Saturday, March 28, 2009

Sunday, March 29th, 2009

March 29th, as far as I know, doesn't have a significance in history. There's no place that I can easily think of where a prime numbered date of the third calendar month stuck out in people's minds for any reason. Julius Caesar wasn't warned about the "twice ides minus one" of March. Which makes sense, since he was killed on the 15th. He wouldn't have seen the 29th anyway.

But where I'm concerned, March 29 is a big deal. My church, New Testament Fellowship Church, is taking its Southeast Campus in O'Fallon, Illinois to Sunday mornings. And because we're still in a temporary location down there, we can't do a video or streaming message like a lot of other multi-campus churches do. Our pastor is going to do a 9:30 a.m. service at our established Northeast Campus in Alton, then hightail it to O'Fallon to do a service there live at 11:15 a.m. In the meantime, the 11:00 a.m. service in Alton will be live worship, but the message will be broadcast via high definition video on a really big, theater-size screen. We've tried this method out a couple times to cast the vision to the members of the church, and it's gone over well. We've seen glitches, and we've gotten them fixed for the most part. Now we're on full alert just in case anything goes wrong, and we've got contingencies in place should any errors occur.

I don't know how many people read this blog yet, but I'm going to act like in the next 24 hours someone's going to stumble upon this and want to know this information:

New Testament Fellowship Church
Southeast Campus
The Regency Conference Center
400 Regency Park
O'Fallon, IL 62269
11:15 a.m.

New Testament Fellowship Church
Northeast Campus
3303 Homer Adams Parkway
Alton, IL 62002
9:30 a.m. & 11:00 a.m.

If you're in the area and you can make it, I urge you to check either location out. I can pretty much guarantee that you won't be disappointed, and you won't think for a moment that this is your grandmother's church.

We'll see you then.

There Is No Box.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

There Is No Box (or, FX Stole My Idea)

Oblivion can bring about revolution. Allow me to explain.

In my position, I'm compelled to operate as much in the realm of creativity as I possibly can. I've been reading a book by Ed Young, pastor of Fellowship Church in Texas, called The Creative Leader. So far, it's an engaging, critical read that I need to study in great detail as I go from chapter to chapter. There are few surprises that I've found so far, at least for me, but I've also found that what's written in this book needs to be communicated to people in the most sincere sense of urgency. I don't know if this entry will be seen by many, but I want this to have a legacy-type impact, regardless of who reads this.

When I was younger, I always believed that as my Heavenly Father, Jesus Christ was the most creative being in existence. I mean, He created the world, the universe, and everything that ever was, is or will be. It all came into existence because the Word spoke. And if I'm a child of God, or at least one of his creation, and I am made in his image, then I have the same capacity for creativity that he did. To anyone that doubts that, I challenge you: Witness the visual landscapes created on the page and on the screen by the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien, Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams, C.S. Lewis, Ray Bradbury, Alan Moore, Isaac Asimov, J.K. Rowling, Steven Spielberg, Stanley Kubrick, Richard Attenborough, Terry Gilliam, Guillermo del Toro, and David Fincher. Listen to the massively impacting songscapes of Prince, Beethoven, Bruce Springsteen, U2, Bob Dylan, Jyro Xhan, Chopin, Usher, DMX, Ray Charles, Etta James, Vivaldi, Pink Floyd, Johnny Cash. Peek at the still visuals of Van Gogh, Ansel Adams, Rembrandt, Warhol, pollack, Rockwell, and Monet.

Since I have the ability to create, that also means that I have the imagination to be creative. Since the imagination knows no boundaries, I can choose to exercise this option when I create. What's more, since I believe that God asks for my absolute best in everything I do, then when I create something, I want to stretch myself as much as I can, and not be satisfied with the status quo. In fact, the portion of scripture to which I'm referring is Colossians 3:23-25, and The Message translation goes like this . . . "Work from the heart for your real Master, for God, confident that you'll get paid in full when you come into your inheritance. Keep in mind always that the ultimate Master you're serving is Christ. The sullen servant who does shoddy work will be held responsible. Being a follower of Jesus doesn't cover up bad work."

There have been songs I've written that made me feel as though I was cheating myself, and unfortunately, some of those were worship songs. I wrote something that I thought would translate well to a corporate worship setting, where people would be able to sing the songs easily, the words I'd chosen wouldn't be too difficult, some of the phrases might sound familiar or at least believable, and the lyric would very blatantly point to the object of my praise. One or two of those songs sit very well with me, but the rest of them do not. The rest of them make me feel as though I compromised my integrity when I wrote them. I think some people might respond to them, and it may cause them to worship God . . . and that possibility does give me some comfort, but I know that's it's not my best effort, and it bugs the crap out of me.

In october 2006, I accepted a full-time staff position at my church. I am the operating director of Corporate Worship for our O'Fallon, Illinois campus, our second campus, and am currently trying to find someone to replace me as director over the Alton campus. My role involved overseeing everything that could be heard, seen, or felt in the auditorium during Sunday morning services. Part of my responsibility is to create, but I'm leading a team of people, so I can't be the only one creating stuff. So from time to time, I meet with my teams to make sure we're on the same page.

In the film The Matrix, the Matrix is a computer-generated ream world that the machines keep human beings plugged into in order to keep them from knowing the truth of their existence -- that they have been conquered by Artificial Intelligence and are being used for their electrochemical energy so that the machines can operate continuously. If you've seen the film, you know the story.

Neo goes to see The Oracle, and in the living room of her apartment, there are several "hopefuls," little kids who believe they might be The One spoken of in a prophecy. Neo watches a little kid in Dalai lama dress pick up a spoon, squint a bit, and the spoon becomes limp and bends to one side. Neo watches his, captivated. The kid hands Neo the spoon and says, "Do not try and bend the spoon; that's impossible. Instead, only try to realize the truth."
"What truth?" asks Neo.
"There is no spoon," replies the kid.

The kid knew that because the matrix was an artificial world, the objects inside didn't actually exist in reality. Knowing that, Neo was able to pick up the spoon and watch it bend just like the little kid had done.

