“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” —Jesus of Nazareth
Several years ago I decided that I was going to give Paul Simon my undivided attention. For reasons I cannot explain, I had never really listened to him beyond what I heard on the radio and MTV back when MTV played music videos.
Since so many of my friends regarded Simon as one of their favorite songwriters, I decided I would download the iTunes Essential Paul Simon playlist and listen to nothing else for at least a month.
I was immediately taken in by the brilliance, complexity, and originality not just of the music, but of the artist himself. Paul Simon has been a consistent treasure in American songwriting for over five decades. I find that amazing.
Early this year, I decided I would do for Bruce Springsteen what I had done for Paul Simon. This would be The Year of the Boss.
One day I will take the boat to Ellis Island.
I will walk the pier and enter the station.
I will see the stacks of abandoned steamer trunks,
the rejection papers under glass,
the black and white photos of the mustachioed men
in their bowler hats, and the women with their parasols.
I will study their eyes,
looking for hints of their hope,
their fear, and their desperation.
I will try to imagine them standing on that same floor,
not browsing a museum,
but looking for a new world.
I will climb the Separation Stairs
and I will consider Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats.
I will think about what it means
to be a citizen of a Kingdom
I must leave everything to enter.
And then I will understand
that I, too, am an immigrant.
This past spring when my friend Stephen Gause (record producer, songwriter, and one of the kindest men I’ve ever known) invited me to work with him to turn Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent Narrative into an audiobook, I jumped at the offer because I wrote the book to be read aloud. Much of my own editing during the writing process came from reading what I had written aloud. If it sounded like writing, I rewrote it. I wanted this book to be something people could read to each other because beautiful are the feet and voices of those who bring good news. There’s something rich and lovely about one person telling the story of the coming of Christ to another.
Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, Pt. 1: The Sacramental Echo
Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, Pt. 2: The Letters
Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, Pt. 3: Meant to Live
Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, Pt. 4: Struck
“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” —Galatians 5:22-23
We sat together, just the two of us. The sun would be coming up any minute. We didn’t say much. We couldn’t. We were on the verge of bursting into tears, but neither did. What we did say was mostly of a light-hearted nature.
It was our eighteenth anniversary.
“In sickness and health,” I joked.
“Yeah, well,” she said, “it’s only fair. You stuck with me through four labors and deliveries. It’s the least I can do.”
A man wearing black scrubs and carrying a clipboard entered the waiting area and barked, “Ramsey. Ramsey.”
Together we stood and made our way to the shouting man who led us to the elevator.
“I’ll be right out here,” my wife said. “I’ll see you just as soon as they’re done.”
I squeezed her hand, gave her a kiss, handed her my wedding ring, and then stepped into the elevator as it closed and carried me up and away.
The man in black said, “If you have any modesty issues, now is the time to get over them.”
“By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” – Ephesians 2:8
“I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck.” – Annie Dillard
Everything was draped in a blanket of shimmering white. As a country kid I preferred the outdoors, so when this snow came I layered up to spend as much time in it as I could before the thaw. The air was bitterly cold—the dry kind that freezes your lungs when you take a breath. Everything was so still that my boots crunching through the surface of the snow made a muted sound as though I were in an acoustically perfect concert hall.
Our dirt road was socked in so that no one could pass, so I stood on my plat of Indiana farmland alone and uninterrupted. I walked to the end of my driveway to look out past the giant blue spruce blocking my view of the prairie when out of the corner of my eye I saw something. There on one of the pillowy boughs of that tree, amid the alternating layers of bluish-green and white, sat a gray speckled dove. I crept toward it. It didn’t fly away. It wasn’t until I was only inches from it that I realized the little bird was dead, frozen where it had nestled in.
With my gloved hands I picked it up and held it in such a way that if it wanted to take to flight, it could. It weighed next to nothing. I wondered if it was hollow. I studied it closely. A gentle breeze came and ruffled its feathers, startling me into thinking it had snapped back to life. I almost dropped it out of fear.
