Strange TrailsI get excited about music, but I have waited for few albums with as much anticipation as I waited for Lord Huron’s second full-length release. When I wrote Resonate, I included a section on Lord Huron’s first album, Lonesome Dreams. At the time, I had listened to that album over 100 times (according to my iTunes play count), and I wrote about the depth and complexity of the album. The album flows gracefully from one song to the next, themes recur and develop, the last song even mirrors the first both lyrically and instrumentally. I included Lonesome Dreams in the book because I see it as a powerful example of music’s potential to draw us in, to make us think, to stir our imaginations, to make us wonder and think and feel—even if we are not receiving propositional statements that tell us what to think and feel. I have now listened to Lonesome Dreams over 200 times, and my thoughts are the same.

So when Lord Huron’s follow up album, Strange Trails, released, I was excited, though a bit apprehensive that Lord Huron wouldn’t be able to create another album at that caliber. Thankfully, they delivered. Strange Trails sounds like a cousin to Lonesome Dreams: some definite similarities in style and themes, but not simply more-of-the-same.

One of the most surprising features of Strange Trails is the process that Lord Huron’s Ben Schneider used in creating the album. Strange Trails has an underlying cast of characters. Essentially, Schneider envisioned a greaser gang, and each song comes from the perspective of one of the characters in Schneider’s fictitious world. The album doesn’t offer a strict plotline, as in an opera, but one does sense an underlying story and movement throughout the album. In an 8-minute radio interview with NPR, Schneider describes several of the characters—including their names, physical appearance, and some back story—and explains how these characters contribute to the album.

Lord Huron

This is similar to Schneider’s method in crafting his first album, for which he created a fictional fiction writer (sort that out), who fictitiously wrote the Lonesome Dreams series of adventure novels, each of which shares a title with a song on Lord Huron’s Lonesome Dreams album. (“Naturally,” Schneider, who is a talented graphic artist as well, created a website for his fictitious fiction writer, George Ranger Johnson, where each novel in his series is featured.) Schneider also created a series of “episodes” as music videos for the songs on Lonesome Dreams. (He is doing something similar for the Strange Trails album.)

Admittedly, this is a quirky approach to songwriting. The listener certainly doesn’t need to know about the characters and their back stories to enjoy the album, but I will say that his approach gives his albums a depth that is often missing in music. The lyrics aren’t bald statements or shallow rhymes, they are as complex and intriguing as the characters “speaking” them. Musically, the album is multi-layered and varied. The songs flow well together (intentionally so), yet there is a range of emotion that highlights the variety of perspectives through which the album “speaks.”

The combined effect is enjoyable and inspiring music with unusual depth. I haven’t figured the album out yet; it continues to draw me in. There are lines that immediately speak to me (“I had all and then most of you / some and now none of you…I don’t know what I’m supposed to do / haunted by the ghost of you”), but lines like these are more suggestive than clearly defined, and they set my imagination to work. In my opinion, this is how an artist taps into the power of music. So much of music’s power is its ability to suggest, to stir, to move. Music is deeply mysterious, so songs that leave no space for mystery or subtlety or reflection betray their art form; they are more sermons lying atop instrumentation than actual songs.

Lord Huron 2

So what can Christian artists learn from Lord Huron? I don’t mean to suggest that everyone should adopt Ben Schneider’s approach to creating art. But I do think every Christian artist, regardless of their particular medium, would do well to learn from the depth of Schneider’s work. Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins recently criticized Christian musicians for simply imitating U2 for the last few decades. Corgan is obviously exaggerating, and he seems to be unaware of some recent trends in “Christian music,” but he is surely right to call Christians to greater originality in their art.

Many Christian artists are extraordinarily creative, and the world has benefited from the creativity of Christians throughout history. But we need to continually be inspired by the beautiful, reflective, mysteriously complex art of people like Ben Schneider. Christians, after all, believe that ultimate reality is the Creator—infinitely complex, deeply mysterious, worthy of never ending reflection and contemplation. And we believe that this Creator formed a world that is itself complex, mysterious, and full of meaning, along with a mini-creator capable of exploring the mystery and meaning that resides in all things. So in my opinion, Christians would do well to listen to the music of Lord Huron and be edified and inspired—not to imitate Schneider’s style or approach, but to create with the same pursuit of depth and meaning.