I often hear the phrase "thinking outside the box" thrown around, especially in churches. I think people want to compartmentalize God, to think of Him in terms that they are most comfortable with, or in ways they have been taught all their lives, whether correct or not. I hate that phrase, though. I even know a guy who started a ministry called Outside The Box Ministries, and when I found out the name, I just kind of cringed. Here's why I don't like that idea:

(By the way, if you think of "the box" as the way the church has operated over the years, this will make total sense.)

As a church, you can think outside the box in terms of the way you worship, the way the message is presented, the words you speak from the platform, the images you utilize, the way you decorate the stage, the dress you wear on the platform. But thinking outside the box, while great in theory, leaves us with a problem -- the box is still there. And it beckons to us, giving us the remembrance of something comfortable, something we've been used to for such a long time. So the natural tendency is, from time to time, to go back to that which is comfortable. We go back to the box, step inside, sit back, and wax philosophical about how it was nice to do something different, but how great we feel now that we're "back home". We're thinking outside the box, and we occasionally say it's a nice place to visit, but we don't live there.

Or sometimes we'll look at what other churches are doing as a model of what we can do. Most of the time, we take our cues from things that have worked for different churches, in different areas, in different times, for different people, and we often get very different results. Sure, we're trying something new, opening ourselves up to the possibility that more exists beyond what we know in the here and now, but churches tend to be on the conservative end of the scope. So while we're thinking outside of our own box, we're looking into someone else's box for inspiration. We're not dealing with our own limitations anymore, but we're relying on someone else's limitations and claiming them as our own when we have no business doing so.

What's more, we're Christians! I mean, we've got a close, personal relationship with The Man himself! The very one who created everything on this planet gave US the ability to be creative. And if we claim to love Him so much, we need to be doing what we do better than anyone else. There's no reason not to! There's no room for us inside this box if we really want to stretch our boundaries. We can't do it better than anyone else if we're stuck inside of our box, because we can't see the world from the inside. Suffice it to say the stained glass obstructs our view, or makes it look different than it really is.

My frustration has led me to one conclusion, by which I treat everything in my life. Every song that I sing, lyric that I write, script that I pen, and team that I oversee are hinged on one thought:

There is no box.

I've decided to blow the box completely out of the water. It can no longer exist. The limitations have done nothing to help expand my horizons, because before, my horizons could only go as far as the edges of the box. Thinking outside the box doesn't satisfy me anymore; I need to BE OUTSIDE THE BOX. I can't maintain successful rapport with people outside of the church if I stay inside the church mentality all the time. I will never see personal growth unless I step out of my comfort zone and meet other persons. I will never survive if I don't move. I will never grow unless I go. If I maintain a small-church mentality, I will bring about a small-church reality. And since we're broadcasting on television, making our video and audio messages available for free on iTunes podcasts, streaming our weekly messages at our website, and operating 2 campus in a major metropolitan area, I can categorically say that we are not looking to remain a small church.

No longer do six panes in three dimensions confine me in the way I think, live, act, or create. We must realize that when it comes to creativity in the church, the only way we can realistically limit ourselves is logistics. Do we have the room, the money, the time? The actual Hard Facts of Reality rather than the perceived limitations of small-minded people who think they know everything because they've been around longer. Well, folks, i've been around, too. The difference between people like them and people like me is that they've been around only one place for all that time, and they haven't seen anything else.

There is no box.

Nothing is taboo. No subject cannot be breached. no idea is bad, no suggestion is out of place, and no truth is trendy. No six walls will ever hold me in. I'm going to take the box and smash it, destroy it, take a wrecking ball to it and mangle it beyond recognition. I'm going to affix explosives to its supports to that nothing will be left but vapor.

In other words, oblivion can bring about revolution.

There Is No Box.

Thursday, March 12, 2009


Kim is a woman in our church.

Like many people in our church, Kim is blessed with an overabundance of word useage per day. Get her in a conversation, and you'll have a hard time getting a word in edgewise, but you'll find that with Kim, you don't really mind.

Kim is a mother and grandmother.

Kim is a wife.

Kim is a former drug addict who celebrated 9 months sober last week.

Kim has a husband who is serving a prison sentence for drug possession.

Kim lives in a trailer that needs some fixing up.

Kim serves as a coordinator in one of the child care departments in our church.

Kim has the same income now that she did last year at this time, yet she has more money to work with. This is because since she committed her life to Jesus, Kim has been tithing.

See Kim tithe. Tithe, Kim, tithe.

I'd like to talk about tithing for a moment. Those of you in the know already know what I'm about to tell you, but for those that aren't, here's what I want to say: if you're serving God and you're not tithing, you are effectively blocking the full potential of God to move in your life. Seriously, you have no idea how much you are keeping God at bay by not allowing Him the decency of taking care of you.

You see, tithing is a principle that says that our money is given to us by God. We have the resources we do becuase God has allowed us to be successful in work, to earn what we have, and the freedom to spend that money how we see fit. But the Bible does have some very specific things to say about how we handle our money, and I have to say that it all comes back to stewardship.

Look up the definition of the word "steward", and you'll find several definitions that all give the description of a steward being someone that is a manager, someone in charge of something that belongs to someone else. That means that the money coming into my home, even though it comes in the forms of paychecks that I earn by working at different jobs, isn't actually my money or my wife's. That money is God's. And I have a responsibility to care for what is God's in a proper manner. Now, Proverbs tells us that a fool and his money are parted from each other soon, but other passages throughout the Bible all indicate that we should be watchful and careful of what God has entrusted to us.

Malachi 3:10 nails it on the head with specifics (NCV): "Bring to the storehouse a full tenth of what you earn so there will be food in my house. Test me in this," says the Lord All-Powerful, "I will open the windows of heaven for you and pour out all the blessings you need."

Back in the time the Bible was written, the church was also a storehouse for food, so that whenever a believer was in need, the church would help provide food for him and his family. It was the central point of the God-fearing community, so it was to everyone's benefit that the church would be able to help provide for those in need. Now in this day and age, people have moved far away from the church being the center of the community, but the church is still there for those in need, so those who attend bringing the tithe into their local church is still a vital part of being faithful.

