10 Albums, 10 Days: Silly Songs with Larry

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I got tagged on Facebook to do this project – share ten albums that greatly influenced my taste in music. One album per day for ten consecutive days. In theory for the Facebook version this is supposed to be without explanation… but I want to explain! So I’m going to blog the explanations here.

I started writing today’s post thinking I was going to write about a classic jazz album. One that everybody would recognize, and that is a favorite of mine for the same reason it’s a favorite of many, many people. But then I got to thinking – was it really formative for me? Probably not. And then this album sprang to mind and insisted that it be added to the list. Bear with me.

And now it’s time for Silly Songs with Larry, the part of the show where Larry comes out and sings a silly song. So, without further ado, Silly Songs with Larry.

Veggie Tales were just becoming a thing in my late high school years, and I didn’t have any familiarity with them until I hit college. Then one night I was with a church group at someone’s home and they had a Veggie Tales video on for the kids and I heard a (non-silly-song) rhyme that stopped me in my tracks. The king’s advisers are trying to figure out how to get rid of Daniel, and they include these lines:

We could use him as a footstool or a table to play Scrabble on
Then tie him up and beat him up and throw him out of Babylon

Wait, what’s that? Somebody with the nerve to rhyme “Scrabble on” with “Babylon” without blatantly winking at the camera while doing so? This is someone I needed to pay more attention to. So then I bought the Silly Songs with Larry CD, and it was all downhill from there.

This CD got dozens of plays at our house before we had kids old enough to listen to it. Heck, before we even had kids. I am a sucker for wordplay. This love would take me later to Weird Al Yankovic, and then to quickly embrace Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. But before that was Phil Vischer and his silly songs.

Over the years the phrases have become engrained in our family’s vocabulary. “Oh where is my hairbrush?” “Where’s my water buffalo? Why don’t I have a water buffalo? Are you prepared to deal with that? I don’t think so!” “Now the moral of the story, (it’s the point we hope we’ve made): if you go a little loopy, better keep your nurse well paid.” I led a sing-along of The Cheeseburger Song at the end of a church hymn sing one time. It was awesome.

I am overly proud of the fact that my children now display the same predilection to altering lyrics to songs. My oldest once sang original funny lyrics to Rewrite The Stars from The Greatest Showman at a karaoke night. (All my kids sang Weird Al at karaoke night.) I am always quick to make up a funny lyric when I can. And one of these days I’m gonna memorize all the Spanish so I can sing Larry’s part in Dance of the Cucumber.

10 Albums, 10 Days: Behold the Lamb of God

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I got tagged on Facebook to do this project – share ten albums that greatly influenced my taste in music. One album per day for ten consecutive days. In theory for the Facebook version this is supposed to be without explanation… but I want to explain! So I’m going to blog the explanations here.

Yesterday I left off by saying that my Caedmon’s Call fandom led me to Andrew Osenga, who in turn led me to Andrew Peterson. Today it’s time to tell a little more of that story.

Andrew Osenga wasn’t an original member of Caedmon’s Call. He had a band called The Normals which opened for Caedmon’s on occasion. At some point after The Normals stopped making records, Andy was invited to join Caedmon’s. Once I became familiar with Andy as a member of Caedmon’s, I quickly picked up his two available solo CDs – an EP called Souvenirs and Postcards, and a full-length CD called Photographs. They quickly became favorites.

In late 2005 I caught wind (maybe on the Caedmon’s fan forum?) that Andy Osenga was coming to Iowa to play a show with Andrew Peterson at a little start-up Christian music festival on the side of a hill in Clermont, Iowa. So, my wife and I bundled up our one-year-old daughter and drove the 90 minutes up to hear them (along with Ben Shive) play a two-hour concert from a flatbed trailer on the side of the hill. It was, in retrospect, a really weird gig for them. As Peterson said at the time, “it’s the first time I’ve ever played a concert with somebody riding a cow in the background”. No joke. I was thrilled to meet them that day and a little extra happy when AO said he recognized me from the fan forum. (Did I mention I was a big fanboy?)

Andy Osenga on the left, me on the right. October 2005. We both still had hair.

But I’m telling a lot of stories and not getting to my album for today. Anyway, at that show I ran into a co-worker who was there to see Andrew Peterson play, and we visited a bit. Fast-forward a year or so and that co-worker emailed me. She was bringing Andrew Peterson and friends to town to play a concert. Would I be interested in helping out with it for the day? Well, that was a no-brainer. And that gave me my first opportunity to hear the Christmas record and tour that would become a tradition: Andrew Peterson’s Behold the Lamb of God.

