Thursday, December 31, 2009


CAVEAT: This is not an indie-hip-Pitchfork review that tries to exhibit superiority by dropping ridiculously obscure artists. I am an unashamed product of the 90's. If Bush's "Sixteen Stone" came out in 2K7 it would be on this list. Straight up. This is also MY list. These are albums I listened to religiously over the past decade and will continue to adore the rest of my life.

Preface: Albums that came close but did not make the cut shall be noted here.

Wilco - Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
Beck - Sea Change
Matthew Dear - Asa Breed
Bright Eyes - I'm Wide Awake It's Morning
Nada Surf - The Weight is a Gift
Ryan Adams - Heartbreaker
Bruce Sprignsteen - The Rising
Johnny Cash - America V: A Hundred Highways
Kings of Convenience - Riot on an Empty Street
Radiohead - In Rainbows
NIN - And All That Could Have Been (best live album of the decade for sure)
Black Eyed Peas (PSYCH!)
Super Furry Animals - Phantom Power

Ok, now... my list:

10) Ryan Adams - Jacksonville City Nights
Released: September 26, 2005

You knew Ryan Adams had to make my Top Ten. Why? Because he's the best songwriter since Neil Young, that's why. And this is Ryan Adams at his best. Not trying to be a punk rocker or a loverboy, just a folk song-writer. Many would argue that Heartbreaker is his best and they're completely justified - not only was that his solo debut but it is an amazing album. But alas, I must disagree. Heartbreaker does not have the scope of song writing that JCN does; nor does it have the backing of the Cardinals which makes JCN stand out. I think Ryan Adams is best when he's with a band and the Cardinals have proved to be a good influence. Furthermore, this is such a beautiful blue-collar album as it covers all of life's great experiences: your first job, returning to the town where you grew up, first love, broken hearts and love affairs, utility bills, losing a loved one, drinking your problems away, learning your family's history, and having breakfast at the diner. I love this album to death and I will listen to it the rest of my life as I continue to reflect upon those precious life experiences as well as encounter new ones that Adams captures in the short stories of JCN.

9) Jay Z - The Black Album
Released: November 14, 2003

If you haven't seen the documentary "Fade to Black," then you need to go watch it right now. Once you see that film you will understand why the Black Album is one of the top ten albums of the decade. This is probably one of the best rap albums ever made. I am not the biggest fan of hip/hop, but this album is incredible. The samples are so diverse that the songs are in no way repetitive, and yet the album flows from one song to the next in a mysteriously comfortable fashion. Musically it is ridiculously catchy and each tune is very listenable. As soon as the strings rise and climb into that catchy sample at the beginning of December 4th you're hooked. Lyrically it is genius. Jay tells stories that draw the listener in. I mean, everyone knows the lines about being pulled over and telling the cop the that he can't "legally search my shit." It's genius. If listening to this gem doesn't do it for you, watch the doc.

8) Phoenix - It's Never Been Like That
Released: May 15, 2006

Ok, now that Phoenix is huge we can all agree that they're nice. But what most people don't know is that "Wolfgang Amadeus" is like a sequel to "It's Never Been Like That." In fact, it's kind of like Jurassic Park 2 (IMHO). INBLT is they're best album by leaps and bounds. It is poppy. It is catchy. The band is so tight. The sounds are overly perfect. This over-produced (in a good way) album is one of the best albums of the decade for sure. Not unlike Sigur Ros (#4 below), the lyricist offers fun-sounding words to accommodate the music. It's as if the phonetics matter more than the content of the lyrics. That, in my opinion, is notable because most lyricists are overly focused content. Moreover, the MUSIC itself is possibly the most intelligent pop music I've heard in years. If Weezer and the Strokes had a baby that grew up to out-shine its parents, THAT would be Phoenix. INBLT flows from start to finish with a non-stop fun ride that leaves little to be desired. I return to this record often and I'm never disappointed.

7) Interpol - Turn on the Bright Lights
Released: November, 2001

There is not a band like Interpol out there. And this record is their best work. Not only is this one of the tightest bands around but this album is sharp as hell. Every instrument on this record sounds so crystal clear that I can practically envision what each cymbal or guitar looks like. It paints a picture. The guitars on this album are an example of what can be done with the advancements in guitar technologies and effects. They're simply astounding. And nothing about the guitar work is overly complex, but it is exactly what each song needs. And the unique sound of this record is also a standout. The reverbs are huge and give the album a dark, gloomy feel. You know you're listening to something that was written from the dark, serious side of life. The vox effects also give it this feel. And lastly, the drums: perhaps some of the best drumming I've heard in the entire decade. It is straight rock drumming but is done with such intelligence, patience, and intentionality that each tiny slap of the stick cuts through the melodies and tones of the rest of the band. Simply brilliant. Listen to this album.

6) Outkast - Speakerboxxx/Love Below
Released: September 23, 2003

Outkast has always done things their way. Somewhat different but still comfortable enough for mainstream hip hop. This album is their magnum opus (IMHO). It's their "Kid A." The amount of diversity on this DOUBLE disc is unreal. I could end up writing forever about this one so I'll just say a few things. Beats: enough to keep any listener happy as well as guessing. They're all over the place and yet always pleasing. Lyrics: no one does it like Outkast (esp. Andre). Lyrics are clever, catchy, funny, and also often profound. Instrumentation: Implementing jazz drums, pianos, horns, vocals, Prince-like squeals, gospel choirs, hand claps, synths, drum machines, et. al., this album is enough to make your synapses fire like crazy. Oh yeah, and don't forget the hilarious shorts in between tracks - a classic Outkast feature. Whether you want the obscure or the popular, this album has it all and everything in between.

5) Sigur Ros - ( )
Released: 2002

I purchased this album at a time of great dissatisfaction with music in general. I was discontent with my own library as well as just about everything being played around me. It all sounded the same. Thankfully I found what is arguably this Icelandic wonder group's best album. Not only is this a ridiculously beautiful album, but it is (IMHO) the most conceptual of Sigur Ros' stuff. One cannot help but listen to this album beginning to end in one sitting (or walking through cold city streets as I prefer). Lyrically this record is, well, anything you want it to be! The beautiful gibberish lyrics are like the melodic equivalent of onomatopoeia; the sounds themselves fit the music perfectly. And the melodies are magnificently catchy. Ranging from gentle, trance-producing guitar swirls to intense, heavy drums and distortion, this album fluctuates between extremes in a way that offers listeners a portal of transcendence to discover themselves and the world around them.

4) M.I.A. - Arular
Released: 2005

Please don't even let the words "paper planes" enter your mind. To have that become her most popular song is what "Creep" is to Radiohead. And yet that popular hit is an example of what M.I.A. is capable of (taking a Clash sample and putting catchy melodies and ironic lyrics to work to construct one of the biggest hits of the last two years). However, it is the rest of her work that is of concern here. "Arular" came out three years before "Kala" (also an incredible album) as her debut. Upon first listen one doesn't even know what to make of it. How does a Sri Lanken girl creating music in Britain find such an original sound? This album puts Timbaland and Pharell to shame. The unique, tribal beats are a breath of fresh air in the monotony of Lil'-something hip hop. The mixed bag of beats and rhythms display the breadth of talent at work here. There are extreme differences between, say, tracks 2,3 and 11. And yet all of them are listenable and, more importantly, danceable. This is perhaps one of the finest dance records created in the "aughts." Speaking of tribal, the melodies also offer a unique non-Western feel that is both intriguing and loveable (listen to the last track). And lyrically it is absurd (and genius). Case in point: "What can I get for ten dollar? Anything you want" and "U.R.A.Q.T. is your daddy dealing 'cause you're dope to me" (among many other gems). As mentioned above, the samples are also noteable. Who samples the theme from The Jeffersons? If this album doesn't get your trunk moving then nothing will.

