25 February 2014

Stepping Stones

On this day, two years ago, I stood before the woman who was about to become my wife.

There was a unique type of nervousness in my stomach as I removed from my breast pocket the crumpled paper with my vows, smoothing out the creases in them and in my thoughts.

It wasn't because there were over 300 of our friends and family assembled, watching us with eager expectation.  I've never really been a "crowd person," which is ironic since I play in a band, but in that moment, the people in the sanctuary didn't even exist.  The wedding party didn't exist.  It was just the two of us - me and Tara, standing in a spotlight suspended in the inky blackness of a vacuum.  She: lovely, young, and inimitably graceful in her wedding gown; me: lanky and somewhat groomed for a change, dressed in the wrinkled slacks that we (she) still lament(s) not ironing; she, smiling ear-to-ear; me, pensive but overjoyed.

It wasn't because what we were about to do would take wholehearted commitment.  The road to our wedding day had been an uphill affair, but the good kind - more a race against time than a trek through difficult terrain.  We had worked out all the details in two months, which was an insanely short engagement, but exactly what both of us wanted.  Why belabor what we were both ready to embrace?  The steps to approach the altar had been natural, transitional, and necessary.

I cleared my throat in that absolute silence, and this is what I said to my wife:

Tara, I think it’s safe to say that we’ve reached the point in our lives which we both doubted would come.  In the course of our story, we’ve spent time together, time apart, and time together once again.  God led each of us down unexpected paths, teaching us while we were apart to rely upon His sovereignty and to sacrifice what we want for what He requires - all in preparation for coming together once again.
Tara, I love you because you make me want to love Jesus more.  You have shown me over and over your strengths, your work ethic, your patience, and your indelible grace.  You have given yourself unerringly to serving me.  And so I stand before you today, right now, because I am ready and willing to dedicate my entire life to you.
 There are some things I’d like to covenant to do, today and forever, before all of our friends and family, and before God Himself.  Here goes.
Tara, I will seek to love you unconditionally, striving for patience and grace on the challenging days, and relishing the good days with joy. 
According to God's holy ordinance, I will cherish our love and friendship - for better or worse, for richer or poorer, and in sickness and in health - not because I have to, but because I choose to. 
I will live first for the glory of our Savior, so that you can do the same. 
I will partner with you on every task we undertake, not expecting more of you than I am willing to give myself. 
I will tell you when you’re wrong, because I need you to do the same for me. 
I will at least... try... to like country music.  Even though they all sound like Brad Paisley. 
I will seek to be an exemplary, Christ-minded leader to you and our future children.  All thirty-three of them. 
I will listen when you speak, weep when you weep, and rejoice when you rejoice, in the same way that God himself “bears our concerns on His heart.” 
Knowing that I will fail you, I promise to learn from my mistakes and do my best not to repeat them. 
Tara, I will provide for your needs, spiritually, physically, and emotionally.  I will protect, nurture, and sacrifice.  I will seek our best, and not my best.  I will always hold you when you need to cry. 

See, I wasn't nervous because I feared I couldn't fulfill these promises.  I knew even in that moment that I would fail and need forgiveness, but that's part of what marriage is.  Mistakes are just more stepping stones in the path across the river: only harmful if you don't move forward, because then your footholds begin to sink.

The truth is, I was nervous because this was truly the moment of becoming an adult.  18 and 21, first cars and first apartments, promotions and responsibilities - all of these mean nothing.  The moment a man takes his wife by the hand and steps up to the altar is the moment all childish things are truly left behind.  It is surrendering the "freedom" of singleness for the responsibility of togetherness.  It is surrendering "mine" for "ours."  It is humbling one's self to the point of being a full-time servant, the way Jesus did for us.

This is why I was nervous.  Because life was about to cease being about me, and I held a doctorate in selfishness.  I'd proven time and again that, although I claimed to love Christ above all else, I often yielded to my own desires before His.