I know what you're thinking. "If I give 10% fo my income, that only leaves me with 90% left. I'm barely making it as it is, so I don't see how tithing would work. The math doesn't support it." You know, that's why it's called faith. You have to trust that God's not going to leave you hanging out to dry if you follow through on something he's asked you to do. Many people often say that they'll start tithing when they get more money -- that bonus will come in, or they'll get the raise or the better job, or their home business will start doing a higher volume. Well, you know how it's often said that God's ways are not our ways? This is one of those times that takes effect. God's way when it comes to tithing is to tithe first, and then He will make sure you have what you need. The 90% of your gross income that's left after you've tithed will go farther than you ever thought possible.

However, it does require a couple things on your part.
One, you have to give cheerfully. You need to tithe not out of duty or obligation, but because you trust God and you're willing to give him control over this area of your life. And honestly, if you truly love God, the idea of tithing shouldn't be that difficult to swallow. So wrap your head and heart around the idea first.

Two, you need to give of the first fruits of your labor (Proverbs 3:9), which means that you need to be able to give that tenth of your income FIRST, before anything else gets paid. Do you have bills? Mortgages? Car loans? Utilities? We all do. And yet, God is asking you to TRUST HIM with your money by giving that tithe up first, and watch what he does with the other 90 percent.

I'll tell you, without going into a whole lot of detail (it would take up a ton of your time), that most of the great breakthrough stories I've heard of people finding God's favor through their willingness to tithe has happened when they gave the full tithe first, even when they wouldn't have enough money after paying it to cover a bill, or to buy groceries. And in each instance, they had to give the tithe first, and then God worked their circumstances so that He was able to provide them with what they needed, usually in abundance.

Three, your heart needs to be in the right place, namely a place of complete trust in God. I honestly believe that most Christians that aren't tithing cheerfully or from their first fruits are missing out on the greatness of God moving in their lives because they haven't come to the point of being able to trust God for everything they need. One of the names of God is Jehovah Jireh - "The Lord has provided" - and we often forget that. We look at our ability to earn money and we think our financial net worth hinges on that alone, but one thing I've found out is that you simply cannot out-give God. So try this. If you want to tithe but you're not comfortable with 10 percent, try giving 5 percent. Give it cheerfully, and give it first -- set that amount aside and don't touch it -- and once you're more comfortable, increase that percentage until you're at the 10 percent mark.

Folks, it comes down to a heart condition. God knows your heart and your intentions, and he'll honor you in that. Once you hit 10 percent or more, then you'll really see his blessings flow in a big way.

Four, remember that you have nothing to lose, because this is the only command God gives us and also tells us that we can test him in it. Re-read Malachi 3:10; God specifically says, "Try me." I don't know about you, but I think that's significant. God knew from the very start that our souls and emotions would be tied up in our financial self-worth, and if you doubt that, just start a conversation about the state of the economy, the stock market, the real estate market, or the U.S. government's so-called "bailout" program, and see how people react. Why do you think God chose this specific area of obedience for us to test Him?

My wife and I are now at the point where we're tithing at 11 percent, but we're now at the point where we're giving it of our first fruits. My wife has been in charge of the finances for a few years, but there have been times where we've floated the tithe from week to week because we knew that we weren't going to have the money to cover certain expenses. We weren't trusting God completely. Well, we found out through several accounts from different people that when you put God first and give him what is rightfully his anyway before you earmark your funds for other things, he will do some great and unexpected things for you.

Here's an example. I had officiated a wedding vow renewal in January, and it was my first time doing so. When the event was over and I was getting ready to go, Cindy, the bride, approached me and asked me how much I owed her. I had to take off from my DJ job to do this ceremony, so that was about $130 of income I wasn't going to get, but I'd never talked with her about charging her for officiating. I didn't feel right about taking money for something I'd never done before, and I told her that I just felt like I was cutting my teeth that night, so I wasn't going to ask for any money. She insisted, but I told her that if they hit a huge jackpot (they were going to Vegas for their 2nd honeymood), to set some aside for me. Otherwise, I wasn't going to accept anything.

A few weeks ago, my wife was in church (I was working elsewhere in the building), and she had 2 tithe checks written out, and she was seriously thinking about holding one of them until the following week, but she decided to put both of them into the offering when the buckets came by. After the 2nd morning service, Cindy, the bride who'd asked me to officiate, called down to me from the balcony. "Catch," she said, and dropped an envelope down to me. I picked it up and asked her what it was for. "Just a gift for you to say thanks," she replied, and I thanked her. After she left, I opened the envelope and found a check for $75.00 inside. My wife asked me what it was, and I told her.

"Huh," she said.
"What?" I replied.
"That's the exact amount of one of the tithe checks I put in this morning," she said, "and I almost didn't put it in."

This type of thing has been hapening more and more, and our pastor decided he would initiate a 3-month tithing challenge. He's asking people to sign up for this challenge who haven't been tithing, and at the end of the 90 days, if they haven't seen God working great things in their lives as a result of them tithing faithfully, Pastor Daren will gladly refund every penny that they have given. It's literally a no-lose scenario.

I think that our church is going to see a lot of people get in on this who think they won't have anything to lose, but still don't have the right heart condition and are doing this for the wrong reasons. On the other hand, I know we're going to see people experience a great breakthrough in their lives because they are doing this with the right motivation -- and that is that they love God and want to please him.

In the end, that's what everything comes down to.
Kim can tell you this first hand. I'm editing an interview I shot with Kim, and when it's done, I'll upload it to my YouTube channel so you all can see it. But trust me, this tithing thing works, as long as your heart is in it.

There Is No Box.

Watch . . . watch . . . wrist.

There are times I wonder if I know what I'm doing in life.

Okay, enough of the heavy stuff.

