Pickin' in the Park 8/28/05

Sunday was the last Pickin’ in the Park program for the year, and the last time we would be regular participants. We discovered it two years ago, and managed to play at all but one or two of them since. Now that we’re moving to Kentucky it’s not likely that we’ll be able to play there again, and so we were a bit wistful this time around.

Open mic programs are very helpful for beginning musicians. There’s a lot to learn about occupying a stage, using a sound system, and interacting with an audience that you can’t learn out of a book or by practicing in your basement. Pickin’ in the Park was especially good for this because, through the miracle of tax dollars, the facility was very good—an amphitheater with a few hundred bench seats and a large hillside for seating behind them, a large stage with a backstage area, and a great sound system. The level of the performers and the size of the audience could never have justified the price of rental at realistic rates, but the government price is low enough to allow them to stage the program six times per summer with just a little support from area sponsors.

Saturday afternoon Chris and I were playing at a fundraiser for Rex McCarty, and we decided to sing “Red River Blues,” a song we’ve done for a long time and pull out occasionally. Afterwards it occurred to me that it was one of the songs we had played at our first Pickin’ in the Park performance. We decided that it would be fun to have our last set consist of songs from our very first set, so I went back through the weblog and found that we had also played “Hard Times” and “Old Home Place”, other songs that we still performed sometimes. It probably wasn’t the most polished set we’d ever done, but I think that anyone who heard the first and last performances back-to-back would have heard some improvement.

In praise of original sources

Recently I’ve been studying how the church is to handle a particular situation. In general I’m adept enough at scouring online material to answer questions like this, but this time I wasn’t finding much that I found useful.

I was pretty sure that John Calvin would have written about the matter in his Institutes of Christian Religion, but I wasn’t too enthusiastic about confirming that. My two-volume set of the Institutes was sitting on my bookshelf where I had put it long ago, still wrapped in plastic. But I decided it was worth a quick look, so I unwrapped it and looked through the index for what I wanted to know about.

Sure enough, Calvin had addressed the matter, and at length. What surprised me was that his presentation was not only clear, to the point, and easy to understand, but that it was very practical and pastoral. I found myself reading in much more depth than I needed to, just because I found Calvin’s writing engaging and informative.

Since then I’ve read through the long introduction, which mentions that Calvin is known as a very comprehensible and accessible writer (so much so that some of his subtler discussions can go right past the reader without him noticing). In fact, Calvin is credited with establishing the French writing style, with the Institutes being the first major work ever published in French. And I’ve read through the first little bit of the book itself, and found it much easer to digest than I had expected.

I don’t know how long it’ll be before I get around to reading the entire work, since it’s not something I really have time for right now. But I’m glad to see that Calvin’s writing, like that of Luther and Augustine, supports my claim that we shouldn’t shy away from the classics, because the best of them were often written specifically for the use and edification of ordinary people.


I’ve written before about how my history has saddled me with a broad collection of weaknesses, and I’ve written about how weakness in an area is no excuse for not working towards a good and proper strength in that area. Still, the weaknesses are what they are, and though I may be trying to surmount them I still need to acknowledge them, to myself and to others.

Yesterday I was talking to my friend Jay Barfield, pastor of the new St Peter parish in Abingdon. We talked about the work that I’m doing on the Kentucky house, and he urged me to take seriously the limits that come from being of a certain age. Even more important, I need to take into account that long years of sedentary work have left me significantly overweight and out of shape. I hope that the shift towards physical labor will eventually correct those shortcomings (my back problems are already much better after a few weeks of constant bending, stretching, walking, and lifting), but in the meantime I need to learn to walk the line between laziness and overzealousness.

Recently a truck stopped by the Kentucky house to drop off 2,000 lbs of hardwood flooring, 44 boxes of it, 50 lbs per box. Chris and I unloaded the boxes from the truck into a pile next to the porch. We began to carry boxes upstairs, but rainclouds moved in, so we decided to move the pile from the ground onto the porch where they would be under cover. It took awhile, and by the end Chris was moving two boxes to my one.

So there we were with 41 boxes that needed to be moved upstairs, and I was about worn out. I asked Chris if he thought he could get them to the top of the stairs on his own, and he said he did. He did it in three fifteen-minute shifts, with fifteen-minute breaks in between, and by the end he was moving faster than at the beginning. Meanwhile I limited myself to opening and closing the front door behind him. I told him that he had earned himself some sort of treat, and he immediately suggested dinner at the pretty decent Mexican restaurant we had tried the week before. It was definitely a deal.