What can I even say about this record? It’s a concept album that tells the story of Jesus from both the Old Testament and the New, with creative songwriting, smart lyrics, beautiful melodies, amazing musicianship, and a sense of humor. Every year for 20 years now Andrew Peterson and his friends have taken this record on the road for a series of concerts between Thanksgiving and Christmas. I think I’ve been 5 times? But nothing will compare to that first time I saw it in a high school auditorium in Cedar Rapids. I’d never heard the record before I hear them play it live that night.

This record is influential to me not just for the brilliant songs, but also because of how it represents Peterson’s commitment to artistic community. He toured with the same musicians for almost all of those 20 years. They were not just co-workers but friends. Peterson would later expand the vision of that community into The Rabbit Room. But none of that would’ve happened without him nurturing those relationships on tours built around this one amazing album.

Listen to Behold the Lamb of God on YouTube.

10 Albums, 10 Days: Long Line of Leavers

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I got tagged on Facebook to do this project – share ten albums that greatly influenced my taste in music. One album per day for ten consecutive days. In theory for the Facebook version this is supposed to be without explanation… but I want to explain! So I’m going to blog the explanations here.

One pattern that shows up in this list is my propensity to discover an artist not at their first album and then work forward, but to discover a later album and then work my way back through their discography. As I did with Michael W. Smith in my teens, and as I would in my 30s with Arcade Fire, U2, and Radiohead, in my late 20s I did with a little band called Caedmon’s Call.

I know my brother had a copy of their self-titled album back when I was in college, and I’m sure I listened to it a time or two but it just didn’t click for me. In retrospect, this really irks me because Caedmon’s was playing great shows and doing fan community events in the Houston area when I was in college in East Texas… road trips would not have been out of the question. But I digress.

Fast forward to 2000 and I’m a young guy wandering the Christian book store (remember when those existed?) listening to demo CDs (or those?). On a whim I gave this CD a spin, and the acoustic guitar loop and B3 organ kicking off the title track sucked me in. And then there were little trumpet accents the second time through the intro riff, and I was completely hooked. (I would find out later that long-time Caedmon’s fans hated those trumpets, but what did I know? And again I digress.)

Long Line of Leavers sucked me in and never let me go. I don’t know that it’s Caedmon’s best record – but it’s also hard to classify best. Their self-titled record and follow-up 40 Acres have their classic acoustic sound, with some twisty Derek Webb lyrics thrown in for good measure. Later on, Share The Well (a concept album written and partially recorded in India) would bring a new level of maturity to their songwriting and production and set that record apart. But Long Line of Leavers was my gateway drug.

Finding this record and this band had more long-term impact on my life than probably any other record I’ll have on this list, save maybe for the one I’ll close with. Because after finding Caedmon’s and doing some internet searches to find out more about them, I stumbled upon a discussion forum run by and for Caedmon’s fans. I lurked there for a while. In 2004 I joined, picked an unintentionally hilarious username, and started posting. The other forum stalwarts became my friends. Through the years I have met many of them in person and deepened those friendships in meaningful ways. Their friends have become my friends. 16 years later they form a community I still interact with every day.

As a musician, I joke now that I learned everything I know about playing a B3 organ from listening to Caedmon’s Call. (There might in reality be a little bit of gospel music influence in there, too, but it’s mostly Caedmon’s.) Then Caedmon’s picked up a new guitar player named Andrew Osenga and I became a massive fanboy of his stuff for several years. And then Caedmon’s community pointed me to Andrew Peterson… but I’ll leave that story for tomorrow.

Listen to Long Line of Leavers on YouTube

10 Albums, 10 Days: When Harry Met Sally

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I got tagged on Facebook to do this project – share ten albums that greatly influenced my taste in music. One album per day for ten consecutive days. In theory for the Facebook version this is supposed to be without explanation… but I want to explain! So I’m going to blog the explanations here.

So far I’ve shared my entry into classical and then my entry into Christian pop music. Now it’s time to get to my other musical love: jazz. I don’t remember which friend introduced me to this record, but it take me long to get hooked. I wouldn’t see When Harry Met Sally, the movie, for another decade, but this soundtrack hit my sweet spot. Full of jazz standards (It Had to be You, Don’t Get Around Much Any More, Stompin’ At the Savoy, Where or When), arranged by a 22-year-old up and coming jazz pianist named Harry Connick, Jr., with a rollicking stride piano version of Winter Wonderland in the middle… could you design an album more perfectly to appeal to teenaged me?