But I wanted us.  In fact, I'd wanted us since I'd first met Tara - four years ago, across a breakup, tons of soul-searching, and ultimately getting back together once again.  We'd been through a lot - together and apart - and it had all lead to this joyful moment.

Stepping stones.

It's a journey we'll continue for the rest of our lives.  Except now we are blessed to travel the path together.

To close my vows, I sang this song.  It's nothing remarkable, but to us it is every bit the encapsulation of the promises we made each other on our wedding day.  I'd been working on the composition even before I asked her to marry me, and labored over the lyrics until the night before the wedding day itself.

This was how I sealed my vows, and continues to be a reminder of how I will strive to uphold them every day, every year, from now until death do us part.

Happy Anniversary, Tara.


If the thought had ever crossed your mind
It was just a guess, just a glimpse of time
We all know the servant rules the proud
The stoic breathes, the poet laughs out loud

But we
Are none of these
Are none of these

Patience is a virtue set in gold
The lesson learned; the joy to have, to hold
The more you have, the less that you will know
This periphery, or the warmth that fills your soul

We, oh we
Should know by now
Should know by now

We are waiting for our time
Time will always be ahead of us

This plan was never mine, I lost control
Our broken worlds, like sheep beyond the fold
But blessed are the ones who learn to mourn
You’re always beautiful in Sunday clothes

With God as our witness, and all of these
We stand as fractured jars, so incomplete
It's a mystery: these shards become as one
Let me carry you, and you can carry me

We, oh we
Have stood so long
Have stood for so long

We have waited for our time
The time has come to be
We have waited for You, Lord
You have always been
And You will always be
Beside us


20 February 2014

Forward-Thinking Spirituality

The blood drained from Saul's face so quickly he felt lightheaded.  Behind him, he could still hear the confused murmur of the crowds and his soldiers, although it suddenly seemed to be at a distance.

The victory parade had come to an unscheduled halt in the streets of Gilgal when Samuel had appeared out of the crowd, dressed like a beggar in his threadbare traveling cloak, but immediately recognizable as the Man of God.  Upon seeing the old prophet, an immediate sense of worry had begun clawing at Saul's guts.  Even though he knew he'd done nothing wrong, something told him that Samuel had come to rebuke him once again.  Harbinger of doom, that one.  Their relationship had been rocky at best since the sacrifice Saul had made on this very location at the darkest point of the war with the Philistines.  Admittedly, he'd acted hastily on that occasion, and he fully acknowledged that, but he still felt that the decision had been necessary and that Samuel had been too harsh.  The old man often took the Lord's word too seriously - too literally.

The conversation did not begin well.  Samuel seemed to think that Saul had not fulfilled the commandment that the Lord had given - to completely destroy the Amalekites and all their possessions.  Saul knew that he was working a loophole as far as the cattle were concerned, but he couldn't believe that God and Samuel both couldn't overlook such a little detail when the overall objective had been accomplished.  Enough slaughter had been done for one day.  Even he, Saul - a man of battle and carnage - thought so.  The Amalekites were beaten and their king was now Israel's prisoner of war.

And then, Samuel delivered the message he'd brought from the Lord, and the bottom fell out of Saul's stomach.

"W-what?" he stammered, searching Samuel's eyes for some sign of compassion, but the old prophet's face remained bowstring taught - full of anger, full of remorse.

"Because you have rejected the word of the Lord," Samuel said slowly, "he has also rejected you from being king."

The pronouncement felt like judgment.

Saul knew that his mouth was hanging open.  He felt the fury growing in the pit of his stomach - the fury of disbelief, the fury of acute unfairness.  Hadn't he done what was asked of him?  He'd sacrificed the lives of his own soldiers to defeat the enemies of Israel, but that wasn't enough?  The Lord's commands were impossible, then!

At the same time as he burned with rage, Saul began to feel the chill of dread sinking into his belly.  He has also rejected you from being king, Samuel had said.  What exactly did that mean?

