Excerpt: Embodied Psalms

I recently wrote a short piece for Think Christian about a less recent mountain biking excursion with my oldest son. The ride was as near a perfect afternoon as I’ve had with him and I’m pleased with how my short essay turned out. Here’s a brief excerpt:

Riding in the slipstream of an almost 7-year-old’s exhilaration as we sped through Louisville’s Turkey Run Park, it clicked that mountain biking is like an embodied psalm. I watched my son, the boy whom, for better or worse, I am helping to mold, and I saw him in a way similar to how God my Father might see me when I, his child, take joy in what he provides. At the same time, I could look at the beauty of the land—the hills, the trees, the creek, the occasional panicked squirrel—and be humbled by the expanse of God’s promiscuous outpouring of creativity. And what are the psalms but attempts to see the world like God sees it, while also bowing before his greatness?

You can read the rest here. And while you’re there, check out their other good work.

Why Winter is the Best Season

Why Winter is the Best Season

People often look at me like I escaped from an asylum when I tell them Winter is my favorite season. These are usually the people who pledge their allegiance to the quasi-pagan sun worship that it is to choose Summer as your favorite. It’s madness, I tell you. And here’s five reasons why:

1) Summer is actually the beginning of the dying of the light.
That’s right, the Summer solstice may be the longest day of the year, but it’s also the beginning of the long descent into darkness. It is a grim day and filled with dread. The Winter Solstice, however, is filled with hope because that first cold dawn following is the first herald of renewal. And we haven’t even started in on the glory of Christmas lights in the neighborhood.

2) Snow is better than rain.
Can you make a rain fort? Have a rain ball fight? Build a rain man? Do you get rain days off from school? Can you shovel rain to earn extra money? No, No, Not unless you’re Dustin Hoffman, No, and No. Snow is the best of all precipitation and it is trademarked by Winter, Inc.

3) Winter has the best holidays.
You can’t beat Christmas. Especially not when combined with Advent. It’s got the best music. It’s got the best decorations. It’s the best. You may point to Easter, which is a good one, but I tell you there is no Easter without Christmas. And Easter comes in the Spring which is at least 50% Winter, anyways.

4) Winter is cold.
This may be a controversial point for some, but hear me out. You know what’s possibly the worst part of Summer (at least in Kentucky)? Mosquitoes. You know what you never see in Winter? Mosquitoes. And if it gets cold enough for long enough, the deep freeze kills off mosquito eggs and makes for a more pleasant Summer. And for the remaining skeptics, I ask you: can you shed enough clothes to cool off when it’s 95 degrees and 95% humidity? No. Can you put on enough blankets to be warm? Yes. Stop whining.

5) Winter is beautiful.
The night sky is never so sharp and clear as on a cold winter night. The sun hangs low in the sky even at midday which fills the south-facing rooms of your home with the best light they’ll get all year. Then there’s the birds. A red cardinal in a skeleton tree, especially one fringed with snow, is nearly unsurpassable. Not to mention chickadees and titmouses. Winter is a visual feast.

***BONUS*** 6) Winter has the best food.
Winter is the season of comfort foods. Steaming pots of chili and thick soups. Pot pies. Baked goods. An order of fish and chips from the Irish Rover tastes better and better the colder it gets outside. Do you sit down with a steaming plate of macaroni and cheese (the thick, casserole kind) in the dead-dog days of August? No.

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So that’s it. Winter is definitively the best. The facts are irrefutable. Enjoy the greatest season of them all.

Is a God who survives enough of a God?

Is a God who survives enough of a God?

So, there’s an image of a bumper sticker making the rounds of the Internet over the past few days. Russel Moore used it as a sounding board to level a sharp and important critique of playing fast and loose with the faith in order to secure a political gain. His starting point is assuming that the bumper sticker is in favor of firearms. But, I think he misread the slogan. He sees the bumper sticker as using Jesus as cover for some mere and short-sighted political agenda. But, what if the sticker is using our love of guns and self-defense to smuggle in the absurdity of such a savior.