 

In the midst of busy seasons of life, the weight of everything I’ve committed to and everything that has been placed in my lap often becomes overwhelming. I run out of hours in the day, I’ve done without sleep a few (or a thousand) times too many, and my emotional stability deteriorates. I begin making mistakes in the projects I’ve taken on, and I sometimes have to wrap up projects before I feel they’re truly done.

In these times, I feel like I’m letting everyone down. I’m not living up to my full potential in my work, I’m not giving anyone the attention and care they deserve, and my “time with God” is lacking. I feel like I’m not being faithful in anything.

My guess is that you can relate, even if you wouldn’t state it quite so dramatically.

The best advice I’ve received for these times in life came from our (Eternity’s) president, Joshua Walker. I’ll recount my version of his advice in the following paragraphs.

Only you and God know everything that’s on your plate. When you’re in a busy season like this, you will legitimately be letting people down. They’ve asked you to complete certain projects and you’re not getting them done on the timeline or with the quality that’s expected of you. But the people you’re letting down don’t know everything you’re dealing with at the moment.

For example, my students may be submitting papers that don’t reflect their full potential. I may be disappointed with my students, and their grade will reflect this. But only God knows the full extent of what each person is handling.

Here’s something we know but struggle to believe: It doesn’t matter what other people think of you.

My students don’t need to please me. They need to please God. And if being faithful to God in the totality of their life means that they won’t have time to complete an assignment, my displeasure does not necessarily reflect God’s displeasure. My students are letting me down, but they may not be letting God down. (This line of thinking can be applied to every area of life: Letting down your boss, spouse, friends, kids, or students may not always mean letting God down.)

In the Christian worldview, success is not defined by productivity, profitability, or positive feedback. From a worldly perspective, Jonah was phenomenally successful. He went to Nineveh kicking and screaming, and pouted through the end of the story. But he preached a simple message and a wicked civilization turned to God in an epic revival. From a worldly perspective, Jeremiah was a terrible failure. Though he preached faithfully and did everything God asked of him, his life’s work failed to produce a single convert.

In modern terms, you want to be successful like Jonah, not insignificant like Jeremiah. But we know that biblically speaking, Jonah is the cautionary tale and Jeremiah is the success story.

Biblical success is all about faithfulness to God. Jeremiah was a huge success because he remained faithful to God, even in the most difficult of circumstances.

Tired 1

Success in God’s eyes may look like failure in the world’s eyes. You may be letting everyone down. Your life may be an obvious failure by virtually every definition of that term. You may even feel like a failure yourself.

But there is only one person you need to please: God. And he is already pleased with you. If you are doing your best with your time and resources at the moment, it doesn’t matter what praise or promotions or grades you get. If you are wearing yourself out as you seek to glorify God by doing your best in the midst of an impossible situation, then you are succeeding. You may not be getting “the job” done, but God knows everything that’s on your plate. It doesn’t matter if everyone you know and love thinks you’re lazy, or incompetent, or scatterbrained. God knows. And he couldn’t possibly love you more.

God knows you better than you do. He knows what you’re capable of, even though you constantly mis-assess your abilities. He knows how much (or how little) you can get done, even when your own timelines are unrealistic. And he is pleased with you.

God wants you to be faithful, not superhuman. So if faithfulness is your goal, and if you’re pursing faithfulness with every resource God has given you, then you are a huge success—even if you’re failing.

Now, it could be that your stress and your overwhelming schedule are symptoms of your idolatrous pursuit of something other than God. Don’t waste your exhaustion; search your heart to see what needs to change. You may well be taking on more than you should in an effort to reach some unbiblical standard of success. You may be letting people down because you are prideful or lazy.

But as you examine your heart, carefully redirect your pursuits back to God. Make every effort to be faithful to him in the commitments you’ve made in your family life, in your church, in your job, in your schoolwork. And if you are striving to be faithful to him, know that he is pleased, know that he knows that you can only do what you can do, and know that that’s enough.

The Day Between

Joshua Walker —  April 4, 2015 — Leave a comment

Celtic CrossOn this day 1,982 years ago the men and women who had devoted their lives to following Jesus for the previous three years locked themselves in a room and brooded in despair and fear. Their Lord, the one they thought was the Messiah, was dead. Some of them had even been the ones to wrap His body and bury Him.