This is one of the records I know every note of. Each hit of each arrangement, every bend in the sax solo on It Had To Be You, and every one of Connick’s New Orleans-inspired alterations to Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off (“I say urster, you say oyster… I’m not gonna stop eating ursters just ‘cause you say oyster… let’s call the whole thing off.”), this record is traced indelibly across my brain.

Eventually I listened to more Connick, and then expanded my jazz horizons with Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Thelonious Monk, but this was where it started for me.

Listen on YouTube

10 Albums, 10 Days: Go West Young Man

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I got tagged on Facebook to do this project – share ten albums that greatly influenced my taste in music. One album per day for ten consecutive days. In theory for the Facebook version this is supposed to be without explanation… but I want to explain! So I’m going to blog the explanations here.

This one’s kind of embarrassing so I’ll get it out of the way early in my series. As I noted yesterday, my early music was mostly classical. But 1990 was a significant year for me. I turned 13. My family moved from Nebraska to Texas. And somewhere along the way, I bought my first Christian pop album – Michael W. Smith’s Go West Young Man.

Listening back to it now, it’s not great. Definitely not MWS’ best record, and not my favorite of his as I look back on his discography now. But for 13-year-old me, it was groundbreaking to get into pop music. Electric guitars. Power ballads. An inadvisable rap verse to Love Crusade. I learned the ballads on the piano. My mother despaired for a while that I would just try to sound like MWS instead of finding my natural singing voice.

Sooner or later I’d get past the singing voice, but 30 years later I’m still singing at the piano. And if for some reason I stumble across the unmistakable first two chords from Place In This World, I’m suddenly back in 1990.

Listen to the album on YouTube

10 Albums, 10 Days: Rach 2

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I got tagged on Facebook to do this project – share ten albums that greatly influenced my taste in music. One album per day for ten consecutive days. In theory for the Facebook version this is supposed to be without explanation… but I want to explain! So I’m going to blog the explanations here.

I will say I found it a challenge to assemble the list not as ten favorite albums but ten influential albums. Since I’m a musician myself, I really tried to pick albums that were formative for me as a musician, though a few of them slipped in that were formative for other reasons. I’m also going to try to be somewhat chronological since these are a part of my story.

I’ll start today with what formed me early – classical music. My parents’ love for classical music rubbed off on me. I still have memories of my dad (who spent several years early in life as a high school band director) standing in front of the stereo conducting along to recordings of Beethoven symphonies. I started taking piano lessons at age 7 and continued through high school. But the first bit of classical music that latched on to me in a really significant way was Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto.

I don’t remember the specific recording I listened to as a kid. I know it was on a cassette tape (remember those?) which I probably bought at Walmart. Rachmaninov hits the sweet spot on the classical to modern spectrum for me. Still strongly influenced by the late Romantic composers, tinges of the modern influences that his Russian counterparts would more fully embrace, but beautiful melodies and lush harmonies that are well suited for pianists with large hands. I hacked through a lot of this concerto in junior high and high school and while I never got very good at it I enjoyed it immensely.

The recording I’m sharing of it today is one that has become one of my favorites – Stephen Hough with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. It’s fairly fast and rowdy compared to most other versions you hear. I think Sergei might approve. Unfortunately it doesn’t appear to be on any of the streaming services. There is this YouTube video though of Hough talking about his new recording and playing a bit of it.

Podcast Listening, Social Distancing Edition

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Back in the old days (say, before March 2020), my podcast listening tilted heavily toward current events. For my own mental well-being, that isn’t a good listening diet whilst being at home for weeks on end. So, in addition to my usual handful of sermon podcasts, what’s a guy to listen to? How about stories about people far worse off than ourselves?

Enter the Fall of Civilizations Podcast. Hosted by Paul M. M. Cooper, this podcast takes lengthy (90 minutes to 3 hours) looks at ancient civilizations, what drove them to flourish, and then what caused their downfall. Cooper is a British writer and archivist with a PhD focused on the cultural and literary significance of ruins. His podcast isn’t particularly fancy from a production standpoint – mostly him narrating, occasional voice actors reading historical documents, and some background music – but he delves into the history of great civilizations and brings them to life.

