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.

Three New Twitter Followers

You know it’s a big week when you get three new followers on Twitter. Fine, sure, I know that some people get follows in mass quantities regularly. I’m not that cool.

But this week I must have been brought to the attention of some fine folks and they managed to find me in the Twittersphere and therefore I now have my ego stroked enough to last me for a couple of weeks, I’m sure.

Why did I come to people’s attention?

Well, it may have been this recent blog post at the Church at Charlotte blog, “When Everything is Broken, Remember”:

There is something wrong with this world.

We know it, deep in our souls. When we see a 24-year-old young woman on hospice care, we know it. When we hear of refugee children drowning in the Mediterranean Sea as they try to find a safe home, we know it. When a marriage falls apart, when a child dies, when a man is beaten on the street—something inside us says, “This isn’t how it is supposed to be.”

Everything is broken.

Or it might have been this story up at Story Warren this week, “A Man Named John Smith”:

A snippet of Jamin Still’s amazing illustration for my story.

Once upon a time there was a man named John Smith. When Mr. Smith was little, he was very concerned that with such a plain name, he would be lost to history, forever forgotten in a sea of John Smiths down through the ages. If you make it to the end of this harrowing tale, you shall discover that young John’s worst fears were realized. Do not worry, though, I haven’t given the whole thing away—there’s still a surprise or two waiting for you just down the page.

When Mr. Smith was a little boy—(How little, you say? Well, littler than me. And probably littler that the eldest among you, but certainly older than the littlest ones.)—Anyway, when John was a boy, he lived on a farm—(Where was the farm? Indiana. But that really doesn’t have any bearing on this story at all. Now hold your questions to the end or we shall never get through this.)

Or maybe it was the exciting news that I get to present this year at The Rabbit Room’s Hutchmoot 2015. I’ve written about Hutchmoot before, and The Rabbit Room has certainly been formative in my life for the past few years, so I’m utterly honored and grateful to be speaking this time around. And getting to do so with Russ Ramsey on the topic of baseball? Yeah…so cool. I’ll let you know how it goes later!

(See what I did in this post? I turned a “catching up” post into a real one. Tricksy. I may just attain the level of coolness my Twitter followers expect of me someday.)

Moments

I tried to keep my eyes open for something today, something that would trigger a long-past memory. Instead, at every turn, the memories brought to the fore were all recent, remnants of full days with good friends. So, a few glimpses:

***

photoThe voices singing a hymn this morning from the opening of Bible study at church reminded me of Jenny & Tyler’s performance last Thursday evening.

Andrew Peterson announced them and they stood, and I—surprised—turned to my friend Leah with delight. “Jenny and Tyler are here!” I said. “They have this one song…there’s no way they’d play it, but it’s one of my favorite songs in the world.”

And they reached the stage and began to sing an old hymn, their first of two songs. And then, from all their repertoire, they pulled out their second song: “Skyline Hill.” My song.

Of all the bands with all the songs in all the world—Jenny and Tyler sang my favorite to me last week.

***

I ran my fingers over the cover of The World of Narnia this morning as I ate breakfast. I like the texture of the stock.

When I handed Jonathan Rogers a stack of my books to sign, he asked if I’d met his son Lawrence. I had not, so I turned to him and struck up conversation (in part so as not to awkwardly watch JR signing, trying to read his messages upside down).

“Lawrence, hello!” I said. “Where are you in life? What’s your story?”
Lawrence took a breath. “Well, it’s really a coming-of-age tale.”
“Yes?” I was already delighted at the direction this conversation was taking. “What genre would you say? Drama? Horror? Comedy?”
“Comedy, I think. Maybe even a Romantic Comedy,” Lawrence said.
Jonathan was distracted for a moment from his signing. He looked up. “Romantic Comedy!? What don’t I know about?”
I ignored the anxious father. “Ah, I see.” I said to Lawrence. “And the soundtrack? What style? Bluegrass? Pop? Southern Rock?”
Lawrence shook his head. “K-Pop,” he stated. “Definitely K-Pop.”

