Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Hope For The Future Of The Church: An Observational Piece on the Current Generation of Christians

I recently have been thinking a lot about my generation and how we as twenty something young people are probably some of the most in your face, open about our opinions, generation the world has ever seen. We are also as a whole, the most tech savvy, Internet literate group to ever populate America and planet earth as a whole. Taking all of these factors into consideration, I have been thinking about how they play into specifically my friends and the common denominator that many of us share: our Christianity.

You see, we as a whole are a product of coming of age in an era of church history that will now be known as “The Seeker Movement” that dominated most big churches around America for about ten years between 1996-2006 approximately. This movement was for all intensive purposes in my view and the view of many of my friends, an all out disaster. Instead of developing disciples like the Church was meant to do as taught by Paul in many of the New Testament Epistles, the American Church at the time put the highest priority on getting people ‘Saved’ and very little priority on anything beyond that. Therefore, many, many people my age simply ‘prayed a prayer’ and then went on living their life no different than they had before.

However, there was a small remnant of us who, began reading the Scriptures on our own, as well as other solid Christian authors, and understood that Christianity was about a whole lot more than just ‘praying a sinners prayer.’ In fact, a ‘sinner’s prayer’ isn’t even mentioned anywhere in the Bible!!! That small remnant is now, in my view, helping to shape the next generation of Christians, and we are all in, committed to following Christ and loving His Church as best we can, considering we are still imperfect people.

I think it would be fun to do a documentary on us, and the way in which we are living out our lives as Christ followers in a generation that in many ways in more crooked and twisted than ever before. We tend to be more comfortable talking about what we believe and why, and aren’t as intimated by people who disagree with us. We enjoy keeping an open dialog with those who are not Christians and also feel comfortable going to bars, having a beer and reassuring people that alcohol is not a sin in moderation.

We also have begun taking the concept of living in community with other Believers as a great idea and therefore the practice of four or five guys or four or five gals living under one roof, splitting rent, utility, internet, and food costs into affordable payments for each involved is becoming more and more common. This also is helping the fact that we graduating college at a time when we as a nation are still recovering from one of the worst recessions in recent history. Jobs are kinda sparse, so we are unable to financially afford to live out on our own like our parents generation often was able to after college.

What others might seen as a major problem, my generation has seen therefore as an opportunity; an opportunity to live together with other Godly men if you are a guy, and Godly women if you are girl. All throughout the New Testament, from Acts, to Ephesians to Hebrews we as Christians are told of the importance of two things: community and unity within the body. My friends and I have taken this to heart, and are seeking to learn how to live alongside one another despite differences in sleep schedules, tastes in movies and music, as well as being introverted or extraverted.

Unity though is my next point. My generation is looking at different church denominations that have been in existence and caused many a worship and doctrine war for centuries, and begun asking: ‘hey, you love Jesus right? I do too. Can’t we just focus on that common bond and yes, friendly debate one another, but ultimately stay friends despite those differences in whether you believe in speaking in tongues or are Pre-millennial or A-millennial?”  In Cleveland, OH we actually had several churches partner for bi-monthly worship and prayer nights for a while called “Unite: Cleveland” where city and suburban area churches from varying denominations got together to pray collectively for Cleveland and the people in it.

Conversations and discussions about how to better serve as witnesses of the Gospel of Christ, serve other people period, and general story telling sessions are often the main discussion topics at various Bible Study groups, coffee shop meetings, wing and beer sports bar hangouts, and post church Sunday night Applebee runs. The topic of conversation can turn instantly from serious heart issues to the viewing of a funny YouTube clip in a heartbeat, and we are okay with that. Using humor to lighten the mood is a common anecdote to otherwise hard times in the lives of friends.

As I said earlier, we are comfortable with people disagreeing with us. This is especially true when it comes to sharing our faith with non-Christians, where we tend to take the approach of never denying we are Christians, but not ever forcing what we believe onto anyone. We simply state that we love Jesus and do our best to live up to the teachings of the Bible, while being the first to humbly admit that we fail to so often. We allow non-Christians to feel we are approachable and welcome discussion and questions from them, while remembering that we can’t expect them to think like we do, without the help of the Holy Spirit. Thus, we aren’t offended if they tell us that they think the Bible is completely untrue and that they doubt the very existence of God. The fact that they enjoy talking and feel safe talking to us is enough to keep us happy to share our views on matters in society and everyday life.

