Saturday, November 14, 2009

Church is Where the Wild Things Are

I just got back from seeing "Where the Wild Things Are". I'm not usually this reactionary (in blog posts anyway), but I've just got to say this: all church people should see this movie. Here's why:

The church is supposed to be tight. Not tight in the hip hop kind of way (i.e., "cool"). Not tight in the literal sense (i.e., "in very close proximity"). Tight in the sense of emotional closeness. The trendy phrase for this right now in church growth circles is "living in community". I guess that's not too bad a description. It'll do for now.

In the film, a boy visits a far off land with monsters. Really, they're just people with different personalities who look like monsters. They make him king. They have different dispositions and opinions. They wound each other (one rips the arm off of another in anger). They sleep in a pile. They build things together, and have fights about what should or should not be built. They leave. They come back. Some are not accepting of new monsters (owls, actually). So, they're pretty much like every church I've ever experienced.

One complains all the time. One is quiet. One is accommodating. They live in community, but it's rough. Toward the end of the film, one of the monsters says, "being a family is hard". They put up with each other's flaws. They are stuck in behavior patterns that they seemingly are doomed to repeat over and over again.

The ripping off of an arm was what really struck me as something common in church behavior. Not literally, of course. But, the kind of senseless hurting that sometimes happens when people live in community hit me hard. My wife and I have heard back biting comments about us from church people all too often. I've got to tell you that I don't think that we're that bad. We're certainly not as bad or inept as some church people have made us out to be. And yet, we still live in community with those people. Well, some of them. Some of them were at other churches we've worked at.

The movie ends with reconciliation of a kind. The king (the boy) leaves to go back to his human family. The aggressor of the film groans, as does the boy, both bemoaning their actions, the situation, and, in a way, the human condition. The aggressor, the monster, it is inferred, feels bad. Maybe he even learns something, like not to rip the arms off of others, like controlling his anger is a good thing.

Being a family, being a church family, is hard. I guess I can deal with the disagreements and fighting and event the snide comments if, when the dust settles, something is learned, something is resolved. What I've seen more of, unfortunately, is people being polarized, and nothing coming to resolution. Maybe if we could see ourselves in these monsters, maybe it would.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

We're Getting the Band Back Together

I found two bands this year that I absolutely love: Superdrag and Wilco. I'll sidestep the latter in this post: you've heard enough from me regarding them. I'll only say about Superdrag that they should be as well known as Foo Fighters, and that John Davis' second solo (and straight up Jesus) record is the among the best (read: THEE best) records ever put out by someone who loves Jesus. For real, dude. John's not always been in the faith, but a lot of the pre-Jesus Superdrag records reflect that struggle.

Superdrag had one big hit in the mid 90's, the post-grunge anti industry slice of pop called "Sucked Out". I dismissed them, and that album, Regretfully Yours, as some hipster/Beatles wanna be. After that, I didn't have to worry about it. I didn't really hear from them again. Flash forward to 2007, when some of my internet friends (also big music fans and Christians) are raving about John's solo record. I heard it and I was hooked.

During their decline, they had line-up changes, and then they were put on hiatus, which is what bands say when they're breaking up, but don't want to say it. The original line-up then regrouped in 2008. John had said what the Blues Brothers said many years ago: "we're getting the band back together".

I'm thinking that this phrase is kind of like saying "I'm having a mid-life crisis" or "I'm out of royalty money" or some other idea that is spurring you on to revisit something that was successful. Of course, the only correct reason to get the band back together is to create more good art.

Oh man, are Christians really bad about getting the band back together.

Not that they are assembling actual bands and going on reunion tours, but they are really bad (meaning they do it a lot) about dwelling on past glories and behaviors. Being a music guy, I've heard it all: "We used to do _________. Why don't we do ________ any more?" Or: "Back in '52 we did _________, and it was really successful. We should do it again in the exact same way."

But, when the goal is to replicate something that happened before, you've missed the point. With the Gospel, as well as music, your goal is to communicate. And, to do that, you have to communicate what you want to say in a relevant way, which will mean that you'll have to explain the Gospel in a fresh way. You'll have to write new songs, not just put out another greatest hits package and go on tour (I'm looking at you, Styx and Poison). In the words of Jesus, you'll have to reclaim your first love.

Music geeks love Bob Dylan, but regular folk can't figure out why he's still recording and touring. Well, it's because he's the opposite of those artists just cashing in, the opposite of those church people who are living in the past. Of course, he never had to get the band back together. He's been on the never ending tour since the 80's.

I have a personal interest in the idea of "getting the band back together": I want to do it. I still write songs all the time, and I want to play them in a band. I'm a little too old to want to do that, I suppose, but it's not about being young, but having something to express. I also want that for churches, including the church I'm at now, and the churches I've worked at in the past. I want them to regroup (if they need to), and do what bands who reunite should do, which is to get back to why you exist in the first place, and let what you do emanate from that raison d'etre. Jesus addresses this with the church at Ephesus:

"Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place." (Revelation 2:4-5)

I don't have a problem with reunion tours, as long as the artists have something new to say. Then again, I'm the guy that wants the band to play songs off of its new record.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Well Known Pastors and The Stuff They Say and Do

Being either an early or late adapter (never adapting when most people do it), I'm either usually really early or late to trends and pop culture, and even popular church culture. For example, I was early on Rob Bell (thanks to my wife finding "Velvet Elvis" in a Barnes & Noble), and late to Shane Claiborne. So late on Shane, in fact, that I'm just now reading "The Irresistible Revolution". I didn't even buy the book. I found it laying around the church.

A couple of blog posts are of interest, including this one at Church Marketing Sucks. It's all about North Point Community Church building a $5 million bridge for improved parking and traffic flow at their facility that holds thousands of folks every Sunday. For me, being smack in the middle of Shane's book, but always having a nagging feeling about how churches spend their money, I've got to ask: Really? You're really going to do that?

Sarah Silverman (comedian) has proposed that the Vatican do what Jesus told us to do and feed the poor. How? Sell the Vatican. It's a silly three minute clip that I won't link here because of language content, but it's very tongue in cheek, and parts of it are funny. And, in its weird little way, it begs the question: why do churches have (or are asking for) all kinds of money while people are starving? Claiborne's book echoes that sentiment.

I think I could argue the other side, too: people need to know Jesus. Unchurched people have all kinds of reasons why they don't go to church, and, in the case of North Point, one reason could be that it's a pain to drive in and out of their parking lot. I get it. But contrast this with Jesus telling people that if we are to follow Him, we must take up our cross and deny ourselves. It begs the question, what are we "churching" people into? Jesus was up front about the cost of following Him, and the expecations therein. Spending millions of dollars so that people won't be inconveinenced seems to send the wrong message to the unchurched. That message seems to be that we want to serve you, so when you decide to keep attending, you can expect being served again and again. Contrast that with people leaving Jesus because His teaching hard to understand or hard to live out, and you'll see the problem.

For those of you who are saying, "Yeah, sure, but YOU take a full-time church salary, and YOU work at a church with a nice facility." Yep, I sure do. But, in the words of Darius Rucker, don't think I don't think about it. I wonder how far is too far.

Rob Bell has been talking about things that churches don't like to talk about. His talking about those things is talked about here. What's interesting are the comments, which misconstrue what the article is saying so that an attack on Bell can be made. I won't explain it, but if you read it, you'll see it, and mourn another nail in the coffin of reasonable discourse.

So, that's the well known pastor round-up. Fascinating, huh?