3) Sufjan Stevens - Illinois
Released: 2005

The word "grand" doesn't begin to describe this oeuvre. It is HUGE. Not only is it the sequel to Sufjan's facetious 50-state project rookie, Michigan, but it is in itself a gigantic work of music and storytelling. I must first make mention of Sufjan's ability to write a song about ANYTHING. Which is partly what makes him so fascinating. Lyrically he can write the most profound, tear-invoking lines, while also telling you about a bland fact of history. This is a talent in itself. But to put this talent to music is something completely other. It is often unavoidable to let the content about which a song is written to influence the music, but Sufjan purposefully puts music to match the content of his lyrics - which is both amazing and difficult as hell! And not only does he do this successfully, but he does so by employing a copious amount of instruments! Taking simple guitars and pianos and then arranging glorious strings and horns to accompany allows some of the grandest compositions I've ever heard. But soon after hearing a magnificent piece like "Come on! Feel the Illinoise," Sufjan follows up with a poignant solo performance about a serial killer. The diversity of the album is stunning (and once again shows his ability to let the content drive the music).

But I must make mention of perhaps the best song of the decade: Chicago. I don't care what anyone says, this is it. Call me an idealist but this song captures something (not unlike Springsteen's "The Rising"). Musically Chicago is catchy, listenable, and pretty, yet also surprisingly complicated. If you stop to listen to all of what's going on you'll be a bit shocked. And what always surprises me is the temp of the song: it always feels faster than it really is - which is an effect, I argue, of the emotion provoked by the exciting melody!

I could go on: Time signatures, lyrics, The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades is Out to Get Us! (possibly the best or 2nd best song of the album), etc. This is a great album of music and certainly deserves a #3 if not higher on our countdown.

2) Radiohead - Kid A
Released : October 2000

Reasoning: I don't even need to write about this one. Everybody knows. There is not room enough to discuss this album and its effects anyway, but I'll do so briefly. No one knew how Radiohead would follow up OK Computer, but, leaving few disappointed, they released an album that continued to push the boundaries and demonstrate their dominance in writing original music. There are few opening hooks that immediately draw a listener in like "Everything In Its Right Place." And I'm still mystified at how a soft, rhodes-esque keyboard progression can feel so dark and powerful. Nonetheless, the album progresses into one of the masterpieces of the decade. The entire record combines the avant-garde with the comfort of pop music. Awkward rhythms meet catchy guitars. Weird synths meet cozy melodies. It's like landing on Mars only to find your best friends waiting there to greet you. This album is #1 on many decade lists, and rightfully so as it is simply a masterpiece.

1) Elliot Smith - Figure 8
Released: 2000

Reasoning: Elliot Smith is most certainly an artist of the 90's. But this decisive album came in the year 2000 and it has been in religious rotation amongst my records ever since. As with other artists, I believe this is his best album. The quality of this record is unmatched by his previous ones as well as his post-humous releases. So, what can we say about Figure 8? Firstly, let's start with the song writing. Remember the Beatles? Lots of people liked them. And Smith is not unlike the Fab Four. His song ability to compose catchy pop melodies is matchless. Vocal melodies that rise and fall like scales (unable to be sung by many - this guy was a gooooood singer) make me wonder how in the hell he ever felt a melody line like that on "Everything Reminds Me of Her." But all of the vox are spot on. I dare you to find better pop melodies. But underneath melodies are chord progressions that parallel the Yorke's and Sufjans and Bazan's (and McCartney's et. al.). Nothing ever sounds forced; it's as if Smith let's the song grow up into whatever it was meant to be. He just seems to tease out the melodies or instrumentation that the song itself deserves (see Can't Make a Sound for example).

Secondly, the instrumentation: you need to listen to this album 6 times before you can then go back and appreciate it. Listen through (on a good stereo/headphones) and focus on the following: vocals, guitars, bass lines, drums, piano, strings and other aux instruments. Then you can start to put it all together. But the brilliance is the fact that you'd NEVER notice these details because it all comes together in such a beautiful, cohesive manner. The songs are like a good meatloaf: you don't have a clue what all is in it, but it tastes amazing. These songs have such great instrumentation that I cannot help but find every piece interesting and enjoyable.

Which brings me to the next point: guitar work. Elliot Smith is perhaps the most underrated guitarist I can think of. He was an incredible guitar players! Granted he's now Kirk Hammet or Dime-Bag, but he knew his instrument and played it phenomenally. He's not flashy, but he makes the guitar sing. He strings together (pun intended?) notes on the guitar that are simply beautiful (and are also impossibly difficult to play!). Not only does Smith exhibit skill, however, but also a wonderful combination of acoustic and electric sounds. If you like the guitar as an instrument, you need to give this record a careful listen to hear how versatile and complex this instrument truly is.

Lyrically this record is fantastic. "The question is: Wouldn't mama be proud?" Gotta love a 90's existentialist. I guess that's why I resonate with it so much. Many accuse Smith of being depressing, but I DO NOT. I don't understand why this is! (yes, I know how he died, that is a non-issue here) Seriously. No one accused Sgt. Pepper's of being depressing! This is much in the same. Smith has done a similarly brilliant thing here (as well as on other records): he combines existential lyrics with unbelievably poppy, fun melodies. It's brilliant and another reason why he belongs at the #1 of my albums of the decade.

The album as a whole is intelligently laid out. Beginning with Son of Sam and ending with Can't Make a Sound & Bye provides one hell of a soundtrack to anybody's story. I mean, Can't Make a Sound is like the last scene of ANY movie - plane crashing or romantic kissing. I think Smith has the uncanny ability to capture emotions in the progressions and melodies of his songs.

I cannot say "If it weren't for Elliot Smith we wouldn't have...." (blah blah blah, arctic monkeys or peter.bjorn.&john, et. al.). Although I would be shocked to learn that many artists haven't been heavily influenced by him. But, nevertheless, this is precisely why he is at my #1. There's no one like him. He deserves a special place in music history in the last two decades.

Sunday, December 27, 2009


I'm out in Tucson, AZ right now for a reclusive Christmas vacay. At the resort here there is a small labyrinth that was designed and blessed by a local Native American. As I walked through it this morning many thoughts came to mind. I'd like to share just one here.

The walls of this particular labyrinth are made up of small 6-8" round stones that have been uniformly stuck into the dirt and protrude vertically to create the guiding map for the journey. At the center there are about twenty stones, some stacked on top of one another. And you can see these stones in the center as you walk.

One of the potential complications with labyrinths is that the center, which is meant to represent nearness to God and Self, is often far away from the walker. This aspect to the labyrinth can cause one to suppose that God is always far off, awaiting our arrival to some ambiguous culmination. And in one sense this is true. We cannot reach the fulness of relationship with God until Christ returns to establish the Reign of God in full.

However, as I walked the labyrinth this morning I noticed some important symbolism (intentional or not) within the layout of the stones. While there were many stones in the center - the very place where God and Self would come together - there were also stones guiding the way to the center. Not only were stones representative of the goal, but they were the light for the pilgrimage.

I very much appreciate this because it underscores the fact that God is not always a far-off concept or something "up there." Rather, God is also very much involved in each step of the way; in the messy reality of life.

The key to this theological metaphor, however, is that one must notice the center stones before gaining the ability to notice the guiding stones. That is, what you know about the center affects how you see the periphery. Again, how you see the goal will ultimately affect your ability to see the journey.

As I walked the labyrinth, this was a helpful discovery. I hope that it offers the reader a reminder to be on the lookout for stones guiding your own journey.

What Child is this who, laid to rest
On Mary's lap is sleeping?
Whom Angels greet with anthems sweet,
While shepherds watch are keeping?

This, this is Christ the King,
Whom shepherds guard and Angels sing;
Haste, haste, to bring Him laud,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.

Why lies He in such mean estate,
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christians, fear, for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading.

Nails, spear shall pierce Him through,
The cross be borne for me, for you.
Hail, hail the Word made flesh,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.

So bring Him incense, gold and myrrh,
Come peasant, king to own Him;
The King of kings salvation brings,
Let loving hearts enthrone Him.

Raise, raise a song on high,
The virgin sings her lullaby.
Joy, joy for Christ is born,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan's tyranny
From depths of Hell Thy people save
And give them victory o'er the grave
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death's dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Key of David, come,
And open wide our heavenly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, O come, Thou Lord of might,
Who to Thy tribes, on Sinai's height,
In ancient times did'st give the Law,
In cloud, and majesty and awe.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

O Come All Ye Faithful
Joyful and triumphant,
O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem.
Come and behold Him,
Born the King of Angels;
O come, let us adore Him,
O come, let us adore Him,
O come, let us adore Him,
Christ the Lord.

