Tools of the trade

Tools of the trade
5/18: Tools of the trade

Your mind will be full of numbers
And your mouth of foreign words
Pythagoras and algebra,
Nouns, adjectives and verbs

Your eyes will scale the volumes
Of human knowledge and intellect
Your hands will know the weariness
Of assayed essays to inspect

Your feet may know the tempo
Of the clock and it’s demands
Your back, the weight of pressures
And industry’s circumstance

In all these things, remember
Let your heart remain unchanged
Save for the things the Lord himself
Undertakes to rearrange

Your value was predetermined
And cannot be added to
Resumes and accolades
Are not the sum of you

Things like these do have their use
This much must be conceded
As a spade in the farmer’s hands
Has use to till the land that’s seeded

But spades and rakes cannot suffice
When a meal is in demand
The eternal soul can ne’er feast
On scraps from finite lands

Our devices are often thought to be
The ends and not the means
We idolize the hills we climb
And the accomplishments so gleaned

Yet wonder is a mighty force
We all possess at birth
Unto a world that trades for trinkets
Such things of priceless worth

“I count it all as loss” ’twas said
About that once thought as gain
By one who had much more than most
And had nothing all the same

“that I may gain Christ”, he said
Who saw the truth behind
The veil that shimmers in the winds
Of shifting trades and trends and times

We once were told to be like these,
The children in our midst
They who see with sight unshielded
Those things aged eyes have missed:

The face of God, the form of Heaven
The Holy waiting in the wings
A world that is not bound by time
And countless, wondrous other things

The thought of it is daunting:
The learning we now possess
Though strive we might to grasp it
Will fail us nonetheless

The thought of it is humbling:
The wisest teachers you may meet
Are they who hear the voice of God
While blowing bubbles at your feet

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Overly Considered Distractions

3/18: Overly Considered Distractions
Overly Considered Distractions

Thistles and thoughts – a pair of like kind
Bristles get caught in the fabric of mind
Hooks that stick within cognitive space
Crooks that wick due peace from its place
These that some with ease brush away
Are thieves for some who endeavor to stay
Sapping the vine to thirst-ridden strings
Rapping the mind with repetitive things
Estranging all reason from the false and the real
Exchanging in treason a known for a feel
Drawn in by aroma of flowering notions
Brawn into coma by reductive motions
Bear I these thoughts by prick of the stem?
Dare I get caught in their poisons again?
Hither have I a thorn in the flesh?
Whither contrive the remedy best?
To leaven the mold that hems me today
Heaven has told me that there is a way
Every one captive, these thoughts that advance
Devilry active made weak by faith’s stance
Jesus, the maker of all things and I
Frees us, the breaker of all things that bind
He who rends man from the leeches of sin
So intends to make whole his pieces within
From fading of hearts to rage-waters of mind
Come wading, Lord Jesus, ’tis yours to preside
Announce and lay claim, once more if you will
Pronounce by your name, “Peace, be still”

Patterns

2/18: Patterns
Patterns

It seems some days are tessellations
A fractal recapitulation
Thus, for some, is desecration
Yet yields another’s jubilation
And here have we a complication
A puzzle for just contemplation
Accept thy patterns with hesitation?
Or with joy ascend unto thy station?
See thou routines as desolation?
Or priceless gifts worth re-creation?
Are the fires of life a motivation?
Or an all-consuming conflagration?
Are the ticks of time your ear’s vexation?
Or heralds who bear blessed proclamation?
Know the status of thy situation
Is not beyond manipulation
Contentment, hear this attestation
’tis a path now due our navigation
The Lord who laid this road’s foundation
Will aid when bent toward deviation
They who steer toward Heaven’s nation
Will find a sound orientation
God who set all in circulation
So sees us in our oscillations
And can redeem their ruination
Providing needed sustentation
Scattered pieces, ’tis our relation
Our days are such, in aggregation
The Lord, with humble fragmentations
Can forge his glorious constellations

2017: A year of songs

For the past few years, my brother-in-law has been creating playlists of favorite songs that he’s collected throughout the years. Inspired to do the same now that 2018 is in its infancy, I’ve created my own ‘Best of 2017’ playlist. I’ve always cherished the opportunity to share meaningful music with others although doing so comes with a dash of risk under the radar; sometimes the music drifting out of the speakers reveals much about the stirrings inside of the listener.

