My 2017: The Music

Call it a function of getting older, or a function of just being in a new role that isn’t so musically focused, but either way I don’t listen to quite as much music as I used to. What’s more, there is simply so much music out there that it’s quite overwhelming to find and connect with quality work.

So this list is shorter, but either way, here it is (by the way, also because I’m older, I tend to still process music in “record” formats, so I always end up focusing on full-length records over singles).

Plastic Soul (Mondo Cozmo). I wrote about “Shine,” a track off of this record. If you like 1990s Brit Pop, with a slightly psychedelic/groove influence (think Primal Scream and The Verve), you’re gonna dig this record.

Who Built the Moon? (Noel Gallagher). I was driving back from Virginia when I remembered that Noel Gallagher had released a new record, and dialed it up. My first reaction was that Noel had finally put Oasis to bed. The first 6 tracks of this are just stellar, particularly if you like feel-good, jammy, R&B influenced British stuff (think The Jam and Stone Roses). This stuff makes me dance around my office or house. (And that’s saying something.)

Bjéar (Bjéar). I can’t even remember how I stumbled across this record, but I do know that it happened in winter, which is absolutely the perfect setting for these songs. I became an instant evangelist, and to my ears it sounds like a slightly more earthy version of Sigur Ros: great soundscapes, evocative, and a definite universe to dwell in. (P.S. he sings in English.)

Carry Fire (Robert Plant). Robert Plant just seems to be the embodiment of how to be a “Golden God” and yet age somewhat gracefully as an artist. I find these records full of subtlety and dynamics. I still want to hear Daniel Lanois produce a record for him.

A Deeper Understanding (War on Drugs). This band (really one guy, but who’s counting) renewed my faith in the future of electric guitar in indie rock. The record is full of great guitar tones, but from a decidedly different place from blues/rock. I hear echoes of Springsteen, Dire Straits, and other artists that were huge in the 80s, but filtered through a 21st century sensibility.

After All(,) This (Eric Case). Unbelievably, I released a record this year. I say unbelievably only because this was one of the busiest years of my vocational life, and yet around January I sensed a call to commit to bringing some creative work into the world. You can find the tracks on my BandCamp site  (pay what you’d like), but in 2018 I’ll be moving all my stuff—including Maida Vale tracks—to iTunes (and Spotify).

I suppose it’s notable for what and who is not on this list. I had high hopes for Arcade Fire and The National, but both of those records left me empty, dry, and pretty uninterested. It’s like they were too self-conscious.

LCD Soundsystem’s release was better, but I still have baggage from their “Hey-we’re-leaving-and-all-done-and-here’s-an-emotional-farewell-concert-documentary-but-wait-let’s-get-back-together-instead” move.

U2. All I can say is that I expected the record to be awful, but it wasn’t.

Check out a short Spotify list of songs from these records here.




My 2017: The Books

So here the books that intrigued and impacted me this year. Though I completed my standard 50-ish books, I found myself actually doing a lot of re-reading, reengaging with ideas and processing them from a new, hopefully deeper, perspective.

Full Disclosure: The titles are linked to Amazon, if you click through from this page, supposedly I get a small percentage of the sales. You can see the entire list here



The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (Jonathan Haidt). This is probably one of the most important books I’ve read in a long, long time. An examination of how we develop our morality, which in turn is an examination of why we are currently so divided in this country. For anyone who is interested in trying to bring some healing back to our culture, you should read this.

Enneagram: A Christian Perspective (Richard Rohr and Andreas Ebert). I re-read this at my annual Monastery retreat, and finally had it “click” a little. I’d encourage anyone who is interested in growth and self-discovery to read it. I wrote about this book—and the enneagram in general—a couple times this year. One of the things I really enjoy about this book is that it looks at the enneagram types through the filter of particular brokenness, and therefore is a challenge to grow and heal, not merely to “live your strengths”.

Silence (Shusaku Endo). This was released as a movie this year, directed by Scorcese and starring Adam Driver and Andrew Garfield. It’s tough book to read, emotionally, similar to The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Endo brings you into a universe (in this case 17th century Japan) and does not let you leave. The book brings up profound questions regarding faith, suffering, and the presence of God.

