Epiphany 3: Call Me Maybe

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. 

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it. (Jonah 3:1-5, 10)

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him.  As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him. (Mark 1:14-20)

When I saw the Gospel reading for the third Sunday after Epiphany was the calling of the first disciples, I knew immediately that I was going to entitle my reflection “Call Me Maybe.” It’s not every day I get to integrate my love of trashy pop music into my religious work. (Actually, that’s not entirely true – I directed a summer camp program last year entitled “Top 40 Theology,” in which we did things like exegete OneRepublic, use Beyoncé to enlighten a passage from Romans, and have a glow-stick-tastic dance party in the camp chapel. But I digress.) I had no idea how/if the song would relate to the passage in question; I just liked the title and ran with it.

As a general rule, I’m opposed to mixing religion and pop music, if only because Christian radio is so mind-numbingly banal. I am prepared, however, to make an exception in this case.

As it worked out, however, that seemingly flip title got me to think much more deeply about the nature of calling. We talk about being called a lot in the Christian tradition: called to take up our cross and follow Jesus, called to be peacemakers, called to go and make disciples of all nations, called to be love one another as God loved us first, called to the ministry, and so an ad nauseum. In the non-religious realm, we often speak of finding our calling, discovering and walking that path to which we are uniquely suited and that uniquely suits us. In both cases, a calling isn’t something we can will into being of and for ourselves. We can’t choose a calling the same we can choose a career. Certainly, our choice matters; in order to be lived, a call must be 1) heard and 2) answered, and that requires our active cooperation. But the call itself seems to originate elsewhere, whether in some external source or (as I’m more inclined to think) in our own deepest selves, deeper than our conscious, calculating mind. Your calling is, in the oft-quoted words of Frederick Buechner, “the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

When we consider calling in Buechnerian terms, then, you might think that discovering your calling would be be a profoundly joyful experience, that living into it would be the easiest thing in the world. And it often is! But because our callings operate upon us at levels deeper than those of the conscious mind–and because human beings can be willful little pricks–our callings can be sources of frustration and even profound suffering – especially when we refuse to answer them.

That’s certainly the case for Jonah in this week’s first reading. He had just spent the last two chapters of his eponymous book running away from God’s call to prophesy to the city of Nineveh, because he knew full well the fate that typically awaits those who accept the prophetic mantle (“getting thrown in the stocks” is one of the more pleasant possibilities). Finally, after sailing as far away from Nineveh as possible, getting himself thrown overboard, and spending three days in the gastrointestinal tract of a whale, Jonah finally, begrudgingly accepted God’s call. All that suffering could have been avoided if Jonah had just listened to God’s call in the first place.

But honestly, would we have acted any differently in his place? To accept your calling is to commit yourself to a process, an allurement, a power that is not entirely (or even particularly) in your control. It is to make a decision to do this instead of that, to be this instead of that, to collapse the wave function of limitless possibility, to limit yourself in some real sense to this path – and to all the inconvenient detours and trudging rainy days that might follow. And even then, there are no clear-cut guarantees that this path among all others is the right one. To pursue one’s calling is a supreme risk, an act of incredible faith.

We say we want to find our purpose, to do and to be that which brings us our greatest joy, to live our lives with souls on fire. But purpose requires commitment. Joy is intertwined with sadness. Fire burns. It’s easy to see where Jonah was coming from. Better to qualify that yearning for purpose with a conditional: “Call me! …maybe.”

Jesus calls the first disciples.

In this light, I’m struck by the incredible, borderline-crazy bravery that the first disciples show in this week’s Gospel reading. Jesus has only just begun his ministry; he hasn’t yet built his reputation as a miracle-worker and healer. He might as well just be another mendicant preacher, of which there was no shortage in first-century Palestine. And yet here Jesus steps up and says to these Galilean fishermen: “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” At best, he might hope for confused indifference, if not outright hostility, to such a call. Simon Peter and Andrew, James and John are literally in the middle of doing their jobs. What possible incentive could they have to drop the nets that provide them with their meager livelihood and hitch their wagon to this dude’s dubious star?

And yet they sensed something in this strange wanderer, something so singular and compelling that they were willing to down tools and walk, to set off on an adventure whose end they could hardly have foreseen. No “call me maybe’s” for these guys; they heard the question underneath Jesus’ invitation and unequivocally answered “Yes,” committing themselves to both untold suffering and overflowing joy. That takes some serious guts right there. I pray that we might all have that same courage: the courage to pursue our callings, and to hell with the consequences. The courage to live our lives with souls on fire. The courage to drop the “maybe” and commit ourselves, wholeheartedly, to that which we were born to do.

