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.

 

 

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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

 

Books

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? 

Absolutely.

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

 

 

rebellion. 

It’s too easy to proclaim Advent and hunger and desire.

The truth of the matter is that when Jesus shows up in my life he tends to challenge agendas and programs.

Most of all mine.

And the truth of the matter (if I’m honest—can I be honest?) is that sometimes this frustrates me.

The call to lay down my rights, take up my cross and follow Jesus means that in so many ways, I will lose (or at least appear to lose).

Some of my programs and agendas are deeply wrought, and they are like comfortable grooves that I ride in, like a vinyl record.

And then just like that Jesus scratches the record and the grooves don’t work any more.

Defiance.

The trees stand like guards of the Everlasting; the flowers like signposts of His goodness—only we have failed to be testimonies to his presence, tokens of His trust. How could we have lived in the shadow of greatness and defied it? (Rabbi  Abraham Joshua Heschel)

As usual, provocative words from the Rabbi.

This morning, I did not pray.

And there probably was just a little bit of defiance.

But the beauty of the spiritual life is that is training, practice in preparation for eternity.

So I can start anytime. I can set aside my defiance and anger, and I can sit an absorb and recognize and give thanks and embrace wonder and surrender and become silent.

When I do that, I can do what all of creation is doing: pointing away from itself to God.

My name is Eric: I’m trying to be a tree.

 

Thy Kingdom, My Kingdom

When people say, “Thy kingdom come” out of one side of their mouth, they need to also say, “My kingdom go!” out of the other side. (Richard Rohr)

How good is this? 

I always think about the gospels, when Jesus shows up in Jerusalem, and ends up judging and disrupting the Temple.

The Temple represents religion that had turned into idolatry, that had been manipulated into a nationalistic talisman, rather than a beacon of hope for the lost and the outside.

So Jesus shows up and shatters the misconceptions.

I’m forever building my own Temples and talismans and symbols that represent my kingdoms, my agendas, my programs for happiness.

What needs to go in my life?

The kingdom of God supersedes and far surpasses all kingdoms of self and society or personal reward. (Rohr again)

It’s All Grace.

A few weeks ago, I sat in my father’s garage with him and my brother-in-law. In lieu of a front porch, we sat on the concrete as the afternoon sun slowly descended, and we did what men do, which is mostly complain.

(PS When did I become a middle-aged man?)

My father suffered a massive stroke in 2004, and maybe a couple more since then, and at this point he’s rather limited physically. He stopped driving a year or two ago. My brother-in-law’s father was a racecar driver, and is also facing increased limitations, and may have to stop driving too.

We were talking about getting older, and not being able to do the things we used to do.

(Again, men complain quite well.)

Lift things, move, stay up late, etc., etc. Things change and get more difficult.

My dad made the remark, “Yeah but wait until you can’t drive anymore,” and we all nodded our heads and made a couple remarks about how awful that would be, and how it would really wreck us (just like it wrecked my dad, and just like it’s wrecking Tony’s dad).

Driving—at least for my generation and older—does seem to be linked to something essential and basic about life. The ability to move when one wants to. To leave, to have self-determination. To go.

When that gets taken from you, yeah, I guess that would be a real kick in the crotch (as Sting would put it).

But then I had a thought…

Losing like this is really hard. Releasing our grasp on our abilities is almost a crime, some kind of cruel joke that life plays on us.

(What will happen when I cannot play music anymore?)

It feels a crime and a travesty… Unless it’s all grace in the first place. 

If I never deserved it in the first place, what right do I have to rail and rage and complain when it goes away?

And isn’t this the essence of the Christian life? That actually everything is grace? That life is a gift? That I’m somehow sustained by the love of God that is in Christ? (In his letter to the Colossian church, St. Paul said that Christ holds everything together.)

If it really is all grace—and my spirit and beliefs compel me to agree with this—than the invitation is to learn to surrender everything as is necessary. As life comes to me, at me, through me, and then fades away in the distance, most likely I have been (and will continued to be) called to lay down…

  • the place/city I called “home”
  • my ability to play music all day and night
  • the time and space to create
  • my platform
  • my vocation

Eventually, this list will include things like guitar, friends, family… even driving. Even walking.

But if it was all a gift in the first place, then I never had a right to grasp it. It was never mine. Nothing. 

That’s pretty freeing. But pretty terrifying.