My friend Tim and I are planning on heading down to south St. Louis County tomorrow night to see Watchmen on IMAX. Unless you count the screen at the St. Louis Science Center, this is the only IMAX theater in the metro STL area, and we're planning on making this trip out count. We had gone last summer when The Dark Knight was showing -- he had already seen it at a local theater, but said that when comparing it to watching it on the IMAX screen, the regular movie experience simply could not compare. So when we discovered Watchmen was going to be shown in IMAX, we made plans.

Actually, we just made plans an hour ago. Our friend Adam, whom I work with, would also like to see it, but tomorrow is his birthday and he's already been tagged by a couple in our church that want to take him to dinner to celebrate with him. Ah, well. He was bummed, but he told me to take notes.

I don't know what to expect, really. I've already read the graphic novel. I wanted to know what the story was about, because the trailer really intrigued me, and I thoroughly enjoyed 300, Zack Snyder's last film, so much that I bought it. I half-expect to hear someone in the theater tomorrow night to stand up and give a guttural scream:
"THIS . . . IS . . . IMAX!!!"
. . . and then kick someone down the stairs.

So who watches the watchmen?
Tomorrow night around 7 o'clock, I watches the watchmen. I'm kind of excited.

There Is No Box.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Dora and Billy Must Know Something

My wife has worked in child care in one form or another since she was 15. For nearly 25 years she has helped to shape minds, care for young babies, teach right and wrong, be a surrogate parent, and otherwise wrangle groups of kids into a somewhat cohesive, comprehending mass of eager youth. Which, from both what I remember as a kid and what I've seen as an adult, is no small task.

Her last job was working as a nanny for twin boys whose mother died of cancer while she was working with them. Yeah, I know. But she fell in love with those two rambunctious, high-voiced little troublemakers, and she would often tell me stories of their escapades when she came home from a 12-hour workday. Dylan and Clayton weren't just highly motivated by an unending reservoir of energy, but they were so full of life and joy that Julie's thought of not working for their parents was foreign for a long time.

One of the things I'd heard about, but never watched myself, was Dora the Explorer (we only recently got digital cable). One day, I went over to the house the twins lived in so Julie and I could have lunch together. We took the twins to a restaurant to have some light Mexican food, then came back and put them to bed. Then we just kind of snuggled on the couch together, watching television for a few minutes. We were too lazy to change the channel, so I got my first shot at watching Dora the Explorer.

This is a great interactive show, asking the kids and their parents to shout at the TV screen on where certain items are located. Whoever developed this idea, I thought, was smart as could be, because it actually makes the viewer feel as though they have something to do with the way things end up on the show.

But there's one thing that annoyed me, grating on my nerves while I watched that show, and I didn't realize it until after I'd seen it a few more times. Dora always shouts. She never speaks in a regular voice. She's always shouting, as though the children watching are hundreds of feet away.




(I wonder if the writers realize what "diego" translates to in English.)

I often wonder if Dora and Billy Mays are related. You know Billy Mays, the OxyClean guy? You ever notice how he's always shouting?


Seriously, everything he ever hawks on television, he's shouting about it. Some would say he's excitable; I just think he's excited about the product he's selling.

Reflecting on this made me wonder about my faith. You see, Dora and Billy are both entralled by the worlds they live in. They are captured by the possibilities of the bottomless backpack or the inventions that will only make some things in your life easier. So excited that they shout. A lot. No matter how low the volume is on the program you're watching, when it goes to a Billy Mays commercial, you're guaranteed to be lulled out of your sleep by a giant voice extolling the amazing versatility of the Big City Slider grill, or introducing you to the concept of big blue balls that can make your laundry cleaner and brighter. And when your children wake up on Saturday morning to flip on Dora the Explorer, you'll be brought out of your sleep by a voice -- sounding nothing at all like a Latino, mind you -- telling Swiper to stop swiping. And it all sounds so urgent, because they're all shouting.

So why don't I shout? Why does my outward expression of my love for Jesus NOT make it appear as though I'm excited about my faith?

I'll shout at a concert. I'll cheer for the Cardinals and the Rams and the Blues. I'll root for my nephews in their team sports or BMX races, and I won't be one bit ashamed about out-yelling the guy next to me. But I don't find my faith as exciting as I used to . . . at least, not exciting enough to shout about it. Why is that?

Is it because I've been a Christian for 28 of my 33 years, and my faith comes second nature to me? Is the fact that I get up every morning knowing that God has my back something I've been taking for granted? Does it not enthrall me anymore to live day in and day out with the knowledge that the living God above has a spot in his heart for me, and that he holds my life in his hands? That he understands the desires of my heart and longs to see me have those fulfilled? The he knows my heart and all the potential that I have do sin, to do evil works, and still, somehow, welcomes me into his presence? So why am I not shouting?

If nothing else, I should already know how magnificent God is in his mercy, but even more so in his grace. For those things God has called me to do, I've often felt inadequate, yet he's given me the grace and ability to walk into what he's prepared for me, even if I feel insufficient at the moment of decision. I find that happens more and more as I continue to do what He asks of me. So why am I not shouting?

Part of my job at the church is to videotape interviews with people that have testimonies of what God has done in their lives since they've started attending our church. Many of these people are Christians that have lived for God, but maybe they haven't stepped out in faith in a particular area that they've been unafraid to let go of.

We recently had a baptism service, which we only do 3 times a year due to our size, and we had 17 people get baptized that day. We don't christen or baptize babies, because we follow the Bible's example and instruction about making the conscious decision to be baptized, so most of the people we baptize, by far, are adults. And for 2 weeks prior to baptism Sunday, I did a video interview with each person and asked them why they made this decision and why it was important to them. I heard statements of faith from each of these people that only reaffirmed my faith in God and reminded me of that newness of discovering God's power in one's life. I've been living with this knowledge for close to 3 decades, so it wasn't news to me, but I got to see such unmatched JOY in the faces of these people I interviewed that I was spurred to examine my own life and my own level of excitement in my faith.

