24 December 2015

Christmas, Coexistence, Compassion

Considering the soft-shelled, easily-offended, politically-correct generation that inhabits our world and frontlines our media, modern treatment of Christmas is an intriguing paradox.  While we are notorious for haranguing explicit religious displays 11 months out of the year, and the crusade against innocent expressions of "Merry Christmas" now has surpassed the two-decade mark, we are somehow still content to suspend the boycott against Christian themes for the sake of December 25th festivities.

Think I'm crazy?  Just turn on the radio and listen carefully to the lyrics of those traditional carols that everyone loves to sing (and by "traditional," I'm not talking about "Baby It's Cold Outside" or "Walkin' in a Winter Wonderland").  I'm talking "Silent Night," "O Little Town of Bethlehem," and "O Holy Night" -- traditional carols that popular artists love to record and a holiday-loving public love to consume.  I'm sure someone (probably many someones) are out there petitioning the networks to pull the plug on some of these holiday songs.  However, I also think the general public is comfortable allowing Jesus Christ into their homes for one day of the year, especially if he partners with Santa to fill their stockings with goodies.  On the whole, they hate our Jesus, but they also love our holiday for its warmth, for the vacation from work, and for the commercialism that has been attached to it over the centuries.

The way the world handles Christmas is indicative of the way they think Christians should approach personal belief.  For example, an atheist can celebrate the holiday "for fun" and maybe even sing along to Sinatra's rendition of "O Come O Come Emmanuel" on the radio, and that's his way of "tolerating" the Christian religion.  He can suspend his 39½-foot-pole approach to Christian tradition and grow nostalgic at the refrain of Silent Night.  The thought of "Radiant beams from Thy holy face / With the dawn of redeeming grace," instead of filling him with worshipful awe, might make him think of holiday time with family, of goodwill and generosity.

"We should all borrow somebody else's holy day," he'll encourage sagaciously.  "Trade shoes and walk a couple miles together."

This line of thinking is incredibly attractive.  It allows individuals to have varying personal beliefs without causing anyone else to be uncomfortable.  It allows for religious exploration without any obligation.  That's the blissful naivety of the coexist bumper stickers: everyone should get along, appreciate everyone's else's different opinions, and be able to live side-by-side without offending or hating anyone.

In a perfect world, this might be possible.  And while I'm certainly an advocate for living at peace with all men (as per Romans 12.18), I also recognize that true coexistence between faiths is impossible.  That sounds bigoted, but there's no other way to put it.  Any fundamentalist of any religion would be forced to agree.  A devout Jew doesn't celebrate Christmas or Ramadan for the same reason that the pillars of his faith make it impossible for him to hold similar theological opinions as a pantheist, a polytheist, or an atheist.  A man who believes in one God existing above nature (as opposed to being part of it) isn't going to find common footing in a transcendentalist crowd.

Furthermore, the issue extends beyond theology and into the realm of morality.  The fundamentalist of any faith is an individual whose beliefs have influenced his life choices, his morals, his attitude, his very persona.  Speaking from my own Christian perspective, someone who has experienced a personal relationship with Jesus Christ is an individual whose life has been radically transformed by that faith.  Therefore, it is impossible to truly coexist in the way the world desires -- that is, to keep faith contained and unoffensive.  For any faith with absolute notions of truth, it is impossible to compartmentalize them.  As a believer in Jesus Christ, I can't so easily divorce my heartfelt appreciation of divine grace from my perspective of the world and the way in which I relate to other people.

Logic dictates that two absolutes cannot coexist if they conflict with one another.  And before you suggest that they don't have to conflict, there's a reason there are distinctly separate faiths in the world.  The absolutes of Islam radically conflict with those of Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, etc.  We all believe very, very different things about God and the human condition, even if our moral practices sometimes align.  Walking a mile in each other's shoes isn't necessarily impossible, because we should all develop an appreciation for the nuances and complexities of different beliefs.  But all the faiths I've mentioned (and all others) are distinct for a reason.  In the end, I'm faced with two alternatives: I must either permanently surrender my shoes or I've got to put them back on.  I can't wear one of both, or both pairs at the same time.

In this regard, the world particularly objects to the notion of evangelizing -- or "converting," as they'd term it.  "Keep your shoes to yourself," they'd say.  "I'll ask for them if I want them."  By their evaluation, proclaiming to possess the knowledge of unique, saving faith is to be intolerant of other religions which boast similar claims.  And in fact, all major religions teach that theirs is the correct path to enlightenment.  And why would they teach otherwise?  A faith that says, "Hey we think we have a good idea going here, but it may or may not be the correct idea in the grand scheme, so you can try it if you'd like," isn't exactly authoritative, nor does it supply any sense of real hope.  While radical honesty and open-handed (as opposed to dogmatic) belief are qualities that our culture deems appealing, no one is actually committed to a faith that doesn't have concrete doctrine, because there's nothing in which to put their trust.

As it pertains to Christianity, the sharing of the gospel is less an opinionated assertion than it is an earnest proclamation of what Christ has done for us -- for me.  It's not about getting recruits, fulfilling an obligation, or proving somebody else wrong.  It's about the fact that the truth I hold has radically changed my life and proven itself to be accurate.

I'm sharing my shoes because they've been so good to me.

However, my very personal faith is also fundamentally opposed to every other philosophy the world values -- such that it cannot coexist with any of them.  But even this notion is not necessarily being intolerant.  It's simply stating what I believe to be the truth.

Let me clarify.

Coexistence in terms of peaceful, side-by-side living is desirable and pertinent.  I strive for peace, love, and kindness with my neighbors, whether they are Muslims, atheists, or recovering Catholics.  But coexistence is impossible in the sense it is intended by proponents of moral relativism.  According to this worldview, all faiths are equally viable, what works for one individual might not work for another, and there shouldn't be any kind of cross-pollination.  Unless that works for someone, of course.  Then it's all good, man.

This perspective in particular is what demonizes the Christian worldview, because -- again -- Christian belief is fundamentally opposed to the notion of multiple paths to enlightenment.  Christian theology is exclusive.  The Bible insists upon one way of salvation through one Savior.  Even the Old Testament books altogether point to one coming messiah who would remove the curse of sin and make all things new.  That concept in and of itself is an exclusive universal truth.  No other theory of man's condition and God's plan can exist in conjunction with it.  If there is one messiah for all the world, then any other religion which promotes its own savior, holy man, or religious method of personal renewal is in conflict.  Only one of these exclusive beliefs can actually be correct.

Logically, what is true and what is not true cannot both be true.