"I - I have sinned," Saul said haltingly.  Was that what Samuel wanted?  A confession?  God forgave sins, right?  Maybe there was a way to rectify the situation.  "I have transgressed the Lord's command.  I gave the people what they wanted - hard-earned spoils for themselves and... and cattle for sacrifices!"

If Saul had hoped that last detail would ease the tension, he was sadly mistaken.  Something in Samuel's dark eyes seemed to break, like the snap of a twig that gives the hunter away.  It was like confirmation.  He said nothing.

Saul continued, more desperately this time.  "Please, Samuel - please pardon my sin and come with me to offer a sacrifice so that I can worship the Lord."

"I will not."  The old man's face crinkled with what could only be grief.  "You have rejected the Lord, Saul.  So the Lord has rejected you."

Without another word, the prophet turned to go.

The boiling rage made Saul act without thought.  Before he realized it, he had lunged at the old man and seized him by the cloak.

"Don't turn your back on me!" he roared.  "I am still the anointed king!"

Samuel responded, whirling back to face him.  As he turned, the fabric in Saul's grasp tore violently, travel-worn as the robe was from Samuel's repeated journeys from Mizpah to Gilgal.  The sight of the torn material halted Saul in his tracks.  In that moment, despite the untold horrors of war he'd witnessed, the frayed edges of the Samuel's robe were suddenly the most grotesque and terrifying sight he'd ever seen - the lips of a gaping wound, the worst he'd ever inflicted.

"The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you!" Samuel shouted, brandishing the torn edges of his robe at the disgraced king.  His voice was harsh and unsteady with emotion - fury or grief or both, Saul couldn't tell.  "He has given it instead to someone more worthy, Saul.  The Lord of Israel does not lie or have regrets, for He is not a man."

He left the statement ragged, as though implying the very words that Saul formed in his own mind: You, on the other hand....


Samuel's robe tears in Saul's grasp, foreshadowing the inevitable result of his disobedience

Saul's unfortunate story is representative of generations of people who have tried to follow God's command without fully giving their hearts to Him.  These individuals go through the religious motions, filling their agendas with ministry and obedience to God's commands at their own convenience, missing all along the fact that the Lord delights in the condition of their hearts over the quantity of their sacrifices (1 Sam 15.22).  However, God has always raised up leaders who have understood Him and His grace in a way the rest of their contemporaries have not.

The fact that the Lord desires worshipers who rend their hearts in sincerity, not their clothes in bathetic display (Joel 2.13), was undeniably harder to understand through the restrictions of the Mosaic law than through the gospels.  The law, after all, was designed to illustrate the impossibility of holiness, because sin makes it impossible to please God.  However, the point behind the whole process was to show the Israelites their need for God and to teach them dependence upon Him.  Yet while the rest of the nation was caught up in the methodology of sacrifice and ritual, of keeping every command down to the letter, there remained forward-thinking men and women who were able to understand so clearly this message of grace which God had offered from the very beginning.

These were the ones who earned their places in the Hall of Faith for the purity of their worship and their desire to please God above all else.  These were the men and women who were content to live in tents during their sojourn in this world, and to "die in faith," as Hebrews 11.13 puts it, "not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth."  These were individuals who saw what God truly promised - beyond the promised land of Israel, beyond the promise of Zion's protection, beyond the promised generations to come.  Moses chose to be "mistreated with the people of God [rather] than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin.  He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward" (Heb 11.25).  Abraham was promised a nation as his descendants, and a matchless land as their inheritance, and he lived to see neither promise realized.  Even Rahab, a prostitute in a Canaanite nation, saw what wondrous works the God of Israel was doing, and her heart was drawn to him, awakening within her a faith that would save not only her life but also those of her family.  All of these individuals lived by faith regardless of their circumstances, and regardless of the consequences, because faith recognizes the possibility of unmet desires while relying on the unfailing promise of God's faithfulness.

And then there were men and women like Saul.