And now, for no reason, here's a video of Bob Dylan playing "Saved":

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Wilco (the blog post)

So, like I said in the last post, I saw Wilco. First time for me. It was one of the best shows I've seen. Liam Finn, a multi-instrumentalist, chronic looper and rock and roll progency, opened the show. Very cool. Wilco's got a new record out, called "Wilco (the album)", which has a song called "Wilco (the song)" (more about that in a minute). My wife bought a tote bag at the show, which has on it silk screened "Wilco (the tote)".

I've only recently really been into Wilco. They've been on my radar for a while, ever since their first record, "A.M.". But, they never really clicked for me until the last year or so. Now, much like Superdrag for me, I'm trying to get ahold of everything on vinyl by them that I can. I know, though, that, initially, I wasn't interested. Let me take you back to 1995.

In the early 90's, there was "alternative" music, and the teenagers saw that it was good. They bought copious amounts of it. Most of them didn't realize that, since they'd mainstreamed this "alternative" (read: Grunge), that it was no longer alternative. During that whole time when all these flannel wearers killed glam rock, there was a whole other undercurrent, which was the "No Depression" movement. Well, maybe not a movement. But, it was its own thing. It was called alt. country, Americana or who knows what else. It was rocked up country. Twangy punk. Whatever. And elitist music snobs like myself saw that IT was good, too. But, most others didn't notice.

Out of old country, rock and even punk influence came this Alternative Country stuff, and Uncle Tupelo was a part of it. The Jayhawks, too. And some other great bands as well. Uncle Tupelo played twangy country loudly. And there were two main guys in UC: Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy. In a few years, deals were signed, tours were booked, a major label record was recorded and released, and the fighting and pettyness that success can bring reared its pointed little head. Jay wouldn't sing back up on Jeff's songs when they toured, they got into physical altercations, and so forth. UC split. Jay formed Son Volt. Jeff formed Wilco.

I read about all this at the time, and here's what I thought. Aren't two gifted songwriters better than one? Why are they such big babies? They're living the dream as rock stars. They were living MY dream, and they were being whiny brats. They were what was wrong with music, where musicians did their own thing instead of collaboration, and music suffered. I still think that somewhat today. After all, why can't artists work together when their best work was made together? Why can't churches work together instead of splintering?

Early on in ministry, I once suggested at a meeting of ministers in my town that we just all form one church, just like the early church only had one church in each town. It was so absurd to them, that they didn't even acknowledge that I said it. So, instead of pooling resources, manpower and prayers, small towns all across this country have 10-20 churches, most of them dying. Yeah, that's much better than my idea. Anyway....

Jay and Jeff split, formed two bands, and it was kind of like a divorce for music fans. I picked Jay's Son Volt, at least initially. He had his album out first. The single was good, and Wilco's record, "A.M", didn't get the airplay that Jay's record did. (This was pre-internet-as-music-conduit, kiddies). I stayed up with Son Volt for a while, bought CD's by both artists, but didn't spin 'em as much as other records. I thought I was vindicated in my indictment of both guys: their selfishness had allowed art to suffer.

Then I hear "Wide Swing Tremelo", Son Volt's best record. Then I hear "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot", Wilco's best. Then, I stand corrected. These guys are doing way better following their vision than compromising it for each other.

As always, there's Bible to back it up.

36Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, "Let us go back and visit the brothers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing." 37Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, 38but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. 39They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, 40but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord. 41He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches. (Acts 15:36-41)

Long story short, the Gospel is preached to more places because of the parting of the ways here. Some separation and subsequent segmentation can be good. Uncle Tupelo begat two great bands. I've read a few ministers and Christian authors lamenting the number of church plants that we have in U.S. They think that those church planters should use established churches, I guess. It sounds good, but those churches are so entrenched in their culture sometimes that they can't see any other way to reach out, if they reach out at all.

A friend of mine planted a church close to another church that I'd attended. He'd attended there as well, and had left the community for several years. He came back to plant this church, and, while in that process, talked to the leadership of the church we'd both attended (confused yet?) At the time, I thought, how could he do this? This is a church that has really cared for him. How could he plant another church (rival church, in my thinking) so close to ours? He knew something that I didn't, that our church, because of its traditions and conventions, just wasn't getting the job done, wasn't reaching out to the community and becoming a part of it. I didn't see it, because I didn't know that churches could do that. I'd never seen it work that way.

A lot of ministers I know don't like church plants. I have to say that there is a lot of people coming to Christ because of them, that may not have if there had not been a Christian presence where they were at. They don't have the baggage that some more established churches do. They don't have to appease any group of people in their church, because they don't have any groups in their church. They just have people.

I would also mention church splits in regard to this. Granted, church splits can be very bad, very hurtful, but I also believe that they can be a way to reach out, to give more variety to how we preach the Gospel, much like using different translations of the Bible to reach people where they are at. Church splits and church plants are not the same thing, but both can be used. Like Son Volt and Wilco, or like Barnabas and Paul, you may end up with something greater in the end.

Blogger Did a Bad, Bad Thing

I've been a bad, bad blogger. I've neglected this blog for two months, after years of blogging consistently. Bad, bad blogger. Swat my nose with a rolled up newspaper. Rub my nose in the chasm that has been created by my lack of words.

I have a feeling you are doing fine without my wonderful posts.

But, it's time to get back on the horse, I suppose. So, here's some housekeeping:

1) I've been enjoying Tim's posts at Church Voices about being a bad consumer. Check 'em out:
Be a Bad Consumer
BABC # 2: When You Put it That Way
BABC #3: Credit
BABC #4: The Long Con
BABC #5: You Probably Don't Need Credit

Sit back, read, and enjoy the deconstruction and destruction of group think.

2) I've been involved a lot lately in my research of songwriting, publishing and the music business. I attended Back Third Audio's songwriting conference, have had several songs reviewed by the wonderful folks at NSAI, and have been reading posts on Songramp and Songwriter 101. I will have some posts regarding this soon.

3) Since I posted last, I've seen Phish, U2 and Wilco. Great shows, all. Bob Dylan comes up Chicago way in late October. I'll be there as well.

4) I've added a bunch of blogs to my bloglines reader. Comixed, Up Next in Sports and People of Walmart are the funny ones, and they're all different degrees of funny. People of Walmart is also disturbing, unfortunate or confusing at different times. Lefsetz Letter is a music industry blog. Free Range Kids and Phoenix Preacher are self explanatory. Not all posts on these blogs are "G" rated, and I don't endorse all of the content, so I don't want to see any nasty comments about these links. We're all grown-ups here, right?

5) Question: If you aren't downloading songs from Daytrotter's concert series, why not?

6) Chynna Phillips records a Christian album. See what happens when I'm not paying attention to my blog?

Next up: a post about Uncle Tupelo.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

It's a Guitar Player Thing...

I just finished watching the film "Crazy", a biopic about Nashville session ace Hank Garland. Hank played on all kinds of records by Elvis Presley, Patsy Cline and a bunch of other late 1950's and early 1960's artists. He had his own hit with "Sugarfoot Rag" in 1959, and recorded a Country-influenced Jazz album the next year, with a quartet that included the drummer from the Dave Brubeck Quartet.

That jazz/country record was a big deal for its time: it showed that country guitarists were good, great even, to jazz musicians who turned up their nose at Country music for its corn pone simplicity. You hear some of Hank's licks on some of his records and you stand amazed, just like many of those Jazz artists did. Hank was a musician's musician.

I was just thinking today about how much I love to play, and I'm not getting to do nearly enough. I can't explain why it makes me feel complete, but a guitar in my hands immediately puts me at ease. I'm sure God wired that in me. It's wonderful to have something that you love, that you can do at any time, and that's portable (take that, organ players!)

