My Favorite Records of 2015

 While some of the music listed below is new music released in 2015, much is not. The older I get the more I listen to music older than I am. And I just can’t do a list of music released in 2015. I’ve tried before. The “best of” lists are already limited. And I don’t want to limit them to music only released in the previous 12 months between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31. Plus, I like talking about the old albums I’ve bought. The old albums that have spun on someone else’s turntable. Some 50 years ago or more.

So my criteria for what is below is I listened to them for the first time in 2015 and I own the vinyl version.

Also, these are not necessarily listed in the order of how much I like them. While the first two I could certainly call my absolute favorites of the year, the rest are randomly listed.

The Burning Edge of Dawn – Andrew Peterson

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He gets it. You can hear it in the music. You can hear it in his voice. And the lyrics are clear. AP has stared into the blackness of “the dark night of the soul” and wondered. If God loves him. If any of it matters. Will the dawn ever come? I’ve listened to a lot of music in my life. And when I was going through all he sings about, I would reach back like a drowning man for songs to help me along. I always found something helpful. But nothing that felt like a mirror and a window I could look into. Nothing like this. This album goes far beyond entertainment. That is too small a Universe. This was sound, voice and word helping me put all I had been through into focus.

Psalms – Sandra McCracken

psalms

I started listening to this album while at the beach with friends. The specter of going back to work after the vacation was haunting me and making me miserable. This album helped. Before long this album become a help in the middle of the night when I’d wake up and my mind, packed solid with worry, would race. And then my heart would race. It was like spiritual Xanax, having these songs in my head. It’s also a beautiful album and sounds lush on vinyl. You can hear the music bouncing off the floor of Brian Murphy’s Brooklyn apartment.

Time Out – Dave Brubeck

time out

When this was released in 1959 it blew the jazz and pop worlds’ minds simultaneously. It did what no other Jazz album has ever done. This jazz album had a song (with no vocals) hit the Pop Charts of Billboard peeking at #2. I had never listened to it before this Fall. And I fell in love quick. Actually, I’m kinda obsessed.

Coming Home – Leon Bridges

coming home

When I first heard the title track, it took my breath away because he sounds so much like Sam Cooke. And no one sounds like Sam Cooke. But this guy does. Every song is great. The album sounds old. Possibly because it was recorded on vintage equipment. It sounds like 1960.

Modern Sounds In Country and Western Music (Vol 1 &2) – Ray Charles

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ray 2

Saturday. A few days before I bought my first turntable. I expected nothing, but the estate sale guy said there were some records down in the basement. So I went down and Volume 1 with its blood red cover is the first thing I saw when I got to the bottom of the steps. Volume 2 was right behind it. I picked up about 10 great records that day but nothing as good as these. We’ve probably listened to these two albums more than anything else. They cost me $1.00 total. I’m not sure I could sell them.

Jazz Samba – Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd

jazz samba

I just got it on vinyl. But I’ve been listening to the first album of Bossa Nova ever recorded for a few months. Getz/Gilberto (“The Girl From Ipanema”) is the most famous. But this is the first Bossa Nova album. I can’t believe I found it. Stan Getz sounds like every perfect night of silence. And Charlie Byrd’s guitar is perfect.

Shadows in the Night – Bob Dylan

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I named a son after Dylan. But I did not think I would like this album of Dylan doing Sinatra standards as much as I do. The first time I listened, I admit, I wondered what I had just bought. But then I listened again and again and each time I heard something that drew me in. He is an old man now. And when he sings “That Lucky Old Sun” it has meaning.

Something More Than Free – Jason Isbell

isbell-something-more-than-free

I love this album. Every note. Every line. The only singer/songwriter I can compare Isbell to is Townes. And I don’t really have a higher compliment when it comes to country music. Every note. Every line. All worth your attention.

Duets – Van Morrison

duets

Its Van Freaking Morrison…

 

 

Random Thoughts at the End of the Year

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1. I was in a store the other day and heard “Joy to the World” and it seemed like the most natural thing in the world and the most subversive message possible at the same time.

2.  Resolutions for the new year are a good idea. But I recommend resolutions for the past year also. Resolve to look back and see God’s goodness to you, especially during hard times. So you will remember when they come again.

3. Christians should be the most charitable with those they disagree with others because of the charity we received while we were enemies of God.

4. “…wonders of his love.”

5. The NT becomes a startling piece of communication to those who follow Jesus when you realize there are no directives about survival.

6. I cannot help but think we would care very little for forms of corporate worship if we , Christians held no power and were instead a persecuted people. Our preferences are luxuries.