These are the men and women who have lived by their own religious standards, with the mentality that they are owed something for their faithful service and who are offended when they receive none.  These are the individuals who redefine faith depending on convenience, their generation, and their own terms.  They forget that it is impossible to please God without biblical faith and instead rely upon something more certain to them - their own morality, logic, and opinions.  The real issue is that their hearts, like Saul's, are far from God, even though their actions may correspond to the commands of Scripture - even though they may daily study the Word of God with a magnifying glass.  These are the individuals who can justify any action, who fail to be grieved by their own sin, who instead see themselves in the light of personal validation.  They don't exercise faith.  In fact, they don't even think much about the future at all, because they are absorbed in the now - in their current struggles, their current situations, their current possessions.

Saul was a people-pleaser.  He was wrapped up in his own self-worth.  He was jealous, impetuous, and angry.  He had no faith in God - in His timing, in His deliverance, in His commands.  Of course, he claimed to acknowledge all of these things, yet chose to interpret them according to his own standards.

Whom are we more like?

We who live in the modern era have the wonderful privilege of the completed Scriptures to enlighten our thinking.  We have the luxury of understanding grace through the manifested Christ.  It should be, I daresay, easier for us as believers today, because - as the apostle Peter asserted - we have something "more fully confirmed" in which to place our faith: the Word of God revealed.  But are we forward-thinking in our day, the way Moses and Abraham and David were in theirs?  Are we content with what we have, or are we insatiably greedy for more of God, ever looking forward to the time in which we will cross Jordan's stormy banks and rest in our Father's bosom?  Do we live to die in faith, recognizing that we still only live in tents - that our home is still on the other side, and that we might not see our hopes and dreams fulfilled in this life?

We should maintain the patriarchs' forward-thinking spirituality and live in joyful anticipation of our Savior's return.  We should be "ahead of our time" the way they were, giving our hearts fully to God in order to give Him the type of sacrifice He truly desires.
Micah 6.8: "He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?"

13 February 2014

Self-Made Men

Bobbie Carlyle's "Self-Made Man"
I've been reading through C. J. Mahaney's book Humility: True Greatness with some of my teen guys.  The book is a short little text packed with some incredibly practical statements on humility (surprise).  As we were discussing the last chapter yesterday, I was reminded of the fact that humility is less an action than a characteristic.  It is certainly expressed in action, but is ultimately revealed in attitude.

There's an interesting correlation between humility and greatness, and it's not just a biblical concept.  The idea is that, in order to be great, you first have to be humble.  That's not just a worldly thought - it comes straight from the lips of Jesus in Mark 10: "Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all."  Whether that means entering a job at the ground floor, writing articles for free before attaining a salary, or simply being willing to allow somebody else to get the credit, the concept of laboring in obscurity in order to eventually achieve recognition isn't a foreign concept.  Its application takes on a number of different faces.  However, where the biblical and secular definitions part ways is in the motivation factor - the aim of humility and its definition of value.

Almost without exception, people see humility as a tool, not a product.  Humility is used to gain something - the respect of so-called "moral" people, the improvement of relationships, the quiet biding of time while waiting for opportunity to arrive.  Maybe humility is even synonymous with "patience," as though it were a guise that can be taken off as soon as its usefulness has passed.  More or less, it's a quality that serves to benefit the wearer - an additive or a conductor.

However, that's not what Jesus taught.  Jesus taught humility in exclusively selfless terms - humility as a lifestyle, humility as a means of expressing love, humility as recognizing the worth and needs of others above my own