Leaders Made Here: Building a Leadership Culture and Chess, Not Checkers: Elevate Your Leadership Game (both by Mark Miller). I really enjoyed these rather focused books on leadership. They are concise, pragmatic, and story-driven. Good resource for teams.

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (Cal Newport). This was a re-read. If you’re not familiar with Cal Newport, you can watch his TedTalk for an introduction. It’s a great reminder of what we do not need in order to be productive (specifically, distractions in the form of the internet, email, and social media).

Resonate: Present Visual Stories that Transform Audiences (Nancy Duarte), Made to Stick: What Some Ideas Survive and Others Die (Chip and Dan Heath), and Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard (Chip and Dan Heath). I put all three of these together, because if you speak or teach for a living, and/or if you are in the business of promoting life change, these should be canon for you. All three give critical, practical advice on how to communicate so that people actually hear your ideas (in my case, the Gospel) and actually have the opportunity to change because of it. I use these like reference books, returning to them constantly to evaluate how I’m doing with preparing sermons or ministry ideas.

The Way of the SEAL: Think Like an Elite Warrior to Lead and Succeed (Mark Divine). Believe it or not, the elite armed forces are some of the best resources for performance, habit cultivation and life change, mostly because of the high stakes, high stress environment within which they exist. This book is almost like a Seven Habits for Highly Effective People filtered through a Navy SEAL mentality. Its focus on meditation, remaining calm during high-stress situations, and effective real-world planning really spoke to me.

Illumined Heart: Capture the Vibrant Faith of the Ancient Christians (Mathews-Green). Another re-read. Shana and I have given this tiny little book away to more people than any other book that either of us have read. On one hand, it is a great introduction to Eastern Orthodoxy; on the other hand, it is a poignant introduction to significant spiritual growth and life change. If you’re stuck spiritually, I encourage you to give it a read.

All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age (Dreyfus and Kelly). I read this book over my summer vacation, and it had an unexpected impact on me. Dreyfus and Kelly go through some classics of western literature and ask how to find deep meaning in the world. What is significant is that they are approaching the subject from an a-theistic, though not hostile, viewpoint. When I consider their findings, and add my faith to them, I find the results pretty enriching.

The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives (Dallas Willard). Another re-read; I return to this book as the wellspring of my spirituality. Absolutely critical to understanding faith and spirituality as a vehicle for growth and change, rather than as an exclusive club.

The Obstacle is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph (Ryan Holiday). This book is an introduction to stoic philosophy (and if you think that you understand stoicism, you probably don’t), and it’s structured in almost a devotional format that you could read in a few minutes at the beginning of your day. If you struggle with stress and are in leadership, this may be a great resource for you.

The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a  Changing World  (Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, Douglas Abrams). I impulsively borrowed this from my spiritual guide, and was instantly challenged. I struggle with joy, and also with deep peace, compassion and contentment, and reading the real world dialogue between these two spiritual masters is amazingly provocative.



What Passes for Worship

Some musicians in my community were passing around this interview with John Mark McMillan. It’s an examination of his new record, and the questions he’s been asking about faith, spirituality and honesty (my paraphrase).

The article raised and stimulated a familiar discussion with my friends about “worship”. If I could paraphrase, it would be something like this: Where does honesty and complexity—particularly regarding doubt and struggle—fit in the paradigm of worship? (Particularly now that there is a whole industry and business model around “worship”.)?

Occasionally I have debates with people who similarly decry the sometimes over-simplistic approach to song lyrics in the songs we sing on Sunday. It’s not necessarily greater artistry they are looking for; instead they are frustrated with the lack of intellectual complexity and acknowledgement of doubt.

Where do these things fit in with our typical approach to Sunday ?

Sometimes, in some of my more grumpy, pragmatic moments I want to respond, “They don’t.”

But hear me for just a moment.

To “worship”—rather literally—is to attribute worth. It’s to tell someone (in my case, God) how great they are, how much you appreciate them, how much you love them.

It’s not the place for angst, doubt or intellectual parsing.

(If you’re married, try any of that with your spouse when a tender moment comes up; my hunch is that it won’t go all that well.)