Ultimately, we want our parents generation to know there is hope for the future of the Church in America. A great majority of our generation has completely turned their back on the Church, and we realize this every day from simply living and going to work in our society today among our peers. While many have chosen to compromise and assimilate a good majority of what the culture teaches while still claiming to be Christians, we are choosing to stand firm and ‘fight the good fight of the Faith” and the Apostle Paul told his young prodigy Timothy two thousand years ago. Yes battles are coming, but we are going to stand united in our love and faith in Christ, knowing that divided it would be impossible to stand.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

A Taste Of Walk-Off Excitement

It was a summer night in early August at 1 Cor 16. A group of friends from church had gathered for a night of sockball and card games. It was the inaugural game at “1 Cor Field” and it had been quite a game. My team was trailing my best friends team 23-20 going into the bottom of the ninth inning. We had actually had two friends part their cars in our driveway horizontally facing the front yard field with their headlights on. It was really cool playing sockball under a starlit night sky, with just enough light cast by the headlight beams to see the ball soaring through the air.

As my team scratched out a couple of runs and cut the score to 23-22, I stepped up to the plate.  The scenario: two friends on base, two out and our best power hitter, my good friend Shawn on deck. My thought was to simply get a hit to keep the game going and get Shawn up to be in position to win the game.

I fouled the first pitch delivered to me by my best friend and stood back in. As my best friend lobbed the sock ball towards home plate to me again, I took a smooth easy swing. My metal softball bat connected with the sockball, emitting a soft ‘plop’ sound and began to sail on an ascending line towards the SUV parked in our driveway representing the center field fence.

I headed for first base and I watched simultaneously as the ball soared through the night and my friend Andrew tracked it as it headed to the SUV ‘wall.’ I watched as if in slow motion the ball broke the plane of the lights on our garage that illuminated the warm summer darkness and sailed just over the shadow of Andrew’s outstretched fingers and landed with a soft ‘pop’ onto the roof of the SUV, which meant by sock ball 1 Cor Field rules that ball was a home run!

Could it be?! I remember thinking as I rounded first base. Did I seriously just hit a walk off home run in my favorite backyard version of baseball! My grandfather and I invented this game back when I was nine years old. I was now 26 and had never been the person to hit a game-winning homer. The craziest part was I wasn’t even trying in that moment. I extended my arms in the air and screamed “yeah!” as I rounded third and headed for home, where I my teammates were waiting with outstretched high fives. I jumped on home plate and landed a return high five on each one of their raised hands.

Childish? Perhaps a little, but the fact that I still remember this moment clear as a bell seven months later tells you that I definitely still have an inner child that gets released during a game of sockball. I think God gives us joy in small things like that in order that we remember that he wants us to have a child like faith in what big things He can do in each of our lives. May you trust Him more and more each day, and I will try to do the same! 

Friday, February 14, 2014

Some Short Thoughts On Love and 1 Corinthians 13

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
-1 Corinthians 13:7

Valentines day is upon us. A day in which both married couples and dating couples celebrate the love and romance that they have found in each other. As a single person, I have spent many a year bemoaning the fact that I didn’t have a girlfriend. Pathetic yes I know, but I couldn’t help myself.

Lately though, God has been challenging and teaching me about just what loving another person really involves. It is not just about what you do or say when you are having the warm fuzzy feelings towards that special someone, it is also about how you act and what your heart does when you are angry at, hurt by and all out frustrated by, that person.

This is why Paul tells us in the verse above that love “bears all things…endures all things.” This means that if I genuinely love someone, not just like, and not just infatuated with, I will not run when things get tough and the “rubber meets the road” as the old expression goes. It means that I am required to forgive my future wife when she hurts me, be patient with her when she is upset and angry with me, and commit to work it out with her.