So with a moderate amount of further ado, I present to you a collection of favorites that I’ve collected over the past year. Songs on this list met at least one of my personal criteria for a replay-able song:

  • Groove (typically the first thing that stands out to me)
  • Lyrical content
  • Overall song craftsmanship
  • Catchy hooks and melodies
  • Unique story-telling
  • Any other unexplainable quality that makes a song resonate with me

You can listen to the entire playlist (currently 32 songs) via Spotify or YouTube at the links below. Note that a few songs existed on one platform and not the other, so there are minor discrepancies between the playlist versions below:

  • Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/user/two_hands/playlist/02uPSU7BX0vIO2Gxr2CNSF
  • YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ReCMXDgsrgM&list=PLzq8KLPSd4Ac2pDedH6pQympBJAbigILN

These ~40+ song playlists aren’t ordered in any particular fashion so please feel free to enjoy them on shuffle. If you need a place to start, below are 10 of my highlights.
Note: Click on the title of the song to watch/listen directly on YouTube if the embedded player doesn’t work. 

1. Morning Nightcap – Lunasa
We spent Christmas and New Year’s with my wife’s side of the family, with whom an expansive variety of artistic interests and talents are represented. Among them is a multi-colored palette of musical tastes, including the Celtic stylings of Lunasa. Songs from one of their albums (The Story So Far) frequently danced throughout the house over the holidays and Morning Nightcap is the first track, whose heroic melodies caught my ears and would not let go.

2. Non-Stop – Lin-Manuel Miranda (from the “Hamilton” soundtrack)
There isn’t much music from theater productions in my library but I’ve been blown away by the genius of songwriting throughout the Hamilton soundtrack. Non-Stop is sufficiently representative of the craftiness with which Lin-Manuel Miranda compiled multiple styles and musical motifs for each representative character into one song. The entire soundtrack is a mind-bogglingly interconnected web of songs, each containing subtle references to the others yet functioning independently (for example: check out Hamilton’s soliloquy at the 1:42 mark in The World Was Wide Enough which stealthily incorporates titles and lyrics from many other songs in the soundtrack). Technical details aside, the song describes Hamilton’s historically documented, fast-paced life-style of learning, composing, and developing ideas born out of high intellect and beliefs that would eventually shape and defend the US Constitution and lay the groundwork for the nation’s financial system.

3. Chalk – Buddy Miller
My oh my…I often find myself considering whether this is the best song I’ve ever heard or not. This is neither a break-up song nor a love song. It seems to stem from that place in between, where both individuals have come to the end of themselves and with helpless glances to the losses behind and the uncertainty ahead, plead “Jesus come and save us from our sins”. Buddy and Julie Miller have managed to craft a song whose lyrics and instrumental components are so accurately married to the overall emotional contour of the story; flickering embers that illuminate that devastatingly sacred place where the strength of humanity is emptied and can only depend upon the deliverance of God.  

4. Hear My Heart – Andy Mineo
Andy Mineo is one of my favorite rappers who blends style, flow, and saavy story-telling in every song. Hear My Heart is a beautiful tribute and apology to his deaf sister Grace, with whom he had a distant relationship as a child. Having not bothered to learn sign language when he was younger, Andy and Grace could hardly communicate, resulting in the gap between them that Andy now seeks to bridge. Notice in the music video that Andy accompanies all of his lyrics with sign language and that all of the colorful images give visualization to the music; truly a thoughtful, intimate conveyance of love and reconciliation across the gap between the separate audible and visual languages he and his sister speak.

5. Ants Marching / Ode to Joy – The Piano Guys
Over the past year, my daughter and I have spent a lot of time dancing to music together. She sits on my shoulders while we bounce around to a wide variety of music. This song holds a special place for me as one of the earlier entries on a playlist my wife and I have created to feed her musical palette. The Piano Guys have been making their mark on the music scene for a while now with their creative piano and cello duet covers of pop songs and original compositions, often paired with beautiful music videos such as this one, shot on a spinning stage with a drone-mounted camera. The track itself is a beautiful combination of Dave Matthew’s Ants Marching with segments of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy; a counter-intuitive yet effective pairing.