It’s humbling and a bit weird to assert leadership while at the same time being upfront about how your follower significantly exceeds you in certain areas. But it’s also an excellent reminder that, at least in a family, leadership is an official capacity and not one that is conferred based on merit.

Which isn’t to say that the leader shouldn’t work to merit the trust that a follower invests in him.


Many years ago I read Bill Hybels’ biography. At one point he describes himself as more watchful than visionary—he might be walking down the hallway of his church with a more visionary person, and while the other envisions the things that will happen there as the church grows, Hybels is closely monitoring things as they are right now—the piece of trash which nobody bothered to pick up, the water fountain that is still on the blink, the flow of traffic through the building, etc.

Hybels was suggesting that these two outlooks were different personality types, but I don’t think that is right; he may or may not be a visionary, but I think a visionary (and any other type of person) can and should learn to be watchful. Watchfulness is an important component of common sense, a skill that keeps us fully aware of the current situation and the possible directions in which it may develop. For example, I’ve known for awhile that the faucet on the kitchen sink in the Bristol house is progressively coming loose, but I also know that it will be usable for many more months to come, and have decided that it is fair to leave it as a problem for the new owners to deal with. Similarly with the upstairs air conditioning unit; it has been giving us a bit of trouble but still functions properly, the repairman told us it has about a year’s life left in it, and so we’ve decided to leave it alone. These are just a couple of entries on the long, long list of things I am monitoring.

Watchfulness only comes if you develop an attitude that owns any problem you see. We seem to be born with the opposite attitude—if I didn’t see it, it isn’t my problem, and so I’ll go out of my way to avoid seeing things that might otherwise require me to tend to them (or, worse, get in the habit of denying that I knew such-and-such needed tending to). I didn’t notice that the trashcan was full when I stuffed my trash into it, I didn’t notice that the baby’s diaper was dirty as I played with her in my lap, I didn’t notice that my dirty clothes were laying in the middle of the floor of my room, I didn’t notice that the phone was ringing, I didn’t notice that the gas gauge had dropped below empty before leaving the car for my wife, I didn’t notice that changing lanes would cut off that other car. And what I don’t notice I don’t have to deal with.

When our friend Keith helped us build a closet wall, I was very impressed at how watchful his ten-year-old son was the whole time. He was always there with the right tool, or taking away something that was no longer needed, or asking whether a particular choice his dad made was the right one. He wasn’t always right—sometimes he would bring the wrong tool, or miss the need for one, or misinterpret his dad’s instructions. When he would ask about a particular choice his dad had made, Keith might assure him that it was the right choice, or remind him that we had changed our intentions about how to handle the situation, or sometimes thank him for pointing out that he was about to do something wrong. His son knew the key thing—he didn’t have to be right, he just had to be attentive and to ask (respectfully) about anything he didn’t understand.

Our kids are nowhere near as watchful as we want them to be, and I’ve written before about our shortcomings as parents that have led to that. So one of the many projects we’re engaged in is teaching them to develop a watchful attitude. We not only point out things they need to do, we rebuke them—sometimes gently, sometimes harshly—when they fail to take proper initiative and handle those things without being told. It’s a drawn-out struggle, and one we stick with more through faith than through any evidence that we are winning the fight.

But there is evidence that progress is being made with all of them. I notice it mostly with Chris these days, since we are doing so much work side by side. Often he fails to do what looks like the simplest of things—move a heavy bucket that has been in his and my way the last twenty times we walked through a doorway; put away a tool we are done with; take the time to make sure the piece he is about to fasten is properly aligned; take out an overflowing trash bag. And yet there are many times when he does exactly those things, without being told, and I have to remind myself to notice them and mark them down as progress.

In fact, we’re getting to matters so subtle that I don’t always know how to explain it to him. Recently we were fastening pieces of drywall to our new closet frames. We fell into a pattern that is increasingly common now for us; he gets to do most of the execution (which means he gets to use most of the fun tools) while I stick with the planning. So I was taking measurements and figuring out how to cut the needed pieces out of our big 4’x8′ panels of drywall, while he actually measured off and cut the needed pieces; then he did the job of fastening the pieces in place with screws, while I mostly helped align and hold them as needed.