Hank loved playing, as the film depicts, and as Hank's story goes on you see a talent who is probably headed for some kind of brick wall. Hank's brick wall was a car accident, rumored to be caused by a record label head for Hank's threats on his life. It sounds like a soap opera, but you know how those crazy musicians are. They're, well, crazy.

Hank recovers to a certain extent, and goes home to resume his playing, but he can't. He can fumble around but, as the various biographies of him record, he didn't have the attention span any more to focus on playing with the kind of dexterity that he'd had before. His time in a mental hospital didn't help either, as shock therapy may have robbed him of his greatest gift.

As I watched the scene where he fumbles his once easy playing, I thought of my grandfather. When I was young, my dad and I would go to his house, and a lot of the time he had a group of guys playing jazz tunes with him. I was young, so I was disinterested. "Who cares about that?", I thought. "Why don't they play some Elvis?" They never did.

Later, as a teen, when I'd take my "portable" monolithic CD player to family functions, I'd tune the playing out. My late teens found me playing a bit with him, specifically "All of Me" and "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?" I treasured it at the time, because, with my dad playing, too, this was family to me. This was MY family. This is what my family did.

While I was attending college, my grandfather started to have some memory issues and slurred speech. Eventually, he was diagnosed with Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease, a disease that slowly and increasingly impairs the mind. He would spent his last months in a nursing home, visited by a steady stream of family and friends. When I visited, he'd write down indecipherable notes on small pieces of paper, or tell a story of which you could barely make out a handful of the words. And then he'd pull out his guitar from the closet, and try to play a couple of simple chords, strumming unevenly. He'd mumble something frustratingly, and then put it back in its case, with help from my dad or me.

I'm not a big cryer, and I didn't cry whenever I visited him, or at his funeral. I'm just not someone who cries very much, if at all. But, at that visit where he tried to play, I felt the weight of it. I understood that he was not my grandfather any more. There wouldn't be any more jam sessions into late hours, and there would be no more jazz chords that I'd have to learn on the spot to try and keep up. So, I mourned the way that often do when mourning is appropriate: I play.

I know that what you do, even what you love, is not the sum total of who you are. But, for those people who have a passion and a gift, and whose identity is wrapped up in both, it's very hard to separate, either for them or for those who know them. I'm one of those people, and you may be as well. If so, you know you'd do that thing, that gift, whatever it is, all the time if your spouse or your job or common sense would let you. I understand.

I think the lesson here is that you should find the time, and find the way, that you can do your thing. Enjoy the joy that it brings to you. Revel in it, even. Not because it may be gone someday, but in spite of that. Or, find the thing that you want to do. It wasn't placed inside of you so that you could push it down until it shuts up. I always got the impression that "growing up" was code for giving up what you love. But, my grandfather, even to the end, even when he couldn't do it any more, never did.

Sometimes, if you stick around long enough instead of giving up, cool stuff happens. A few weeks ago, I got to play a couple of shows with one of my musical heroes, Mike Roe. If anything, life is teaching me to not give up.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Live from My Garage Sale

Yeah...I'm writing this post as I sit and wait for another customer to give me a quarter from a toy that my son doesn't want, or a CD that's outlived my interest in it.

There's also a laserdisc player. An organ. Computer cables. Old 78 records. Anyone need a corded phone? I didn't think so.

How (and why) did I acquire all of these things? Much of it came from garage sales, so there's a little bit of nonsense in that cycle of buying and selling. The books and CD's are being sold for a lot less that I paid when they were new. I paid full price for U2's side band project, Passengers, when it first came out, which was probably a $12 dollar investment. Now, you can get it only inside my garage, only until this afternoon, for $.25. That is roughly 2% of what I paid for it.

Speaking of my garage sale CD's, they are the CD's that FYE, Co-op Records and Allied Record Exchange did not buy. They are the albums that three record stores in two different states would not buy to resell. They are selling equally as well at my sale.

My son remarked, as he was squirming and sitting by me, that it would be great if you could buy everything ever. An adult in earshot remarked that, yes, it would be. And then, as if to underscore some kind of slight sadness, some unfulfilled wish, under her breath repeated the same thing. Knowing from anecdotes and statistics that wealth does not bring happiness, I pondered how life might be if I could buy anything I ever wanted. Maybe when I was younger, that might have been impressive. Now, I'm excited about having less stuff, not more. I was a little saddened that the adult who agreed with my child's comment was a more seasoned citizen, roughly in her 60's. I'm always surprised when I meet older folks who seem to have not figured what I have about life. They are the ones who should know better.

I sold most of my 8-track tapes. I never look at them, let alone play them. I have a ton of office books, mostly church or Bible related. Most of them I've never read. I'm selling my Mini Disc deck with 10 discs. I hardly ever use it. I'm keeping my portable MD recorder. I use that quite a bit. I'm almost appalled that we had enough stuff for two garage sales in two years. But, I'm glad that we've had them. Stuff is not the stuff of life. We had a few early garage sale buyers who, arriving ten minutes early, and driving by the house a half hour early, may not know that.

A garage sale tells you, yells back at you, what has important to you at different times in your existence. It's a documentary on your life, using not film, clever camera angles and narration, but items purchased and money spent. It's all on display, your dreams and schemes, your passions and pursuits, your hobbies and whims, and it's all being haggled over.

Remember when you got those Dr. Martens shoes after shopping for them for months? Now, someone is trying to get you to take less than the price you marked on them, which was already too low. And then you remember how cool it was to have them, and how you wore them out the day you got them. Or what about that band you really liked? You bought their CD's and shirts, saw them in concert, and now you can't give the CD's away. If you're me, you can't give away CD's of the band that you were in. This crap on a table represents time spent and emotional investment, but none of that context is relevant to the bargain seekers who are pilfering your items and messing up your neatly placed junk.

I once went to a garage sale where I found an old pair of headphones. These were the big kind, the kind that will shut out the world, and give you a headache for the trouble because they're so clunky. I used to love those kinds of headphones (still do) because they sound great. So, I picked them up, and noticed that the wire was a bit frayed and had electrical tape on it. I asked a younger woman if they worked, to which she replied that they were her father's, who was an airline pilot, who was now dead. "He was a great man who never had any junk", she said; everything he bought was of high quality. None of this was stated to make a sale, but to keep and affirm a memory of a person she'd dearly loved. My question not answered, I placed the headphones down slowly as she walked by. Clearly, I had touched a nerve inadvertantly. Those headphones had context, weight and history attached to them. She was throwing all that in for free, and maybe I should have purchased them for that reason alone.

But, they would have ended up in my garage sale eventually.

Friday, July 03, 2009

The Late Friday Night Ponderous Post

It's late Friday night. I'm done recording for the evening. The more pensive side of me notices that I've not posted anything in nearly a month. Given that I used to post every week, sometimes twice a week, I suppose I should say why.

I've been busy, of course. And, I've also covered most of what I've wanted to say regarding God, church and ministry. Music, on the other hand, still is a vast untapped resource. The podcast, UU#1, has done well, and people have listened. I hope to do that more regularly in the fall.

The big thing about not posting for a month is that it allows you to decompress your thoughts. I've still got a lot of 'em. But, I've been pouring my attention into songwriting, and most of my free time goes there.

Songs. I've got a ton of 'em. If I had to count, I'd say around 150. Many are not good, but some are decent. I watched a DVD today of my old band, Jonas and the Big Tree, and I was impressed. Not only was the playing good, but some of the songs were decent. I was encouraged by that.

