Andrew’s Favorite Albums of 2013

I’m not a music writer. I don’t get albums sent to me for review. I am a fan who likes to share about my favorite music.

There is no way to adequately quantify the subjective experience of listening to and falling in love with new music. I haven’t listened to all the great music or even been aware of it. But as of this, the first day of 2014, I hereby publish my 20 favorite albums of 2013, with tweet-length descriptions of each.

  1. Frontier Ruckus “Eternity of Dimming” – Growing up in the 90’s in suburban Detroit sounds grounded, real, yet magical. A careening, complete artistic statement.
  2. Arcade Fire “Reflektor” – A Revelator–depth uncovered with each listen. Rhythmic, philosophical, and sonically delicious. Turn it up loud.
  3. Typhoon “White Lighter” – Ruminations on suffering accompanied by joyous brass arrangements. A musical exploration of the full human experience.
  4. Son Lux “Lanterns” – Perfectly produced, pulsing beats and woodwinds, haunting vocals spinning cosmic tales. Lush and sparse in equal measure.
  5. Over the Rhine “Meet Me at the Edge of the World” – Consummate songwriters create another masterpiece. They make Ohio sound like heaven, even to Michigan ears.
  6. Night Beds “Country Sleep” – Soaring vocals, beautiful melodies, consistent songs. Sleepy music doesn’t get much better. A remarkable debut record.
  7. Vampire Weekend “Modern Vampires of the City” – Newfound lyrical thoughtfulness added to their spunky, energetic wall of sound. Continuing to expand their unique sound.
  8. Janelle Monae “The Electric Lady” – She’s in the lineage of truly innovative artists. A unique voice with an astounding ear for great songs. Sci-Fi dance-along.
  9. The National “Trouble Will Find Me” – Another well executed effort from the band defined by a baritone vocalist, deadpan humor, and intricate rock guitars.
  10. Yo La Tengo “Fade” – Top three YLT records ever, and after almost 30 years, that’s saying something. First time without a 10+ minute barnburner.
  11. The Lone Bellow “The Lone Bellow” – Three part harmonies for days. A fusion of folk and arena rock that’s gimmick-free. They aim for the rafters, and usually hit.
  12. Gungor “I Am Mountain” – They continue to expand their sonic palate with electronic beats and old western guitars. A bit unfocused, but great songs.
  13. Sigur Ros “Kveikur” – “Brennisteinn” opens the record like a metal mission statement. What follows is less intense, but solid nonetheless.
  14. The Avett Brothers “Magpie and the Dandelion” – They’re flat out great songwriters. As they continue to indulge their rock sensibilities, they remain masterful balladeers.
  15. Atoms for Peace “Amok” – There’s an undeniable groove to this record that’s just off kilter enough to keep it interesting. I long for a few more hooks.
  16. The Civil Wars “The Civil Wars” – More instrumentation added since their sparse debut. Their voices sound like they were created to harmonize together.
  17. Josh Ritter “The Beast in its Tracks” – A generous breakup record. That can’t be easy to do. Ritter makes it sound easy, as he always does. One of the greats.
  18. Five Iron Frenzy “Engine of a Million Plots” – A 10 year hiatus ends and their trademark sound stays intact. Humanity, theology, absurdity, rock with horns. Long live FIF.
  19. Foxygen “We are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic” – 21st Century adaptation of the sounds of 1967. Yes, their influences are clear, but the songs are there, too.
  20. Billie Joe & Norah “Foreverly” – I love the recipe: Billie Joe Armstrong + Norah Jones + an entire Everly Brothers record from 1958. Endlessly listenable.

Let me know if you want to talk any more about these. Or let me know your favorite records. Or call me names for loving/not loving albums that you love/don’t love. It’s all good fun, right?

Happy listening, everyone.

