Foreign

It was February 1999. I was visiting my cousins in Glennallen, Alaska during mid-winter break of my senior year. They competed in the State Final for hockey that week, and I got to see the defense duo of S. and S. Givens (numbers 1 and 11) help take the Panthers to a win. I learned how to play Myst. I was introduced to Mr. Bean, and the hymn “All Creatures of Our God and King” was forever changed to something that sometimes induces chuckling during worship services. I told my 12-year-old cousin that someday he’d be able to look over his brothers’ heads when he stood behind them in front of the bathroom mirror and they’d stop teasing him then (I was right).

And we went to a concert at the high school of a band from Palmer/Wasilla called Foreign. I LOVED them. Their music had alternative rock influences with the fun of ska, and it was all delightful. I bought an album that night and it became the soundtrack of my year.

I took it to college and started introducing people to it–I played it at nearly every open dorm. I used a snippet of the hidden track that was a singing answering machine message as my voicemail recording for much of my freshman year. I took it with me that summer to the Bible Conference where I worked and shared it around there–trying to explain to people that when I said I loved the band Foreign, I was not talking about Foreigner. My sophomore year, a girl from Alaska came as a freshman. I asked her if she’d ever heard of Foreign and she was a fan. We geeked out together for a bit, and then listened to the music.

Fast forward seventeen and a half years to this morning in Nashville.I was going to do breakfast with some friends still around after Hutchmoot. We were debating our restaurant choice, and as we stood on the sidewalk in front of our choices, another guy from Hutchmoot, Casey, came walking up the street. He was looking for a quiet morning and so didn’t plan to join us, but he stopped to chat for a few minutes. I’d met Casey the first day, but hadn’t talked long. Later, I ran into Pete, who I’d met in previous years, but never really had a long conversation with. This year, we remedied that lack and got to know each other a little. He said he’d grown up in Alaska, and I mentioned I’d lived there. We found a few commonalities, and Pete also mentioned that Casey was a friend he grew up with.

I didn’t see Casey again all weekend until this morning, so as we chatted I mentioned that Pete had told me they grew up in Alaska. I said I’d lived in Glennallen and Casey recalled he knew the place.

“I was in a band when I was in high school, and we played out there.”

I blinked at him a moment, the gears of memory clicking into place. He looked about my age.

“What band?” I asked.

With a little hesitation in his voice, Casey answered, “Foreign.”

My friend Jason was standing nearby, and he stated later that my squeal was supersonic. I’m going to blame the sudden loss of noise as I expressed myself to the fact that my voice is a bit hoarse from all the talking this weekend.

My friend Lisa Eldred caught the moment.

My friend Lisa Eldred caught the moment.

I’m typically pretty chill when it comes to meeting minor celebrities (I’ve never met any major ones, so I have no data there). Just a few hours after this encounter I practically ignored Danny Gokey next to me in a coffee shop.

But I actually asked Casey if I could hug him. I was so excited. I told him all about it.

“I haven’t felt this famous since high school,” he said. Then he asked which album I got. I said it was the one with the globe on the front. And he said this: “So you don’t even have the second one.”

SECOND ONE. They came out with two albums. I only have one. And now I know guys from the band who can hook me up with the one I didn’t know about.

And yeah, I said “guys.” Because after he told me about the second album, Casey said that they made it right before they broke up. I asked if he’d kept in touch with them. “Yeah, definitely,” he said. He mentioned one of the guys is still a close friend who now lives overseas, and another still lives in Alaska. “And Pete, of course,” he said.

“Wait, what?! Pete was in the band, too?” I asked.

Oh, yes. He was.

I got home a couple of hours ago and pulled out the album again. I haven’t listened to it in years, but I still know all the words. I was singing aloud to the cats just a few moments ago. It’s still a good album, and I still love it. And Casey tells me the second one was way better.

Though We’re Strangers

I put up a post about a month ago at my church’s blog that I haven’t shared here yet. It contains references to Rich Mullins and oblique references to Hutchmoot, just so you know what you’re getting into.

My first year the weekend missed my expectations entirely, but was one of the best weekends of my life. I found things I didn’t even know I was looking for. Wouldn’t it be great if someone visiting our church could say that?