The first three chapters of Hosea show us this in an extreme form. God tells Hosea to marry a prostitute named Gomer, as an illustration of how He loves the nation of Israel despite their worship of other gods. Hosea marries Gomer and then must go after her when she goes back to her old ways of selling her body. Hosea never gives up on Gomer and loves her unconditionally. It may be one of the most powerful examples of what true love looks like in the Bible, and functions as an allegory for how much God loves us.

True love is only true if it stirs in our hearts a desire to sacrifice for the better of the person we love, putting our own needs and desires aside and placing their needs ahead of ours. True love then, is always selfless and never selfish.  It means that you trust that person deeply and completely.

This is why getting married is probably one of the top two most important decisions any of us will make in our entire lives. So as my thoughts tonight are very brief I will sum things up this way: if you are married tonight and reading this, allow yourself to be challenged by Paul’s words to remember each and every day that your marriage is not about you, it is about how you sacrifice for your spouse. If you are like me, single, or in a dating relationship at the moment, allow Paul’s words to prepare you for your decision one day about whom you marry. Ask yourself, is this a person I can see myself laying my own will and desires down for on a daily basis?

I can tell you that I have been challenged to look at things a lot differently lately because of this passage in 1 Corinthians 13, and I hope you will allow it to do the same for you. Ultimately then, Valentines Day is about sacrificial love, and the way in which we demonstrate that love to other people. May you love well, not only today, but every day for the rest of your time on earth. 

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

On Creativity And Its Many Forms: A Treatise

Every have one of those times were you feel like you want to do something that shows your creativity and keen sense of insight into life , yet you find yourself at a loss for where to begin? Ever have one of those nights where you don’t have any plans and are just resting, yet feeling like doing something, anything, but you don’t know just what it is you want to do?

I call this ‘artistic restlessness’ but in all reality all it really is, is a form of writer’s block. We all will experience this at some point because I believe God has given each and every one of us a drive to be creative. That is right, because each and every one of us bears the mark of our creator. After all, in Genesis 1:27 we are told that God created us ‘in His own image” and when one considers the fact that God did this after spending nearly six days being creative with the whole world, I have to believe this means He meant for us to be creative too.

This is where things get interesting. If you are in any way like me, you think of creativity being expressed in the forms of artistic talent, namely being able to draw, paint, carve, mold, or stitch in a way that is beautiful and at times lifelike. Perhaps you also like me, think it is expressed in musical form, or being able to sing, play and instrument or compose on an instrument or all three as being a chief form of artistic talent.

Here is the truth that God has been showing me lately though: these are talents, make no mistake, but they are not the ONLY talents He gives his children when He created us before we were born.

There are many artistic talents folks. For instance, having an eye for capturing a canvas before one’s eye in the form of photograph is an art. There is so much that goes into taking a good photo. You have to think about light exposure, time exposure, and things like framing a shot and a whole bunch of other things that to be honest I know almost nothing about. Yet, there a folks who naturally are able to do such things and snap photos that upon viewing leaving us breathless in amazement.

Storytelling I am told, is an art form as well. It is not every person that can draw you into a story the moment they open their mouth. You know a good storyteller when you meet one. What makes them so good? Well from my experience, they know how to use descriptive phrases and words with ease that stimulate your imagination to the point that you can be there watching what they are describing unfold in your mind’s eye.

Teaching is an art. Yes, in many ways there is science behind it, and methods are good and all, but deep down, each person whether they are a young child, or an elder, learns a little differently. That is where the art comes in. No one person can learn in the same way, and a good teacher can navigate through all kinds of style, finesse and form, to communicate effectively what they are trying to plant inside of a fellow humans mind. Some people learn through visual stimulation, others through hearing, and others through hands on activity, and almost any combination of the above.
Scrapbooking is another form of expression that is artistic. Taking memories that are captured through photos and finding a way to tell a story with them is not something just anyone can do. Think about this, look through a set of photos from a family vacation with no one from the family around to narrate what each photo is capturing. Doesn’t really communicate much does it? Then look through a scrapbook of a family vacation with no one from the family around to narrate and you will get a fuller story. Why? Because there are all kinds of notes, stickers, and backgrounds to enhance the experience and tell you the story behind each photo! That is art!

