Albums That Influenced Me – Part II

In the years after college, I was trying to find my place still. I had graduated with an engineering degree and was working in the field, but I probably had a major case of FOMO. I wanted to seize every possible opportunity that came across my path.

Having played guitar since I was about fourteen, I decided to try my hand at the coffeehouse scene. I could be brooding when I needed to be and when I began to focus on music, it seemed like the most melancholic part of my personality came out.

I had a key to my dad’s church and would go there late at night to play, practice, and write. It’s amazing how peaceful a church sanctuary is when no one else is around. That place literally became my sanctuary as I found myself coming of age in my 20s and dealing with all the bumps and turns of life. I guess, if I’m honest, the biggest bumps and turns were relational ones at the time, primarily with the opposite sex.

I had become close with a girl whose brother was a rising musician. He was just starting to get some exposure in the professional scene. During that time, he got connected with Vanessa Williams and he worked on her Christmas album. My friend and I even got to go to New York City for the taping of her Christmas show as my friend’s brother was the musical director for the show.

I grew to appreciate my friend’s brother and his music and it coincided with my efforts to write more music. One day, while talking with my friend, I asked her whether or not she could arrange a meeting with her brother. I wanted to learn from someone who had experience. So, he carved out time in his busy schedule and one weekend afternoon, I went over to his house. 

I had been playing around with open tuning on my guitar although everything I did was mostly by ear rather than because I actually knew what I was doing. While I knew my way around a piano keyboard, the guitar was still foreign to me (kind of still is to this day). My friend’s brother wanted to hear some of the songs that I had written.

I remember playing a Christmas song that I had written that was from the shepherd’s perspective of the birth of Jesus. At the time, my friend’s brother would do an annual Christmas concert as the two albums that he had done at the time were really focused on Christmas music. He would eventually garner the moniker “Mr. Christmas” as his annual concert and his fame grew.

It was a little nerve wracking playing my pedestrian songs for this guy. Pretty sure that he even used that word “pedestrian” when he described my songs. He saw my Christmas song as an homage to him, which was probably more true than I wanted to admit at the time. He also did his best to steer me in the right direction, throwing out a few musical suggestions to me.

Having heard his suggestions, I quickly immersed myself in them. One name was suggested for his lyrical abilities. The other two names were suggested for their chord stylings and alternate tunings. The last two were women: Joni Mitchell and Shawn Colvin. I hadn’t heart Colvin before but Mitchell was familiar only in name to me. The first name he gave me, the one known for his lyrical abilities, was Bob Dylan. The album he suggested was “Blood on the Tracks.”

These three names took me down various rabbit holes, but none as much as the rabbit hole of Bob Dylan. Up to that point, he had been a joke because of his less than stellar voice. I had never really listened to him, I mean really listened. I had heard only a gravelly and whiney voice without uncovering the magic behind it.

That would be the beginning of my love and appreciation for Bob Dylan. “Blood on the Tracks” remains one of my favorite albums of Dylan’s. The stories he would weave with simple melodies and chord structures seemed almost too easy. He seemed to do it effortlessly, playing, singing, blowing on the harmonica.

As the years went by, my collection of his music expanded. I had the chance to see him with Paul Simon in Connecticut. I named my son after him. I saw him the night before my father died (which is a whole other story that I may or may not have already written about somewhere). I even got to take that saw son to see him this year.

So I guess that Bob Dylan has become a part of me. My discovery of him was really after most of his major musical stages, but unearthing all of the gems along the way after the fact was just as rewarding and satisfying for me.

Albums That Influenced Me – Part I

If you spend any time on social media, you may have seen those posts where people are urged to share the music albums that influenced them for 10 days straight. They are technically supposed to invite others along on the journey every day and limit their posts to just the album cover with no explanation whatsoever.

Music is such a deep and influential part of who I am that it’s hard for me not to share more than just an album cover. If I’m sharing the albums out, chances are that the impact they had goes so much deeper than just hearing a cool song on the radio. In fact, as I’ve traced it back, some of the most influential albums for me were released in the late 80s, a time when my musical horizons were being broadened beyond the limitations that my parents had put on me in my younger years.

A friend commented on my influential album post on day 7, wondering what the story was behind some of the albums I had shared for the previous 6 days, so I decided that I would share a little about why these albums were so influential to me. It doesn’t mean that they were the greatest albums ever, the best music, or the most popular, it just means that they struck me somewhere deep inside. So without further ado, the first of a lot of posts, sharing why these particular albums meant so much to me. 

The summer between middle school and high school, I spent on staff at a family camp that I had grown up going to in upstate New York in the Adirondacks. I worked far too many hours for far too little money, but it was one of the greatest summers of my life. I still stay in contact with some of the people that I met that summer and the memories that I made will last me my entire lifetime.

