Friday, February 27, 2009

Ten record albums that changed my life

I know, "changed my life" is pretty strong language. But music has been such a big part of my life that I thought it would be fun to try to identify ten record albums that have most impacted me and that I still relish.

This is hard to do, because I could probably pick fifty such records. But I've chosen ten, and limited myself to only one record per artist or band. Here they are, in no particular order:

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band - The Beatles (1967)

It's impossible to pick just one Beatles record that means the most to me. But if I had to choose only one, this would be it. I remember buying Sgt. Pepper in the music store on Main Street in my hometown soon after its release on June 2, 1967. I brought it home, listened to it, and didn't know what to think. It defied all categories. Still to this day it evokes memories both strange and delightful. It's arguably the most creative record album of my generation. Favorite song: "A Day in the Life"

The Master and the Musician - Phil Keaggy (1978)

I'd never heard of this greatest-of-all-guitarists until a seminary friend lent me a homemade copy of this record on a cassette tape. It's a collection of instrumental music ranging from meditative to rock. After several listens, I was addicted to Phil Keaggy, bought just about every one of his records thereafter, and saw him in person 3 or 4 times. Favorite song: the opening track, "Pilgrim's Flight"

Court and Spark - Joni Mitchell (1974)

During my college years I kept hearing these amazing songs by this female singer from Canada who could hit the highest notes possible, as well as play guitar, piano, and dulcimer. Her lyrics captured my imagination like no one before and maybe even since. I love all her music from the early years (1968-'74). Court and Spark combines the best of her early ballad style with the jazz style that characterized her later work. After this, she went in more of an experimental direction that didn't appeal to me. I saw her in person in 1974 and had a crush on her. Favorite song on this record: "Help Me"

Tapestry - Carole King (1971)

My kids make fun of me all the time for liking so many female singer-songwriters. I guess it all began with this record by Carole King. She wrote a lot of songs that other people made famous (examples: James Taylor and "You've Got a Friend," Aretha Franklin and "You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman," both on this album). Tapestry won all sorts of Grammys and stayed on the charts for years. One reason it's impressed upon my brain is that when it came out, I was on a camping trip out west with a bunch of other teenagers. I think radio stations played "It's Too Late" every 10 minutes. My girlfriend at the time and I played this album over and over and sang every word. Favorite song: "So Far Away"

Sweet Baby James - James Taylor (1970)

James Taylor is arguably one of the most enduring singer-songwriter-musicians of our time. I own all his records, and have seen him in person 4 times. Next time he shows up around my area, I'm there. Being a guitarist myself, I admire his unique style and have tried to emulate him as much as possible. This particular record was one of several James Taylor records that my girlfriend-now-wife Suzy and I bonded over. I must admit, though, if I hear "Fire and Rain" one more time I'll go crazy. Favorite song on this album: the title track, "Sweet Baby James"

Blood, Sweat and Tears - Blood, Sweat and Tears (1969)

When I'm in a certain nostalgic mood, I still love to turn on this CD! This album was monumental in many ways. For one thing, it's the first album I know of that opened and closed with the same song ("Variations on a Theme By Erik Satie"). I thought the footsteps and door closing recorded at the end of the album was also pretty clever. Several songs on the record brought BS&T a lot of fame, including "Spinning Wheel" and "You've Made Me So Very Happy." But what I found most engaging was the fact that the album contained longer versions of these and other songs, including jazz segments not heard on the radio versions. At the time, I considered this album the "thinking man's record." It was sophisticated, innovative, and combined rock, jazz, classical, and blues styles. Favorite song: "God Bless the Child"

Led Zeppelin II - Led Zeppelin (1969)

Perhaps more than any other record, Led Zeppelin II tapped into something deep within me that likes to throw things, yell and scream, and play electric guitar as loudly as possible! This was one of those records I didn't play in the living room for fear of my mother grabbing it and breaking it. But truthfully, this is one of the all-time great rock albums, right? Every song is fantastic. I'd never heard drums and guitar sound like those of John Bonham and Jimmy Page. Not to mention the voice of Robert Plant (every mother's worst nightmare). Critics call this record a blueprint for 1970s hard rock. Favorite song: "Heartbreaker"

Crosby, Stills & Nash - Crosby, Stills & Nash (1969)