6. Double Beat – Santa Clara Vanguard (composed by Murray Gusseck)
Ah, the drumline. Nothing packs a punch quite like a group of coordinated percussionists who wield the power of their instruments with flair, finesse, and musicality. I recently rediscovered this song and video but since first hearing it back in 2007, it’s catchy rhythmic groove has never left me. I often find myself subconsciously tapping it out on my knees and tabletops. Give several listens to this song and try to listen to each of the three sections of the drumline individually: the snare drums, tenors (the multi-drum units), and the bass line. There’s a lot going on there but it all works together so well. The bass line is particularly impressive with its low melodic movements underneath the snares and tenors. In my estimation, being a bass drum player on a drumline is one of the greatest challenges a percussionist can face. Check out the descending bass line from 0:17 – 0:19 to hear how each member of the bass line seamlessly passes the melody down to the next, requiring the utmost coordination. Also, watch out for the serious beat drop at 1:09.

7. Hound of Heaven – Brettan Cox
The groove is strong with this one. Particularly noteworthy are the drums, guitar-picking, and bass lines. They function as a singular voice, a great example of playing “in the pocket”, and provide the overall song with its characteristically flowing vibe, as though cruising along the top of a rolling wave. My favorite moment is from 2:38 – 2:41 where the bass and guitar follow each other in a surprising melodic riff, ending in some percussive punctuation, to make the last chorus pop. Lyrically, Brettan has taken a rather odd image pairing (hound and heaven) and beautifully highlighted one of the enigmatic qualities of God who, with hound-like accuracy and love beyond reason, is never far from us even despite our best efforts to the contrary (“I could make my bed in the deepest sea, in a desert storm you’d find me – In the streets of New York, with a million people, you’re always right behind me”). 

8. Pennies from Heaven – Louis Prima
This one’s a lot of fun. Louis Prima and his band seem to have been a whirlwind of an entity in their day, taking classic jazz songs and wrangling them into a hootenanny of shouting, clapping, and conversant solos between the instruments. Louis also provided the voice of King Louie in the original Jungle Book movie as well as the well-known song I Wanna Be Like You. What I enjoy about Pennies from Heaven is it exemplifies much of what likely draws most folks to music in the first place: its fun! The background vocals make me smile (I mean come on now, it doesn’t get any better than “shoobeedoobee”) and the vocal/saxophone duel solos starting at 0:44 are hilarious. Whatever else this song may be, it’s a reminder to enjoy what you do.

9. The Men That Drive Me Places – Ben Rector
There’s a refreshing message to be heard here and you may want to read along with the lyrics while you listen (which you can find by clicking here). Ben Rector breaks the mold by writing a genuine song about the underdogs working behind the scenes in his career. With a unique mixture of both reason and humility, Ben acknowledges that he works hard in his publicly celebrated position yet is awed by the feats of those in the woodwork whose quiet and often thankless contributions are made in the midst of challenging circumstances. This is an endearing and practical reminder of many things: the importance of being grateful, working diligently, and going out of your way to thank the silent giants upon whose shoulders you stand.

10. When I Get There – Kirk Franklin
Make sure you are in a safe, unobstructed place with close proximity to a chiropractor before listening to this one. Grooves as hard as this could prompt all sorts of involuntary limb flailings and neck gyrations (known as ‘dancing’ in some circles) that will surely require follow-up with a medical professional. Kirk Franklin is a seriously gifted composer and arranger whose masterful work on this track grounds us in the terra firma of a rock-solid groove while directing our thoughts Heaven-ward. Written after the death of a close friend, Kirk uses the song to remind us all that this life is not the end but that we have the assurance of salvation in Christ for life after death in Heaven. Far from removing us from the responsibility to engage with the troubles of our present times, we are to bring the news of this promise and invitation as a light into the darkness. Whatever 2018 holds for us, let us remember that Jesus told us: “You are the light of the world…” (Matthew 5:14) and “Surely I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

On being average

Every now and then a song, book, poem or life event comes along and plunges the deep waters of a spiritual truth and returns to give you a sip of understanding and insight. “Oh Joe” by Flannel Graph is a retelling of the account of Joseph; a man from the book of Genesis who was greatly misunderstood by many in his life. Although a familiar Sunday-school character who has been ushered into pop-culture fame by a Broadway musical, perhaps we have misunderstood him as well.