I had grown up on Contemporary Christian Music, the Carpenters, and Andy Williams. My parents had forbidden me from listening to secular music, so middle school was even more miserable of an experience for me than it might normally be.

Fortunately for me, a friend and mentor who had recently begun coming to my dad’s church got me into Eric Clapton that year or the year before. I had slowly been immersing myself into Clapton’s early stuff from the 70s, so I wasn’t a complete noob when it came to that vast catalog of rock and roll music.

With an older brother who was venturing through his own prodigal ways as the son of a pastor, I was exposed to music that was outside the bounds of what my mom and dad permitted. That’s when “Owner of a Lonely Heart” came along. It was a few years old by the time it hit my ears, but I was instantly drawn in. This music was fascinating to me. The musicianship. The lyrics. The song structure. It was a whole new world for me.

Being away from my parents for the summer. I was trying my best to discover just who I was. Music played a part in that as I was introduced to bands like New Order, Aerosmith, and Guns n Roses. I couldn’t get enough and when they finally banned the radio in the dishroom where I worked, it was too late. We had spent so much time listening to these songs, imbibing this music, that it was imprinted on our brains and we just sang along by heart all the songs we had been listening to up to that point.

In the heyday of the shopping mall, I went along on one trip with one of  my fellow inmates coworkers. On that trip, I visited one of the big box record stores in the mall and bought “90125.” Pretty sure I wore that album out that summer. I couldn’t get enough and it became a gateway drug to me. It was a ticket into the world of progressive rock as I went home from camp that summer to begin compiling the full catalog of Yes’ work. Little did I know how different that album would be from the rest of their work, but I fell in love with them nonetheless.

The rest is history, but that album will always evoke such vivid memories of that summer when my taste changed, my musical palate broadened, and I began to really discover just who I was outside of the influence of my parents.

Setting Expectations

Two months ago today, our small church plant did its first online service. After a week of social media posts joking that Friday the 13th and a full moon would happen in the same week, something bigger than any of us would have ever imagined hit and has left us wondering when things might get back to some level of “normal.”

As authorities begin to unveil measures to open the economy up phases at a time, there is outrage on every side. It’s too soon for some and not soon enough for others. We aren’t protecting our least vulnerable for some and we’re all becoming more vulnerable to others.

These differing viewpoints end up being lines in the sand as people judge one another without ever having a conversation to really mine out a particular viewpoint. It’s indicative of our culture where open-minded tends to really mean believe whatever you want as long as it doesn’t infringe or disagree with my beliefs.

The realization that I’ve made through it all is that when this whole thing started months ago, one of two things happened: we didn’t set our expectations properly or we just didn’t listen as those expectations were set.

I’ve read numerous articles this week that made reference to the fact that the point of isolating/quarantining/social distancing was never to eradicate the virus, it was to flatten the curve so that our medical system would not be overwhelmed with the number of cases of the virus. There was never any expectation that this virus would magically disappear if we stayed home for a few weeks.

Or was there?

While the expectation of authorities and experts may have been to simply flatten the curve, based on the passionate and sometimes vitriolic response of some, I don’t think that’s what some really thought would happen. Based on their constant shaming of those who don’t wear masks or abide by the stay-at-home orders, I think they thought that all of these measures taken together would somehow eliminate this virus.

But alas, the virus is here to stay, for better or worse, although I can’t see much “better” about it.

Conversations with other colleagues within my vocation (I am a pastor) have turned up praise for our forced slow down, time spent with family, and shorter work hours (for some). Although after working a ten hour day, I realize that there is no end in sight for the mounting pile of tasks before me. While some pastors may be zooming (pun intended) along as if it’s business as usual, others are feeling a sense of urgency to capitalize on the moment as well as shepherd and pastor people as God intended.

So what are we to do with these false expectations? How do we maneuver through the disappointment and realization that what we may have thought would occur with our isolating and what actually occurred with our isolating are two very different and distinct things?

We need to step forward in grace. We need to redefine expectations. We need to be honest. We need to stop with the snap judgments.

Contrary to popular belief, venturing out without a mask may not mean that you want others to die. It may simply mean that you’re tired of wearing a mask. It doesn’t have to be a personal freedom issue, it may just be an issue of being worn out.

Having a desire to go back to work may not mean that you hate your family or want others to die either, it may just mean that you believe that the longer we continue with a mostly shut down economy, the longer it will take for us to crawl out of the whole that we are in economically.

I think we really need to stop and assess just how we can proceed with expectations that are realistic. Frankly, the idea that the virus somehow goes away because we’ve chosen to stay home seems a bit like we may be considering anointing our door frame with blood so that the virus might pass over our homes (see the Passover story).