Are you beginning to see a pattern, with all this music from the late '60s and early '70s? It was a highly creative (unfortunately, drug-fueled) time period for rock music, with all kinds of new styles emerging. Crosby, Stills and Nash was one of my favorite bands of the day. Unlike James Taylor, their songs were more laced with electric guitars and angry vocals. But unlike Led Zeppelin, CS&N wrote ballads and played softer, acoustic music too. Each of the 3 principal band members was a solo artist in his own right. Their harmonies struck gold. They were also one of the first commercially successful bands of that era to put a lot of social-political commentary into their music. They strike me as three angry guys who gladly profited off of the capitalist system they so roundly criticized. Nevertheless, their music affected me deeply and gave me a love for country-rock music that endures to this day. Favorite song: "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes"

Nickel Creek - Nickel Creek (2000)

We jump forward to (almost) the present day. Nickel Creek is my favorite bluegrass-slash-acoustic band of all time. When I first listened to this, their self-titled album (produced by Alison Krauss), I felt like the perfect blend of great voices, lyrics, and musicianship had arrived. Sadly, the group broke up (for now) in 2007. I've seen Nickel Creek in person three times. Their shows are amazing. Chris Thile is unbelievable on the mandolin. I've always loved bluegrass music, but the difference with Nickel Creek is that it's got a postmodern twist. There's a melancholic side to many of the songs, making me wonder what it is that makes these three people so sad. Favorite song: probably "Ode to a Butterfly"

Fragile - Yes (1972)

Last but not least is this, the 4th album by the British progressive-rock band Yes. I am a big fan of Yes's early years (at least through Relayer in 1974). Fragile's best-known song, "Roundabout," is still often played on classic rock radio stations. I first became a fan of Yes when, in college, I somehow came across The Yes Album (1971). The way Yes wove heavy bass guitar, drums, piano, synthesizer, and lead guitar together was highly innovative. The lyrics of nearly every one of their songs make absolutely no sense, and Jon Anderson's high voice is often very annoying. But every time I listen to Yes music I seem to hear something I've never heard before. I love listening to Yes in my car, when I can turn the volume way up and catch every nuance, every unexpected twist and turn in the songs. Favorite song on this album: "Heart of the Sunrise"

Well there you have it, my all-time Top Ten Most Personally Influential Record Albums. Keep in mind that I'm only choosing one album per artist or group. If I could list some "honorable mentions," they would include:
  • Good Advice - James Ward (1986)
  • New York Tendaberry - Laura Nyro (1969)
  • Bookends - Simon & Garfunkel (1968)
  • Spirit Trail - Bruce Hornsby (1998)
  • Unguarded - Amy Grant (1985)

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Ocean Springs here they come

I am proud of my daughter Rebecca and her husband Scott! For the past several years they've lived in Gulfport, Mississippi, where Scott has pastored two small churches, Handsboro Presbyterian and New Life Presbyterian. He led those congregations through a challenging period of recovery from Hurricane Katrina, a huge accomplishment for a guy right out of seminary.

Earlier this month Scott was called to First Presbyterian Church of Ocean Springs, MS. His first Sunday is March 1. They bought a house in Ocean Springs a few weeks ago and are getting ready to make the big move. Fortunately, Ocean Springs is only about 30 minutes away from Gulfport, so my granddaughter Tyler can finish out her year of school without having to adjust to a new school until the fall.

Scott and Rebecca are a great team and I can't wait to see how God is going to use them to bring gospel transformation to Ocean Springs.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Peter Jones

Yesterday at church Dr. Peter Jones, founder and director of truthXchange, preached in the morning and gave a lecture with Q&A in the evening. My wife and I also had the pleasure of dining with him at Pannullo's Italian Restaurant in Winter Park the night before (try the lobster stuffed ravioli - it's great!).

Dr. Jones is a renaissance man. He has several degrees, speaks several languages, has written scores of books and articles, planted a church, has taught in two seminaries, plays jazz piano, sings, plays golf, etc. He and his wife (the former Rebecca Clowney) reared seven children. As a teenager growing up in Liverpool, England, Jones was a friend of John Lennon, played music with him, and even had a chance to join the Quarrymen, but his mom said no. If it hadn't been for her you might know the Beatles as John, Paul, Ringo and Peter instead of John, Paul, Ringo and George.