One of the primary reasons we as Americans struggle so profoundly on this point is the fact that we continue to live in the waning shadow of the "American Dream" - AKA the do-it-yourself-and-don't-let-anyone-stop-you-from-trying-and-use-any-means-necessary mentality (for further reading, see Great Gatsby, The).  Furthermore, we've all heard and subscribed to the "self-made" terminology, which comes from a speech given by Frederick Douglas - a man who embodies the very definition he gives:
Self-made men […] are the men who owe little or nothing to birth, relationship, friendly surroundings; to wealth inherited or to early approved means of education; who are what they are, without the aid of any of the favoring conditions by which other men usually rise in the world and achieve great results.
To a degree, we all carry the same mentality.  Whether we grew up in want or plenty, there has always been a need for us to "achieve great results" outside of those things.  There has always been the need to determine our own self-worth, because - although the world owes us nothing - we'll be damned if we don't make them wish they did.  We all feel entitled to greatness, and we all feel the challenge of striving to be recognized amidst the infinite tide of other people all striving for the same thing.  We all want to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and define ourselves in the best possible terms.

However, I would make the argument that biblical humility doesn't provide us the opportunity to be "self-made."

Sorry, fellow Americans, but hear me out.

Self-made men primarily value, above all else, their own sense of personal authority and accomplishment.  In other words, we see ourselves as superior in mentality, focus, and ultimate purpose.  Our mission statement on life is that we have the best methodology figured out.  Christians do this through maintaining a sense of doctrinal superiority (i.e. "If you don't believe in speaking in tongues the way I do, then there is clearly an issue with your understanding of the Scriptures!") and quibbling of preferences in church government, church policies, and even church decoration.  Furthermore, we hold this assumed "right" to independent thinking over the heads of anyone who would challenge our opinion.

However, if we strive to be god-fearing men, we should value teachability above our own opinion (Pro 3.1-8).  Instead of insisting - mentally or otherwise - that everyone should share our view on an issue, we should recognize the potential fallibility of our own thinking.  In striving to be god-fearing men, we should value being swift to hear instead of always speaking our minds (Jas 1.19).  Our thoughts on a topic aren't law, and we shouldn't consider them as such.

Self-made men also expect praise for what they achieve, which is why Paul gives the astute reminder in 1 Corinthians that what we may consider achievements are ultimately blessings from God.  Besides, the kingdom of heaven is about equality – not elevation.  I never quite looked at the "last shall be first/first shall be last" passage (Matt 20.1-16) in quite this way before.  I always thought it was about rewarding the poor and debasing the rich, respectively for the priorities each held during their lives.  But it's really about leveling the playing field.  Heaven, while elevating us to a glorified state, also brings everyone to the same humble stature of worship in the presence of the Father.

Even in the Christian community - I dare say especially in the Christian community - we value praise for our accomplishments.  We want to receive recognition for the ministries we perform.  We want people to know about our spirituality.  I once knew a church that printed and laminated "tithe cards" so that anyone who gave electronically could still put something in the offering plate on Sunday morning, lest anyone seated in the pews behind them think they didn't tithe.  The fact of the matter is that it's not truly worship if that's where our focus is.  We should be content, as Luke 17.10, captures it, to be "unworthy servants" who have only performed "what was our duty.”  Jerry Bridges penned it so succinctly in Respectable Sins: "Are we willing to labor in obscurity, doing our job as unto the Lord, or do we become disgruntled over the lack of recognition?"  The god-fearing man checks his heart in this manner, seeking to give God the glory for anything the Father may accomplish through him and retaining no recognition for himself (2 Cor 12.10).

Self-made men pursue only their own desires.  Maybe that seems like an unfair blanket statement, but we all have an agenda.  Again, this struggle is not only found in the secular community: remember James' warning that quarrels and disagreements are, above all else, the result of the selfish pursuit of passions (Jas 4.1).  In fact, he cites gainful pursuit as the root of all problems in church bodies, and encourages humility as the end which we should seek instead.

Consider King Solomon, once the wisest on earth - not to mention the most humble: when presented with the opportunity to ask God for anything, he chose wisdom instead of riches or prestige.  However, once those things began to come of their own accord, Solomon set off down the path of elevating the pursuit of pleasure over the pursuit of righteousness.

