Saturday, June 28, 2008

Twilight Waves


Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed. . . . other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, multiplying thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times. ~Mark 4:3,8

There’s an ongoing miracle happening in my backyard. I still can’t figure out how it happens. I put garbage into a garbage can. Six months later, I open the can and dump out good soil. Compost happens. All we do as a family is collect organic matter from our kitchen, stuff we’d normally put down the garbage disposal or throw out in the trash. All this organic matter gets collected in plastic containers in our kitchen. Once those are full, we dump them into bigger containers on our back porch. Once those bigger containers are full, we take them forty steps to the corner of our forested yard and dump them into the black compost cans.

How to make your own home compost center:
1) Get a plastic garbage can with a lid.
2) Drill holes in the can to allow air and moisture in, as well as to welcome the earthworms.
3) Place this can in a shady spot in your yard, making sure to secure the lid with a bungey cord or rope to keep racoons and other critters.
4) Place leaves and small sticks into the bottom to allow the first layer to breathe.
5) Begin dumping your kitchen organic matter into your compost can. Include any veggie throw away items, such as rinds, peelings, stems, eggshells, and such.
6) Do not put nutshells, cherry pits, apricot pits, avocado seeds, or bones in your compost. Also, do not include any animal product such as meat, fats or skin.
7) Every few months, turn the mixture with a shovel.
8) If you live in a dry climate, you might want to water down the mix now and again.
9) Some people will add lime or other organic composting mix products to help the process. I leave it up to God’s good processes of nature.
10) After about six to nine months, you’ll have some good soil as mentioned by Jesus in the parable of the sower.
Compost happens. In our lives, we get hit with various kinds of garbage, throw away bits and pieces, and unpleasant stuff that just comes along. What we choose to do with all this stuff can make all the difference in how we live each day. Try putting all the garbage that comes along into your spiritual compost can. Throw all that smelly garbage into the pit. Put a lid on it. Let God transform it. God works miracles by turning our fears, troubles, sufferings, stupidities, and disappointments into good soil. Holy composting!
Every now and again, we are wise to go open that smelly lid and repent of the stuff we’ve caused to others, repent of the stupid things we’ve said or done, repent of the choices we’ve made. Repenting is merely turning over the compost pile and allowing God to continue working out his holy miracle. After time, God heals and transforms our dark, smelly lives into good soil, soil he’s making ready to receive the seed of the Word of God, intended to be planted into our lives to make us and all around us more fruitful.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Forest K

While hiking along Ecola Creek around the watershed area, I thought it'd be interesting to capture the forest reflected of the water. This was taken with a wide angle lens about 1 inch above the water.

Saturday, June 21, 2008


Let them trust in God who does not fail those who seek Him with a simple and righteous heart; nor will He fail to impart what is needful for the way until getting them to the clear and pure light of love.... The attitude to allow the soul to remain in rest and quietude even though it may seem very obvious to them that they are doing nothing and wasting time.... They must be content simply with a loving and peaceful attentiveness to God. ~St. John of the Cross

Make a little experiment. Walk outside your house. Try to find one square inch of quiet in your corner of the woods unbroken by human noise. How far would you have to travel to get to such a place? For the past 25 years, this has been the quest of Emmy award winning sound recorder, Gordon Hempton, who has recorded the sounds of nature on nearly every continent.

Sitting on a moss covered log in the heart of the Olympic National Park, Hempton, sets up his sound recording microphones and meters to listen, claiming the Olympics to be the quietest of all our national parks. According to Hempton, our silent spaces are dwindling. “In 1985”, writes staff reporter Lynda Mapes of the Seattle Times, “[Hempton] recorded 21 places in Washington state where natural quiet was unbroken by noise intrusions from 15 minutes or more during the daytime. By 1989, there were only three.”[i]

The most aggressive invader of natural quiet spaces? The jet airline industry. Alaska Airlines alone accounts for more than 30 flights over Olympic National Park per day. By happy accident, Olympic National Park happens to lie west of most of national and international flight patterns. Still, the scarring sound of jet engines accounts for the most disruptive human sounds heard in the Olympics.