Over the last couple weeks I’ve listened with fascination as Cooper described the fall of the Roman Empire in Britain, the Mediterranean Bronze Age, and the Khmer Empire of medieval Cambodia. (I didn’t get that one in college history class!) There are only ten episodes in total right now, so I only have another 8 or 10 hours of listening left ahead of me, but it’s been quite enjoyable.

If you’ve got an interest in ancient history or in hours of narration by a guy with a nice British accent, it’s worth a try. You can find it on YouTube, SoundCloud, or generally wherever you listen to podcasts.

The poor you will always have with you?

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I just finished up listening to Finding Fred, a short-series podcast about Fred Rogers. Podcast host Carvell Wallace does a really good job of examining the spiritual impact of and what we can learn from Mr. Rogers’ life and ministry. In episode 9, I really appreciated this take on Jesus’ words in Mark 14:

In Mark 14:7, Jesus says “the poor you will always have with you, and you can help them whenever you want, but you will not always have me.” The idea is that one day Jesus would leave His followers. Like all things, he was saying, his presence was impermanent. The only permanent thing is that people will still need help, and we must continue to help those who need it. Notice he didn’t say “I’m gonna be gone so I’m gonna need you to keep on crushing all the bad guys and making sure *they* learn their lessons.” His focus is not on fixing the bad ones, but on helping the needy ones.

I’ve heard plenty of takes on this passage over my years in church, with interpretations all over the place from prioritizing Jesus’ presence to (horribly) suggesting that it’s a fruitless task to try to end poverty because Jesus said we’d always have them. But I really appreciate this particular view of what Jesus was saying. The gospel also tells us that we have help for the “bad people”, too – and we’re all in some sense “bad people” – but when it comes to how this practically applies to living out our faith in the world, caring for the poor and needy seems to be right at the forefront of Jesus’ concern.

Oh, and the whole podcast is worth a listen if you’re into that sort of thing.

Adam Young on Hope and Wrestling with God (2)

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Continuing from yesterday, more from Adam Young’s fantastic podcast The Place We Find Ourselves:

Ultimately all disappointment carries with it the sense of a broken appointment with God. I expected God to show up and He didn’t. God is the one who could’ve prevented that illness and He didn’t. He didn’t show up. A broken appointment. A disappointment. One of the reasons we hate hope so much is it requires us to live a “both-and” kind of life.

Christians are meant to constantly hold together both death and resurrection. This is why Paul says we’re to rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn. And many of us would rather live either/or. A life focused solely on resurrection is not hope, it’s optimism. Hope has nothing to do with optimism. Optimism is a denial of the darkness that permeates this world. We don’t live both/and well. We live primarily either/or.

Some of us focus on the darkness of this world, and we see it everywhere, but we have a hard time seeing the thousands of places where the Spirit of God is working everywhere and doing beautiful, redemptive things. Others of us focus on the beauty in this world but we turn a blind eye to all the evil right in front of us.

But Christianity is both/and. A life of both/and means that you are just as apt to be weeping one moment as you are to be laughing the next. You are never far from weeping, because you have your eyes wide open to the darkness of this world. And you are never far from laughing, because you also see the thousands of places of God’s redemptive work all around you.

There’s a spirit of optimism that has invaded the church. It appeals to us because it allows us to escape staying connected to the longings of our hearts. It allows us to turn away from darkness and pain, to pretend it isn’t real.

Much of what you hear in Bible studies and small groups are sentences that shame you for admitting that you have longings, that you groan, that you yearn. What do you do in a group when someone expresses an unfulfilled longing? When someone expresses disappointment over not getting into a particular school, or anger over not being married, or sorrow over not being reconciled to their father? The tendency is to subtly do one of three things:

1) encourage them to believe more in the sovereignty of God. “Maybe it’s not God’s will for you to get into that graduate school.”

2) Wonder if they are idolizing that which they long for. “It kinda sounds like you’re making an idol out of being married, like that’s too important to you.”

3) Suggest that they are wanting too much. “Aren’t your expectations for your Dad too high? Is it really reasonable to hope for reconciliation with your Dad given his background?”

When you respond in one of those three ways, what’s going on? The expression of the other person’s sorrow, anger, disappointment, exposes your deep discomfort with those emotions in your own life. That’s often times what’s happening. And you respond to the person with the same set of sentences you use on yourself to keep your desires under control. You’re not being hypocritical. You’re not even necessarily being cruel. You’re just telling them what you tell yourself.