At one point we had just finished putting up one piece inside a closet over a door opening. Once it was fastened, he pointed out that it wasn’t properly aligned with the side of the closet opening, but was two inches short. I couldn’t understand why, since it was the same length as the piece on the outside which was aligned properly. He reminded me that on the inside there was a two-inch section we had decided not to drywall yet, and so when I had held the new piece up I had aligned it to the wrong side of that section, therby moving it two inches over from where it should have been.

It wasn’t an emergency, it was my mistake, and it will be fixable, but it was still done wrong. I asked Chris if he had noticed that his side of the piece was two inches off when he started to fasten it. He said he had, but that he had assumed I knew what I was doing. Whether or not he really assumed that, or just didn’t want to take the trouble of asking me beforehand if the piece was aligned right, I told him that this was exactly the sort of situation where I needed and expected him to take the initiative and double-check a decision I had made. The decision was my mistake; the failure to ask about it, so that it might be corrected easily, was his mistake.

Where does common sense come from?

Recently I told a correspondent that as their family was considering going in a new direction, if they would just put the best interests of their children first then everything would turn out OK no matter what path they ended up walking. I really do believe this is true, because I think that children are key agents in the sanctification of their parents. Maybe the primary agents. For many years now our overriding concern in deciding what to do next has been the welfare of our children. We make changes in order to improve their environment, to provide them with needed opportunities, or to build the kind of legacy that they and their own children can build upon.

Right now we’re in the midst of a large project whose details are being dictated by just such concerns. We could afford to pay someone else to get our Kentucky house into proper shape. But afterwards I’d know just as little about providing for my own needs in that area as I do now—and, worse, my children would continue to know nothing. So we’ve accepted the challenge of an incomplete house as an opportunity to add some new skills in self-sufficiency to the family arsenal. As I’ve said, we decided to use the period before moving in to tear out some closets and build some new ones, to texture some ceilings and paint some walls, to lay a vinyl floor over the concrete floor in the room off the kitchen, and to lay hardwood floors throughout the upstairs. None of it is particularly difficult work for two people (me and Chris) to get done, but it does involve learning a whole bunch of new skills, as well as the ins and outs of planning such projects, e.g. when and where to acquire the needed tools and materials.

So far Chris and I have framed four closets, not counting the one that we helped our friend Keith frame. For me it’s been an odd process, vaguely reminiscent of some of the times Chris and I have had learning about music. In both cases I had just as little knowledge at the start as Chris did. However, that didn’t mean that we could tackle the job as equally ignorant peers, trying to figure out together how to accomplish a task. I still needed to be the teacher, as well as the one who made final decisions about how to proceed, even if I wasn’t qualified by nature or background. So many of the things I’ve taught Chris are things I had just barely learned for myself, and the confidence with which I presented them to Chris usually exceeded the confidence I felt. Still, it’s worked out; Chris knows it’s more important for him to defer than it is to get things exactly right, and I’ve been upfront with him that my authority in these matters stems not from my expertise but from the fact that I’m his father.

And even though I don’t have much construction expertise to bring to the table, I am brimming over with common sense. At least it feels that way much of the time, when I ask Chris to do something, and then watch him try every last possible way except the one way that is obvious to me. Those are the times I have to remind myself that it is not obvious at all, that nobody was born knowing that the obvious-to-me way is the best way, that the obvious-to-me way is one more thing that needs to be learned. And then I’ll slow down, eliminate as much frustration as possible from my voice, and try to explain why it is better to do it that one way than the rest.

So, if Chris and I know equally little about construction, why is it I know instinctively how to hold and use a framing square or a plumb bob, why the thickness of a saw blade needs to be taken into account when you cut into a board, why all the edges of the studs in a wall need to as flush as possible?

To me it’s a matter of common sense, an understanding of the practical workings of God’s creation. I’ve never used a framing square, but I understand the concept of “square” (i.e. perpendicular) and can see how it is necessary to a well-built piece of construction. I’ve never used a plumb bob, but I understand the principles involved and see how it can be used to accurately transfer aligned measurements from above to below. I know that when you cut a board with a blade that it makes a groove, and that the wood that used to be in the groove is now gone (which can lead to cutting a board shorter than you expect, if you’re not careful). I have an understanding that things need to fit so that other things will fit later, and I’m not surprised to find out that where I haven’t made sure the edges of the studs are flush in a wall, the drywall won’t attach well to them.