However, while Christian theology is exclusive, Christianity is not the high-privilege celebrity club that many self-proclaimed members portray it to be.  The concept of grace is an equalizer: we all stand on the same spiritual footing, and we all have the same need.  None who recognize their hopeless situation and humble themselves to call upon the name of Jesus Christ for salvation are rejected.  Regardless of culture, heritage, economic status, or their laundry list of sinful misdeeds, any and all peoples may hear and respond to the gospel of Christ.  God's grace is big enough and rich enough to satisfy His own just demands of holiness.  And again, Christian evangelism -- though admittedly utilized improperly by countless individuals over the ages -- is not a tool to assimilate the masses.  It's not a hive-minded collective or an agenda-based platform.  Properly understood, it's a means of communicating what is real.  I'm not interested in converting you to my opinion.  I'm only interested in sharing with you my experience of grace and forgiveness, which I believe only Jesus Christ can offer and fulfill.

In other words, if the world were flooding and you had a life-raft stashed away, wouldn't you want to let other people know about it?

I believe that's compassion, not sanctimoniousness.  Everything that I think, say, and do is influenced by what Jesus Christ has done for me.  This is not intolerance, it is my identity.

As Christians, we certainly need to do a better job of expressing this.  I don't want to be a salesman.  I want to be a testimonial.  My responsibility is the peaceful and earnest proclamation of God's goodness.  Furthermore, we can attempt to walk a mile in the other guy's shoes.  Understanding where people come from is all-important in understanding how the gospel uniquely communicates to their situation.  That's not a tactic.  That's being sympathetic and conscious of someone's need.  God absolutely meets people where they are, and we have the wonderful opportunity to usher them into the throne room.

I don't plant my stake in the ground on the "Merry Christmas" issue.  I couldn't care less what words or symbols various banners, ads, and products use to proclaim the holidays.  However, I do draw the line at compromising principles of my faith.  Maybe that's "offensive" to you, but I'm okay with that.  I'm not trying to assert my rightness over your wrongness or insist on my right to self-expression.  Jesus Christ's love and grace are simply wonderful realities to me, and that is why I share them.

Because this world is sinking.  And I do have a life-raft to offer.

18 December 2015

The Force Awakens: The Good, The Bad, and The Lack of Anything Ugly

Though my heart still beats for the Expanded Universe and is crushed by the knowledge that my favorite story arcs and characters are no longer canonical, I -- along with all other lifelong Star Wars fanboys -- got tickets to The Force Awakens and saw it at midnight opening night.  The experience was surreal, largely because I never expected to see more film installments, and furthermore, the last time I stood in line to see a Star Wars movie, I was 16.  A decade removed from that, a bigger fan now than ever before, I have much higher expectations than did my wide-eyed teenage self.  But I also went into it with far more excitement than trepidation.

With that in mind -- if you haven't seen the movie yet (you should also stop reading pretty soon, by the way) -- it should warm the cockles of your heart to know that (in my humble opinion) The Force Awakens was... excellent.  Not perfect by any stretch of the imagination.  But excellent.  The movie's high level of quality owes itself to a number of things, not the least of which is its creators'  dedication to continuing the story of the original trilogy; its solid and believable acting; and its clever, actually funny comic relief (as opposed to the slapstick, second-grade-mentality nonsense that permeated the prequels).  Now, I've certainly got complaints about the film, but I think The Force Awaken's good far outweighs its bad -- even if the latter list is longer.

I will admit up front that a number of these complaints will possibly be rectified in later films and novels.  And I'm being exceptionally picky on purpose.  Because when you love something a lot, you want it to be the best it can be.

So here's my laundry list.

By Legion of Potatoes

The Bad

Another super weapon.  Another very Death Star-esque, planet-destroying, genocidal super weapon which the rest of the galaxy apparently ignored during its construction.  Seriously, using those kind of resources is going to draw attention.  The EU had its share of these as well, like the Darksaber and the Sun Crusher, and I'd be lying if I said I missed those elements of the Expanded Universe.  To further the comparison between this new super weapon and the Death Stars, this monstrosity's interior boasts similar architecture to its predecessors, features a weakness exploitable by internal sabotage and torpedo strafing, and its timely destruction even includes a brief trench run over the space of 15 tense, in-movie minutes.  The differences this time around are small but notable: a). the weapon is also a planet with its own ecosystem and geological strata, and b). it literally eats stars to fuel its weapon system.  These are cool variables, but really Starkiller Base is still a Death Star.  A bigger Death Star with a makeover.  You'd think that, thirty years after two predecessors had been destroyed by small snubfighters, the designers would have integrated their diabolical creations with better defense systems.  The Millennium Falcon literally comes out of hyperspace in the thing's atmosphere to get past its defensive shield, because it apparently can only stop vehicles moving at sublight speeds.  In making this thing bigger and badder than the Death Stars, they apparently downgraded its defensive capabilities.  Totally a Death Star.

Another evil Empire-esque....  Wait.  Wait, no wait.  It's pretty much just the Empire again with a different name and a different icon emblazoned on its banners.  And with that, another evil Emperor-esque character.  This time, taller and with a lousy surname.  While I appreciate the prototypical black-and-white Star Wars themes, I also wish the universe would mature a bit in terms of its villains and their philosophies.  Coming from an EU perspective, it would be so delightful to see a Thrawn or a Pallaeon in a Star Wars film -- i.e. a heroic kind of villain, possessing tactical ingenuity, fueled by honor and devotion instead of craving power.  That or a cruel, purpose-driven Palpatine devotee like Ysanne Isard whose brutality is coldly, pragmatically calculated -- not the result of a burning need for revenge.  I'd favor either of these options over another power-hungry Sith, simply so that the story moving forward can remain new and refreshing.  There's nothing worse than baddies with no credibility who never learn from their predecessors' mistakes.

Weak politics.  The major conflict revolves around the First Order versus the Resistance, an underground military group which opposes the Order with the support of the Republic.  But the Republic is... where?  This interplanetary government does what when the First Order super weapon blows up an entire system of planets?  And if the Republic is the ruling governmental structure in the galaxy, why is the First Order so powerful and how are they able to accumulate the necessary resources to construct said super weapon?  And if the Republic supports the Resistance, why are they just a faction of said government?  I'm sure these constructs will be more fully fleshed out in subsequent movies and novels, but Episode VII does little to establish the feeling of a sound political order.  Of all the issues I have with this film, I'm hoping that this one in particular will be addressed.

EDIT: After a second viewing of TFA, I can now appreciate a little more the galactic political situation.  Additionally, this article lends some further clarity.  I appreciate the conscious decision to not dwell on the politics in the movie, but I still would have liked just a little more information embedded in dialogue or something.  The relationship between the Resistance and the Republic is still tenuous at best: it seems to me that the former is a misnomer for what is essentially an anti-complacency campaign.  The name would make more sense if the First Order had risen to power and destroyed the Hosnian system, and THEN the Resistance had formed.

Not enough focus on snubfighters.  I'll concede that this is probably just my preference, but I still get chills watching the Death Star attack at the end of A New Hope, and so I had hoped for more of the same in TFA.  There were plenty of X-Wing sequences, undeniably, but they were all in support of what was happening on the ground.  I suppose I'll have to wait for Rogue One for a true fighter squadron fix (maybe -- I hear it might feature more on-the-ground kind of conflict as opposed to dogfights).