Over the past few years, our family has enjoyed fifty-mile backcountry treks into the heights of Olympic National Park. We practice “leave no trace” camping, packing out all our garbage and literally leaving no trace of our presence, preserving the space for the next camper. The jet airline industry does not believe in “leave no trace”. During our recent week-long family vacation in the Olympic backcountry, the natural quiet was interrupted several dozen times a day by jet airplanes. Long after their five minutes of roaring had cleared the skies, their vapor trail was still evident as it dissipated thousands of feet above our heads.

We spend days of hiking, carrying all our gear and food in backpacks, in order to arrive at serene alpine meadow, twenty-five miles from the nearest parking lot. There we sit, listening to the footsteps of a Great Blue Heron stalking frogs along the lakeshore. We hear the peeping of a Water Dipper chick looking for her mother and the tune in to the symphony of bees gathering nectar from alpine wildflowers in that pristine wonderland.

A jet airplane flying overhead in such a place is like a kid burping for five minutes during a church service. It’s like that annoying person sitting in the seat behind you at the symphony, the guy who keeps clearing his throat and finally gets out a throat lozenge, only to spend several irritating minutes crinkling the wrapper before getting the lozenge into his mouth. It is like a group of kids noisily giggling over magazines in the corner of the public library while you’re quietly trying to do some research. You get the idea.

Sound invasion goes on all the time. According to Hempton, natural quiet is so rare that most people under age of thirty know nothing of the experience. “Whenever someone tells me they know a quiet place, I figure they have an undiagnosed hearing impairment, or they weren’t really listening,” admits Hempton. “Most people believe they know what natural quiet is, but they have not had the experience; it is not the same thing as sitting in an empty theater, a church, a library.”[ii]

Sound engineer, Ron Sauro of Tacoma, Washington, convinced me that we are raising a whole generation of young people who are hard of hearing due to listening to loud music through earphones. He explained to me the physiology of our sense of hearing. Sound waves vibrate the meadows of cilia in your ear canal, setting off signals which are sent along to your brain. When you expose your ear canal to intense decibels of sound for too long, the cilia break off and do not grow back. Oddly, the hearing most commonly lost due to excessive exposure to high decibels is the middle range, the range of the human voice.

In my experience, humans tend to be uncomfortable with silence. Try it out the next time you get into a good conversation with a friend: experiment with periods of silence from your side of the conversation. See how your friend responds to the gap, how quickly he attempts to fill the gap with words. In quietness and trust is your strength, but you would have none of it (Isaiah 30:15).

Spiritual seekers welcome silence, both the outward form of natural quiet in places such as the Olympics as well as that inward form of creative silence found through such practices as meditation and journaling. “We spend our lives in containers”, observes Hempton. “Cars. Buildings. Planes. Natural quiet is in open, living space. It’s alive.” His current campaign is with airline executives, attempting to reduce the number of flights per day over the Olympic National Park. Like those visionary folks who set apart our national parks in the last century for future generations, Hempton strives to preserve and protect the gift of silence, declaring to anyone who will hear: “Quiet places are the think tank of the soul.” There we begin to learn not only to listen but to truly trust in the Voice of the Shepherd of our souls.

[i] Lynda V. Mapes, The Seattle Times, August 1, 2005 (Seattle, WA: Seattle Times Co., 2005), A1.

[ii] Ibid., A9.

Saturday, June 14, 2008


Martha, Martha, you’re worried and upset about many things. But Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.[i]

I recall waking up to the monastery bells while it was still dark out, shuffling across the foggy courtyard of the Trappist Abbey. It seemed to me like the middle of the night as I entering the building, headed up the carpeted stairs, and quietly settled down on one of the kneeling benches to attempt thirty minutes of silent meditation. It was a disaster.

