Saturday, December 21, 2013

Favorite Albums of 2013

December is always a good time to look back on things that have made an impact on you over the past 12 months. Since music is such an integral part of my life, I thought I'd see what my "most played" albums were and share them with you.

Best New Artist: The Lone Bellow
I have never been a country fan, but I grew up listening to it quite a bit (thanks, Dad!). I still avoid your typical country artists as much as possible, but I am a fan of the new folk movement, as well as some of the more interesting and artistic country artists.

The Lone Bellow bills itself as "Brooklyn country," and it somehow fits. Their tight harmonies and steel-y instrumentation are fantastic...nearly as good as their lyrics. Frontman Zach Williams wrote many of the songs based off his wife's near-fatal horseback riding accident, scribbling thoughts and lines into a journal throughout the ordeal. The music that has come from those songs makes for soulful, honest, and yet-somehow-hopeful lyrics.

Favorite track: "Green Eyes and a Heart of Gold."

Best New Worship
Obviously, as a worship leader, I listen to a lot of worship music. When you've been doing this for a while, it shouldn't surprise you to know that it takes something special to impress an old, cynical church musician like me. Though the bands below don't exhaust all the decent worship music that came out this year, these three stand out.

The Digital Age
The first concert I paid to go to with my own money was a David Crowder*Band concert. I've spent my own money on many more DC*B shows after that. So to say that I was seriously bummed out when I heard that they were "breaking up" would be an understatement.

Fortunately, although David Crowder and the band were going separate ways, it didn't mean that they were done making music. Crowder's new album comes out in 2014, but the rest of the *Band formed The Digital Age. Their first outing is a concept album around the themes of "Evening and Morning," i.e. the liturgical day. They are one of the few bands that can we re-do an already popular song - such as All Sons and Daughters' "All the Poor and Powerless" - and do it in such a way that's both familiar and interesting.

Favorite track: "Believe."

Hillsong Young and Free
I've said for a few years that the next trend in modern worship music is going to be the dance-pop sound that you hear on the radio so often. Soaring synths, four-on-the-floor digital bass drum thumps, obnoxiously-catchy lyrical licks. A couple of churches and worship bands have tried to pull this off with mixed success (I'm looking at you Newsboys).

The youth group of the uber-successful Hillsong Church has their own worship team (of course) and they have at last released their first album that absolutely nails dance-pop worship. They create a soundscape that at once accurately follows the musical zeitgeist as well as avoids an easy rip-off of actual pop artists.

The question of "attainability" for typical, average churches always comes up with albums like these. But for once that necessarily wasn't Hillsong's intent nor should it have been. This album proved that Christian artists can make music with the best of them. It may have taken years to prove that point, but the point remains.

Favorite track: "Alive."

Honorable Mentions: Dustin Kensrue; Hillsong United "Zion: Acoustic Sessions."

Favorite Soundtrack: Broadchurch, Olafur Arnalds
When you write as much as I do, you have to invest in some good "background music" without lyrics, that doesn't cry for attention, and isn't interesting enough to draw you away from the work at hand.

Arnald's soundtrack to the iTV miniseries Broadchurch fits none of those requirements. His soundtrack is so unique from anything else in film and television that it stands on its own as a musical achievement. It's brooding instead of in-your-face; it uses motifs without using them to death (John Williams, you could use this lesson); its haunting without being creepy.

Favorite Track: "Suspects."

Honorable Mentions: Hans Zimmer, "Man of Steel"; Murray Gold, "Doctor Who Series 7."

Overall New Favorite: Sleeping at Last - The Atlas EPs
I'm not entirely sure how I even came across Sleeping at Last; I'm less sure how I missed it for so long. 

Sleeping at Last is made up of one member, Ryan O'Neal. The genre is best defined as "indie rock," though this really does little justice to everything Sleeping at Last achieves. A mix of orchestral, folk, and ambient sounds combine to produce soul-lifting melodies that just make you feel good. O'Neal's voice is unique without being overly novel; soaring without being cloying.