Along with the other biblical titans, Joseph and his life of incomprehensible Old Testament turmoil and faith can seem distant and inaccessible to us; a toga-clad, Romanesque colossus, starting coldly down from the tall pillar of history to the cell-phone-thumbing populace of the 21st century milling around his feet. And given Joseph’s remarkable life, such a pedestaled view might be understandable. Favored by his father and hated by his envious brothers who sold him into slavery, Joseph slogged through years of bondage, imprisonment, and obscurity before his God-given gift of interpreting dreams caught the eye of the Pharaoh who effectively gave him the vice-executive authority over all Egypt, arguably the greatest world power at the time.

Yet despite all of this, in the course of a three-and-a-half minute song, Flannel Graph manages to gently lift the grand statue of Joseph off his pedestal and chisel away the marble to reveal a flesh-and-bone man underneath. A man who dealt with jealous siblings, unfair circumstances, pendulum swings between bold strokes and self-doubt, and who was, at the core of a manically-contoured life, just like you and me.

Oh Joe, watch it all unfold
Oh Joe, you’re not alone

We are all at the center of our own small story and the periphery of a much larger, collective epic. ‘Joe’ lived a day-to-day life; he woke up, went to work, ate food, went to the bathroom, slept, and did the same thing the next day. But he knew that God had given him this mysterious gift of interpreting dreams. Why? There were years in which his daily life had nothing to do with what he seemed gifted for, passionate for, destined for.

Sound familiar?

Ever had a job that seemed meaningless? Ever harnessed a passion that seemed entirely unappreciated or even invisible to the people around you? Ever felt that you were made for something greater? Joe did. And so have many others before and after him; a number that very likely includes yourself.

But there’s more to Joe’s story.

I was forgotten in my chains
But there was something greater running through my veins

At just the right moment, Joe’s life intersected with those of two fellow prisoners who had strange dreams and needed help figuring them out. Joe saw the moment and went to work: “Do not interpretations belong to God? Please tell them to me” (Genesis 40:8). After the interpretations came to pass, word began to spread (albeit slowly) and Joe eventually had audience with the Pharaoh himself, similarly haunted by some strange dreams.

Oh Joe, pulled from jail below
Tell the King my words
Joe, be bold

Such are the words that God has spoken (or may yet speak) to all of us at certain spotlight moments in our lives. After hearing Pharaoh’s dreams, Joe foretells a seven-year, multi-national famine that threatened to wither all of Egypt. Both frightened at this grim prospect and stunned at this glimpse into Joe’s God-given potential, Pharaoh bestows managerial authority of Egypt’s resources to his former prisoner. Joe blossoms fully in this new position, wisely storing up one-fifth of harvests during their abundance, a move that that sustains the nation throughout the famine and saves countless lives from starvation.

What a remarkable finish to an epic story. But before his rise to power, what kept him going when he was imprisoned and trudging through the trenches of obscurity? He knew that God made him for a greater narrative. He persistently framed his turning points through God’s lens. When resisting the temptation to become involved in a scandal with his employer’s wife, he reasoned “How can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” (Genesis 39:9). When explaining to Pharaoh the source of his dream’s interpretation, he said, “It is not in me; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer” (Genesis 41:16). And in a beautiful moment of reconciliation with his long-lost brothers who helped kickstart his story with violence and force, he declared to them, “…do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you” (Genesis 45:5).

So what about us? Sure Joe’s circumstances might not resemble our own but we, like him, are meant to live a great story. In many ways, he was a regular guy but his life left an irregular impact on the world. And all of us are meant to do so, from the kings and queens of our age with all of their grandeur down to the everyday average Joe.


All quoted lyrics from “Oh Joe” by Flannel Graph.

How Did You Do It?

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To my Grandfather,
whom I’ve always loved but never knew:

You are a distant star to me.
A mysterious diamond shines in the night-sky back of my mind
whose light is just now reaching me…
When I see your picture, you look back at me most intently
as if to tell me
that although I never knew you, still you knew me.
As though to ensure that I’ve received a message you sent back then,
back when I could barely talk that is just now being delivered to me.
To tell me that you cared for me.