For now, the virus is here to stay and we’d be better suited to reset our expectations with that reality firmly set before us. Experts are working on a vaccine, but anyone who has had the flu vaccination every year knows full well that it’s not a given that getting that vaccination means not getting the flu. The same can be said for this as well.

Be informed. Avoid conspiracy theories and videos. Seek out expert opinions from multiple sources. Reset your expectations. I think if we begin to practice some of these things, we may not necessarily be happy with what we find out, but I think we may move forward with a more realistic approach.

The Microscope

microscopeCOVID-19 has revealed much about the human character. It’s also revealed, in my opinion, the things that we suck at as Americans: grief, slowing down, and giving up control.

I have been a pastor for more than fifteen years. During that time, I experienced, presided over, and took part in many funerals. As if all those experiences weren’t enough, losing both of my parents revealed to me just how awkward we can be around death and grief.

I honestly think that one of the reasons why we suck at grief is the fact that we also suck at slowing down. In reality, this trifecta of underachieving is completely connected. We suck at grief because we can’t (or won’t) slow down and we won’t slow down because we can’t give up control.

It seems like a vicious cycle.

Once upon a time, people would take time to grieve. There were days set aside to grieve your loved ones. That’s not to say that grief can be contained to a few hours or days, but at least there was time carved out to grieve.

As we journey through COVID-19 and all of the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual repercussions that it is taking on our world, how many of us have taken time to grieve? I mean, really grieve. Have you cried over the things that you’ve lost? It doesn’t matter how great or how small they are, grief is grief and the size of the thing being grieved should have no bearing on the level to which we grieve for it.

I don’t think it’s only that we haven’t grieved, I think it’s that we’ve actually run from grief. We’ve filled our heads with Tiger King or streamed another new show on Netflix. We’ve started new projects that we’ve put off for years. We’ve watched YouTube to finally hone that hidden talent that we’ve known we’ve had but never had the time to invest in it.

I’m not saying that some of those things aren’t good. Sometimes we need to be distracted, but distractions that take us away from the important things in life, even grief, can simply prolong what’s coming.

We don’t slow down well either.

So many people are sharing on social media how much they’ve valued this time of slowing down. Some of us weren’t running at frenetic paces before this all began, so slowing down wasn’t something we needed to be forced to do. In reality, God created an automatic weekly slowdown to help our rhythm when he created the Sabbath, but when’s the last time that you really enjoyed or experienced a Sabbath? I’m not talking about just laying in the hammock and doing nothing, but a real soul-quenching Sabbath that energized you and gave you peace?

Ironically, I think that one group of people who has experienced the antithesis of slowing down during all this is pastors. As I watch my social media feeds scroll past, I see some of them running at unsustainable paces, trying desperately to justify their existence and fill the airwaves with enough content to give a PhD student a headache.

We don’t slow down because speeding up somehow makes us feel like we’re still in control.

I’ve got news for you, you were never really in control to begin with. The illusion of control is not really control, it just makes us think that we’re in control.

There are some areas of our country where “going with the flow” seems to fit them well. There are others where “going with the flow” would be hard if they were strapped to an inner tube rushing towards a waterfall (which this has kind of felt like more days than not).

This time has acted as a microscope of sorts, revealing to us all the hidden things that we were either aware of or not, but that were there waiting to be exposed.

Here’s the good news: this isn’t ending anytime soon. Well, that’s kind of good news. But as states begin to roll out plans for their phased reopenings, I don’t expect that any level of “normalcy” will be reached in the days or weeks ahead.

In other words, we’ve got time to work on these things. Grieve. Slow down. Relinquish control. As they say, practice makes perfect, and I think we’ve got some time to do just that.

Touch Me

hug emojiAs this exercise in sequestering ourselves and social distancing continues, it’s fascinating to make observations about how others are dealing with it all as well as make observations about how I am dealing with it. Some days are diamonds, others, not so much.

Some of us just come to a certain point and then we shut down. Others of us may feel as if we’ve hit our stride, that we were made for this kind of isolation. I’ve always said that I can tolerate a lot when I know that there will be an end to it, the problem becomes when that end is elusive or it keeps changing.

Among the most confounding things about this virus is the sheer unknown nature of it. “Experts” are on the media regularly sharing their views, but those views don’t seem to hold up very well as twenty four hours later (or less) an opposite and equal viewpoint may be shared. It seems exponentially more frustrating than parenting, every time you think you’ve got a handle on things and know what to expect, a curveball is thrown that puts you once again at the mercy of factors that are out of your own control.

