The creative process is rarely linear. So, too, with the spiritual life. In the final days of 2017, as I began a two-month fast from all social media and news, my friend singer/songwriter Blake Flattley asked me if I’d help him write a liturgy. I had no idea what part of the writing I was supposed to be responsible for. “You mean like hymns?” I said. “Oh, no,” he replied. “I’ll just rearrange some old public domain standards. I just want you to give it shape and vision and write the in-between parts and prayers.” I found myself oddly disappointed. I think I’d already started wondering what it would be like to write a hymn.
During that same stretch of time, a neighbor returned an electronic keyboard we had lent them for piano lessons; it was a hand-me-down from my mom for our own kids, who never played. I found myself gravitating towards those keys, noodling a bit, trying to recall the scales I’d learned in a semester of Piano at SMC a decade earlier. I pondered the problem of an opening hymn for the liturgy Blake and I had decided to call Fear Not!. No old standard said what I thought it needed to say, what I was certain people needed to hear. Then one morning in the shower, there they were: just the right words. They came in the form of a melody, a first verse and chorus.
The seeds of new music had been planted.
That same month, without warning or preparation, I found myself enrolling in a 2-year intensive training program of Christian Formation and Spiritual Direction. We took a field trip to the Getty Museum our first week. My cohort was supposed to be pondering a massive, chaotic painting but the art felt too noisy and not at all what I was in the mood for. I found a warm slab of Travertine outside and lay down to rest in the January sun. It was then I heard the second song: Enter Here. I recorded it on my phone. I sang it with my warbled chant-like voice to the group that night over wine and cheese. For the next two years, I sang Enter Here in my mind and car, certain that somehow, someway, some day—even though I didn’t sing or play an instrument—that I would end up giving birth to it.
I didn’t realize then, but God was already showing me the way back to my very own heart.
You see, ever since I finished my MA in Theology I’d been writing a lot of head stuff. Good head stuff, helpful and much needed, I think. More interesting and fresh than a lot of theological work. But it was not the work of my heart. Last year, I threw myself into a new memoir—hundreds and hundreds and hundred of pages written then excised. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds more, all in search of that heart-voice that ran like a pulse through my first book Baptism by Fire and my first liturgy, The Renaissance Service and Elijah & the SAT and happy are those. But that pulse was not in this memoir. Or maybe it was just buried under the weight of too many moments. Either way, it wasn’t working.
So I put it aside and, once again, I waited prayerfully. Expectantly. Wearily. Trusting that God would not fail to grant me the desires of my heart.
The beginning of our stories begin long before our own earthly lives, but I’m going to mark the start of this one here: it was a perfectly ordinary summer day—July 26, 2019 to be exact. I looked out the window of my little home office and saw Phil Cordaro pulling up across the street from my house. Cordaro, as in “heart.” He was not there to see me; he was there to give one of the kids on our cul-de-sac a piano lesson, just as he’d been doing for 15 years. Without forethought or plan, I found myself leaping out of my desk chair which toppled as I fled the room, through the house, out the door, and across the street to catch him. “Phil,” I said, startling him through the driver’s window. “Do you teach adults? Could you teach me to play, like, simple Taize chants, and maybe enough to do some basic composing? Some theory, I guess, and notation, or whatever I’d need to be able to write a song?”
We started two days later.
By the time I graduated from CFDM with seven other dear souls that fall, I had already wrestled Enter Here onto the page of my new manuscript notebook. Our final graduation gathering was at a retreat center in Santa Barbara. The cohort was asked upon arrival to put on a simple “gathering” in the chapel. Somehow I knew that Enter Here was meant to be an offering back to all those who’d been with me when I first heard it—a coda for our shared journey. I sang it acapella and all my dear spiritual direction friends joined in on the chorus. It was a kairos moment, to be sure. One that would sustain me for the the next several months, which were some of the hardest and most traumatic of my life. Two weeks after that perfect moment in the chapel, my 26-year-old daughter Remy, who developed epilepsy in her late teens, would return to the hospital for an intensive, invasive and prolonged depth-electrode study to prepare for a subsequent brain surgery. Throughout all those long hard days, I began to hear the whispers of a new song about the arc of her life and mine thru the lens of those hospital corridors. It would be called Full Circle Day. More songs came soon after and I began to understand that they were meant to be an album. His album. Seven songs that God had gifted me. I would “birth them” by asking different musician friends who have been important to me in different ways throughout my life each to record one that I would choose especially for them.