7. The desire to do whatever you want is a terrible slavery.

8. If the Scriptures are truly the word of God, then we should expect help and profit from them even when we don’t feel the help or see the profit. Maybe the Holy Spirit is doing something. Our conviction should be that it will not return void.

9. I have found when I am worried about being cool or making my faith cool, my heart grows cold toward God and others.

10. After you have made all your resolutions, add another. Resolve to remember God’s mercies when you fail. Resolve to look back over the last year and remember his mercy. And if the last year is a fog of disappointment and failure, look back still further. Look back to the mercy of the cross and the forgiveness there. It stands high above the blinding mist. Outside of us. And puts an end to the lies we will tell ourselves when we cannot lose the weight or keep up with the daily reading schedule. Resolve to remember that if he died for us while we were still enemies, he will love us when we are failures.

My Newest Book

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Yes. I have independently published a book. And because it is a collection of random thoughts and a few essays from this blog, I felt like I would rip a hole in the space-time-mass continuum by not telling you all about it in the format you have come to expect from me.

1. A while back my wife and I talked about doing something like this. Of course, we were thinking all of the random thoughts. Not just the “pastoral” ones.

2. I published this independently because I knew no publisher would touch it. I wouldn’t blame them. And the temptation would be to do it differently. And this is what I wanted to put out there, especially when I realized what I had on my hands.

3. This will not make me rich but I may be able to take my wife to Wendy’s or buy some vinyl.

4. This book is a terrible business decision. And I assume some people will think this is a terrible idea. Which is possibly why I love it so much.

5. One thing I learned as I was culling these “thoughts” is my random thoughts were not as pastoral as I would have liked. I was disappointed to see far too much righteous indignation and not enough words of comfort. There is grace enough for this too.

6. There are a few of these pastoral thoughts I think are worth the price of admission. I couldn’t believe I actually wrote them.

7. It was no surprise to me when I gathered all the more “pastoral” random thoughts they were a reflection of my own struggles and grief over the past five years. I was looking for comfort and hope, which is the goal of this book.

8. Typos and formatting issues? Perfect.

9. Hemingway said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” As I look back on what it took for these thoughts to be born, I understand that now.

10. My hope? Maybe this little book can be a refreshing drink for thirsty souls. Hopefully these thoughts are little shafts of light for the way home in a blackened night. Anchors for the storm. And hopefully notes of grace when all you can hear is silence. Good news for those need it.

You can purchase it here.

 

Thursday’s Random Thoughts

  
1. It’s funny. I love the new Adele album. But it makes me want to listen to music with some hope. Even a corner of hope. It’s a beautiful record. But there is so little hope, even between the lines. Maybe it’s just the wrong record for the moment.

2. Too bad St. Stephen didn’t have a gun.

3. I’ve started five books in the last week or so. I cannot find anything I want to read. My mind wanders. I’ve been here before. But I want something I can land in for a while. Something that made me feel like I did when discovered Berry, Dillard, Robinson, and McCarthy.

4. I loved Andrew Peterson’s Behold the Lamb of God show the other night. But the best part was my 12 year old putting her head on my shoulder during.

5. It is hard to listen to Christians who have not been through the “dark night of the soul.” And those of us who have been through it can tell when someone has. The smell of the smoke of the hell walked through never really leaves you.

6. The other day I was talking with a pastor of a largish church. A pastor I respect very much. And he told me he had no idea what is going on in the larger evangelical world. It was the most refreshing thing I’d heard in a long time.

7. Have you ever stopped to think  about what a gift music is? What would it be like to have no music? No songs. No singing. No guitars strummed up into the starry night. No crackle of the dust on a record in the silence between the notes. No blues. No Psalms. No drum beats moving underneath the darkness taking us toward light and the hope of safe harbor. No lyrics that give voice to all our fears and joys and failures and dreams of better days. All of us have a sung song that makes us achingly long for something more than what we know.

8. My wife made a ham the other day that I’m gonna have to go into detox for after its all gone.

9. American Christianity thinks it’s enemy is flesh and blood.

10. It is hard to stop being a pastor. 

 

 

Random Thoughts on the Weekend

  
1. Are you supposed to miss your coworkers on the weekend? 

2. I cannot help but think that all the goodness of the Christian faith – the grace, mercy, love, hope, life –  makes more sense during the really dark times. Or if you’ve had hard times. 

3. We are going to eat at Cracker Barrel tonight as a foretaste of the Banquet at the world’s end.

4. Conservatives fear their guns being taken away. Liberals think the absence of guns will make us safe. As a follower of Jesus, I stake a ground wholly outside. Without ignoring the threats that keep each other at the other’s throat. I don’t wanna be afraid anymore. I want to fall in line with the message of the Prince of Peace whose consistent message has been to love without fear.