My point is that we are throwing the word “worship” around a little carelessly, and then trying to shoehorn artists and songs into a bucket that doesn’t really need to hold them.

Maybe songs about doubt and deep theology are not only not worship, but they don’t have to be “worship.”

There is always room for doubt and uncertainty in my faith paradigm. Heck, I thrive on it. It drives me to search and know God more deeply. To me, that’s not worship. At least not directly. That’s me growing and learning.

But there’s also a discipline in my life when I shut off the search, and I express my gratitude, which often then grows into appreciation, love and praise for God’s goodness, faithfulness and grace.

That’s “worship”. 

Maybe we just need a new label for these other kinds of songs? 

Are some of JMM’s more complex, searching, self-honest songs worship? Probably not.

But are they acceptable in faith and church? Are they necessary? Even critical? 


Just don’t get hung up on trying to put them in a labeled bucket.




The Profound Powerless of Mondo Cozmo’s “Shine”

I’m still a sucker for a heart on its sleeve…

(and a good hook…)

I stumbled across this song a few months ago, back in the spring. I was listening to some Spotify “New Music” playlist, and all of a sudden I heard familiar-but-new sounds: echoes of The Verve and other Brit Pop bands that I’ve always loved.

And then the lyrics started:

Stick with me Jesus through the coming storm,
I’ve come to you in search of something I have lost
Shine down a light on me and show a path
I promise you I will return if you take me back…

Did he just say, “Jesus”? Okay, now I’m really interested…

I confess: I’m not above getting pretty excited whenever I hear someone flirting with the powerful intersection of art and faith. I get even more pumped when I hear someone drop Jesus’ name with some kind of sincerity.

So now I’m definitely hooked.

But then the chorus took me back a bit:

Let ’em get high, let ’em get stoned,
Everything will be alright if you let it go…


So now I’m not so sure.

But the verse lyrics! Still so sincere, so out there (and again with the Jesus!)

My friends are so alone and it breaks my heart
My friends don’t understand we are all lost
Shine down a light on them and show a path
I promise you they will return if you take ’em back

And finally, verse 3:

Come with me Mary through these modern lines
Stick with me Jesus til the end of time
Shine down a light on me and let me know
And take me in your arms and never let me go…

Seriously; what am I supposed to do with this?

When the record came out, I listened, and quickly got taken in. The whole thing really paid off the taste that was “Shine,” with more heart, and vulnerability and a lyrical/musical references and touchpoints that I could easily recognize and resonate with.

But, again… what is up with this tune?

Well, though I believe in lyrical mystery, and I affirm the rights of artists to hold their cards close to their chests, something hit me hard on a Sunday afternoon a few weeks back, and so I’m going offer up my interpretation of this tune.

I had preached that morning on “Powerlessness“, and what it meant to surrender our desire to control our environment and our lives.

And then I remembered that a huge part of our lives and our environment is people.

Spouses. Family. Children. Co-Workers.


Spouses, family members, children, co-workers, friends, etc. who might choose to “get high”, or who might choose to do any number of things that we really wish they wouldn’t do.

And we are powerless to stop them. (Human beings have this sticky way of eluding our efforts to control them.)

When we are confronted with this ultimate test of our desire to control, we really have to choose:

Am I willing to be powerless over the people who are (a) supremely important to me and yet (b) may make choices (in fact, they usually DO make choices) that at the very least I may disagree with, and at most may be harmful?

It sounds impossible but there is a way out, and here’s the deal:

It’s not simple, but it’s easy. 

We can choose to (a) love them, and (b) cling to our faith.

One of the most powerful ideas I cling to is that *God is infinitely more invested in my friends/family/co-workers/church than I am. *

God loves them more than I ever could.

And that means that I can surrender them. I can be powerless over them…

… And “let it go.”


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Peace and blessings…



Music From “The Vapor”


Image via Flickr:

It’s always fun when streams in life start to bleed together.

My church has been journeying through the book of Ecclesiastes for a few weeks now, and one of the key concepts that emerges almost immediately in the book (indeed the first 2 verses) is the Hebrew word hevel. 

