July 4, 2020

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America’s Independence Day seems a strange holiday to “celebrate” this year. Our country is in turmoil with racial protests in cities both large and small. Our government’s mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic has left our country first meriting the world’s scorn and eventually its pity. Our people are so polarized that even wearing a mask is viewed as a political statement.

Yesterday President Trump gave a speech in front of Mount Rushmore, a site where white Americans literally engraved their political heroes on top of the sacred hills of the Native Americans they displaced. In his speech he declared that this summer’s protestors – a group that includes me – are a “dangerous movement”, a “radical assault”, “far-left fascism”, a “left-wing cultural revolution designed to overthrow the American Revolution”, resulting in “the very definition of totalitarianism”.

Me? I’d just like to see some responsible leadership. I’d like to not have black people get killed by police at ridiculous rates. I‘d like to have more white people like me start coming to grips with how recent (and current) our racist systems were and still are. And I’d like us to start changing those systems.

My Christian faith should be common ground even with those who see politics very differently. Yet this year there are so many, especially among the white evangelical group, who don’t even seem to share a common reality. Inconvenient facts are “fake news”. Any wrong that the President does is either overblown by the media or justifiable. (The ends are what are important, right?)

How can you sit quietly to maintain the perception of unity in the fellowship when it requires you to not talk about applying your faith to current events?

That thing where Jesus said he would set brother against brother seems a lot more real when your brother is so frustrated with your application of faith to your politics that he isn’t talking to you. But then I wonder whether he’s quoting the same verse thinking about me. And I wonder how we ever get past it.

There is no city fireworks display this year and I’m finding no joy in the neighbors’ best attempts to make up for it. Not so many Independence Days ago I would drag the kids out into the oppressive humidity and battle mosquitos just so we could enjoy the fireworks with oohs and awe. Tonight the explosions just bring acrid smoke and unwelcome noise late into the tired night.

What will next year’s celebration look like? What will we be celebrating? Will we be any less tired? Any more hopeful?

Too long have I had my dwelling among those who hate peace. I am for peace; but when I speak, they are for war.

2020 Reading – First Half recommendations

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July 1st means that we’re halfway through 2020 already… what a year. I looked back and realized I haven’t posted any reading compendiums yet this year. And to be honest, the reading has been a little slow. You’d think a work-from-home pandemic would mean more time for reading, but in reality it’s turned out to leave fewer brain cycles for processing books. But I have done some reading. Rather than list everything I’ve read (which you can see on Goodreads if you really want to), I’ll just list some highlights.

This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar
An inventive short sci-fi novel from the voices of two competing people engaged in some sort of, well, time war. Hard to describe, but it was short and easy to read and I enjoyed it.

The Education of an Idealist: A Memoir by Samantha Power
I loved this book so much. Power is a fascinating woman. Born in Ireland, came to America as a child, became a journalist and human rights advocate more or less on her own in her 20s, latched on to the Obama campaign in 2008 as an adviser on human rights issues and ended up serving as the US Ambassador to the United Nations. Really well written and engaging read. If Joe Biden gets elected this fall, Power seems like a great candidate to be Secretary of State in his administration.

With Head and Heart: The Autobiography of Howard Thurman by Howard Thurman
A fascinating memoir of a black man from the South who ended up as a progressive pastor in San Francisco.

Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World by Tom Holland
Holland makes the case that Christianity has remade the world over the past two millennia – that most of what we consider western human values today – care for human rights, the dignity of all people, regard for the poor, etc – were not considered virtues before Christianity.

I’ve got several books in progress at the moment which should provide some more good recommendations… I’ll keep you all posted.

We keep living anyway

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The chorus of this tune has resonated in my head a lot this week.

Theodosia writes me a letter every day
I’m keeping her bed warm while her husband is away
He’s on the British side in Georgia
He’s trying to keep the colonies in line
But he can keep all of Georgia
Theodosia, she’s mine

Love doesn’t discriminate
Between the sinners
And the saints
It takes and it takes and it takes
And we keep loving anyway
We laugh and we cry
And we break
And we make our mistakes
And if there’s a reason I’m by her side
When so many have tried
Then I’m willing to wait for it
I’m willing to wait for it

My grandfather was a fire and brimstone preacher
But there are things that the
Homilies and hymns won’t teach ya
My mother was a genius
My father commanded respect
When they died they left no instructions
Just a legacy to protect

Death doesn’t discriminate
Between the sinners and the saints
It takes and it takes and it takes
And we keep living anyway
We rise and we fall
And we break
And we make our mistakes
And if there’s a reason I’m still alive
When everyone who loves me has died
I’m willing to wait for it
I’m willing to wait for it

I am the one thing in life I can control
I am inimitable
I am an original
I’m not falling behind or running late
I’m not standing still
I am lying in wait

Hamilton faces an endless uphill climb
He has something to prove
He has nothing to lose
Hamilton’s pace is relentless
He wastes no time
What is it like in his shoes?