During this time, I’ve watched my introverted teenager become a virtual social chair. He’s adapted well with his small friend group to set up virtual weekly movie nights. The kid who I’ve worried about regarding his social habits seems to be adapting like a boss to a situation that has the rest of us cowering and crying, “Uncle.”

One thing that has seemed to stand out to me through all of this is our hunger for contact outside of our computer, tablet, and smart phone screens. Virtual connection can only last so long before we feel like it pales in comparison to the real thing. As great as our HD or 4K technology is, it doesn’t offer up to us the flesh and blood humanness of what we offer each other when we stand face to face, hearing each other’s breath and staring into each other’s eyes.

We need each other, and while we may go through periods when we try to convince ourselves to the contrary, those periods are unsustainable. We were made for community, we were made for contact, we were made for touch, physical, mental, emotional, spiritual. To remain untouched is to feel unloved.

You may have heard countless stories of orphans in far off countries who were never picked up as babies only to experience significant emotional issues later in childhood and life. We may think that we’re stronger now, no longer babies or children, no longer helpless, able to stand strong on our own, but there is no denying our need for contact.

Encouragement can only go so far when it happens virtually. I’d love to think that my effectiveness is just as strong on a screen as it is in person, but if I truly thought that, I would be wrong. Community cries out for community. There’s a reason why the writer of the New Testament Book of Hebrews wrote not to forsake the assembling of yourselves, the gathering together of our communities.

While I am not calling for a casting off of the physical restraints that now stand in place for our protection and the protection of the most vulnerable among us, I do know that something has to give.

Maybe you’ve seen one of the latest emojis that Facebook has offered us, the “virtual hug.” It’s a poor substitute for the real thing, but it seems that’s all we have right now. So we press on, longing for touch, longing to connect, and waiting for the day when it will be safe once again to do so.

Nuanced

Nuance. It’s a slight variation or subtle difference. It’s not fully one way or another. It bucks up against the hard line that wants to paint vivid stripes down the middle of ideologies in order to place people fully in one camp or another. It requires conversation. It requires patience. It requires thinking differently.

We don’t do nuance well.

As if our country wasn’t divided enough prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, it seems that this virus may very well have poured gasoline on an already blazing fire, causing things to grow wildly out of control.

We can’t seem to grasp that there are more than two schools of thought regarding this virus. It’s not simply: wear a mask or everyone dies or wearing a mask infringes upon my rights. It’s not simply: social distance and stay the hell at home or go out and get everyone else sick. There’s nuance here and we’ve got to take the time to hear what it is.

Granted, there are some fools out there. I struggle with those who claim that their rights are being infringed upon because stores are telling them that masks are required for entering and shopping. It’s 15 minutes, suck it up, don a mask, and shut up.

But I’ve been the subject of more than a few glances when I tell someone that I went out for something other than a shopping trip, doctor’s appointment, or other essential appointment.

I’ve had conversations with people who have experienced the verbal abuse of their spouse, fearful that it will one day escalate into something physical. I’ve heard stories of children who have become the targets of parents who are dealing with anxiety, depression, and flat out rage from the other effects of the virus, not the direct physical effects, but the indirect mental effects.

Overall, the treatment is becoming as severe as the virus itself. By that, I mean that the consequences of our dealing with COVID-19 are starting to seriously impact the mental health of people. Social distancing. Shutting down the economy. Labeling businesses essential and non-essential. Those things are necessary, for a time, but stopping them cold turkey for a prolonged period of time is being to have an effect that will last far longer than this virus.

I’m not saying that we should throw caution to the wind and simply open things up. That would defeat the purpose of what we have been doing over the last nearly two months. But we do have to stop throwing shade, making judgments, calling names until we’ve really heard where someone else is coming from. Is it possible that they are experiencing something that we’ve not had to deal with? Is it possible that there’s something nuanced about their perspective? Is it possible that we can’t see the whole picture?

Frankly, I think our media is a joke. Somewhere along the way, we moved from reporting to opining. We don’t report “just the facts” anymore, we report with a spin, and I’m talking more than just Fox News. If you think your favorite news channel doesn’t put a political spin on things, I’ve got a bridge to sell you in a densely populated area.

When we encounter someone who is approaching this virus differently than we are, maybe it warrants a conversation, a phone call, an email, a text message. Maybe we need to hear more about what they’re dealing with rather than simply writing them off as “stupid” because they don’t see things the way that we do. Is it possible that in that conversation, we might actually learn something?

One thing that has been abundantly clear to me over the last few weeks is that COVID-19 isn’t going anywhere fast or soon. It’s not being eradicated by some miracle cure. We can’t simply put the blood of the lamb on our door posts and hope that the virus will pass right over us. So, we’d better figure out how to cope with it……..and each other.