O Sing, choirs of angels,
Sing in exultation,
Sing all that hear in heaven God's holy word.
Give to our Father glory in the Highest;
O come, let us adore Him,
O come, let us adore Him,
O come, let us adore Him,
Christ the Lord.

All Hail! Lord, we greet Thee,
Born this happy morning,
O Jesus! for evermore be Thy name adored.
Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing;
O come, let us adore Him,
O come, let us adore Him,
O come, let us adore Him,
Christ the Lord.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming from tender stem hath sprung!
Of Jesse’s lineage coming, as men of old have sung.
It came, a floweret bright, amid the cold of winter,
When half spent was the night.

Isaiah ’twas foretold it, the Rose I have in mind;
With Mary we behold it, the virgin mother kind.
To show God’s love aright, she bore to men a Savior,
When half spent was the night.

The shepherds heard the story proclaimed by angels bright,
How Christ, the Lord of glory was born on earth this night.
To Bethlehem they sped and in the manger found Him,
As angel heralds said.

This Flower, whose fragrance tender with sweetness fills the air,
Dispels with glorious splendor the darkness everywhere;
True Man, yet very God, from sin and death He saves us,
And lightens every load.

O Savior, Child of Mary, who felt our human woe,
O Savior, King of glory, who dost our weakness know;
Bring us at length we pray, to the bright courts of Heaven,
And to the endless day!

Angels we have on heard high
Sweetly singing ore the plains
And the mountains in reply
Echoing their joyous strains

Gloria in excelsis Deo
Gloria in excelsis Deo

Come to Bethlehem and see
Christ whose birth the angels sing
Come adore on bended knee
Christ the Lord the newborn King

Gloria in excelsis Deo
Gloria in excelsis Deo

See him in a manger laid
Whom the choirs of angels praise
Mary, Joseph, lend your aid
While our hearts in love we raise

Gloria in excelsis Deo
Gloria, in excelsis Deo

We three kings of Orient are
Bearing gifts we traverse afar
Field and fountain, moor and mountain
Following yonder star

O Star of wonder, star of night
Star with royal beauty bright
Westward leading, still proceeding
Guide us to thy Perfect Light

Born a King on Bethlehem's plain
Gold I bring to crown Him again
King forever, ceasing never
Over us all to rein

O Star of wonder, star of night
Star with royal beauty bright
Westward leading, still proceeding
Guide us to Thy perfect light

Frankincense to offer have I
Incense owns a Deity nigh
Pray'r and praising, all men raising
Worship Him, God most high

O Star of wonder, star of night
Star with royal beauty bright
Westward leading, still proceeding
Guide us to Thy perfect light

Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes of life of gathering gloom
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb

O Star of wonder, star of night
Star with royal beauty bright
Westward leading, still proceeding
Guide us to Thy perfect light

Glorious now behold Him arise
King and God and Sacrifice
Alleluia, Alleluia
Earth to heav'n replies

O Star of wonder, star of night
Star with royal beauty bright
Westward leading, still proceeding
Guide us to Thy perfect light

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Joy to the World , the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare Him room,
And Heaven and nature sing,
And Heaven and nature sing,
And Heaven, and Heaven, and nature sing.

Joy to the World, the Savior reigns!
Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat, repeat, the sounding joy.

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as, the curse is found.

He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders, wonders, of His love.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Go, tell it on the mountain
Over the hills and everywhere
Go, tell it on the mountain
That Jesus Christ is born

While shepherds kept their watching
Over silent flocks by night
Behold throughout the heavens
There shone a holy light

Go, tell it on the mountain
Over the hills and everywhere
Go, tell it on the mountain
That Jesus Christ is born

The shepherds feared and trembled
When lo! above the earth
Rang out the angels chorus
That hailed the Savior's birth

Go, tell it on the mountain
Over the hills and everywhere
Go, tell it on the mountain
That Jesus Christ is born

Down in a lowly manger
The humble Christ was born
And God sent us salvation
That bless├Ęd Christmas morn

Go, tell it on the mountain
Over the hills and everywhere
Go, tell it on the mountain
That Jesus Christ is born.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Silent night, holy night
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon Virgin Mother and Child
Holy Infant so tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace
Sleep in heavenly peace

Silent night, holy night!
Shepherds quake at the sight
Glories stream from heaven afar
Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia!
Christ, the Saviour is born
Christ, the Saviour is born

Silent night, holy night
Son of God, love's pure light
Radiant beams from Thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth

Hark the herald angels sing
"Glory to the newborn King!
Peace on earth and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled"
Joyful, all ye nations rise
Join the triumph of the skies
With the angelic host proclaim:
"Christ is born in Bethlehem"
Hark! The herald angels sing
"Glory to the newborn King!"

Christ by highest heav'n adored
Christ the everlasting Lord!
Late in time behold Him come
Offspring of a Virgin's womb
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see
Hail the incarnate Deity
Pleased as man with man to dwell
Jesus, our Emmanuel
Hark! The herald angels sing
"Glory to the newborn King!"

Hail the heav'n-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Son of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings
Ris'n with healing in His wings
Mild He lays His glory by
Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth
Born to give them second birth
Hark! The herald angels sing
"Glory to the newborn King!"

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

In the bleak midwinter, frost wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

Our god, heaven cannot hold him, nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when he comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
The lord God almighty, jesus christ.

Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
But his mother only, in her maiden bliss,
Worshiped the beloved with a kiss.

What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wise man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give him: give my heart.

Monday, December 14, 2009

O Holy Night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of the dear Saviour's birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining.
Till He appeared and the Spirit felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees! Oh, hear the angel voices!
O night divine, the night when Christ was born;
O night, O Holy Night , O night divine!
O night, O Holy Night , O night divine!

Led by the light of faith serenely beaming,
With glowing hearts by His cradle we stand.
O'er the world a star is sweetly gleaming,
Now come the wisemen from out of the Orient land.
The King of kings lay thus lowly manger;
In all our trials born to be our friends.
He knows our need, our weakness is no stranger,
Behold your King! Before him lowly bend!
Behold your King! Before him lowly bend!

Truly He taught us to love one another,
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains he shall break, for the slave is our brother.
And in his name all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
With all our hearts we praise His holy name.
Christ is the Lord! Then ever, ever praise we,
His power and glory ever more proclaim!
His power and glory ever more proclaim!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

An Advent Prayer

Lord, hear our prayer:

On this Sunday of Advent,
We ask that you would help us to calm ourselves,
To slow down in this busy season
And become more in touch with your presence in the midst of our lives.
Please free us from the grip of money and stuff – the great distractions to you.
Please help us to find You in this season of reflection.

Lord, forgive us for not making room for you.
Forgive us for living so quickly from one thing to the next without stopping to listen;
Without stopping to say thank you.
Brother Jesus, forgive us for forgetting that this season is all about you.
Forgive us for forgetting to prepare the way for you.

Help us to make room for you, Jesus.
Help us to know how we can prepare for you in our lives.

Thank you, God, for the Advent season!
Thank you for the celebration that is upon us!
And thank you for the expression of your love in Jesus, our Lord, our Savior, and our brother.

Be with us in the coming weeks as we prepare the way for you.


Sunday, November 22, 2009

Incarnational Theology 101

I know that Incarnational Theology is quite deep, but given the approaching holiday season that aims to celebrate this historical event, I thought I'd share a thought regarding one of the more simple deductions to made from the Incarnation.

All four gospels include the baptism of Jesus. This ought to give readers a clue to this event's significance. It is recorded that the clouds opened and God said, "Here is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased" (or a version of this). Also recorded is the sending of the Holy Spirit to live within or upon Jesus.

What is it about this seemingly minor event that contains so much theological weight for us?

In John 20:21 Jesus says, "As the Father has sent me, even so I send you." It's that tiny, little preposition that reveals the secret: "As the Father sent me, so I send you." It's like saying, "In the same way..." or "Just like I was sent..."

This is huge. This would perhaps seem to maybe imply that somehow we might possibly be somewhat encouraged to somehow be .... like Jesus!? Wuhhh?

What on earth is John getting at? Oh wait, yea, now I remember: Jesus sometimes asked people to "follow him" (or literally "immitate" in the Greek); the gospel writers did seem to encourage that an awful lot; as did Paul in his letters (cf. Romans 8:29).

Ok, so being like Jesus... yea it's a funky concept. Love and all that. So what?

