NOVEMBER 10, 2019
Far Across Lake Merritt
James Johnson, trumpet
Kiirsi Johnson, horn
Amanda Arrington, piano
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My father was many things, but most were unknowable to me as his son. I knew he loved baseball with a passion, but he rarely had time to watch or play it. I knew he loved nature, especially trees, but I possess only a handful of memories where I was able to share time with him in the outdoors; he was just too busy. I knew he once rowed “eights” for the Golden Bears of UC Berkeley, and even tried out for the Olympic team, but I only remember twice seeing him in a racing shell. Sometimes, though, the fewer the memories the more poignant they are, and the more precious, as is the case with what I am about to share.
Jerome Denham helped found the Lake Merritt Rowing Club in 1961 along with other rowing enthusiasts such as legendary UC Berkeley rowing coach Ky Ebright. He lost touch with the sport for many years, but then in the last 20 or so years of his life he returned to rowing; he did this for the exercise, the camaraderie, the competition, and simply for the pride of being an oarsman. I accompanied my father to Lake Merritt to visit the institution he helped start and to watch him row. This well-maintained tidal lagoon sits in the heart of Oakland, and is surrounded by high-rise apartment and office buildings, as well as open park spaces. During my visit, I was especially struck by two things, and I have attempted to capture these in this piece.
The first thing is this: as with most expanses of water, there is a quiet sense of stillness that subtly contradicts the busy sounds of city life, especially as the sun is low in the sky and things start to slow down towards the end of the day. Water fowl settle in for the night, and the street lights come on, even though they are not quite needed just yet. Such was the case on this occasion, and my father was out in a racing shell in the center of the lake. Whatever the crew was talking about as they sat there preparing to row (and they seemed to wait there for hours just conversing) was known to them and them alone; only an occasional echo of their conversation could be heard from shore. There is a comfort illustrated in this picture that offers protection from a world that continues moving at an ever more frantic pace; to me, this was a picture of “safety.”
The second element was the rowing itself. There is much written about the bond between the members of a racing team; every person must literally pull his or her weight. Everybody in the boat must agree to row until the allotted time is finished. For one member to stop rowing in the midst of a session could be catastrophic, since one of the long oars could easily “catch a crab” and literally throw the rower into the air and out of the boat. And so, once started, the team continues as one organism, yielding mind and body over to the “brain of the boat,” the coxswain. Up close, this is a highly aerobic activity, but seen from a distance, especially when a team “finds its swing,” it looks effortless, smooth, and is a beautiful thing to watch. All sense of time is lost, and regardless of the actual weather, it is warm.
STATEMENT OF FAITH:
I was raised in a Christian home and came to believe in Jesus Christ when I was about four years old. I understood that I was a sinner, that my sin separated me from God, and that God had given his Son as atonement for my sin. As I grew older, my understanding of God’s word and its significance in my life also grew. Even at a young age, I realized the truth that I am incapable of earning my salvation; it is a free gift of God, not of works, and not something that I can boast to have had a hand in (Eph. 2: 8-9). I am often tempted to see my own testimony as being lackluster, since it does not involve a dramatic prodigal son type of experience, but I am always reminded that there is nothing commonplace about a sovereign God drawing a helpless sinner to Himself; whether He chooses to do so during the early, middle, or late stages of that sinner’s life.
I remember specific times where God challenged me in my faith and brought me closer to Himself. One of these was when I applied for admission into the 8th grade at a Christian school in the San Francisco Bay Area. The application required me to provide a written testimony, something that I had never been asked to do. As I pondered what it meant to be a Christian I was convicted that I really took much of my faith for granted; often trusting more in the stability of my family than in the inspired word of God for my hope and security. Through writing my testimony I came to further understand the significance of what it means to be a believer in Jesus Christ; to be a follower of Him, to know that I am not my own but am a purchased possession, and to see my guilt as no longer belonging to me, but being transferred to the sacrificial lamb of God (Rom. 8: 1-4). This was a real milestone for me, and it was at this point that I recommitted myself to follow after Jesus Christ with my whole heart, soul, and might. Soon after graduating from high school I transferred to Biola University where I was challenged to come to a more personal understanding of the scriptures. By this I mean that I was encouraged to make a distinct break from simply trusting in a Christian academic atmosphere to tell me what I should believe, and to start searching and processing the scriptures as the Bereans did (Acts 17:11). One class in particular, a course in Christian apologetics, was extremely helpful. I remember Romans 1:20 as being a theme verse for the course: “For the invisible things of Him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhood, so that they are without excuse.” To understand that God has revealed Himself in so many ways, and is not so “invisible” as we might at first imagine, was quite a revelation for me. I am careful to remember that reason must never replace faith in Christ as our hope of salvation, but it is nevertheless comforting to know that the heavens do declare the glory of God (Psalm 19); that God does not leave us without references to Himself. Of course, the most important of these references is not nature, but is the Word of God.
Looking back I am humbled to see the hand of God working in my life from the very beginning. I believe that it was by no strength of my own that I came to Christ, but that God in His grace drew me to Himself (Eph.. 1: 4-9). I understand that Christians continue to struggle with sin, and I am no exception. I take great encouragement from having an advocate with the Father (I John 2:1), and am committed to making every effort to walking in the spirit and not in the flesh (Eph. 4: 22-24).
Twice winner of the American Prize (Wind Ensemble 2018, Chamber Music 2019), Robert Denham writes music that borrows from an eclectic array of sources including jazz, medieval chant, and everything in between. He has worked with a wide range of ensembles including Pacific Symphony, the Kansas State University Wind Ensemble, and the Cambrian Symphony. Recordings include “It’s Alive” (six works for low brass featuring bass trombonist Ilan Morgenstern), “New Music for Flute and Piano” (flutist Brian Bensing), and “Sutter Creek: 21 Songs for Baritone and Piano (Tyler Thompson and Emily Helvey). Dr. Denham holds degrees in composition from UCLA and the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music, with a BM in trumpet performance from Biola University. He currently serves as Associate Professor of Theory and Composition at the Biola Conservatory.