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Navigating our Days with our Name on our Lips

I’ve noticed something recently about my son. Josiah, my oldest son, has a wild imagination and most of his day is spent running around pretending to be a superhero, a policeman, a fireman, etc. As I sit and listen to him play, I’ve seen a trend. Rather than create complex worlds in which to play, Josiah will, most of the time, continually walk around declaring who it is he’s pretending to be.

So for example, the other day he helped me take the trash to the curb, and for the 5 minutes it took us to make trips to the curb, Josiah never stopped saying, I’m a garbage man! We’re garbagemen dad! I’m a garbage man! Over and over, perhaps you get the point.

He will do the same thing when he pretends to be a superhero, giving himself a name, and repeating the name over and over to himself and anyone who will listen. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the VAST majority of his imagination play is spent proclaiming his name.

The other day, listening to him say, I’m Superman, Superman…Superman, dad, I’m Superman (on perpetual repeat)…I was hit by something that has been crawling around in my head and heart for a week. Josiah craves a name by which to be known. There’s something inside of his little heart that has a need to know his name, to be known by others by that name. It seems like that name that he continues to say out loud, is shaping how he views himself…its giving him an identity.

In the ‘real world’ he does the same thing, obsessively working on writing his name, wanting to practice saying his ‘whole name’; Josiah Stanley Gustine. His real name, just like his superhero names, is important to him. He quite literally navigates his days with his name on his lips. It seems like, without him realizing it, he uses his name to orient himself in the world…

One of the reasons I love it when he talks about his ‘real’ name is that I love having the talk with him about why his name is Josiah Stanley. I get to tell him the story of King Josiah and his Grandpa Stanley and I get to tell him why Ann and I decided to give him that name. I want that name to orient him in the world. The truth is that this is exactly the point, we gave him a name we HOPED that he could use to navigate his days.

I’ve come to see though that I’m very much like my son, or maybe he’s like me :)…

I crave a name by which to be known. Because my name shapes how I see myself, it shapes my identity. The truth is my Good Dad gave me just such a name. And He gave me that name because He hopes that name will help me navigate my days, to make sense of ‘who I am’ and to orient myself throughout my life.

Too often though I run through life shouting the names I’ve made up for myself…my own version of I’m Superman, dad, I’m Superman! I’ve spent the last month or so thinking about the ways I go through life trying to tell myself a story (about myself) that will give me a strong sense of identity.

I’m wondering today if God is sitting back watching me go through life ‘shouting’ I’m Superman! and thinking, No, Adam, you are not who YOU say that you are. I’ve already given you a name, you can stop creating your own names. 

It reminds me of what God says in Revelation 2:17 “Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.”

Are you like me at all?

Do you run around telling yourself a name that you made up for yourself?

Do you find yourself wanting to learn how to really KNOW the name you’ve been given by your Good Dad?

Love to hear your story…

Andrew’s Favorite Albums of 2012

Music is important to me, and every year I listen to a lot of music. Each year, I feel compelled to share my favorite albums, and I share it here this year because I believe that art and music create spaces for the things we speak about on this blog to take shape. The poets and the artists of this world are poised to capture the mystery of the in(tension)al life in unique ways, and I am consistently floored by their creations. In my humble opinion, the following albums blessed our world with beauty and imagination this year. Happy listening!

1. the Soil & the Sun “What Wonder Is this Universe!”

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I found a new favorite band this year, and as it turns out, they’re just right down the road. I picked up their 2011 record, “Wake Up, Child” early in the year when I had the joy of seeing them live here in Lansing, and then preordered “What Wonder Is This Universe!” as soon as it became available back in August. Vocals echo perfectly, strings crescendo majestically, and when the rhythm section gets into a groove, brace yourself for spontaneous head bobs, air drums, and spine chills. This is spiritual, cosmic, dare I say transcendent music. Once you get a taste, be prepared to spend a lot of time with this record. Bonus: if you pre-order the vinyl posthaste, you may still be able to claim one of the numbered woodcut prints lovingly created by the Soil & the Sun’s own Ashley McGrath.