This past year he has been releasing a series of concept EPs called Atlas, each one focusing on themes of light, darkness, and space. It's in these albums that his lyrical skills truly shine. I don't know anyone who wouldn't have a better day by waking up to "You Are Enough":
“You are enough.”
These little words, somehow they’re changing us.
“You are enough,”
So we let our shadows fall away like dust.
“You are enough.”
These little words, somehow they’re changing us.
Let it go, let it go, “You are enough.”
So we let our shadows fall away like dust.
Favorite Track: "Light."

So these are the albums that I kept putting on repeat this year. What about you? What music moved you to tears, to dance, to worship this year? Let me know in the comments!

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Niceness Isn't Everything

From Storylineblog, by Allison Vesterfelt

When you can’t tell the truth about yourself, you cease to exist as a person. 
Being “nice” kept me from doing what I was made to do. 
Trying to manage my “nice girl” image kept me trapped, working to control other’s opinions of me, rather than doing what I knew was right. I couldn’t send an e-mail or even a tweet without hours of deliberation. I stayed on the margins of my life, scared to get into the thick of things, terrified that I was going to hurt someone, or offend someone, or mess everything up. 
I avoided jobs I wanted, parties I wished I could attend, and friendships I longed for, with the excuse that they could be the wrong job, wrong party, wrong relationship, or that I would make a mess of them. 
If I didn’t do anything, I couldn’t do anything wrong. Right? 
I’m starting to see how doing nothing is sometimes the worst thing you can do.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Holes and Transplants

CC Image Courtesy of Stephen Poff on Flickr
Most of you know that I was born with a hole in my heart (a congenital condition called Tetralogy of Fallot) that, due to the conditions that I grew up in, went untreated until I was 6 or 7 years old. This hole prevented blood from receiving oxygen; therefore this unoxygenated blood would flow through my body, unable to give my body's cells the nutrients they needed.

Clearly this is a problem.

Eventually, I was put into the care of an aunt and uncle who cared for me properly, ensuring that I received open heart surgery and had a healthy recovery process. The surgery was an all-day event that required surgeons to crack open my chest, sew up one hole and patch up another. And these holes were no small divots. One was the size of a quarter. In a 7-year-old heart. This was a big deal.

It was such a big deal, in fact, that I remember being a young Christian using this surgery as an analogy for what Jesus did to our spiritual hearts. "Just like I had a hole in my heart that needed to be closed, I had a hole in my life that needed to be filled with Jesus." Which, I admit, as a pious 12 year old, that sounds like a pretty neat analogy. Especially when I have scars on my chest to help give my point some more punch.

But this isn't how God works.

The prophet Ezekiel is given a message from God to pass on to Israel:
I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them; I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, so that they may follow my statutes and keep my ordinances and obey them. Then they shall be my people, and I will be their God (Ezekiel 11:19-20, NRSV).
From an early age, I made the mistake of thinking that all God wanted to do with me was stitch up some issues with my personality (my spiritual, emotional, soulish heart, the seat of my impulses and desires) and send me on my way. 

But God doesn't mess around with stitches and patches.

Our God is the God of heart transplants.

It would be nice if we could reduce God's work in our lives to that of a finger against a leak, a plug in a hole. It would make the Divine work in our lives a lot easier to manage. Shuffle some issues over here, move over some problems over there, make some time every once in a while on a Sunday, and voila, a Life Improved By God.™

But God is not really into life improvement. God desires - demands - much more of us than this. And not just because He is a needy or demanding God. The fact of the matter is that our hearts are far more screwed up than a few holes or some blockage or a little too much cholesterol. No, our hearts have turned to stone. They can't pump blood at all. Which means, in spiritual terms, they can't even begin to be aware of God's presence and work in our lives, much less respond to His presence.* Remember, it was Jesus who said we had to born all over again (John 3).

What must happen is not just a plug-the-hole kind of spirituality that has just enough room for God. It calls for a complete transplant, a removal of the old, and a replacement with the new.