I started thinking about how the Bible talks about birds. I thought about how God must know the number of feathers on that bird if he knew the number of hairs on my head. (Mt 10:30) I thought about how we are fearfully and wonderfully made, (Ps 139:14) and how the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, (Ps 24:1) and how God cares for the birds of the field. (Mt 6:26) This was God’s bird. He made it. He was there when it poked its little beak out of its little shell. God aligned its DNA to produce feathers. He gave it instincts to find food. He gave it the proportions for flight. And he numbered its days—a number now expired.
In my own romantic teenage way, I found myself caring for the little creature, even grieving a bit the way a child grieves a goldfish just before the flush. I couldn’t shake the thought that God loved this little lifeless bird in ways I couldn’t comprehend.
So I decided to pray.
It started as a prayer of thanks for the magnitude of creation and for God’s attention to the tiniest details. But before I knew it, found myself praying for the bird itself. Like a priest presenting his offering to the Lord, I raised the dove up in my hands and prayed, “God of all Creation, you gave this bird life and you have cared for it all of its days. Now it is dead. If you wanted, you could bring it back to life. Right here and right now I know you could. It wouldn’t take much. Just a word. Not even that. So if it be your will, I pray that you would raise this little creature from the dead and give it new life.”
Then, through the vapors of my own breathing, I stared at the bird in my hands and I waited. What happened next changed my life and has been shaping it ever since.
“In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet, the trumpet will sound and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed forever.” – 1 Corinthians 15:51-52
We were not meant to die. We were meant to live. We were meant to live forever. That may sound absurd to many, given that we all do, in fact, die. But as a Christian I believe death is an intruder. I believe it is the wage of sin (Rom 6:23) and an effect of living in a broken, fallen world. (Gen 2:17, Rom 5:12) I don’t believe this is a blind faith either. As a pastor I spend time with many grieving people, and one prevailing emotion they all seem to share is that the death of a loved one feels wrong—like it’s not supposed to be this way. I believe they’re right and I believe the way our bodies fight to heal themselves when they’ve experienced something traumatic supports this idea that we were not meant to die, but to live.
A few weeks ago I had open-heart surgery. Something happened to me while I was on the operating table that has me thinking about how we were meant to live and not die. No, I didn’t talk to an angel or spend five minutes in heaven or have a prophetic vision. I had a stroke—a small one known in the medical world as a reversible ischemic neurologic deficit, or RIND for short.
“When times are good, be happy; but when times are hard, consider this: God has made the one as well as the other. Therefore, no one can discover anything about their future.” – Ecclesiastes 7:14
In less than twenty-four hours I will be lying unconscious on an operating table. My wrists and ankles will be in restraints and I’ll have a breathing tube down my throat. My chest will be open and a machine on a cart beside me will perform the work of my heart and lungs while a surgeon and his team attempt to repair, or if that’s not possible, replace my heart’s mitral valve.
Mitral valve repair is a relatively safe surgery, especially for a guy my age—major for me but routine for my surgeon, I’m told. I am confident everything will go according to plan, and I’ll emerge from the anesthesia sore but ready and eager to rehabilitate. Nevertheless, I have agreed to let a team of highly trained medical professionals stop my heart tomorrow in order to remove a part of it, and then sew it back up and start it again. So in light of that reality, I’ve spent the past couple of weeks writing letters.
Ten years ago I met a woman named Alice. She was in the late stages of a very aggressive cancer. She moved to the Kansas City area so she could spend the last weeks of her life close to her daughters. One Sunday Alice and her girls visited our church. She wore a floral print bandana on her head because the chemotherapy and radiation had taken her hair. I introduced myself after the service and she asked if I could meet her for a cup of coffee.
We met the next day and Alice told me some of her story. She had experienced more pain, loss, and grief in her fifty-one years than anyone I could recall, and that was all before she found out she had cancer. Somewhere in all her Job-like suffering Christ had taken a hold of her and, as she said with the joyful sincerity of a child, had promised not to let her go.
I asked what brought her to our church.
She said, “I want you to bury me.”
“You formed my inward parts; You knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows this well.” – Psalm 139:13-14
I watched the ceiling tiles pass overhead as the radiology nurse wheeled my gurney into the room where she would perform my echocardiogram. I remember thinking the dimly lit room felt familiar. This was my first echo and I knew I hadn’t been in this room before. But I had been in one like it. More than once, too. But when? And then I remembered—my babies.