Are you familiar with the parable of the persistent widow? Jesus tells this story in Luke 18. A widow keeps going back to a judge to demand that she get justice against the person that harms her. And because the widow keeps coming back to insist on her case, the judge finally relents and helps her. And then Jesus says this: “will not God bring about justice for His chosen ones who cry out to Him day and night. Will He keep putting them off?”

Here’s the point: it’s not called “the parable of the widow who learned to surrender to God’s will”. The whole point is that she refused to take “no” for an answer. She knew nothing of “maybe it’s not God’s will for me to get justice against this particular adversary”. She refused to take “no” for an answer.

So, how much hope do you have? The danger is thinking you just need to conjure up more hope. Two problems with that, first, that you can’t. But the bigger problem is that you actually have far more hope than you realize. You may not be fond of it, but will you have the integrity to confess how much hope you actually still have.

Think of all the disappointments that you’ve endured in your life. Think of all the prayers you’ve prayed, all the times you’ve called out to God and he has not come through for you the way you’ve wanted. And yet. You’re still interested in God. You’re still talking to God. You’re still pursuing God. You haven’t given up on God. You’re wanting healing or help in some are of your life, and you’ve gone to God about it, and the healing or the help has not come. That’s tormenting. And yet you still come back to God. You still pursue God. You think about God. You may pray, you may read Scripture, but you keep coming back. The Bible calls that hope.

The people who have suffered trauma, abuse, heartache, often have immense love for Jesus and immense hope. They often hate the hope that they have, but they have it. What Paul wrote in Romans seems to be a good description of what happens in their life: suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. Do the math: suffering leads often to creation of a robust hope in the very people who have the least evidence to suggest that hope is reasonable.

In a very real sense, our hope is not merely in God – our hope IS God. The essence of rescue is not primarily receiving that which you asked for, but rather experiencing the responsiveness of God to the hurt in your heart. It’s not the school or the healing or the relationship that satisfies us; it is the satisfaction, the rest of knowing that I have a Father in heaven who is deeply involved in the desires of my heart. I have a Father that cares. I have a Father that responds. Will you hope? Will you entertain your longings and give them an audience before God? Will you give your disappointments back to God to keep your desires alive?

Adam Young on Hope and Wrestling with God (1)

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A friend recently pointed me to Adam Young’s podcast The Place We Find Ourselves. As a licensed social worker who has certifications in counseling and also an MDiv, Young thoughtfully combines psychological and emotional insights with Biblical truth in a way I haven’t encountered before. This morning the last 8 minutes of his Episode 18 discussion on hope and wrestling with God were just golden. The quote is long so I’ll split it into a couple posts.

God says “those who hope in Me won’t be disappointed”…. the difficulty is that you don’t know which of your longings God will meet in the land of the living, and you don’t want to wrestle with God about meeting those particular desires. Herein lies the biggest reason we hate hope: hope forces us to wrestle with God.

Most wrestling with God is avoided by a very simple phrase: “if it be Your will”. You express a desire to God and then you tack on this phrase. “If it be Your will.” “Not my will, but Yours be done.” Right? That’s the sentence. And it is a beautiful sentence, as long as it comes after a 12-round match of wrestling with God.

Now, you may be thinking ‘wait a minute, aren’t we supposed to surrender our will to God’s will?’ Yes! But that’s just the point. You’re called to surrender your will to God’s will. And what does surrender mean? It is to give in after a long, drawn-out bloody war. You can’t surrender until you have fought with God. And generals never surrender until they have fought to the end of their strength. Surrender only comes in a moment of exhaustion.

If you’re not exhausted from fighting with God, from bringing the longings of your heart repeatedly to God, then the words “not my will but Yours be done” aren’t words of surrender. They are words to avoid hope. Which is to avoid warring and wrestling with your God. You can’t talk about hope without talking about wrestling.

If you don’t find yourself regularly wrestling with God, chances are you don’t live with much hope. Because hope creates longing in you, and unfulfilled longings drive you to God, because God is the only one that can satisfy the longing. God is the only one that can make that thing happen. Until you take the risk of hoping that God will fulfill the desires of your heart in this life, until you bring your disappointment and anger to Him again and again, God will always remain strangely impersonal to you. You might know him as God the savior of the world, but you won’t know Him as what the Psalmists call ‘the God of my rescue’.