EDIT: After a second viewing of TFA, I think the balance between aerial and on-the-ground sequences was actually pretty good.  However, I would have liked the in-cockpit dialogue to be a little more in the "official" vein as it was in A New Hope -- Poe, as squadron leader, issuing more orders, 

Rushed pacing.  We travel from planet to planet fast in this movie.  Long hyperspace journeys are boring, so all the Star Wars movies have moved quickly from location to location, simply to move the plot forward.  However, there's some questionably fast arrivals in this one: the First Order appears out of nowhere to destroy the Resistance hovel and capture Rey; subsequently, the Resistance is on top of the super weapon within minutes when it threatens their base.  This doesn't ruin the overall credibility of the movie's plot, but its long-distance space travel does feel somewhat less believable than the original trilogy's did.

The background cultures aren't terribly immersive.  This complaint is given somewhat hesitantly, because much of the rich lore of the original trilogy arose courtesy of the EU.  There's no explanation or backstory of every character in the Mos Eisley cantina in the films: all of this depth ultimately came from novels and games.  So when I look at all these new aliens, extras, and places in TFA and feel disconnected from them, it's largely because they don't yet have that same kind of extra-dimensional life that the EU provided for the earlier films.  So I am confident that later material will rectify this dearth and fill in some of the gaps I felt watching this movie.

The galaxy far, far away is apparently home to people from... earth?  Obviously, the snippy British personas of the First Order are appropriate, if only to continue the representation of stiff Imperial grunts that began in A New Hope.  However, the Chinese and Scottish accents -- decidedly in-your-face, earth-based accents -- exhibited by the smugglers who attack Solo and Chewie to collect their dues were decidedly out of place.  This is Star Wars, JJ, not Star Trek.

Captain Phasma.  Seriously, what an inconsequential blip on the radar.  Why even bother with such a character except to place a woman in shiny stormtrooper armor?  Furthermore, she wasn't even the only female stormtrooper: one of the grunts who reported to Kylo Ren during the hunt for Rey had a distinctly female voice.  The character of Phasma was so publicized and merchandized prior to TFA's release that her lack of any true plot-related significance made her feel -- forgive my bluntness -- like a total feminist gimmick.

Same old story.  Ultimately, the plot of TFA is virtually the same as the plot of A New Hope -- perhaps intentionally so in some ways -- but I was hoping for a more quest-based movie.  I'd envisioned a dedicated search for Luke while dodging the First Order, and discovering what had happened to drive him into isolation in the process.  Instead, TFA was very much an updated retelling of A New Hope with new characters: a droid escapes with important plans vital to the survival of an underground faction's survival against a tyrannical power, attaches itself to an orphaned major character, a climactic fight with the villain ensues which causes said central character to lean into blossoming Force abilities (admittedly, A New Hope's version of this battle was aerial), and a conflict surrounding a gigantic super weapon ensues, involving a hinged ground-and-air assault that ultimately cripples and destroys the technological terror.  The end.

But wait!  There's more!  The final, prolonged reveal of Luke Skywalker -- after the moment that felt like it should have been the movie's natural conclusion -- almost felt like the scene that would have followed the credits in any Marvel movie.  These latter moments of TFA were essentially an in-movie teaser for Episode VIII, largely hinging on R2-D2's timely awakening (THAT'S what the movie should have been called!) in order to reveal Skywalker's final location.  Contrived?  Maybe not.  Convenient?  Definitely.

By Patrick Seymour

The Good

Lots and lots of questions.  It's infuriating to think that we have to wait another two years for more answers.  IN A GOOD WAY.  It's simply good story-writing to drop viewers in the middle of the action and keep them hooked so they're desperate to know why things and characters are the way they are.  For this reason, I think a fair number of the complaints I listed above will find resolution in episodes VIII and IX, and probably in the Anthology films as well.  In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if Episode VIII opens with flashbacks to post-Return of the Jedi events in order to fill in some gaps and launch the new story with Luke Skywalker.  Sort of the way Peter Jackson went back in time to Smeagol finding the ring and becoming Gollum at the beginning of The Return of the King, before focusing heavily on that character's role in the final installment of The Lord of the Rings saga.  Leaving the theater with a lot to talk about and ponder is a good thing -- it means the next movie will build on the foundation of this installment, and points to the probability that the story arc will span the next two installments of the trilogy, rather than simply focusing on one movie at a time.

Natural arcs in character development.  I thought this was well done.  The appearances of old faces didn't feel contrived to pacify a hungry audience: key characters appeared at important moments in the plot and maintained their former personas well.  Carrie Fisher even held up as a war-weary Leia, despite her inability to smile (or make many facial expressions at all for that matter).  In the same vein, the new faces introduced are full of life, potential, and believable chemistry.  I love Poe's sarcastic, bold, perfectly flyboy kind of character.  I love Fin's disillusionment with the First Order, which inspires intrigue into the First Order's methodology of taking children and indoctrinating them at a young age to be stormtroopers (which, ironically, is not unlike the Old Republic's Jedi Order's modus operandi).  I love Rey's gradual awakening to her Force abilities -- a trickle at first, and then a waterfall as raw necessity drives her to act on instinct, just as Kenobi instructed Luke to do decades prior.  Finally, the elimination of a certain key character (I won't mention any names juuuuust in case), shocking though it may have been, ultimately felt natural for ushering in the new generation of heroes: creating a palpable void for the up-and-coming characters to fill.

EDIT: Fin/Rey roles.  One of my favorite elements of this movie, now even more after a second viewing, is that the plot largely focuses on Fin for the first half, albeit with an elongated sequence devoted to Rey's life on Jakku.  However, the progression of events -- from Fin's conscience-driven break from the First Order, to his jailbreak with Poe, to his escape from Jakku on the Falcon with Rey, to accepting Luke's lightsaber when Rey refuses it and being the first to activate it, to his rescue/espionage mission with Han and Chewie, to the final confrontation on Starkiller Base when he duels with Kylo Ren... Episode VII altogether tricks you into thinking Fin is going to become the central character of the new saga.  However, it gradually transitions to focus on Rey's awakening to her own powerful Force awareness and ultimately concludes with her completing the quest to find Luke Skywalker.  I absolutely love the nuances of this patient bait-and-switch, and I'm eager to see whether or not she has any connections to characters from any of the previous films, or if her backstory will be entirely new.

Kylo Ren is tempted by the Light.  THIS was a unique twist on the mythos of the Force, and creates the kind of tension I think more Star Wars villains need to have: a tortured, driven, darkly sympathetic aspect.  Vader possessed this quality in Empire and ROTJ: the father who had made his choice long ago and could no longer tread the path of the light -- that is, until his final moments when his son drew out the latent good in him one last time.  In the prequels, however, he became an immature wuss in the misrepresentation of Anakin Skywalker and ultimately lost this appeal.  Kylo Ren, on the other hand, springs from the right vein: youthful, passionate, conflicted, subservient to a power he believes in, but tempted by the Light -- perhaps out of guilt or pain or longing for his family.  And, supposing he survived the destruction of the First Order's super weapon (as did Vader before him), Ren stands poised to be even more driven and twisted in Episode VIII.