John also wrote about Jesus' promise to send the Holy Spirit to live in us, guide us, and advise us (John 14:15-17). And then John recounts that promise happening to the disciples in John 20:22.

This whole sending of the Holy Spirit sounds a lot like Jesus' baptism. Which brings me back to the above said deduction about the Incarnation.

God's proclamation, "This is my Son, my beloved," is not just for Jesus. It's also for us. When Jesus invites us to be like him, to go AS he went, it's because we're being invited into the family of God, just like Jesus! God proclaims a cosmic "yes" to us as God's children. We are God's beloved.

Isn't this why Paul emphasizes our status as God's adopted children? Ephesians 5:1-2 reminds us, "Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us." (cf. 1:5 and 3:6 of the same letter)

This is the scandal of the Incarnation: It validates the worth of every human being in the world. Why? Because God looks at them and says, "My Son/Daughter, my beloved!"

But from the Gospels we learn that God does not stop there. God says something else about humankind in addition to claiming us as "Beloved." God also says, "My Son/Daughter, you are worth dying for."

This may seem relatively simple, but it's the basic theology of the Incarnation. It's what makes Christianity so unique and, in my opinion, so damn promising. It's all about realizing that I'm God's beloved. And so are you.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A Thanksgiving Prayer

Abba, our Father
Amma, our Mother,
Creator, our God,

We thank you for the opportunity to gather together and celebrate life -
To reflect upon the joys of life lived together,
and to give thanks for all of the blessings we receive from you.

We thank you, O God, for creation.
For the faithful rising of the sun,
For rain and waters that bring forth vegetation,
For the fruit of the land and the harvest of the field.
We thank you for the entire created order, upon which we depend.

We thank you, O God, for community.
For family and friends who bring us joy and support us,
For friends and family with whom we share bonds of love so strong that
they cannot be broken by even the darkest of life's circumstances.
We thank you for our sisters and brothers here at this table and around the world.

We thank you, O God, for our health.
For the well-being of our bodies and your breath of life in us.
For meeting our physical needs in the midst of our frailty.
We thank you for sustaining us in health and wellness.

We thank you today, O God, for the passing of another year.
For bringing us to this table again as a symbol of both your providence
and of our commitment to one another.
For the past year's experiences, new relationships, and new beginnings.
We thank you for the journey.

We thank you, O God, for the food we are about to eat.
And for the laborers who have played a part in every small detail of this celebration.
For the workers of the fields and the employees of the factories;
For the drivers of trucks and the farmers of crops.
We thank you for all the people responsible for this meal.

For all of these things we thank you, O God,
As they are all evidence of your steadfast love,
Your overflowing grace,
and your faithful presence in our lives.

Thank you.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Sex is RAD!

This past week I ventured into the deep, murky waters of a conversation that is routinely feared by most human beings, especially parents of teenagers. For many, many people the topic of sex is a personal matter and does not behoove public discussion. Unfortunately this is also the case in most churches today. Talk about sex is very hush-hush. But this was not the case last Thursday night when I sat on a couch in the youth room at St. Christopher's (where I work) and engaged in a valuable conversation about the connections between sexuality and spirituality.

We began with the most logical analogy there is for sex: driving a car! I asked the boys (there were no females present) if they could name something that can be done both well and poorly. The first suggestion was driving (cars - a very manly place to begin). We charted out all of the ways that driving is done well and all of the ways driving is done poorly.

We then moved to sports (even manlier!). We charted out how both soccer and lacrosse are meant to be played. Things like teamwork, selflessness, following the rules, playing within the boundaries, not cheating, and playing with skill were mentioned. We also charted the ways that these sports are played poorly - that is, the way they are not meant to be played.

Up to this point I had not even mentioned sex. And then, upon the first uttering of the scandalous three-letter word, came the bashful smiles and awkward giggles. One of them stopped and said, "Wait, really?" They were initially shocked. But why? Because I had mentioned a forbidden subject? Or because they don't expect ANYONE to talk about sex?

Why, in a culture that seems to want sex 24/7, are we afraid to have a real conversation about it?

After I convinced the boys that we were not going to talk about how to physically "do" sex well (like driving or playing soccer), we entered into a more serious state of mind and began asking the tough questions.

In the same way that we know soccer is meant to be played the right way, is sex also meant to be experienced a right way? And, in turn, can sex be experienced a wrong way? If these questions are valid, how can we determine the way that sex is meant to be experienced?

The answer lies within the fact that sex is part of our nature as creations of God. Nothing human is foreign to God! We are sexual beings and we want to experience sex. Nothing wrong there.

But the problem comes when we forget that sex, like everything else in nature, can be done a wrong way.

So the boys and I charted out what might be the right way to experience sex, what might be the wrong way, and why these might be the case. The ensuing discussion was captivating!

In the "right way" column were words like marriage, trust, commitment, honesty, vulnerability, assurance, nakedness, and covenant.

In the "wrong way" column were words like selfish, dishonest, disease, one-sided, and the powerful phrase "people get hurt."

Just like the charts we made about driving, soccer, and lacrosse, we had begun to chart out the reasoning behind experiencing sex as God intended it. But, oddly enough, there was one pivotal word missing from the dry-erase board filled with our notes. That word was LOVE.

Is this not a perfect example of our disconnect between sex and love? I held a 15-minute conversation about sex with three teenage boys without the word "love" ever coming up (at least not as a crucial element)! Sex, according to many people, is not a relationship, it is an act. Sex, as experienced by many, is not the culmination of two humans sharing love, it is a sport.

Do not so many hip/hop and R&B songs on the radio make "sex" about how long, how good, how many ways, and how many times it can be done? And don't so many of these songs turn the sole purpose of womankind into satisfying the sexual lusts of mankind?

And what about all the singers who brag in their songs about how good they are at ... fornication!? Wait, what? Is anyone ever going to stop and ask, "WHY ARE YOU TELLING ME THIS? I DON'T WANT TO KNOW THIS ABOUT YOU!"

Do not the self-aggrandizing lyrics display the broken, shallowness of these artists? How badly do you need attention if you are telling the world about the women you slept with? It's almost humorous if it weren't so sad.

But where's the love?

If nothing human is foreign to God, then I believe that God must have something to say about sex and love. And, of course, God does.

At this point I showed the boys a short film called "Flame," which is part of Rob Bell's NOOMA series. (When I said I was going to show a video clip they all got REAL scared! haha)

The film discuses sex the way God intends it to be experienced. Bell cites some of God's intentions from the book Song of Solomon, which provides some of the most beautiful poetry, imagery, and theology on the experiences of love and sex. In it the author uses three different words for "love."

The first word is Raya. This word would be translated as friendship or companionship. Or kind of like our contemporary concept of soul mate.

The second word is Ahava. This word is meant to express the intensity of love when one's heart and mind are so fixated on the other person that nothing else matters. This word is loaded with passion.

The third word is Dod. This word is the physical, bodily love that occurs when two lovers give their bodies to one another.

After the video we came to the realization that most of what our culture calls "sex" is really just Dod. Most of the "sex" we see on TV, movies, and the internet is really just Dod. And so most of the "sex" out there isn't really sex!

In fact, we even decided that the men and women who get naked together on TV aren't really all that naked after all. Why not? Because they're not TRULY bearing it all. There's no commitment. There's no Raya. There's no Ahava.

On the dry-erase board I had these three words written. Seeing the capital letters, one of the boys bursted out, "Sex is RAD!" Then following his pointing finger toward the board we all saw the cause of his outburst and realized what a great acronym was just created to remember what sex is truly meant to be.

Sex is RAD.

[For anyone who has read Rob Bell's SEX GOD or seen the above said NOOMA clip, please forgive me for borrowing so much content from him. For those of you who have not read the book nor seen the clip, I highly recommend it if you desire a greater understanding of the intimate connection between sexuality and spirituality.]

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Golden Retriever: A Parable

There was a woman who owned a Golden Retriever. Day and night, the dog lay upon the same worn, wooden floorboards in the corner of the woman's front porch. There the dog would lay whimpering and groaning but it never moved. Whenever the woman approached the dog in the corner the dog became territorial and would not allow the woman near. The woman attempted to entice the dog by placing food and water dishes away from the corner, but the dog rarely moved.

One evening, a friend of the woman saw the dog whimpering and asked, "Why is he whimpering?" The owner of the dog replied, "He's laying on a nail."

