Archive for the ‘Journal’ Category

2020 Favorites

I teach songwriting classes but this list isn’t meant to be instructional. There are a bunch of different reasons I came back to these songs over and over in 2020. Sometimes it was the resonance of the lyric with my personal narrative. Sometimes it was an infectious melody that woke me up in the middle of the night. Some of my former students are on this list but NOT because I had anything to do with the songs; I’ve just become a fan now. The list started as albums then became songs. Then 22 songs became 15 songs in no particular order.

The songs are HERE THEY ARE ON AN APPLE MUSIC PLAYLIST. Links will take you to youtube.

I hope you’re able to find a new favorite in this list too. The comments are the perfect spot to let me know about your favorites that I might have missed this year.

AJR – Bang!
Wake Low – Testify
Taylor Swift – the 1
Stephen Day – Back of My Hand
Jacob Collier – All I Need
Ingrid Andress – Anything But Love
Bob Dylan – I Contain Multitudes
Gracie Abrams – Friend
K.S. Rhoads – Innocent
Josie Dunne – Lost
Halsey – Graveyard
Joel Blackman – All My Friends Are Lonely
Jordy Searcy & Annika Bennett – Only Know How to Love You
Carobae – Part of Me
Ellie Holcomb – Constellations

4 Ways to Focus Your Songwriting Right Now

Songwriters, here are some prompts to get your creativity flowing in these days of social distancing. A stay-at-home order might be a gift, providing some extra time to think, process, and create. Here are four ways to focus your songwriting in this season. (My focus here is definitely on those of you who are writing for the church. However, whatever you’re writing you might find some helpful guidance here.)

WRITE PASTORALLY – I read a beautiful article this week that suggested that the emotion we are experiencing right now is not anxiety or anger, those are secondary emotions. The root emotion we’re feeling is actually grief. We are grieving the loss of life but also the loss of normalcy, even the anticipatory grief of an uncertain future. People need language to express their grief because (at least for us in the west) we are not used to emotional discomfort. We don’t have the stomach for it much less the tools to process it. Fortunately, scripture provides us ample tools and language to help us process our grief. Your song lyrics are like the stretcher that carries our wounded hearts to The Healer. You can use the power of a song to create a safe space for people to bring their grief, their lament to God.

WRITE PROPHETICALLY – Don’t just write what you hear people saying now. Write you know they’ll need to be singing a month from now, a year from now. Right now our emotions are amped. We are all ratcheted up on anxiety and defiance. But when these raw emotions become more blunted we will need worship language that reflects our new reality. Things will not get “back to normal.” In much the same way that 9/11 forever changed air travel, I believe this pandemic will fundamentally change both the way we view the world and the way we move through it. What will people need to be singing once we’ve flattened this curve and begin finding our “new normal?”

WRITE PERENNIALLY – Okay, I forced the alliteration. Perennial means lasting, enduring, permanent.  Now is NOT the time for more overly simplistic, disposable songs. Don’t rush to release your latest Pandemic Anthem to the world. These days we need lyrics with depth and muscle that will weather this upheaval and stand the test of time. We need to be reminded of the immutable characteristics of God. Take your time and craft something of timeless beauty. 

WRITE PERSONALLY – I write 6-10 unusable songs for every one commercially viable song. That doesn’t means the others don’t serve a purpose. Songwriting can be therapeutic. Give yourself permission right now to write some songs that no one else will hear. Say what YOU NEED to say in a song. Get as angry or as afraid or as defiant or as broken-hearted as you need to get. Don’t force those therapy songs on your friends, fans, and family. They are between you and God and just the process of creating them will make you a better writer.

A writer HAS TO write. Don’t put off the life-giving work of creative expression. You need a song right now and so does the world around you. 

Don’t Forget Your Single Friends

I’m grateful to have some wise and caring friends checking in on me these days. REMEMBER, your single, extroverted friends who live alone view these stay-at-home directives as a prison sentence. Don’t ASK what they need. They’ll just say “I’m fine!” YOU’RE what they need. Schedule a FaceTime hang, work out together, swap your favorite Quarantini recipes and demonstrate making your recipe. Here are four other lifesaving things you can do for your single friends who live alone.