My friend Tim mentions the book "Outliers" quite a bit. I've not read it, but I know the premise. Those who are successful have put in roughly 10,000 hours of time to become successful. They are also in the right place and the right time. I wonder if I've put in 10,000 hours in on either music or ministry. I think I have with music. I used to play guitar for hours every day. Sometimes, I still do.

When I was younger, all I ever wanted to do was play in a band. I didn't have to sing, or write songs, I just wanted to play. I still love the feeling of playing, almost more than playing and singing. I could do it for 10,000 hours (that's around 417 days) and not get tired of it. In the 23 years I've been playing guitar, I've never taken a break from it, never gotten sick of it.

It's hard to believe that I'm old enough to have done anything for 23 years. But, when God wires you a certain way to do a certain thing, it's quite believable. You want to do it a lot. I'm not quite sure that the Purpose Driven life concept is how I understand how we figure out what God made us to do. I don't think He gifted us for careers as much as He gives abilities to honor Him and enjoy life. Whether you get paid for it is quite a different manner. Ask most musicians. Or most people.

Then again, I do believe that you should do what you love, if possible, for money. For your livelihood. Nothing wrong with that. That way, you probably get to spend more time on it. It also might become a burden, but that's the chance you take. My goal is that, in some way, I earn my living from music (So far, so good). In that, there is ministry, even if it's not always full-time church ministry.

So, after a "recording session" (if my late night office recording can be termed as such), I'm waxing philosophical after a particularly rewarding few hours. It's times like this that I miss my grandfather, who loved to play as well. I'm grateful for that, and feel that his and my father's influence of music is a great heritage for me, and for my son. Yeah, that might sound a little weird, the word "heritage", but what else would you call a passion handed down through three generations (now working ont he fourth!). And, it wasn't like we got the family business. There was never any pressure. It just happened. Us Evans men like our music, and I feel that deeply.

Like Garth from "Wayne's World" (yeah, "Wayne's World") said at the end of a ripping drum solo at a music store, "I like to play". Put a guitar in my hands and I'm instantly more at ease, no matter what the situation. My question for you is this: what makes you feel like this? You don't have to answer it here, of course. But, maybe just ponder it: what did God wire within you that, when you do it or experience it, makes you feel right? God is the answer to the question of what makes you feel complete. I understand that. But, what did God give you that makes you feel Think about that for a little bit. And then, thank Him.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Good Music VS. The Music Industry

As I write this post, I'm listening to Derek Webb's "I See Things Upside Down" album right now. It's really good. It also wasn't carried in most Christian book stores when it was released. Webb uses some, um, language in his music at times. I doubt he'd get much play there anyway, although he might get more sales: he's best known for his work with Caedmon's Call.

I was recently asked by a church member regarding why I don't care for mainstream, top 40 Christian music. It's a hard question to answer in some ways: many followers of Jesus love this music, and many of the artists who record that music are doing valid ministry. To me, much of it is lyrically vapid and redundant, musically repetivitve and smacks of product, not art. But, that's me. If that's not you, that's alright. I don't want to denigrate your taste in music, or the ministry that these artists do. It's just not for me. If you're still fuming from my mini-indictment of CCM, launch your tomatoes at me in 3....2.....1.....go!

I listen to artists like Webb because he tells the Christian (and human) condition as it is, much like Scripture does. Most of what is popular, most of what sells in Christian music, talks about that condition in very vague and cliched terminology, if it deals with it at all. It seems that although ministers can talk about the sex life of their parishoners (see this post), you cannot write songs about it. We can preach against lust, drunkeness and for justice and mercy, but when your lyrics get specific about those topics, you're musica non grata.

Many artists translate the current music industry downturn into an indictment on the overt commercialism of music. I'd agree, although that's not the only reason for it. I do know that a lot of people my age don't buy a lot of new music, but listen to the old stuff. They say there is no new music that's good. I submit that there is, but labels aren't pushing it, even if there are labels behind it at all. Most of the artists I listen to are self-releasing their stuff.

This article in Christianity Today tells the tale. It's hard to feel sorry for the labels; they've been entering artists into what is essentially indentured servanthood for decades, as this article points out (WARNING: There is some "colorful" language in it). I hope their business and distribution models die with them, for the most part. They've created a culture where honest expression, which is what art really is, has to fit their rigid requirements so that they can return an investment. I've submitted a couple of songs for review to Nashville songwriters, and, while the feedback was constructive and true, it shows you what Nashville is looking for: simple minded songs, easily understood, with simple melodies and a bridge that is no longer than two lines. I can't fault the guys who reviewed my songs, they were right in telling me what I needed to change to get a hearing. But they've also bought into the thinking of music as product, not expression.

In July, a great artist, Michael Roe, will be coming to my town to play for my wife's birthday party, in a living room. A living room! At one time, I was sad that one of my musical heroes was playing in houses when he should be playing in stadiums. And, although I'm sure he wouldn't mind a little more success than he has, I'm not so sad about it. He talks to his fans on his website, he gets to spend time with people when he plays these small shows, and as a fan, I get much more out of the whole experience. Mike, too, is one of those Christian musicians who speaks to contradictory nature of the Christian life, and pulls no punches.

When I'm really struggling with an issue of faith, when life has beaten me down, I don't want to hear some vague anthemic catchy tune about how it will all be just fine. I want to hear a latter day Psalm or lament about the struggle. I want to be encouraged, but I also want to mourn. I don't always want to find the nearest escape for pain, but I want to be transformed through the pain. And I want my soundtrack through that transformation to reflect it, not try to avoid or ignore it. That's part of the reason why the music industry as we know it is dying a slow and painful death: it's escapism without a portrait of what you want to escape from.

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Uncommonly Uncool Podcast

It begins! It's episode #1. For our first time out, we're talking about the cut-out bin, a theme Uncommonly Uncool is not unfamiliar with. Download, listen and enjoy!

UU#1: The Cut-Out Bin

NOTE: There is also an archive to the right, so that all the episodes will be available there as well.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Neil Young and Biblical Sex the title: I would encourage you to remember the admonishment of great rappers of yore: "check yourself, don't wreck yourself." This post really IS about those two things, and the title is not there to be scintillating or titillating. The Bible does talk about sex (disclaimer: it does NOT talk about Neil Young), so don't blast me for talking about something the Bible talks about. In fact, don't blast me at all. In fact (again), while I'm asking for favors, could you get me a mocha? Thanks.

Good Ol' Mr. Young has had a storied carreer. He was called out in "Sweet Home Alabama" for crying out loud! It's the kind of musical journey that few artists decide take, and with the recent addition of his own autobiography, there has been a small garbage heap of material written on his music and artistic decisions. I'll keep mine brief, so as to keep the blog a little green. No more garbage is needed.

In the early 80's, Neil was in a precarious place. Punk and New Wave had given way to some kind of hybrid of the two with synthesisers added. Sure, Neil could be somewhat Punk, and maybe he had something in common with New Wave (not sure what, exactly), but keyboards that make those fake treble-y string sounds? Hardly. He'd also been arguing with his new record label, who no doubt wanted Neil to return to his glory days of sales. He did what so many of us do when we're at an impasse: he recorded a rockabilly album. Understand that The Stray Cats were already exhuming this genre that had been dead for almost thirty years at that point. So, Neil was at least in step with what was going on. He released "Everybody's Rockin'", a decent if benign (and short) ode to those early rockers.

