Thursday, December 18, 2008

Peace Train

As I sit in a coffee house and write this, a train is rumbling by blowing its whistle and disturbing the coffee-drinking peace of those around me. I remember the time my wife and I had just moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, and we were camping in the most peaceful grouping of trees beside a vast glassy lake that reflected the surrounding snow-capped mountains. Sometime after we drifted off to sleep, we heard the thunderous sound, felt the tornadic rush and saw the midday light of a train that charged through maybe twenty surprising yards away!

Trains. When I lived in California near the famous Tehachapi railroad loop, a friend and I used to actually entertain the idea of hopping a train, just to see what would happen and to say we did it (for legal reasons, I won't say whether or not we ever did). My 3-year-old daughter is obsessed with the Christmas train we got to go around our tree. And to top it all off, the toy in her kids’ meal just yesterday was what? Yep, train.

There’s something about trains that captures the minds of many. Trains are loud and powerful and utilitarian. But I think it’s that they seem unstoppable that most holds our imaginations, tapping into our natural wanderlust. Trains have their own tracks, and they travel unimpeded by traffic or houses or even mountains. They just go, and they go to all sorts of interesting places that are anywhere but here. That’s what gets us—trains can take us somewhere else and let us enjoy the countryside as we go.

Unfortunately, we sometimes look at God in that sort of train-like way. The point of entering into a relationship with God, we tell ourselves, is so that God can take us anywhere but here and maybe let us enjoy the countryside as we go. We’ll sing phrases like, “And now I am happy all the day,” and then we’ll just fly away to heaven. That’s what faith is all about, right?

God might be like a train, but not because he takes us away from it all. God is like a train because he is the God who comes, not the God who goes. God is indeed a powerful, unstoppable force. But we are not waiting for him to take us way. Instead, we are to be about laying track so God can come into our midst, even as we follow him—the Way—on into the sunrise. I have to laugh because, as some sort of Jungian joke, the song “Peace Train” by Cat Stephens has just come on the radio in the coffee house. Choo-choo!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Your Favorite Cross-Over Song

Well, judging by the amount of hits my blog got vs. the amount of comments on the last post, perhaps the ideas were tough to come by. So, I'll expand the brainstorming to include any secular-to-sacred cross-over. Here's what I mean...

I recently did a rare thing of preaching through a song (for more, see post "Singing vs. Preaching"). The scripture reading was Romans 8:31-39 ("...nothing can separate us from the love of God..."). And for the sermon I sang the Bob Dylan (as popularized by Garth Brooks) song "To Make You Feel My Love." As I sang, I had images on the screen of Jesus carrying the cross ("I'd go hungry, I'd go black and blue / I'd go crawling down the avenue, / there's nothing that I wouldn't do / to make you feel my love"), walking on the water, and of course, being crucified. You get the idea. I do this rarely, and only in the context of a consistently challenging and serious preaching/teaching ministry. But it proved to be life-changing for a few people, really breaking through where more "traditional" sermons had not. Of course, it wasn't the sermon that broke through but the Spirit of the Living God working through the story of redemption. But music helped tell that story, and it wasn't a hymn or praise song, but a love song written by Bob Dylan.

So, in that vein, what "secular" song does that for you? What "non-Christian" song do you hear and think, "This is exactly how I feel about God," or " I think God feels about us. This tells the story!" It's always been interesting to me how narrow Christian radio is. They won't play U2 doing "Beautiful Day" or Peter Gabriel doing "In Your Eyes," but they will play "Christian" artists doing those exact songs. Baffling! So what would you program on your "spiritual/Christian" radio station?

Friday, December 12, 2008

Your Christmas Adaptation!

"You've GOT to be kidding!" I yelled to my car radio the other morning. My surfing had stopped at the all-Christmas station to hear the great wall-of-sound "Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)" by the Ronettes--Phil Spector may be an insane murder, but he is one hell of a producer. My head still bobbing as the song faded out, it took me a minute to realize what was happening next.

Just as my finger was reaching to get away from Bette Midler's "From a Distance," I thought, "Wait a minute! This station's playing all Christmas music. Are they considering this song a Christmas song?" And then I heard sleigh bells in the mix. And then references to "Silent Night" and other Christmas staples. "What the hell? They're trying to turn this awful song into an even more awful Christmas song? You've GOT to be kidding!"

I've always hated that song. Not only because of the extreme schmaltz, but because the message is horrible--the idea that God is watching us from a distance. Not only is it depressing and Deist, it's just plain creepy. But to turn it into a Christmas song is outright blasphemous. It's one thing if someone wants to sing about generic "holidays" or Winter and snow. It's altogether different when someone tries to make an actual Christmas song that pretty much denies the Incarnation--the whole point of Christmas--by saying, not that the Divine became flesh and dwelt among us, but that God is only passively watching us...from a distance. Sad, sad, sad...