I’m saying the sentence, “If Jesus had a gun he’d still be alive today,” works better if you see it as a Trojan horse. jesus gun 2If you chuckle and say, “Hell yeah,” because you think the right to bear arms in self defense would solve a lot of societal ills, then you’ve already taken in an invasive idea that’s meant to undercut you at the heart. Because Jesus wasn’t trying to stay alive. He was trying to save us.

The image of Jesus drawing down on the centurions and shooting his way out of Gethsemane like the OK Corral is patently ridiculous and that’s the whole point. There was something more important to Jesus than his own survival. If Jesus had the same attitude towards guns and self defense as many professing Christians on the political right, we simply wouldn’t have a Savior. It seems, then, pretty urgent to dig into this disconnect. Are there actions on our part that might reveal our survival instinct to actually be an idol?

The question this bumper sticker really asks is not about political liberty vs constraint. That’s how politicians frame the gun debate, and there the argument rages. But, Christian faith always goes further than asking “Can I?” It also asks, “Why do I want to?” That might just be the question Christians ask the least and to tragic results. The question this bumper sticker urges us to confront is where exactly our call to be Christ-like ends and where our call to preserve our own temporal life begins and at what expense.

It’s a hard question to ask, but we need to ask it. Should a Christian kill another person? Is self defense an adequate reason to extinguish the image of God? Is the defense of children or family? Or, is desire to bear arms a sign that love for this world outweighs our faith in its Creator? A symptom of our fear of death preceding our fear of God?

I don’t have an easy answer. I certainly wouldn’t condemn someone who actually did use lethal self defense when they or their family faced actual harm. But, the rest of us only have the theoretical fear of such a catastrophe. And theoretical fear is something that can run rampant and roughshod over our faith if we don’t watch out. It’s here that I absolutely agree with the point this bumper sticker is trying to make*. I cannot universally condemn the use of guns. But I can look on the desire for guns with almost universal suspicion because the fear of death has always threatened to undermine the fear of God. And that’s the real heart issue that the church has to address (and address again and again for each generation because the fear of death takes endless forms).

Is our faith sufficient cause to embrace weakness?

* Incidentally, I also agree with the point Dr. Moore makes in his essay, I just see firearms as the personalized version of the grasp for political power that he calls out. I don’t think you can speak to one without having to speak to the other.

 

 

Reflector

Reflector

You and I, we are all born imitators. We have a special knack for taking our experience and pushing it back out into the world. At the summit of a craggy hike, we look out on the world in miniature and when we have returned to the valley and the world is full-sized again, we find someone and tell them what we saw* apeak the mountain. We use language in an attempt to recreate in our friend the hush and awe we felt in the presence of the panorama. Failing that, at least to stir in them the desire, like our own, to hike up and see it for themselves. Our experience of beauty is like breathing. We cannot inhale but that we exhale.

We do this especially in art. When we take something that’s next to nothing—a blank page, an empty canvas, a pile of wood or clay—and we shape it into something recognizably human-touched, we imitate the God who took actual nothing and worked it into everything including our blank paper and stacked lumber. We cannot inhale but that we exhale.

We do this even in the mundane. Who hasn’t found themselves standing over a sink of dishes humming out snatches of a familiar melody without really thinking about it? Songs come in at our ears and go back out through our voices. In and out. Stories cycle through us, picking up and shedding detail, but arcing along those old, familiar bends. The journey home. The fall and redemption. The restoration of order and justice. The romance. When you tot it all up—from the mundane to the sublime—what is all this work but the imitative life of human culture?

A while back, my church housed a music venue. In the halcyon days of The 930 music venue, one of the shows that I remember best was Bill Frisell alone on the stage with a guitar making sonic magic. So, when I heard that he had recorded a version of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”—a Bob Dylan tune that I had long heard of but only recently actually listened to—I had a listen. The reinvention is sublime, but it’s a symbiotic relationship.

