Praying to a tangible God?

This footnote caught my attention more than the text this time.

From Reaching for the Invisible God:

Thomas Green, a priest who has spent his life exploring spirituality and has written seven books on prayer, makes an interesting observation. He estimates that about the same proportion of people have a very successful prayer life as have a very successful marriage. Tangibility is not the issue, he says, for tangibility does not ensure the success of human relationships either.

Now human relationships ARE tangible, but that isn’t what makes them successful. You spouse or friend is someone you can see and touch and talk to and hear with your own ears. But human relationships break down all the time. What makes them stick is “fidelity”, that is faith. Faith in the other person even when they fail or hurt you. Love and forgiveness. All of these are invisible things. The Lord has all of these things in abundance toward us. We reflect some of them back to him.

Is THAT what I’m working for!??

I’ve had a lot of frustrations and disappointments running through my head lately. They have to do with real estate, the American Dream, how that relates to my family, my job, and what I’m on this planet for.

We got married, we bought a trailer so we could “build equity” (unfortunately the scare quotes ARE necessary). So, we did this so we weren’t throwing money away in rent. Then we bought ANOTHER trailer so we could be closer to church and friends, then we bought the cheapest house we could afford (except it turns out that we couldn’t really afford even that) so we could get out of the tin-can trailer world and into a “real house”. Now we are back in the same trailer we started in and about the same amount of cash in the bank. Four years and the circle is complete. So what the heck am I shooting for? Time to reexamine it.

All around us, just one mile away is a new subdivision that wasn’t there last year. It’s full of big, beautiful houses that would be sooo nice to live in, right? Really? Oh, so we can save up for a few more years, I’ll probably get a raise at work, maybe my wife’s parents will inherit some money and if everything comes together, we could maybe live in one of these cool places soon instead of crammed with all our kids into a tin can. Wait! Stop the tape!

So is THAT what I’m working for? The culmination of all my hopes and dreams?

Oddly enough, this was really driven home to me lately by watching Over the Hedge with my daughter. The film pokes fun at suburban living, and nothing so much as the song during the closing credits. I guess it’s a rehash of a Ben Folds song that originally made fun of rap-core.

Here are some excerpts:

We drive our cars everyday
To and from work both ways
So we make just enough to pay
To drive our cars to work each day
(MW: I have seriously spent the last year doing exactly that.)We’re rocking the suburbs
Around the block just one more time
We’re rocking the suburbs
Cause I can’t tell which house is mine
We’re rocking the suburbs
We part the shades and face facts
They got better looking Fescue
Right across the cul de sac
(MW: I actually know real live people who are thinking like this now. People who used to be interesting in college. People with hopes and dreams, reduced to rats in the consumer race. And I’m RIGHT behind them! Ahhh! I just don’t have quite as much money yet.)

Hotwheels take rising stars
Get rich quick seminars
Soap opera magazines
40,000 watt nativity scenes
Don’t freak about the smoke alarm
Mom left the TV dinner on
(MW: OK. I don’t really relate to this stuff (thank God), I just think that part about the nativity scene is pretty funny!)

We’re rocking the suburbs
Feed the dog and mow the lawn
Watching mommy balance the checks
While daddy juggles credit cards
(MW: Somebody shoot me.)

We’re rocking the suburbs
You’ll never know when we are gone
Because the timer lights come on
And turn the cricket noises on…
(MW: I think this happens a little bit further down the road, when you start to worry about someone stealing your stuff. Like maybe the neighbor you’ve never met, even though you’ve lived next door for 3 years.)

At the same time, I get this sick feeling in my stomach when I read Michael Spencer blogging about John Piper’s “Don’t Waster Your Life”. Now, much of the book boils down to how you aren’t really a cool Christian unless you do foreign missions. I have serious beef with that (and so does Michael), but I won’t go into it here. Isn’t it obvious though? Actually, Piper doesn’t believe that either. He’s a sharp guy. That’s just the feeling you get reading his book in this case. Ron Hutchcraft’s “Called to Greatness” has the same halo. Actually, there is great stuff in both these books…I digress though. I get a sick feeling when I just see the little image that Michael is using for these blog posts:

I feel sick because I think, “Oh my God, that’s me!”.

Anyway, the idea of living in one of these suburban dream homes, filling it with cheap plastic crap, and non-so-cheap furniture, is starting to REALLY lose it’s appeal. I used to be jealous of my friends and colleges who have this life. Now I’m not so sure.