Now if you know me, and you've seen me lead worship, you'll know that my disposition is nowhere near stoic as I lead. I'm very animated, often to the point where I become out of breath and compromise the integrity of my voice as I sing. I can't help it. When I sing "everlasting, your light will shine when all else fades," I freaking mean it, and that meaning comes out in my physical actions. Of course, being a musician, I often cast that off to being moved by the music and not so much by the lyrics. As with anything, there are exceptions, but that's another entry.

I'm talking about just walking around, breathing the air, and full-on KNOWING that God is my rock, my portion, my provider, my deliverer, my impetus for everything I do, and that knowledge catapulting my expectation in the small thigns. I know of at least 2 individuals in my church that are new Christians and are constantly being amazed as they put God to task by following what he commands us to do in his Word -- be it tithing, giving of our time and resources with no expectation of compensation, sharing the message of the Gospel with someone they know -- and then watching God take care of them in ways they never expected. God is asking them to be obedient, many times for reasons they don't know, and then when they follow through, God shows up and covers them in everything they have want or need for.

One couple's marrige is closer now because they sacrificed a huge chunk of his retirement pension so that his wife could volunteer at the church without pay. As a result of their heart condition, God healed him of a sexual dysfunction that he was previously told by doctors would never be resolved.

One woman just celebrated 9 months living clean and sober after she and her husband, who is incarcerated, lived a long life of drug addiction. She's also been tithing faithfully on the small income she gets, and God has been covering her and her family in miraculous ways as a result.

These are just two people I know of, and there are dozens more I could write about, and every single story makes me more and more of a believer in God and his promises. My faith's strength is built up each time a story like this come across my ears, and I can't believe that I haven't done more in my life to follow what God has had in store for me.

So why am I not shouting? I'm excited in my head, but I have this disconnect where I detach from my emotions and treat my faith as a walking-out exercise, instead of really pressing in and knowing God intimately. I admittedly don't read my Bible as much as I used to, and I remember when I was reading the Word daily, I couldn't get enough of it. It taught be about the nature of God, about his kindness to us and his love for his people, but also of his hatred of sin and his inability to allow it to go unpunished. While there are many aspects of God that we will never know about, the Bible is surprisingly telling about who God is and what He's all about.

I remember while I was reading the Bible regularly, I felt closer to God than I had in a long time, and I need to get back to that point. Maybe after a while, after getting myself to the point where God and I are closer than we are today, I'll be able to coincide the intellectualism of my faith with the knowledge that God is a very personal God, instead of the two aspects of my faith simply being juxtaposed by each other.

And then, maybe I'll start shouting again. And when I do, I believe walls will fall.

There Is No Box.

Monday, March 2, 2009

The 25 Most Important Albums (To Me) Of All Time

Amidst the countless posts of Random Things and Stuff About My Peeps and all the other mindless, anonymity-destroying notes that people post on a daily basis, a friend of mine posted this on Facebbok. Except this one actually piqued my interest (BTW, people, please learn how to spell “piqued”...).

“Think of 25 albums that had such a profound effect on you they changed your life or the way you looked at it. They sucked you in and took you over for days, weeks, months, years. These are the albums that you can use to identify time, places, people, emotions. These are the albums that no matter what they were thought of musically shaped your world. When you finish, tag 25 others, including me. Make sure you copy and paste this part so they know the drill. Get the idea?”
Well, this is an appropriate one for me. If someone had asked me to pick my SINGLE favorite album of all time, I'd be in trouble. But there are many albums (younger people, ask someone older than you what an "album" is) that have always been a source of inspiration or profound meaning for me. Here they are, the 25 most important records I ever bought, in no particular order.

1. STEVE TAYLOR – I PREDICT 1990, 1987
Taylor’s magnum opus may sound a little musically dated, but this was my first major introduction to high standards in a sea of mediocrity. Challenging and controversial, this Christian artist confused the masses with storied song titles such as "I Blew Up the Clinic Real Good" and "Since I Gave Up Hope I Feel a Lot Better." But it seemed the Christian world was the only world too uptight for it at the time, as the self-directed video for “Jim Morrison’s Grave” was featured more than once on MTV’s “120 Minutes”. This wasn’t my first introduction to the concept of satire, but it was the one that made the most impression on me, and ultimately spurred me to begin my journey as a songwriter.
Best songs: Since I Gave Up Hope I Feel a Lot Better, Jim Morrison’s Grave, A Principled Man

It’s not in my player very often, but the songs on here remind me of playing music in high school and college with my friends. I miss that time in my life, and this album effectively captures that youthful energy and passion that most bands today don’t even come close to matching.
Best songs: Keep the Car Running, Intervention, (Antichrist Television Blues)

I wouldn’t recommend this one to many people now, because it’s a Christian album by a Christian band that was aimed primarily at Christians about Christianity. But when I was 16, many of the songs on this album spoke to me in a way I really needed at the time. I found a reason to hope in this music where before, I couldn’t understand why I should. U2 comparisons abound, especially since Achtung Baby had taken over the world by the time this album released, but these guys were a force in and of themselves. It’s a shame this was their last record.
Best songs: Way of the Cross, Let Me Love On You, Better Days, Lovin’ Kindness

I know, I know, I know. I’ve always been a sucker for a good pop song, and this was before Smith’s ubiquitous nasal approach to singing, which arrived somewhere around 1990 and sadly, hasn’t gone away. And although the themes in this album are directed at teenagers trying to find their place in this world (not this album), musically, it was ahead of its time. When all the pop sensations of the mid-‘80s were using overdriven synth and harsh Fairlight programming, Smith’s choice of sonic landscapes here showed forward thinking and restraint at the same time. Couple that with some of the tastiest melodic hooks and chord progressions the pop world had seen up until that point, you’ve got pop meets arena rock meets remnants of future techno/house. No, I’m serious. From this album, I experienced how a finely tuned melody can pull you in and hold you there.
Best songs: Wired for Sound, Voices, You’re Alright

