1993 and Everything After

My friend just sent me this article talking about the time we all go through  when we reminisce about the music of our time and how important it was. This article was talking about Nirvana’s “In Utero” and The Counting Crows, “August and Everything After.” It talked about how a lot of people this week will be talking about Nirvana, and not very many people will be writing nostalgic articles about the first album of the Counting Crows.

Part of that is because Adam Duritz is still alive, making music. But a bigger part, this author says, is related to how Nirvana’s music was “tangentially sad” whereas Counting Crows’ music was “realistically sad.” “In Utero represents who we’d like to be; August and Everything After is who we want to hide. It’s not musical history we’re revisiting. It’s our own.” This author points out that it is perfectly acceptable to make fun of the Counting Crows, but no one ever makes fun of Nirvana.

And the thing is, no one ever did. Just reading the article I was transposed back to this fraternity house I used to hang out in in college. Saturday mornings, in an attempt to get my best friend out of bed so we could try to do something cool, I’d make my rounds–to Taco Bell for burritos and Mountain Dew, and Taco Johns for Ole’s n Cheese. The Ole’s were necessary, but Taco Johns had Pepsi products, which was a bummer dude.

Fully loaded with gigantic Mountain Dews, I head up the stairs to the upper apartment in the Phi Sig house and wave the ole’s near Steve’s face, up in the loft of the bed.
Steve literally looked like Kurt Cobain. And he was also an illustrator, so after Kurt Cobain died, he drew pictures of him, which might as well have been pictures of himself. Long stringy blond hair, flannel shirts, and all. Steve got around town on his skateboard or mountain bike. If I could really include myself in a club with him I would say we didn’t get a lot cooler than that.

But the reality is I was never that cool–I was, in fact, sometimes called “pseudo betty.” A “betty” was a term used to describe female skaters in our little part of the world. I guess for others it refers to how hot a female is. Well I was not a skater. But since I occasionally got on my friends’ boards, I was apparently posing as a betty.

On one of those mornings, MTV plays on the television beneath the loft. Or maybe it was VH1 I am sure of three things that time–that Nirvana was on, and I was ambivalent about that, that NIN was on, and I hated that because it was loud and violent and sexual, (and those last two things don’t go well together for me). Steve loved NIN. And that was where I first saw the Counting Crows and heard the song “Mr. Jones.” I was mesmerized. I bought the CD. Steve labeled it adult contempo music.

But when I lived in a town where we drank coffee in pancake houses until they closed, climbed under railroad bridges in the middle of the night, went swinging at 4 am…I found myself in the lines “Round here, we always stay up late…”

When I moved across the country, Adam’s wailing of the line “3,400 miles away, what would you change if you could. I need a phone call. I need a rain coat. I need a train ride…” hit right in the homesick place.

When I lived in Seattle, I thought all the time about how you might try to “move in the air, between the rain, through myself and back again” as I lived through that first rainy Winter.

When I drove the big triangle from Seattle to Boulder to Fargo and back, there was the perfect opportunity to listen to a song about Omaha, somewhere in middle America…

And so it goes. So I admit I’m drawn to uncomfortably honest sad songs, and they do map my life. And I’m OK with not being very cool. It is still a great album. Thus ends my nostalgic writing about 1993.


Is your worship really the only one God works through?

Recently I saw this post on facebook that was bemoaning/making fun of a whole host of what one might call “worship styles” that (according to this post) represent a consumerist style of approaching church. There was something for everyone–Gregorian chant to hip-hop worship.

I don’t know what to do with this kind of post. For those of you who might read this who are churchy-types, I understand that the liturgy works in some kind of way that we cannot understand, explain or control. But I have three issues with people bemoaning alternate styles of worship:

  1. It makes God too small.
  2. It privileges some style of worship above others, and marginalizes people in the process.
  3. It is not good news.

It makes God too small:

I believe the Holy Spirit also shows up in places we cannot explain, understand or control. He/She/It may show up outside of the liturgy that is somehow mandated in some place that means one way is the right way, and these other ways represent “consumerism.”

If it is true that the Holy Spirit might show up outside of liturgy as it has always been done,  it seems as if we have some tools available to us to experiment with how we, out of our own context and time, might offer praise, speak, and hear good news spoken into this time and place. I assume that God speaks good news into our lives using the stuff of creation, in each time and place. That might mean some different kinds of liturgy, with different genres of music, instrumentation and words. I trust God is present in these new things.

It privileges some styles of worship above others, and marginalizes people: 

We could mandate that all worship looks the same. I don’t think Martin Luther ever did that, but we can. I remember learning that he thought word and sacrament were essential, and that the rest was bonus, (I know the fancy word, I’m just not using it here). I believe Luther said if it seemed good for proclaiming gospel in that location, then it was good for worship.