EDIT: Kylo Ren is simply a raw supernova encased in a human body.  His emotions are as radical and unsteady as the symbolic lightsaber he carries.  Contrast this fear, anger, and emotional instability to Rey's purity of character and purpose: she is hopeful (waiting for her family), he is fearful (anxious that he cannot complete his mission); she is self-controlled and calm, he is reckless.  Yet, they are both full of raw potential, desperately in need of refining.  Both characters stand to grow significantly in their abilities in later chapters.

NO MIDICHLORIANS ANYWHERE.  I can't drive a stake into the ground based on just one point, but this was absolutely huge for me.  TFA presents the Force as it should always have been: an energy field that surrounds, penetrates, and binds all living things together, accessible to anyone with the devotion and the penchant.  Pure, unadulterated philosophy.

An appropriate blend of models, puppets, and CGI.  Everything in this movie looks as good as a huge-budget movie should.  And in comparison to the CGI overload of the prequels, it also manages to feel much more natural, visceral, dimensionally appropriate, and -- ultimately -- believable.  The Force Awakens blends the feel and vision of the original Star Wars trilogy with modern technology and creates a stunning visual presentation of the galaxy: alien creatures that look real; lightsabers with vibrant colors that cast significant back-glow and behave as energy weapons would; rich explosions that aren't merely for the sake of action scenes; realistic spaceship movement with physical properties.  All of this was supremely well-done, and every shot in TFA was both well-framed and positively gorgeous.

Appropriate, character-based humor.  I mentioned this earlier.  But there are no goofy, bumbling Jar Jar Binks characters.  There are no moronic battle droids.  There is no forced humor between lousy actors.  There is only the best kind of wry, situational humor: Han/Chewie banter; one-liners; C-3P0's rude interruptions; Fin's amusing, self-created predicament.  The onscreen chemistry between new actors and old was wonderful, and inspired genuine laughter and emotional response.

Chewie didn't die.  Ever since Vector Prime, I've missed the character of Chewbacca -- even if his death was noble and appropriate for re-establishing the mortality of the key characters.  EU authors did a fantastic job of taking Han and other characters through the grieving process in the aftermath, and permanently imprinted the loss on the cast even decades later in the storyline.  Certain speculations I read online prior to seeing TFA had pointed toward another heart-wrenching Wookiee death scene.  But the choice to keep the character alive and well was, in my opinion, a good one.

You might find it hard to believe that I loved The Force Awakens after reading this.  My criticism certainly outweighs my praise on paper (you know what I mean).  However, I truly see this movie as the foundation for what will be powerful, plot-driven sequels that do this enduring saga the due justice that the prequel films failed to deliver.  Actually, I don't even like the word sequels for these new installments, because the story was definitively written to be a multi-film epic with one huge climax across all episodes.  Big-picture focus is the kind of focus this new Star Wars needs to keep its integrity -- not just emphasis on churning out new, exciting films for a new generation of fans.

So far so good.

The wait for Episode VIII will be excruciating.  But I trust the payoff will once again be phenomenal.

23 November 2015

Dispelling the “Basically Good” Myth

Photo by Julie Moore [#julebugphotography]
I remember a now-ancient Berenstain Bears movie where Sister Bear learned about character via a Mama Bear object lesson on wormy, rotten apples.  The illustration is perhaps cliché, but is still revealing of the way human beings evaluate and judge one another.  Racism is based on ethnicity, speech, skin color.  Compassion (or lack thereof) for the homeless and the mentally ill is based on their physical condition, attitudes, appearance.  Most often, dating relationships begin with emphasis on the peripheral -- the looks, the interests, the tastes -- before any of the sinew and tissue and heart muscle of the true character beneath is ever exposed and valued.

Whether we ignore a book because its cover is lackluster or we leave an apple at the bottom of the grocery store barrel because it has lumpy flesh, we are presuming that the exterior says something true about the interior.  The way we shop for produce indicates how superficial our judgment values can be.  Is being a picky shopper a sin?  Probably not.  The reality, however, is that we don’t really know what the inside of that apple looks like until we take a big bite.  More often than not, a wrinkly skin hides great sweetness while a gorgeous exterior belies a deeply rotten core.

The world wants to subscribe to the theory that what is outside is separate from what is inside.  In other words, what I do does not (or should not) necessarily reflect who I am.  My mistakes shouldn't bear any reflection upon my identity -- they are the exception to the rule of my basically good character.  The world says, "My flaws are external to who I really am.  I’m a basically good person who happens to make mistakes.  To be human is to err.  Therefore, I’m not to be judged or held accountable to anyone for my failings."

"I'm a good apple with a lumpy, bruised skin."

This is flawed, self-deceptive human reasoning at its most basic level.  We deceive ourselves because we don't really know ourselves (Jer 17.9).  Socrates purportedly trolled the "unexamined life" as not being "worth living," according to Plato's Apology.  Whether we define that concept as the pursuit of self-knowledge or the exploration of options and potential, we are still acknowledging that, as individuals and as a society, we human beings lack a fundamental understanding of ourselves and must quest to find it.  In fact, the very school of philosophy and the countless world religions all exist because humanity recognizes the inherent holes in our self-identity as a species.  Though we feign otherwise, we are truly rotten to the core -- no matter how good the skin might look.

The very premise with which we operate is wrong: I am not a human who must go on a pilgrimage to define my own identity and transcend my own shortcomings.  Mistakes of character evidence an incompleteness that I cannot overcome on my own.  Evolutionary theory says humanity has not yet arrived at the “final state” of evolution and that, as a species, we will continue evolving toward a state of perfection.  This philosophy places man on an optimistic trajectory that goes against the grain of everything we see both in our world today as well as in ages past: immorality so severe that neither media nor individual nor historian can help but label it as pervasive, degenerate, pan-generational behavior.  Broken political structures and failed governments litter the pages of history and current affairs, altogether power- and/or wealth-hungry and drenched in blood.  "Harmless" selfishness corrupts on all interpersonal levels, deriding the beauty of and potential for personal sacrifice: look-at-me style social media; no-strings-attached, favor-my-preferences sexuality; broken family structures and utterly careless "parenting"; abortion as a thoughtless escape from personal responsibility; time theft and slander of employers; and countless other aspects of our self-centeredness are historically endemic of our species, even if they looked different in the past.

Things don't get better when they're perpetually flawed -- not over millennia, not over eons: they get worse.  Entropy isn't just a property of physics.

By contrast, the Bible says man isn't on a trajectory at all -- one mistake all by itself, one slip of the tongue or one impure thought is enough to condemn us to permanent spiritual death (Jas 2.10).  It's spilled wine on a white sheet -- it's irreparably tarnished.  And most of us have done more than just one bad thing with our choices.  Nothing short of perfection is "good enough" when you must stack up your filthy laundry against God's standard of holiness.