When it comes to an artist who has had their work reinvented and imitated ad infinitum, hard rainthere is only one Bob Dylan. Perhaps it’s a consequence of his being revered and prolific in a way that makes the onlooker feel dizzy and quite lazy, but you flip through any muscian’s body of work and like as not you hit at least one Bob Dylan cover song. In this case of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, Frisell strips away the lyrics—a stream of opaque and increasingly ominous imagery punctuated with the invocation of that hard rain that might be a baptism or a judgement—and mines the seam of melody for all its worth and then some. In doing these increasingly complex and noisy variations on Dylan’s theme, Bill Frisell provokes a fresh emotional resonance from the song.

Now, Frisell’s distinctive playing has merit all its own but, honestly, one might find that Dylan’s simple folk melody grows a little repetitive if one didn’t have snatches of his excised lyric haunting you while you listen. The refraction through the prism of surrounding artists so often reaffirms and even magnifies the beauty of the original work. Frisell indeed bends Dylan’s vision in a gorgeous arc, but the cover is also elevated by memory. The source material remains vital.

What we see when Bill Frisell plays Bob Dylan is that some sort of alchemy takes place when we imitate even just other people. We’re a lot like Waldo. Not the guy we hunted in crowded kids books, but the myna bird from Twin Peaks. By mimicking the sounds he’d heard, Waldo added to what was known about who was present when Laura Palmer died. We, too, are mimics in our way and so we can also add to what’s known about the truth. Imitating one another is only the beginning.

It’s important, at this point, to remember that we don’t imitate as a sign of deficiency, a lapse in originality (at least, we don’t always imitate that way, though we must admit that there are eight Fast and Furious movies by now and who can even count how many Transformers movies we’ve been subjected to). We imitate because we are made that way. We are not originators. We are images of God. Reflectors. This is a distinction we often disdain as humility escapes us, but we best represent God in the world when we accept it. We cannot exhale but that we inhale.

As confessed image bearers, we have an opportunity to bear witness. We breathe in the world around us and it combines with the life which the Spirit breathes into us. Then we breathe it all back out. Changed as it is for having mingled for a while in that cauldron of thought and history and desire and dread that is our mind and further refracted for having re-entered the world tuned to the unique skill of our bodies, as distinctive as a thumbprint. Whether in acts of neighborly care, as works of art, or even as the simple routines of our daily life, we have the chance to add to what is known about how God moves in the world. By this overflow, our lives animate God’s work–so often hard to see–even as they are animated by God’s work.

This can feel like an overwhelming responsibility. Especially if we are honest about the real-life condition of our hearts suspended in the already/not yet paradox that is our common, limping pursuit of Jesus. Nevertheless, we should take heart. And, we should start small. If you ask me, we should stay small, but that’s an entirely other conversation. But, in a room with people we know, we have so much to see and so much to offer. We can testify how God has worked in the one and only us and we can see how God has worked in one and only others. On this shared peak, we can all gain a larger view of what God can do that we would have ever found deep in the valley of ourselves. This might just be the height of human culture.

 

* It bears noting that the mountain vista will always be bigger in our mind’s eye than in any photograph with its scissored edges and immobilized perspective. And would we rather remember the moment or the photograph?

 

Please, God, Don’t Let Amazon Come to My Town

Big news this morning is that Amazon wants a second HQ in North America. I see a lot of people speculating about possible locations and I see a lot of giddy anticipation. 50,000 jobs! Average salary above $100k! Who wouldn’t want that to come to their town?

I don’t.

Having worked for the behemoth and been to Seattle a handful of times, I can tell you one thing. Amazon coming to town is great for Amazon and it’s actually pretty terrible for the people who already live there. Here are a few things to expect:

Instant Gentrification
That much of an artificial jump in the average income for a city will have catastrophic effects on property values. Well, to be fair, it’ll only be catastrophic for the poor who will no longer be able to afford the taxes on their homes if they own them and who will no longer be able to afford rent from landlords who can suddenly quadruple their ask because 50k new workers who can afford it will gladly pay to live close to work.

