Wednesday, January 13, 2010

This Blowhard Preacher

I have recently begun re-reading Blue Like Jazz in preparation for taking on Donald Miller's latest book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years (which, as I understand, is grounded in the experience/revelation Mr. Miller had through the process of adapting Jazz into a film).

I am re-reading Jazz because it's been about four years since I read it, and I sense that the experience will enhance my reading of A Million Miles. Donald Miller is hilarious. His stream of consciousness seems to lack an edit button, and we as readers are better for it.

Early in the book, Miller is reflecting on how as an aspiring author, he didn't own a television, and didn't watch much of it. It is undignified and shallow for a writer to debase themselves with the stuff of television. But one day, all that changed...

A couple of years ago, however, I visited a church in the suburbs, and there was this blowhard preacher talking about how television rots your brain. He said that when we are watching television our minds are working no harder than when we are sleeping. I thought that sounded heavenly. I bought one that afternoon. (Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz, p. 15.)

Maybe you have to actually be a preacher to find this as funny as I do. But when I read this line Monday morning, the preschoolers and teachers in the building probably thought there was something wrong with me. Or that I was wasting time watching silly YouTube videos again. I was an embodied LOL.

Bearing the message of the Gospel and the Kingdom is serious stuff, but I don't want to take myself too seriously. Blowhard preachers are funny, but not in a good way. At least not if you're the preacher. Thanks for keeping us honest, Don.

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Monday, January 11, 2010

New Year's Resolution | Getting Out of My Head

I never make New Year's resolutions. Usually because I think I'm above that sort of thing. As you know, New Year's resolutions have this reputation of not being helpful. They rarely make it out of January (or so I hear), and the skeptic inside me has wondered: why bother? Well this year, I spontaneously made a resolution. It's practical, measurable and will hopefully preserve my sanity a bit. In 2010, I resolve to spend a half-hour of each of my workdays READING.

This is not reading for sermon or Bible study prep. Just reading. I hope to spend a half-hour a day reading at home as well, but that's not part of the resolution. Thirty minutes a day. Should be doable.

A little background on why this resolution is of particular importance to me in 2010.

It may seem at first counterintuitive, or maybe it will give voice to what you've always suspected or known, but I think that pastors have a tendency to be self-absorbed. We are not all self-absorbed (notice I said "tendency"), but we spend a lot of time with our own thoughts, speaking our interpretations to a (sometimes) captive audience, and we are generally immersed in situations where "faking it" is much easier than seeking the help of others. Many pastors exist in a minefield, and left unchecked, those mines start exploding, leaving the pastor badly injured and their families and churches barraged with shrapnel. But you have probably already heard (or experienced) some of those stories.

Anyway, as I come to the end of my first year in pastoral ministry, I sense a strong need to get outside of my own head each day. I do this by sharing difficult situations with friends, journaling, taking my alloted time off, dancing with my wife and kids, pretending my kitchen is a karaoke bar, composing absurdist limericks, and by reading.

The sermon I preach cannot be the only one I hear each week. I crave the perspective of great thinkers and prophets of ages past and present. I am never tempted to ignore the voices of the musician/poets of the age (as evidenced by my previous two posts), but reading the prophetic words of great novelists, essayists and theologians doesn't come as naturally. It requires more work. It isn't part of my rhythm. It can feel like academic rigor. Plus, I'm pretty good at pretending to be well read.

I need this resolution, and eleven days in, it's going pretty well. I sure hope my resolution makes it past January.

How about you? Any pressing resolutions for you in 2010? Thoughts on the concept of the resolution? Suggestions for good books?

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Monday, January 04, 2010

Favorite Music of the Aughts, Overall Top 10

I listed my top five albums from each year of the decade affectionately known as the aughts, but it's another animal to come up with my overall top 10 of the decade. This has been an arduous, yet enlightening endeavor. And now...on to the sonic sustenance.

10. Bill Mallonee and Vigilantes of Love, Audible Sigh (2000)

As the decade began, I was listening to ska and punk rock almost exclusively. I would never have guessed that by 2002 I would be drawn in by this album. But Marcie and I saw Bill Mallonee play a solo show with Derek Webb and the Normals, and I absolutely fell in love with these songs. It is a nearly perfect country/folk/americana gem. This album taught me the meaning of the word 'resplendent.' Twice.

9. U2, All That You Can't Leave Behind (2000)
I am one of the few stubborn people who think that Pop and Zooropa were actually pretty good albums, but this is the album that put U2 back on top, and made them my favorite band for the first half of the decade. Sure, I've heard "Beautiful Day" a few too many times over the past ten years, but I won't hold that against them. This is both a collection of great singles, and a great album. It also gets points for being one of the albums that my wife also loved this decade. Leave it behind...