Soon after attending my second year, I re-encountered the song “Peace (A Communion Blessing)” by Rich Mullins and found that the lyrics came close to describing what the weekend was for me:

Though we’re strangers, still I love you
I love you more than your mask
And you know you have to trust this to be true
And I know that’s much to ask
But lay down your fears, come and join this feast
He has called us here, you and me

Mullins’ song is about a communion feast: something that happens in church. And yet many people go to church and never hear words like these: “I love you more than your mask,” “Don’t be afraid,” “Sit down; feast with us.”

This Is My Story

“In biblical Hebrew, there is no word for ‘history.’ Instead of ‘history,’ the word ‘memory’ is used. The idea is that history is someone else’s story, but memory is your own.”
–Heidi Johnston

The Settles Connection at Hutchmoot 2015, Photo by Mark Geil.

The Settles Connection at Hutchmoot 2015, Photo by Mark Geil.

Story, story, story. The word echoed through my weekend, shaped by various tongues. Once or twice it might have come out as “narrative,” a slight variant on the form, but the same essence.

“We tell stories from the image we hold in our hearts,” Jonathan Rogers said as he spoke of honoring our place—our hometown or family. We tell stories to support the thesis we have of “home.” We love our hometowns and our families, he reminded us, not because they are great, but because they are ours. “Remembering this lends the story to universality. Every human place has mythic experience.”

“Baseball is such a multi-purpose narrative tool,” said Russ Ramsey.

“The best way to tell someone you love them is to listen to them,” Michael Card said.

“This is not forever,” Heidi Johnston said. “We are just living in a day of a story that spans all of time.” She challenged us to be so immersed in the Bible that what we write tells the story of Scripture. If we speak only from our imagination without being anchored in truth, she said, we are only giving empty hope.

“Stories name our hopes we’ve hidden away and didn’t know we had,” said Doug McKelvey. “A song or a painting or a story can play on the imagination of the reader or the listener or the viewer almost in the same way a pianist can play on the piano keys.” Telling your story is throwing out a line and hoping that it connects with someone, he said. You’re inviting that person in as a third part of the creative process when they grip the line you’ve thrown out.

“Story is an invitation into a house that becomes a cosmos,” said Walt Wangerin. “What makes the story present and grants us the opportunity to be in the story at this present time is the telling.”

He reminded us of Deuteronomy 5, when Moses tells the story of Sinai to those about to enter the land. The generation who were there at Sinai are all dead, but Moses spoke to the generation before him as if the story were their own. His words echoed Heidi Johnston’s from earlier in the day, “History is someone else’s story; memory is your own.”

“Beware the man who makes himself the hero of his own story,” said Russ Ramsey in his sermon on Sunday morning. He combined the warning with this, “May we try to be brave, believing that trying to be brave is being brave because the author of life controls the narrative, and we are in his hands.”

On Saturday night, as the Settles Connection sang “Blessed Assurance” they invited us to sing along.

Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!
Oh, what a foretaste of glory divine!
Heir of salvation, purchase of God,
Born of His Spirit, washed in His blood.


This is my story, this is my song,
Praising my Savior all the day long;
This is my story, this is my song,
Praising my Savior all the day long.

“This is my story…” My story.

My story is that of a bride adorned for her bridegroom.

My story is that of a people whose God chased after their wayward hearts like a lover.

My story is that of a hard-headed disciple who betrayed his best friend and his Lord, only to be restored over a coal fire on the beach.

My story is that of a servant, entrusted by his master with five talents and turning them into ten.

My story is that of a king who took what he lusted after and killed to keep his sin hidden.

My story is that of a man who took his son to the mountain to sacrifice him, only to learn that the God he served would never ask such a thing like the gods of his past did.

My story is the story of a group of people who came together to discover the strangers they’d met were already their friends.

My story is the tale of a people made in the image of God who once turned away from him, but found him a gracious God with mercies new each morning, who shows steadfast love thousands of those who love him and keep his commandments.

These stories are my own, so deeply pressed into my soul they’ve left a mark. That mark, when watered, will become the seed of new stories. And I can throw out those stories into the world like a line, awaiting a hand to catch them and tie them to the hand’s own stories. And the line will go out again and again, so that strand after strand after strand all lead back to the truest story of all: that of a God who loved his creation so much he lay down his own life to save it from its brokenness.