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Theology of a 12 Year Old

On my way home from work on Friday I caught a bit of Fresh Air's interview with actor Jason Segel. The interview was somewhat humorous and interesting as he revealed unknowns about his past acting experiences. But what really caught me off guard was a small piece about his childhood experience with Christianity and Judaism. Though this portion of the interview aroused quite a bit of laughter amongst those in the studio, I found myself listening with deep emotion and interest. Though this is just one man's honest account of his experience, I wonder if his story is the same as many others?

Here is an excerpt from the transcript of the interview:

SEGEL: ...yeah, but I was raised Jewish. So, I'm at the school. And they don't really like me very much there and then after Christian school I would walk in the afternoons to Hebrew school. And then at Hebrew school…

SEGEL: …they would tell me that I wasn't really Jewish because my mother is Christian.

SEGEL: So, all of the sudden I'm like this young kid who - I would've been happy to believe whoever would have been nice to me, you know. But it was this feeling of like, not really belonging or not really fitting in and…

GROSS: The world's mainstream religions don't want you.

SEGEL: Yeah and, you know what occurred to me - it's funny you say that - but what occurred to me is, this certainly isn't God. God doesn't want an 11 or 12-year-old kid to feel this way, you know. My belief in God is that God wants you, you know, God wants you to believe in him or it, whatever you would call it. And so, it actually helped me forge this feeling of - all right, you know what kid, it's you, it's you and God, and it's you and the world. It's - it gave me a bit of a feeling of solitude that I think came in handy during, like, my out of work periods, where when I decided the only way I was going to make it was if I started writing. It was actually, I'm very grateful that I got that feeling at such a young age because I felt like, you know what, it's - you better do it, it's going to be you.

How does a young boy know that any religion representing "God" and encouraging exclusivity is actually NOT God? How does a 12 year old know deep down that God doesn't reject people, God loves? There is something innate in every human being that understands that God wants you.

I think that we can learn so much from the inferences of a 12 year old Jason Segel. This boy, though rejected by those claiming to be followers of Jesus and those claiming to be God's light to the nations, still somehow knew deep down in his bones that the true God doesn't behave that way.

Isn't this why children and teenagers scare so many adults? They don't know the same way as adults. Children and teens enjoy a completely different epistemology than most adults (one that, I believe, makes much more room for God to move and be present). They haven't been stripped of imagination and gut-feelings. They haven't been taught the ways of the Enlightenment: that whatever can't be proven isn't true.

So when a 12 year old boy knows that God is loving and inclusive, it simply is. Is this why Jesus encouraged his followers to become like children?

And what breaks my heart the most about this little case study is that it is a clear indication that the Church often misses the boat completely. Segel admits that he would have been happy to believe whoever would have been nice to him. I think this is a cogent reminder that the Church evangelizes best when it loves.

1 John 4:19-21 We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, "I love God," yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Catbird Seat

Last night I went to see one of my favorite bands: Phoenix. They played at the Electric Factory which isn't the best venue but it was still a great show nonetheless. They played lots of hits including my favorite, "Too Young." I probably looked like a big dork throughout the show: a huge grin on my face, nodding my head to the beat, and trying to dance and not-dance at the same time.

My friend and I were in the back playing the positioning game. You know this game, where you are constantly moving from side to side repositioning yourself around the backs of people's head to see the show. Then up on your tip-toes to see over that one head that you can't get around. It's just the nature of going to concerts, I guess. You have to constantly adjust and position yourself if you want to get the best view of the show.

I started reading The Shack this morning. In the first chapter the main character, Mack, leaves his warm, comfortable home to brave an ice storm so that he can get to the end of the driveway to check the mail. After many slips and falls he reaches the mailbox to find a solitary note - from God.

Upon reading this I found myself reflecting on a sermon I heard last spring during which a pastor, Brian Robinson, talked about the "catbird seat." The catbird seat has to do with positioning. It's often used in horse racing to describe the jockey in the best position coming around the final turn into the last straightaway.

The point of the sermon was to remind hearers that we have the capability to position ourselves in the catbird seat with God. If this is true for concerts (or movies or sporting events or career pursuits, etc.), why wouldn't it be true relating to God?

Could it be that sometimes we have to brave a storm just to put ourselves in the position to receive God's invite? Or to hear God's still, small voice? Or to see God's mustard seed Kingdom? Or to feel God's invisible Wind?

Last night at the Phoenix concert I think I kind of felt like Zacchaeus: the man who, upon hearing that Jesus was coming through town, climbed up a tree so that he might be able to see God in the flesh.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Psalm 23 - A Personal Translation

Have no fear! The Lord is my guide.
He directs me to rest in healthy places.
He leads me right beside the places for refreshment and nourishment.
He shows me the right way to live,
So that I might know Who He is.

Despite the uncertainty of life and the games that my demons play on my mind,
I will have no fear!
For the Lord, my guide, is right here with me.
His scepter shows me that He is King!
And His staff shows me that He too has walked this road before.
Therefore, even though this is difficult, I take comfort knowing that He is my guide.

I will not fear because the Lord is preparing me a feast!
Even now - in the presence of my struggles - He is providing for me.
Even now He is blessing me.
And He brings abundance, goodness, and mercy into my life - more than I had ever hoped for!
And as long as the Lord is my guide, my Lord, and my King (which He is whether I remember it or not), His blessings will be with my my entire life!

Starting now and forever more, I can dwell in the Lord's house as I learn to let Him guide me.

Thank you, Lord Jesus the Christ. You are my guide, my Lord, and my King. Amen.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Prodigal Son or Good Samaritan? Or both?

What does it mean to live simply? What does it mean to follow Jesus and to be a disciple? There are many stories and commands found in scripture that point us toward a better way of living - a way that is both demanding and rewarding.

Lately, however, I have realized that in the midst of my zealous efforts to be a good Samaritan or to live the Kingdom of God, I have forgotten what it means to be a prodigal son.

Actually, I'm not sure I really know what it means to be a prodigal son, I'm still working on it.

There's a lot of talk in Christian communities of living simply, and that is good. But is simple living only material? Or is it also a mental state? And also a state of faith and trust?

In the effort to live simply should we be stressed and constantly anxious? What if our intentions are good but we subconsciously start seeing the world as a pessimistically half-empty glass? Is this living simply?

What happens when our zeal to be "new creations" gets twisted into becoming judgmental and critical of others? Aren't we all prodigal sons and daughters? I think so. And I think this should always be in the forefront of our minds as we try to live as followers of our Lord.

It's easy to spend every second of my life trying to be the good samaritan while forgetting that before that I am the prodigal son. I am both servant and son.

It certainly is not an either/or relationship (either you are the prodigal son or the good samaritan). It is a both/and relationship. But I think it is often to forget that no matter how many neighbors you pick up on the side of the road, you're still the prodigal son.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Thriving vs. Surviving: Thoughts on Health Care & the Common Good

Caveat: These musings have little to say about the specifics of the current health care bill (though a few are mentioned at the end). Rather, my thoughts are aimed at considering why universal health care might be a benefit to society. Moreover, my intent is to provoke empathy for those who live their daily lives without health care and hopefully generate an authentic concern for these 40 million men, women, and children. My hope is this: if we can at least all agree that health care for all is a good and much-needed proposal, then we have a common ground from which to begin. In essence, I want to establish the why before arguing about the how. Perhaps once the urgency of the problem is seen we might lay aside our selfish pragmatism and work together for the common good. (yes I know this is silly because only 8 people will read this, but that's OK. A songbird doesn't sing to be heard, it sings because it has a song)

Ok. Thoughts on Health Care & the Common Good

Many opponents to health care reform claim that everybody in the US who needs care can and does get it. For example, no child with a broken arm is getting turned away from a hospital just because s/he lacks health insurance. Doctors have to help these people who are in need and, thankfully, they do everyday! Ok, fair enough.

But I'm curious to know: what happens to that boy's mother/father or caretaker after his broken arm is mended? Is that the end of the story? How much debt do they owe to the hospital/doctor? And how will that debt - whether payable or not - affect their ability to thrive in society?

I recently received a bill from my doctor for $270. You know what I had done? She sprayed warm water into my ear canal to unblock wax build up. $270. Thank the Lord I have insurance and will only pay $30 of that.