Similar to photography, cinematography is another form of creativity. Think about movies for a minute. How often does the way in which the angles of each shot help set the mood for a scene? How about the use of shadow, light, color, blurring, fade in, fade out or anything else I may be forgetting. All of this helps tell a story through non verbal communication. That is a gift that not just anyone has, and yes, it is art!

There are many, many more form of artistic creation that I know I haven’t covered, but hopefully you will think a bit differently about labeling someone ‘artistic’ or ‘not artistic’ from now on. Remember, as I said earlier we are all made in God’s image, and God is incredibly creative after all how else do explain the Duck Billed Platypus or the Kiwi Bird? 

Monday, January 27, 2014

The Top 20 Albums of 2013

For those of you who are interested, and as any of my friends know, I am huge music junkie, so each year I try to compile a list of at least 20 albums that were significant in my view, and list them in ascending order, along with a brief synopsis of each. Enjoy!

20. Phil Wickham- “The Ascension.”
Wickham again released a solid album of pop guitar and synth driven worship songs this year. Lots of catchy hook laden melodies and solid lyrical reflections on who God his why we should worship Him alone, as well as amazing ballads like “Over All.” It also contains Wickham’s remake of Bethel Music’s “This Is Amazing Grace” that is quite well done.

19. Ghost Ship- “The Good King.”
One of the biggest deals struck in the Christian music industry this year was Mars Hill Records signing as distribution deal with Tooth & Nail records. Their first two releases were the debut albums from Citizens (which we will get to later on the list) and Ghost Ship. “The Good King” rollicks through your speakers with rootsy worship sounds on tracks like “Mediator” and “The Gospel” and well as blues on “Lion King” which is one of the best tracks on the album!

18. The Lone Bellow- “The Lone Bellow.”
If one feels extreme angst and emotion when listening to this debut album from lead singer/songwriter Zach Williams and company, there is good reason. Williams wrote the bulk of this album’s lyrics in a hospital, while his wife was undergoing treatment after a horse riding accident nearly left her paralyzed. The uncertainly of times like that birthed incredible ballads like “Two Sides of Lonely” and “Bleeding Out.” While hope still emerges, this song collection is intense, but that is truly what makes it so good!

17. Ben Rector- “The Walking In-Between.”
When I first discovered Ben Rector it was in 2012, when he opened for NEEDTOBREATHE on their spring tour. He was extremely impressive in that live performance and really engaged with the audience. This album, Rector’s third full release is full of soulful ballads and catchy folk pop ditties. “Beautiful” is easily one of the best windows rolled down summer anthems to grace our speakers in years. “I Like You” is beautiful in its simplicity of articulating what it feels like to be in love with a girl. Other highlights include the gorgeous love song “Forever Like That” and the anthem like “Thank God For The Summertime.”

16. Ivan & Alyosha- “All The Times We Had.”
 If you are a fan of classic roots rock/folk bands and artists like Neil Young, America, & the droning organ sounds of Procol Harem, you will love Ivan & Alyosha. The sounds swirl and swing along with plenty of slide guitars and organs, especially on songs like “Fathers Be Kind,” “Running For Cover” and the incredible heart breaking “God Or Man.” This album was made for highway drives through Nebraska and Kansas, with nothing but corn fields on either side. The sound is definitely middle of nowhere America, yet Ivan & Alyosha are from Seattle! Hard to reconcile mentally, but eardrum wise it doesn’t matter.

15. Fiction Family- “Fiction Family Reunion.”
Jon Foreman of Switchfoot and Sean Watkins of Nickel Creek joined forces again this year, nearly five years after their debut as Fiction Family. The result was a fine southern tinged rock album featuring some typically biting lyrics from Foreman at times, especially on “God Badge” which featured Foreman snidely singing ‘put your God badge down and love someone.” Elsewhere there was the ode to relationship frustrations on “Up Against The Wall” and “Fools Gold” a warning to young musicians everywhere to not let their art consume them with pride and arrogance.  