The year before "Everbody's Rockin'", he released "Trans", which sounds like it was recorded (and rejected) for the soundtrack to the movie "Tron". It was Neil doing electronic music, most of the vocals processed with a vocoder to give them a robot-like effect. The story behind the disc is far better than the material itself: Neil loved the reaction that his little boy would give him when he sung through the vocoder. His young son, suffering from Cerebral Palsy, would give Neil more of a response when he heard his daddy's voice through a glop of effects. Being a daddy myself, I'd probably record that album, too.

But this kind of behavior doesn't always make for great art. Neil indulged himself on these projects largely in protest to his label, Geffen, who he eventually sued. When he finally did get off of the label, Neil had a return to form: He released "Freedom", which contained then now-classic "Rockin' in the Free World."

Neil's confusing period in the early 1980's was a distraction from his carreer, and a detour from his successful recordings. Fans were confused and rock journalists perplexed, and when he returned to doing what he was known for (and most would say what he was gifted to do), then he saw success once again. There's nothing inherently wrong with those album side steps, but they weren't what Neil did, they really weren't what he was about.

There was a recent news story about a church possibly losing its permission to meet in a high school. The issue is over their recent sermon series about sex, and promotion thereof. In the last couple of years, there's been a glut of churches (and news stories about them) doing and extensively promoting their sermons on sex, the married kind, anyway. They talk about how great it is, how to do it and what the Bible says about it. Many communities are hearing about these churches for the first time via these news stories. A lot of people are hearing about these faith communities through controversy.

Let me say it: I'm not a prude. I have no problem talking about sex, and issues related to it. But I do have a concern about all the sex talk: it's not what we're all about. And from the inside of these churches, it may not seem like that. But, these churches may be in danger of preaching what I'd call a Bread and Circus Gospel, dispensing portions of Biblical truth in a disproportionate way, which has the accidental effect of displacing focus off of Jesus as Lord and Savior. Sure, the Bible talks about sex (see Song of Solomon, of course), but there are far more pressing issues at hand in Scripture.

I've heard a lot of sermons where ministers mention how much the Bible talks about different topics. I've heard from different preachers that Jesus talked about children, justice, money and the kingdom of God more than anything else. How could that possibly be? Did he talk about all those things the exact same amount? Yes, Jesus focused on some aspects of living for God more than others, but do we really need to bolster our case by engaging in word counting? If Jesus talked about something even once, I suppose that makes it something I should know.

So, a Bread and Circus Gospel is telling people the whole story, but skewing how much you focus on parts of the story. Some sex talk is alright. But talking about that more than people coming to a saving relationship with Christ is dangerous. And talking about it more than taking care of the widow and orphan is just sad. I'm not saying that these churches are doing that, but they are promoting it more than their other programs, and they are certainly becoming more known for it than other aspects of Christian living. The phrase "Bread and Circuses" dates back to the time of the Roman Empire, where politicians would gain popularity through meaningless handouts and parties instead of getting support because of sound policy. Likewise, filling our churches with people because we have seemingly endless sermon series about how to deal with finances or how to have good sex seems like a distraction from being told that were sinners saved by grace, called to serve everyone. Which sermon would you rather hear? Which sermon should we preach more of?

Please understand this: I have no problem discussing the struggles that we face. I have no problem with talking about how we can improve our lives by following Biblical teaching. But if that's all we do, if that's all we become known for, we're apt to be seen as self help centers, instead of worship and service centers. We become like Neil Young, in that we're still doing something involving our giftedness, but it's only a part of the whole picture. In our case, we sometimes can focus on parts of the Biblical message too much, at the expense of the other portions.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Ode to the Know-It-All

I'm dedicating this post to the Michael Scotts and Cliff Clavins of the world, those of you who always know something we don't, even if we actually do know it. To you, the know-it-all's of the world, I send this post. It's your moment in the sun, the first you've had that you've not purposely and obnoxiously inserted yourself into.

You know who I'm talking about, right? If you are one of 'em, you probably don't. It reminds me of a commercial for the British version of "The Office" regarding the David Brent (boss) character: If you don't know someone like David Brent, you probably are David Brent. Much like his American counterpart, Michael Scott, Mr. Brent could not be wrong, even when most of the time he was wrong, clueless and inept. Cliff Clavin, of "Cheers" fame, had an endless list of facts that no one solicited or was interested in. Their know-it-all-ism took different forms, but the impetus is the same: they glean self worth from showing that they are knowledgable, they prove their superiority by correcting, rebuking and bombarding.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the know it all it its natural habitat.

These guys (or gals) interject themselves into conversations that they have no business being in, they make obvious observations and, most egregiously, they tell you things you already know as though you don't know them. I've worked with many, and I've been one, too. One particular know-it-all revealed to me that many drug stores were being built all over the country, "popping up like weeds" he said, two or three years after the proliferation of chain drug stores had been a news story. You say "so what?" I say day after day of someone telling you things that you already know, and telling you them in a condescending manner grates on you. Know-it-alls are the real-life Captain Obvious/Mr. Obvious. It's hard to deal with these individuals day after day, knowing that they are wrong about so many things, and yet believing that they are right, and also pushing their "rightness" on you.

What's even worse is when your friends seem to drift in and out of this state. These are people you like, but seem to thrive on telling you things they think you don't know. They clarify your words for you because they think you can't do it, or they correct what you say, and so forth. A word, please, to those people: You don't know what I know. If you did, you really would be a know-it-all. We all love you, to be sure, which is why you don't have to prove yourselves to us. Either way, there's grace available for those whose sin is ego, and that is the sin of the know-it-all.

Let me say this, and I ask you to take note: there are know-it-alls, sans ego. We call those people "wise". I've met a few of those people. They're great, usually elderly (but not always), and they really know their stuff without all the smug trappings of those who think their spiritual gift is omniscience. I absolutely love these folks. With great wisdom (and also great aplomb) they navigate life with the heart of a servant and the mind of an intellectual.

You had a lot of these kind of people in the Bible. I think of Solomon or Paul who, though flawed, had great knowledge and yet also had a heart for God, and compassion for people. Solomon in particular, compiled and/or wrote Proverbs and, to me, would have had to inject great humility in his writing, knowing the kinds of folly the human race can find itself entangled in.

Sin can take all kinds of forms. We'd all do well to remember that. Your sin might not be envy or greed or being involved in orgies; it might be ego. There was a time when I was younger when I refused to show weakness by admitting being wrong. I was insufferable, I'm sure. My wife's refrigerator magnet says it all: "Ask your teenagers now while they still know everything." To all you Michael Scott types out there, I say this: we love you, but you don't know every little thing! Maybe God didn't gift you with wisdom. You should let that be okay with you.

My point here is that wisdom is valuable, and so, dispensers of wisdom. I'm thankful for those people in my life, and I'm thankful for the example of those in Scripture. Utilize those people that God has placed in your life. Listen to them. And don't for a minute think that you're one of 'em.

In other news, we've hit 11,000 hits here at Uncommonly Uncool. As is our custom, we observe every thousand hits as a milestone. There is cause for much celebration, with fanfare and party hats and the like. Since I'm feeling in a celebratory mood, I'd like to shamelessly plug my band, The Double Downbeats. I won't do it again here, except for the link to the right. But, I'm pretty pleased with the little EP that we recorded, and I thought that some of you might like to know about it. The link to the right will take you to the band's page where you can hear the tunes, and maybe even buy it if you are so moved. The shameless plug Thanks to all who read Uncommonly Uncool. Stay tuned for the first Uncommonly Uncool podcast, coming soon!!!