Okay, rant over. I want to know what non-Christmas songs would make good Christmas/Seasonal songs. They could make a deep statement--Dylan's "The Times, They Are a-Changin'" or U2's "Beautiful Day"--or they could just be fun--Randy Newman's "Short People" sung to an elf, Marilyn Monroe's "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" etc. The lyrics may need some seasonal tweaking, but it shouldn't need a total re-write. This is a chance to exercise some creativity, so let's share some meaningful or silly ideas.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Best & Worst Christmas Songs

I attended a gathering at the Abilene Women's Club yesterday for whom I was to be the "entertainment." My lovely wife went with me and we enjoyed a nice brunch with the group, followed by my bit. I was instructed to do some "Christmas" songs, by which was meant tunes appropriate for...well, an Abilene Women's Club brunch. I admit I cringed a bit while weeding through my options--slim pickins to say the least. My final set list was: "O Come, All Ye Faithful," "Blue Christmas," "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," "O Little Town of Bethlehem," and "Silver Bells."

I was not thrilled with this set; and the fact that, after I sang "Blue Christmas" in my best Elvis baritone, a younger-middle-aged woman stood up and shouted out, "Let's see those hips shaking!" is exactly why I feel the set didn't quite convey what Advent is about. But hey, I'm a pastor who likes to have fun, and a good performer has to know his audience. Plus, the tunes I chose were decent, sounded good on my guitar, and got the Christmas-sweatered ladies in the spirit--that is to say, the spirit of shopping and parties and TV specials and Christmas sweaters.

Now it's time for: You Make the Call! What is and is NOT on your Advent/Christmas set list? What are your most and least favorite Advent/Christmas/Seasonal songs/hymns? And why? (You might also include whose rendition you consider best...and worst.)

Monday, December 1, 2008

Divorce Diary*

June 16, 1978--
"Strike one!" he barked. He was a bull-dog of a man--short, thick, jowly. He was a coach in title only, since he didn't coach us about anything but just called us "panty-wastes" and told us what positions to play--never how to play them. This was just baseball practice, but it felt like a naked spelling bee.

"Strike two!"

I thought it was only a strike if you swung and missed. Why did he keep calling strikes with me just standing there, sweating?

I was seven years old and a head taller than everyone in my class. I wasn't fat. My red, Sears Toughskin jeans were for "husky" boys, so that's what I was. But I just knew everyone was staring at me. It was bad enough that everyone always stared at me because of my size. It was worse that everyone always stared at me because I was the only boy in the whole small Texas town whose parents were divorced and whose father had moved far away. Now everyone was staring at me because I didn't have a clue how to play baseball. But I didn't have a choice.

"Strike three, you're out!"

He didn't have to sound so happy about it.

"You don't stand on the plate when you're batting, Pelfrey."

Now how the hell was I supposed to know that? And why didn't he tell me to begin with? Oh the power of shame to teach a lesson--and to crush a young spirit in one guttural bark.

My mom had taken me to Gibson's to buy a glove and bat with money held out from her four jobs. But my hippie dad had left two years before to go find himself, and my brother was too much older to mess around with his fat, er, husky kid brother.

Why weren't you supposed to stand on the plate when you're batting? What's it there for?

In my twenties I took another stab at it, actually fell in love with baseball, and developed a swing that elicited compliments from baseball-playing friends, a few coaches among them. But I taught myself, dammit. Hitting, pitching, fielding, scores and stats--all the fundamentals, I taught myself.

*I recently realized that I'm now about the same age my parents were when they divorced. There was no custody battle or harsh words. Just a father who went off to find himself, and a childhood that got lost in the process. You may or may not have a comment. But if you or your parents have gone through a divorce, please feel free to share your own feelings. If you are considering divorce, please stop and consider the long-term ramifications of this decision, especially if children are involved. Consider giving counseling a chance, or I am happy to dialog with you from my own experience as a child of divorce and a pastor (e-mail me). To be continued...

Monday, November 24, 2008

All-Time Greatest Singers

Rolling Stone magazine's latest cover story features the all-time greatest singers. Ballots were sent to scores of musicians, producers, executives, etc., including everyone from 50s country-pop darling Brenda Lee to Evanescence's Amy Lee to Rush's Geddy Lee, 70s singer-songwriter Carole King to blues legend B.B. King, the Late Show's Paul Shaffer, Rolling Stone Keith Richards (whose ballot is featured in the "Editor's" section) and, of course, self-proclaimed "g*dd*mn prince of darkness" Ozzy Osborne.