1. Send them a meal or a pizza. Just enter their address into whatever delivery service you use and send them something delicious. They might not need the food but they need to feel remembered, cared for. Or if you head out to a restaurant to pick up a meal for your family, order an extra entree and drop it off on their doorstep.

2. Play a game together. Bypass the online gaming platforms and go old school. Invite a single adult to join a family board game over FaceTime. Or go head to head with a game you both have like Battleship. Grid games can also work if you just mimic each other’s moves on your own board. Try checkers, chess, or connect four.

3. Go for a walk or run together. Schedule a time you’ll both head out and invite them to join you in THEIR neighborhood. Just pop in your AirPods and chat as you walk. Describe what you’re seeing. Maybe even prep them with some complex topic you want to discuss: “what has this virus taught you so far?” Walking together in silence is also okay. You don’t have to fill every moment with words. Just walk together, apart.

4. Watch a movie together. Is your family gathering in the living room for a movie or documentary on your favorite streaming platform? Invite a single adult to join you over FaceTime. Just start the film at the same time on your respective TV’s and they’ll have someone to make all their awkward comments to.

Your single friend who lives alone is falling deeper into the crazies every day. Give their soul the relational oxygen it needs with a regular phone call or try one of the options above. We’re better together!

Got any other ideas for how to care for your single friends during social-distancing? Share your ideas in the comments below.

The Transfiguration of the Commonplace – chapter two

PakistaniGreetingsBORDER CRISIS
The state of Texas is at the frontline of America’s recent obsession with border security. Some call it a crisis. Others call our response to the situation the crisis. From where I sit at Barbarossa Coffee about 365 miles from nearest border crossing, the idea of crossing international borders still seems abstract.

Most international borders have remained invisible to me. At the age of 47, I’ve now crossed 26 unique international borders. Those border crossings have almost always happened inside an airport while moving from the “international zone” of duty free shops and harried commuters through a customs and immigration terminal into the “real world” of whatever country I was visiting. I flew across an imaginary line in the sky and was then officially “recognized” as a visitor to this new country by a booth-dwelling government employee.

I’ve drifted on a ferry across the invisible barrier between Asia and Europe around the Golden Horn of Instanbul, Turkey. I’ve herded a van load of anxious teenagers through a chain-link gate from Botswana into South Africa. When the immigration agent at the San Ysidro border crossing from Southern California into Mexico asked, “Citizenship?” I responded with an enthusiastic “yes!” and was mocked relentlessly by the friends with me in the car.

Most of the borders that exist in our world have been drawn as a negotiation made by some group of old men sitting around a table. “This is mine. That is yours.” Perhaps no such division is more bold than the line drawn in 1947 between India and Pakistan. This “partition” of the Indian state of Punjab into a new Muslim-majority nation resulted in the displacement of at least 14 million people and the death of anywhere between 200,000 and 2,000,000 people. To this day, the border crossing between Pakistan and India is dramatic display of unneighborly dissension.

RooftopChurchA few years ago, I was invited to train church leaders in Faisalabad, Pakistan and Kakinada, India. Because these countries are next door to one another, it seemed completely reasonable that both requests could be honored in a single trip. However, because of the tension that has remained at the boiling point for the last 72 years, no flights are allowed to enter India directly from Pakistan so my friend and I decided to…hoof it.

After a week of training church leaders in Eastern Pakistan we were sardined into mini-van with 9 of our new friends for the 3 hour drive to the border. Our hosts knew that if we were visible through the windows of the van not only might we personally be at risk, but they and their continuing work in Pakistan might be at risk so we sat knees-to-chest on the floor of the van for most of the drive. A quarter of a mile from the Wagah border crossing in Lahore, Pakistan we extricated ourselves and our bags from the overpacked mini-van and began the walk toward Amritsar, India.

wagah faceoffThe Wagah border crossing is a melodrama of national pride and relational tension. At sunset every day, guards from both countries put on a spectacle of nationalist fervor for crowds of residents who gather to cheer and stoke the fires of ethnic and religious dissension. I’ve since watched videos of this ceremonialized face off. I’ve wished I had witnessed the ceremony in the same way one might crane their head to take in the gory details of a car accident. But THAT day I hoped to be nothing but a shadow. My friend and I aimed to be inconspicuous extras disappearing into the background of the scene.