Though I love times of quiet, I fidget a lot. Once I’ve settled down into a posture of rest, my long legs get jumpy with nervous energy and shout out to be stretched. My skin prickles, calling for various places to be itched. My clothes get rumpled and need to be readjusted. While kneeling in dark, I snuck quick peeks at the monks gathered in St. Anne’s Room. They were still as gravestones. Strange sensation. Sure, they’re monks. This is what they do. Meditate and pray. Still, I couldn’t get the idea out of my head that some insect was crawling slowly across my scalp, from front to back. I used sheer willpower to refocus my mental attention away from the itching feeling on my scalp, turning back to the simple breath prayer they taught me. But there it was again. That odd sensation persisted. An insect, maybe a large insect, seemed to be crawling slowly across the surface of my scalp, making its way through the forest of my thick brown curly hair.

Ignore it, I told myself. I tried, but kept thinking maybe there was a real insect up there. Distractions. Our inner life is filled with distractions. Remove the external distractions and your mind becomes a roomful of jumping monkeys, demanding your attention. The more you try to ignore them, the more they jump and screech for attention. This is the initial work of meditation. Settling down those monkeys. This takes time. Don’t expect it to happen this week. Keep practicing. Breathe slowly. Say a simple prayer inwardly, refocusing our attention on God. Keep coming back. Be patient with yourself. Don’t fuss over it. These are the wise words of the monks when I asked them how to deal with mental distractions.

Finally, I gave up in St. Anne’s Room. That itching feeling just would not go away. I reached my hand up to check for bugs. There it was, a beetle crawling along my scalp. Strange. I plucked the creature with a squeamish grip, threw it across the room, and attempted to get back to the slow, rhythmic breathing the name of God. Two minutes later, the bell went off, signaling the end of the thirty minutes. I believe I managed to sit in focused meditation for about thirty seconds over the past half hour. Ah, well. Thirty seconds of sweet Mary Time is better than thirty minutes of anxious Martha Time.

Mary Time. You may not know the story of two sisters, Mary and Martha. Their home is on the outskirts of ancient Jerusalem, in a town called Bethany. They have a brother who became quite famous after he died, a man named Lazarus. Jesus and the group of grown men he hung out with come to visit Jerusalem. Whenever Jesus comes to the big city, he always stays with Mary and Martha. It may be Martha’s cooking. It may be Lazarus’ hospitality, giving up his bed. Or it may be Mary’s devotion. You see, whenever Jesus comes with his entourage, the afternoons are spent resting in the coolness of the great room, listening to Jesus tell stories about God and God’s way of life.

On one of these occasions, we hear Martha banging pots off in the next room, in the kitchen. She’s pretty steamed up. Finally, she comes storming out and asks to have a word with Jesus. There was no way not to overhear the words she speaks, whispered in loud angry tones from the kitchen. “Tell my sister Mary to come back here immediately please! I’m in here cooking all afternoon, which I’m glad to do for you and all the others. But Mary apparently thinks she’s one of the men. She is an embarrassment to my family. Her place is here in the kitchen, preparing the evening supper. Please my Lord. Tell her.”

Mary hadn’t been doing anything wrong really. Just sitting at Jesus feet listening to his stories. So Jesus speaks up with a voice that all of us can hear. Martha, Martha, you’re worried and upset about many things. But Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.

Mary Time. Sitting quietly at Jesus’ feet listening. Food for the soul. That’s what brings me to the monastery to St. Anne’s Room. I hunger for Mary Time. I want to learn to meditate. So I sit there with a small group of monks, trying not to fidget too much, learning to settle one distraction after the next, helping my soul learn to listen. I already spend plenty of time with dear sister Martha, anxiously doing all the many, many things that need to be done. Why not spend a little time every day learning from Mary? Why not take hold of that which will not be taken from us, that which is described as the “better part”? Mary Time: Learning to be silent, with my soul attuned to God.