I have to confess a guilty pleasure of mine that arose when I saw the cover story. It's funny how these fleeting thoughts come and go with the brain's electricity. I first thought it interesting (but appropriate) that Bob Dylan was featured on the cover I received (there are four different covers). He is certainly known for his singing, but not for its melodious sweetness. So, right off I know "great" is going to be a broad category for these singers. I also know my guilty pleasure will not be among the top 100--too commercial, too sappy, too pretty. Nevertheless, to my delight, there at number 76 was Journey's Steve Perry--the perfect combination of nose and throat. When Perry pleads in his soaring tenor "Don't stop believin'," you think you just might make it through another night. Don't lie, you know you feel it too! For a stroll down amnesia lane, take a listen to what he does with his 7 seconds of "We Are the World" (sandwiched at the 2:30 mark between two other sweet-voiced white boys, Kenny Loggins and Daryl Hall--also, you gotta love the rawness of the Boss, no. 36). The video features a number of other vocalists who made the top 100.

So, without further adieu, here (spoiler alert) are the top 10: 10-James Brown; 9-Stevie Wonder; 8-Otis Redding; 7-Bob Dylan; 6-Marvin Gaye; 5-John Lennon; 4-Sam Cooke; 3-Elvis Presley; 2-Ray Charles; 1-Aretha Franklin. Check out the whole feature, including playlists of the best from each of the top 100.

I can't believe they left off ________! Fill in the blank. Who got robbed? Who do you say is/are the all-time greatest? What makes a "great" singer--power, technique, influence, relevance, musicality, great songs? Turn others on to some folks they may not know or have forgotten about.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Review: Chinese Democracy

In late 1987, toward the end of a decade dominated by a sabre-rattling and fear-mongering administration, glossy celebrity worship, bank scandals, and music so slick and lifeless it seemed little more than a corpse made up for its own funeral, I had a late-night revelation. I was a 16-year-old hard rock guitarist and occasional high-school student, watching "Headbanger's Ball" on MTV one weekend night, when I heard the banshee cry: You know where you are? You in the jungle, baby! You're gonna diiiiie! With Axl's scream and Slash's grinding riff I was welcomed to the jungle, where it seemed the culture had been for so long, but now the gleaming veneer was cracked and the ugly truth was punching free. Appetite for Destruction was just about a perfect album--dark ("Welcome to the Jungle", "Nightrain"); anthemic ("Paradise City"); even poppy ("Sweet Child o' Mine"); and all with the blood of 80s corruption (see "It's So Easy" and "Mr. Brownstone") running through its veins.

Now, another decade of said sabre-rattling, scandals, and gloss. And now--15 years in the making--another nearly perfect album from Guns n' Roses, Chinese Democracy. I have to admit resentment toward Axl's prima dona antics over the years, but his genius is undeniable and work like this is why we put up with him. From the opening strains of incidental noise, it is clear that this album is going to be an event. Songs like the title song, "If the World" (a perfect fit in the movie Body of Lies), and "Riad n' the Bedouins" mark an expanded scope for G n' R into a more "world" sound, employing Middle-Eastern textures and references appropriate to our times. Present in songs like "Shackler's Revenge" is the familiar mixture of Axl's overdubbed low-high vocals, which sound like his own internal split between meditative and manic! The traditional dark lyrical content is also present, as in "Shackler's" where Axl repeats, "I don't believe there's a reason/I don't believe it." There are many familiar G n' R elements keeping Chinese Democracy right in line with the "band's" catalog.

Absent, however, are Slash's riffs. Like the Rolling Stones ("Satisfaction"), G n' R used to be a "riff band," with songs like "Jungle" and "Sweet Child" (and most others) defined by Slash's opening guitar riff. The new G n' R markedly departs from such raw and traditional blues-based rock sensibilities, in exchange for drum loops and slicker production. Nevertheless, the guitar work is stellar! Axl has surrounded himself with considerable talent and, though the guitar lacks Slash's personality, the technique is flawless and there are many moments that require words like "tasty" and "elegant" and even "magnificent." And for guitarists like myself it is great to herald that, at least on Chinese Democracy, the guitar solo is back!

The few lower points on the album have to do with over-producing ("Scraped") and sentimentality ("This I Love"), though even these are buoyed by lyrical and musical inventiveness. Also, I would be remiss not to single out "Street of Dreams," perhaps the most beautiful of all of Axl's writing. Yes, the song is radio-ready, but it deserves any play it will hopefully get. A more mature "November Rain," "Dreams" moves through beautiful chord changes and uplifting guitar play that truly elevates the soul. "Better" will be a good option for rock radio, and "Catcher in the Rye" even borders on prog-rock with its various movements. Axl's lyrical craftsmanship has sharpened as the well from which he draws seems to have deepened considerably. Cliches are few and lyrics are biting, personal, gritty, and even cathartic and spiritual--often in the same song (from "Prostitute"--What would you say if I told you that I'm to blame?/What would you do if I had to deny your name?). Basically, the album's high points are many and varied--take your pick! Like any G n' R record, there is something for just about everyone.