Most English Bibles translate the word as “meaningless” (the King James calls it “vanity”) but the Hebrew is more literally “vapor” or “breathe”. In this context, “The Teacher” of Ecclesiastes is not so much declaring that everything is “meaningless” in an absolute way, but that it is vapor: ephemeral, passing, impossible to control (if you want to see and hear of the implications of this idea, you can check out our Vimeo E3 Vimeo Feed or our E3 Church Podcast).

Lately, as I get close to my 50s (WHAT!?!?), I’ve been thinking of some of the music and bands of my 20s, when I was a young and growing musician, learning the basics of my craft and discipline. For a good decade plus, I absorbed everything I could in order to reach “the next level” of my musical development, and during that search I ran across a multitude of bands and artists and songwriters and guitar players who, for a relatively brief period of time, were considered masters of their craft (and therefore, worthy of my time and attention).

But guess what: they were vapor. 

Even more than than other areas of life, music and art can be truly passing, as tastes change and evolve (listening to almost any music produced in the 1980s can show how much entire sonic palettes can dominate briefly, only to sound almost ridiculous—thanks, cocaine—a mere 5 or 10 years later.

But nonetheless, there were a few bright spots in an often dark age of music. The vast majority of these bands never entered the public consciousness outside of their immediate context; put another way,

If you weren’t there, you wouldn’t know. 

I got lucky: I was.

So, since the digital world now makes it easier for us to “grasp the vapor” a bit, I wanted to offer you all just a few sounds from the past—mostly from the 80s and 90s—that you probably wouldn’t know about (but maybe you should).

And now, the introductions:

Hothouse Flowers

For sometime in the late 80s, U2 had a record label. This was one of their first signings. Hothouse Flowers were some strange blend of folk, soul, along with some unmistakably Irish leanings. This is the sound of my freshman year in college (at least until the cassette wore out).

The Call

Immediately, two thoughts enter my mind regarding The Call: the first is the unfortunate …. of …. (WORSHIP SONG>>>>) FLATTENING …. The second is that it must say something about the quality of your music when a young singer from a pretty popular band agrees to sing backup on one of your singles (this is long before “collaborations” became synonymous with “new ways to make more dollars”). In this case, a young Bono from this upstart band called U2 can be heard singing backup on “What’s Happened to You.” What’s more “The Walls Came Down” features Garth Hudson (from The Band) on keys.

The BoDeans

Three things you’d have to know: First, they opened some dates for U2 on The Joshua Tree tour. I saw them on the first of the first of a two night stand in Fort Worth, Texas (On the second night BB King opened the show; that night included the filming of the live footage of “When Love Comes to Town” for Rattle and Hum… it’s all about the stories.)

Second, almost more than any other of these acts, The BoDeans (really just two dudes from Wisconsin whose surname is not “BoDean”) suffered from some of the more unfortunate sonic choices of the era: gated snares, gratituitous reverse reverb, and an overall emphasis on the crystalline high end (again: thanks, cocaine!) at the expense of the guttural visceral mid-range.

Third, in my opinion, this is where some of the more proximate roots of “Americana” can be found: in the late 80s and 90s, various midwestern bands were discovering the beauty of stripped-down production (at least, when their record companies let them have a voice), harmonies, and the beauty of songwriting. In just a few short years, a little band from southern Illinois called Uncle Tupelo would take up the mantle, releasing a few records, and even more importantly eventually breaking up, forcing Jeff Tweedy to start Wilco and Jay Farrar to start Son Volt.

The Jayhawks

I first read about this Minneapolis band in University of Texas at Arlington school newspaper, when they rolled through the Dallas/Fort Worth, circa 1992/93. This band was similar to the BoDeans (sans the phony last names) with one huge difference: Rick Rubin produced their debut record. In other words, gone were the awful sounding drums and studio tricks, and in their place was the raw and very natural recording sound that Rubin would bring to everyone from The Beastie Boys to Johnny Cash. This was a game-changing record that showed a lot of us how music was going to sound in the very near future. They sung amazing harmonies with each other, and just made honest, heartfelt music.

Around 2001 or 2002, I was listening to a Fresh Air interview with the band, and Teri Gross referred to the band’s 2000 release Smile as “the best record of the year.” It’s just full of one concise, pointed, economical song after another.