Armed with a different producer and a solidified lineup that had only been in place for one album previous to this one, this is a powerhouse record (no pun intended) that can still stand up to any other recording by any band, anywhere, at any time. WhiteHeart unleashed an energy and fury they’d only hinted of in previous recordings. With a rhythm section consisting of Mark Gersmehl, Billy Smiley, and Gordon Kennedy (who went on to pen the Clapton award winner “Change the World” and most of the Garth Brooks side project Chris Grimes), as well as bassist Tommy Sims (who later left the band to tour with Bruce Springsteen and eventually become a producer in his own right), and session drummer Chris McHugh, Ric Florian had more than enough musical muscle behind him to let his voice soar into the stratosphere and penetrate even the most stoic rock fans. To me, this was rock with a vision, a purpose, and a score to settle with the rest of the world.
Best songs: Invitation, Power Tools, Sing Your Freedom, Let the Kingdom Come

At the end of the 20th century, I was becoming more and more troubled that bands weren’t going back to the core of great music, which is writing a damn good song with a damn good hook. Blink-182 took the energy and immaturity of teenage douchebaggery and focused it by crafting an album of slick, polished, overly loud pop music with magnificent harmonies and an anthemic tilt that rivaled U2’s place at the top of the rock mountain. And while most of their lyrics spoke of childish things, there were hints of adult seriousness and real growth between the lines, something which the band cultivated for the next two albums.
Best songs: Aliens Exist, Adam’s Song, Anthem

7. MORTAL – FATHOM, 1993
While they weren’t the first industrial band in Christian music, Mortal’s “Lusis” album put industrial music into the Christian vernacular, then turned the concept on its ear with this release. Far beyond merely crunchy guitars and distorted vocals, Jyro and Jerome (now of Switchfoot) crafted a group of songs on this record that wouldn’t normally seem like they would fit together. Yet, because of lyrics requiring a very thick dictionary and an ability to suspend disbelief without the listener being aware, Mortal was able to transcend all labels to become a true meaning of “alternative”. If you like metal, pop, dance, gang shouts, and intellectualism in your music, you’ll find it all here.
Best songs: Bright Wings, Jil Sent Me, Rift, Electrify

I missed the first time around with The Choir, not really hearing about them until I picked up a copy of CCM Magazine in early 1990. Though they had been recording since the mid-‘80s, the Christian radio station in St. Louis didn’t play alternative music, much less pretend to know what it was. So this was my first exposure to guitar-based alternative sounds, and I’m glad it was this one, which was subsequently listed as one of the 100 most influential albums in Christian music history by the same magazine. And oh, what a trip it is. Pair one of the smoothest male voices with beautiful image-laden lyrics, and punch a unique rhythm section through to connect with layers of melodic and distorted guitar, and you’ve got a masterpiece in the making. Throw in a talented band member who excels on saxophone and lyricon . . . well, then, you’re just showing off.
Best songs: Circle Slide, Restore My Soul, A Sentimental Song

The Denver octet chose a tighter, more cohesive set of songs for their assault on the world after the break of the 21st century, and frankly, they’ve never sounded better. Almost completely eschewing ska rhythms for a straight ahead rock-horn-hardcore-rock sandwich, they were able to maintain their sense of humor while simultaneously driving a nail into mediocre rock. Charging anthems full of heartfelt urgency don’t give the listener much time to breathe, but this isn’t a bad thing. They even took the time to send a message to hardcore music fans with “Blue Mix”, in which they denounce musicians who make a habit of fleecing their fans by charging highly marked up prices for merchandise; the song also provides an exhortation for said fans to be wise about what they spend their money on, and calls on them to keep their own band accountable, something you’ll never see most bands do, ever. FIF proved here that while you can grow older and tackle more serious topics, you can still have a buttload of fun.
Best songs: Farsighted, Pre-Ex-Girlfriend, The Day They Killed, You Can’t Handle This

I don’t care that they were a Christian band on a Christian label (only one of the songs even alludes to Jesus), and if you pick this up and take the time to soak this in, neither will you. The Prayer Chain was the first alternative band in Christian music to really tour extensively and make it big, paving the way for myriads of bands that have come after them, and this record proves why. Casting off all remnants of what would appeal to the masses, the songs on this recording defy obvious leanings to produce a meaty, sweaty bulldozer of an album that sneaks up on you and takes some time to warm up to. The best alternative record, ever.
Best songs: Grylliade, Sky High, Mercury

I always believed, despite what most of the alternative bands of the early ‘90s would cling to, that a band needs to have some kind of theatrics in their stage presentation. There’s nothing too exciting about guys standing on stage in torn jeans and flannel shirts, playing music specifically designed to sound bad on radio. But set aside Saviour Machine’s theatrics, face makeup, and stage designs and just listen, and you’ll find a completely different world. This record, the second part of “ the unofficial soundtrack for the end of the world”, takes the concept where Part I left off and kicks you right in the teeth, building layer upon layer upon layer of swirling guitars, orchestral samples, live and programmed drums, spoken word passages, and finally, the core of the band’s sound. Dark, brooding, wholly gothic, this section of the Legend trilogy follows events prophesied in the book of Revelation, including the covenant the Antichrist will strike with Israel, the foundation of one world nation, the instigation of the mark of the beast, the martyrdom of the saints, and the rapture of the faithful. We hear the darkness and chaos descending upon the earth, then the glory of the salvation of the followers of Jesus and their deliverance from the coming plagues, but the album closes in again with the announcement of the Antichrist’s fury about to be unleashed on the earth, which eventually picks back up in Legend Part III. Clocking in at 79:29, this album is about as perfect as you can get, and because of the trilogy format, still be incomplete.
Best songs: The Whore of Babylon, Antichrist II – The Balance of Power, Behold a Pale Horse, The Promise

I always liked Green Day. They had an attitude you wouldn’t see in most music, and they had a knack for writing great hooks, even if the lyrics didn’t fit so easily into the melody lines. And then they turned out this piece of bombast that shook the whole world. While I didn’t agree with the underlying politics that fueled the album, I couldn’t help but be swept up in the enthusiasm of the topics covered. While this wasn’t by any means a groundbreaking album – several rock operas have surfaced well before this one – it was a welcome breath of fresh air to an otherwise stale industry, and Green Day proved it when they performed the title track at the Grammy Awards in 2005, boldly showing everyone in attendance exactly how done is done.
Best songs: Jesus of Suburbia, Are We the Waiting/St. Jimmy, American Idiot

