Friday, April 22, 2011

Good Friday Reflection

Each year, Bretton Woods takes part in a Community Good Friday Service on the West side of Lansing which includes participation from Reformed, Baptist, Nazarene, Presbyterian, Grace Brethren, and any combination thereof. For tonight’s service, the five pastors will each be sharing Good Friday narratives from the perspective of different characters in the Biblical narrative. I wrote a first person narrative from Peter’s perspective, and thought it worth sharing with you all.

I don’t claim to really know the extent of Peter’s thoughts and feelings on that night, but I hope you’ll find this a faithful rendering, and a help on your own journey to the cross. 

Grace and peace to you this Good Friday.



Good Friday 2011 | Peter’s perspective

Last night, all of us got together to keep the Passover. We’re accustomed to the Lord’s idiosyncrasies. Having us approach a stranger about keeping the feast at his house was no surprise. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised when Jesus got up from the meal and bowed before each of us and began washing our feet.

But I was. I was quite surprised, and a little offended. What business does the Lord have washing my feet? Jesus is no slave. We’ve come all the way to Jerusalem, to His Father’s temple, to the place where all authority sits, and Jesus wants to act like he doesn’t have any power? It’s just this sort of behavior that makes so many priests and teachers and crowds and authorities want to get rid of him.

I’m the servant. I serve Jesus. I’ve given up my livelihood to follow him, and now he wants to be my servant? Wash my feet? No, I needed to wash his feet. So I offered.

But he said that if he didn’t wash me, then I’d have no part with him. So of course I asked him to wash all of me. If being washed by him draws me closer to him, then I want a full bath! Wash my hair, my hands, all of me!

Then Jesus says that I’ve already bathed. I don’t need a bath. I’m already clean.

Which is it? It’s hard to describe how confused I am. He explained something about loving one another and another thing about servants not being greater than their masters.

But that’s not true. Masters are greater than servants. That’s why they’re masters and not servants. He’s the master. We should all bow before him and wash his feet. Jesus is being reckless, washing our feet. Somebody around here is going to get a big head if he keeps serving us.

Then things got really disturbing. Jesus said that one of us would betray him, and that all of us would lose faith. “No way!” I told him. He’s the greatest. I wouldn’t ever lose faith in him, even if everyone else did. I know who this guy is. I’ve been walking with him for three years! I hadn’t known Jesus to be wrong before, but this time I was sure. I will never lose faith. I’m too strong for that.

Jesus prayed for me. He prayed for all of us. He prayed that we’d be strong and spread his love throughout the world. I’m ready to get started right now. What are we waiting for?

With stomachs full of food and wine from the Passover feast, we took a trip to the garden. It’s one of Jesus’ favorite places to come to pray. But it was late. Very late. He wanted us to stay up and pray with him. Doesn’t he understand how tired we are? We’ve been traveling, our stomachs are full, and we’re sleepy.

He told us to keep watch. Keep watch? For what? Oh, if only I had known.

Out of nowhere, comes that TRAITOR Judas, leading a crowd to come take Jesus away. What is going on? This is what we were keeping watch for? I thought we might be keeping watch for the coming of God’s Kingdom, the fall of Caesar, or even something like that day we saw Jesus on the mountain with Moses and Elijah. Anything but this…


Jesus is our leader. He can’t be imprisoned. Betrayed with a kiss from Judas? I would like to cut those lips right off his face! HOW DARE HE!

What is Jesus’ plan here? They’ve just taken him away, and the accusations are serious: making false claims and blaspheming. None of it’s true, but they’ve taken him all the same. What do I do with this? How could Jesus leave us like this? I’ve heard he might be executed for these charges. Then what will we do?

How could he leave us alone? Is that why he washed our feet? Because he’s not going to lead us anymore? I’ve always trusted Jesus, but he’s always been our leader. If he’s not going to lead, I’m not sure how to follow.

I’m so confused, scared, heartbroken. And there’s no sense in all of us getting arrested here. What do I do?

<<as though interrupted>>

What’s that? Jesus of Nazareth? Don’t know him.

<<in prayer>>

O God, what am I saying?

<<interrupted again>>

No, no, I’m not one of his followers.

<<in prayer>>

God, is this really happening? Is he really going to die?


What’s that? My accent? I don’t know what you’re talking about

<<in prayer>>

Dear God, what have I done?