Though we walked in front of the stands that line the road on either side of the border, our mid-day crossing was witnessed by almost no one. The power was out on the Pakistani side of the border so the guards could not verify our identities or our itineraries. They spoke almost no English and I spoke almost no Urdu. They simply dug through our bags, side-eyeing us suspiciously, and allowed us to pass.

tuktuksWe walked the hundred yards of no-mans-land between the 2 countries, through a turnstile gate and into the well-lit and air-conditioned Indian immigration and customs center at Amritsar. By this point, the combination of a final celebratory meal in Faisalabad of bone marrow soup, motion-sickness from the van ride, heat, and anxiety left me feeling (and looking) extremely green. We were allowed to pass without even slowing down and were soon in a tuktuk headed toward the Guru Ram Dess Ji International airport.

After a week on India’s southeastern coast in Kakinada we returned exhausted to the United States. After all of the tension of the Wagah border crossing from Pakistan, it was actually this final leg of the journey that proved the most contentious. Traveling to Pakistan was frowned upon by the US government in those days and my friend and I were quarantined and interrogated separately by US border patrol agents. While in both Pakistan and India, I felt the need to be…vague…about my work with Christian pastors. With US customs agents however I felt completely comfortable explaining the full nature of our trip. They weren’t buying it.

During the interview I was asked multiple times whether we had crossed into Afghanistan. Finally after recounting every boring detail of our time in Faisalabad, the agent added the question, “now was all of this before or after you crossed into Afghanistan?” He thought he might sneak one last trick question into my interview. I wanted to roll my eyes and crack a joke but just as I opened my mouth with a snarky reply, the better angel of my nature nudged me and I slowly repeated “we never even came close to the Afghanistan border.” Even after my wide-open honesty about our itinerary I was put on a watchlist and for several years received a side trip for “secondary screening” at every TSA station I entered. In the United States we take the crossing of borders very seriously.

Jesus was constantly crossing borders: ethnic and gender borders, religious and social borders. The guardians of the rules were often offended by Jesus’ disregard for the borders they worked so hard to both create and maintain. Catching Jesus crossing one of their regulatory borders was not difficult. The gospels record Jesus’ holy border crossings again and again. The biblical record reflects an outward spinning of the gospel that has transcended every boundary it has faced in all the world. There is much that divides us globally but the centrifugal force of the Kingdom of God seems to not even notice these imaginary borders we use to define what is mine and what is theirs.

Faisalabad CrowdAre there imaginary borders that you have drawn around your life? Have you built some “us and them” boundary lines to protect yourself? Borders of race, gender, religion, nationality, relationship? Perhaps, a boundary that you thought was protecting you is actually hurting you. A Kingdom adventure might be waiting for you just beyond that imaginary border. The gospel is constantly propelling us outward with the only clear destination being that people of every tribe and tongue, ALL people, might someday hear and know that Yahweh is the Lord and there is no other. Step with confidence through the border of self-protection and you will find just on the other side, The Guide has been waiting to lead you into His revolutionary love-story.

The Transfiguration of the Commonplace – chapter one

Skopje Dam Over the last 47 years I’ve seen some glorious things, walked in some heavenly places. There are a bunch of lists of “WONDERS OF THE WORLD” and I’ve witnessed many of them. They each deserve their own page of wondrous description. I’ve seen Kilimanjaro peeking above the clouds from Kenya and seen Mount Ranier peeking above the clouds from Seattle. I’ve raced along at 275 mph on a bullet train from Shanghai to Nanjing and bounced along the foothills of the Himalayas from a 3rd class sleeper birth in Northern India. I’ve walked along the Great Wall of China, through the Wagah Border gate from Pakistan into India and climbed on my hands and knees into the belly of the Great Pyramid at Giza. I’ve stood awe-stunned by the beauty of the Hagia Sophia, the Taj Mahal, the Porcelain Tower, and the Sydney Opera House. I’ve run my hands along the rough stone ruins of Ephesus in Turkey, Philippi in Greece, the Old City of Jerusalem, and Monte Álban in Oaxaca. I’ve been drenched in the spray of Victoria Falls and came way too close to drowning in the rapids of the Nile river. In all, I’ve visited 26 countries so far and like the old Indiana Jones films, I’m always eager to follow a little red line across a weathered map to the next exotic destination. All the while I wasn’t searching for adventure. I’ve been chasing glimpses of glory.