One of the reasons I am uncomfortable with the conversation is because of how it seems to belittle or make fun of those who lead worship or experience worship in ways other than (whatever it is that you think is the established right way). And that “right way” is likely grounded in something European and old. The comments on the picture seem to suggest that some people believe there is one way to worship in spirit and in truth, and  all these other ways just represent disunity in the body of Christ, and making God into our own image. What this does is marginalize people who don’t experience or lead worship the way it is assumed it has always been done. One could probably make an argument that if it was good enough for 500 years’ worth of people, it should be good enough for people today. You can say that, but the church is shrinking quickly so you may not be saying it to many people. More to the point, all worship came out of a culture, whether ancient Judaism or Europe 500 years ago. All worship comes from culture.

It is not Good News: 

The Church should not be about marginalizing anyone, because that is contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Church is about proclaiming the gospel into people’s lives–that the grace of God is for you–whoever you are, in whatever way you can hear it, using the tools, instruments, gifts and talents of the community that is doing the hearing and proclaiming. I believe God can work with all of that. Do you?

Come, Holy Spirit.




Cast me gently into morning

On Easter each year I set my alarm for a few minutes before sunrise so that I can listen to this song by Sarah Mclachlan, Answer. One year I heard this song during holy week, and I heard these words in an entirely new way:

“Cast me gently into morning

For the night has been unkind.

Take me to a place so holy

That I can wash this from my mind–

the memory of choosing not to fight.”

All of a sudden I was thinking of the stories of Jesus on the cross, and the coming Easter morning. One of the ways I understand the cross is that Jesus was put to death for rebelling against authorities and teaching strange things that people didn’t understand and felt threatening to their way of life–especially those in power. And he chose to not fight, so that he didn’t participate in the systems of death and power. He couldn’t participate in those systems he spoke against, or none of it would make any sense. He had to live and die in a different way.

One year I saw Sarah Mclachlan in concert, and she introduced this song by saying she had written the chorus years ago and never had any verses, and she furthermore didn’t know what the song was about. From up in the balcony of Benaroya Hall, I wanted to shout. I know! I know what it’s about! It’s about death and resurrection. It’s about this story of Jesus on the cross, and people yelling up at him: “If you are the son of God, save yourself and come down from the cross” (Matthew 25:40). Its about going through the hell of all that rejection and pain and choosing not to fight. It’s about Easter morning and rising up from that death into life. It’s about the Holy.

And, as she sings in the verses of the song, “It will all be worth it—worth it in the end.”

(This year, sunrise in Denver is at 6:32 AM, when this was posted. I’ll be up way before that.)

Somebody that I used to know…

Yesterday morning before church I found myself between these two worlds, as I stood in the doorway of my colleague’s office at church, chatting about the upcoming worship service. His thirteen year old daughter lay sprawled out on the couch, not quite awake, listening to tunes on her mac.  Specifically, she was listening to this song called “Somebody That I Used to Know” by Gotye. 

Then the organ started up. In one ear, I could hear the organ strains of “Lift High the Cross” while in the other, this song about somebody that I used to know.

I don’t really know how the pastor’s daughter thinks about hymns played on an organ. I didn’t ask her because it was far too early in the morning for her to consider answering me. But I wonder if it isn’t similar to the words of the song: Somebody that I used to know. And if it is the organ that is presenting the story of the cross…does the person on the cross also have potential to become somebody that I used to know? Or, somebody that I never knew?

My hope is that there is space in the Church for some people to figure out how to speak the language people are speaking, including the way music speaks. And by that, I don’t mean that hymns need to go away (though I think it is worth asking questions like: does this song still speak to how we think about God, or life, or the human condition?) And I don’t mean just putting guitars and drums up in front of the church, especially if it means singing songs within the Christian praise genre—(because I would ask the same question: Does this song speak to how we think about God, or life or the human condition?) But rather trying to figure out how music might speak about  faith and proclaim good news from and into each context.

My friend Michael Larson (musician) has some smart things to say about music in the church. Check it out here Michael Larson, “God Concept, God Song”

The way we never were

There is a poster viraling on facebook right now that has lyrics from a song from 1936, paired with lyrics from Justin Beiber, with this “Music: what happened?” line, suggesting that lyrics were so much better back then.

I’m disturbed by any line of thinking that says that life was so much better in another time. But this one is particularly ridiculous. One could choose these lyrics from Fats Waller in 1936:

From your ankles up, I’d say you sure are sweet
From there down; there’s just too much feet
Yes, your feets too big
Don’t want ya, ’cause ya feets too big
Can’t use ya, ’cause ya feets too big
I really hate ya, ’cause ya feets too big
yeah. Dadeooh da, where’d ya get ‘em…nananadum (or something)

And you could compare those lyrics to these amazing lyrics from Mumford & Sons last year:

“It seems that all my bridges have been burned,
But you say that’s exactly how this grace thing works.
Its on the long walk home that will change this heart
But the welcome I receive with the restart.”

Or you could compare it to last night’s Grammy-award winning “Rolling in the Deep” as recorded by Adele, which says,

“We could have had it all,
Rolling in the deep
You had my heart inside of your hand
And you played it to the beat.”

There is nothing wrong with those lyrics. Now, the truth is, I don’t know much about Justin Beiber. When I see those lyrics on that poster, I can’t even conjure up the tune in my head. I’m not his demographic. But my friend Michael, (who does find his music “catchy,” says, “Justin Beiber is like 14” (actually 17). Either way, he’s a kid who could still be in a youth group. And if he were in my youth group, I’d be pretty proud of everything he has been able to accomplish. And I’d be pretty upset about the attacks on his talent and person.