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Thursday, April 07, 2011

Gather Round the Mic

Though this blog has been dormant through 2011 thus far, I have been writing. I've posted a couple pieces at a blog collective called "Gather Round the Mic."

  • First, for a piece on how my media habits have shifted since becoming a father, some 4.5 years ago, click here.

  • For the site's top 10 films of 2010 list, I contributed the synopsis on Toy Story 3, since I had been watching it constantly and repeatedly since its release on DVD. You can read that here.

  • And just today, I posted a reflection on the intersection between the film The Invention of Lying and the books Love Wins and The Sacredness of Questioning Everything. Read that here.
I was a bit busy in February and March due to the birth of our third child, our beautiful son, Joel Andrew. Kids are great. We love 'em.

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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Favorite EP’s of 2010

My final list of 2010 is my favorite EP’s.  I’m not sure if “A Summer in 3/4 Time” is officially classified as an EP, but at 28+ minutes of non-album music, I’m counting it. 

If you’ve read my other lists, you may notice that Sufjan Stevens has made a clean sweep.  He recorded my favorite album (“The Age of Adz”), my favorite song [“All Delighted People (Original Version)”], and now, my favorite EP (“All Delighted People”).  I had no idea this would be the year of Sufjan for me, but it became just that pretty quickly once he decided to release more than two hours of music in a matter of a couple months.  Kristian Mattson (The Tallest Man on Earth) follows pretty close behind Sufjan, also releasing a brilliant LP and EP within the year. 

Enjoy the lists, and more importantly, enjoy the music.  I believe that the artists I’ve affirmed on these lists are paying attention to the important things of the human condition, and we do well to pay attention to their artistic achievements.  As Jonsi said so well, “everything’s full of life.”  I hope you find life in this music, as I have.

Now, my favorite EP’s of 2010:

5. Jens Lekman “A Summer in ¾ Time”

4. Sleeping at Last “October”

Yearbook - October

3. Commodore Cosmos “Diplododisc”


2. The Tallest Man on Earth “Sometimes the Blues Is Just a Passing Bird”

Sometimes The Blues Is Just A Passing Bird

1. Sufjan Stevens “All Delighted People”

All Delighted People EP

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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Favorite Songs of 2010

My ground rules for these selections:

  • One track per LP or EP
  • Tracks must be among my favorites

Pretty simple, eh?  As with the albums, I’ve linked the titles for easy preview and purchase at Amazon.  Enjoy!

25. Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band “Wedding Day in Funeralville”

From the John Prine tribute “Broken Hearts and Dirty Windows,” this track is interpreted aptly by Conor Oberst (of Bright Eyes fame).  Prine’s lyrics are compelling, the tune catchy and efficient.

24. Vampire Weekend “Giving Up the Gun”

I like the “beating swords into plowshares” lyrical theme of this track, and like most Vampire Weekend songs, it’s bouncy and danceable.

23. She & Him “In the Sun”

This was the most requested song by my daughter in 2010.  It’s a charming ditty that I gladly play over and over for my beautiful little girl.

22. Buke and Gass “Revel In Contempt”

I love the energy, I love the homemade (home invented?) instruments, and I think as time goes on, I’ll love this band more and more.

21. Broken Social Scene “World Sick”

Do they really have five guitarists?  Intense.  And who can’t relate to the chorus, “I get world sick every time I take a stand”? 

20. Commodore Cosmos “Impending Doom”

Lansing’s own Commodore Cosmos bring out the big guns on this track.  The track sounds like the title suggests, ranging from tense anticipation to all out doom.  It uses quiet-loud dynamics to great effect, and it’s a great song.  I love you, Commodore Cosmos!

19. Johnny Cash “Ain’t No Grave”

It’s Johnny Cash, with Scott Avett on banjo.  Not much could go wrong here.  And it doesn’t.

18. Sleeping at Last “Watermark”

Sleeping at Last have inspired me since I first saw them in ‘98, and this gorgeous track continues the trend, “Dive in with your eyes closed / For the life you were born to claim / And the water will be paralyzed / By the courage you contain.”

17. Belle & Sebastian “I Didn’t See it Coming”

What a fantastic album opener.  It’s sweet, it’s beautiful, the vocals are perfect, and it’s a builder.  “Make me dance, I want to surrender.”

16. Mavis Staples “Wrote a Song for Everyone”

Of all the songs on “You Are Not Alone,” this is the one I find myself singing while washing the dishes.  A sign of a great song in my book.  Also, fantastic guitar tone.