TealyLioncubMy brother William is working on a new book and I’ve been inspired by his title: “The Gate of Heaven is Everywhere.” It’s a quote from Thomas Merton in his Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. The way I’ve come to understand the Merton quote is that the entrance to heaven or even to an experience of God’s presence is less of an external place we must visit and more of an internal way of being – always open to us. The experience of God’s glory comes at the end of ourselves when we cease all of our striving and relax confidently into grace. What a beautiful and needful truth. In the beatitudes Jesus referred to “the poor in Spirit” and the Benedictine monks echoed that thought by calling followers of Jesus to experience the glorious riches of spiritual poverty. Merton calls it a place “untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth.” It is a place in the center of our being that is nothingness and everything all at once.

Walking among the wonders of the world has definitely taught me some important lessons:

1) God’s glory is Everywhere Always – learn to behold it. There is a vast difference between seeing and beholding. Seeing is a dash of salt. Beholding is marinating. In her poem “Aurora Leigh”, Elizabeth Barrett Browning says “Earth’s crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God; But only he who sees, takes off his shoes, the rest sit round it and pluck blackberries, and daub their natural faces unaware.” Earth is crammed with heaven. I love that! I’ve wandered the world in search of God’s glory and found it as clearly displayed on the face of a five year-old at the Houston Zoo this weekend as I did in the setting of the sun behind the Hagia Sophia in the City of the Seven Hills. I have seen God’s glory as clearly in a whispered conversation at a strip-mall coffeeshop as I ever did from atop the Great Wall at Badaling. God’s glory becomes most evident when we become most aware. To immerse yourself in the glory of God requires no passport. Instead it requires a stillness, a beholding, a quiet seeking. Every common bush is afire with God because His glory is everywhere always. Take a moment to read 2 Corinthians 3:18 and Psalm 16:8 and feel the transformative power of Beholding.

2) God’s love is an Unstoppable Force – surrender to it. Most of my travels have involved some expression of Christian missions. A key principle in all of those missional adventures has been the search for a “Person of Peace.” The goal when entering a new area is to find someone who can serve as bridge for gospel conversations. The idea is founded in the sending instructions of Jesus recorded in both Matthew 10 and Luke 10. It can be seen in the interaction between Rahab and the Israelites at Jericho in Joshua 2. There is not a single place I’ve visited on this whole planet where God was not at work before I arrived. The principle behind a “person of peace” is that God is always at work preparing the way for love to spread, for grace to expand its reach. I have seen and felt the unstoppable force of God’s love on the remote island of Siumpu in Indonesia, in the remote Tibetan villages of western China, and in a sleepless midnight conversation with Hindu strangers as our electric train rattled across the great Indian darkness. On a recent trip to Uganda I took some students white water rafting on the headwaters of the Nile river. It was a harrowing adventure and I was ill-prepared for the class 5 rapids we faced. I fell out of our raft at the start of a dangerous technical section of the river and I was quickly instructed by our guide to point my feet downstream and just ride it out. There was no point in swimming against such an aggressive current. It would have been futile to do anything but fold my arms across my chest and surrender. Likewise, I have quit trying to control or even direct the unstoppable force of God’s love. TealyNileRapidsI have learned to feel the current of God’s love as it moves with equal force through the suburbs of Houston and the slums of Mumbai. God’s love pours with furious urgency into every corner of our planet and I am learning to search for new opportunities to surrender to it. God’s love might take you to unexpected places. It might ask you to take a few uncomfortable risks but you are at the very gate of heaven. Just point your toes downstream and surrender to the current.