It turns out that we're not on a road headed somewhere.  We're standing in a quagmire and sinking deeper.  Those of us who think we're headed somewhere positive are doing headstands in their eagerness to get to the bottom of the pit.

If you've served in any branch of the military, you know that the standards of personal cleanliness and discipline are extraordinarily high: as soldiers, sailors, pilots, etc, our armed forces are expected to hold themselves to a higher standard than the average citizen.  To an even higher degree, that is what God requires: perfect conduct, perfect thought-life, perfect desires.

To make matters worse, we’re guilty of more than G-rated "mistakes."  Romans 1 attests that we act in full, albeit repressed, knowledge of what is true, right, and good.  In other words, somewhere deep inside, we all know the truth about a holy, omnipotent Creator God and yet choose to reject it.  Whether you've had rough experiences with faith and lost trust in religious figures or whether you harbor absolutely no animosity towards Bible-toters and have simply doubted the existence of God your entire life, there still exists within all of us an abstract knowledge of morality and cloudy, half-forgotten purpose.  These inexplicable fragments, coupled with the miracles of life and the miraculous order in a massive, clockwork universe, altogether point toward the reality that we are not the epitome of evolution we might otherwise think.

The harsh reality is that is that the kind of moral pit to which we have condemned ourselves comes with a tremendous penalty.  The Apostle Paul tells us that the toll for imperfection is death -- a soul-rending, eternal, spiritual death (Rom 6.23).  But instead of recognizing this reality for what it is, we choose instead to think we are the exception to the rule.

We say, "If you just understood what I’ve been through, you'd overlook what I did."

We insist, "God can't condemn me for my choices because my life has been absolute hell."

We obfuscate, "I am truly following the path that I believe to be right, so God will honor me for my faith -- even if it was 'misplaced.'"

The reality is that all of our reasons for why we chose what we did don’t change the fact that we still violated the law.

It's like getting a speeding ticket.  I get pulled over for going 45 in a 25 on my way to work, keep my fingers crossed as the cop runs my license and insurance through the database, and then feel justified outrage when he comes back to my window with a $250 ticket in his hand.

He doesn't know me, I scream in my head.  This is the first time I've been caught speeding in years!  He should let me go and go chase that Mustang that just raced through here instead -- THAT guy deserves the ticket, not me who's just trying to get to work on time!!

In my anger, I ignore the reality that, regardless of my reason, I've still broken the law.

"Breaking the law" is a little harsh... 

Was I speeding?

Well, yes, but --

Was I speeding?


We don’t fully understand guilt or culpability.  Sin is not as gray as we might want it to be.  We over-contextualize our choices so that motivation becomes the hinge on which a guilty/innocent verdict swings.  We insist that we deserve better than what we are given because our motive was pure (and even that's doubtful).  I've been done injustice by this $250 ticket, I insist.  However, even if my wife is in labor and I'm racing to the hospital to get to her, I've still earned a speeding ticket for breaking the law.  If the cop listens to my story and gives me a break, he's granting me mercy, not justice.

In fact, if I demand justice, then I should write the ticket myself.

That's our problem.  We aren't "basically good" people who simply make mistakes.  We violate the law of God's eternal, perfect character, and therefore -- regardless of our reason for doing so -- we stand condemned to an eternity of spiritual isolation and condemnation.  This is our just reward for our inherent selfishness, arrogance, and ungodliness.

It is not murder that earns me hell.  It is placing myself at the center of my existence instead of God.

In light of all this, I must change my premise: I am not a pilgrim on a journey to self-realization; I am a hopeless sinner in need of redemption.

Here, then, is the hope that God gives: we have been granted mercy.  He has withheld justice from us and fulfilled it in His Son.  Jesus Christ, the Divine incarnate, accepted the wages we had earned and carried them on His own shoulders when He went to the cross on our behalf.

He didn't have to do this.  He chose to do it.

Jesus the Messiah forgives and restores: He accepts you just as you are and He loves you enough to not leave you that way.  He pays for our speeding tickets and then-some.  It doesn't matter if you've cheated on your spouse, shoplifted, or hated your brother.  His grace is sufficient to cover any and all sins.  His unmerited, redeeming favor teaches us gratitude and accountability for our previous wrong-doings.  It teaches us to love Him and others above all else, to grant forgiveness as we've been forgiven, and to restore to those we've wronged out of the abundance of grace and mercy now rooted in our own hearts.

The only condition God places on salvation is that I must believe, trust, love, and pursue Him alone.  I must surrender all my deep-seated notions about being a "basically good" person and instead embrace the reality of my own sinfulness, so that I can be covered by His holiness and renewed.  He did the heavy lifting; as His children, we bear an easy and light burden, because our righteousness is actually His righteousness attributed to our account.

He offers freedom -- freedom from having to work my way toward heaven, only to fall so far short in eternal disgrace.  Freedom from myself.

It takes humility to recognize that we need this -- to recognize that we are slaves to our own desires and helplessly lost in our own moral darkness.  Once we do so, we can breathe in deeply the fresh, aromatic air of redemption, stepping out of our dank, "basically good" prison cells and into the golden warmth of daybreak.

26 October 2015

Five things that should be felonies

I think the depth of human depravity is most often revealed in the smallest inconsiderate and selfish acts.  Which is, of course, not to imply that I am not inconsiderate and selfish at times (read: often).  Praise God that He chooses to place His Spirit in common, clay jars and not in rare Ming Dynasty vases.  I'd be in serious trouble.

However, if the following things came to be considered criminal felonies punishable by law, let's just say my very human, very selfish, and very skewed lust for "justice" might possibly be sated.

In an era of human history where we have an unfortunate tendency to be easily offended, I'd probably be remiss not to mention that what I "rant" about below is done more out of fun, not legitimate frustration or a desire to ruffle feathers.

That said, can I get an "Amen!" for any of these?

One: Extreme coffee snobbery

I do not own a French press.

I do not own an espresso machine.

I do not buy only organic, fair trade beans in bulk from Whole Foods.

Why?  Because none of these is the Way the Truth and the Life to true coffee salvation.

I do, however, love dark, earthy coffees.  I make it a point to try lots of different brands, roasts, and countries of origin.  I buy whole bean coffee, grind it each morning, and drink it black.  While I will readily admit that I gag to even think about cream and sugar in coffee, I keep both in the house for guests (even if I joke that I will convert everyone to black-only).  I prefer the pour-over to making a pot, but I typically use a sixty-dollar Cuisinart 10-cup percolator.  I do not use cold, filtered water to make coffee no matter how much the side of the bag might insist it's an important step in brewing the "perfect cup" -- the tap is just fine.

However, if the "extreme left" of pretentious coffee snobbery drives me crazy, the "extreme right" of half-caf-Maxwell-House-grounds-stored-in-the-freezer drinkers can also give me palpitations.  At that far end are those who insist that Dunkin' Donuts (or Wawa if you live in the Tri-State area) makes the best coffee, that they would drink Starbucks if it weren't so expensive (the people who hold this opinion own small, yappy dogs and only buy over-priced "dessert drinks" -- mochas, lattes, frappuccinos, etc, none of which are actually coffee), or that strong coffee is just as good as bold coffee (it isn't).