My wife and I have four beautiful children. During the doctor visits leading up to each of their births, she and I were taken into rooms just like this one—peaceful, spacious, warm, and clean. We’d take our places—she on the paper-covered bed, me in the chair beside her, both of us wide-eyed with nervous excitement waiting for the doctor to come in and show us something we could hardly believe was possible—a live video of our unborn child kicking away in my wife’s womb.
The first time we went in for an ultrasound I remember being surprised that the equipment wasn’t larger, given the task it was built to perform. The sonogram machine stationed next to the bed didn’t look like much more than a low-profile computer cart with a few unfamiliar accessories neatly resting in their places. Surely a wonder like the one we were about to experience would require my wife to be squeezed into some sort of giant hi-tech tube. Or if not that, shouldn’t there at least be a luminous belly-shaped dome on a large mechanical arm controlled by a technician behind a wall of glass? This room had neither. There was just a computer, a display screen, a moon-shaped wand, and a squeeze bottle of warm lubricating gel.
Tradecraft: noun \ˈtrād-ˌkraft\ – skill acquired through experience in a trade; often used to discuss skill in espionage.
One long standing hope since the Rabbit Room’s inception was that this online community would become a place where we look over one another’s shoulders at what we’re reading, thinking about, listening to, and learning. In an effort to focus in on learning how to grow in art, life, and faith, I present this new Rabbit Room series: Tradecraft. These posts will look behind the curtain into the mechanics of how things work in the world of thinking, composing, engaging, and creating. I hope the content of this series will reach well beyond the arts themselves and into every facet of life.
Today’s tradecraft deals with critical thinking—specifically, reasoning and logical fallacies, helpfully and humorously presented by the folks at yourlogicalfallacyis.com. I found them through one of my favorite websites in the world—twentytwowords.com—which linked to a much more interesting high res PDF of the image and content I’ve included below.
The poster says a logical fallacy is:
“a flaw in reasoning. Strong arguments are void of logical fallacies, whilst arguments that are weak tend to use logical fallacies to appear stronger than they are. They’re like tricks or illusions of thought, and they’re often very sneakily used by politicians, the media, and others to fool people. Don’t be fooled! This poster has been designed to help you identify and call out dodgy logic wherever it may raise its ugly, incoherent head.”
If you’re anything like me, you’ll probably find yourself guilty of more than a few of these. Here they are—24 logical fallacies.
(Passion Week is upon us. We ran this post last year, and it occurred to me– a little late this year, I’m sorry to say– that it might be a good one to run again as we prepare our hearts to celebrate Easter. As a pastor, I have the honor of putting together and leading not only an Easter worship service, but also a more contemplative Good Friday service for our congregation. That Good Friday tenebrae service stands as a sober reminder that the greatest gift God has given His people came at so great a cost. The daily readings below, which reflect my best estimates concerning what happened during the last week of Jesus’ earthly ministry before the cross, take us deep into the drama, the hope, the violence and the unmatched mercy unfolding in God’s answer to our deepest need. I hope these readings help to immerse you in that story this week. – Russ Ramsey, March 25, 2013)
In John 10, Jesus said, “No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I alone have the authority to lay it down, and the authority to take it up again, and this charge I received from my Father.”
This is a statement worth testing. Does the Scriptural narrative tell the story of an inspirational man martyred because He was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and simply couldn’t avoid capture? Or do the last days of His life tell the story of someone intentionally offering Himself up, on His own terms, by His own authority? As we approach Easter, have you ever taken the time to really examine what took place on each day of the week from Palm Sunday to Resurrection Sunday? Here’s a daily reading guide for each day of Easter Week.
This past July, Emma Coats, a storyboard artist at Pixar, compiled a list of narrative wisdom gleaned from her years working in their animation studio. She originally released these insights as tweets, which accounts for the unusual abbreviations and contractions. Lots of wisdom here. She twote:
1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
2: You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different.
3: Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.
4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.
8: Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.
9: When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.
10: Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.
11: Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.
12: Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.
13: Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.
14: Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.
15: If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
16: What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
17: No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later.
18: You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.
19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
20: Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?
21: You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?
22: What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.