[i] Luke 10:41-42.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Saturday, June 7, 2008


Be still, and know that I am God.
~Psalm 46:10

While listening to a new compact disc, one of the first things I do is read the liner notes. I like to know when the lyrics were written, who wrote them, and any special notations given by the artist about the creation of the music. With classical compact discs, the liner notes often contain biographical information about the composer, as well as performance notes surrounding the recording.

Like 21st century compact discs, ancient music often included liner notes, giving the reader an explanation of how the song was written, how the lyrics were to be read, or biographical details surrounding the composition. A classic example of such ancient poetic “liner notes” can be found in the Book of Psalms. Scattered throughout the 150 songs you discover short descriptions, liner notes, offering us a peak into the life of the composer. Take Psalm 63 for example: “A psalm of David, when he was in the Desert of Judah.” No wonder then that the song includes such lyrics:

My soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you,
in a dry and weary land, where there is no water.[i]

Or flip back a few songs to Psalm 60 where the liner notes read as follows: “For the director of music; to the tune of ‘The Lily of the Covenant’; a miktam of David; for teaching; when he fought Aram Naharaim and Aram Zobah, and when Joab returned and struck down twelve thousand Edomites in the Valley of Salt.” These liner notes include a list of four details to help the music director know how the song is to be used: 1) the tune (‘The Lily of the Covenant’); 2) the style of song (a miktam of David); 3) the purpose the song was written (for teaching); 4) the historical background behind the lyrics. You can also find notes describing specific musical instruments to be used in playing the music behind the lyrics. Often the lyrics are also laid out antiphonally; that is, with a leader part and people-response part. The song was written as a two voice chant between a leader and the people, calling to one another across the sacred space of the ancient temple.

One of the most interesting liner notes in the Book of Psalms is something of a mystery. Even a quick flip through these 150 songs, you can’t help but notice a little word tucked into the lyrics of these ancient song-prayers: Selah. The odd thing about this little word is that no one knows exactly what it means. Guesses abound. The first time the word appears is in the middle of Psalm 3, just after verse 2. A footnote offers this unhelpful description: “Selah: a word of uncertain meaning, occurring frequently in the Psalms; possibly a musical term.” [ii]

As a jazz musician, the word Selah makes good sense to me. How many times I’ve played music with drummer, bass and myself at the keyboard, laying down a crisp rhythm behind a jazz vocalist. Often, the lead singer wraps up a verse, turns to the rhythm section with a nod as if to say, “hit it boys”. The lyrics cease as the musicians pick up the song, improvising on the melody, offering our creative variation upon the melody. After a four or eight bar break, she will pick up the melody once again, while the rhythm section lies low once again in support of the melody and words. Selah: a one word direction given to the singer to turn the song over to the musicians, letting the song of the instruments carry the tune awhile. Then the lyrics pick up again, allowing the musicians to slide behind the singer in the ongoing dance of vocalist and instrumentalist common to musical performance in every era of music.

Selah. This simple, mysterious ancient word offers us something more that mere musical direction for vocalist and instrumentalist. Most people I know do not play or sing in a band. Yet, nearly everyone I know owns a collection of recorded music. We own radios, cassette players, compact disc players, ipods, and all the other new gadgets for playing music. We love listening to music. What does this ancient word have for non-musicians? Selah. A way of listening.

Selah. This word invites the listener to pause in the middle of the song, in the middle of the day, to take time to reflect upon what you are hearing. Selah. Stop and really listen. Listen with your soul. After too many pages, too many television shows, too many power-point presentations, we become word weary. Selah. Take a breather from words. Listen to the wind. Listen to the creative variation of nature. Clear your head with a short walk around the block.

Selah. Take time off to relax and listen. A friend recently told me he was planning to take some “selah” time after the youth soccer season was over. Though working full time, fifty to sixty hours a week in the city, he was also coaching his two sons through twelve busy weeks, three or four nights a week of practices with games on Saturdays and Sundays. They had a very successful season pushing them into post-season tournaments. Finally, the team lost in the semi-final game, placing third overall.