Fave track: “Who Is He, Anyway?”

Magnum opus: “You Alone Know”

2. Fiona Apple “The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do”

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The early tracks I heard from this album on NPR’s All Songs Considered set me up to believe that this would be a special album. The near stadium swell “aay ay ay ay ay ay ay AY ay ay” chorus of “Every Single Night” gives a complex set of songs a level of accessibility that even my kids love. The vocal arrangements on “Hot Knife” are just the sort of thing that I’m a sucker for: harmony, syncopation, easy to sing along—it’s a perfect closing track. The album with the longest title broods, tugs, and unfolds its tragic beauty over repeated listens.

Fave track: “Hot Knife”

3. The Tallest Man on Earth “There’s No Leaving Now”

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When I went to purchase this at the local record store, the store clerk couldn’t resist a “selling The Tallest Man on Earth to the tallest man on earth” joke. I chuckled, and then I started listening. I’m flabbergasted by the consistency of Kristian Mattson. On three full lengths and an EP, there’s maybe one song I don’t love. Here are ten more beautifully crafted, concise songs, sung with his bracingly powerful tenor, emotionally pitch-perfect.

Fave track: “Little Brother”

4. The Brilliance “Advent, Vol. 2”

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For better or worse, everybody knows a lot of Christmas songs. Advent songs, on the other hand, are far less ubiquitous, yet often far more profound. This is the second set of Advent songs from The Brilliance (as you may have gathered from the title), and in many ways, it transcends the first. The original composition “Lift Up Your Eyes” combines most everything I love about this band: complex arrangement, tight performance, bombast, all serving to instill in listeners a sense of longing for redemption. You don’t have to love Christmas music or church music to love this music.

Fave track: “Lift Up Your Eyes”

Fave hymn adaptation: “In the Bleak Midwinter”

5. Alabama Shakes “Boys & Girls”

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I discovered Alabama Shakes in 2011, but all they had in the way of recorded music were a few tracks on their Bandcamp site. “Boys & Girls” was the album I looked forward to most in 2012, and I was not disappointed. Brittany Howard has a once-in-a-generation powerhouse voice, and I don’t really know what else to say about that. “Hold On” is the first Shakes song I heard, and it’s still my favorite, but it’s “You Ain’t Alone” that showcases most fully the band’s greatest asset (Brittany’s voice). Southern rock and soul and blues at its finest.

Fave track: “You Ain’t Alone”

6. Lost in the Trees “A Church That Fits Our Needs”

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The whole premise of this album weighs on the heart. During the release of their first album, front man Ari Picker’s mother took her own life, and this follow-up album is saturated with her presence (and absence). Picker’s idea with this album was to create space for her to inhabit the music. The results are astonishing, haunting, and gorgeous. These are classically trained musicians performing lushly orchestrated songs. If you’re looking for art that processes grief from a creative perspective, look no further.

Fave track: “Golden Eyelids”

7. alt-J “An Awesome Wave”

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This recent discovery has crept up my list quickly with hooks, beats, grooves, and earworms. This album is carefully crafted, beautifully engineered with layers that peel back with each subsequent listen. These songs lock into a great groove that moves the body. You’ll find yourself dancing, singing along (“this is from Matildaaa-a-a-aaa”), and flat out enjoying yourself. My only qualm is that “Interlude 1,” a mesmerizing syncopated vocal track, is too short at a mere 1:12. It’s an awesome wave, y’all.

Fave track: “Fitzpleasure”

8. Jack White “Blunderbuss”

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Jack White’s basically a legend at this point. For over a decade, he has defined American garage blues rock. He knows blues history, rock history, and art history. Yet for all his unbridled rocking, he’s also a master of disciplined constraint. We know about The White Stripes rules: two people, three colors, no bass guitar. White’s rule for his first solo album (two bands: one female and one male) make for more musical flexibility. The songs, as always, are great. That explosion of guitar at the beginning of “Sixteen Saltines,” that wordplay of “Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy,” that fresh adaptation of “I’m Shakin’.” It seems like just the right next step for Mr. White.