Hamilton doesn’t hesitate
He exhibits no restraint
He takes and he takes and he takes
And he keeps winning anyway
He changes the game
He plays and he raises the stakes
And if there’s a reason
He seems to thrive when so few survive, then Goddamnit

I’m willing to wait for it
I’m willing to wait for it…

Life doesn’t discriminate
Between the sinners and the saints
It takes and it takes and it takes
And we keep living anyway
We rise and we fall and we break
And we make our mistakes
And if there’s a reason I’m still alive
When so many have died
Then I’m willin’ to

(“Wait for It“, from Hamilton, words and music by Lin-Manuel Miranda)

Desperation

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How desperate am I for live sports?

I’m watching NASCAR. And hard pressed to turn it off when they went into a rain delay.

As Groucho Marx toasted the stuffy society lady in Animal Crackers:

“A toast: to your charm, your beauty, and your brains. Which should give you a general idea of how hard up I am for a drink.”

Note: I’m like 99% sure that toast came from Animal Crackers, but the internet isn’t helpful in finding it. So here’s another classic clip from that movie.

10 Albums, 10 Days: Also-Rans

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Culling my list down to 10 albums was a challenge. Here are a few also-rans that just didn’t quite make the cut:

The Morning – Andrew Osenga
This one got a lot of play time from me, and I spent a lot of time playing its songs. Andy O’s solo stuff continues to be meaningful to me, but this one hit the sweet spot where our life experiences aligned and I felt like he was writing about the things that I’d write about if only I had any skill at writing songs.

In Rainbows – Radiohead
Radiohead is another band I came to mid-stream. In Rainbows is not usually listed as anybody’s favorite Radiohead album, but it was the gateway for me into their music. I dig it.

All That You Can’t Leave Behind – U2
Same story – this was the gateway for me into U2’s music. Such a good record.

Hamilton Original Broadway Cast Soundtrack – Lin-Manuel Miranda and cast
All that stuff I said about my love for smart wordplay? Hamilton has that in spades. More than any other record I can think of. My love for Hamilton knows no bounds.

Kermit does Jazz?

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I’m playing keys for the church livestream this morning, which in the end results in me having a bunch of time to mess around with a keyboard between rehearsal and the stream itself. Put a few of us musicians together and you never know what you’re gonna get.

So here’s the musical idea I came up with this morning: Kermit the Frog, singing Rainbow Connection… in a jazz style, a la Ella Fitzgerald.

Funny part is, it kinda worked. I was gonna try to do a chorus scatting but my good sense got the better of me. Our sound guy apparently has it all recorded, though… one of these days he’s gonna do a blooper reel and it’s gonna be hilarious and awesome and scary all at the same time.

Bullet Points for a Saturday Morning

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  • Since I started working from home 8 weeks ago, my morning routine has changed. No more gym, reading and writing in the morning instead.
  • Also, WordPress is impressed with my 10-day posting streak. It’s easy to write about music. But a lazy bullet points post will get me to 11.
  • (Insert Spinal Tap reference here.)
  • Saturday mornings have become cinnamon roll mornings. It’s not helping my waistline but it’s a nice way to celebrate the weekend.
  • The siding guys are done with our house. It looks great and I’m enthused that I will not need to paint the outside of the house again.
  • I’m thankful that we have local coffee roasters still doing their thing because Walmart-brand coffee isn’t the greatest.
  • I’m kinda gonna miss the siding guys, though, since the noise and bustle of them working made it not feel so creepily quiet every day.
  • I bought a Bibliotheca Bible boxed set when they did the kickstarter several years ago. It seemed like a cool idea but I ended up not being a fan of the translation they used and they quickly just started collecting dust on my shelf.
  • This week somebody on Facebook wanted to buy them. They are like new other than the New Testament volume which has some minor notes I put in the first 5 chapters of Matthew. Oddly enough that person preferred to buy an incomplete set rather than buy a NT volume with a few notes in it.
  • Going to the post office to mail these books will be the first time I’ve gone anywhere all week.
  • These bullet points aren’t as random as they should be. It feels like a lazy way to do a partial narrative without any through line. What the heck, it’s 2020, we all deserve some slack.