Consider also Ayn Rand, who summed up the objectivist (AKA secular humanism in disguise) viewpoint by its moral purpose - namely the "achievement of your happiness."  She adds the qualification that the goal is happiness as opposed to mindless self-indulgence, because such abstention is the proof "moral integrity" and "loyalty to the achievement of your values."  Maybe what she is describing is reasonable, and maybe this rationalization is where most people fall - living reasonably, pursuing their own well-being but not to the detriment of self or others - and maybe that's a justifiable position to maintain, but it still conflicts with the pursuits of humility, which demands that we give of ourselves and not seek only to advance.

In fact, the god-fearing man should be prepared to sacrifice, suffer, and be content in all things - no matter his circumstances (Acts 20.35; 1 Tim 6.6-10).  As a matter of fact, Christ insisted that anyone who intended to follow in his footsteps would need to take up a cross on his or her own shoulders.  The Christian life is all about putting ourselves on the line - our physical and emotional well-being.  We are to be prepared to suffer, not because we love pain but because we love the limitless glory of God's righteousness more than the short-lived thrill of being applauded by fellow men.  God's goal for our lives is sanctification, not happiness - although when we are truly satisfied with Him and Him alone, happiness becomes transcendent joy, which persists despite our circumstances.

The reality is that if we strive to be "self-made," then we aren't relying upon the power which God supplies, nor are we recognizing ourselves as the work of His hands.  That's why we can't strive to be "self-made" and also humble ourselves the way the Bible would require, because the very roots of independence deny the need for God.  If we can do it on our own, we don't have any need of assistance - Divine or otherwise.  This is why Jesus' definition of greatness in Mark 10 is so radically different than what we have in mind.

In simplest terms, biblical greatness has nothing to do with image and everything to do with character.  That is, God's character.  It has absolutely nothing to do with ability - in fact, it has everything to do with lack thereof.  When we are weak, He is strong.  While we have a tendency to place "great" men and women on pedestals because they done tremendous things which have influenced us in some way, God doesn't see greatness as how many people we touch.  To Him, what matters ultimately is the condition of our hearts.

Consider Jesus' words to the disciples in Luke 22.  "Who is the greater," He asked them, just prior to His arrest in the garden, "the one who reclines at table or one who serves him?  Is it not the one who reclines at table?"  Logically, that is the correct answer, and it was exactly that position of honor that the disciples were fighting over.  There was no one present to wash their feet at the last supper, an error of decorum that would have been glaringly obvious, but no one was willing to get up and perform the task himself because of how degrading it was.

So Jesus turned the tables on them.

"I am among you as the one who serves," he continued, wrapping a towel around his waist and performing the ungainly task without hesitation.  Suddenly, he has thrown their preoccupation with status into an unpleasant light.  If Jesus, God incarnate, was willing to get down on his knees and serve in such a humiliating manner, if he was willing to sacrifice his life in such a painful and debased way to ransom a people who offered him no regard, then clearly God's measure of greatness excludes image altogether.  In God's economy, recognition and a self-made name aren't the measure of true greatness.

While the biblical application of humility doesn't deny us our aspirations, strengths, or accomplishments, it does redirect our focus.  As C. J. Mahaney puts it, "Ultimately, our Christian service exists only to draw attention to this source - to our crucified and risen Lord who gave Himself as a ransom for us all."  In other words, regardless of what we dream of doing with our lives, it should fit into the bracket of humbly pointing people to Christ.  So while it isn't wrong to strive for success in your field or to aim for excellence at what we do (which, by the way, is also a biblical command), our desires and ambitions should be informed by our understanding of the gospel.  "True greatness," Mahaney continues, "is not even possible for us apart from the Savior's unique sacrifice," because true greatness is on par with selfless humility.

We need to find our identity in Christ, not find a way to fit Christ into the rubric of our life goals.  We need to forgo what our culture would call our "natural right" - our right to recognition and freedom - choosing instead to live worshipfully, sacrificially, in a servantile manner, willingly making ourselves the slave to all.

None of this is possible without first understanding humility.