Cliff Clavin on "Jeopardy"

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Spiritual Copy Cat


Confession is good for the soul. Really, it is. So, I have decided to confess a musical sin: I used to love Huey Lewis & the News. Not a sin, you say? Well...I still think they're pretty good. How 'bout now? I've stayed in my Huey Lewis sin for almost 20 years. I'm sorry, but "Sports" was a great album, "Fore" was a good one, and they recorded "The Power of Love" for the film "Back to the Future", which received multiple rentals from my house back when mall hair was not retro white trash. It was neo (or nouveau) white trash back then.

I don't have any Huey on my mp3 player (really, I don't), but reading a blog post that charted the labrynthian line-up changes of the Doobie Brothers inspired me: they had a guy in their band who used to play in Huey's pre-News band. And Huey and the Doobies (specifically Michael McDonald) have something else in common: they were both copied.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but maybe not if you don't get paid for it. Huey did. Michael didn't. It has to do with the kind of copying that's being done, and here are the stories of both artists.

HUEY: He was approached by the producers of "Ghostbusters" to write and record the theme song. They wanted something in the vein of Huey's hit, "I Want a New Drug". He declined. So, they hired Ray Parker, Jr., a decent R&B singer with little pop chart exposure to write and record a song very close to "Drug". Now, understand that commercial jingle writers and movie soundtrack writers do this kind of thing all the time: they mimic a song by shuffling a few lines of melody and apeing its style. They change it just enough that they can't get sued. But, the "Drug"/"Ghostbusters" situation is one where Huey won a lawsuit of copyright infringment, mostly based on the exact style and close melody of the two songs, even though the melodies are different enough.

See also The Rutles, wherein Neil Innes had to give credit (and publishing) to ex-Beatles, even though only one of this Beatles parody songs were close in melody. The style he copied so convincingly can't be owned by anyone, and yet the Beatles won. There's a great scene in "Jailhouse Rock" where a record exec copies Elvis' style on a record for one of his artists after Elvis plays him a demo he made. The copied-style record is released, Elvis storms into this guy's office, and the guy says, "you can't copyright a style, son." Well, maybe, but if your Huey Lewis or the Beatles...

MICHAEL: So, Michael McDonald becomes the defacto leader of the Doobie Brothers due to illness and a need for songs. Michael records this decent album with them called "Minute by Minute", it's a hit, and soon people like Robbie Dupree are copying the style and the voice. For the longest time, I couldn't figure out why "Steal Away" wasn't on any Doobie/McDonald compilations. The reason why is that it's not Michael McDonald.

See also Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots, although I love STP. I was pretty sure "Plush" was Eddie Vedder singing with a side band. The video didn't help, either. It's style hid what Scott Weiland looked like very well.

Churches copy stuff, too. Some ministers read books about how churches grow, and they do the same stuff, even though usually the author warns about not copying what they did, that what they did won't work everywhere, and so forth. Likewise, when we see good ideas at churches we visit, we want to do them. Time and experience has taught me (and any good minister worth anything) that if you steal ideas, you need to tailor them to your church. Or just not do them at all because they won't work. Wisdom rules the day here, and that's how you decide what to do. I suppose there's nothing wrong with copying, even in music, if you add something original to it.

The Apostle Paul encouraged the church at Philippi to do some God-honoring copying:

"Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you." (Philippians 4:8-9)

What's so great about this is that it's easy. While we don't follow certain people, we follow Christ, and we can learn from those around us who follow Him as well. Maybe "mimic" isn't the word to use, but certainly doing what other Christians do who are growing makes sense. There is this cultural shift that's taken place that, while at one time you might have been encouraged to copy the success of others, we now are so individualized that we look at copying success as weakness. We're so egotistical as a culture that we must, as a hippie would say, "do our own thing." Maybe we don't need to always do our own thing.

Some of the best musical performances I've heard are covers, recordings of songs written and recorded by other artists. A revisit or a rework that retains the heart of the original can be tremendous in that we learn from the different approach. Copying isn't bad, but we must copy well.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

No Fear VS. Know Fear (This Is Not a Mash-Up)


It's official: my son has been embarrassed by his dad.

It's hard to believe, being the ultra-cool person that I am. And, he won't admit that he's embarrassed. He won't tell me that another kid made fun of him for his dad walking him to his classroom every day, or for giving me hugs right before he enters. But, I'm pretty sure that's what happened: he asked me to not walk him to his classroom door.

His reason was that he was a big boy now, and that he doesn't need me to walk by him. So, maybe he's not mortified by our school hall walks, maybe some kid didn't make a comment, maybe he just wants to do something by himself, but still, the separation begins.

And I'm thrilled.

I'm not thrilled by his embarrassment (which will become worse as time wears on, I know), but I am excited about his independence. I was a pretty clingy kid, was almost scared of my shadow in grade school, and disliked most social aspects of school. My fear was almost irrational at times, like Bart Simpson worried that his the clown on the headboard of his bed would eat him while he slept. I do not want my son to be like me in this respect (but I'm also not going to buy him a clown bed!) Fear can be crippling, and if his skateboard riding is any indication, he'll be re-breaking bones in no time, which is a crippling emanating from not having enough fear!

Fear can also be good. There is healthy fear, the kind that keeps us from driving recklessly, the kind that helps us understand the power of God, even the kind that encourages us to obey our parents instead of receiving discipline. But those kinds of fears, if they can even be called fears, are really fears borne out of protection and self-preservation. All those "No Fear" t-shirts had it wrong, and for once, the Christian parody t-shirts had it right: there should be some fear, directed to the right place, and we should know it.

The founder of the "No Fear" brand died at age 49 from a self-inflicted gun shot wound. The impetus seems to have been that he was in great pain stemming from motorcycle accident injuries. It's hard to say whether or not the lifestyle promoted by the brand had anything to do with the way he died. Most would draw that conclusion, but I won't. I didn't know the man or his beliefs. What I will say is that he is a good example of what drive and ambition can do. But introspection and fear both have their place as well, but they don't get a lot of press. It's not nearly as cool to put that on T-shirts.

My dad used to have friend who called him "fearless". I'm not sure exactly why. But I remember wondering how that could be possible, how someone could have no fear, especially when I was so fearful. I'd see my dad do things like climbing up on roofs and think, "I could never do that". As I get older, I'm gravitating more toward my dad's nickname. There isn't much that scares me. Going to hell probably scares me the most. Not seeing my heavenly Father and residing with Him forever is on that list as well. I really don't want to miss it. I don't want to get my eternal destination wrong. I am afraid of the one who can throw both body and soul into hell. And that's okay. That's how it should be.

And for my son, too, do I want to see him have a healthy fear of God. And a healthy fear that keeps him out of arm and leg casts. But, I want him to have the balance that I felt like I didn't have when I was his age. He shouldn't be afraid to try new things, even knowing that there might be some danger. He should take calculated risks because, after all, that's what faith is, knowing about the possibility of something greater, even if you don't have concrete proof. After all, concrete can be as much of a faith buster as it is an arm buster.

So, I'm glad he's going to his classroom by himself. Soon, (but not too soon) it will be all about driving to new places, meeting new people, and taking bigger chances. Sometimes, possibly, his fear of God, his healthy fear and understanding of the power of God, will prompt him to push out of the nest, and take calculated risks. And when he does, his daddy will be so proud.

Applicable Scripture passages:
Matthew 10:28
Genesis 22:1-19
Deuteronomy 6:24; 10:20
Job 1
Acts 10:34-36

Monday, March 23, 2009

Do the Reconcile: Why Christians Sin

It's amazing where you find new music.