Churchy-types have these same conversations about music. There are those who wax on about the great hymns, with the great chords played on the great instruments. They say nobody sings anymore, and how the new songs, generally termed “praise songs” are too simple, both in terms of chords and lyrics. Sometimes they verge on the sexual, (in the secret place, I want to touch you, I want to know you more…Jesus?). That’s just embarrassing. So that you can put great hymns up next to really bad songs being sung in some places today (and I know those songs about as well as I know Justin Beiber) but on the other hand, you can ALSO find bad hymns of a different day. Both can present and teach ideas about God that I’m uncomfortable with (for whatever that is worth). I’m pretty sure you can also find good hymns of yesteryear and current songs that speak to people in meaningful ways.

There has always been good music, and there has always been bad music in all aspects of the world (sacred and otherwise, if you care to divide the two). To lift up a previous time as superior is just putting blinders on, holding up the way we never were. But further, it gives us some responsibility: either we do our homework to find what we consider good music to listen to/use in church settings, or write better music.

Ordinary and/or sacred: Brandi Carlile and the disciples

There is this cover band called Runaway Train made up of these suburban dads and me. I don’t know why they let me sing with them, but I’m grateful. One of them goes to the church I work at. The other two play in a band at another church. We occasionally play at a bar in a  strip mall. Apparently, these guys also want to play at the end of my time here. At church. One of them suggested we sing the song “Shout to the Lord.” I know this is a favorite for many people, and if that is a song that speaks your story, then sing it out.

The truth for me is this: I don’t really resonate with many contemporary Christian songs. I also don’t resonate with many hymns. (And I’m just praying that there is still room for people like me in the church.) I can’t quite put my finger on what it is–part of it has to do with complexity of both music and themes. Life is complicated. I like my music to reflect that complexity (message and means of relaying that message). Otherwise, it doesn’t feel like the truth for me. It is not true, for example, that I will forever praise God or that I sing for joy at the sound of God’s name. I’m just not that good. I also don’t envision God as a Mighty Fortress. I’ve never been in need of a Mighty Fortress. I’m not even sure what that is, though I’ve been to Wartburg Castle, so that is what I picture in my head.

What I do resonate with is when some song I hear on the radio reminds me of an ancient sacred story. Or when I read from sacred text (Bible, for me) and think about the characters introduced and what they might be thinking about and feeling, and find some singer today who is expressing those same thoughts and feelings. That deepens the experience of the sacred story for me.

Here is an example: My friend Michael Larson and I like to work on finding poetry and music that goes with Jesus stories. He is working on a worship experience around the story of Jesus calling his disciples. It’s in the first chapter of the book of Mark (one of four books that made it into the Bible that tell the story of Jesus). Jesus is starting to collect disciples—people who would follow him, like, as a career. He picks up these two fishermen and tells them if they follow him, he will make them “fishers of men.” (For you churchy leader types who might be reading this, this is the text you may come across for January 22.) For the text of the story, look here: http://bible.oremus.org/?passage=Mark+1:14-20&vnum=yes&version=nrsv

Thinking about those fishers, we wondered what was going on in their heads as they heard him say that. Jesus must have been a compelling person in order for them to decide to follow, but there still must have been some ambiguity in their choice. Some question about if this was wise. What does it mean to be a fisher of men? How do you make money off of that? Who is this guy and what will be expected of me? What will my family think? And as we kept hearing that word, “follow” we thought of a song from Brandi Carlile, called “follow.” We looked up the lyrics to see if it might speak to the situation these guys found themselves in. Imagine a scene in the movie of this story where you see these guys struggling with this opportunity to follow, and wondering what to do. And maybe the scene is told with this song playing over the top: Brandi Carlile “Follow”

And as you think about the possible thoughts of those guys, maybe you’re also led to think about your own life, and your own struggles with what to do, and how to respond to your own life and what God might be calling you to do. For me, this way of listening to music and thinking about the ancient stories animates the stories and my faith life, infusing faith into life, making sacred what is ordinary.

Some people find it important to keep sacred music separate from the rest of the world (variously described as “secular” or “profane”). I’m uncomfortable with that separation. I want to experience God in all kinds of ways. Just as I am to remember Christ whenever I eat bread or wine—ordinary things in the world, I also want to remember Christ and these stories whenever I turn on the radio and hear ordinary music of the world. If this song comes on the radio while I’m driving  along I can think about those guys and the choice they had to make, along with all of us, who are still making choices about who and when and what to follow today.

So, that’s why the band won’t be singing Shout to the Lord on my last day. When we sing at the bar, we always sing the Decemberists,  Down by the Water, a song that reminds me of John the Baptist (see this ancient river bed, see where all the follies led, down by the water, down by the old main drag…)

Of course, they also occasionally talk about doing the song “Feel like Makin’ Love.” I don’t know what story to relate that to. Sampson and Delilah? Just some occasional thoughts on life, sacred and profane…