8. The Decemberists, The Crane Wife (2006)

Curious fact about The Crane Wife: it was not my favorite album based on a Japanese Folk Tale released in 2006. More on that later. As much as I wanted to, I was unable to give the Decemberists the top spot in any given year. If one would, this would be it. It embodies everything I love about the Decemberists: old-time colloquialisms, an epic three-part suite, great melodies and cautionary tales, all capped off by a beautiful folk sing-along that could be (and is) appreciated even by the legendary Pete Seeger. Hear all the bombs fade away...

7. Johnny Cash, American IV: The Man Comes Around (2002)
"The Man Comes Around" might be the best song Johnny Cash wrote in his illustrious career. What Rick Rubin did for the legendary Cash's career was and continues to be a gift to the world, and this was the best of the bunch. Cash breathed new life into songs like "Hurt" (also the best music video of the decade), "Personal Jesus," and "Desperado." The man Johnny Cash is larger than life, and on American IV the music is stripped down to its barest elements, leaving the singularly authoritative yet comforting voice of Johnny Cash to shine. We'll meet again...

6. The White Stripes, Elephant (2003)
If you are able to somehow resist "Seven Nation Army," check your pulse. The blues/rock duo explosion that is The White Stripes hit full stride (they were always 'in stride') on this album. This album is chock full of great songs, from the whimsical to the profound, with guitar riffs that just won't quit. It's hard to describe what makes The White Stripes so exceptional as a band. Maybe that's precisely why they're so exceptional. I got a fever, and the only prescription is Jack and Meg. Oh girl, you have no faith in medicine...

5. Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002)
It is a testament to the significance of albums 1-4 that this one is not higher than 5. As I think of YHF, my mind is flooded with some of my favorite lines, lyrics and melodies of all time. I'm the man who loves you. I am trying to break your heart. You gotta learn how to die if you wanna wanna be alive. The combination of layered noise and ridiculously catchy hooks makes for pure sonic bliss. This was my first Wilco album, and it has led to the purchase of all the others. I've got reservations about so many things, but not about you...

4. Radiohead, Kid A (2000)
My decade was forever changed by Kid A. In some sense, it ruined me. I was unable to enjoy some of the music I once loved after Kid A. I began expecting more from the music I listened to. When I first started dating Marcie, I would drive from Chicago to West Michigan fairly frequently, and I would listen to this album and question existence as I knew it, Thom Yorke's voice singing "I'm not here. This isn't happening." Was he serious? Have I been in the car too long? I am still unpacking the riches of this album. And I steal its opening lyric for my sermons with regularity. Everything in its right place...

3. Anathallo, Floating World (2006)
This is my favorite album released in 2006 based on a Japanese folktale (see #8). If I hadn't bought Kid A in 2000, I probably would have no interest in Anathallo. Too complex, too difficult too follow, not immediately catchy enough. But sometimes I sense that this is the album I had been searching for ever since hearing Kid A. The beauty that flows from this album is almost too much, beginning with the intricately designed arwork. I'm a decent drummer, but even after 3-4 years, I am still baffled by many of this album's syncopations. I want to skip like a stone from a stronger arm...

2. Sufjan Stevens, Come On Feel the Illinoise! (2005)
The singular genius of Sufjan Stevens is stunning to me. Fans like me suffer from a fear that he will never record another proper studio album, but even if he doesn't, this one will stand the test of time. I never knew the state I grew up in could inspire such songs of beauty and bewilderment. Sufjan weaves personal, geographical and spiritual stories into this album which has become itself a new mythology. It is at once frail and triumphant, simple and endlessly complex, stripped down and layered, distant and personal. I fell in love again. All things go...

1. Arcade Fire, Neon Bible (2007)
Right up until about two weeks ago, I thought Illinois would be #1. But then I realized something. For me, listening to Neon Bible is an event that consumes me. Unlike Illinois, I cannot use this as background music. It demands my full attention at each listen, and with each listen, such attention is rewarded. Almost everyone considers Funeral to be the superior Arcade Fire album, and "everyone" might be right, but Neon Bible connects deep to my spirit in a way that no other album does. "Intervention" has left me in tears on more than one occasion. "The Well and the Lighthouse" gives me chills. I can't avoid using the term prophetic to describe this album drenched in skepticism, truth, life and hope. The lions and the lambs ain't sleeping yet...

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Favorite Music of the Aughts, Year By Year

This has been a great decade for music. The way I listen has been turned upside down. My tastes have shifted significantly over the years. As I look back on the decade, I find that my life has been enriched by these albums, and they have provided the soundtrack for some of the greatest moments in my life. The journey of discovering new music is in many ways a spiritual journey. These great artists put word and melody to the questions, aches, celebrations and absurdities of being human.