The image above actually comes from the Buy Nothing Day campaign where you boycott the consumerism the day after thanksgiving by not spending any money that day. I really have no interest in secular reactionary movements against American consumerism. I’m worried about my SOUL. How did it become so weighed down with all this junk? I find myself walking right down this road that I scorn. It must have happened slowly. Maybe even while I was paying attention to important, legitimate things (like taking care of my kids). Anyway, it’s crept into my psyche, and has established itself in a place that used to be full of thoughts about the Gospel and the beautiful created things in the world. It has displaced things of wonder, music, and charity. How sad.

I don’t have a direction to go from here, except that I have a very strong desire to TURN FROM the road I am taking my family down. It’s likely I’d have to start with the latte I’m drinking as a write this…

“You have been down there, Neo. You know that road. You know exactly where it ends. And I know that’s not where you want to be.” – Trinity, The Matrix

Pierre Bensusan Concert

Well, I drove nearly 6 hours to Seattle yesterday, then immediately drove 6 hours back home to Idaho to make it back in time for Easter Sunday. The reason? To see my guitar hero live. That’s right, the Algerian born Frenchman served up a plate of rich solo guitar harmony, sophisticated compositions and extraordinary virtuosity. It was really a treat to him play first hand and witness the energy put into each piece.

I was first introduced to Pierre when I borrowed the “Best of The Thistle and Shamrock” compilation CD from the local library. This disk was put together by Fiona Richie, who hosts the Celtic music show on NPR under the same name. Since then I’ve waited nearly 3 years to see him in concert. I guess this trip was kind of a spiritual pilgrimage for me. Nah, scratch that. It’s not really spiritual. But a musical/artistic pilgrimage. You see, about the time I discovered Pierre’s music, I was completely burnt out from 13 years of trumpet. I still loved music, but had become very disillusioned with my instrument and with what to “DO” with music in the future. Pierre’s playing really HAS inspired me to keep going. Since then I’ve picked up classical guitar and found it to be quite rich and rewarding.

Anyway, a few comments on the concert:

I’d never seen anyone so at one with their instrument. My guitar professor at our local university is an accomplished classical player with a huge repertoire. However, when he plays, it seems to be that he is just interfacing with his guitar. With Pierre, it was difficult to tell where the man ended and the guitar began. There were occasionally difficult passages where he would slip out of his improvisation driven mode and focus on some tricky fingerings for a few measures. It was during these points that he resembled the musicians I’m usually familiar with. But it was only for a moment and then he was back in the zone.

He played mostly pieces from his last two studio albums: Intuite and Altiplanos. With nearly each song he began by improvising through each piece for several minutes. Then he would launch into the melody or introduction as presented on the album. It was easy to see that he is completely driven by improvisation. Writing the music down is kind of an afterthought. If you’ve ever seen his sheet music, it looks much more like a solo transcription than a music idea translated to paper. I think this is a hurdle to get over if you want to play some of his tunes. If you take a classical approach to it and just force-learn every note, you will be completely missing the point. Yes, there is an underlying chord pattern and especially bass line, but many of the embellishments and extra notes here and there could be played any number of ways.

On a side note, much of Pierre’s early Celtic stuff is much more straight forward and can just be read off the page note-for-note.

His improvisatory style has, I believe, has perennially disqualified him from being taken seriously by classical guitarists. I’m afraid this is a gross oversight. His compositions are very well put together, full of short and extended music ideas, rich in harmony both simple and sophisticated. His playing stretches the limits of the instrument and yet, can be surprisingly idiomatic. It’s made for the guitar from the ground up, not like evil Joquim Rodreguez pieces that were written on a piano. His voicing and self-accompaniment is often reminiscent of Barrios. I think some people are beginning to realize this. Andrew York recently collaborated with him on a concert tour and corresponding album. Classical guitarist James Kline released an album a while back featuring many Bensusan arrangements played on a nylon string. The other thing that has probably turned off people is his near-continuous use of scordatura. Scordatura is just what classical stuff-shirts call it when you use an alternate tuning. Most of his tunes are in DADGAD, as opposed to the standard EADGBE. So if you want to read any of his sheet music, you are probably going to want to look at the tab, not the traditional notation. Oh, but we can’t do that! Tab is for Guitar-World-readin’-metal-head dilettantes. That is just killing the messenger for the sake of being a purist. Get over it.