How much would emergency care cost? A broken arm? Stitches? $1,000? $10,000? $20,000? (The average cost of a night in the hospital is between $3-5,000 The average childbirth: $7-10,000)

How does the cost of these common medical procedures have crippling effects on their recipients?

When a family is burdened with medical debt, their income is already pledged elsewhere. How does medical debt rob its sufferer of the ability to plan for or invest in the future? How does medical debt inhibit a person's ability to obtain credit and loans? How does medical debt rob its casualties of the ability to "pull themselves up by their bootstraps?"

And how does a Federal Minimum Wage of $7.25 allow anyone with significant debt to get out of it?

And here is the crux: medical care is not the patient's fault! Nobody is to blame for an accidental broken bone or contracting a flu virus. These things happen. Why should a family spiral into (or remain in) poverty because mom has asthma or a child needs an appendectomy?

"But Josh, health and wellness is a lifestyle. It is a preventive lifestyle. I don't have to go to the doctor but twice a year because I take care of myself. Many health problems are preventible. So many people who can't get health insurance don't take care of themselves in the first place. They eat McDonald's and drink Colt-45."

Agreed. And that is why people without health care do not thrive, they survive. People who lack health insurance do not take preventative measures like regular check-ups or catching health problems early. Why? Because it is too costly. If they can deal with it, they don't go to the doctor (I am much the same way, but when I finally can't put up with my ear-ache anymore, I don't have to think twice about whether or not I can afford a visit to the doctor, I go). The only time the uninsured get care is when their survival is jeopardized. Thus, these people are not thriving, they're merely surviving.

Why should a tax-paying citizen of the wealthiest nation in the world be afraid to go to the doctor for a sore throat? Are these citizens undeserving of "comfort" health care or preventative care? Should they only get care when their life is on the line?

What kind of mental and emotional condition will result from these fears? How much self-value will people have when they're told that they're not worthy of medical care?

It's no wonder that the "have-nots" are not patriotic. It's no wonder that unhealthy children do not perform well in school and rarely climb out of the lowest echelons of society.

Sure, nobody is saying those words outright, but what message is sent through the current system? Are the 40 million uninsured really not deserving of medical care? I thought the constitution answered that one: the preamble calls us to "promote the general welfare." And what about the Declaration of Independence? "...that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness."

Whatever happen to the Common Good? Wasn't Dr. King correct in saying, "Nobody is free until we are all free?" Don't we become better as a community, as a people, as a nation, as a world, not individually?

Yes, you can argue that nobody in America is getting turned away when their life is on the line, but is that the best we can do? Is that really good enough? Or are most of us just content because we're taken care of?

And what do these "survivors" look like? Surely they're not the better contributors to society. I know that when I have a headache I am irritable. When I have a sore throat I am lazy and bitchy. When I have a stomach bug I sometimes skip class or work. I am a much better (and more productive) person when I'm healthy.

And we might as well take note of the obvious correlation between health insurance and life-expectancy. Certainly those with good health insurance will live longer than those without; this is seen in the middle-upper class life-expectancy compared to lower class life-expetancy (furthermore, compare infant mortality rates and deaths from preventable causes! Talk about PRO-LIFE!)

Are these the quality of citizens we want to be producing as a society? (Remember, we are shaped by our social structure! There is a reciprocal relationship: as we shape society, it shapes us back) Think about it. Physically unhealthy people are like wounded soldiers. Unhealthy people are negatively affected by their health and they affect their surrounding environment as well. Physically unhealthy people are also emotionally, socially, and spiritually unhealthy. Let's not forget that God's redemption is material and physical as well! The Incarnation (Jn 1:14), as well as Paul's writings in 1 Cor. 15 and Romans 8 are strong affirmations of this.

We cannot just pretend that these "wounded soldiers" are not part of our community! They pump your gas and serve your food and fix your car and clean your bathroom and pick your produce! These are "the least of these." These people are not our social servants, they are our sisters and brothers.

Physical health is a basic human right. And most perspectives agree on this - whether for or against health care reform. But our current status quo leaves too many people to just get by, to not-die, to survive instead of thrive.

How great is the void in society when many of our members aren't able to contribute their potential? What might happen if more citizens were empowered through healthy lives and able to break the cycles of debt and poverty? What might the nation look like if 40 million people who currently have grim outlooks on life and contribute little to society, received a much-needed hand?

Health care to the poor is not a socialistic gift, it's an investment! We're talking about the greater good of society, not handouts to an ungrateful, undeserving class of leaches. Health care is an investment that has the potential to produce quality people. The evidence is already in: we see it everyday in middle-upper class America! Healthier people are more successful and more productive. The uninsured need someone to lend them some care. They need someone to invest in them and give them a real chance to pursue life, liberty, and happiness.

I'd like to take a moment to debunk a common misconception regarding the American Dream: Nobody ever gets anywhere in life on their own - nobody. At some point or another a person must receive some help. Whether it's time, money, trust, love, health care, or some other resource, nobody can get anywhere in life without the investment of another person. This concept is made clear in our own lives and is driven home both theologically and practically in the Bible.

We are a community. We need one another. That's the beauty of life. I give, you give. It's the power of "we."

So? I'm at a point of discontent. I would not be content playing on a soccer team if my forwards were limping. Yeah I might win some games, but I would know that we're not playing to our full potential. Neither can I be satisfied with my nation - one of the best places to live in the entire world - when my neighbors are hurting; when my neighbors are working hard but receiving little help in this essential area of basic health care. I don't think Dr. King was the most pragmatic person when he said, "No one is free until we're all free." But I think he was onto something about the reality of our world. Similarly, I don't think Jesus, - the Son of God, the Way, the Truth, and the Life - was very pragmatic when He said, "The Kingdom of God is at hand. Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. You received without paying, give without pay" (Mt. 10:7,8).

No I have not discussed details of the current bill, which is the actual matter at hand; so perhaps this is simply an abstract, idealistic rant. But I also strongly believe that if we can at least all agree that this is a pressing matter, we can enter into a process of communal problem-solving to help our brothers and sisters in need. Perhaps if we can all agree that the need for health care is vital and immediate, then perhaps we might stop shouting down every idea that is proposed (though certainly it is OK to disagree with parts of the bill!). If we can simply see together the long-term benefits of health care, then maybe we will stop resisting every suggestion regarding health care as if it is evil. Maybe if we lay the common ground that the need is substantial, then maybe we can start listening to one another instead of depending on a sound-byte, spin-cycle media.

These town hall meetings are a perfect example. Some go wonderfully. Others don't. The ones that do seem to have a desire for respectful dialogue and a common assent that health care is greatly needed. The ones that have turned into monstrosities seem to have involved people who do not desire dialogue and do not see the real need for health care in America. My hope is that we can at least see the need together. That is a starting point. Disagreement is expected and good. But can we please at least recognize that the need is real? And might we also see the hopeful potential of what could be with a nation of healthier citizens? This is my appeal. Where there is great need there is also great hope.

Regarding two specifics of the health care bill:

There are two main rumors that are causing a ruckus. The first is that the bill will mandate abortions. As if abortion alone isn't already terrible, the thought of the government mandating them is just sickening. I agree that this is awful - that's why I looked into it.

It turns out that the bill states nothing about "mandating" abortion. Everything in the bill about abortion is hypothetical. (No, that does not make it OK) But here is the deal: because the current law states that abortion is legal, the health care bill is obviously going to put in pieces of legislation that cover it.

Here is where all the rumors come from: "Unless the legislation explicitly excludes abortion procedures, pro-life lawmakers predict that abortions will soon become part of the required insurance package." (see

What this is saying is that unless the package explicitly prohibits abortion (which won't happen because it is currently legal), then there will always be a chance that the insurance will provide care for an abortion. Thus, pro-life advocates can make the deductive inference that this bill mandates, produces, or encourages abortion.

But that's like saying that if you're not "against" something then you are "for" it. I'm not sure if it's that simple. Moreover, it would be hard to put an explicitly anti-abortion piece into the health care bill when the current law allows it. I'm not saying that it's OK, I'm just trying to debunk the rumor.