10 Albums, 10 Days: A Liturgy, A Legacy, and a Ragamuffin Band

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Maybe this one should’ve been first on my list, but I decided to leave the best for last. Rich Mullins was a formative artist – perhaps the formative artist – of my musical life. I spent more time learning his piano licks (well, Reed Arvin’s piano licks) and sitting at the piano singing his songs than any other songwriter. Liturgy, Legacy wasn’t my first Mullins album, but it is the best.

Structured in two halves, the A-side (Liturgy) half of Liturgy, Legacy captures all the best of Rich Mullins. His tender vulnerability with his audience (Here In America), his keen awareness of nature’s declaration of the glory of God (The Color Green), his raw and honest heart wrestling with brokenness (Hold Me Jesus), his firm confidence in the faith (Creed), his struggles in relationship to other saints (Peace)… and that’s just the first half of the album.

Then comes the Legacy side, where Rich plays his hammered dulcimer for an instrumental and then explores the challenges of living life in the real world (Hard), wrestles with the challenges of coming from a real family and carrying their legacy (I’ll Carry On), shares the joy of Christmas (You Gotta Get Up), laments the corrupt systems of society (How to Grow Up Big and Strong) and explores the tension of both loving the country you’re born into while yearning for a better kingdom (Land of My Sojourn).

Every song on the record is a gem. And the fact that I just wrote those last two paragraphs directly from my memory of the album tells me something about how ingrained it is in my head and heart.

The other formative piece about Rich Mullins and this album is that Rich was the formative artist for many of the other artists I have included on this list. He was a mentor for Caedmon’s Call. He was the inspiration for Andrew Peterson’s songwriting. If you look behind the scenes at the artists who made Peterson’s Behold the Lamb of God record, each of them will point to Rich as the one who charted the course they are following. Then there’s also that weird bit where a guy from Rich’s band also wrote some of the songs for That Thing You Do!, but that’s a different story…

For the 20th anniversary of this record, Andrew Peterson and friends put on a tribute concert at The Ryman in Nashville where they played a bunch of Rich’s other songs up front and then played this album through front to back for the second half of the show. It is, hands down, the best concert I’ve ever attended. Amazingly almost none of it seems to have made it to YouTube, but here’s a taste.

I could go on and on and on but I’ll stop here. Suffice it to say that if you want to really get to the heart of the music that has formed me and shaped my musical soul, go listen to Rich Mullins. Peace.

10 Albums, 10 Days: Rachmaninov’s Vespers (All Night Vigil)

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I’ve really been wrestling with what album to post for day #9. But I’m gonna go with one that chronologically belongs back near the beginning of this series somewhere: Rachmaninov’s Vespers (All Night Vigil). An a capella choral composition of settings from the Russian Orthodox’s All-night vigil service, it was reportedly one of Rachmaninov’s favorites of his own works and is a peaceful, stately work of surpassing beauty.

My first encounter with Vespers feels in retrospect like a very “Chris” story. I was probably 12. I was listening to NPR on the radio. (Yes, at 12.) Toward the end of some radio program (probably Fresh Air, but who knows), a music critic was comparing various new recordings of Vespers, pointing out how the Robert Shaw Chorale was perhaps more technically polished, but how the Russian choir recording was more vibrant. What I knew was that it was gorgeous music that I didn’t want to forget.

It was probably a year or two before I bought the CD at a music store. If I recall correctly, this first recording I purchased was by the USSR Ministry of Culture Choir. It was wonderful. I’ve since purchased a couple more versions on CD, and now in today’s world of streaming music I have an overwhelming number of recordings to choose from.

Regardless of which version you listen to, the beauty of the composition shines through, and a read through the translation of the Russian texts reminds you that classical church music isn’t limited to Bach and Handel and their western ilk. This is truly wonderful stuff, and shaped my musical inclinations from a young age. Worth a listen.