*This is the theological idea of total depravity. We'll talk about that soon.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Thoughtful Inaction

There was one these ancient things in the apartment
 I lived in from a very early age.
Recently I have spent entirely too much time thinking about writing more than actually writing more. I suppose that this is a touchstone of the human experience. We spend exponentially more time thinking - dreaming, wishing - about the things we'd like to do - experience, achieve - than we actually spend time doing those things.

Is that all bad? I would argue that, up to a point, no, it's not all bad. I think we're all well aware that if we acted on each impulse or "great idea" we came up with, then we'd all be in heaps more trouble than we already are. Ideas take processing. Thoughts need chewing. Sometimes the wisest action we can take is a well planned moment of inaction.

But - and I'm preaching to myself here - "thoughtful inaction" can soon become an excuse for well-pondered lack of effort. I've enjoyed writing for as long as I can remember. I have journals that I started keeping from second grade. As my brother reminded me today, I began writing science fiction since fifth grade (ripping off character names and plot ideas from someone else's creativity; Hollywood calls it a "reboot"; my critics called it "lack of imagination"). 

When I was fourteen or so I bought "The Writer's Guide to the Christian Publishing Market" and began submitting unsolicited articles to magazines. Boy, I was pretentious back then. (But not now, no, of course not, don't be silly). 

I've been published exactly once and it was a great feeling; a really great feeling in fact. But pretty much ever since then I've stopped writing for anything but what has been assigned to me ("Write this paper"; "Turn in this this assignment;" "Craft this sermon"; "Sign this birthday card"). And while that has only further helped craft my skills (my birthday card signature is awesome), it is not always the most life-giving thing to write only because someone else has asked you too. 

Even brownies, when forced to eat them, lose their sweetness.

And so I think it's time to put a little sweetness back into this whole writing thing. To attempt to write well, not because a grade demands it, but because it's what I would like to do.

Enough thoughtful inaction. It's time for thoughtful action; action in the form of well-crafted words. 

Here goes.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Lions, Dragons, and Reading Your Bible.

“Stop doing spiritual disciplines.”

Oh gosh, did I really just say that when preaching last Sunday? I think I did. I didn’t intend to say that, but I'm pretty sure that’s what came stumbling out of my mouth as I tried to articulate that you don’t need to convince God to love you, like you, or accept you. What I really meant, though, was “stop doing spiritual disciplines for all the wrong reasons.”

Because there are wrong reasons and right ones. 

Convincing God to give you something you want? Wrong reason. 

Trying to impress God with how spiritual and mature you are? You just proved otherwise with that very thought.

However that doesn’t mean the disciplines are all for naught. For those of you who were at church on Sunday, you heard me read a passage from C.S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader about the story of Eustace, the spiteful boy whose insides became his outsides - he turned into a dragon. Then Aslan the Lion, the Christ figure, invites Eustace to unclothe himself of his dragon skin and bathe.

To push Lewis’s analogy far beyond its intention, this is what I would like to suggest about spiritual disciplines. The act of Eustace trying to scratch and peel his own dragon skin off is much like performing spiritual disciplines with the idea that you are going to somehow make yourself better, make yourself clean, remove sin from your own soul. You can keep on scratching, you can keep on peeling, but that old dragon skin just ain’t gonna budge.

But when Eustace sees the Lion call to him and then Eustace follows....when Aslan says “let me remove the dragon skin from you” and Eustace puts himself under the Lion’s care…those are what spiritual disciplines are meant to be like. They are an act of submission to God. When we pick up our Bibles, or go to our prayer closets, or fast from food, we aren’t doing these things to clean up our own act or to somehow impress God with how holy we already are. Rather, we do those things to put ourselves under God’s loving—but penetrating—scalpel; God is the one making us holy; God is the one removing the dragon skin once and for all.

The disciplines are about putting ourselves in a posture of obedience, in a place where we are allowing God to do His work in us, on us, and through us. The disciplines are an active posture of submission.  Not to make God love us—that was never the issue. Not to make ourselves holy—that was never an option. But to let God wash us clean—as only He can do.