What transformed this group of fearful, despairing men and women into the group that would turn the world upside down? It was their witness of the risen Lord and the subsequent gift of the Holy Spirit 50 days later at Pentecost.

The full scope of what Jesus had accomplished at the cross was brought to light through those events: He had made a way for all men to be reconciled to God; He had initiated New Creation in the resurrection; and He had initiated the New Covenant which includes the incredible gift of the indwelling Holy Spirit!

Here we are, almost two thousand years later, and I want to ask you: Do you live in the Day Between, in fear and despair, or do you live in faith in the risen Lord and the power of His Holy Spirit given to us? Although today is the day that we remember the Day Between, we never have to live there again. He rose and is risen today! We can live in that reality each and every day: we don’t have to wait for tomorrow!

My prayer is that you would be encouraged in the reality that we serve a risen Lord! May we live in faith and power and not despair and fear. What is our King asking you to do today that requires faith and the power of His Spirit? Obey His calling with His power as you walk in the “good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10).

Social media is a huge blessing. I have not been shy about praising social media platforms like Facebook and Pinterest and also smartphones themselves, which are our primary portal to social media. Many aspects of social media provide us with the opportunity to be better friends, better citizens, better humans.

And yet social media is also a powerful tool for polarization. Social media has a unique ability to increase our arrogance, our self-certainty, and our blood pressure.

Why?

Why does social media make us angry and opinionated? And how can we use social media in a more healthy way?

The biggest problem with social media is also its greatest asset: brevity. We love social media because it gives us snapshots of information about our friends, our interests, and our world.

But while brevity (combined with connectivity) is social media’s greatest strength, it is also social media’s greatest danger. Our world is filled with important and complex issues. Human beings love to discuss everything from the nature of humanity to the President’s foreign policy to the true motivation of terrorist groups to the theological distinctives of celebrity pastors. These conversations need to happen. But these aren’t issues that we can sufficiently grasp in short conversations.

So why do we keep trying to have these discussions in 140 characters or less?

Social Media Distraction

The truth is, the media we use shapes the way we think. Neil Postman famously wrote on the changes in thought processes and social interactions with the advent of the television (in addition to the previous shift that came with Gutenberg’s printing press). While Postman could be a bit alarmist, he was certainly right to warn us of the danger that we might be “amusing ourselves to death.” In the spirit of Postman, author and Los Angeles Times book critic David Ulin recently said, as he reflected on the new year:

“My greatest reservation of 2014 has to do with the sanctimony of social media. Partly, it’s the speed of digital, the incessant necessity to respond. But throughout the year, on a variety of issues, I kept noticing a lockstep consensus, in which to disagree, or to dissent, was to invite the backlash of the crowd. It’s hard to be nuanced in 140 characters, and yet the whole point of reading and writing is to engage.” (article here)

Brevity is a powerful tool for grabbing a person’s attention. It’s a wonderful way to surprise your audience, to catch them off guard, to pique their interest. That’s why headlines work so well: Grab the readers attention, then nuance your position. But with social media, the headline is the content. That’s about all the space you’ve got for content. So you can make a sharp political statement that will grab people’s attention. Some people will love it, because they already agree with you. Others will be furiously offended, because they already disagree with you. But no one is going to change their mind. No one will even be informed. They will simply read your potent statement and become further entrenched in their corner, whether that’s your corner or the opposite one.

As Ulin said, social media also carries a sense of urgency. You only have a few seconds to process all of the information on your feed, so you’ve got to form your opinions quickly. You have very little time to decide who was at fault in the most recent shooting, to evaluate how damning the President’s recent statement really was, to form your opinions on health care, or to determine whether the newest controversial movie is a must-see or a scheme from Satan. In the amount of time it takes you to scroll down your feed, you have to decide.

And that’s not a recipe for healthy opinions. That’s a recipe for an opinionated, arrogant, polarized society. Social media gives us access to limitless information, yet it does not make us informed citizens. Alissa Wilkinson, chief film critic for Christianity Today, recently wrote a great article entitled “In Praise of Slow Opinions.” She argues that everyone is in a rush to give the “hot take” on the latest film or issue. Readers want someone with a strong opinion right off the bat, and writers are eager to offer their “hot take” because it generates clicks. But we ought to be wary of quick opinions.

Life is complicated, and so are films, politics, social issues, and theology. Why are we so eager to get such strong and quickly-formed opinions on everything?