Fave track: “Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy”

9. Sharon Van Etten “Tramp”

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These are twelve songs of longing, confession, and love. Van Etten is not one to make a scene for its own sake, but is narrowly focused on crafting great songs of subtle beauty. You’ll fall in love with her vulnerable voice and keep listening when you discover the power and strength beneath the fragile exterior. “All I Can” is the first song I fell in love with in 2012, and it’s still bringing chills (and sometimes tears) today.

Fave track: “All I Can”

10. Derek Webb “Ctrl”

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Sci-Fi. Sacred harp singing. Short story companion. Another EP (“Nexus” by SOLA-MI) that fits perfectly between “I Feel Everything” and “Reanimate.” The mythos, the layers of “Ctrl” are revealed a bit at a time, and with each new discovery, even more life is breathed into this album. This exploration of humanity and spirituality in a technologically dominated world is a compelling narrative. The songs are strong on their own, perhaps Webb’s best batch of songs since “Mockingbird.” This album is worthy of continued exploration.

Fave track: “Pressing on the Bruise”

Ten more favorites from this year (in no particular order):

  • The Mountain Goats “Transcendental Youth”
  • Father John Misty “Fear Fun”
  • Paper Route “The Peace of Wild Things”
  • The Avett Brothers “The Carpenter”
  • Regina Spektor “What We Saw from the Cheap Seats”
  • Of Monsters and Men “My Head Is an Animal”
  • Mumford & Sons “Babel”
  • Andrew Bird “Break It Yourself”
  • Beach House “Bloom”
  • The Lumineers “The Lumineers”
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Asking new questions of politics: A You Lost Me Reflection

Apparently, there is some kind of election today? Huh, who knew…

As a response to Andrew’s first post in our new series blogging through David Kinnaman’s, You Lost Me, I wanted to reflect on how the ideas Andrew presented seem to be showing up in the world of politics and evangelical Christian engagement. I had originally planned to write a post about my sense of how younger generations think about politics, but as I was reading You Lost Me, I came across a line that stuck out to me. Kinnaman said that everyone has a story, “and every story matters.” So rather than paint with a broad brush, I thought that I would write about this topic from my own perspective.

In our church’s gathering on Sunday, my buddy Matt told the story of G.K. Chesterton’s conversion. A reporter stopped him on the street to ask him questions about his new found faith. The reporter said, “What would you do if Jesus Christ were standing right here behind me right now?” To which Chesterton replied, “He is.”

As I think about this statement, I am blown away by its significance. It would be EASY to write off Chesterton’s word as ‘pie in the sky’ spirituality, another example of a Christian who is naive of ‘real life.’

This would be, in my estimation, a complete misunderstanding of his words.

To me, I think Chesterton is getting right to the heart of Christianity. He recognizes that the PRESENCE and REIGN of Jesus is as real as the reporter asking him the question. The fact that Jesus is alive and is on the throne is not abstract spirituality, it is a concrete reality.

This has been a reality I have been attempting to work out in my life for the last several years and it has been incredibly difficult. Particularly when it comes to politics.

Like many others, I have traditionally been VERY politically passionate. (Ask me about my reaction to the 2000 election some day.) But increasingly, I’m finding myself not simply disenchanted with the process and the politicians, but also, I’m sensing a deep unrest in my soul about the amount of my heart I have given over to politicians.

I have been, slowly, learning to ask new questions about politics.

For example, is my fear over who might get elected an indication that I have forgotten about the Kingship of Jesus? In other words, it strikes me that my obsession over who gets to be ‘in power’ might, in fact, be a concrete rejection of the fact that Jesus actually is.

Another question I’m asking myself is, what kind of fruit is being produced in my life? I’ve literally re-written this post 3 or 4 times because I’m noticing how critical my heart becomes when I’m writing about politics. If political conversations make me angry, bitter, critical and judgmental; maybe I should check myself before I….