Oh, and if you are of the opinion that K-Cups are "just as good" and would go on record stating that the Keurig is the one of the greatest inventions known to man...

No, no -- no one out there who likes coffee really thinks that.

Do they?

Two: Choosing to pull out in front of an oncoming driver when there is no one behind that car for miles.

I'll grant a person who's sneaking into non-stop traffic his choice to jet in front of me.  If he doesn't, he'll sit at that intersection for ten more minutes and miss that important work presentation.

I'm talking about the occasion when someone opts to cut you off when there is no one behind you, when he has clear visibility, and when he forces you to slow down for a quarter mile before he finally gets up to speed -- all when he could have waited literally five more seconds for you to pass.

This is infuriating.  It is rude.  That is all.

Three: Insisting the movie is better than the book

Seriously, it isn't possible.

At best, you are getting a particular director/screenwriter's vision of a novel -- that is, their opinion of it.  They shoehorn their perception of characters, themes, and settings into your brain via visual, 2-dimensional representations of a deeply multi-dimensional work.  In so doing, they remove the possibility for you to read or think about the novel in question without seeing particular actors as particular characters and altogether impact the unique, cooperative creativity that exists within reading a novel: the ability to fill in the gaps an author intentionally leaves for his/her reader to supply his/her own thoughts, expectations, and imaginations.

At worst, a bad film adaptation takes so many creative liberties that the credits actually have to note that the move is "inspired by" instead of "based on."  At that point, no matter how good it is by itself, the film is no longer an accurate representation of the book.

Not all film adaptations are bad.  Some are good -- impressive and perhaps even inspiring.  But they're never as good as the book or better.  Because they're not the same as the book.  Apples and oranges.  Even a good film adaptation is merely an impression of a novel -- the way a painting or photograph of a person is not the actual person.  And just like brushes and cameras can only capture so much detail, film too falls short of the real thing.

It might be a great movie.  But it's not "better" than the book.

Four: Following celebrity gossip

However you do it and for whatever reason, it's annoying.  Nick Offerman might read celebrity tweets on Conan O'Brien as a way to mock the very public and very inane comments individuals in the limelight might make (and it might in fact be hilarious), but the fact of the matter is that he is still reading them and also bringing countless other people's attention to them.

Whatever you do -- whether it's reading athletes' Tweets, celebrity tabloids, Facebook news, nonsensical crap on Buzzfeed, whatever -- it's still part of the problem.

Because when it comes to Hollywood, any attention is good attention.

I don't want to discuss who's married to Robert Downey Jr. while I'm watching The Avengers.  I don't care that Tom Cruise is a Scientologist, nor do I care what absurd things go down between him and his family as a result.  When I'm waiting in line to check out in the grocery store, I don't want to look across my pile of Ramen, organic fair trade coffee, and assorted canned goods on the conveyer belt and see grossly unflattering photos of celebrities and the corresponding columns of pulp detailing their train-wrecked relationships and impossibly poor personal decisions.  Frankly, I don't care what athletes are up to when they're not on the field, and even if I might read biographies of musicians I happen like and maybe even follow their tour schedules, I don't care to view pictures of them cliff-diving in Aruba.

Crazy idea.  What if we all stopped paying attention to what Hollywood was doing?  What if we all spontaneously stopped clicking on ads for stuff endorsed by celebrities, turned off late-night talk shows, ignored everything that came on "reality" TV, and deleted any app that provides a slanderous buffet of worthless banter and explicit photos of those people who are willing to sacrifice their integrity and their privacy to a media-crazed, incurably consumerist society?  Sure, the crazy coming out of LA might intensify for the lack of attention, and several thousand bloggers might lose their jobs, but it would put the entertainment industry back where it belongs: making movies, TV, games, music, and playing sports -- not invading my life through everything I consume.

Impossible?  Maybe.  Almost definitely in America.

But it's still nice to dream.

This last one's for my fellow musicians.

Five: Venues a). expecting local bands to play for free (in the name of "exposure") AND also draw a crowd of 30+ AND supply all the equipment, or b). canceling a gig mere days before the show because "due, to low attendance, we don't do live shows anymore."

I'm a spare-time musician.  In fact, I don't even know if I can really call myself a "musician" per se.  God's given me the ability to lead worship and play a little guitar & keys.  So I get to do that with a bunch of guys who are more like brothers than friends (one of them actually is my brother) and are far more talented than I am.  However, even though I do it for fun, I also put in lots of practice time as well as money for gas, travel, and equipment.  And what I put in is nothing compared to what full-time musicians (such as XXCMTE's own Geoff Langley!) devote to their craft.

For that reason, it is insulting to be told that our cut of the door is a fifteen-fifteen-seventy split among us, the other band on the bill, and the venue... IF we bring more than thirty people, share all of our gear, and provide our own sound guy.

Lots of local venues treat local bands terribly.  Lots of local venues are amazing and get taken advantage of.  I get that both of these places need to make money.  But they don't need to extort other struggling local "businesses" -- that is, the bands themselves -- to do it.  They also need to recognize that, while their establishment might have a Facebook page with a couple hundred likes, and even though they might occasionally feature a big-name band on their stage, the opportunity to play on their stage is not the make-it-or-break-it favor they presume it to be.

The reality is that we should be helping each other out.  Bands can't be obnoxious, self-absorbed partiers and expect venues to cater to their every whim; venues can't nickel-and-dime young acts and expect to keep both a solid calendar and quality relationship with local groups.

Partnership is so much better than sparring matches.

19 October 2015

Sweet Sleep

In preparing this week's lesson for my teens, I happened to re-visit Ecclesiastes 5.10-12:

He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity. When goods increase, they increase who eat them, and what advantage has their owner but to see them with his eyes? Sweet is the sleep of a laborer, whether he eats little or much, but the full stomach of the rich will not let him sleep.

I was struck by the reminder that the proverbial love and pursuit of money isn't just something rich people struggle with.  Perhaps a weary catchall for do-it-yourself ambition, the "American Dream" it still something for which I believe all humanity has a taste.  Those in any culture who push their nose to the corporate grindstone to the detriment of personal lives and family, those who swallow hook-line-and-sinker promises of future wealth, and those who constantly chase after more and better all fit the Preacher's description of the man who won't be satisfied with his income.

The reality is that, no matter how much wealth we accrue, there will always be more to have, more to achieve, more to possess.  Once we have some, we can't be satisfied with that -- we need to keep going!  Acquire more!  Reach the next level!

Not only rich people succumb to this tendency.  Those of us who gaze longingly out the window at the mansions our commutes take us past fall into the category of "money lovers" also.

The truth is ironic and counter-intuitive: the only way to truly enjoy physical things is to put them in their proper place.