A major culprit is social media. Or more precisely, our misuse of social media. I still believe that social media is a huge blessing, for reasons I’ve already expressed. But when we jettison meaningful conversations in favor of sharp tweets, we’re begging for increased blood pressure and a more polarized society. Social media is a great way to connect and stay “in the loop,” but it’s no replacement for true dialogue. For that we still need books, blogs, articles, lectures, and good old-fashioned conversations—each of these means of communication possessing its own strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and dangers.

For the last fifteen years, I’ve pretty much had only one answer to the question, “How are you doing?” It’s always: “Tired.” Or maybe, “Busy, tired. But good!” As far as I can tell, this is the standard answer to the question.

How are Americans doing? They’re tired.

When I started college in 2000, I became acquainted with “busy.” It was a lot of work. And I was always tired. Then I started seminary and realized I previously had no idea what “busy” was. For much of seminary, sleep was like a hometown friend that you gradually lose contact with. And then I graduated and entered the real world and discovered, yet again, that “busy” always has added dimensions and “tired” is essentially a lifelong companion. Then we started having kids, and well, I’m looking forward to sleeping in again when I retire.

Life is good, but it’s hard. Life is rewarding, but I’m exhausted. I know I’m not the only one.

So why are we so tired? Sure, we’re tired because we work too hard, we go to bed too late, we book our schedules too tightly. But those are just the practical reasons. I’m interested in the theology of it. The theology or rest, and also the theology of tiredness. In this short post, I’ll just offer two biblical reasons for our constant tiredness.

Tired 1

The primary reason we get tired is that God designed us that way. He actually built it into the fabric of his world. God created everything in six days, then rested on the seventh. And that becomes the pattern in Scripture. Just as God rested, we human beings are called to rest as well.

This implies that even before sin entered the world, human beings needed rest. We needed sleep. This only makes sense: Could something as obviously divine as sleep be a mere side effect of sin?

So our need for rest is actually good. It was modeled by God himself. We were designed to put in a good day’s work and then to need rest, to finish off a solid work week and then to need to relax. Rest is good, and so is tiredness.

Next time someone answers your “how are you” with “I’m tired,” maybe your response should be: “Good!”

But another major reason for our tiredness is the fall of humanity into sin. This world is broken. Every aspect of this world has been tainted by the reality of sin. This makes the world dysfunctional, disorderly, and actually: tired.

The Preacher in Ecclesiastes declares all things “vanity,” which is his way of calling life a huge enigma, a stubborn puzzle that frustrates humanity at every turn. And in that context, he says,

“All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it” (1:8).

It’s a tired world. Worn out. Full of weariness to an unutterable extent. Sin bogs us down, trips us up, and quite literally pulls us toward the grave.

We are tired from living in a sin-stained world. The exhaustion of this world will eventually overcome us all. In the final chapter of Ecclesiastes, the Preacher reminds us to pursue God while we’re young, before this weary world exhausts our bodies so fully that they come to a grinding halt (12:1–8).

Our own sin contributes to this exhaustion as well. As Paul makes clear in Romans 1, human beings are worshipers by nature, and while we are designed to worship God, we often turn our ultimate pursuit to idolatrous ends.

For many Americans, our idols are our careers, our reputation, our financial stability, and our carefully purchased world of comfort. This means that we often work harder and longer hours than God intends because we are pursuing much more than we need. Our greed forces us into cycles of achievement that wear our bodies down. We believe in the myth of the self-made man or woman, so we expend more energy than we have to create our own kingdoms.

But God created us to be dependent. You’re tired because you need rest. That feeling of exhaustion is God’s reminder that you need him, that you can’t do everything yourself, that there are not enough hours in the day to build his kingdom and yours at the same time.

So go ahead and be tired. Don’t be ashamed of it. Enjoy that satisfied exhaustion that comes at the end of (and all throughout) a job well done. But if you find yourself feeling exhausted and realize that you’re wearing out your body in idolatrous pursuits, then take God’s gift of fatigue seriously and rest. He made you human for a reason; he designed human beings to need rest for a reason.

Our goal should not be tired-free living, as though we were professional vacationers. Our goal is to be tired for the right reasons, to enjoy a godly exhaustion our whole lives, and then to finally enter that blessed rest of God for all eternity (see Hebrews 4).

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