14. Bethel Music- “Tides.”
The latest release from Redding, California’s worship band was a solid mix of studio effects and swirling guitars, set at both bouncy upbeat intervals, and ballad like pensive reflections. “Chasing You” is the opening track to get the train rolling out of the station, and old hymn “I Have Decided” gets a synthesized looping remake. However, this albums finest moment is by far “Be Still,” which takes Psalm 46:10 as inspiration and reminds each of us to quiet our hearts before God and enjoy His presence.

13. Shine Bright Baby- “Dreamers.”
The pride of Orrville, OH gave us their major label debut this past May on BEC Records, a subdivision of the famous Tooth & Nail Records. They remind me of a hybrid of the dance pop sound of Owl City, and the girl fronted rock sound of Superchick in their early 2000’s heyday. “Made To Glow” reminds of us that we as Christians are to shine as lights in the world. “Luminoux” features a swirling mix of synthesizers, and the title track round out this fine 33-minute adrenaline shot of sound!

12. JJ Heller- “Loved.”
While this is probably not JJ Heller’s best album of her incredible career, it was a solid effort nonetheless. “If You Fall” features probably the fullest band like sound of her career featuring backing synthesizer as well as guitar, and “Create In Me” is a humble request for God to use us with the gifts He has given us, but the best song by far is “Who You Are” which communicates the fact that we may not always know what God is doing in the trials in our lives, but we can still trust in who He is, God in control at all times.

11. Derek Webb- “I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry, And I Love You.”
Derek Webb celebrated his tenth anniversary as a solo artist this past year by releasing an album that returns to his rootsy folk rock sound he began it with in 2003 with his “She Must And Shall Go Free” album. This album celebrates marriage, and family life, both literally family and church family. The title track reminds us that we need to seek forgiveness for our actions, and humbly admit we are wrong. “The Vow” is a wonderful celebration of marriage and commitment, and “Eye Of The Hurricane” features some great acoustic guitar work that is bound to get stuck in your head for hours after you hear it!

10. Christa Wells- “Feed Your Soul”
 If you are a fan of the incredibly talented songwriters Sara Groves and Audrey Assad, be ready to add Ms. Wells to your list. She may be one of the more underappreciated artists making music right now. This album focuses, as one might imagine from the title, on the need we all have for God to feed our souls each day. Highlights include “Have Your Eyes Open,” the title track, and my favorite love song of 2013, “The Way You Love Me.”

9. Jars of Clay- “Inland.”
 Jars of Clay’s first indie release apart from any major label affiliation saw them taking a bit of influence from many of their past albums and it was a winner. While, initially this album didn’t grab me, upon multiple listens I found that it was actually much better than I thought. ”After The Fight” kicks things off with plenty of shimmery guitar. “Age of Immature Mistakes” is easily one of the better commentaries on society these days, while “Fall Asleep” is one of the albums strongest love song ballads. “Skin And Bones” features some of the better guitar work we have heard from Jars of Clay in a while, and the closing title track reminds us of our need for one another.

8. The Civil Wars- ‘The Civil Wars.”
The feud between Joy Williams and John Paul White that led to the long hiatus/break up of The Civil Wars was much publicized over the past year, and it was a complete surprise to me this past summer when it was announced a final album would be released, recorded mere months before the duo went their separate ways. The tone of the lyrics of this album seem to hint at discord all over the place, from “The One That Got Away” to “Same Old Same Old” and “Eavesdrop.” Yet that is what makes this album so good! It’s raw examination of emotion and frustration make for a fine parting gift to us fans.

7. Vampire Weekend- “Modern Vampires Of The City.”
If you were to have told me last January that one of the best albums of 2013 written about wrestling with faith and doubt would come from a mainstream band known primarily for their light hearted indie rock grooves, I would have looked at you like you had two heads! However, that is just what Vampire Weekend gave us when “Modern Vampires of The City” dropped this past summer. Songs like “Unbelievers” and “Ya Hey” wrestle with understanding who God is and eternal destinations. So fans know they still know how to have fun though, they include songs like “Finger Back” and “Obvious Bicycle” making for a well-rounded modern rock song cycle!