Ricki Lee Jones

This is some vapor music from a slightly earlier time (her first record came out in 1979), but I still think that Ricki Lee Jones’ 1981 record Pirates may be the best singer-songwriter record that practically no one under 40 has ever heard. Jones was cinematic and dramatic, but the thing that really hooks me about this (and her first record as well) is the studio band. This is the way music sounds to my ears: real, and immediate, like you sense the guys in the room together. It is organic and coiling, and her voice is weaving in and around the rhythm section, and the moment on “We Belong Together” when what you thought was 6/8 was really a deep swing… I mean…

It still catches my breath 30 years later.


No, you can’t hold the vapor… but boy if you have eyes to see and ears to hear, there are some real special moments that come our way.

If you want to actually hear this stuff, the “Vapor” Playlist can be found at:



Song Stories: “Thank You”

So a few weeks ago I released a record (or whatever they’re called nowadays) called After All(,) This

It was really nothing more than a little exercise in musical creativity and exploration, and it was deeply satisfying to me. What’s more, some of you actually paid money for it, and that was a great blessing to me as well.

One of the songs on that release is actually a cover of a song from the early 1990s by a guy named Dennis Jernigan. On the surface, it may have been an odd choice, but there’s a story and a connection to that song.

In 1995, my wife and I moved from Texas to Chicago, Illinois to begin what was the first of many little “adventures” that we’ve undergone. At that time, I was an electric guitarist in my mid-20s, with some miles behind me as a fairly focused musician from Texas. I played on 6th Street in Austin, in Deep Elllum in Dallas, and a few other places in the Lone Star State. What’s more, I was imbued with the notion that electric guitarists from Texas were a breed apart: our legacy included Stevie Ray Vaughn, Eric Johnson, Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top (not to mention Buddy Holly, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson).

I took this legacy seriously, and that combined with a strange gumbo of Duane Allman, the Edge, David Gilmour and even a little 1980s hair metal all produced an attitude that was all about making a statement and making an impact on whatever was going on around me musically.

(Occasionally I even had the chops to pull it off LOL.)

Though I’d grown up in the church, I’d done my share of wandering (and wondering), and by the time we made this move to Illinois, I’d already hit my first of a few (unfortunately it took more than one) “rock bottoms” in my life, and I was beginning to re-explore my faith. I grew up in a strictly “hymns” church, but during this time Shana and I started to encounter something called “Worship Music”, which was (supposedly) Jesus music set in “contemporary” arrangements.

The lyrics were spot on, obviously, and they touched the part of my life that longed for a deep, passionate connection to something or someONE higher.

However, the music was another story.

It was supposed to be “contemporary,” but I often sat wondering, “Contemporary for whom?”

Though the lyrics reached me, the recordings did not: the compressed, chorused, polite guitar sounds left me feeling empty.

When we arrived at Willow Creek Community Church, through an amazing set of circumstances and beautifully serendipitous conversations, I ended up volunteering with the music team there. All of a sudden, I’d gone from clubs in Texas—and an occasional church gig to 75 people—to playing before 5,000 at a pop, 10,000-15,000 total on a weekend. What’s more, the musicians there were mostly killer. Just amazing drummers (always my favorite) and bass players and keyboardists and singers, etc., etc.

(And they were filled with this amazing, joyous, celebratory love and passion as well.) 

And other guitar players too…

But not so many like me.

(NOTE: Sitting here, I know now how damaging it can be to my soul for me to ponder ways in which I am different from other people, but at the time, this seemed pretty real to me…)

  • They were established family men and women … Shana and I had been married for a few years, but were still a few years away from being able to have children (another story for another time).
  • They wore dockers and polo shirts … I had jeans and thrift store t-shirts (or that amazing relic of the 1990s: the gas station work shirt).
  • They played the aforementioned chorused and compressed Stratocasters through multi-effect units … I played a Les Paul through a handful of pedals attached by velcro to a piece of plywood.

In addition, I brought this southern, Allman Brothers approach to what they were doing…

And, sometimes, it just really seemed to work.

What was also fun and helpful was that I really didn’t know any of these records that they were covering. Instead, I played with instinct and improvisation. I listened to what they were doing in rehearsal, and then just started playing “what made sense”.

