Sunday, December 28, 2008

Music, Mystery and Powdered Milk Biscuits

One of best music groups on the planet is the Guy's All-Star Shoe Band from Garrison Keillor's weekly radio program Prairie Home Companion. It's a simple five-piece band that can play anything, and play it prodigiously. The piano player in particular has earth-shattering chops in any style. They provide all the incidental music for the radio show in addition to 8-10 special tunes accompanying guest musicians and singers each week. The highlight of each week's show is an advertisement for Powdered Milk Biscuits where the band freaks out in a bluegrass/ragtime hoedown. They play a simple I-IV-V progression while trading fours and it blows the mind, especially when Richard Dworsky the piano player takes his turn. You can listen to the weekly sound byte on PHC's website:

I've been thinking a lot lately about how God reveals himself to us. Fundamentally He's revealed Himself through the Scriptures and through the presence of the Holy Spirit that lives within us. What I'm thinking of, though, is the specific and occasional moments when God makes our hearts powerfully aware of His presence. I've had many of these moments, and they've always left a lasting impression. My search for understanding is not so I may conjure more of these moments, but so that I can more firmly grasp how I best develop connection with God. I'm thinking more and more that God uses different avenues and experiences to reveal Himself to different people. For some it's music, for others it's nature or books or relationships. Identifying how God has shaped my soul to best sense and engage His Spirit continues to grow in importance for me.

God has most often revealed Himself to me through music.
For example:

Last Sunday, I went with my wife to see Andrew Peterson's Behold the Lamb of God concert at our church. I was genuinely moved and impressed with both the music and the musicians. The depth of meaning behind the libretto, and the mastery with which those men played their instruments stirred me deeply. At several moments I was near tears, though I've heard the music dozens of times.

The reason I mentioned Powdered Milk Biscuits earlier is because God has often used those few short moments during that commercial break in Prairie Home Companion to shine a bright light into my soul. What's interesting is that there's nothing complicated about its form (a simple blues/ragtime), but it's done so well that it speaks deeply to me almost every time I hear it.

This was true of the December 14th episode in particular. Their special musical guest that week was Chris Thile, the vocalist/mandolin player from Nickel Creek. He played a solo cover version of the White Stripes song "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground". I was in the car returning from church when I heard it and it literally blew my mind. I was stunned how a soloist with a mandolin could do something so profound and so penetrating to my soul. I freaked out in the car I was so filled with the Spirit of God. Then right after he finished, the Guys All-Star Shoe Band played Powdered Milk Biscuits with Chris Thile and I was so excited that I disturbed another driver who witnessed my enthusiasm--no joke. What a gift from God!

A famous missions story is told of Rev. E. P. Scott, a missionary to India in the 19th century, where he was caught by a murderous band of tribesmen who were closing in on him with spears. Knowing he was going to die in a few moments, the missionary took out his violin, closed his eyes and began to play and sing "All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name". When he finished the song he opened his eyes to see that the tribesmen had dropped their spears and were weeping. Scott spent the remaining years of his life with these people, sharing the Gospel of Jesus with them. Was it the power released from the music that so keenly changed the hearts of those men? I believe it was.

I remember my college chamber group singing "If Ye Love Me, Keep My Commandments" by Thomas Tallis in the vault of Lincoln's tomb. It's a sublime piece and when we sang it in that circular granite sepulcher, God shone His light brightly among us. It was a moment never to be repeated, but forever impressed into my soul. I felt as if I was swimming in sound and somehow hearing colors.

Another time when I was 19 yrs. old I was at home alone listening to the Hallelujah Chorus from The Messiah. I had sung that piece dozens and dozens of times in choir, but that particular time when I was alone and listening to it, I began to weep uncontrollably. It was so odd and out of place for me to do that, I didn't quite know how to feel about it. That was one of the first times I experienced that.

Recently during one of the most difficult times of my life, God used a song called, "The Silence of God" by Andrew Peterson to reveal Himself to me. My wife and I had just lost our baby and I was having a really rough time. Listening to that song, God revealed a piece of Himself that I desperately needed that day.

So I surrender myself to this deep desire and longing I have to hear and to play extraordinary music. By surrendering I avail myself to God's familiar avenue through which He reveals Himself to me. But this means that I will suffer a bit when I hear or witness great music. My suffering comes from wanting desperately to participate with those joined together in musical community, but knowing that I won't be able to. I must create my own community, and hope that God will reveal Himself in the midst of it. I can't be a part of the Square Peg Alliance, but I can pray for people to join my own alliance. Maybe that will happen someday. If not, I still believe that I'll hear from God, I just need to listen carefully and invite Him to show Himself.

More later . . .

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