15. The New Pornographers “The Crash Years”

The chorus is electric, and this gem is buried in one of the verses, “Light a candle's end / You are a light turned low / And like the rest of us / You got those old eternity blues.”  Good tune.

14. Janelle Monae “Cold War”

Pop songs everywhere, take notes.  This is how you deliver an opening line, and this is how you sing a hook.  If that weren’t enough, the song is reflective, making you ask yourself “do you know what you’re fighting for?”

13. Titus Andronicus “A More Perfect Union”

This epic rock n’ roll track references The Civil War, Springsteen, and it flat out rocks.  The energy of this track makes me believe these guys are an amazing live band.  Just a hunch.

12. Arcade Fire “City With No Children”

“You never trust a millionaire quoting the Sermon on the Mount.”  Lines like this are why Arcade Fire is one of my favorite bands.  And what a bassline!

11. Josh Ritter “The Curse”

Archaeologist falls in love with mummy, mummy enjoys life more than archaeologist, archaeologist becomes mummy, mummy lives on.  At least I think that’s how it goes.  It’s a beautiful, wonderfully inventive love song.

10. The Avett Brothers “Spanish Pipedream”

From the excellent “Broken Hearts and Dirty Windows” John Prine tribute album comes this gem.  I haven’t heard John Prine’s original, but this song is perfect for the Avett Brothers.

9. The Walkmen “Stranded”

It’s a song of regret and sadness, but it doesn’t make me sad to listen to it.  The horns are the lifeblood of the song, and the vocals are spot on.

8. The Tallest Man on Earth “Burden of Tomorrow”

Few can sing a line like “once I held a glacier to an open flame” and make it sound completely uncontrived.  I love this man’s songs.

7. Joe Pug “Bury Me Far (From My Uniform)”

Poetic-Theo-political commentary set to a charming melody.  If you are unmoved by lines like “Do not find me justice / Just find me a grave / And then bury me far from my uniform / So God might remember my face,” check your pulse.

6. The National “Runaway”

This is a beautiful depiction of facing near insurmountable fears and difficulties, and one of the most singable melodies in The National’s catalog.

5. Mumford & Sons “Sigh No More”

It’s a great song from the opening line, but from 1:50 on, it crescendos, repeating these beautiful lines, “Love it will not betray you, dismay or enslave you, it will set you free / Be more like the man you were made to be / There is a design, an alignment, a cry
Of my heart to see the beauty of love as it was made to be.”  Beautiful.

4. Jonsi “Animal Arithmetic”

This frenetic song feels like it could spin out of control at any point, but it holds together until it releases into its joyous refrain. 

3. Sufjan Stevens “Impossible Soul”

The 25:35 culmination of my favorite album of the year.  It cross-references lines from nearly every other song on the album, it covers five distinct musical and emotional dynamics.  It might be unfair to call it a “song,” since it’s pretty much it’s own EP, but it’s quite an achievement.  An impossible achievement?  Couldn’t resist.

2. The Tallest Man on Earth “The Dreamer”

The electric guitar is a little muddy, the imagery is beautiful as usual, and the chorus is impossibly perfect: “sometimes the blues is just a passing bird, and why can’t that always be?  Tossing aside from your birch’s crown with just enough dark to see how you’re the light over me.”  I put on this song, and just let it wash over me.

1. Sufjan Stevens “All Delighted People (Original Version)”

This song embodies everything that I love about Sufjan Stevens.  It might be the most epic thing I’ve ever heard, packed with wall to wall crescendo’s, and at the center, this beautiful, joyous line, “all delighted people raise their hands.”  If that weren’t enough, it borrows lyrics from one of my all-time favorite songs, Simon & Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence.”  Clocking in at nearly 12 minutes, I only wish it were longer.  You may disagree, but this is my idea of a perfect song.  My hands are still raised.

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Favorite Albums of 2010

I love music. I loved a lot of music in 2010. I decided to rank the music and write about it. If you take the time to read this, congratulations! You must be a music nerd like me! Without further ado, my favorite albums of 2010:

(click on album titles for links to preview and download albums from Amazon)

Saint Bartlett [ Digital Booklet]15. Damien Jurado “Saint Bartlett”

Damien Jurado is a remarkably consistent songwriter, which led me to take this one for granted a bit. I didn’t dig deep enough into these songs to rank it confidently, but, as always, it’s a beautiful collection of songs. Love the vocal echoes on opener “Cloudy Shoes.”

