
13. The Wild Geese
14. Celtic Wedding Intro
15. The Party

A lot of these are Scottish ballads I ripped off from Jim Malcolm (imitation is the sincerest form of flattery!). Some are also covers of John Doyle, Nickel Creek, and even Enya. We’re all trapped at home right now course, so there was nobody to listen at the time. It’s “live” because I did the whole thing in one take so it’s pretty rough around the edges. I even threw in some fake crowd noise for fun.

The Wild Geese

This month, I’ve been learning to play and sing the the song The Wild Geese, as performed by Jim Malcolm in this recording:

Most of the challenge has been in getting a good sound on the harmonica while it’s strapped to my face with a rack. That requires all the brain power so the guitar part needs to be utterly automatic.

Anyway, I really love this song. It was written by the poet Violet Jabob in 1915 and turned into a song by folk singer Jim Reid sometime in 60s or 80s. The lyrics is posted below. The song is in Scots English, which is about 70% English, but with just enough oddly-pronounced loan words to make it kind of hard to understand.

“Oh tell me fit was on yer road, ye roarin Norland wind?
As ye come blawin frae the land that’s never frae ma mind.
Ma feet they traivel England but I’m deein for the North.”
“Ma man, I saw the siller tides rin up the Firth o Forth.”

“Aye wind, I ken them weel eneuch an fine they fa and rise,
And fain I’d feel the creepin mist on yonder shore that lies.
But tell me as ye pass them by, fit saw ye on the way?”
“Ma man, I rocked the rovin gulls that sail abin the Tay.”

“Bit saw ye naethin leein wind afore ye come tae Fife?
For there’s muckle lyin ‘yont the Tay that’s mair tae me nor life.”
“Ma man, I swept the Angus braes that ye hivna trod for years.”
“Oh wind, forgie a hameless loon that canna see for tears.”

“And far abin the Angus straths I saw the wild geese flee,
A lang, lang skein o beatin wings wi their heids toward the sea,
And aye their cryin voices trailed ahint them on the air.”
“Oh wind, hae mercy, haud your wheesht for I daurna listen mair.”

The Anglicized version is a bit easier to understand:

“Oh tell me what was on your road, you roaring Norland wind?
As you come blowing from the land that’s never from my mind.
My feet they travel England but I’m dying for the North.”
“My man, I saw the silver tides run up the Firth o Forth.”

“Oh wind, I ken them well enough and fine they fall and rise,
And fain I’d feel the creeping mist on yonder shore that lies.
But tell me as ye pass them by, what saw ye on the way?”
“My man, I rocked the roving gulls that sail above the Tay.”

“But saw ye nothing, lying wind, before ye came to Fife?
For there’s much lying beyond the Tay that’s more to me than life.”
“My man, I swept the Angus braes that you havn’t trod for years.”
“Oh wind, forgive a homeless lad that cannot see for tears.”

“And far above the Angus straths I saw the wild geese flee,
A long, long skein of beating wings with their heads toward the sea,
And aye their crying voices trailed behind them on the air.”
“Oh wind, have mercy, hold your tongue for I dare not listen more.”

The song is about a Scottish man living in England who is longing for his homeland. Nearly every other line mentions specific places in Scotland. Alas, I’ve never been to any of these places named, nor even traveled to the UK. I have zero personal or emotional connection to anything literally mentioned in the song. I also don’t miss and yet the song is in fact very emotional for me. It’s easy, by analogy, to use the speaker’s loneliness and longing as a stand-in for your own. I don’t long for my homeland (The Pacific Northwest), because I’m still here, but I do long for my REAL home.

Just last night I read in Dante’s Purgatorio (canto 28), the lady explaining how the longing for another place spoken of by poets is often a sort of genetic memory of our time in Eden:

Those who in ancient times have feigned in song
The Age of Gold and its felicity,
Dreamed of this place perhaps upon Parnassus.
Here was the human race in innocence;
Here evermore was Spring, and every fruit;
This is the nectar of which each one speaks.

Incidentally, as I going for a walk around the edge of town a few nights ago, the sound of real wild geese cut through my noise-cancelling headphones and made me stop in the dark and listen to an unseen flock of them by the creek. I recorded this with my phone, and though nothing is visible the flowing water and the honks are rather enchanting!