***

imageI took off my shoes when I arrived for a visit at the Kellers’ house this evening, and I recalled the moment I sat down on the floor at the front of the room where Nate Wilson was showing “The Hound of Heaven.” He sat in a chair, talking about the film, and I sat at his feet—and he had purple-ish shoes that matched the carpet perfectly. And that made the moment even better.

***

My wine at dinner tonight at David and Kelly’s house made me smile, remembering Jason and Jeremiah at dinner on Saturday night.

Taking a sip, savoring the flavor, Jason said, “This is the first alcohol I’ve had in a few days.”

Jeremiah held up his glass, looking into the inky red liquid. When he opened his mouth he spoke with as much relish as Jason. “It’s my first since midnight last night.”

***

I finished a story draft today, the seed of it sown in the phrases of two songwriters:

Arthur Alligood stood to play and strummed a chord on his guitar. “I wrote this song a couple of years ago,” he said. “I actually wrote it on Andy Osenga’s guitar. He let me borrow his guitar and I stole a song from it and gave it back.”

Just a few moments later, Andy Gullahorn followed with this: “There’s a lot of times I just show up with a color or a feeling and see what the guitar gives me, ‘cause I feel like it’s so much smarter than me.”

***

Andrew Peterson challenged us to fill our lives with liturgies that train us to love rightly. May these momentary memories be just that—daily reminders of what is good and beautiful and full of laughter.

Backdrop

RedeemerI’ve spent a significant portion of the past two days sitting in a sanctuary at a church in Nashville which I can only describe as “warm.” It is a building which seems to stretch its arms out in welcome. The older parts of it are made of wood that holds the patina of the years. In the sanctuary itself, a newer section, a deep crimson wall, inset with a large leaded glass window and an unadorned wooden cross has formed the backdrop for words and music that have shaped me in the past two years.

It’s the place where I first heard N. D. Wilson describe the Fall as the man failing to fight the dragon and save the woman, and the Second Adam as the one who rescued His bride by sacrificing Himself in her place.

It’s the place where I saw Eric Peters as a noisy Chewbacca and Jonathan Rogers as a properly electronic R2-D2 in a Shakespearean rendition of Star Wars.

It’s where Ron Block sang the words, “Let there be beauty for beauty is free.” Where Andrew Osenga shouted, “Space!” Where Pete Peterson has wept and Andrew Peterson has geeked out over Rich Mullins.

It’s a place I heard words of healing as Andy Gullahorn sang, “The story isn’t over yet.” And I’ve heard words of challenge from Father Thomas McKenzie. I’ve heard words of encouragement in art, faith, love, community, hope.

And in the past two days it has been the backdrop for moments like Son of Laughter singing “The Meal We Could Not Make” and Jenny and Tyler singing “Skyline Hill.” It has stood behind Rebecca Reynolds talking of the Blue Flower and Russ Ramsey holding up a Vermeer print and Andrew Peterson plugging in his phone to play Marc Cohn’sWalking in Memphis.”

It is a backdrop full of memory for me—and I’ve only visited on yearly occasions. For those who come weekly, it is the backdrop for the breaking of the bread, the drinking of the wine of the new covenant, the truth of the gospel taught, of prayers covering and lifting pain and sorrow to the ear of heaven’s throne.

Rebecca Reynolds said this morning, “Any old church is a familiar friend.” Arms open, they invite us toward the altar of worship.

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.

Spilling Over

It’s a weird, wonderful time of year again. I’ve returned to a place I only came once before, to find that it is a place I belong, just like I’ve suspected since I left a year ago.I’m back at Hutchmoot.

I was trying to find words yesterday evening, over dinner, for what last year’s Hutchmoot meant to me. I fished about, “It was…” I looked at Christine for help. “Life changing,” she said.

photo

Yeah. That about says it.

We sat in the Square Peg Alliance and Friends concert last night, and my friends who came with me had tears running down their face. Both of them, after the end, said, “I’m so full – and the sessions haven’t even begun yet!”