Last evening's lecture was the highlight for me. Jones titled his lecture "The Five Points of Paganism." You can hear it (as well as the morning sermon) here. It was an excellent analysis of the cultural revolution that started in the 1960s and continues today. Basically Jones contrasted the two competing worldviews of monism and theism, showing the bankruptcy of the former and the beauty and rationality of the latter.

In response to this cultural revolution, I appreciated Jones's statement that God is not calling Christians to nostalgically "reclaim America," as advocated by some in evangelicalism. Nor are we to go around bashing people we disagree with. But neither should we compromise and be silent. As individuals and as churches, Christians are called to bear witness to the truth with love and clarity. Jones said if we are faithful to our calling we will suffer.

His was a realistic, even pessimistic, description of where we are headed as a culture if we continue to worship and serve the creation rather than the Creator. Thankfully, God is King and his purposes will not be frustrated by a culture in rebellion against him.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Sports programs and church

As one of many pastors of churches in east Orlando, I participate in a coalition of church leaders called "Converge." According to our mission statement, "Converge is churches in east Orlando who share a common vision of seeing our community centered on Jesus Christ...and [who believe] that we need (not just want) one another to see this vision realized as the Body of Christ." To see a listing of participating churches and find out more, visit http://convergeorlando.com.

As Converge pastors, we are contributing an article to an upcoming issue of our community newspaper, the East Orlando Sun. The article is titled "Too Much of a Good Thing for Our Families." It touches on the issue of how time-consuming kids' sports programs in our area have become, particularly their effect upon church attendance and Sabbath rest.

Here is the article in its entirety. I invite your comments.

Participation in sports and being part of a team provides many benefits to children and their families. Lessons about sportsmanship, teamwork and self-discipline abound. Add to this the value of physical activity for personal health and the worth of childhood sports participation increases still more. There is no denying that having a child participate in a sport or on a team can be highly rewarding.

East Orlando provides fertile ground for these kinds of opportunities. Imagine a sport or activity and there is a good chance that there is a club or league available for your child to participate in on some level. These kinds of sporting and extracurricular resources are part of what makes our community a great place to live and raise a family. We live in a place rich with opportunity. Unfortunately sometimes we as human beings have been known to take something positive and good and use it to the point of excess or the extreme. Could this possibly be the case when it comes to child involvement in extracurricular activities such as sports?

As the spiritual leaders of our community, we the pastors of
Converge, a group of East Orlando churches working together for a common witness in our community, ask parents to consider the impact their children’s activity levels have upon their homes and day to day lives. There was a time in American society when Sundays were considered to be sacred. It was a day for worship, rest, and time for being with family. When is the last time your family had a Sunday like that? How often do you find yourself missing worship because your child’s team now has a game on Sunday morning? How often does your teenager not make it to youth group because an additional practice is required? Is this something everyone simply has to accept or could things be different?

What would happen if the parents of East Orlando spoke with a unified voice and said enough is enough? What would happen if parents said to the coach or league organizer that in our family we value our spiritual nurture as much or more as the benefits of being on the team?
If we want our children to grow up to be adults who have a proper balance of work and rest and value spiritual depth then we have to model it for them during their youth. For most of us our sporting dreams end at high school, a few continue to college and a small fraction make it to the big leagues. On the other hand being spiritually well grounded serves you well for an entire lifetime. Are we sending our children the message we want them to receive or something all together different?

In times of trial or challenge like many people currently face, we would submit to you that it is faith which sustains and carries a person. Making the all-star team and winning a championship are great accomplishments, but the impact of such achievement usually wanes in time. Eventually trophies collect dust and medals tarnish no matter how nicely you showcase them. However, a well developed faith provides a foundation which stands the test of time.


Playing a sport and being part of a team is a great thing to do. If your children aren’t part of an organized team or group you should consider it. We just want to encourage you not to participate in sports
(or anything else for that matter) to the level that it is detrimental to your family and your spiritual well being.

The Pastors of Converge



Go Danny

Yes, my wife and I watch American Idol. I probably shouldn't, but I do. And I've already picked my winner this season: Danny Gokie from Milwaukee. He's a worship leader in a church. Not only do I like his voice, but he just strikes me as a good man, somebody you'd like to know. Sadly, his wife died a month or so before the auditions started.