A side note on his playing being idiomatic. Some who have actually tried to play some of it (and found it very difficult) might have a hard time swallowing that one. Well, it’s just not so apparent at first! One thing to pay attention to is the bass line. He rarely has it on beats 1 or 3 or what you would expect. But he isn’t doing this just to mix it up. It’s actually to keep the notes flowing and make the bass line easier to play. You would come up with his bass lines if you had you’re guitar in hand. If you were writing it down at the desk or the piano, you might put the attacks in much more “logical” places, only to actually find it more difficult to play. I think this also contributes to his “harp effect”. That is, his notes are also placed to provide maximum sustain.

In watching him play, he often would shake his guitar against his body to get a global vibrato. I’ve seen people do this before, but he REALLY put it to good use. Listen to recordings it can be difficult to tell what kind of vibrato is being used (parallel to the string, perpendicular, or this global whammy-bar effect.) I was surprised that he seemed to use this as his PRIMARY form of vibrato. I didn’t see much, if any parallel vibrato going in. This is what classical guitarists and violin players use. There was maybe a little bit of perpendicular (favored by electric players), but usually only bring out a particular note on more sparse passages.

Oh, and he likes to sing with his playing. It’s mostly a kind of soft scat jazz improv. Critics have pointed out over there years that his insistence to keep singing has probably been his largest barrier to commercial success. I think he believes it to be so a part of himself that he would be sacrificing artistic integrity to drop it. That’s just fine, but I have to say I largely prefer his instrumental tracks. There is a reason that Intuite (his only album with no singing) has been his best-selling to date. (Actually, I don’t know if this is true now.)

I know in the past he has used a thumb pick, but now he has all acrylic nails. His right hand position looks to be in a mostly classical position. He rests his guitar on his right leg and kind of leans sideways. It sure looks uncomfortable to me!

Wow, the downtown scene in Seattle on a Saturday night is sure hoppin’! I was on Ballard Ave and every trendy bar was filled. The concert was at the Tractor Tavern, which focuses on music. No tables or pool or TV’s. The bar is against one wall and the rest of the room is open with folding chairs. There is a modest stage at one end. There were about 100 people there. I don’t think you could have had much more than 150 in the room though. It was pretty hot.

On my way back home I hit one of the Chocolati Cafe coffee shops and got a mocha made with their yummy house chocolate. (Not Hershey’s, bleh!). It kept me going on the drive back. Well, most of it anyway. After getting stuck behind a slow-moving truck with 3 flaggers and 2 police cars, I didn’t make it home until 3:40 AM. I wonder what the truck was carrying. Something radioactive maybe?

I think that’s pretty much all I have to say, though I need to go back and spell-check it.

You can’t pin down God.

From Reaching for the Invisible God:

Throughout church history, Christian leaders have shown an impulse to pin everything down, to reduce behavior and doctrine to absolutes that could be answered on a true-false test. Significantly, I do not find this tendency in the Bible. Far from it, I find instead the mystery and uncertainty that characterize any relationship,l especially a relationship between a perfect God and fallible human beings. (p. 92)

He goes on to quote G.K. Chesterton:

“Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them both furious.” Most heresies come from espousing one opposite at the expense of the other.

If there is anything I’ve learned since exploring the many branches of Christianity recently, it is the point expressed above. But what do you do with it? Well, let’s put some numbers on it:

1. Some fundamentalists don’t like this because it means that God can’t be adequately explained. They like to play up the importance of absolute truth (which IS important of course), but they aren’t sure what to do with mystery. So it either gets glossed over, or thrown out as being too (liberal, mystical, fill-in-the-blank).

2. Some Calvinists like to use this kind of material to draw attention to God’s sovereignty (which is great), but then do a u-turn by taking it a step further and trying to precisely define just how sovereign and mysterious and omnipotent and can’t-be-contained he is. They’ve got the Trinity measured down to a micrometer. Before you know it, you’re back to a staggering stack of true and false statements. Oops.

3. Some Charismatics will also appeal to the same idea, often saying, “You can’t put God in a box.” Well, of course you can’t. Yeah, that right! But wait. If I don’t speak in tongues then I can’t possibly have the holy spirit? If I’m sick and didn’t get healed, it MUST be because I didn’t have enough faith? And, prophecy is cool and all, but I’m not so sure about the stuff that one guy was saying yesterday. What, you mean I’m spiritually dead because I’m even questioning it? Huh? Looks like God’s still in the box.

I grew up in the company of #1, though the artist in me was never comfortable with it. For 5 years of college I hung with #3 (and still do sometimes). I have a drink with #2 sometimes and find it a secure and refreshing change. I’m just can’t buy the whole thing though.

Actually, I just can’t buy any of it.
So I guess I’ll take all of it. Woo hoo!