Christine turned to me as the music stopped. “I just remember you coming back last year, and going to Cosi for dinner and you sitting there with your notebook and spilling out everything you’d heard and seen and learned…Yeah. I get it now, really.”

You have to spill over from this place. You have to spill over from what is poured into you.

I can’t say if this year’s conference will be as “life-changing” as last year’s. I doubt it could be. I’m not expecting that it should be.

But I brought two friends with me – the spilling over of what I experienced a year ago, the sharing of an experience I shall not capture again. But I am certain I will be filled. As will my friends. And we will spill over that fulfillment into the lives we touch as we return.

That, friends, is why I’m at Hutchmoot again.

Review of Walking Song Published at Curator

Ron Block's Walking SongA few weeks ago, WORLD magazine published a review of Ron Block’s new album, Walking Song. While, in essence, the review was positive, it was, quite possibly, one of the most dismissive I’ve ever read. The reviewer seemed to be saying that the promotional material for the album, which talks about the process of creating it, should be ignored and the album enjoyed on its own merits. Perhaps not bad advice, except it was said in such a way, with such a tone, that it just irked me.

It irked me enough to make me keep thinking about it, niggling it over again and again in my mind, trying to figure out what bothered me so much.

And then I landed on it. I’ve read about the creative process behind this album. Ron partnered up with Rebecca Reynolds as a lyricist, and magic happened. And I know that it was something new, something Ron had never tried before. And I know that Ron himself would say that the creative process that made the album what it is; in fact, he has said as much, “Rebecca came along and said, ‘Let’s just be kids creating again.’ It’s more like what I was doing when I was 17, 18 years old, even though the stuff I was doing wasn’t as developed. It was just a kid sitting there experimenting, having a good time.”

I wanted to respond to the WORLD review, but I probably wouldn’t have been able to say what I really wanted in a letter to the editor, so instead I decided to just write my own. It posted yesterday over at The Curator. Here’s a snippet:

My love of American folk music has nostalgic tendencies to be sure. However, as I look at the growing popularity in recent years of bands like The Civil Wars, The Avett Brothers, The Lone Bellow, The Lumineers, The Vespers, etc. (and of course the meteoric fame of the non-American-American-folk-rock band Mumford and Sons), I realize I’m not alone in my love for Americana.

There is something about American folk music that speaks to us, something in its essence that keeps us asking for more.

Here’s the thing, though. As much as I love all those bands listed above and latch on to nearly every new album that seeks to generate the Americana sound, it’s rare for me to find an album that fully captures what I found under that patchwork quilt. It’s not often contemporary musicians strike the same chords in my soul as “Down in the Valley.”

Enter Ron Block’s “Walking Song”.

So hop on over and check out the rest, and then get your hands on a copy of the album and listen. ‘Cause it really is that good.

Rabbit Room Listening Party – Andy Gullahorn

Andy Gullahorn's Beyond the Frame

There’s a listening party going on over at The Rabbit Room today for Andy Gullahorn’s new album, Beyond the Frame. I heard the song that inspired the title almost a year ago – “Grand Canyon,” the first thing I ever heard from Andy – and it has remained with me since. If the rest of the album is half as good as the reviews I’ve been reading say it is, I’m in.

Each hour, a new song will be posted with some notes and comments from Andy. I’m going to come back to this post and note my initial reactions throughout the day as I listen. If you want to listen as well, be sure to do so today; the music will only be live until midnight.

So go check out the listening party yourself, and keep dropping by here to see my thoughts on the matter. (Update: All of Andy Gullahorn’s comments from the listening party day have been combined into a single wrap-up post over at the Rabbit Room! Check it out.)

Track by Track

Track 1: “I Will”

A lovely, heartbreaking-in-the-best-way song. If I could be this kind of friend…

Lyrics that struck me:

“If you’re looking for something broken
I am.”

“If you need a friend to do some dying with you
I will.”