08 February 2014

XXCMTE: 2013 in Review

"THE TWENTY COMMITEE are from New Jersey and are a fantastic new prog band.  Every song on... ‘A Lifeblood Psalm’ lulls you in, this is great album with old school prog references, gentle swaying vocals coupled with fantastic musical harmonies, even a little retro rag style going down... [It's] one of my favourite recent new releases..."
 - Nicky Baldrian, Fireworks Magazine

Put simply, 2013 was an incredible year for us.

Though we completed the bulk of the recording in October of 2012 (chronicled here), the end of that year and the first months of 2013 saw the finalization of the process: recording of the backing vocals, promotional legwork, and hundreds of minuscule tweaks to the mixes before they were finally sent to mastering.  The album officially hit the music world on April 1st, and we suddenly found ourselves with an online following and a growing list of professional contacts.  Reviews have been pouring in from all corners of the music world over the latter half of the year, and such an overwhelmingly positive response to our first release has been both an encouraging and a humbling experience.

Awkward selfie with Jerry @ the Starland Ballroom
Since releasing the album, we've had the opportunity to do a number of written and pre-recorded interviews for various music journals and online radio stations.  Each reviewer we've spoken to has been particularly interested in the concept of the album, which I've been refining through numerous re-tellings.

So sit tight.

At the most fundamental level, "A Lifeblood Psalm" is about belief: wading through the stifling bombardment of social, political, scientific, and philosophical babble that pollutes Western society, and choosing instead a faith that relies on something greater than the individual - something greater than intellect or reason.  The idea we tried to capture was that life is full of messy opinions, good and bad, and that filtering out the noise of modern philosophy has become the key to striving after the things which we believe God placed into the hearts of man so that we might seek after and understand Him.  For that reason, the story of the album is both intensely personal and simultaneously universal - a template into which every listener can insert him- or herself.  The protagonist of "A Lifeblood Psalm" tries to find his identity in love, the pursuit of knowledge, and gilded reputation, but ultimately finds himself enthralled with the one Voice which cuts through all the others.  Of course, that pathway will look different for everyone.  For us, it starts and ends with Jesus Christ, and that belief is ultimately what has informed the album's story.

Grove City College, PA
On the musical side, the project was very much a cohesive effort, though Geoff did all the preliminary writing.  In fact, "How Wonderful," "Airtight," and "Her Voice" were already complete songs when The Twenty Committee formed in the beginning of 2012, but each tune underwent significant transformation during the shaping of "A Lifeblood Psalm."  Geoff and I collaborated on some of the lyrics for "The Knowledge Enterprise," and the band worked on all the arrangements together, shaping the material into a singular piece of music - 9 tracks, 4 songs, all unified by the same overarching theme.  In short, we put a whole lot of ourselves into the project, and in that regard, we also surpassed all of our own expectations of what we could accomplish.  A huge part of that is due to Geoff challenging us to think differently, to be meticulous, and to strive for a professional level of excellence, as well as encouraging (n. supporting; edifying; see also: threatening) us to step up our musical game.  His leadership cannot be overstated.  The larger part of our success, however, is simply a blessing from God.  This is something we could never have achieved on our own, and we are all immensely grateful to Him for what He has allowed us to accomplish.

With Nasty Habit - rockers proving that hair metal lives
This "year in review" piece is certainly a little late in coming, considering we're already approaching the halfway point of February, but it isn't because we've been idle.  As far as our personal lives are concerned, Richmond is finishing his BA at Temple and interviewing at universities in New York and Virginia to continue his Master's studies in child psychology; Steve and Dana are expecting their second child - another boy - any day now, and Titus is becoming a renowned chef (specializing in plastic); Geoff has moved back to the Big Apple and is continuing to build his impressive résumé in the music theater industry; Joe is working for a refinery as a fixed equipment engineer and is still up to his elbows in car guts; Tara and I are buying our first house and celebrating our second anniversary.  In our downtime (rare though it may be), we like to get together as a band for Blood Sword, coffee and maple whiskey, and sometimes endless rounds of COD Zombies.  Of course, I'd be lying through my teeth if I were to claim that these things didn't sometimes steal time from regular practice...