Two of the three people who "made it through" last night were my wife's and my picks: Danny and Alexis Grace.

I'm glad Tatiana is heading home!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Fasting

The 40 days leading up to Easter, not counting Sundays, are collectively called Lent. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday (this year February 25) and ends the day before Easter (April 11).

Historically, Christians have used Lent to remember the 40 days and nights Jesus was tempted in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11). So fasting has been the main thing believers do during Lent. Some traditions are more rigid about this than others. Many, like my own, take little or no official notice of Lent at all. Personally, I like the Christian calendar and think it would be good for our church to refer to it more often.

Anyway, when it comes to fasting it's important to remember that there's nothing meritorious about fasting per se. And there's nothing at all evil about food or the enjoyment of it. Fasting is done in order to break our addiction to anything we trust in or depend on instead of Christ. It's a means of teaching ourselves to feed upon Jesus and find our all in him even when we're not fasting. It's a way of saying to food, "Food, I'm kicking you in the FACE! You will NOT take the place of Jesus Christ in my heart!"

Food just happens to be one of many things we turn to for satisfaction, and in finding satisfaction in food we may stop clinging to the Crucified.

It's no accident that Jesus frequently compared himself to food. He called himself the bread of life (John 6:35). He said for us to eat his flesh and drink his blood, figuratively of course (John 6:53). He said that he would give us food that endures to eternal life (John 6:27). Many of his miracles involved food (changing water into wine, feeding the 5,000, feeding the 4,000, etc.). So I think fasting is a great way to remind ourselves that Christ is our true meat and drink.

But there are lots of other things we might abstain from that have as much if not more of a grip on our affections. In fact, I'd say that for some people fasting from food is way too easy.
  • What about cell phone use? Some people are addicted to their mobile phone. It would be quite a step for some of us to leave our cell phone at home for a day. My cell phone is an idol if I use it to rely on other people to give me what only God can supply. I think many people get a rush from continually texting or talking to other people on the phone. It also cheats us out of enjoying silence and solitude.
  • What about answering emails? For me, giving a quick answer to someone's email is often a way to establish my own righteousness. ("Hey, look at me. I'm so on the ball that I answer emails faster than anyone!")
  • And what about Facebook? "How many FB friends do YOU have? Oh, not as many as me, eh? So sorry..." Looking to anything besides Jesus to give us that ultimate sense of value and worth is idolatry! Maybe a way to put that idol in its place is to visit Facebook just (gasp!) once a day or something like that.
The point is, there are lots of things out there that compete with Christ for first place in our hearts. Food is one. What is it for you? Maybe Lent would be a good time to kick that thing in the face.

Antwone Fisher

Antwone Fisher is a movie that's been around since 2002 but I just got around to watching it the other day. It's inspired by a true story, although at the end of the movie there's a disclaimer that says some of the characters and events are fictitious.

The movie stars Denzel Washington in the role of Navy psychiatrist Jerome Davenport, and Derek Luke as angry Navy seaman Antwone Fisher. It was Luke's first movie role. He's good as Fisher, a young man who has experienced a tragic and seemingly endless amount of pain in his life. Fisher never knew his father (he was murdered before Fisher was born), was abandoned by his no-good mother, and was adopted by mean foster parents (who unfortunately serve the movie as your stereotypically hypocritical Christians - ugh!!).

Most of the film revolves around the relationship between Fisher and Davenport, who moves from being Fisher's shrink to becoming the father he never had. There are many touching moments as Davenport relentlessly pursues Fisher's heart and helps him open up to his painful past. I was reminded of my own journey of exploring places of brokenness and pain in my life, although thank God I never went through anything like the crap Fisher did.

There's a wonderful scene at the very beginning of the movie. Fisher as a forlorn little boy is standing in a field gazing at a barn. The doors of the barn slowly open, and inside are dozens of people waiting for him to come in. Fisher sees a long table laden with food of every description - food he's been deprived of. All these people the boy has never met are smiling at him, beckoning him inside. Then as the boy comes into the barn they touch him and hug him and clap for him and laugh with him. There's a big celebration as Antwone Fisher, who never knew love, is swarmed by people who are proud of him and enjoy him.