Track 2: “The Surface of Things”

There are so many hurting marriages around me. My heart breaks for my friends who are going through these hard times, knowing this is not the way it is supposed to be. My prayer is that this song will speak to those who are there – and point them to seek the River underneath, in which they are rooted and from which they grow.

Lyrics that struck me:

“When’s the last time we forfeited the last word
Last time we didn’t care who won?”

Track 3: “Any Less True”

Just this morning a friend posted on Facebook, “Ponder anew/ What the Almighty can do” and commented that she likes the “Ponder anew” because she so often forgets. There is a truth outside of me. I am a believer in that Truth. But sometimes I have to remind myself, because sometimes the whispering of the world gets so loud.

Lyrics that struck me:

“Say it back to me
‘Cause it’s hard to believe.”

“They say God listens to our prayers
When you’re suffering, He holds you
I don’t feel Him anywhere
But that doesn’t make it any less true.”

Track 4: “Line in the Sand”

I am so often saddened by the gracelessness I see in myself and in other believers. I have been hurt by it. I’m certain I have hurt others without thinking when I drew my lines in the sand. A beautiful companion to “Any Less True”: truth doesn’t change, but perspective can.

Lyrics that struck me:

“What I thought was right
Sure looks a little different after all this time
No the truth won’t change
But perspective can
So much for the line in the sand”

Track 5: “The Same Song”

C.S. Lewis said, “We read to know we are not alone.” May we also show each other that as we go about our daily lives.

Lyrics that struck me:

Maybe you came with a sad melody ringing in your heart – Ooh
Maybe your notes are like flickers of hope trying to light the dark – Ooh
Oh and I bring stories of my own from a broken life
But if we dare to open up to each other I think we’ll find
We’re all singing, We’re all singing, We’re all singing
The same song

Track 6: “Favor is a Foreign Tongue

Grace and mercy are mysterious things. We are dead beings – the very spark of life is such a strange thing to us that we often don’t know what to do with it. May we be messengers of grace to those in need of grace. May we learn of the mercy of God through the mercy of our fellow man.

Lyrics that struck me:

“You can’t help the world you were born into
Where you learned to walk with a limp that you didn’t even know was there”

Track 7: “Flash in the Pan”

I love that in his intro for this one on the RR site, Andy uses Britney Spears’ flame out of fame as “good news” for those in the middle of something that seems like it will last for ever – even though we don’t want it to.

Lyrics that struck me:

“Well, hindsight’s got some kind of power
Makes years feel like half an hour
And troubles melt away as quickly as they came”

Track 8: “My Language”

Andy wrote this song for his wife Jill Phillips – just one more off this album that celebrate the beauty of long-term love, of deep relationship, of commitment.

Lyrics that struck me:

“And every person on those streets
Is walking with their head turned down
They scurry past cathedral bones
Born in the thirteenth century”

“But I heard a song there in the deep
Rise from your paper and your pen
A song that I’d heard others sing
Oh but this time I could understand”

Track 9: “The Other Side”

I love that Andy juxtaposes the good with the bad here – no, you can’t take your things or your pride or your fame with you. But you also can’t take your errors, your shame, your sin. On the other side, we will all be changed. We shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.

Lyrics that struck me:

“All your worst mistakes, you can’t take them with you
All your secret shame, you can’t take it with you”

Track 10: “Skinny Jeans”

I’ve been hearing about this one for a while from friends who had this album before me. And I laughed out loud while I listened. I’ll give ya the lines that made me do so, but you really need to hear it to get the humor.

Lyrics that made me lol:

“I don’t wanna wear those skinny jeans
How can they even breathe?
<in a falsetto>I guess that’s why they sing up here
<à la James Blunt>You’re beautiful”

Track 11: “Sleeping Sound”

A word of encouragement for a worried father.

Lyrics that struck me:

“Well, even if turning back the clock was a choice you had
You couldn’t give him any more love than you already have
And that’s all he needs from his dad”

Track 12: “Nowhere To Be Found”

An achingly honest look at the pain of loss. And the lostness of we who are left looking for God after we fall with no safety net.