5. It’s been a week since I’ve had pizza so if you’ve got any…

6. I’ve been listening to Andrew Peterson a good bit over the past week. I’ve noticed something about him that may be even better than his songs. He seems spring-loaded to encourage other musicians. I know he’s gotta struggle with ego and the dark opposite echo of self-hatred. Which makes his promotion of others’ work so refreshing.

7. Listening to music any other way besides vinyl is disappointing now.

8. There is so little wisdom in newsrooms and the offices of politicians. It’s probably not even measurable.

9. You know you have hit a rare place as a reader/writer when you hang on a sentence you’ve read. And you hang there for days on end. Not simply for what it says but more for how it’s said.

10. I’ve been listening to Christmas music and the other day we were listening to the radio and we heard a Christmas song that was so generic. And then we came home and heard Amy Grant. And it struck me. The power of someone singing about that first Christmas who actually believes it and its present significance. Maybe there’s something to this Christian music thing.

Who Is Christmas For?

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I wrote the following article years ago. When I wrote it I was a pastor and it was in response to someone else’s hurt. Then we went through years of similar pain and I posted it because I needed to hear the same. And selfishly I needed to know I was not alone.

This was going to be year that I was *not* going to post it. But then I heard of another’s pain. The kind of pain that comes in spades. And you look to heaven and ask “What next?!”

So I’m posting this for an old friend. Heck, I’m always trying and struggling to believe this myself. And I can only assume there are many others who are too…

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We are now accustomed to hearing how Christmas is difficult for many people. The story of Scrooge and his problems with the season is no longer anecdotal. It is now par for the course. Maybe this has always been the case. Maybe the joy of the season has always been a thorn in the side of those who can scarcely imagine joy.

Not too long ago, I heard from one of these people about how difficult Christmas would be because of heartbreak in their family. There was utter hopelessness and devastation. Christmas would be impossible to enjoy because of the freshness of the pain. It’s been a story hard to forget.

I get it. I mean, it makes sense. Christmas is a time when there is a lot of heavily concentrated family time. The holidays can be tense in even the best of circumstances. Maneuvering through the landmines of various personalities can be hard even if there is no cancer, divorce or an empty seat at the table. What makes it the most wonderful time of the year for one is also what makes it the most brutal time of the year for another. My own family has not been immune to this phenomenon.

But I’d like to push back against this idea a little. Gently. I think we have it all backwards. We have it sunk deep into our collective cultural consciousness that Christmas is for the happy people. You know, those with idyllic family situations enjoyed around stocking-strewn hearth dreams. Christmas is for healthy people who laugh easily and at all the right times, right? The successful and the beautiful, who live in suburban bliss, can easily enjoy the holidays. They are beaming after watching a Christmas classic curled up on the couch as a family in front of their ginormous flat-screen drinking perfectly mixed hot cocoa. We live and act as if this is who should be enjoying Christmas.

But this is so damnably backwards. Christmas – the great story of the incarnation of the Rescuer – is for everyone, especially those who need a rescue. Actually, Jesus is for only those who need a rescue. Jesus was born as a baby to know the pain and sympathize with our weaknesses. Jesus was made to be like us so that in his resurrection we can be made like him; free from the fear of death and the pain of loss. Jesus’ first recorded worshippers were not of the beautiful class. They were poor, most-likely ugly shepherds; beat down by life and labor. They had been looked down on over many a nose.

Jesus came for those who look in the mirror and see ugliness. Jesus came for daughters whose fathers never told them they were beautiful. Christmas is for those who go to “wing night” alone. Christmas is for those whose lives have been wrecked by cancer and the thought of another Christmas seems like an impossible dream. Christmas is for those who would be nothing but lonely if not for social media. Christmas is for those whose marriages have careened against the retaining wall and are threatening to flip over the edge. Christmas is for the son, whose father keeps giving him hunting gear when all he wants is art materials. Christmas is for smokers who cannot quit even in the face of a death sentence. Christmas is for whores, adulterers and porn stars who long for love in every wrong place. Christmas is for college students who are sitting in the midst of family and already cannot wait to get out for another drink. Christmas is for those who have trafficked in failed dreams. Christmas is for parents watching their children’s marriage fall into disarray. Christmas is for those who have squandered the family name and fortune – they want ‘home’ but cannot imagine a gracious reception.

Christmas is really about the gospel of grace for those who need it. Because of all that Christ has done on the cross, the manger becomes the most hopeful place in a Universe darkened with death and violence and hopelessness. So, who is Christmas for? In the irony of all ironies, Christmas is for those who will find it the hardest to enjoy.

(Art: Blue Christmas Candle from Stushie’s Art)