Books from my childhood: Lost Mines and Treasures

The first book I ever picked out and bought on my own was Lost Mines and Treasures of the Pacific Northwest. I was hitting yardsales on a Saturday morning with my mom. I think I must have been about eight years old. It’s still one of the only books I own on local history. I don’t even remember reading it, but it had the coolest map ever on the inside cover! (click to zoom in)


Books read in 2019

African Religion and Philosophy, John Mbiti
Tales of the Kingdom, David and Karen Maines (read aloud to the kids, 3rd time)
The Music Lesson, Victor Wooten
With Open Hands, Henri Nouwen
Something Beautiful for God, Malcolm Muggeridge
The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien (read aloud to the kids, 2nd time)
The Message in the Bottle, Walker Percy (partial)
On the Edge of the Primeval Forest, Albert Schweitzer
After You Believe, N.T. Wright (partial)
The Boys in the Boat, Daniel James Brown (read aloud to the kids, mostly)
Dune, Frank Herbert
The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown
Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer, by Rowan Williams
Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, Rene Girard (2nd time)
Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain
Waiting for God, Simone Weil
Advent, Flemming Rutledge (partial)

I read fewer books this year, and in particular read fewer aloud to the kids due to some logistic problems that have yet to be sufficiently solved. I have also broken away from the practice of fervently finishing every book I start. Some didn’t even make this list.

Training attention in academic studies as training in prayer

The following are some excerpts from Simone Weil’s “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God” that I found particularly interesting.

The key to a Christian conception of studies is the realization that prayer consists of attention. It is the orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable toward God. The quality of the attention counts for much of the quality of the prayer. Warmth of heart cannot make up for it.

Of course school exercises only develop a lower kind of attention. Nevertheless, they are extremely effective in increasing the power of attention that will be available at the time of prayer, on condition that they are carried out with a view to this purpose and this purpose alone. Although people seem to be unaware of it today, the development of the faculty of attention forms the real object and almost the sole interest of studies. Most school tasks have a certain intrinsic interest as well, but such an interst is secondary. All tasks that really call upon the power of attention are interesting for the same reason to an almost equal degree.

If we concentrate our attention on trying to solve a problem of geometry, and if at the end of and hour we are no nearer to doing so than at the beginning, we have nevertheless been making progress each minute of that hour in another more mysterious dimension. Without our knowing or feeling it, this apparently barren effort has brought more light into the soul. The result will one day be discovered in prayer. Moreover, it may very likely be felt in some department of the intelligence in no way connected with mathematics. Perhaps he who made the unsuccessful effort will one day be able to grasp the beauty of a line of Racine more vividly on account of it. But it is certain that this effort will bear its fruit in prayer.

So it comes about that, paradoxical as it may seem, a Latin prose or a geometry problem, even though they are done wrong, may be of great service one day, provided we devote the right kind of effort to them. Should the occasion arise, they can one day make us better able to give someone in affliction exactly the help required to save him, at the supreme moment of his need.

With all the hyper-focus on utility, ROI, and job-skill training that has taken place in in the West in recent decades, this view on the nature and value of academic study sounds very foreign to our ears. And yet, on reflection of my own ~16 years of study in school and more years out of it, I think I agree.

What were the most valuable exercises I ever worked on in school? Keeping my eyes trained on the conductor during a 2.5 hour orchestra rehearsal. Reading every word of an essay out-loud a hundred times so as the tweak the rhetoric and even the sounds of the words until they were as true, convincing, and even beautiful as I could make them (in my limited skill and experience). Reading a really long and dense book slowly and trying to figure out what was being said. In all these cases I failed. My eyes strayed from the conductor. I let some clunky passages in my essay slide. I only understood maybe 15% of the heavy book. And none of these challenging exercises ever directly earned me a dime. I’ve never been a professional musician. I’ve never written a long speech or essay like that for my job. I’ve never learned any computer programming from digesting long books on the subject (sorry Donald Knuth!).

Looking back though, now that I’m nearly 40 years old, these were the very best things I ever did in school. They developed my attention, which has yielded truckloads of fruit. These things also, as Weil suggests, have taught me to pray better. And that’s solid gold.

“And forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors” from Simone Weil’s comments on the Lord’s Prayer

I’ve seen Simone Weil referenced by numerous writers over the years, but I’ve never read any of her work myself. I just got a hold of a short anthology and cracked it open. At first glance it seems that Weil is what Thomas Merton would have become if he had been a woman and become a professor instead of a monk. The similarities are many. Both were born in France only a few years apart form each other. Both had a dramatic conversion to Christianity in their twenties. Both died far too early. Their writing style appears to be similar as well.

This is just a preface to say that I was arrested by some of her commentary on the Lord’s Prayer. This passage in particular is just dynamite! I’m going to just leave it here without further comment.

“And forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors.”

At the moment of saying these words we must have already remitted everything that is owing to us. This not only includes reparation for any wrongs we think we have suffered, but also gratitude for the good we think we have done, and it applies in a quite general way to all we expect from people and things, to all we consider as our due and without which we should feel ourselves to have been frustrated. All these are the rights that we think the past has given us over the future.