Amen. –Tom

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Album Review: Belle & Sebastian, “Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance”

Growing up, I considered myself a thoroughgoing introvert. And why shouldn’t I be? I was bookish, shy, with a strong intellectual and artistic bent and a revulsion of loud parties. Most of my adolescence was spent reading classic novels, listening to classic pop records, and pining over unattainable girls. (No wonder I fell in love with Belle & Sebastian the minute I heard them back in 2006.) As I’ve grown older, however, while I still revel in long walks in the woods and late-night headphone listening sessions, I’ve come to realize I never particularly enjoyed all that time alone as a teenager. Much of the time, it didn’t re-energize me; it was simply the only thing I knew how to do in the face of crippling social anxiety. Now that the anxiety is a little more under control, though, getting out to the clubs sounds a lot less abhorrent. I wouldn’t say I’m a full-blown extrovert, but I’m decidedly more extroverted than I initially realized.

It would seem that, sometime in the nearly two decades since Tigermilk (1996), Belle & Sebastian came to the same self-realization. Born out of Stuart Murdoch’s battle with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), Belle & Sebastian had always assumed they were staunch introverts, sketching inward-looking characters so fragile and lovely, they sounded as though might float away on a afternoon breeze. But beginning with 2003’s Dear Catastrophe Waitress, the band’s (that is to say, Murdoch’s) extroverted side has come more and more to the fore. The gauzy, gorgeous chamber pop with which they made their name was now augmented by punchy horns, booming drums, and dueling guitar leads, opening the door to the stomping glam-isms of The Life Pursuit and lush girl-group pop of God Help the Girl. Judy and her dream of horses hadn’t vanished, not by any means; she just had to share the stage now with Thin Lizzy-listening cuckoos and white collar boys.

Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance (2015), perhaps more explicitly than any Belle & Sebastian record before it, lives and moves and has its being in the space between Stuart Murdoch’s long-established shrinking violet persona and his long-submerged inner extrovert. “Allie” tells the story of one of Murdoch’s classic female protagonists, fretting over news reports of violence in the Middle East while she lives her day-to-day life wrapped up in books. But instead of setting Allie’s inner turmoil to acoustic guitars and gentle strings, the band turns in one of the most propulsive rock n’ roll performances of their career. Meanwhile, “The Cat with the Cream” features a lush, insistent string arrangement, over which Murdoch delivers lines like “How I wish you’d read to me/Verses rich in swallows and trees” with quintessential feyness. But then the lyrics take a turn toward the political:

Everybody bet on the boom
And got busted
Everybody bet
And in the government trusted
Grubby little red MP
Yellow flapping hopelessly

And then there’s “The Party Line,” which displaces “Your Cover’s Blown” as the closest thing to straight-ahead disco in the B&S songbook. Or the ABBA-meets-Pet-Shop-Boys dance-pop of “Enter Sylvia Plath” – but there, the title gives it away! Because if you just read the lyrics, about a young man who becomes infatuated with the eponymous poet, you would expect a musical backing nearer to “Get Me Away from Here, I’m Dying” than “Go West.”


Certainly, if you asked me what I was anticipating from Belle & Sebastian’s new record, I wouldn’t have said that. And to be honest, it’s not entirely successful – the subject matter and its musical treatment are simply too strange as bedfellows. But if you go back to Tigermilk, their very first record, “Electronic Renaissance” was right there, a synthesizer-laden patch on a well-worn baroque pop jacket. Extroverted dance-pop has always been a part of Stuart Murdoch’s musical personality. It’s just that, as he’s matured as a songwriter and as a person, he seems to have grown more comfortable expressing that side of himself.

Ultimately, it was music that empowered Murdoch to engage in that self-expression and survive his battles with CFS. It’s been a constant theme in his work, from the girl who made life-size models of the Velvet Underground in “Expectations” to the story of Eve’s redemption-by-pop in God Help the Girl. And above all things, Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance is a valentine to music, its power to inspire and enchant, to bridge the gap between our inner and outer worlds. “Be popular, play pop, and you will win, my love,” Murdoch’s muse counsels him coyly on “The Everlasting Muse.” It is music, music pouring through headphones on a rainy day, that gives hope to the protagonist of “Ever Had a Little Faith?”: “Something good’ll happen, wait and see… You will flourish like a rose in June.”

Nowhere are the salvific potentialities of pop music more fully realized than “Nobody’s Empire.” It is, by Stuart’s own admission, the first time he has explicitly tackled his struggles with CFS in song, even though those struggles have long been his unspoken artistic touchstone:

Lying on my bed I was reading French
With the light too bright for my senses
From this hiding place
Life was way too much
It was loud and rough round the edges

There was a girl that sang
Like the chime of a bell
She put out her arm
And she touched me when I was in hell

Someone sang a song and I sang along
Cause I knew the words from my childhood
Intellect, ambition, they fell away
They locked me up for my own good

Time and distance have enabled him to set this incredibly personal narrative to music that is brighter, bolder, “poppier” than any of those early records, themselves conceived in the midst of and in response to the “hell” described here. But it loses none of its intimate power for that. It is, quite simply, one of the finest songs Stuart Murdoch has ever written, the sound of a man seeking to integrate his personality, to craft an identity for himself here and now, that simultaneously honors his past as well as his present, his inner as well as his outer world.