As I've admitted here before, I used to pay DJ in my bedroom, spinning selections from my stacks of 45's given to me by my dad. Those stacks were an education in 50's and 60's rock and pop. There were even Sun records in those stacks, and they got a ton of play time on my fake radio show. Sun records were a big deal to me, because that's where Elvis Presley started his career. I've not been able to afford an Elvis sun record yet (they are quite pricy), but I've got a few Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins Sun discs. They were beat when I got 'em (no surprise here; they were great) and I beat 'em even more. Those grooves are well worn, and now sitting silent in my bedroom closet.

I knew every pop and crack on those records. When I was 8, I started buying a series of compilations called "The Sun Story", a six volume set that featured the biggest, non-Elvis stars to record at Sun. I had them all by the time I was 10 except for one: Jerry Lee Lewis. None of the record stores had it. They had mulitple copies of the others, but Mr. Lewis was in absentia. I'd never even seen the record until my trip to Nashville last year, and I almost bought it even though it was ridiculously overpriced, just so I could complete my set.

It was in Memphis that I saw Jerry Lee (a.k.a, the Killer) two years ago. He was pale, walked slowly, and was aided to the stage by people who flanked his sides almost the whole way. I wasn't sure what to expect, but when started to play, it was like 1957 had come to rest upon the record store where he was playing. I've never, I mean NEVER, seen anyone play the piano the way he did.

It's amazing that he's still alive. After all, Jerry Lee's life story provides the template for Rock and Roll bad boy. Sure, you might know that he married his cousin (his 13 year old cousin), but he behaved badly in so many other ways, too: he married his second wife while he was still married to his first wife, who he divorced a month later; he set his piano on fire at the end of a set in protest to being billed below Chuck Berry; he once visited Graceland (Elvis' home) brandishing a gun and demanding to see Presley.

In "Walk the Line", the character of Jerry Lee Lewis (riding in a vehicle with Elvis and Johnny Cash) says that they're all going to hell because of the music they play. Apparently, this did weigh heavy for a time on Jerry's mind. Possibly because of his upbringing, possibly because his cousin, Jimmy Swaggart, rebuked him so many times, Lewis had this struggle of reconciling his love of the world with his love of God. Jerry's recorded a ton of Gospel tunes, possibly as penance, most likely as an honoring of the God he knows and loves but couldn't follow.

Jerry Lee, much like Little Richard and most of those early rockers, had such a grounding in church, had really learned their trade in church, that when they made it big, they had a great crisis of faith. They seemed to wrestle with their fame and their faith, and it came out in their music, on albums that contained songs with sexual innuendo and carousing along side straight readings of hymns. Those artists really personified in their choice of recorded material the struggle depicted in Romans 7, and the struggle that we face daily, that of the new creation being tempted by sin, and the contradiction of the two warring factions in one body, one soul, one mind.

We studied 1 Peter 4 this last Sunday, and talked about this very battle. On the one hand, we are to follow the example of Christ:

"Therefore, since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude, because he who has suffered in his body is done with sin. As a result, he does not live the rest of his earthly life for evil human desires, but rather for the will of God." (1 Peter 4:1-2)

On the other hand, we can't seem to totally do it:

"So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members." (Romans 7:21-24)

My re-reading of this passage allowed me to find what I'd not seen before. Paul says that, for a follower of Jesus, our inner being, our core, our heart and soul delight in God's law. Our core has been remade by the Lordship and saving grace of Jesus. The problem is that the outer lying areas, the hinterlands of our flesh are still warring. I think understand the fight a little better now. The biggest part of me, who I am really, doesn't relish in sin. I don't like it when I sin. But there is a part still lurking, on the periphery of me, that still wants it. It's a disease that you don't ever get rid of, but neither does it define you. It would define you without the blood of Jesus and indwelling of God's Spirit, but, because of Jesus, it's not first and foremost in your mind.

I think that maybe Jerry Lee let his core be overtaken for a time by sin. After all, if you don't fight, if you just lay down your arms and surrender, sin will just walk right in, set up camp, put up its flag and hunker down. Hopefully, in his more seasoned years, he's fought the good fight that he was taught to fight in his early years, before stardom and cousin-marrying got the best of him. For us, too, the lesson is clear: the fight is on-going. It never ends. As long as we protect the core, the inner most being, we're safe. We protect it by all the usual suspects: prayer, reading God's word and accountability. When we give up ground, though, the core is in danger of being overtaken. And when we wave the white flag, we're completely decimated. Sin is a warrior that takes no prisoners. It will conquer all at the highest cost if you allow it to do so. I've actually seen this play out, and it's no surprise that James explains it in this way:

"...but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. 15Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death." (James 1:14-15)

You can see in so many lives what happens when people give root to sin. Maybe Jerry Lee Lewis is a cautionary tale from which we can learn. When we give sin a little ground, we're sacrificing so much more than we initially thought.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Body Piercing Changed My Life (not really)

Gather 'round, kiddies. Let me tell ya a little story.

I was fourteen once, over twenty years ago. Man, when you write it like that, it seems so very long ago. When I was fourteen, I wanted to be like my favorite bands. Aerosmith had long hair. I had long hair. Guns N' Roses wore shirts from other bands. So did I. But, the guys from my favorite bands had something I didn't, and that was an earring. It was understood that, amongst the populous of teenagers into heavy metal, that a piercing in the left ear meant you were a rocker, a tough guy, or maybe a pirate.

A piercing in the right ear meant that show tunes, which was, among my friends, decidedly not cool.

Beyond all the "other people did it" syndrome regarding the piercing was that I thought I would look cool. I did NOT want it because other students had one, because almost none did. On my fourteenth birthday, my mom (yes, my mom) paid for my first piercing. I'd go on to do subsequent piercings myself, but this one came straight from the the Piercing Pagoda kiosk at Southwyck Mall. And there it was in all its glory, a long-haired fat kid with his left ear pierced in 1989 small town middle America.

Flash forward two years. Short haired, football playing type guys were getting their ears pierced. Included in this group were some of those who teased me regarding my piercing two years earlier. Obviously, a small metal stud in your ear meant you were a girl, even though I tried to tell them that a piercing in your right ear meant that. They didn't get that memo from Heavy Metal Central, however. They finally got the memo from Preps R' Us, though, that said left ear piercings were finally "in" in 1991.

So, to amp up my cool, I pierced my right ear, and then my left ear two more times. I would soon wear my Metallica shirts to a church I was invited to, and the rest was history. Two years later, all this stuff would seem normal, and flannel and long, cut-off jeans would be the new uniform, which I gladly donned. I fell into that naturally, and before the curve, as, like most lower middle class kids, all our shorts were cut-offs of old jeans. Flannel kept you warm in winter, and your dad probably wore it and handed it down to you, so you wore it, too. This was way before Eddie Vedder. Either way, I had long hair until I lost too much of it to pull off a long hair look. I stopped wearing earrings when I started interviews from my second church job. I no longer dress cool. I'm lucky enough to find clothes, any clothes, that fit. All the rock band shirts I want to wear don't come in 3XLT.

Understand that if I was thinner, not balding and not working at a church, my look would most likely be altogther different.

As Abe Simpson said, "I used to be with it, but then they changed what 'it' was. Now, what I'm with isn't it, and what's 'it' seems weird and scary to me." Except that I'm not scared of "it". Sometimes, "it" is what I like, not because I'm chasing after my youth, but because I just like it. My wife got a nose ring a while ago. She's not making a statement with it, or trying to reclaim her high school years, she just likes how she looks with it, and so do I.

But, what's great about it is that it's new. "New" for adults seems to be something that we're supposed to avoid. We're supposed to be late adapters. Not me. And not most of the adults that I spent time with. We're interested in "new", whether it's music or technology or even social trends. It keeps us somewhat intelligent.

