10 Albums, 10 Days: Go West Young Man

Posted on

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

Posted on

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

Posted on

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?

Posted on

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)

Posted on

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)

Posted on

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’.

An Iowan’s thoughts the morning after the 2020 Caucus

Posted on

Last night I and thousands of Iowans like me participated in the Democratic Party caucus. After three chaotic years of a Trump presidency and more than a year of non-stop campaigning in our state, it felt good to get on with things. Regardless of the result, we know the ads will stop for at least a few months now.

My caucus experience was pretty low key and without major hassles or snafus. I live tweeted most of it.

Late last night, though, the reports started rolling in that there are hiccups in the party reporting. As I write this at 6:30 the morning after, there are still no results reported. Half of the candidates have declared victory (or at least success), Republican operatives are spinning claims of fraud and manipulation, and once again Iowa looks like a bunch of rubes who can’t even figure out how to tabulate votes.

So, a few thoughts on Tuesday morning:

This is ridiculous. Campaigns and volunteers have spent countless hours and dollars here over the past year to court our first-in-the-nation voters, and we can’t even get an accurate count at the end of the night? The caucus format is quaint (or, as a Canadian friend said, “quirky”), but if in 2020 we can’t even manage to report up simple voter counts, some other state should be going first.

We will get reliable results eventually. I have no doubt that the votes were carefully tabulated at my caucus site, and that they have a paper trail of every ballot preference card that was filled out. The volunteers running the caucus worked diligently to get an accurate count. Surely a similar scenario played out at each other caucus site through the evening. The data is available and reliable.

This is not an election and isn’t run by our election staff. This point can easily be missed in this morning’s reporting chaos. Normal elections in Iowa are overseen by the Iowa Secretary of State, and run in each county by the County Auditor. When we have the actual November election, each voter will fill out a paper ballot and feed it into a scanning machine with a locked collection bin. An electronic count is available almost immediately with paper backups in case a recount is needed. It’s a reliable system. That system was NOT used last night. Last night’s caucuses were run and results tabulated by volunteers from the political parties. They only do this once every four years. It shows.

This is a system ripe for change. The election cycle is far too long. The caucus system is antiquated. Iowa has no particular business being the first in the nation. Let’s try shortening campaign windows. Let’s have just a handful of primary election days on the schedule, with multiple states participating each time. Let’s have ranked choice voting. (Oh, let’s also make sure everyone has access to vote and encourage as much voting participation as we can.) We can do better.

Journalism I’m Supporting, January 2020

Posted on

Good journalism is one of those things everybody wants to have available to benefit from, but fewer are interested in paying for. I’m hardly a paragon of virtue in this regard, but I have gotten to the point where there are several journalistic establishments or efforts that I’m happy to support via paid subscriptions. Currently that list includes (in alphabetical order):

The Athletic
I’ve known this one was around for a while, but finally bit the bullet after reading a couple really excellent articles for free. Really solid sports journalism. Something interesting to read pretty much every day.

The Atlantic
Middle-of-the road current events writing and opinion. My digital subscription includes a subscription to the monthly print edition. I counted it success this week when I actually finished reading last month’s issue within the same week that the new issue was delivered. Thoughtful stuff, worth my time.

Let me just interject here that these first two have excellent iOS apps, but dang if their app icons don’t both just feature large capital ‘A’s. At least a little bit confusing.

I mean, really…

The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, Iowa)
My local daily newspaper. Independently owned, which is a rarity these days. There are only so many newsworthy things to write about in a city of 150,000 people, but I’m happy to put some dollars to supporting their efforts.

Iowa Public Radio
I’ve been a low-grade supporter of IPR for several years now. There are pretty much only 3 things that ever get played on my car radio (at least when it’s under my control): podcasts, Cubs baseball, and IPR.

Popular Info by Judd Legum
Less of an establishment pick here. Judd Legum is an independent journalist who publishes Popular.Info, a newsletter focused on accountability specifically for Facebook and how Facebook handles political topics and advertising. He’s been able to make enough noise in some rather egregious situations that Facebook has been forced to respond and make changes. It’s hard to underestimate the impact that Facebook is having on our national political conversation, so I’m glad to have somebody poking at it on the regular.

The Washington Post
I want to have access to one of the major national newspapers of record. I’ve subscribed to both the Post and The New York Times at various times, but the Post has tended to provide more stories I was really interested in and less times when I wanted to throw my phone across the room while reading. (Thankfully the NYT crossword app can be subscribed to separately!)

Slow Reading

Posted on

After reading more than 80 books in 2019, there’s a part of me that is getting a little squirmy knowing that it’s two weeks into January and I haven’t completed a single book yet this year. But there’s a good reason for that. (It’s not that I haven’t been reading…)

I’ve had Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age on my radar (and my Kindle) for a couple years now. Several of the popular-level books I’ve read in recent years have drawn on him heavily, leading me to believe I should really dig in and give him a shot myself. I’ve tried starting the book twice before, both times giving up about half-way through the introduction.

A Secular Age is not for the faint of heart. It’s nearly 900 pages long, with a vocabulary that makes me thankful for the Kindle’s built-in dictionary and Wikipedia lookups. I feel like I’ve worked hard reading it and I just passed the 50% mark. But it’s been worth the time and effort.

Taylor observes that between the years 1500 and 2000 we as a Western society have moved from a culture in which it was almost impossible to not believe in God and see a strong overlap between the physical and spiritual realms, to a culture in which it’s not abnormal to have an entirely secular perspective on the universe and dismiss the spiritual altogether. A Secular Age is his attempt at telling the story of how we got there, and it has provided some fascinating insights.

So, maybe I’ll only finish one book in January. But I’m OK with that. The goal is learning, not just consumption.

2019 Reading in Review

Posted on

The beginning of a new year means a quick look back first at last year’s reading in review. (Some people put these lists out at the end of the year… I’m still adding books to the list until the very end, so New Year’s Day it is!) I’ve posted a few compendiums (compendia?) through the year and highlighted some favorites as I went, so I’ll just do a brief wrap-up here.

My 2019 reading is all logged over on Goodreads (as is everything I’ve read since 2007!). Somehow I got through 82 books in 2019 – the most I’ve ever read in a year. 33 of those were fiction… which left a lot of non-fiction, mostly theology and history. I read 23 by female authors this year, which is more than previous years, though not quite as many as I had hoped to get to.

Favorite fiction of the year:

  • Virgil Wander by Leif Enger
  • Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
  • Wanderers by Chuck Wendig
  • Laurus by Eugene Vodolazkin

Favorite non-fiction of the year:

  • A Song for Nagasaki by Paul Glynn
  • In The Shelter: Finding a Home in the World by Padraig O Tuama
  • Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America by Chris Arnade
  • What Is A Girl Worth? by Rachael Denhollander
  • God in the Rainforest: A Tale of Martyrdom and Redemption in Amazonian Ecuador by Kathryn T. Long
  • Paul and Gender: Reclaiming the Apostle’s Vision for Men and Women in Christ by Cynthia Long Westfall 
  • Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir by Stanley Hauerwas

For 2020 I’d really like to find a little more fiction that engages me. I’ve picked up several novels this year only to have them completely fail to capture my interest enough to go on with them. I have a plenty big pile of unread books next to my bed and on my Kindle to work through.

Alternately, I could probably spend the whole year just reading Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest… and chase it with something really long from N. T. Wright. 

Here’s to another year of reading!