Where does common sense come from? Living. I may not know anything about construction, but I’ve been as diligent as possible in the past fifty years to understand what I can about the world around me and how things fit together. Some of that has come directly from good teachers, although not as much as I would like. But I think it that much of it can be taught. Many times those in a position to teach don’t want to take the time, but would prefer to just get the job done as quickly as possible. To me, the teaching is all-important and in the process the job will take care of itself.

And so when you find me and my son exploring a new area as we are, you’ll find the work going very slow, with lots of time spent talking and thinking, because the real work is not getting the closet walls up but teaching someone how to think about the world around him.

To the dump

When it comes time to move our household we don’t exactly look forward to it, but it does offer a chance to take a long, hard look through our accumulated material ‘wealth’ in search of things whose value doesn’t even merit paying to have them moved. We don’t have to look hard.

It’s true that each time we’ve moved there has been less to discard than the time before, and I like to think of that as progress. For this move I didn’t even bother going through my personal library, since I had done so about a year ago and, using some pretty strict standards, managed to cull about 20% of the books there. But there was plenty of other stuff around that wasn’t destined to make the cut—things that have outlived their usefulness to us, things that were never quite as useful as we thought they might be, things that were foolish or impetuous to acquire in the first place. It’s a sobering thing when you confront your tendency to squander the family’s wealth, when you pick up something expensive and can’t think of anything else to do with it but throw it away.

Some of the things we no longer want will be sold in a garage sale in about ten days. Much of the rest of them are already gone, taken in two full Suburban-loads to the local dump, where for $6 a load they were glad to have us toss just about anything off a hill into a huge bin, where a machine periodically shovels the contents into a large trailer which is then driven off to some hole in the ground somewhere. So many periodicals! So much household equipment that was built so shoddily that it lasted only a couple of years! So many projects begun in hope and never even half-finished!

Amd so many books! I finally let go of a bit of my past by going through my 200-plus computer books, pulling out the ten or fifteen that might be of some value to me someday, and tossed the rest. Normally with books I’ll make some effort to pass them on, but computer books that are more than five years out of date are hardly worth the energy it takes to toss them into a trash bin. It felt good—not when I calculated the original purchase price of those books (which was mostly paid by my employer), but when I thought of it as representing a way of life I would never be returning to.

New neighbors

Even in the short time we’ve spent at the Kentucky house so far, we’ve met quite a few of the neighbors. One family we met as they stopped by to feed the dog we inherited; they also will be supplying us with fresh milk once the household is relocated. A couple of folks live a few houses away and just stopped in to introduce themselves when they noticed a car up at the house.

One fellow we’ve gotten to know a bit, Dean, was mowing our fairly large yard for the seller, and has continued to do so until we get our own mower moved their. He put us in touch with another fellow, George, who had the equipment necesary to cut down the weeds that had grown up in the eight-acre pasture area across the road. Both George and Dean like to take a little time to talk at the beginning of a job and at the end, but in the middle they are diligent. We like the talking, too, and so we remind ourselves that any job of our own that might be waiting is likely not very urgent, and not nearly as important as getting to know our new neighbors.

George is good friends with our next-door neighbor, Leemon, who is seventy-eight years old and doesn’t get around easily anymore, but did take the time to come up and meet us at the house. We sat in the only chairs in the house and visited for an hour or more, and had a fine time. Leemon is a lifelong resident of the area, friendly, sharp, knowledgeable, and wise. I tried to make clear to him that we didn’t come to the area with any big ideas, just a hope that we could make a better life for ourselves than we had in the city, and that we looked to the people who were already living their lives here for guidance and wisdom. That pleased him, and he was quite generous in his offers to help in any way he could.

The folks at Christ Community Church are also our neighbors now, but since they don’t live nearby we won’t have the same day-to-day relationship we have with the folks next door. Neither do we intend to simulate such a relationship by spending all our time driving over to see them. Visits with them, as good as they may be, will be more deliberate and less frequent. So we’ll be working to build relationships with the folks who are nearby, and looking forward to the time when we can walk down the road and drop in on a neighbor for a chat (or, more likely, to help them finish the chore they’re engaged in).