I don't think I've ever seen a better movie illustration of heaven than that one.

Despite this and other good scenes, I didn't just love Antwone Fisher. For one thing, I'm not a big fan of Denzel Washington, who also directed the movie. I feel like he's exactly the same character in every film he's in. Also, it had the look and feel of a made-for-TV movie for me, almost like something you'd see on the Lifetime Channel. The orchestral music throughout was just terrible, in my opinion, and made things way too syrupy sweet. I would have liked the movie better if it had been more raw. To really depict Antwone Fisher's life accurately, it probably should have been an R-rated movie.

Aside from that, as a sanitized version of a life that is broken and redeemed by unconditional love, Antwone Fisher serves it up quite well.

Calvin

I am reading a brand new biography of John Calvin titled John Calvin: A Pilgrim's Life. It's by Herman J. Selderhuis, professor of church history and polity at the Theological University Apeldoorn in the Netherlands. If you don't know much about Calvin (or even if you do), I'd highly recommend this one. It's very readable and doesn't get too bogged down in details.

Even though I've read a fair amount by and about this hero of the Reformation, I'm finding out all sorts of interesting things about Calvin as a person and as a pastor. He experienced a lot of grief personally. His mother died when he was but three years old. He didn't get married until he was 31, to a widow named Idelette. John and Idelette lost their first child, Jacques, just 22 days after he was born. In the next five years Calvin would lose two more children at birth. Idelette herself was almost continually sick, and died after she and John had been married nine years.

Calvin's sermons were all about an hour long (think about that next time I run past 30 minutes!). In Geneva he pushed for celebrating communion every week - something I've had recent discussions about with various people. He loved music and the arts, and wanted to see the congregation do more singing in worship. Selderhuis writes, "When Calvin came to Geneva, no music could be heard in the churches at all, and he was the one who actually reintroduced it in the form of singing."

Calvin was almost constantly criticized and unfairly blamed for problems in Geneva where he tried to bring reform to the city and the church. Yet he hung on and didn't waver, believing that God had called him. That's inspiring to me. While his standards for people were high, and while his measures may have been over the top at times, I admire how he brought accountability into the church.

I could say much more, but I hope you will take time to get acquainted with this man to whom we owe a lot.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Taken

I saw the new Liam Neeson movie, Taken, last night. It was a pretty good action flick. The story goes like this: Neeson plays Bryan Mills, a divorced ex-spy whose daughter gets abducted in France while vacationing with a friend of hers. So he puts on his spy hat again and goes out after her, single-handedly rescuing her from dozens of evil Albanians.

Pretty far-fetched, but the old man still packs a punch and doesn't give up until mission is accomplished. Along the way there are lots of dead bodies. Somehow Neeson's character manages to escape being hit by any of the thousands of bullets fired at him, while he picks off bad guys right and left with pistols.

There is spiritual insight in this movie, as formulaic as it may sound. Here we have a father who, although a broken man, will not rest until he has his child safely home. I thought of the parable of the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine sheep in the fold and goes out searching for the one lost sheep.

I'm grateful Jesus did that for me. When I was "taken" by the world, the flesh, and the devil, he gave his life to bring me safely home.

And he continues to do that every day.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Favorite Super Bowl commercial...

What I'm listening to...

Mindy Smith

I really like her latest record, Long Island Shores. Her melodies are simple but lovely to listen to. She has this plaintive voice that is clear and passionate.

One of my favorite songs on the record is "Little Devil." It's a compelling description of how Satan wrecks our lives:

He pulls me in, tears me down
Chews me up just to spit me out

He holds me close like he's my best friend

When I open up he steals everything

And he's gone again


I thought he'd have two big horns

And look at me with big red eyes

Instead he wore those baby blues

And whispered promises and lies


Oh you little devil

You got so pretty, you little fool

Oh how he loves to watch me fall

He doesn't know I've already lost it all

He steals everything and he's gone again


The worship band of my church performed another song from that record, "Out Loud," as the offertory this morning. Amanda Noel, the wife of our worship director Jonathan Noel, sang it. She has a voice that is just as good as Mindy Smith's.

Or Sarah McLachlan's, for that matter.