What else is good is that the current health care package is subject to the Hyde Amendment which currently prohibits Medicaid from funding abortions except in rare circumstances (see

Another promising fact is that lower-income women do not get abortions as commonly as middle-class women (see David Claerbaut, "Urban Ministry in a New Millenium") The reason for this is that most lower-class women are minorities and these women value the status of being mothers. Culturally it is a sign of womanhood and maturity. It also gives women a sense of purpose and often fills the void for authentic love in their life. Children also provide a security since most of these low-income parents will need care when they are older. It is a misconception that lower-class, uneducated women get abortions.

This is great news since most of the 40 million Americans who need health care are in this category. How significant, then, is a piece of legislation that states that the government will cover an abortion when the recipients of the health care don't commonly get abortions in the first place? It's almost like saying "I'll buy you ice cream if you want it" to a lactose-interolerant person who rarely eats ice cream.

Furthermore, the good news is that health care might actually decrease abortions! Nations with universal health care have less abortions and higher birth rates (see How much more likely is a woman to give birth when she knows she won't have to foot the $7,000 bill?

None of this is to say that abortions are OK. Absolutely not. It's tragic and I stand firmly against it. All I'm saying is that the current rumors that somehow the government will have control over women to force abortions, fund abortions, or even encourage them, is downright untrue. The health care bill is merely remaining in accord with the current law that legalizes abortion as a civil right. Thus, it has included insurance that will cover it should a woman desire.

Listen to the language. Think. Critique it. Is it fact? Or is it hypothetical? In this case, most claims about the health care bill mandating abortion are merely hypothetical.

The second rumor is the infamous "death panel." I don't want to discuss this at length because it has largely been debunked already by most news sources.

I understand that there could be situations where a mentally unstable elderly person is persuaded by a doctor. That is certainly possible. But wait, doesn't that situation already exist? Don't elderly patients already heed their doctors advice about things - prescriptions, procedures, etc.? And don't insurance companies already deny coverage after coverage because their clients are "too costly?"

The thought of the government evaluating its citizens by standards of costs is scary. But I don't think we should get the heebie-geebies because it's the "the government." We seem to be OK with private insurance companies constantly evaluating us and telling us what care we can and cannot receive. Let's not jump ship just because some people are screaming the word "socialism." After all, Canada and other European nations haven't fallen into a socialistic state.

Please put trust in this fact: the government cannot and will not kill someone against their will. That is Orwellian conspiracy talk and it's not going to happen. It takes months - sometimes years - of deliberation to put a criminal to death! Surely no one is going to be put to death against their will, whether old or young.

A great irony must be pointed out here: the many people scared that the govt. will euthanize elderly are scared about the same thing that many uninsured elderly are afraid of - death due to their govt.'s lack of care. One is scared of the government's involvement, the other is scared of the government's lack of involvement! Both, however, are deserving of the best medical care possible because both are human beings made in the image of God.

So as far as the "death panels" go, yes, it's possible that an elderly person might be influenced by a meeting with a doctor about the realities of death. Should the government try to persuade the elderly to end their lives? No! And the aforementioned constitutional rights ought to support that! But on the other hand, how good that the government is willing to pay for the elderly to receive counseling and financial guidance for the actualities that come with death. Is this not a talk that is already happening in doctor's offices across America? I don't see what the big hullabaloo is about.

I am afraid that many who are opposed to this bill are simply using anything and everything to induce fear. That is wrong because it is destructive. It does not encourage respectful dialogue and it does not promote the greater good. Disagreement is fine and necessary to generate the best solutions. Deceitful scare tactics are a tragic interference with democracy and illustrate our inability to work together.

C'mon, America. You can do it. Respectful debate, not demonizing feuds. Ears to listen, not voices to dominate. Hope for improvement, not fear of change. Hearts for the needy, not the self-centered status quo. And a vision for the whole, not just the parts.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Seeing Others...

Today in my Current Issues in Urban Mission class we discussed the social and theological reasons for mission. While we spent most of the time discussing the theological foundations for mission I was struck with many thoughts, too many to discuss here. However, one that is particularly sticking with me is the concept of equity in the Kingdom of God. While discussing love, we used the parable of the Good Samaritan as an example. My professor Al's friend, Jeffrey, pointed out that the good Samaritan refused to see the others through the divisive paradigms of the world, but rather saw both himself and the man in need through the eyes of God - the paradigm of the Kingdom. This allowed the Samaritan man to see the need and see the opportunity to love. He was not inhibited by his ethnicity or social norms.

This is really sticking with me because I have lately been pondering the way we perceive others: the way we judge others according to social stratifications, looks, talents, what a person can do for me, etc. Why can't I just see people for the plain human beings they are? In addition to the Samaritan, an example fresh on my mind is that of Prince Myshkin in Fydor Dostoevsky's The Idiot. I just read this book this summer and it has caused me to consider more closely the way Jesus treated other human beings. In the novel, Prince Myshkin displays an unprecedented ability to meet people in their vanity, deceit, greed, and lust, without dehumanizing or judging them! Both Prince Myshkin and the Samaritan man are incredible examples of people who simply treat others as real human beings - not based on any prerequisites, but simply as children of God, a brother or sister in the family of God.

It is not enough to see others as defined by their need or with all the attached stigmas and social classifications. I want to see other human beings as they are: made in the image of God, and so valuable that God would give God's life for them.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Marriages and Marriages

After participating in two more weddings this summer I can confidently say that marriage is a mysteriously GOOD thing. I don't profess to understand it, but there is something incredible (and beautiful, and bizarre, and life-changing, and marvelous) about the act of marriage. It is certainly the most profound expression of love that I (and all humans for that matter!) can imagine.

Because marriage is such a powerful expression of love, the book of Ruth has recently caught my attention. It's a short book found just after Judges and before 1 Samuel and it recounts the story of Ruth, a Moabite woman. The long and short of the story is that Ruth, recently widowed, finds a husband, Boaz, during a difficult time of famine. But what makes this story so beautiful is the fact that Ruth is a foreigner - a Moabitess - and would not have normally been married to Boaz, a man from Bethlehem of Judah - a Jew. In fact, Moab was actually on the other side of the Salt (Dead) Sea. Marrying foreigners was not only frowned upon in the Jewish culture but it was often strictly prohibited.

This is what makes the story so good: Boaz the Jew marries Ruth the Moabitess. But why? Deeper in the story we find Ruth practicing the old custom of gleaning (gathering ears of grain that have fallen to the ground) from Boaz's field. So not only is Ruth a foreigner in Judah, but she is boldly gleaning food from the field of a Jew! And this is precisely when Boaz notices Ruth. So he goes on to tell her to continue gleaning from his field.

Long story short: Boaz marries Ruth because of Ruth's humility and courage. But there's more. There's more to the story because, as we know, this is just one story among many other stories in the Bible. In fact, there are many, many stories all within one Grand Narrative; and that is the Grand Narrative of God's marriage with the Cosmos, specifically Humankind.

This little story of Ruth and Boaz would have little value if it didn't so appropriately display the marriage that God has entered into with humankind through Jesus. I find it no small coincidence that Jesus was particularly adamant about welcoming foreigners into the family of God. What better way to foreshadow this cosmic event than to share the story of Ruth being welcomed into the family of Boaz?

I also find it quite fascinating that Boaz invites Ruth to share bread dipped in wine (v. 2:14) in the very same way that Jesus offered bread and wine to His disciples at the Last Supper.

And is it any coincidence that Jesus would tell so many parables about vineyards and fields? So many of those Kingdom Parables portray the Kingdom in which God invites Israel to maintain and enjoy creation in a new, righteous way. Surely there is a parallel in this story for the Moabitess who boldly leaves her home on the other side of the sea to work in the field of the Jew.

It is truly something special to witness two human beings leaving their families to enter into a marriage covenant together. Seeing so many of my friends recently do this has been an awesome experience. I cannot fathom another way to express love better than through marriage. Perhaps that is because I cannot fully understand love in the first place. Or perhaps because there is no better human way to express love.

Or, maybe marriage is really what love is all about. Maybe marriage is what the whole Story is about - a marriage between a wealthy landowner and a foreigner in need.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Fear and Trembling: A Dialectical Lyric

Soren Kierkegaard (hereafter, "SK") authored Fear and Trembling under the pseudonym of Johannes de Silentio. Most scholars believe SK did this to distance himself from the content. The title of the book originates from the notion that Johannes de Silentio is overcome with fear and trembling upon reading the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac from Genesis 22. In this story God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac; Abraham obeys only to have his son spared from death at the last moment when God provides a ram for sacrifice instead. Despite Abraham’s insane neglect of the ethical, he is deemed the “Father of the Faith” because of his obedience. It is from this starting point that Johannes de Silentio begins his discourse.