Indeed, the entire album seems to be a concept a decade-and-a-half in the making, but somehow landing right in stride with the rapid-fire 21st century. The despair and darkness that so plagued Axl and so defined the Guns n' Roses of 1987 still lurks throughout Chinese Democracy, but there is light. The unusual song "Madagascar" employs audio from Martin Luther King Jr., sounding notes of hope (Forgive them that tear down my soul/Bless them that they might grow old), again appropriate for our times. Rumors of this album's release have been spread for years, but with its broader lyrical and musical scope, and cries for justice and healing--both personal and global--the timing of this release seems like marketing genius. Just as our ears and souls are glazing over again, Axl arrives to wail us out of musical complacency. Welcome to...Chinese Democracy!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Singing vs. Preaching

Regarding the previous post "Music on Mars," I want to begin a discussion on the power of music in worship. I am amazed at the power of music to lift our spirits and minds into the presence of God--so much so that music (for good and ill) has become almost synonymous with worship. Is this good or bad? Can singing the Word replace traditionally "preaching" the Word? Do we place too much value on music in our worship, or not enough for the 21st-century mind? Why does music have this power?

Music from Mars

I recently commented on my Twitter and facebook that I think Life on Mars has the best soundtrack of any television show, not least of which is the show's title which is a great David Bowie song. It's amazing the power music has to really alter the mood of a visual scene. How about you? What do you say is the TV show with the best soundtrack, and we can expand the question into movie soundtracks. Also, why does music have such power?

Friday, November 14, 2008

Sunrise Secrets--Coffee or Crack

Black sweatshirt hood gathered around my face, I walk through the streets at sunrise, when "the Holy Ghost over the bent world broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings." The sun is emerging from the horizon, though I only see its light touching the tops of taller houses. The full white moon still shines overhead in the cold blue sky. The still neighborhood begins to stir--lights glowing in the windows as coffee is made and children get ready for school.

Who are these people? What secrets are they keeping--fears and dreams? Who am I to them or they to me? Ah! The discovery. These questions bring or forbid the dawn, because across town there are homeless families stirring in their car-homes, prostitutes striding home with false pride stretched over numbed shame, junkies lying in deathly bliss having silenced the secrets--fears and dreams. And we're back in my neighborhood.

House or car, school or street, coffee or crack, is it a fine line? It may not seem so from suburbia, but for the homeless and the whore and the junkie it is all an unholy ghost--a life just on the edge of sunrise. And this is true of our love as well, of our relationships--the things that go on forever. If only we would allow the sun to rise, night may never come again.
Help Me: What keeps us from truly relating to each other?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Change Your Mind in 2009!

Well, the historic 2008 presidential campaign is history. The ads and debates and talking points and scandals and mudslinging and polling are over, though the 2012 campaigning can’t be far away! No matter how you voted or what your political leanings, it is our duty as people of faith to pray for our president and leaders, and to serve others as children and heirs of God’s kingdom. But the campaign is over!

I have to admit, though, I already sort of miss the campaign. The news was just a bit more interesting then. Maybe it was a little like watching sports—who’s up today, who’s down, who’s advancing and who’s falling behind, who’s injured and who’s committing unsportsmanlike conduct! So, to fill the campaign void in my heart, I’m launching my own campaign of sorts.

The campaign I’m launching isn’t one that can be easily polled, though its forward or backward movements can certainly be felt. It is not a campaign between different factions or parties, though there are two sides to choose from. This campaign is not a grasping at power, though it will surely result in much greater strength the longer the campaign advances. My campaign does not have room for attack ads or mudslinging; just the opposite, in fact.

So what am I campaigning for? Today I declare my campaign to “Change Your Mind in 2009!” Say it with me: Change Your Mind in 2009! Change Your Mind in 2009! “Change my mind about what?” you may ask. Well, everything!
Tucked into the highly quotable book of Philippians, in chapter 4, there is little verse 8 that just explodes with the potential to change our lives—by changing our minds. Paul writes, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” I’ll let you think about that verse for yourself, and we’ll revisit it soon. For now, make your campaign signs and hit the streets—Change Your Mind in 2009! Change Your Mind in 2009!

NEW BOOK--An Untold Story: Heroism, Mysticism, and the Quest for the True Self

"There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you." ~ Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings About the Boo...