Messenger14. Joe Pug “Messenger”

After 2008’s outstanding “Nation of Heat EP,” I had very high hopes for this debut LP. Pug’s songwriting is just as strong as on “Heat,” especially on heart-wrenching tracks like “Bury Me (Close to My Uniform),” but there’s something about the full band sound on this album that’s a bit too polished for my taste. Pug’s songs just feel like they need a bit more edge. I’m excited to hear whatever he comes up with next.

Volume 213. She & Him “Volume 2”

The orchestration is lush. The songs are gorgeous. I love this album. “Volume 1” was a minimalist pop masterpiece, and this is an apt follow-up. M. Ward’s jack-of-all-trades musicianship and Zooey Deschanel’s crystal clear voice and impeccable ear for melody make for a wonderful, albeit grammatically incorrect, musical pair.

You Are Not Alone12. Mavis Staples “You Are Not Alone”

I own Loretta Lynn’s “Van Lear Rose” because it was produced by Jack White (The White Stripes, The Raconteurs, The Dead Weather). I own Mavis Staples’ “You Are Not Alone” because it was produced by Jeff Tweedy (Wilco). In both cases, it’s a good match. There are some great gospel tracks, a couple Tweedy originals (including the excellent title track). My favorite is the the anthemic track, “Wrote a Song for Everyone.”

American VI_ Ain't No Grave11. Johnny Cash “American VI: Ain’t No Grave”

Johnny Cash’s late-career producer, collaborator and career-reviver Rick Rubin can’t let Johnny Cash go, which means we keep getting to hear more of the wonderful recordings the legendary man left behind. When Johnny Cash sings “there ain’t no grave can hold my body down,” I believe him. Some of these songs could bring someone to tears. But not me, of course. I was just chopping onions.

Lisbon10. The Walkmen “Lisbon”

The Walkmen have been around for a while now (this is their 6th LP), but this is the first of theirs that I’ve really listened to. I heard “Stranded” on NPR’s All Songs Considered, and fell in love. “Stranded” remains the standout track on the album (I’m a sucker for a good horn section), but this is a solid album, beginning to end. The vocals are impassioned, the percussion inventive, the guitar work pristine. Walk on, Walkmen. Yeah, I just said that, and it was hilarious.

Write About Love (Amazon MP3 Exclusive)9. Belle & Sebastian “Write About Love”

Speaking of bands who have been around for awhile, Belle & Sebastian have been making “wistful pop” since the days when I was exclusively listening to Christian punk rock and ska music (i.e. the mid-late 90’s). I’ve grown to appreciate B&S over the past five years or so, but I am by no means a devout fan, though I may well be on my way to becoming one. With their 8th LP, B&S make it sound easy, something that’s far from easy to do. Great sing-along tunes.

The ArchAndroid8. Janelle Monae “The ArchAndroid”

Concept album. Check. Ambitious album. Check. I don’t normally love R&B/Hip-hop, but I really love this album. A stark contrast to many of her contemporaries in the pop world, Janelle Monae evokes the classic vibe of James Brown and Marvin Gaye. Her lyrics are science fiction, inspired by Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent film “Metropolis.” Monae takes on the character of Cindi Mayweather, something of an android messiah, to explore issues of class prejudice and “other-ness.” I may well like this more and more as I continue to listen to it. Also, the tracks “Cold War” and “Tightrope” are SO the jams.

High Violet7. The National “High Violet”

Nearly every male vocalist I listen to is a tenor, but not Matt Berninger. This is the first thing that strikes you when you listen to the National. The deep voice up front contributes to their dark, brooding aesthetic. The percussion on this album is exceptional (e.g. “Terrible Love,” and “Bloodbuzz Ohio”). The line “I was afraid I’d eat your brains” (from “Conversation 16”) makes me laugh audibly every time. I’m not sure if I should be laughing, and that’s precisely why this music is so good. These guys are masters of tension, and I gladly live in it with them.

So Runs the World Away6. Josh Ritter “So Runs the World Away”

I can’t think of anybody who can top Josh Ritter as a lyricist right now. For example, in the nautically-themed epic “Another New World,” the wordplay “'Til at last all around us was fastness, one vast glassy desert of arsenic white.” Is he just showing off? Even if he is, I embrace it wholeheartedly. If I were the arguing type, I might argue that Josh Ritter is our generation’s Paul Simon. I only hope Ritter’s career continues as long as Simon’s. Another highlight: “The Curse” is about an archaeologist who falls in love with a revived mummy and then trades places with him. You gotta hear it.