Steve pours sweat and blood during shows.
As far as the band's upcoming schedule for 2014, we won't be gigging during the month of February, but will resume in March with shows at the NJ Proghouse and the M Room.  In the meantime, we will continue working on new material with the intention of returning to the studio in 2015.  Without giving anything away, we have some big thematic ideas for our sophomore effort, with focus once again on story and album-oriented songwriting.  It will definitely be a much more collaborative endeavor this time around, as we have all rolled up our sleeves to get dirty during the writing process.  You can look forward to some new and different orchestrations, more emphasis on guitar passages and extended instrumental sections, as well as more opportunities for our resident harpist to put his talent to good use.

In sum, 2013 was an incredible year for us.  Here's to what is yet to come.

We owe many, many special thanks to the following people:

  • Jerry Guidroz, producer of "A Lifeblood Psalm"; we couldn't have done it without you, Pepe.
  • Dan Shike, Tone & Volume Mastering
  • MyStringSection.com, for recording cello parts in 7/8 (sorry, guys)
  • Stephen Wise (StepWise), whose home and studio we invaded to record backing vocals
  • Lauren Garcia and Nick Kulick, for photography and album design respectively
  • OUR FAMILIES - Tara, Dana, Titus, and all Moms, Dads, and siblings for their loving support and God-given patience with us
  • Jason Spencer (The PROG Mind), for discovering, supporting, and believing in our music
  • ITPOW for being awesomely supportive, awesome dudes, and for writing awesome music
  • Dan "Tenacious" MacDonald and the guys from Elephants of Scotland
  • Marty Dorfman, Rick Henry and everyone from the House of Prog, for their incredible enthusiasm
  • Richard Thresh for his quality support and for awarding us "Equal 4th" in his top 15 of 2013 along with The Tangent
  • Any and all online radio DJs or podcast hosts who have featured our music on their programs, including Kyle Fish, Gregg Kovach, Rick Henry & Marty Dorfman, Shaun Geraghty, Diego Camargo, David "Wilf" Elliott, Kind Stranger, Cliff Pearson, André Steijns, and of course Michael "The Lurker"
  • Jon Yarger, Staci Lorrie, Joey Crumb, Pat Cunningham, and anyone else who hooked us up with gigs we otherwise wouldn't have landed
  • Randy and Justine Greene & Amazing Grace for providing us a stage for 5+ years
  • Alan Jones of Get Ready to Rock for one stellar critique of our worldview and photogenic qualities (here's hoping for a review of our music next time, Alan!).
There are many, many others whom we could mention, but couldn't possibly name everyone.  You know who you are!

Reviews of "A Lifeblood Psalm"

Ad and writeup in Progression magazine
on the Prog Archives

on Sonic Abuse

by Athos Enriles (mat2020.com)

by Martin Hutchinson ("Progradar") on Lady Obscure

by Jason Spencer ("The PROG Mind")

also by Jason Spencer (Progulator)

by Jordan Blum on Rebel Noise

by G. W. Hill on Music Street Journal

Writeup in Prog Magazine
by Jon Davis of Exposé

by Ryan Calorel of Lamplighter Magazine

We also received....

A Lifeblood Psalm on sale at a local bookstore.
#2 in Lamplighter's "Best of 2013 (from NJ)"

#18 in Progshine's "Best of 2013"

#8 in La Caja de Pandora's "Best 2013 Independent Releases"

I'll close with a Facebook status from our fearless leader, late in 2013:
"I was reading an article today, where a guitarist described his band's "meteoric rise from total obscurity to underground micro-niche internet fame." I would just like to thank all 271 of you who like us for powering our own rise to "underground micro-niche internet fame."
Seriously, though.  From the bottom of our hearts.

Thank you, all.