Selah. Rest. Recoup. Stop and enjoy a few days with your kids, letting them be kids without having to rush them off into the next sports season of basketball practice or dance lessons or play rehearsals for the Christmas show. Selah. A way of balancing family life. A healthy way of living.

Selah. This ancient word invites us into a rhythm of life which allows us to catch our breath in the middle of the muddle. Let the musicians have a few bars to play. Listen to that creative interplay of rhythm, harmony and improvisational melody. Body, mind and soul need a little space in the middle to play, to create, to listen. The vocalist will jump in soon enough, picking up where she left off, singing the next verse and the next. There will always be more words and lists and pages and projects and presentations. They pile up like snow drifts in Saskatchewan. Sit down by the fire. Warm your soul. Have a cup of hot cider. Breathe in the aroma of the moment. Rest. Listen to your soul. Selah.

[i] Psalm 63:1.
[ii] Psalm 3:2, note g.

Monday, June 2, 2008

322 Seconds Later


Listen, God!
Please, pay attention!

Can you make sense
of these ramblings,

my groans and cries?
I need your help.
Every morning
you'll hear me at it again.
Every morning I lay out the pieces of my life
on your altar and watch for fire to descend.[1]

A friend of mine owns a coffee shop. His shop is no ordinary cup of coffee. Walk across the outer courtyard, past a large fountain, weave among cafĂ© tables, through the tall entrance door, step between two stone sculptures of lions. Check out the plush leather couches embracing an over-sized fireplace. Then take a glance up. There she ascends in all her glory, high overhead, exalted above the people, Mary the mother of Jesus. My friend not only owns a coffee shop, he’s also a gifted painter.

The Assumption of Mary, a 10 by 30 foot remix of several master renaissance paintings, suspended from the ceiling, evokes a sense of sitting not in a coffee shop in the Pacific Northwest but in a European chapel. My friend describes his architectural vision as “cathedral coffee”, a curious blend of earthly delights and heavenly vision. He claims that people don’t just want a cup of coffee, but are actually yearning for a taste of transcendence. He’s on to something.

There will be those reading this who will resent marketing spirituality for commercial purposes. I’d love for them to meet my friend. There is nothing crass or materialistic about the man. He’s first a man of deep spirituality. Second, he’s an artist. To pay the rent in his modest rental room in our coastal town, he’s also a businessman.

As a businessman, he knows some things many have yet to realize. We stop for a few minutes each morning for a cup of coffee. Why? It may have little to do with coffee. It may just be that we sit and sip dark hot brew every morning to reconnect somehow with that place of grace deep inside which will largely be neglected in the upcoming eight hours of business. Of course, who hasn’t rushed roughshod over this fragile time with a cup of coffee, squandering these few minutes with newspapers, televisions, noise, laptops, palm pilots and other ordinary time distractions.

That doesn’t refute the real thirst involved in our morning cup of coffee rituals. As you sit before that expensive hot drink in a paper cup, consider the possibility that your first thirst has little to do with coffee, but is really a thirst for inner renewal of your soul, for an experience of what an English mystic, Dame Julian of Norwich, envisioned six hundred years ago, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well”.[2]

Step up to the counter and order your standard double-tall, skinny, sugar-free, vanilla mocha extra-hot latte hold the whipped cream and then be my guest and join me over on the leather sofa in the corner by the fire. Personally, I’m drinking coffee, dark roast coffee from the pump pots over there on the side counter. It really doesn’t matter what’s in our cups. With hot drinks in hand, with heads resting back into the leather, we’ll sit in silence together and meditate upon the heavenly grace ascending high over our sleepy heads.

[1] Psalm 5:1-3, The Message, by Eugene Petersen.

[2] Dame Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1998), 79.