What jumps out at you? Do any of these surprise you? Are there any you disagree with? Are there any you would add?
“Read the confessions, the memoirs, the court room transcripts. There is always a line the scoundrel steps across and becomes a wanted thing.” — Leif Enger, So Brave, Young and Handsome
Last month, through the wonders of social media, I learned the sad news that my middle school vice principal had died—Steven Van Horn, or Mr. Van Horn to you and me.
It had been well over half my life since I last thought of him, but seeing his picture there beside his obituary brought back a crystal clear memory of what had to be one of the more formative moments of my young life. It was the day that man paddled me.
It happened when I was in 7th grade, during Mr. Fratus’s math class. Mr. Fratus had left the room for some reason, and while he was gone well over half of the kids used that as an opportunity to get out of their seats and move around his classroom with a kind of cavalier leisure that Mr. Fratus’s generation regarded as a corporal offense. Schools were meant to be places of order and respect for authority.
When the lookout (a necessary thread in the fabric of youthful scheming) warned, “He’s coming!” everyone rushed back to their seats and did their best to act causal. When Mr. Fratus walked back into the room, he regarded us for a moment and said, “Everyone who was up out of their seats while I was gone, out in the hall.”
In January, I wrote a piece about the benefits of following an artist over the course of his or her creative life. Charlie Peacock was my personal Exhibit A. Here is a piece Charlie wrote back in 2010 that dovetails well. It’s about the joy of following a piece of gear– namely, one particular Fender Rhodes– over the trajectory of its creative life. (As a bonus, Charlie also gives us a not-too-shabby mini-history of his early career, and also of the electric piano’s impact on music, offered in the form of hyperlinks.) Enjoy. — Russ Ramsey
This past April  I was in Los Angeles meeting with film producer Brian Wells and music producer/Idol icon Randy Jackson about production work on their soundtracks. Later that evening I met up with Svend Lerche and Ran and Ricky Jackson of The Daylights for Indian and good conversation. I’m working with the band as part of Twenty Ten Music‘s Film/TV partnership with Secret Road. Our most recent placement is the song “Oh Oh” in Rabbit Hole starring Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart, and Sandra Oh.
After dinner we headed to the band’s house in Studio City to listen to new songs. Like every band house I’ve ever been to this one was stuffed with gear, including three upright pianos. I made an obvious alliteration about a plethora of pianos. They gave me the Craigslist story on the instruments. Then one of the fellas, pointing to a little dining alcove said, “We’ve got an old electric piano over there.”
“There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when he walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was his mirth.” – G.K. Chesterton, the closing line of Orthodoxy
I love the detail of Scripture. I love the bits God has elected to include—like how Jesus ended his last supper in the upper room, right before his arrest, by singing with his friends. (Mark 14:26) And I love the mystery of what he has left out—like what ever came of Nicodemus, for example. (Jn 19:39)
I am currently working on the follow up to my first book, Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent Narrative—a 25 chapter retelling of the story of the need for and the coming of Christ from Genesis through the nativity. The new book will be a Lenten companion—40 chapters tracing the narrative of the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus as found in the four Gospels. I hope to release it before the end of the year.
The opening chapters of the new book take us into the early part of Jesus’ story when he was, for all intents and purposes, unknown to the world. Though we read it knowing what is coming, the people around him had no idea who he was or how he was about to change the world.
Charlie Peacock released his new record, No Man’s Land, this past fall. Charlie and I have been friends for close to twenty years, and I was a huge fan for years before that so I asked him for an early copy to review here. He was gracious enough to oblige. I imagined I’d listen to the record, mention a few key high points and invite you to pick up a copy.
That was a few months ago. Yes, life has been busy. But the reason I’m so late in getting to this “review” is because I’ve been spending a lot of time with the record, and it’s stirring things in me that have not so much to do with the record itself (which is, in my estimation, his best work—and for me, that’s saying a lot) as with how a great artist’s work works on those who invest in it over the span of time.
Consider Paul Simon. It was only a few years ago when I discovered Paul Simon. Sure, I knew who he was. I’d heard a bunch of his songs. I even knew I was supposed to say yes if anyone asked if I thought Graceland was one of the best records ever made. I knew all that.