One of the first metal bands to be signed to Myrrh Records, the same label home of Amy Grant for over a decade, this Christian act took cues from Stryper and performed in elaborate stage costumes. But what held my attention wasn’t just the pounding, aggressive metal rhythms. It was the soaring melodies of frontman Steven Patrick, whose voice climbed higher with a pouting, bluesy swagger and powerful range at the same time. While their sound may have been derivative of other metal acts at the time, I didn’t really listen to much metal up until this point, and these guys were able to pull of the Christian perspective without sounding as cheesy as Stryper sometimes did (which didn’t really excuse the band’s name). I understood from this album how full and sweeping metal could be, and this album brought me closer into the realm of great metal without feeling like I would have to sacrifice great songwriting just to hear something heavy. If my parents asked me to turn it off, trust me, it was heavy enough.
Best songs: See No Evil, Lies, Eyes of Innocence

I didn’t become familiar with this ambitious album until 2 years after its release. While having conquered the world with the 1991 single “Right Here, Right Now”, Jesus Jones took a different tack and, with this album, became the first band to ever cut a record through computer. And the result is obviously a product of such – great loops and synth fills, programmed percussion, bold lyrics and a sense of self-awareness that do nothing to detract from the draw of this electronic rock/dance record. I found this sonic landscape enthralling and eviscerating, and the CD never left my player for weeks.
Best songs: Don’t Believe It, Idiot Stare, Your Crusade, From Love to War

It’s nice to know that not ALL of the albums that have inspired me so much came from my high school/young adult years. I became familiar with the Violets in 2001, when I purchased their worship project “Faith and Devotions of a Satellite Heart”. They’d been around since 1989, but I’d never taken the time to get to know them, and when they came through the tiny town of Roxana, Illinois for a show that was attended by less than 100 people, I went, expecting to be blown away. I was. Michael Pritzl’s stage presence alone could have carried the show, even without the rest of the band, but what waited for me after the show was the new release, “Drop-Dead”, that we bought and listened to on the way home. I couldn’t remember the last time a great alternative rock record boosted my adrenaline and filled me with a sense of awe and romance all at the same time. This record showed why The Violet Burning has been one of the best kept secrets in alternative rock. They’ve been called too mainstream for Christian radio, and too Christian for mainstream radio, yet their music has been licensed by a premium cable channel’s development department, which has allowed them to continue touring full time and making music more often than some of the younger, most energetic bands out there. But I can’t help but wonder what those bands might learn by throwing this CD into the player now and then to find out what makes the rest of the world tick.
Best songs: Do You Love Me?, One Thousand Years, Eleanor, All I Want

I was never a big proponent of folk music, but I understood its place in the world. But when I picked up the self-titled discography by Vigilantes of Love about 4 years after it was released, I wondered what I had been waiting for. Bill Mallonee’s textures of Americana resonated with me more than I thought possible. When some of the songs grated my ears, I would listen to it at a later time and hear something different than before, and the simple, bare-bones arrangements of traditional instruments kept the meat of the songs from being lost. One of my first discoveries of the singer-songwriter genre, and one that will always stay close to my heart.
Best songs: When I’m Broken (See What Happens), Real Down Town, River of Love, Earth Has No Sorrow Heaven Can’t Heal

A major influence of the Vigilantes’ Bill Mallonee, the late Mark Heard was probably on par to put out more thought-provoking, imagery-laden music in his career than most musicians were used to hearing in a lifetime. This, his final album before dying of a heart attack the same year, remains some of his strongest work, and it opened my eyes to a new palate of aggressive songwriting. Heard didn’t sing so much as his emotions exploded out of his mouth. What happened to take shape painted pictures of man in despair, lost in imagination, realizing his potential yet lamenting at the garbage and shallowness of life that we allow ourselves to be dragged through. Hope always remains, though, as the haunting final track “Treasure of the Broken Land” would stick in the hearts and minds of every fan who learned of his passing. Interestingly enough, Heard’s fatal heart attack was his second; his first took place while he was performing at the 1992 Cornerstone Festival in Bushnell, Illinois, and he didn’t say anything to anyone until after his performance. Perhaps the music consumed him so much that he couldn’t stop playing, even when he knew it might cost him his life.
Best songs: Another Day in Limbo, Satellite Sky, Freight Train to Nowhere, Long Way Down, We Know Too Much

I was already a fan of Oingo Boingo, having borrowed “Dead Man’s Party” from a friend when I was in high school and becoming hooked on the hyperkinetic fun, scattershot horn arrangements, and Danny Elfman’s singular voice. But I hadn’t really looked too far into the band’s history until I finally broke down and bought this, their only live album, and the double album that capped off the end of a long career for the band. Recorded during their last Halloween show at the Hollywood Amphitheater, this record included all the of the biggest songs that made Oingo Boingo the quirky, insane, loveable band that they were, and the live versions of many of these songs blow the studio versions away. This is like listening to a history lesson, and if you watch the video (now on DVD), the result is even more satisfying.
Best songs: Water, I Am the Walrus, Can’t See (Useless), Who Do You Want to Be, On the Outside, No Spill Blood

19. AMY GRANT – LEAD ME ON, 1988
Watching a fish out of water is a fascinating exercise. I wasn’t a huge Amy Grant fan, and I’m still not. But it stands to reason that my favorite album of hers is also her hardest rocking album, and the stretch showed me a new side of the singer I hadn’t seen before. Sure, some of her previous albums featured guitar, but Grant was a pop artist, and always has been. So when I first heard this record, I realized that a corner was turning, and the woman was about to do something big (her breakthrough, “Heart In Motion”, was her next offering). I found myself truly excited to hear the local rock station playing the title track, the DJ’s voice building the tension over the boiling instrumental lead in, then hearing the song tear through the airwaves with no apologies sent chills down my spine. The experience was fully rounded with the more intimate moments on the record – not the slow, softer numbers, but the ones where Grant’s personality and inner thoughts were finally out in the open for the public to witness and relate to. This personal touch is what drew me in to this record more than anything, but the rock didn’t hurt.
Best songs: Lead Me On, Shadows, Wait For the Healing, Faithless Heart