I’ve also been thinking a lot about mixed allegiances. A few years ago, I was studying to preach through Colossians and I was constantly blown away by the way Paul leaves no room for equivocation on this. Either I am entirely surrendered to Jesus and his Kingdom, or I am fully un-surrendered to Jesus as the King over my life. So, have I given my heart to a person, or a party, or a policy, such that I cannot give it to Jesus?

As a Christian who is attempting to learn how to live out of the reality that G.K. Chesterton spoke to, politics is one area where I struggle.

It would be easy to divorce the Kingship of Jesus from the political world we find ourselves in today. But I’m learning that if Jesus is who he says he is, then it MUST change the way I engage in politics.

I’m learning to see that it isn’t my job to try and usher in God’s Kingdom through the political system.

I’m learning to see that no candidate will do “God’s will” on earth as it is in heaven.

I’m learning to see how distracted I get by the quest for human power and authority such that I am unable to see the reality of God’s power and authority made real in the everyday world in which I live. To paraphrase Elizabeth Barrett Browning, All earth is crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God. But only he who sees takes off his shoes, the rest sit around and talk politics.”

David Kinnaman wrote a book about reasons why young people leave the church. One of the reasons why young people are leaving is because they have questions that they do not feel safe to ask. It seems to me that politics is one of those questions.

What do you think?

Are you disenchanted with politics?

Do you sense a growing discontent inside about what politics does to your heart?

We’d love to hear your reflections as well…

Discontinuously Different | the “You Lost Me” Conversation, Pt. 1

How can we follow Jesus—and help young people faithfully follow Jesus—in a dramatically changing culture?

You Lost Me, by David Kinnaman, is essentially an attempt to analyze and answer the above question. In the Christian church, it’s relatively easy to gain traction on the first two parts of the question; following Jesus and passing that tradition of discipleship to each generation has been the call of the church since followers of Jesus began gathering. But in attempting to meaningfully address a dramatically changing culture we often struggle, spin our wheels, or simply throw up our hands in despair.

A quick word on “this generation” before I proceed. In You Lost Me, this generation is defined generally as American young adults in the 18-30 year old demographic. Now no generation is a cultural monolith, and this globalized, multicultural generation least of all, but as we proceed in this conversation it will be helpful to know generally who we’re talking about when we refer to “this generation.”

Every generation has its own distinctive characteristics, and sets itself apart from its predecessor in some way, but Kinnaman argues persuasively that this generation faces what he calls “discontinuously different social, technological, and spiritual change.” Going back to our initial question, the established church of today is faced with unprecedented obstacles in “help(ing) young people faithfully follow Jesus.” The gap between the young and old in our churches, traditionally created by things like difference of life stage and lack of shared interests, is widened and stratified by the discontinuously different worlds which we inhabit.

Kinnaman uses three categories to frame the discussion of these discontinuously different environments in which this generation has developed and now lives: access, alienation, and authority.

  1. Access – Grown up with more access to information and technology than any previous generation, and is native to such accessible environments. Screens are part of the ecosystem and relationships are mediated through them in significant ways.
  2. Alienation – Experiences unprecedented levels of disconnection from relationships and institutions. Family structure and transition to adulthood are no longer measured against the same societal norms, and meaningful connection to previous generations is less common.
  3. Authority – Traditional understandings of authority are mostly irrelevant to a generation of real-time fact checkers. Questions that in previous generations would have been posed in person to an expert (professor, doctor, pastor) are instead posed to the democratic republic of Wikipedia.

Whether you can fully get behind these categorizations or not, they point to some pretty important realities. As a thirty year old, I resonate with them, sometimes forgetting that many from other generations may not. Kinnaman makes some helpful suggestions for the church in understanding and addressing the implications of this data, and I surely have more thoughts of my own, but let’s chew on some questions before moving right along.