Lyrics that struck me:

“When the long line of dinners came to an end
We made a meal of our own
Out of cold habit we both bowed our heads
And felt the silence of our home
Where you were nowhere to be found”

“Now I look at the world like a crystal ball
Usually from the outside in
I see people I love get the life that I lost”

Track 13: “Grand Canyon”

I’ve been waiting almost a year to hear this song again, and I’m now lying flat on my floor with tears streaming down my temples. I had never heard of Andy Gullahorn before the night I heard this song. I’ve had it in my head ever since. The refrain, “the story isn’t over yet” has been the theme of my song for the past year; it has weighed on decisions I’ve made and influenced conversations I’ve held. If for no other reason, this song is the reason to buy this album.

Lyrics that struck me:

But there’s a bird out there
Still singing in the dead of night
Like it knows there’s a season
When the sun’s gonna set
But the story isn’t over yet”

We’re done folks. The songs will be streaming until midnight tonight. But the album will continue to be for sale at The Rabbit Room (I recommend getting it there!) and other places like iTunes and Amazon. 

New Guest Post at Everyday Liturgy

I had another guest post go up today at Everyday Liturgy titled, “A Romance It Certainly Is.” Here’s a snippet:

We cannot avoid the reality of this world. We see its dark underbelly in everything from the news to human trafficking to the person who pushes past us in a crowd without apologizing. This world, and we people in it, are broken, cracked, and bloody.

But as believers, we have a second sight of sorts. We see this world as it once was and as it will be again.

Check out the rest over Everyday Liturgy!

When Characters Come Calling

I met a boy the other day. His name is Peter. He’s about 9 years old. He has a sister named Sam, and a mom and dad. He’s cautious, smart, quiet, wise. He reminds me a lot of my nephew. He loves science and he’s going to discover the great world of bugs this summer. He will learn that life is not forever what it always was. He will discover that change is difficult and unsteadying. And he will learn that there is magic in the world – in the minutiae of creation, in the wonder of imagination, in the love of family.

One of the people who will speak into Peter’s life this summer is a older man named Ben Palmer. I met Ben years ago when he was living a different story. He was in crisis then, and while that is behind him now, I know that much of what I learned about him during that time will be seen in his interactions with Peter this summer. He will be hard-nosed and he will be truthful. He will be deeply broken and utterly renewed. And he will speak words to Peter that “alert him to the power he was perhaps too afraid to hope was real.”

Perhaps it is strange to you that I seem to know so much about Peter’s future though I only just met him. Don’t worry. This prescience isn’t wrapped in hocus pocus.

I’ve had encounters like this before. I once met a young man named William, and before we finished our first meal I discovered he had a whole story to live before I was done with him. And suddenly the name William just wasn’t right – not if we were to be spending a good portion of the next few years together. So decided to call him Edmund and he looked much more comfortable with that name.

In Peter, in Ben Palmer, in Edmund, I have the unique opportunity to see the past, the present, and the future all together. I’m fairly certain I know where they’ll end up, but I’m not quite sure. You see, they all surprised me when they came calling at the corners of my imagination. They could shock me once again with a sudden departure.

It’s an imperfect prescience. They’re breathing and living within their own stories. I hope to paint the canvas for them as they take the journey they’re on. But I don’t yet know what every bump in the road looks like. They may trip and fall. They may meet friends and enemies who surprise me equally when they come knocking with their stories fully formed, reaching back and reaching forward.

I met a boy named Peter the other day. He trooped into my imagination whole-bodied, meditative, and staring at a blank spot on the fridge where there is no summer calendar while he ate his waffles smothered in real maple syrup.

I told you there was magic in this world.

Note: I wish to thank Sam Smith and Kristen Peterson, friends I met last year at Hutchmoot, for their contributions to Peter’s existence and Ben Palmer’s new story. Hope you don’t mind that he’s not called “Sam Peterson.” You never know when your words will spark someone’s imagination. See, I told you there was magic in this world.