The Wild Hunt [ digital booklet]5. The Tallest Man on Earth “The Wild Hunt”

Kristian Matsson is a bit of an enigma. I know that he’s from Sweden, he’s not tall, his voice projects as though he’s swallowed an amplifier, and he continues to write and record brilliant songs. I fell in love with his debut LP “Shallow Grave” in 2008, and this new collection is, for the most part, cut from the same cloth. Aside from the more spacious piano-based closer “Kids on the Run,” these are densely crafted folk masterpieces, meticulously picked on guitar and banjo, leaving much to be unpacked even after numerous listens. These songs keep on giving, and I thank The Tallest Man on Earth for each one of them.

Sigh No More4. Mumford & Sons “Sigh No More”

People kept telling me to get this album, that I’d love it. I kept putting it off. I got the album. They were right. I thanked them. From the opening line of the album “Serve God, love me and mend” (from Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing”) to the closing line “Get over your hill and see what you find there, with grace in your heart and flowers in your hair,” it is clear that themes of God, grace and forgiveness are at the heart of this album. They sing and play with intense passion, and they use dynamic shifts to great effect. They’re the only band I’ve heard play a banjo as violently as Scott Avett, and they put together an incredible debut album full of life and catharsis.

Go3. Jonsi “Go”

Icelandic band Sigur Ros has built up a ravenously devoted fan base, and the debut (English language!) solo album from singer Jón Þór Birgisson was (and is) exciting. The best way to describe this album is with one of Jonsi’s lines, from the track “Animal Arithmetic,” “every time, everyone, everything’s full of life!” This album is brimming with life. The percussion is at times so energetic and Jonsi’s voice so pure that I feel like I need to jump out of my body to enjoy it properly. Jonsi has a knack for transcendent music. His voice is a treasure, and his songs a gift.

The Suburbs2. Arcade Fire “The Suburbs”

I was really excited about this album’s release. I preordered the vinyl as soon as humanly possible, and took notes (notes I say!) during my first listen through. Arcade Fire has released three albums, and I don’t think they could be any better. “Funeral” was bombastic, refreshingly honest, full of relatable human suffering and vivid imagery. “Neon Bible” was full of critique of church, politics and pop culture, drenched in pipe organ and lyrics that speak directly to my heart. “The Suburbs” is just a fantastic rock n’ roll album. It reminds me of Springsteen (“Modern Man”), The Mamas and the Papas (“City With No Children”), and, y’know, disco (“Sprawl II”).

Lyrically, Butler is spot on as usual, with suburban gems like “Pray to God I don’t live to see the death of everything that’s wild” (from “Half Light II”). Arcade Fire’s music works, I think, because the band cares deeply about what they sing about. They do not write off the suburbs as a faceless mass of people who have forsaken the open spaces and urban centers of our nation, but look at suburban life autobiographically, noting the good and the bad therein. It’s oddly compelling subject matter, executed masterfully by a great band.

The Age Of Adz1. Sufjan Stevens “The Age of Adz”

I was giddy with excitement on the day that (surprise!) Sufjan released a 58 minute EP (“All Delighted People”) with no forewarning whatsoever. It was just there, new Sufjan music. Sneak attack. And it was awesome. Not long after, there came news of a forthcoming LP. It came with a fair amount of explanation, summed up by: different/electronic/concept/outsider artist Royal Robertson/different. Also, different. Many were worried how it could live up to “Illinois,” his 2005 masterpiece. I was more worried that it could compare to the amazing EP he had just released! I preordered Adz on vinyl, and was giddy to listen to it. “Futile Devices” came over the speakers, and I was confused. This wasn’t very different. But then came the opening “brown noise” of “Too Much.” A bit dancy, a repeating chorus, minimal lyrics. I’m starting to get into the groove, and when the chilling horns of “The Age of Adz” enter at track 3, I’m hooked. I can’t say I “got it” immediately, but I knew I liked this.

Then I went with my good friend Jon Mickelson to see Sufjan in concert. This was the moment it all came together. Sufjan was having fun. He was dancing. His choreography was cheesy, but authentic. It was like he was experiencing the sort of joy I experience when I dance with my little kids in the living room after a long day at work. This is not to say that these songs are simplistic. They are as intricate as can be. I saw a 10 piece band (with 2 drummers, facing one another from opposite sides of the stage, playing mostly in unison throughout the show) bring these songs to life. And in the middle was Sufjan, perhaps my favorite artist, being brought to life again, after a five year semi-hiatus.