6. Citizens- “Citizens.”
One of the best worship rock albums of 2013 came from Mars Hill Church’s Citizens, who released an incredible mix of driven rock and roll that is reminiscent of Jimmy Eat World and All American Rejects (“Sweetness Of Freedom,” “Hail The King”) as well as some remakes of old hymns (“I Surrender All” and “Praise To The Lord”). The albums strongest cuts though are ballads, “I Am Living In A Land Of Death” and the drop D tuning grunge influenced closing track “Oh God,” which both build into forte finishing climaxes!

5. The Almost- “Fear Inside Our Bones.”
This is the best straight up head bopping rock and roll album of 2013! The Almost crashed back on the scene this spring with an album that is impossible not to tap your feet and bob your head to. The guitars are loud, the vocals are nasally toned, and the beats are like a freight train rolling past you out of control! “Never Be Like You,” “Down” and the story song “Lonely Boy” will bounce around your brain for days, beckoning you to return for another listen.

4. Audrey Assad- “Fortunate Fall.”
Similar to Jars of Clay, Audrey Assad went indie this past fall and released an album stripped back to often just soft piano and guitar melodies, with an occasional quiet drop backdrop. This sound fit the lyrical tone of the album, which is reflective and meditative on passages of scripture, mostly the Psalms, that reflect on who God and Jesus are, and what they did on our behalf as sinners. If you are looking for a ‘prayer closet’ album, this is it as songs like “Good To Me” and “Lead Me On” will be sure to put your mind and heart in the right place when seeking Jesus.

3. The Digital Age- “Evening & Morning.”
When The David Crowder Band dissipated back in 2012, I was greatly disappointed. One of the best and most talented worship bands were calling it quits! However, later on word got out that the members of the band had reformed, sans David Crowder, and were now going by the name The Digital Age. All summer long I waited for their debut full length album to drop, and it finally did in August, and it was so, so good! Lots of high-energy worshipful songs mix electronic influences with guitars. “Captured,” “Glow” and “Symphony of Grace” all will have you jumping in your seat! “Overcome” and “Through The Night” are wonderful songs about God’s faithfulness and goodness, and their covers of both All Sons & Daughters’ “All The Poor And Powerless” and Bethel’s “Break Every Chain” are spot on and give new takes on already powerful songs!

2. Gungor- “I Am Mountain.”
This album was birthed out of lead songwriter and vocalist Michael Gungor’s trek into losing his Faith and then finding it again! That is correct, Gungor has said in interviews that he actually questioned everything about Christianity and his beliefs about God, Jesus and the Bible, and then came out more in love with Jesus than before! The songs reflect doubt and struggle and depression aplenty here on songs like “A Long Way,” “Wandering” and “The Best Part,” delve into mythology for an allegorical tale about the collapse of marriage’s stability on “Beat Of Her Heart,” and get straight up political on the spaghetti western sounding “God And Country.” The album then closes with what Michael Gungor has described as ‘chaos’ on “Upside Down” which concludes with a crash of crescendo of guitars, keyboards and drums, showing us that life isn’t ever all resolved this site of eternity!

1. Over The Rhine- “Meet Me At The Edge Of The World.”
Anyone who has spent time talking music with me in recent months will not be surprised that this album is my pick for album of the year. Add to the fact that my close friend Sarah and I heard most of these songs for the first time this summer when Over The Rhine debuted them in concert before this album was even released and you will be even less surprised, as you will remember how wowed I was after that concert! Simply put, this is the best album to convey worshipful attitudes through lyrical imagery of the beauty of Ohio and the world God has created I have heard since many albums made by the late great Rich Mullins. It is there in every note song and played from the opening title track of this double album, to the closing chords of “Favorite Time Of Light.” Husband and wife duo Linford Deitweiler and Karin Bergquist have been making music for over two decades together now, and it is hard to say they have ever produced a more stunning and beautiful album! Oh yes, be aware there will be some cuss words here and there, but somehow they never seem too overwhelming. If your heart is looking to fall back in love with God and the glorious creation He spoke into being, I can almost guarantee this will do the trick!