My career and the wealth, status, or security that it promises simply cannot be the most important things in my life.  In and of themselves, none will satisfy.  If, however, I value Christ the way I should and pursue him first and earnestly, suddenly my wealth is something I can enjoy, or my poverty something that is no longer a consuming frustration.  Easier said than done, certainly.  But Paul asserted that "godliness with contentment is great gain" (1 Tim 6.6).  In other words, while the world sees gain purely in terms of dollar signs, status symbols, and otherwise tangible increments, true gain and true satisfaction come only through my deepening relationship with Jesus Christ.

If my life is a ladder of trying to achieve career-based ambitions, no amount of "stop to smell the flowers," "dance in the rain," or other enjoy-the-journey-in-process memes are going to make a difference.

We all know the Biblical adage: "The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil."  I think it's relevant to note that, in other terms, the love of money is the absence of contentment.  Some see ambition as healthy forward-thinking, but when we speak specifically of financial ambition, the thin line between prospective planning and greed becomes incredibly narrow.  To be ambitious is most often to make a pursuit of wealth -- and, therefore, to think of what I currently own as not enough.

This is the very definition discontentment.  The love of money = the absence of contentment.

Furthermore, as mathematicians know, when we make comparative statements such as these, the equation works backwards and forwards:

The absence of contentment = the love of money.

Do you feel discontented with your current financial state in life?  Do you self-identify as a broke graduate student before you identify as a follower of Christ?  Do you look at the greener grass on the other side of the fence and wonder, longingly, if one day you might own that little patch of grass?  Do you tell yourself that it's not wrong to crave a little peace, and maybe one day all your financial stress will be a thing of the past?

I know these thoughts apply to me.  Therefore, I am a lover of money.  Therefore, I am not far from all kinds of evil.

Discontentment is a bigger and more pervasive problem than we as Christians like to note.  Living with discontentment doesn't mean we are simply American dreamers waiting for our due.  It means we are functional, practicing idolaters: we have placed value on something other than Jesus Christ and erroneously -- if indirectly -- believe the lie that something besides God Himself will bring satisfaction.  It means we have a shallow perspective -- certainly not an eternal perspective.  It means we have no real capacity for gratitude -- not for the blessings God liberally bestows, not for the ultimate blessing of His unfailing grace.

We desperately need to guard ourselves against this line of thinking!  To crave the sweet, secure sleep of the dedicated worker is not necessarily wrong; however, we can't make it our chief pursuit.  Instead, we must recognize that such rest is the byproduct of finding our solace, substance, and satisfaction in its only Source -- not in the careers, degrees, or possessions we pursue, but in the welcoming arms of the Savior Himself.

Financial stress got ya down?  Be patient and wait on the Lord.  He is a compassionate and understanding God who knows how to give good gifts to His children (Luke 11.13).  He cares even for the birds and the flowers (Matt 6.26, 28).  He does not abandon us in our troubles (Heb 13.5).

Just because life is hard does not invalidate these promises.  Sometimes God chooses to allow us to feel the tension of our situation so that we cling desperately to Him instead of our own wallets.

Our inability is His ability; our inadequacy His all-sufficiency.

Full belly keeping you awake at night?  Let go of your dependence on your wealth.  Give it away if you have to.  Seriously.  Jesus said that if our eyes or hands tempt us to sin, we should amputate them rather than risk the worse alternative of sinfulness (Mark 9.43).  The same principle applies to money and possessions.  Lighten the burden you're carrying or abandon it altogether: Jesus promised a far lighter load if we carry nothing but His cross (Matt 11.29).

We can truly rest only when we recognize that He is sovereign and we are not.  Whichever camp you find yourself in -- poor and craving financial stability or a wealthy insomniac or somewhere in between -- stop trying to take control back from the Almighty, either with your anxiety or your checkbook.  Stop being distracted by the world's trinkets.

We can be satisfied only when He alone is our treasure and our pursuit.

07 October 2015

Reviews, Part 7

Part 1 -- Part 2 -- Part 3 -- Part 4 -- Part 5 -- Part 6 -- Part 8 -- Part 9

Next on the playlist!

Here are the album reviews I've written since July.  As usual, clicking on the album covers will take you to the band's music where you can listen to and/or download the album in full.  The hyperlinks will take you to my reviews.

In other now-belated news, I have officially joined Jason Spencer as a contributor to his website, The PROG Mind, a site devoted specifically to a more thematic discussion of music (not simply cursory reviews).  I'm excited to devote my attention specifically to progressive rock (which I've always tended to do anyway) and also focus on the deeper nuances of what I'm listening to (which I've, uh, always tended to do anyway).  I'll still be posting to The Phantom Tollbooth, but The PROG Mind will be a better venue for writing about the obscure music I'm passionate about and actually have the content reach other fans.


Corvus Stone - Unscrewed (Finland)

Unscrewed maintains the quirky, self-aware, musical satire that characterizes the band’s previous material, and is a collection of radically transformed tracks from Corvus Stone I and II.
Maddison's Thread - Maddison's Thread (UK)

Maddison’s Thread is a strong, mature debut: an old soul wrapped in deceptively modern packaging.

Barock Project - Skyline (Italy)

The stellar, 70's-progressive-style fourth album from Barock Project.

Andrew Peterson - The Burning Edge of Dawn (USA)

Andrew Peterson’s 11th studio release is yet another solid record – a lush and reverent celebration of the work that God is still doing.

02 September 2015

Feelings and Freedom

I'm 26 today.  There's that.

I guess I'll spend my birthday post this year riffing about freedom.

People misunderstand the premise.  Most folks who talk about personal freedoms and the importance of individuality, tolerance, etc all imply a faulty premise, and that is that freedom is the right to do anything I want.  Disney's OS, "follow your heart," has a lot of resonance with a culture that says life is what you make it and appeals to no higher authority than the self.

Shocker: that line of thinking is fundamentally flawed.

Thankfully, the Word of God sheds illumination to this point.  The Apostle Peter, in his second epistle, records the following concerning false teachers who peddle feelings-based religion:

These are waterless springs and mists driven by a storm...  for, speaking loud boasts of folly, they entice by sensual passions of the flesh those who are barely escaping from those who live in error.  They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption.  For whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved. (2 Pet 2.17-19)

The lie that false prophets always push is that their method brings true freedom.  Their cleanse diet, their Hail Mary's, their Kool Aid, their new spin on an old concept.  But the reality is, no matter the gift-wrapped pill they offer, it is still based on self-servitude.  In other words, I do something to make me feel spiritually heightened.  The problem therefore is not with the desire to assuage guilt or baggage, but with the insatiable need to do something to feel something.

That's the freeing nature of the gospel -- not that we no longer have to feel or that we shouldn't want to feel things, but that we no longer have to feel things as a basis for a sense of spiritual wellness.  What overcomes me is no longer my overwhelming desires -- "I must eat," "I must find love" -- but the love, grace, mercy, and motivation of Jesus Christ.