Firstly, it must be acknowledged that, at the very least, Fear and Trembling is a cry from SK for nominal Christians to consider the depth and danger of what they claim to be and believe. While not all of his readers would be able to understand the philosophical arguments, certainly most could empathize with de Silentio’s inability to fathom this complicated story. There is no question that the mere topic of this work was aimed to agitate apathetic Christians by taking a familiar story and displaying its complications.

Moving further toward the details, Johannes de Silentio paints a portrait of Abraham as found in the Genesis account and deduces a number of claims. The first is that Abraham’s greatness came through powerlessness. The second is that Abraham had faith for this life. And the third is that Abraham must have believed the absurd, or otherwise he would have acted differently; this is why he is regarded as the Father of the Faith. From here the author then addresses problems with relation to faith and ethics.

The first and greatest difficulty is what de Silentio calls “a teleological suspension of the ethical.” What this means is that, for Abraham, the universal ethic (that which is understood by all to be moral) was temporarily suspended as the telos or goal of his behavior, and the only telos for Abraham was love for God demonstrated by his obedience. Consequently, Abraham’s faith then confirms that the single individual “is higher than the universal.” To put it more simply, Abraham’s purpose was outside the universal and cannot be related to the universal. If Abraham’s act of faith cannot be explained in terms of the universal ethic, then a new category must be created to describe it. This de Silentio deems “the absurd” and writes, “He acts on the strength of the absurd; for it is precisely the absurd that as the single individual he is higher than the universal.” From this first difficulty it may be concluded that Abraham acted in a way that suspended the universal ethic as the goal and believed in something outside of it, something absurd – in this case, God’s Will.

The second difficulty inquires whether there is an absolute duty to God. The central problem here is that the universal ethic becomes confused with the absolute: God. SK’s opponent, Hegel, argued that the universal ethic was the absolute and could be interchanged with the will of God. But the story of Abraham clearly illustrates that this is not the case. Abraham’s faith required him to act in a way that contradicted the ethical (i.e. though a father loves his son, Abraham was ready to kill Isaac). de Silentio thus concludes that faith is the most absolute allegiance to God, and the universal is subservient to it. Therefore, the individual cannot be understood by the mass. This concept is beautifully represented in the way that Abraham becomes a foreigner in his own land. From this second difficulty it may be concluded that there is no absolute duty to God, but rather the individual’s independent relation to God that is outside, above, and superior to the universal.

The third dilemma concerns Abraham’s concealment of his plan to murder his son (he did not tell his wife, Sarah, his friend, Eleazar, nor his son, Isaac). It is similar to the first two problems and yet it further emphasizes Abraham’s separation from the universal and his connection to the absolute. The unfortunate reality of Abraham’s situation was that he could not disclose his plan had he wanted. “Abraham is silent – but he cannot speak, therein lies the distress and anguish. He can say what he will, but he cannot say it in a way that another understands it.” Abraham is completely and utterly alone in his faith. However, from his actions it can be concluded that he viewed obedience to God as the only way. From this third dilemma the author illustrates that Abraham’s concealment was necessary in order to remain faithful to God.

At this point it may seem as though Abraham was deliriously devoted to God and had given up on his family, namely Isaac. But this was not the case. In fact, it is here that the entire paradox of faith is born: Abraham believed that by obeying God he would regain Isaac through the absurd (that which is outside of the universal ethic). When called to the task, Abraham resigns his claim to Isaac because God is the absolute; but then, through faith, Abraham believes he will regain Isaac through the absurd because God is Good. This is evidenced in Abraham’s reply to Isaac in Genesis 22:8, “God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” It is the greatest of paradoxes, but, if Abraham is the Father the Faith, then it must be so. What Johannes de Silentio is arguing is not simply the moral of the story but a genuine ontological claim! If Abraham is the epitome of faith, then his actions must transcend that which is known as the universal and relate to a far superior reality. Certainly a story such as this ought to elicit at least the smallest of fears and slightest of trembling!

Ultimately Fear and Trembling is about the foundation of faith: love. It exhibits the paradox that the one who loves God must renounce everything, and yet regains it by faith through the absurd. The one who loves God loves God alone and nothing else. The one who loves God needs nothing else nor desires anything else. However, through one’s love for God one gains everything. Abraham loved God alone and resigned everything, even his family. And yet through his love, he gained faith in the absurd and regained everything, including his family. “Only one who draws the knife gets the Isaac.”

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Strength of Simon of Cyre'ne

On April 10th, Good Friday, I walked The Stations of the Cross in the impoverished neighborhood of Kensington in North-East Philadelphia. From street corners through parks to empty lots and a baseball field, I walked and listened and stared as I watched Jesus taking His final steps to the Cross.

In the fifth station a man named Simon of Cyre'ne is asked, compelled, or forced to carry Jesus' cross to Gol'gotha (Matt. 27:32). It was at this station, standing in the middle of Joseph Conrad Park, that I was overcome with the weight of a burden - a heaviness that I could neither specify nor disregard. A rush of fear overwhelmed me as I questioned if I too might have to carry the Cross for a leg of the journey. My legs were weak as leaned against the fence in the middle of the park. All that came to me was fear and apprehension as I did not feel fit for the task.

To carry the Cross! Is there any burden heavier than this? Is there any other burden at all? How frightening a thought! How appropriate to tremble in fear at the call to carry the Cross (Luke 14:27)!

And yet, for the person who knows God's Love, there is a strange appeal in the notion of carrying the Cross. There is a beguiling understanding in the depths of one's heart that, no matter how odd and upside-down, the burden of the Cross must be so! For the Cross is not the end, but rather the beginning. The Cross is the very instrument through which redemption is made possible. Jesus' Way is the only Way. The Way of the Cross is the only Way that leads to the Life.

Therefore, the Cross becomes not the heavy burden that crushes a person unto death, but the light load that brings purpose and joy. Jesus said, "For my yoke is easy and my burden is light" (Matt. 11:30). Surely this is more than a satirical quip! A yoke, of course, involves two persons together sharing a load. Jesus is not offering a "pie in the sky" life of luxury, but rather a kinship of suffering.

In his Gospel of Sufferings, Soren Kierkegaard writes that, "when the need is greatest, help is nearest ... the greater the suffering the nearer to perfection" (p. 23). Accordingly then, the weight of the Cross is the yoke that brings us side by side with the Perfect One. Further on Kierkegaard writes that whenever one learns from suffering "then it is always something about himself and about his relation to God" (p. 57). If this be the case, then the burden of the Cross is not only the means by which we share with Jesus, but also the same way that we come to know ourselves as Children of God. For Christ also suffered in order that He learn through obedience (Heb. 5:8) and become Perfect through suffering (Heb. 2:10).

To carry the Cross! Is there any burden lighter than this? Is there any other burden at all? How appropriate it is to rejoice at the opportunity to learn the Way of the Cross in order to become yoked with the Perfect One!

And so I stood in the center of Joseph Conrad Park, afraid to take the next step, afraid of the burden of the Cross. The fear is real. It is what gives the burden weight. The self-love is real. It is what gives the Cross Its cost. But it is Jesus' Way. And Jesus' Way is the only Way. So I moved along to the rest of the Stations filled with this heavy reality. And truthfully, I still felt a disconnect from the burden; as if there was no way that I could possibly carry the Cross.

However, later that same afternoon I attended a Peace rally outside Collissimo's Gun Shop on Spring Garden St. Upon my arrival I was asked to help hold a gigantic sign that read: ACT NOW TO END GUN VIOLENCE. As we unrolled the colossal sign I was amazed at its size, it must have been over 50 ft long. But the real shock came when we picked up the dense, canvas piece of propaganda. It was much heavier than I had imagined. Nonetheless, four others and I managed to display the sign adequately for the next 45 minutes.

During the rally I gazed over my shoulder at the wooden cross standing tallest among the banners on the stage. While I stared at this symbol - with all of Its weight - I also felt the fatigue in my own arms, shoulders, legs, and back as I held the sign. It sometimes happens in a moment: when the clearest of messages seems to occur and then disappears only leaving that which you know to be True.