… And, for their part, they tolerated it.

(NOTE: Musicians and guitarists, if you want to do this, please… well… please be good. This approach is decidedly NOT recommended unless you’ve spent upwards of 4-5 hours a day of “deliberate practice on Wikipedia” for about 7-8 years.)

Anyway, “Thank You” was one of those early songs. I loved it’s simplicity; at its core was something essential and elemental to faith, and what’s more there was a soulfulness that I was able to find underneath the somewhat safe (and overly “white”) production. I remember being on that stage at Willow, tuned to “Drop D” and just hammering that low D against a wailing high slide. I remembered digging down deep, SOUL LEVEL DEEP and trying as hard as a human being could try to MAKE THE NOTES I PLAYED = THE EMOTIONS I FELT.

Looking back, it might have worked. It might have been a disaster. Truth is, it was probably somewhere in between.

There are other songs, and maybe they are for other times.

But that’s why I covered “Thank You.”

(OH: And it’s ALSO because… I’m thankful.)

For all that You’ve done I will thank You
For all that You’re going to do
For all that You’ve promised, and all that You are
Is all that has carried me through
Jesus, I thank You

And I thank You, thank You, Lord
And I thank You, thank You, Lord
Thank You for loving and setting me free
Thank You for giving Your life just for me
How I thank You, Jesus I thank You
Gratefully thank You
Thank You.

– “Thank You” by Dennis Jernigan (c) PraiseCharts


It’s Been a Week…


I don’t know what kind of week you have been having, or what kind of words you’ve been encountering, but this is been a relatively rough one for my community.

The words I have encountered this week or words like:




It goes without saying, but these are not the type of words that we’d prefer to see and hear in a week.

On the other hand, it seems all too common.

So how do I respond? What do I do when those words enter my reality?

I can certainly rail and rage against them. That’s an option that is easy to embrace. But for me, I eventually come up against something that I cannot control, be it other people, disease, (or even broken politics and a pathological culture)

But then again, I am driven back to the simple reality of accepting the things I have no control over, and embracing what I can control (which is mostly my reaction to all of this stuff).

Two thoughts that help me:

First, I am reminded that life goes on. I remember walking the streets of Chicago with my wife on September 11, 2001. everywhere was under silence, exacerbated by the fact that all air planes were grounded, but that reality was shattered when we heard people laughing at a joke. We felt so violated, like that time and space and silence was sacred. Even in the midst of devastating sadness, somewhere a baby will be born; there will be genuine laughter and care in a family somewhere; new, creative work will be done to make the world a better place. When I was younger, as I encountered pain in the world I would expect the whole world around me to stop and be devastated right alongside with me. I always treated it as a grave injustice for there to be laughter in the midst of pain. But now I think I realize that it is both our gift and our struggle that life goes on. What’s more, I know that the cross means that as long as there is suffering in the world, Christ suffers right along with us. Thomas Merton said “Christ remains in agony until the end of time, and in His agony Christ triumphs over all power.”

Second, I find soul-affirming comfort wherever I can. Jesus actually prayed that we would not be taken out of this world (John 17; really, Jesus?). But he also told us that he would not leave us alone (John 14). That means that his presence, and his peace and his love and his compassion is really always available to us. For me, I find it in friends, and in prayer, and also in art.

I stumbled across Bill Fay while I was driving in my car around 2013. Florida State radio station play the song that instantly grabbed me, and also instantly made me think, “boy Jeff Tweedy is ripping this guy off big time.”

(Tweedy appears on “This World, off of Fay’s 2012 record Life is People, and Fay covers Wilco’s “Jesus Don’t Cry” on the same record. Tweedy has also covered a couple other Fay tracks, like “Be Not So Fearful” and “Please Tell My Brothers” in his acoustic shows.)

Ever since then, whenever I need to hear something comforting and gentle, but also full of faith, I turn to Bill thing. I actually even had a friend who, when he did his fifth step in recovery, made sure that he had Fay queued up to play on his drive home from his sponsor’s house.

There are plenty of good tracks, but this is one of my “go-to’s”.

May you be comforted, and remember that “the healing day” is coming sometime for all of us.