My doing anything is a passionate response to grace, not a desperate quest for it.

Faith in Jesus enables me to be truly free.  While I'm not free in the popular definition (able to do whatever I want with no consequences), I am truly free because I no longer have to do what my heart tells me to.  In other words, I am no loner a slave to corruption, or whatever "overcomes" me.  If I must do what "feels right" and navigate my life by a sensation of "rightness," by following my heart, -- which may or may not but probably will lead me into self-destructive tendencies -- then I'm merely a slave to corruption: my own passions.  I'm a slave to what has overcome me.

Through Christ, that's no longer the case.

Before our Savior plucks us from the path of destruction, we can't help but blindly follow our emotions.  Relationships are about who makes us feel good.  College and career choices are about what feels right and what I want for my life.  Beliefs are about what makes me feel wise and enlightened.

By this mode of operation, we must do to feel.

Freedom through Christ, however, brings stability.  Righteousness through faith in Him doesn't negate my feelings, but it enables me to see through them.  It enables me to navigate by truth and certainty -- as opposed to following a course that shifts on a whim.

True freedom is liberation from sensation.  Not a denial of or an aversion to feelings and emotions (that's just monastic, self-abasing asceticism), but the subjugation of them.  God never said "Don't feel;" He said, "Don't be a slave to feeling."  In other words, as a follower of Christ, I don't have to "feel" something to know it's right.  I don't have to stumble into wanton self-indulgence because I was blindly following the helter-skelter roller-coaster of my desires.  And in the process of subjugating my feelings to the Truth of God's Word, I can begin to realign my sinful heart, bringing my desires and emotions and pleasures into the God-given parameters of holiness.

Those whom the Son frees are free indeed (John 8.36) -- from desire and from sin.  But freedom from these things is also freedom to responsibility.  Let those who call themselves followers of Christ abide in Him in this way.

14 August 2015

Nashville Rescue Mission, 2015

This past week, Tara and I had the tremendous opportunity to take a team of eight high school students down to Nashville, Tennessee to work in the city's Rescue Mission, an organization devoted to serving and rescuing the homeless.  There's a lot I could write about in this post -- God's incredible provision, the wonderful team of Christian musicians who housed us for the week, or my infatuation with Spaceteam -- but I want to instead remember the names of five men who touched us.

All smiles and encouragement, Quinton ("Q") was perhaps the brightest point of my week.  A man who loved the Lord, did all that was requested of him without hesitation, and spoke earnestly of God's grace in his life, Quinton was a humble and earnest example of what grace can do in penitent hearts.
A young man who bared his heart to me, Brit is still looking at an uphill climb as he struggles to overcome his addictions.  However, I believe that God is glorified when we choose to struggle against our sin, out of a desire to surrender all for holiness, instead of succumbing to it.  Brit's testimony was a powerful reminder that all sin is a type of addiction, and addiction to self is perhaps the most difficult to overcome.
Bryant, the volunteer services coordinator at the Nashville Rescue Mission, was our guide for the week.  He is a graduate of the Mission's program with a powerful testimony of his own, and is now thoroughly invested in working to assist the homeless and addicts who walk through the doors of the Mission on a daily basis.
Soft-spoken and unassuming, Will is a hard worker who humbly asked us to keep praying for his submission to the Lord's will.  He was a joy to work and converse with.  I'm reminded that he loves his wife and child, both of whom support him in his decision to overcome the addictions in his life.
Of all the men we worked alongside, George weighs perhaps the heaviest on my heart, simply because he has recently re-joined the Mission's program and still seems to have one foot in the world. Quick to admit his mistakes, George was impressed by our group and spoke openly about his weaknesses and failures, but still seems like he needs to take more bold steps of faith in order to overcome them.  I trust that the Spirit will lead him to a deeper understanding of the Truth!

God has been merciful to all these men.  Each was on a path of self-destruction, but our Father snatched each of them back and placed them on a different trajectory.  Their stories are proof of the fact that no sin is too engrained to overcome through Christ's power.

To Him be the glory!

28 July 2015

In Memoriam

Out of deep respect for my humble grandmother, I'll keep this short.

Florence Carlton, my father's mother, passed away early in the morning on 23 July, 2015, after suffering a stroke on 16 May that exacerbated pre-existing conditions and left her bed-ridden.  She was eighty-four years old, born 3 April 1931, and is now survived by just one of her six siblings.

Today, we buried her body and commemorated her life as family.  I'm reminded of the fact that human beings were not designed to cope with grief: sorrow is just the body's physiological response to the abhorrent reality of death.  We don't know what to do with the pain, and so we weep.  However, while we, on this side of the curtain, struggle to accept the passing of our loved one, she -- on the other -- no longer must linger in her fragile shell.  In the arms of our Savior, she now finds true peace and healing and rest.

I have so many snapshot memories of Gram.  Looking through all of our old photographs this past week has brought even more to the surface.

Gram was a lover of music, cooking, crafting, and puzzles.  She was an encourager and a doer.  She loved animals -- especially little dogs.  She was a survivor, to which the numerous tragedies of her life attest.  She cared deeply for each of her grandchildren.  I loved sharing sideways smiles with her.

If I had to pin one adjective on her, though, it would be the fact that she was a giver.  Whether she was making Sunday dinner for our family, trying to force a few dollars into my hand as a thank-you for carrying in her groceries, or just listening to me talk about life (or telling me stories from hers), she was always concerned that we were fed, cared for, and appreciated.

Gram lived upstairs from me most of my life, in the apartment above my parents' house.  So I guess I can say that she's just "upstairs" once again.

I love you and miss you, Gram.  I look forward to climbing that staircase myself one day to join you.

11 July 2015

Reviews, Part 6

Part 1 -- Part 2 -- Part 3 -- Part 4 -- Part 5 -- Part 7 -- Part 8 -- Part 9

Next on the playlist!

Here are the album reviews I've written since February.  As usual, clicking on the album covers will take you to the band's music where you can listen to and/or download the album in full.  The hyperlinks will take you to my reviews.


Hasse Fröberg Musical Companion - HFMC - (Sweden)

Of the three Musical Companion releases to date, HFMC is undoubtedly the most mature as well as the most cohesive, and currently stands as my pick for best album of 2015.

Corvus Stone - Corvus Stone II (Finland)

Corvus Stone II is an eclectic collection of songs from an eclectic combination of musicians, a varying journey through elements of funk, jazz, psychedelic rock, and Canterbury prog.

Big Big Train - Wassail (UK)

Wassail is a solid EP, foreshadowing Big Big Train’s forthcoming material.  This is just another bite-sized portion of the band’s stylistic craft, enough to keep fellow “passengers” whistling for a while longer as we wait for the Train to once again depart the station.
Rocket Scientists - Refuel (USA)

Refuel is a story that is as much autobiographical as it is universal: a tale of journeying, persevering, and wondering just when the time disappeared.  It is rich and ambitious, focused but complex, and another quality release from this trio of dedicated musicians.