Perception and Grace

dressI seem to have fallen off the wagon here again with the writing thing…but once in a while I write elsewhere, so here’s a glimpse of what’s in my head. I’ve got a new post up at the Church at Charlotte blog, in which I address “The Dress” and talk about Andy Gullahorn. So it can’t be all bad.

(P.S. Though this post vauguely indicates otherwise, I actually do see the dress as blue-and-black.)

On Thursday evening, I got home late and before going to bed I hopped onto Facebook to see what had happened in the world in my absence. My newsfeed was filled with debate and discussion about the color of a dress in a photo that seemed to take over the internet with surprising rapidity.

Because of the lighting in the photograph, and the way the human brain perceives color from visual cues, some people see a blue and black dress and others see a white and gold one. It’s a bizarre little phenomenon and probably no more than a two-day’s wonder.

What I found so fascinating, though, was the passion behind the arguments put forth by everyone from Joe-on-the-street to celebrities and politicians. Those who saw the dress at blue-and-black thought the white-and-gold folks were crazy—and vice versa—until they spent some time looking at it. Then, more than one of my Facebook acquaintances changed their position. “I originally just saw white and gold… But now I can see both. So weird,” one of my friends wrote.

I was reminded of a song by Andy Gullahorn, “Line in the Sand,” in which he begins by saying how offended he was as a child when his father would mix up his name with his brother’s—he thought that if his dad really loved them equally, he wouldn’t mix up names. But now, with three kids of his own, Andy says, he “loves them and confuses them just the same.”

Read more.

Second Christmas

I’ve been listening a lot this Christmas season to The Oh Hellos’ 2013 Christmas EP, which—despite my earlier protestations—I love even though it is full of unabashedly rambunctious and joyful moments. The EP has four movements, which take the listener through the story of Christmas, from the longing for Emmanuel to the joy of Christmas morning. Each movement brings together familiar carols and tunes in new ways. “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” becomes a medley with “The Coventry Carol”; “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks” combines with “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” And, in the final movement, two songs come together that thumped two ideas up against each other in my mind and made me quick-gasp and shiver with a bit of excitement when I heard it in the car the other week.

“Mvmt IV, ‘Every Bell On Earth Will Ring’” begins with “Joy to the World” and then, to the tune of “We Saw Three Ships,” come the words, “Every bell on earth shall ring/ On Christmas Day in the morning! Every soul on earth will sing/ On Christmas Day in the morning!”

DSCN8205I’ve often heard it said that “Joy to the World” isn’t a Christmas carol. That makes sense to me, and I’d agree—not that we should stop singing it, but that “He rules the world with truth and grace” and “Fields and floods,  rocks, hills, and plains/ Repeat the sounding joy” don’t really seem to match the world we live in. Jesus came, yes, but His coming did not restore the world to Eden. He was not the conquering King Israel was looking for in a Messiah. Instead, He came to suffer and to die—to pay the price for sin and bring salvation. “Joy to the World” is about another advent: when Jesus will come again and rule the world with truth and grace.

What struck me, listening to The Oh Hellos’ rendition, was the idea that in the New Heavens and New Earth, we’ll have TWO Christmases. We’ll have the first one—because without the first Advent, salvation would not have come into the world and allowed us to be renewed, but we’ll also have the second one—the day when Jesus came again. Second Christmas.

I mentioned this thought to my boss, Tim, and he said, “But will we still celebrate it, when Jesus is there with us?” Of course, I said. We still celebrate birthdays don’t we? Especially when the person is with us. And besides, I’m pretty sure we’re going to be ready to party at any excuse in those days.

So, I’ve decided to start calling this holiday we’re currently celebrating “First Christmas”—if only from time to time—and if somebody asks I’ll tell them about Second Christmas, the one with no stress, no family drama, no darkness. On Second Christmas morning, every soul on earth shall sing.

The Melancholy Ones

Each year, I grow a little bit more convinced that I’m not alone—that there are others, many others, I think, who prefer the melancholy Christmas songs over the rambunctiously joyful ones. My completely non-scientific research has led me to this conclusion. For what other reason would there be eleven different renditions of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” in my Christmas playlist? Or nine versions of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”?