There really is nothing new under the sun. But, as NBC told us a few years ago, if you haven't seen it, it's new to you. There is this great wonderment that kids and teens have because everything is new. One of the biggest problems teens have is that they grow up and think that they've learned enough. I've met quite a few adults who are in that exact spot, thinking that life, and God, have nothing more to teach them. They don't say it, of course, but they admit as much when they are resistant to change and when they won't discuss or debate.

The sadness of this is that God wants us to always grow, and yet we've created an adult culture in so many churches that says it's perfectly fine to not grow. In the film "Singles", Bridget Fonda's character says that age 25 seems to be the age where you find that time is running out to do something crazy. Sure, you can pierce things when you're fourteen, maybe even get your mom to pay for it. But try doing that twenty years later. Some people will think your going through a mid-life crisis, or that you've gone crazy. But, sometimes, you just want to do something different, and learn from the experience. And there's no better place to do something crazy, something new, than the kingdom of God.

Dig Abraham. Meditate on Moses. Old guys, both of 'em, who did something crazy when they were older. I read a comment on an article about U2 that blasted them for simply being too old to do what they do. But, as the song goes, "Age ain't nothin' but a number". That song was talking about being young, but it works both ways. When I really dug Aerosmith, they were already in their forties. I didn't even think about their age. Who says that U2's best album isn't ahead of them? Ageist elitists, that's who.

When God uses someone, he doesn't at all have a prerequisite of age or gender or race or even skill level. So, why exactly do we? And it's not just wondering why we have our prejudice for other people, but why do we have them for ourselves? Thinking that we're too young or old to do something crazy for God is our own creation, and sometimes an easy "out" to living out God's will. Don't let age get in the way of living, and specifically, living for God.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

The Sampler Pak Post

I've got several short things to share today.

First, Uncommonly Uncool, this here blog that you are reading, has hit the 10,000 mark. In the interest of full disclosure, I am including the posts from my old location in that total. It is the same blog after all. To celebrate, I plan on cracking open a diet Black Cherry Jones Soda.

Second, there are a multitude of musical releases I'm excited about. Pearl Jam's "Ten" reissue; Newly-reformed Superdrag's "Industry Giants"; U2's "No Line on the Horizon" may be pretty decent despite the lackluster single "Get on Your Boots"; The Lost Dogs' "Route 66" project (audio and video) and my own Double Downbeats release, "Get Nowhere". Maybe I shouldn't call it a release as much as a giving of CD's to a few of my friends. But, technically, I will be "releasing" it into the wild of the world. Or, as Elvis Presley would have said, it's "escaping", like a mysterious, Yeti-liked creature climbing out of the cave.

Third, the world is disturbing and greedy place, kiddies. From internet providers planning to get fees from large corporations for more bandwidth to my own phone company charging me $55 for phone internet that I couldn't even use on my phone at the time, we see that irresponsibility and greed are joined at the hip. Bernie Madoff and Rod Blagojevich are not alone in their lack of integrity, honesty and fairness. Not even close. As if we needed another reason why people need Jesus.

Fourth, God is amazing, as usual. A student shared with me how giving an offering in turned blessed him roughly five times over. As is His custom, He's teaching anyone with an open heart and mind how He works. Good on Him. And good on those with ears to hear.

And finally, there's a midnight showing of "Watchmen" this Thursday/Friday in K-Town. I'm tempted. I enjoy the midnight shows that our little theater in our little town holds. Hopefully I'll be in tow with my dark chocolate Raisinettes and my diet Coke.

I'll have a non-hodgepodge, proper post coming soon. In the interim, I'll leave you with Bret's karaoke song from Sunday's "Flight of the Conchords" episode. Enjoy, kiddies!

Friday, February 20, 2009

A Musical Conundrum

"I've never seen anyone lead worship like you do." -Anonymous Minister at a church where I worked

It was not, I guess, a compliment. There are plenty of people who lead worship like I do, but this guy had never seen it. I'm not the gregarious, in-your-face, Guy Smiley kind of worship leader. I'm subdued. I say things, encourage people to get involved, but I try not to draw attention to myself. I have been told that I'm not dynamic enough. But, what can I do? I'm probably not going to give my personality an entire overhaul. I don't think I could even do that.

There is this struggle I have with popular opinion. On the one hand, it's overwhelming. It's everywhere. That's why it's popular, right? We live our lives most of the time based on what other people think. What is acceptable now may not be the same as fifty years from now, or fifty years ago, because popular opinion changes. Tastes certainly change. Music tells this story better than anything.

When Elvis played the Grand Ole Opry, he was told by the Opry's manager to go back to driving a truck. A year later, he's the most well-known, popular singer in the history of recorded music. When the Beatles auditioned for Decca records, the producer said that guitar groups were on their way out. These guys were playing styles of music that hadn't really been heard by mainstream music listeners at the time, but soon they would be the biggest thing in music.

As a songwriter, I can't hardly stand a lot of mainstream music. It's simple minded and arrogant without a hint of introspection. I don't usually listen to most contemporary Country or Christian music, and when I do I can hardly keep listening. Overriden with cliche and unimaginative production, I quickly put on some Iron and Wine. Yes, I have my guilty pleasures, but most of what I listen to says something of substance, and says it well.

So, I have a conundrum here. I love to write songs, and I'm trying to break into the business of songwriting. In order to get anywhere with songwriting, you have to write in the style that people are already listening to. It makes me wonder, is there a place for music in the mainstream that doesn't fit the mold of mainstream music? I read a post on a songwriting message board where someone told a guy that if this were 1995, all of his songs would be hits. Now, he can't get anyone to record his songs. They are, I'm assuming, good songs. There's just no place for them now. I've got to tell you that old songs that are good are just as good as new songs that are good. It's the business part of music that has ruined it, I suppose. If you can't sell it, or if it's won't sell now, does it matter if it's good?

There's also a conundrum for church people of the same variety. We say that we should not change our Biblically based views of social issues, and I agree. God's word has spoken on so much of what is going on in our society. But what about our music? It should be good, right? What does good mean, you ask? I'm not sure I know any more. After all, I've been hired by three churches to lead worship, and all three have been responsive to my worship leading style. So, it's apparently good, but not good to the churches that have either not hired me, or those who have been critical (see the quote) of how I do what I do. I understand this is all subjective, but I'm wondering if there is some quality standard in all of this.

I think I'm confused here. I believe the goal of music is to express thought and emotion artistically, and new songs should bring something new to the table. But the more I listen to mainstream music, the more I hear more of the same. I feel the same way about worship music, too. It's hard for me to pick new songs because I want great songs, not overly repetitive or simplistic songs. Afer all, I'm leading worship for adults, right? I love new worship songs like "All Because of Jesus" and "Mighty to Save" because they bring something new to mainstream worship. But, for every one of those, there are five songs that are rehashes of hymn titles or verses of Scripture that were written about better in another song. But, we don't do those any more because they aren't good now, right? Allow me to roll my eyes with exasperated expression.

Originality doesn't seem to be a concern for Nickleback, most likely because when they've released the same basic song as a single twice, they racked up two hits for the work of one. Elvis recorded two songs by the same guy that had exactly the same melody, but different arrangements. Maybe it doesn't have to be original, but I'd have a tough time getting paid for someone else's work.

So, if I write lyrically complex songs, I might not get a hearing. If I dumb it down, I've got a better shot. I feel that way about worship songs as well. My present church excluded, I might get more acceptance playing what's popular in a worship service, and leading in a popular style, but I'm not sure I'll get the depth that I think God deserves in our worship times. Then again, why should I be concerned about it? What's a music guy to do?