I rode a lot of taxis in Seattle and one thing I learned is that working class people had to live 1.5 hours away from the city just to afford housing. That amounts to an extra three hours per day away from home and family just to get to and from work. This is an enormous burden to put on the community and family structure of all the invisible people who will clean the offices, cook the food, drive people around, and all the other jobs that will pay far less than $100k.

Crippling Cost of Living
When Amazon gave me the choice to move to Seattle with my current salary or be laid off (‘reduced in force’ was their charming euphemism), I would have had to take a nearly 50% reduction in real pay just to afford the cost of living increase. So, unless you get one of those jobs that pays above $100k, you’re going to suddenly find that having Amazon in town takes a good bit of the zing out of your paycheck.

An Opportunity Mirage
Those 50k jobs are a great press release item and I’m sure a highly effective bait to dupe money-blinded city councils and state legislatures into shelling out huge tax incentives so that billionaires technocrats can be expand their earthly footprints. But, the boost to local employment will likely be much smaller. Amazon will recruit at least nationally, more like globally, and while the tax base will increase which will be good for the state and city books, a huge chunk of those taxpayers will be people who were already well off who just relocated to be well off here instead. Some of this may trickle out as benefits to the working classes because the state and city will have more revenue to work with, but somehow that seems like a thin hope. I would imagine more displacement than mobility and a doubling or tripling down on income inequality.

*      *      *

Those are just a few concerns that have mostly to do with economic quality of life. I can’t even begin to imagine how the political climate will change with that much money and influence riding in, though Google’s recent silencing of dissent does not paint a rosy picture. The entire success of Amazon is built on the spurious foundation of abstraction–abstracting people from their communities and making them ‘human capital’ that simply roams the face of the earth in search of the next job, abstracting the actual human toll of having so much stuff available to buy so cheaply and at such convenience off into the slums and backwaters of the globe where conveniently out-of-sight-out-of-mind people will work for peanuts, abstracting satisfaction from anything satisfying and re-centering it on the mere act of consuming. This is nothing short of the disintegration of what it means to be human.

The tech sector thrives on disruption. They like to call it creative destruction, which is really an appalling contradiction in terms. I wish that people would look beyond the explosive growth in Seattle and the profusion of skyscrapers on literally every street corner–a radical transformation of the aesthetic character of the city to match the grotesque transformation of the economic character–and see that when the thing being destroyed is a community so that a new community can replace it, there is no amount of good done to the ‘winners’ that can compensate for the wrong done to the ‘losers’.

Please, God, please don’t let Amazon come to my town.

The Good Doctor

The Good Doctor

I’ve seen my share of shows with musicians who would qualify as historic. I saw Bruce Springsteen on The Rising tour with nothing between me and the stage but a cameraman. I’ve seen U2 a few times. Bob Dylan. Pearl Jam, of course. Third Eye Blind. Wait, we were talking about historic. Scratch that last one. Double strikethrough.

Of Springsteen, I will say that the concert was an epic. His energy level was astounding and I almost passed out by the end (though that was probably more related to having been standing on concrete since sometime in the mid morning than to being overcome with an ecstatic fit).

U2, especially the first time, was nearly a religious experience. Which, I think that was most of Bono’s point.

Bob Dylan was actually a little disappointing as he grabbed the wrong key harmonica on nearly every song and even then and all the songs kind of sounded the same. Still, Bob Dylan: check.

Pearl Jam, well, they’re Pearl Jam. I almost passed out the first time I saw them, too. Near the end of Alive. That may have been more on the ecstatic end because my acoustic-noodly, DMB-loving mind was undergoing an instantaneous and electric metamorphosis.