  • Do we believe that these discontinuously different characteristics require discontinuously different ministry approaches?
  • Will we treat these unprecedented levels of access, alienation and authority as obstacles or opportunities? If the latter, where are these opportunities?
  • What does all this mean for churches and ministries that are multi- and inter-generational? Where is there hope?
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New Blog Series! A Conversation through “You Lost Me”

And we’re back!!!!

After a lengthy delay, Andrew and I are returning to the blog. The last couple months have been filled with transition for me, hence the blog blackout. My family has moved, bought a house, started working toward some cool new missional endeavors, found jobs to pay the bills, started new schools and somehow found the grace to not lose our minds in the process. We have found the surface of this chaotic ocean we’ve been swimming in and so it is the right time to come back to the blog! We appreciate your patience! (We know you’ve been checking with bated breath every day for our next post!)

Today, we are going to start a new series that we are really excited about.

One of the driving passions of our work is helping connect, or many times, reconnect people to Jesus and his Kingdom. This is never more the case than when speaking of younger generations. Sadly, these are also the generations least engaged in the life of the church. There is no secret that the exodus of younger generations of Christians from the church is due to the church’s perceived lack of relevance to ‘real life.’ Increasingly, younger Christians are choosing to leave the faith practices they were raised in because the faith of the fathers seems out of touch, backward, or hypocritical. All the stats and studies seem to indicate that the way we have been ‘doing church’ is moving us to some kind of breaking point.

This is a problem. It does not matter if the perceptions are real or amiss. What matters is that, for some reason, the church is struggling to engage generations of Christians (this is to say nothing of their unchurched friends…). Unfortunately, too often, the response we see from the church is more often accusatory (well, they just want to be ‘in’ with the world) or despairing (there’s nothing we can do, its a lost generation).

We don’t believe this is helpful or accurate. We believe there is a different posture we can take as Christians. Maybe we could call it ‘discerning repentance.’ In other words, we are wanting to have a conversation together, in concert with the Holy Spirit, to discern the ways in which our practice of faith impedes our capacity to engage these generations. What are the issues? Where are we missing the mark?

No doubt for some of our readers this will be an intensely personal conversation. Maybe you have family or friends who have walked away from the church and you have a growing bitterness toward the church you’re apart of because of it. Maybe you are a pastor/leader who gets angry every time someone brings this topic up. Maybe you are uncomfortable with the idea that the evangelical church has some areas for repentance and redirection. Maybe you can only see the flaws in ‘the church’ and have trouble including yourself among her ranks.

In any case, we would like to invite you to have a different kind of conversation with us. Can we discern together, can we ask hard questions, evaluate our practices honestly, open ourselves up to personal and corporate confession, and pray together as we seek to align ourselves with what God is doing in the world, for the sake of the world?

To this end, we are going to be blogging through a great book, David Kinnaman’s You Lost Me. (We noted this book in earlier posts).
We are going to have an open dialog as we use Kinnaman’s ideas as a springboard for personal reflection and conversation. We invite you to join in the conversation. In the end, we aren’t looking to have a conversation ‘about those younger de-churched kids,’ as though they are lab rats waiting to be analyzed. Perhaps, it would be better to say that we are more interested in having a conversation about the state of the church, and the perceptions of this generation may help us to do that. In other words, the answer to the question ‘why are we missing this generation?’ WILL BE THE SAME as the answer to the BETTER question of ‘what kind of church does God want us to be?’

If this is a conversation you’re interested in having with us, we’d love to have you!

At the church of Mumford

As an example of how truth hits us from everywhere, and why labeling certain things as ‘Christian’ and others ‘Secular’ is probably a bad idea….the album is old, but I listened through it again yesterday in the car and was reminded of just how good, good music can be… You should listen to Mumford and Sons.