Photo: REUTERS/Sigit Pamungkas

Photo: REUTERS/Sigit Pamungkas

There’s something in this, I think. Something more than just the beauty of the minor key or the nostalgic lyrics. For some reason, our hearts are drawn toward sorrow in this season of joy.

I wrote a blog post a year ago that I shared again at the beginning of December this year. It is the most-read blog post on my site—by a lot. And I think one reason is that it’s about the hard task of being joyful at Christmas when so many of our lives are swamped in sorrow, so much of the world bearing pain. And guess what? It has a melancholy song in it.

There’s something about the melancholy ones.

Perhaps it is that First Christmas (more another time on how I’m defining that this season) is, in one way, an inherently sad event. God left all the wonders of glory to live in dirt. He sent His son—to live as a human, yes—but knowing He would have to die. It is, as Selah puts it, a mystery: that God chose to create man knowing that man would rebel; and not only that, God sent His son to save the traitors.

So we wonder as we wander in the bleak midwinter and we live in this tension of celebration. As we ache in the agony of waiting for God With Us, we still rejoice. We push our troubles far away by hanging a star upon the highest bough. We listen to the bells on Christmas day, looking about at hate of man against man, and hear them tell us that God is not dead—nor does He sleep.

My favorites of the melancholy ones are those that seek out the joy in the midst of the darkness. Most of them do. Because that’s another thing about First Christmas: it is all about light entering darkness—and the inability of darkness to overcome it.

House Concert

From tonight's Son of Laughter concert

From tonight’s Son of Laughter concert

I went to a Holloway House Concert tonight. They’re evidently cool enough that the musicians in Nashville who come to play at them talk about them in hushed tones to one another. It’s true. One of them told me. When she agreed to come, her musician friends said to her, “Oh, they’re so great. I love doing Holloway House Concerts.”

The Holloways are friends who live 40 minutes or so from me, who regularly open their home to host musicians for small concerts in their living room. Anywhere from 20-40 people show up and sit at the feet of an artist for an hour or so, listening to their songs and hearing their stories.

My first-ever house show was at the Holloways’ home—over a year ago. It was Nick Flora. I’d never been to a house concert and never heard of Nick Flora, but my friend Julie invited me along and so I went…and discovered the delightful combination of a great artist in a personal venue.

I went to my second-ever house concert a week later. It was also Nick Flora.

At my first-ever house show with other Rabbit Roomers.

At my first-ever house show with other Rabbit Roomers.

For the first concert, I’d been down visiting Julie in Charlotte for a week while I was still living up in Pennsylvania. I tweeted something about coming from Philly for the concert and Nick tweeted back something like, “You do know I’m coming there in a week, right?”

It was good news. ‘Cause I had a blast at the house concert and decided I liked this guy’s music. So the next Saturday, back in Philly, I dragged Tim and Jon and Gabe and Dan along with me to hear him again. There were less than ten people there that night; I’m glad I brought half the crowd. We sat around and talked and I was right and Nick was wrong about what Irish twins are, and then Nick played and we all fell in love with The Re-Introduction of Nick Flora.

We got into the car to leave and stuck the CD into the player. Tim wanted to hear “Lost at Sea” another time, so I skipped ahead and we swam in the waltz.

We rose to the surface for days off down under
Boys on the town with the world on our shoulders
War was the word none of us dared to speak
It felt good to be
Lost at sea

Alone, the sun woke me a quarter past noon
Face caked with sand and one sopping shoe
I stumbled ‘round Sydney and into the embassy
I gave them my name, they gave me the news

All my friend’s secrets and all of my clothes
Were buried alive 90 miles off the coast
I was too drunk to hear when the call crashed the party
and suddenly
we were lost at sea

The Purse

This afternoon, on the way back from lunch, I tossed my purse on the back seat of the car next to Kim. She glanced down at it and said, “I like your purse! That’s cute!”

I laughed, because when I think about that purse—in any sense other than to pick it up and carry it around with me—I immediately think of the afternoon I bought it.

I realized when I packed up my apartment in Philly that not only did I seem to have a hard time throwing away or donating old purses (there was a drawer full of them), I also seemed to be stuck in a rut. When I pulled them all out of the drawer and set them out next to each other, I saw the truth: I only purchased small black purses. I had six of them in that drawer.

I decided early in the summer, after I’d moved down here to Charlotte, that it was time to get a new purse, and that I should break out of my rut.