All that said, I think the historic musician that I will remember most fondly is one I saw in a small club in Louisville, KY not too many years ago and, sadly, close to the end of his life. The great Dr. Ralph Stanley.

When you consider voices with an unmistakable, inimitable tone, Ralph Stanley has a dark, lonesome tenor that sounds like it issues forth from the heart of a mountain. I would put him in that unrivaled pantheon with the likes of Paul McCartney, Freddie Mercury, Billie Holiday, or Otis Redding. He may not have the acrobatics or the celestial aura of fame, but you know exactly who you’re listening to. He occupies a spot that nobody else can nor probably ever will.

And, he was just as much a pioneer as anyone from the British invasion or that unlikely soul corridor that stretched from Motown to Muscle Shoals. Coming out of the oft-forgotten and wholly otherworldly Appalachia, bluegrass music shares with jazz a very high distinction of being a true born-and-bred American musical movement. Ralph Stanley helped cut the trail that brought the sound down from the mountain where it had incubated since pre-Revolutionary times and into the public consciousness. Whether banjos and church harmonies are your cup of tea, there’s no arguing its a clarion call of American experience.

Then there’s the show itself. Dr. Stanley up on stage with his son and the rest of the band (the Clinch Mountain Boys). They played through a set and spent the rest of the night as a live jukebox. You could call out literally any song they’d ever done and they’d fire it up. Tunes were called that you can’t even find recordings of anymore outside of chance yardsale vinyl finds and they’d rip through it like it was their latest single. That’s no small feat for a solo artist, much less a seven-piece band. The sound, the joy, the complete mastery of the bluegrass canon, that voice. It was a special evening.

All this came to mind because I looked Dr. Stanley up last week and found, to my sadness, that he’d passed away over a year ago. I came to his music late in his life and still he’s brought me a great deal of joy. I’m glad I got to see him. I may never see The Rolling Stones and the chance to see the real Led Zepplin was gone before I was born along with so many other early rock and roll flameouts. But, here’s the thing. Rock and roll, love it though I do, has a hard time with aging. Vocal chords get shredded. Tinnitus sets in.  Hedonism takes its pound of flesh. Ralph Stanley was cut from a different cloth that only seemed to improve with age. At this time in my life, that’s the picture I want to hold before me. A little quieter though no less rich and so built to last. Steeped in history and rooted in place. Peculiar, even, but for that all the more cherished and rare. That’s the American experience I hope to have and Ralph Stanley proves the possibility.

Nuclear

I wonder if the president, or more realistically just his ‘evangelical’ hype men, realizes that other Christians, like those in North Korea for instance, can read Romans 13, too. Meaning if you read that passage as conferring God’s authority on the U.S. to perform nuclear annihilation, then the same authority would have to apply to Kim Jong-un as well. Isolating this one passage as a proof text for mass slaughter seems like a gross failure to understand Scripture on a catastrophic level not just that it deludes influential people (I will not call them pastors) to bend the ear of authority down towards literal and spiritual hell fire (also literal in its way), but also that it eviscerates any future attempt to stage a moral opposition to the abuse of power by any government.

Elsewhere—in the same Bible that teaches governing authority comes from God—we also read that God thwarts the plans of the nations (Psalm 33) and generally has a low opinion of kings and people who stump too vigorously for that kind of authority (I Samuel 8). Point being, the Bible’s stance on kings and kingdoms is complicated. Saying for sure that only one of these biblical passages is most applicable to your own government, much less saying which one, would take wisdom on an order of magnitude and from a vantage point approaching divinity. And that seems pretty unlikely at considering that this pesky Bible also says that the heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure (Jeremiah 17).

It’s madness and the only way out of this moral and logical quagmire is to consider that maybe Romans 13 means something other than a rubber stamp that says of mass murder, ‘Hooray for our side!’ Perhaps even consider that nuclear hawkishness is the very breath of antichrist.