From Roll Away Your Stone

You told me that I would find a hole,
Within the fragile substance of my soul
And I have filled this void with things unreal,
And all the while my character it steals

Darkness is a harsh term don’t you think?
And yet it dominates the things I seek

It seems that all my bridges have been burned,
But, you say that’s exactly how this grace thing works
It’s not the long walk home
that will change this heart,
But the welcome I receive with the restart

From Sigh No More,

Love that will not betray you,
dismay or enslave you,
It will set you free
Be more like the man
you were made to be.

for Uncle Joe

On July 25, I read Scripture and prayed at the funeral of my Uncle Joe. Joseph Gates was just a couple years older than my dad, which made him the third youngest of seven children, and the first of his generation to pass away. I’ve said goodbye to uncles, grandparents and friends, many of whom died much younger than Joe, he of a mere 62 years.

As a pastor, I spend more time than the average person sitting with people in the face of death. Death is that great curse, that scourge that we all face whether or not we really reckon with it. Some make peace with that reality surprisingly easily, and some really never do. Any time people gather around someone’s death, it can be upsetting, hopeful, contentious, surprising, tense, healing, or a combination.

But I attended Uncle Joe’s funeral not primarily as pastor, but as grieving nephew, son and cousin. As I listened to my dad pour out his heart in gratitude for the life of his beloved brother, I was deeply moved. As I spoke words of comfort from Psalm 46, I also needed to hear that “The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress,” and as my Aunt Collette wished Joe peace, I felt that peace myself.

Marcie and I had decided to bring Addison, our oldest, out to Rockford for the funeral and leave the boys at home. So in the car for the five hour drive, it was just the three of us, as it had been on so many drives to visit family before the boys were born. Only now, Addison, nearly six years old, was older, wiser, and more insightful. Poised at the precipice of first grade, she offered this reflection, without prompting.

“You know, it’s sad that Uncle Joe died, but it’s also kind of happy.”

“Why’s that, Addie?” I inquired.

“Well, it’s sad, because we’ll miss him, but it’s happy because he’s in heaven with Jesus.”

Whenever I speak at a funeral, I proclaim the truth that because of the resurrection of Christ, “death does not win.” It is only after much nuanced theological discussion and contextual reflection that I am courageous enough to lay out this central tension, and then not so plainly and efficiently as my first grade daughter.

I don’t deny that the nuance and context are important. I don’t believe her childlike clarity counts my daughter more qualified than me to officiate funerals. But I thank God for the trust, love, and generosity that flow from her heart. They are Grace, which not coincidentally is Addison’s middle name.

54 When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

55 “Where, O death, is your victory?
     Where, O death, is your sting?”

—1 Corinthians 15:54-55

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Urgency and Spirituality in Leadership

About a month ago, I finished reading Cracking Your Church’s Culture Code: Seven Keys to Unleashing Vision & Inspiration by Samuel Chand. The book’s premise is that leading a congregation through significant change demands that we assess not just our programs and ministry strategies, but our cultural system as a whole, because “culture eats strategy for lunch.” I think we’ve all seen this in action. Some cultures seem primed to embrace and implement new ideas while others suck ideas into a vortex where they’re never heard from again. When pursuing healthy, missional ministry, it seems that culture change, and I would add cultural intelligence, is our ongoing, difficult, yet necessary companion.

In a chapter entitled “The Catalyst of Chaos,” Chand introduces the need to anticipate opportunities for growth. This means that at times of stability and presumed prosperity, chaos should be introduced again in order to avoid settling back into a decline. I agree that there is wisdom in introducing change, even chaos, during times of peace, but in this section, Chand delivers a line that sets my old church leadership allergies aflame.  Quoting John Kotter, Chand says that “Central to a continuous change culture is a continuous high sense of urgency” (125).

“…A continuous high sense of urgency.” A continuous high sense of urgency may well be an effective way to keep an organization on a steady growth trajectory, but it also strikes me as a good way to “gain the world, yet forfeit your very soul.”