And like a star dies,
you shone across a universe of time that preceded me,
casting rays that stretch into days that you would never see.
Your messenger knocks at today’s front door,
sent from a source that isn’t there any more.

And here’s the rub:
This one way communication that passes without hesitation
From twenty-seven years past,
this signal reception brings back
your face and a million questions that I can’t ask

But had I the chance…
If, in a dream, I could return to my oldest memory:
You’re looking back to me, fixing the TV
so I could see the fans on the screen
while I swam in your chair; a sea of faded upholstery.
If God gave the opportunity to me
to take a single question to you in this scene
I know just what it would be.

No need to scour my tomes of question marks,
I know just the one that captures the sum of its parts:

“How did you do it?”

How did you do it?

And in that moment I hope you’d see
the countless questions inside of me,
that I’ve bundled within the one
the root from which the others grow from:

How did you grow up poor yet live such a rich life?
How did you capture the life-long respect of four sisters?
What was it like seeing both World Wars, Vietnam, the Depression?
How did you circumnavigate the country as a teenager,
sleeping under your car at night,
scraping concrete off of bricks to pay your way
for food along the route,
and making auto-repairs when you broke down
with no one there to show you how,
like patching your radiator with oatmeal for crying out loud?

Can you tell me how?
Can the life you lived then teach me now?

How do you make it through when so much is required of you?
How do you know you’ve done all that you can do?
How do you raise a family that will carry-on long after you’re gone?
How do you keep them safe in your heart while the world tears itself apart?
How does a father love a daughter into the kind of woman you taught my mother to be?
How does a father love a son into a man that he can be proud to be?
How does a husband treat his wife with honor and humility?
How do you nourish the family tree
with roots that drink deeply
from a well of strength and integrity
that won’t run dry when all that’s left of you is your memory?

Grampy please,

how did you do it?

Now let me expose the reason for those questions I pose,
to explain why I plead for answers to these,
for by now it should be plain to see:
These queries that I ask of thee,
Are the same that are being asked of me
It seems…

It seems to be that I’m on your journey,
overwhelmed and understudied but I’m learning

I’ve got so much to lose and I’m confused a bit.
I’ve been given a commission but need a clue what to do with it.
Made a few false-starts in life but trying to follow-through and be true with it.
It’s hard to live a good life in a world that is crude but somehow you did it.
So I might follow your footsteps but these shoes are too huge to fit.

But if you stood in mine now,
could you please tell me how
you wore yours so well?

If you could see my circumstance
if I had the chance
to tell you my plans,
would you applaud my stance?

What would you say to me
as I scrape the ground with my hands to the plow
trying to carve a small nest for my seeds to rest,
where they can settle in, where their roots can dig in
and sprout their first leaves on this family tree?
How can I do for them what you did for me?

To place a star in their sky?
Though all the world be shrouded in night,
give a bright, guiding light?

Is this something you can teach me to do?
You are someone I look up to
my methods and strategies are few
so I wonder: “How did you?”

This is no idol worship.
I’m sure you made mistakes, no man is perfect.
But there are those God leads,
like threads in a weave,
in and out of our lives for times of need.

Or to provide lessons to learn.
A foundation to stand on
when life calls us forth for our turn.

One more thing I need to mention:
I’m told, in some ways, that I’m your reflection
Same lips and nose and facial bones, I know
But there must be something deeper than those.

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Is it true?

Are there things of me that are of you too?
Do I do some things the way you used to do?
And what of me? This ever-itching mystery:
Though you I never knew,
what did you know of me?

But like the moment we shared when I was two:
You, looking across the room to me and I, lost in your chair
looking back up to you –
This is all the recollection I’m due.
Of my one and only remembrance of you.
I can only pose questions to you.
And they echo within me still.

But I’ll hang on to this image.

For that was the moment –  just months before you left.
Though your heart gave out it feels like theft,
Yet somehow you live on despite your death
Right there –
In my youth, you gave me my oldest memory
To a toddler who could hardly speak
You deposited to my life’s treasury
And with a single glance, conveyed your legacy…

That star in the distance,
winks and casts its rays
from history to this day.

A shine that is lasting,
I’m searching and asking.
Always asking:

Grampy,

how did you do it?

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