I went to Target and perused the purse racks. I found a style I liked, but struggled with the choice of brown or blue/grey. Uncertain, I pulled out my phone to text my style gurus, Saritha and Christine for their advice.

My phone did not want to send a picture text from inside the bowels of Target, so I had the bright idea to see if I could hop onto the wifi and send my query as a Facebook message.

I got on, and began typing each name and then selecting them from the auto-fill list to indicate the recipients of the message. Then I entered my query and photo:

“Seriously considering breaking out of my ‘black purse’ norm. The question now is: brown or grey?

(And no, the coral one in the back is not on contention).”

purse

I pressed “Send.”

And then I realized I’d autofilled Chris Slaten rather than Christine.

conversation one

An hour later, I got this response from Chris:

conversation twoIt really could have been so much worse.

 

The Birth of a Song

[Editorial note: I’m kinda breaking my own rules for the #write31days challenge today; this one isn’t an sight or moment that recalls a memory, but just the moment itself—the anecdote was too good to dilute by tying it to another memory. I’ll blame Jonathan Rogers, who asked the other day why I need to connect the moments to memories (I answered, in essence, “cause I said so,” which always goes over really well). He had a good point: that the moments themselves are worth as much focus as the memories. It’s true sometimes; and so, though I’ll try to follow my “Sights and Memories” theme for the rest of the month, I’m fine with breaking it today.]

I sat beside the birth of a song this morning. The coffee shop was quite full when I arrived, so I asked a young man sitting at one corner of a large table if he minded if I took the other end.

Mayan MochaHe gestured a welcome over the din and I took my seat, photographed my Mayan Mocha like any good hipster in a Nashville coffee house and settled in to write and read and pray for a few moments before church.

He had a notebook in front of him, and a mug of coffee dredges. And, scarved and hair-mussed to perfection, he sat, one leg pulled up with a knee under his chin, humming, tapping a rhythm, and pausing from time to time to jot a few words in the notebook.

Ten minutes in, a young woman approached him. “Excuse me, are you—” The name was lost in Frank Sinatra’s voice soaring up to the final line of “My Way.”

The young man smiled and nodded. “Yes.”

She fluttered for a brief instant, then smiled back, her red lips curving upward toward her dark eyes. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “You probably get this all the time. Can I get a photo with you?”

He nodded again, stood, leaned over her shoulder as she pulled out her phone, and smiled for the camera.

She left him alone then and he returned to his work, humming, tapping, jotting.

I sat near the birth of a song this morning. And I will never know which one.

Rethinking Scarcity: New Post at The High Calling

Slaten and Rogers

Two artists: Son of Laughter and Jonathan Rogers. Photo by Mark Geil.

I’ve got a new post up at The High Calling today. I was asked to write on the theme of “rethinking scarcity”—and to look at in the context of art. Immediately I thought of the ways the artists I know come together and support one another in their work, forming communities that not only advance the production of art, but also deepen its quality.

“The Industry” is not dead, but it is desperately trying to stay alive in most cases—often at the expense of good art. So those who want to create new art, quality art, honest and true art, are forced (and, I think, will increasingly be forced) to step outside the industries. Rather than seeing this as a setback, perhaps we should look at the situation as a gift—and a challenge:

From the post:
“I expect no one would disagree that creative innovation often arises from scarcity. From Ritz cracker apple pie to the dinners we developed with nothing but a microwave and hot pot during college, some creative spark in human nature thrives when put to the challenge of limited resources.

Likewise, in comparison to the booming creative industries of the 1990s, today’s musicians and authors—even some of those signed with major labels and publishers—are creating within the context of limited resources. While the leaders of the companies that produce and distribute much of our art are cautious about taking costly risks like launching a new artist, rapid developments in technology allow artists willing to take the risk themselves to bypass the industry and get their work into the hands of the audience. Adam Young of Owl City wrote in 2012: ‘Here at the outset of a new century everyone is back at the starting line fighting to be heard. It’s effortless to hear and steal new music so bands have to think of ways to reinvent themselves and turn the box inside out.’

So perhaps it is no surprise that there is a particular richness in some of the art being created today when economics and technology have joined together to topple the industries of yester-year.”

Read more at The High Calling.