And I came back to the album. If you’ve listened to it less than ten times, you haven’t listened enough. It keeps giving, coming to life more and more with each listen. The profane moment on “I Want to Be Well” becomes a prayer, a cry, a plea to God, to doctors, to anyone who can help, to bring relief to an aching body/soul/mind, and now! You realize what an achievement “Impossible Soul” really is. Seriously, it’s over 25 minutes long, and you come to realize, as Sufjan said , introducing the piece at the concert, “everything that has happened so far has been leading up to this moment.” It’s a remarkably self-aware idea, that one is an “Impossible Soul,” and it requires 5 episodes to explore that idea fully.

After years of frustration with the idea of songwriting, Sufjan found inspiration amid great suffering and in an affinity with outsider artist Royal Robertson. I probably like Sufjan Stevens a bit too much, but what can I say? I think I’ve said it already.

Coming soon: My favorite EP’s and Songs from 2010

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Thursday, March 11, 2010

Glenn Beck and Social Justice

If you haven't heard about Glenn Beck urging his listeners to leave their church if the church's website mentions "social justice" in a positive light, you can read about it here.

Much has been made about his statements, and in response, I found myself getting into an interesting discussion of the topic on everybody's favorite social network. I feel pretty good about one of my responses, and have deemed it blogworthy. So here is my response to a friend, and maybe you, if you share a bit of Beck's skepticism about "social justice."

Thanks for the thoughts!

I agree that the term "social justice" can embody a lot of different beliefs, many of which contradict the Bible, or at least a reasonable interpretation of it.

When the church talks about justice, I'd rather use a descriptor like "Biblical justice", but even in adjusting the language, the social implications of the pursuit of Biblical justice are numerous and unavoidable. So a balance must be maintained. Pursuit of social justice without Biblical reflection can spiral into mere humanistic liberalism.

BUT, there are many, many, great churches out there that consist of many, many Godly people, who do have a strong emphasis on Biblically rooted social justice pursuits, and are not bothered by using the term social justice to describe what they do. One of my heroes of the 20th Century, Martin Luther King, Jr., would not have been emboldened to pursue nonviolent resistance to a segregated America were it not for his strong vision of the Kingdom of God characterized primarily by love and justice with all their infinitely social implications. Catholic Social Teaching, one of the strongest components of the Catholic Church, is committed to a pursuit of social justice that is ardently on the side of the poor, radically pro-life, and attempts to embody the Gospel in all its many-sided compelling beauty.

So I hope we won't throw out the baby with the bathwater. It is a personal choice whether or not to align oneself with a church that is comfortable with self-identifying with the term "social justice," some of which are committed to a Christ-shaped Gospel commitment, and some of which are teetering on the brink of the aforementioned humanistic liberalism.

But Mr. Beck's exhortation for his listeners to see the use of the term itself as not only a red flag and a place to raise questions, but a reason to leave your church is...well...overstated, to say the least. It demonizes a whole category of churches, and in the process attempts to eliminate the need for discernment by making up our minds for us.

And I do think that if we take his words at face value, they are undeniably a play on the fears of his listeners: fears of liberalism, socialism, and even communism and Nazism. These are genuine fears, but exploiting those fears with church people from a political bully pulpit is something that I don't appreciate as a pastor. And I pray that these words don't come across as from my very tall religious bully pulpit :)

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Thursday, March 04, 2010

"Hospice" by The Antlers | A Pastoral Reflection

Instantaneous information and access are cardinal virtues of our time, and reflections on albums released eight months ago are decidedly uncool. Reviews come out at or before the release of an album, and a revisit is only appropriate within the confines of "Best of" lists. Or 5, 10, 20, or 25 years later, when it has become a classic.

Well, Hospice, by The Antlers was released last summer to much critical acclaim, but I didn't hear about it until the year end lists started coming out in November and December. I didn't acquire the album until last week, and am grateful to receive its witness. Now this is not a blanket recommendation of the album. It's dark, haunting, brooding, at times nightmarish, and everything else you'd expect from an album entitled Hospice. But as someone who interacts with hospital patients, dying people, and grieving families on a semi-regular basis, I find the albums's stark honesty devastatingly beautiful.