20. REZ – CIVIL RITES, 1991
Blues metal isn’t a style that many bands can pull off well, but look at ZZ Top. Then take a good, long, hard look at Rez, formerly the Resurrection Band. Starting off in the late ‘70s, these musicians decided to roll our what they knew (hard rock and blues) and put it in the same package, then put inject Jesus’ message of grace and mercy into the landscape and watch what happened. On “Civil Rites”, the band doesn’t rely on overt Christian imagery as much as they could, but instead weave stories out of each song, showcasing the strength of husband and wife vocal team Glenn and Wendy Kaiser where their efforts work best, occasionally joining together to beef up the raw energy. I came to love the blues as a viable art form while in high school, and halfway through my sophomore year, I latched onto this album. I heard stories of tragedy, inner city poverty, social injustice, cult hypnosis, and simple teenage loneliness cut through the sparse pretense of the music and hit me in my bones. I didn’t relate first hand to every story represented, but when stories are told this well, you don’t have to be there in person.
Best songs: Players, Lincoln’s Train, In My Room, Pauper’s Grave

This one was probably some of the most fun I’ve had being inspired, although not every track is buoyant and quick-tempoed as the next. Peacock is a musical genius, I discovered, having given the world a near perfect pop album in 1990 with “The Secret of Time” and infusing it with hints of jazz, R&B (REAL rhythm and & blues, that is), and experimental pop. But this album, a much more personal document, spoke of forgiveness, regret, joy, and longing, all of which centered around the central theme – love. Peacock is probably the only Christian artist to have ever written a song about foreplay, a song that takes shots at Top 40 pop radio while extolling the virtues of sexual love in its proper setting. Giving me a brief lesson in music styles, but more so giving me a musical blueprint of many of love’s faces, this album remains in my playlist and makes me smile every time I hear one of its tracks.
Best songs: In the Light (before dcTalk ruined it), Another Woman in Tears, Kiss Me Like a Woman, Forgiveness

22. U2 – ACHTUNG BABY, 1991
Europe was opened wide in more ways than one on this, one of U2’s strongest albums. Forget “All You Can’t Leave Behind”, forget “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb”, forget “The Joshua Tree”. U2 began flexing their middle fingers with this album, and it made the world sit up and take notice. Nothing they had played before or would ever play again would sound quite like the miracle nightmarism of “Achtung Baby”, and thank God for that. Definitely not the peak of the band’s popularity, it was the time when they realized that to achieve a slice of Heaven, you’ve got to go through some kind of Hell in the process. You can’t help but understand the sense of alienation written all over this album, the textures so sparse and spaced-out that everything sounds like it’s a world away. This, in my opinion, is the first space rock album that actually makes you sit up and demands your achtung.
Best song: The Fly, Even Better Than the Real Thing, Until the End of the World, Ultra Violet (Light My Way)


I don’t consider these two albums a tie, but rather consider them on par with each other, and both equally influential. Singer Jon Bunch fronted the band Sense Field until they called it quits, then took over for Jason Gleason as the lead singer for Further Seems Forever, a band that Dashboard Confessional’s Chris Carrabba had formed and then later left. So while the albums could sound the same, they don’t. They’re both emo, and they both feature the same vocalist, and the themes can work on a spiritual level both within and outside of Christianity, but the two are different in texture, approach, and overall sound. And yet, both have tended to have an equally drawing effect on me. Bunch is a versatile and effortless-sounding vocalist. His performance on these two recordings I hold as a benchmark of what a great vocalist should sound like, regardless of the genre, and his strength as a lyricist shines on both of these albums. Overall, this is absolutely something I try to aspire to.
Best songs, Tonight and Forever: No Longer Now, What Never Dies, Fun Never Ends, Save Yourself
Best songs, Hide Nothing: Hide Nothing, Light Up Ahead, Already Gone, Make it a Part/All Rise

Having already been a fan of Ghoti Hook’s playful attitude and fun approach to punk-pop music, I also knew the band had a serious side that they weren’t very well known for, although hinted at on their first two albums. Eschewing the obnoxiousness of their previous efforts, their classic punk roots shone through, and pure muscle punched through every track. While I haven’t listened to this album in a long time, it remained in my player for many weeks after first purchasing it. Unlike most bands who claim to have matured on subsequent albums, Ghoti Hook actually did on this one, still pouring on the fun but taking the serious side of their music more seriously. It was like watching a great friend that you only knew electively finally sitting down with you and opening his heart about all the crap that he’d dealt with in his life. I began to appreciate classic punk a lot more through this record and I found that everyone has that moment where they say, “Do I continue the way I have been, or do I begin to take greater responsibility?” I get lost in this album every time I hear it now.
Best songs: Two Years to Never, Lullaby, Mach 3, Means to an End

Seriously? With all the great music out there, I couldn’t find another album before 2007 that had a profound impact on me? Honestly, no, I couldn’t. I had read great reviews of the most recent Hives record, and when I saw them perform the explosive “Tick Tick Boom” on The Tonight Show, I knew I had to check this band out. Everything that’s great about this album is a very swift kick right in the ass. In fact, you could remove every gimmick and misstep from this album – the matching suits, the electronic experiments, the Pharrell Williams-produced numbers, and you still have 10 great tracks that hold their own whether separately or together as a whole. I wouldn’t call this a masterpiece, but this is definitely an album that made me sit up, take notice, and get excited about the state of modern music again. This album was also another reminder that you don’t to have the perfect voice, or even sing perfectly, in order for the energy and passion to grab someone’s attention. Why can’t American bands make music this infectious anymore?
Best songs: Tick Tick Boom, Try It Again, Return the Favour, Square One Here I Come

There Is No Box.