I don’t think our souls can handle a continuous high sense of urgency. This should be a consideration of any individual or organization committed to discerning God’s vision. I’m with Chand on the need for continuous alertness and curiosity, and even periods of chaos and urgency, but it seems to me that a “continuous high sense of urgency” can lead nowhere but soul-sapping burnout. Quite simply, a prolonged sense of urgency is unlikely to produce anything of value without a commitment to the s-l-o-w practice of discernment and inner depth.

As you mull over these thoughts for yourself or for your community of faith, consider these few simple questions:

Is there room for periods of urgency and chaos in our spiritual life and practice?

Is there room for the Spirit in our periods of urgency and chaos?

Are we continuously alert to and curious of what God is up to as we lead?

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“Downton Abbey is Life!” But it shouldn’t be…

For the last few weeks, my wife and I have been obsessed with watching Downton Abbey on Hulu (hey hulu/pbs, want to give us a sponsorship?). We keep quoting the line from the Office where Pam and Oscar exclaim, “Downton Abbey is life!” Its an addicting show.

For the uninitiated, Downton Abbey follows the world of Lord and Lady Grantham and their house (Downton Abbey) in the early 20th century England. (Think Jane Austen meets World War 1 and modern production values and you’re about there.) The Granthams have 3 daughters; Mary, Edith and Cybil. There’s much drama everywhere as we follow the lives of the extraordinarily rich and their army of servants, butlers, maids and valets. There’s entirely too much to say to cover everything this show talks about.

Anyway, as we watched I was caught off guard by something that I’ve been thinking about for the last few days. I started to take a particular interest in the story of the Grantham daughters. I suppose that is funny because, while they are important characters, they are potentially the characters you would be least invested in. But as the story unfolded and each of these super rich, extremely spoiled young women made life choices that created incredible drama, I began to have a deep sense of compassion for them.

Mary, Edith and Cybil, for all their privilege, lived their lives with a metaphorical noose around their neck. They lived in a world where their actions were highly scrutinized and, in exchange for a lifetime of wealth, were expected to conduct themselves in a manner worthy of the family name. Each of these girls feel this pressure in various ways, it takes a toll on each of them. As their life choices depart from the standard expected of them they begin to live with the guilt of how their choices might, not only shame them, but also shame their father and bring dishonor to the family name.

I began to ask myself; What must it be like to live with such angst, trying not to disappoint my dad?

How would I respond to a life of anxiety over whether or not I will live up to what is expected of me?

What would a life shaped by fear over dishonoring the family name look like?

I wonder if its not the kind of life many of us live as Christians already…

I began to reflect on whether or not my faith, and the faith of many Christians I know isn’t actually altogether different than that…trying not to disappoint “dad,” anxious over fulfilling the expectations others have for me (or that I think they do), living in fear that my actions might bring shame on the house of Grantham…err, God.

I’d suggest, functionally, this is a default mode for many of us. We are pretty good at trying to demonstrate our worth/value by staying within carefully erected boundaries. We are better at training others to modify their behavior based on fear of ‘what others would think.’ We might be masters at creating a way of life that is lived solely for the purpose of not disappointing God and bringing shame on his house.

I wonder if this doesn’t create the same kind of noose around the neck of our life in Christ. 

The Grantham girls were taught two competing messages; the world is yours/you deserve whatever you want…and your life is not yours, it belongs to the ‘family Grantham.’ The only time this is a problem is when what they wanted came into conflict with the expectations they shouldered as Lady Granthams… The drama of the show comes when their narcissism explodes in a moment of selfish recklessness.

This seems like the only possible outcome of a life where a person’s behavior is forced to conform to a particular code of conduct while nothing is done to re-shape the vast brokenness of their self-centered heart. I don’t know what we would expect from a person who lives life governed, in the main, by fear and pressure to live up to ‘the family name.’

I’ve been a part of Christian communities long enough to know that this is a story played out in our churches all the time…

There is a better way than trying to be Christian this way. I’m starting to think maybe Downton Abbey IS life…but it shouldn’t be.