First there is the right to a certain permanence. When we have enjoyed something for a long time, we think that it is ours and that we are entitled to expect fate to let us go on enjoying it. Then there is the right to a compensation for every effort whatever its nature, be it work, suffering, or desire. Every time that we put forth some effort and the equivalent of this effort does not come back to us in the form of some visible fruit, we have a sense of false balance and emptiness which makes us think that we have been cheated. The effort of suffering from some offense causes us to expect the punishment or apologies of the offender, the effort of doing good makes us expect the gratitude of the person we have helped, but these are only particular cases of a universal law of the soul.

Every time we give anything out we have an absolute need that at least the equivalents should come into us, and because we. need this we think we have a right to it. Our debtors comprise all beings and all things; they are the entire universe. We think we have claims everywhere. In every claim we think we possess there is always the idea of an imaginary claim of the past on the future. That is the claim we have to renounce.

To have forgiven our debtors is to have renounced the whole of the past in a lump. It is to accept that the future should still be virgin and intact, strictly united to the past by bonds of which we are ignorant, but quite free from the bonds our imagination thought to impose upon it. It means that we accept the possibility that. this will happen, and that it may happen to us in particular; it means that we are prepared for the future to render all our past life sterile and vain.

In renouncing at one stroke all the fruits of the past without exception, we can ask of God that our past sins may not bear their miserable fruits of evil and error. So long as we cling to the past, God himself cannot stop this horrible fruiting. We cannot hold on to the past without retaining our crimes, for we are unaware of what is most essentially bad in us.

The principal claim we think we have on the universe is that our personality should continue. This claim implies all the others. The instinct of self-preservation makes us feel this continuation to be a necessity, and we believe that a necessity is a right. We are like the beggar who said to Talleyrand: “Sir, I must live,” and to whom Talleyrand replied, “I do not see the necessity for that.”

Our personality is entirely dependent on external circumstances which have unlimited power to crush it. But we would rather die than admit this. From our point of view the equilibrium of the world is a combination of circumstances so ordered that our personality remains intact and seems to belong to us. All the circumstances of the past that have wounded our personality appear to us to be disturbances of balance which should infallibly be made up for one day or another by phenomena having a contrary effect. We live on the expectation of these compensations. The near approach of death is horrible chiefly because it forces the knowledge upon us that these compensations will never come.

To remit debts is to renounce our own personality. It means renouncing everything that goes to make up our ego, without any exception. It means knowing that in the ego there is nothing whatever, no psychological element, that external circumstances could not do away with. It means accepting that truth. It means being happy that things should be so.

The words “Thy will be done” imply this acceptance, if we say them with all our soul, That is why we can say a few moments later: “We forgive our debtors.”

The forgiveness of debts is spiritual poverty, spiritual nakedness, death. If we accept death completely, we can ask God to make us live again, purified from the evil in us. For to ask him to forgive us our debts is to ask him to wipe out the evil in us. Pardon is purification. God himself has not the power to forgive the evil in us while it remains there. God will have forgiven our debts when he has brought us to the state of perfection.

Until then God forgives our debts partially in the same measure as we forgive our debtors.

Assuming God is dead because we forgot how to talk about him

Nietzsche famously said, “God is dead. And we have killed him”.

I’ve been reading Hannah Arendt’s The Life of the Mind lately though and early on I think she more or less describes what is really going on:

…it may be wise to reflect upon what we really mean when we observe that theology, philosophy, metaphysics have reached and end – certainly not that God has died, something about which we can know as little as about God’s existence (so little, in fact, that even the world “existence” is misplace), but that the way God had been thought of for thousands of years is no longer convincing; if anything is dead, it can only be the traditional THOUGHT of God. And something similar is true of the end of philosophy and metaphysics: not that the old questions which are coeval with the appearance of men on earth have become “meaningless,” but that the way they were framed and answered has lost plausibility.
-Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind, p.10

So it’s not that God died, but rather that we no longer know how to talk about God – how to “frame” questions about meaning and metaphysics. Is this a loss or a gain? The priests of secular atheism today simple declare it was obviously a gain and quickly dismiss any remaining whiff of them in the air. But is LOSING the words and thoughts to even imagine a subject a gain? No matter what is being talked about, it sounds like a loss to me.

Imagine a high-concept science fiction novel where generations of humans are raised by increasingly intelligent robots. Along the way, all knowledge about how the robots were first built, or how the basics of electronic wiring even works at all were lost. One day, the robots all suddenly shut down due to some Y2k-esque software bug. The humans are thrown into disarray as nobody even has the words or thoughts to even contemplate beginning to repair the robots. Man is resilient though and learns to go on living without them, regressing to some kind of early bronze-age society. The robots are dead. Oh well. A few generations later the stories about them seem to be little more than myths. Is this gain or a loss that nobody can productively talk or even think about the caretaker robots anymore? Sounds like a loss to me.