I won't attempt to reconstruct the entire narrative of the album, nor review it, but only to share some ways in which its poetry has spoken truth into me as a pastoral caregiver. The opening lines are telling: "I wish that I had known in that first minute we met, the unpayable debt that I owed you. Because you'd been abused by the bone that refused you, and you hired me to make up for that." As a pastor, I often enter situations completely oblivious to the stories of one or more of the people immersed in a difficult situation. History, upbringing, core convictions, and biases toward tall people influence the coming conversation and subsequent relationship long before I enter a room. Expectations are rarely clear, and after the fact, we pine, with The Antlers, for a little foreknowledge, background, anything that would have prepared us for what's about to transpire.

In Hospice, Sylvia is the patient who grew up with an abusive father, and has become an abusive patient to her caregiver. The caregiver isn't faultless, as a lack of boundaries has allowed this abuse to escalate. He wants to be more than a caregiver. He wants to be her savior. On the song "Atrophy," over sparse but slowly building instrumentation, he confesses: "I'm bound to your bedside, your eulogy singer. I'd happily take all those bullets inside you and put them inside of myself." After these lines, the music builds to a cacophonic roar before pulling back to the singular voice, nearly whispering "Someone, oh anyone, Tell me how to stop this. She's screaming, expiring, and I'm her only witness." Later, in the heartwrenching song "Two," the caregiver mourns that "There's no open doors, and there's no way to get through, there's no other witnesses, just us two."

In my ongoing dialogues with God, this line has entered my mind more than once. "There's no other witnesses, just us two." Yesterday, it struck me why this line refuses to leave me alone. Much like the tragic protagonist of Hospice, I have been guilty of overidentifying and overinvesting. There have been times where I have assumed this responsibility of sole witness to the sufferings of another. Even while confessing with my lips that God is with them in their pain and suffering, I have been guilty of making it about me. Pastoral care should never be something that I need in order to feel useful as a pastor. It should not be the place where I pick at the things I hate in myself that I happen to see in others.

I, more than anyone should be the one to point to and embrace the third witness. And when it feels like "just us two," the time is ripe to embrace the presence of that mysterious Other, the self-giving God who knows the deepest suffering that human life has to offer, both in the pain of a Son who suffered the worst sort of death imaginable, and of the Father, who had to witness the unbearable tragedy. On the other side of suffering with Christ is hope. Tragically, for the isolated and suffocating suffering of Hospice, there is no other side, even after Sylvia's death. From the Epilogue, "When I try to move my arms sometimes, they weigh too much to lift. I think you buried me awake (my one and only parting gift.) But you return to me at night, just when I think I may have fallen asleep. Your face is up against mine, and I'm too terrified to speak."

I'm sure Hospice will continue to provide me with rich reflections appropriate for such a time as this Lenten season, and will serve as an ongoing reminder that caring for the hurting is a sacred task, and should never be attempted alone. The Kingdom of God gives us a hopeful alternative to the nightmares of Hospice. Not a sparing from suffering, but the promise of hope, the joy of resurrection.

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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Forest For the Trees and All That Jazz

"He said to me I was a tree in a story about a forest, and that it was arrogant of me to believe any differently. And he told me the story of the forest is better than the story of the tree." - A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, p. 198

As the story goes, these words were proverbially whispered into Donald Miller's ear by Victor Frankl. And now they're being whispered into mine. I've heard the adage about not losing the forest for the trees over and again, but I'd never found it as liberating as the whispered words of Frankl.

As a pastor, it seems that I am charged with the cultivation of a small section of the forest. This means sometimes paying extra attention to certain trees at certain times. Yet my ultimate call is to serve the forest. My call is to recount the story of the forest to a bunch of trees, and hope that they can see beyond themselves enough to get excited about the forest which they've been planted in all along. My call is to lead our little section of the forest faithfully, that we may bring glory to the One who created and planted the entire forest.

The metaphor falls apart if I try to take it too much further, as the differences between trees and people become too great, but it seems to work well to illustrate community. As far as I know, trees don't have thoughts, but how silly would it be for a single tree to think the entire forest revolved around it? Or that it could survive without all the other trees? Or without water and sun?

May we live for the Kingdom of God, not our kingdom. And when our kingdom comes crashing down around us, may the Kingdom be made evident in the loving words and works of His church. And may we be so caught up in the magnetic pull of the Kingdom that we forget our kingdom ever existed.

The story of the King and His Kingdom is better than the story of little kingdom that tried to compete.

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