My relationship with these songs and albums and artists is always shifting, so this is only a snapshot. All of my year end lists from previous years have changed, and a year from now, they will likely change again. This ebb and flow is to me a beautiful thing.

These are the five albums from each year of this great decade (affectionately known as "the aughts") that resonate with me most (for now):


  1. Radiohead, Kid A
  2. U2, All That You Can't Leave Behind
  3. Bill Mallonee, Audible Sigh
  4. Pedro the Lion, Winners Never Quit
  5. Coldplay, Parachutes

  1. Jimmy Eat World, Bleed American
  2. Radiohead, Amnesiac
  3. Bob Dylan, Love and Theft
  4. The White Stripes, White Blood Cells
  5. Explosions in the Sky, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Live Forever
  1. Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
  2. Johnny Cash, American IV: The Man Comes Around
  3. Sigur Ros, ()
  4. The Flaming Lips, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots
  5. Blindside, Silence
  1. The White Stripes, Elephant
  2. Death Cab for Cutie, Transatlanticism
  3. Sufjan Stevens, Greetings from Michigan
  4. Radiohead, Hail to the Thief
  5. Over the Rhine, Ohio
  1. Arcade Fire, Funeral
  2. Wilco, A Ghost is Born
  3. mewithoutYou, Catch For Us the Foxes
  4. Sufjan Stevens, Seven Swans
  5. Loretta Lynn, Van Lear Rose
  1. Sufjan Stevens, Come On, Feel the Illinoise!
  2. The White Stripes, Get Behind Me, Satan
  3. Bright Eyes, I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning
  4. David Crowder Band, A Collision (or 3 + 4 = 7)
  5. Iron & Wine, Our Endless Numbered Days
  1. Anathallo, Floating World
  2. The Decemberists, The Crane Wife
  3. Sleeping at Last, Keep No Score
  4. Josh Ritter, The Animal Years
  5. Over the Rhine, Snow Angel
  1. Arcade Fire, Neon Bible
  2. Wilco, Sky Blue Sky
  3. Radiohead, In Rainbows
  4. Andrew Bird, Armchair Apocrypha
  5. The National, Boxer
  1. Fleet Foxes, Fleet Foxes
  2. She & Him, Volume 1
  3. Anathallo, Canopy Glow
  4. Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever Ago
  5. The Tallest Man on Earth, Shallow Grave
2009 (with microblog descriptions)
  1. The Low Anthem, Oh My God, Charlie Darwin - "Charlie Darwin" is bar none the most beautiful song I heard this year. Endlessly intriguing, gorgeous songs.
  2. The Avett Brothers, I and Love and You - Tempted to put this at number one. Maybe I didn't because it's too perfect. I'm a sucker for the Rick Rubin touch.
  3. The Decemberists, The Hazards of Love - Epic. Beautiful. Disturbing. Tragic. Hopeful. Words true of every Decemberists album, but especially this one.
  4. The Mountain Goats, The Life of the World to Come - Makes me wish I had gotten into The Mountain Goats earlier. John Darnielle is a brilliant lyricist.
  5. Wilco, Wilco (the album) - Another great album from one of our nation's greatest bands. Wilco will love you, baby.
  6. Sufjan Stevens, The BQE - I don't have much to compare this to, since I don't listen to many symphonies, but Sufjan's essay alone is worth the $15.
  7. David Bazan, Curse Your Branches - The former Pedro the Lion frontman has committed his deepest questions to song, and it feels tragically sacred.
  8. Andrew Bird, Noble Beast - Andrew, I could listen to you whistle all day...
  9. Phoenix, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix - Disappointed at first, but when I crank up the volume and dance, I realize this is great pop music.
  10. U2, No Line On the Horizon - "Moment of Surrender" saves this album for me. I sense that they need to pare back their sound on the next one.
  11. M. Ward, Hold Time - M. Ward is remarkably consistent as a songwriter, arranger and producer. His music seems to transcend time and space.
  12. The Swell Season, Strict Joy - "Man" and "woman" from the film Once fall in love (in real life), break up (also in real life), and write songs about it.
  13. Patrick Watson, Wooden Arms - Lush orchestration, inventive percussion, and a song about "Where the Wild Things Are." Need anything else?
  14. Sleeping at Last, Storyboards - Another solid album from one of my favorite bands, but I haven't connected with it like past albums.
  15. Animal Collective, Merriweather Post Pavillion - I've tried to get into AnCo, but I just can't quite get there. This is the best AnCo I've heard, though.

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