And so Life in the Key of God found its voice.
If you never knew just how infinitely creative and life-giving the God of all Creation is, now you do.
So many memories, so many tributes, but his life’s work says it all. Vin was born to do and be the voice of the Dodgers—a voice that at all times delighted in children and families, captured moments in time that were greater than our own first-hand witness, and always—always—spoke of players, teams, umps, leagues, and the world in a way that upheld the dignity of all.
Here, Kevin Costner recounts a life of vocation in words almost as eloquent as Vin’s.
May they never be lonely at parties
Or wait for mail from people they haven’t written
Or still in middle age ask God for favors
Or forbid their children things they were never forbidden.
May hatred be like a habit they never developed
And can’t see the point of, like gambling or heavy drinking.
If they forget themselves, may it be in music
Or the kind of prayer that makes a garden of thinking.
May they enter the coming century
Like swans under a bridge into enchantment
And take with them enough of this century
To assure their grandchildren it really happened.
May they find a place to love, without nostalgia
For some place else that they can never go back to.
And may they find themselves, as we have found them,
Complete at each stage of their lives, each part they add to.
May they be themselves, long after we’ve stopped watching.
May they return from every kind of suffering
(Except the last, which doesn’t bear repeating)
And be themselves again, both blessed and blessing.
—Mark Jarman, from To the Green Man
In honor of the 22nd birthday of my daughter, Remy Choate Davis, who has been for many both blessed and blessing.
A year ago today, I had the honor of giving a talk at the wedding of a couple who I’ve grown close to over the past few years. The bride, Tina, teaches core connection/pilates/cardio line dancing classes at the Culver-Palms YMCA. Joy and inclusion seem to spill out of her heart, creating ever widening circles of love in our weekly workout family, which now includes an annual potluck celebration of love at my house every January. This talk meant a great deal to me because it allowed me to speak to their courtship, struggles, and the beauty and truth of marriage. Nothing gives me more pleasure than seeing how God works in and through people that they may grow in the knowledge of him.
(click to watch)
We lost someone dear last night. A woman whose faith came down through her family, through generations, and shone out through her with a twinkle that could not be mistaken for anything else. I loved Rheta Stoppel, and I will miss her dearly. We first became close almost twenty years ago, at one of those mission/vision workshops that churches are so fond of and which, invariably, lead nowhere. I was at a table with her and a few others when the subject of heaven came up. I don’t remember what she had said that led my jaw to drop but I do recall my words, “Are you telling me that you were raised to believe that only LC-MS Lutherans would go to Heaven.” I was new to the church and to the faith, but I knew that would not be a lesson I’d be passing on to my kids. Rheta smiled as if just then realizing what she had said and what she’d been taught. “That’s what I was taught” she said. I cannot say what she went to heaven ultimately believing, but what I witnessed in her day in and day out was a demonstrable confidence in the words of St. Paul, that God desired “all people to be saved.” And she showed that by loving people and caring tangibly about what they loved—mainly, their children— in her work for and/or behind the scenes at Venice Lutheran School. Every time I saw her, she would make a point of sharing some observation about Graham or Remy, some little detail of the day that no one else would have observed, but which made my heart sing. I have no doubt she did this for hundreds of moms and dads, loving who they loved, so that they may, in their time, come to love who she loved: Jesus Christ. “In Him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain even of your own poets have said, for we are also his offspring.” (Acts 17:28) If you have ever attended a Fall Festival at First Lutheran Church of Venice, you have met Rheta. She would have been wearing a festive orange plaid shirt covered with pumpkin and spider and scarecrow pins. She and her lifetime friend, Suzie Dean, sold the tickets so you could play games or eat or buy things from the bake sale, which she always made goodies for. Rheta knew that the ticket to heaven was the grace of God, and that it was a gift to all who did not refuse it. If she were here today I think she’d say to all those families who weren’t yet so sure about what to make of the whole faith thing: “Today if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts.” (Hebrews 3:15) Today, my heart is a puddle as I thank God for Rheta, for her life, her witness, the strength of her convictions, her tireless service, and the twinkle in her eye. I have no doubt she’s with Him now, and they’re enjoying some really good dessert.