In this regard, “Nobody’s Empire” achieves what Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance as a whole does not. The record tends to veer between intro- and extroversion rather than dwelling fully in either or achieving integrative balance. To say that it is an imperfect document is not necessarily a criticism, however. Identity (re)formation is always imperfect, always messy. But through the messiness, we still have the magic of pop music, beckoning us to “leave that vision of hell to the dying” and, as album closer “Today (This Army’s for Peace)” would have it, “come out into the light.” Amen to that.

8/10

Listen here. Buy it here.


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Epiphany 2: L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
    you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
    and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
    O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before,
    and lay your hand upon me.
 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
    it is so high that I cannot attain it.

For it was you who formed my inward parts;
    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
    Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
    My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
    intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
    all the days that were formed for me,
    when none of them as yet existed.
How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!

    How vast is the sum of them!
I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
    I come to the end—I am still with you. (Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18)

At the very end of 2014, on the second-last day of the year, I did something I never thought I would do in my life: I got a tattoo.

My tattoo.

At first glance, it’s a little cryptic: a planet, ostensibly Earth, and the motto underneath: “That’s why I believe in you.” If I told you that it’s the logo of the MOTHER video game series, you’d probably scratch your head until I explained that Ness, the baseball-bat-wielding 13-year-old from Super Smash Bros., was the protagonist of the second MOTHER game, known in the U.S. as Earthbound. The motto itself comes from the series theme song, “Pollyanna (I Believe in You).”

At which point you’re probably thinking, “You must be a pretty big fan of these games!” Which would be true, obviously. Much as I adore the MOTHER games, however, that doesn’t explain how much my tattoo means to me. For that to make sense, you need to know that the he same day I got my tattoo, my little brother Kennedy got a tattoo of a lightning bolt with the caption, “I believe in second chances.”

My little brother’s tattoo.

Again, doesn’t necessarily make a lot of sense at first – until you realize that it’s the Franklin Badge, one of the most important items in the world of MOTHER, and that the caption is also from “Pollyanna,” from the final chorus:

You may say I’m a fool
Feeling this way about you
There’s not much I can do
I’m gonna be this way my life through
‘Cos I still believe in miracles
(I swear I’ve seen a few)
And the time will surely come
When you can see my point of view
I believe in second chances
And that’s why I believe in you

Kennedy was the person who introduced me to the MOTHER games. He was also the unwitting catalyst of the existential crisis out of whose depths I heard my call to the ministry, possibly the single person most responsible (however unintentionally) for my joining the Church and going to seminary.

I believe in second chances, and that’s why I believe in you. Dork siblings, marked permanently as dork siblings, forever.

My tattoo is incomplete without my brother’s. There’s a silence that precedes the affirmation “That’s why I believe in you.” Why do I believe in you? And who do I believe in? Only when we place our arms alongside one another can you see the whole picture. That’s not something we get to do very often, seeing as how I live in California and Kennedy lives in Texas. But when I look at my tattoo, even though I may not be able to see its other half, I know that it exists. And that fact–the fact that I cared so deeply about these games and this song and my relationship with Kennedy that I had this thing engraved on my body forever–still brings me to tears on a pretty regular basis. What makes my tattoo meaningful to me is not what you can see on my upper arm, but what you can’t see.

As I meditated on the reading from Psalm 139 this week, I was also struck by what I couldn’t see there. Full disclosure: Psalm 139 might just be my favorite passage in the entire Bible. But the lectionary left out my favorite part of my favorite Psalm, verses 7-12:

Where can I go from your spirit?
    Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
    if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
    and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
    and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
    and the light around me become night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
    the night is as bright as the day,
    for darkness is as light to you.

For me, this is the crux of the whole psalm right here – indeed, the crux of the whole Bible. If I were to get a Bible verse branded permanently into my flesh, it would probably be Psalm 139:12: “even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for the darkness is as light to you.” Why, I wondered, does the Lectionary leave out the single most important part?

“One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.” — Antoine de Saint Exupéry

Of course, the point of the psalm is precisely this: that God is with us everywhere. Even in the midst of the deepest darkness we can imagine, even when we can’t see a way forward. Because what we can see isn’t nearly as important as what we can’t see. I don’t need to see my favorite verse in this week’s reading to know that it’s there, to remember it when I need it and repeat it to myself as a talisman against the darkness. I don’t need to be able to see Kennedy’s tattoo to know exactly why “I believe in you.” I don’t need to be able to see through the darkness to trust that there is a way through, to know with every fiber of my being that the Spirit of Love is always present. “L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux,” as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry put it: “Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.”

So I pray this week that we might all find those psalms, those verses, those songs, those tattoos, those talismans that remind us of who we are and what we believe. That shine for us as a light in the darkness. That, even though we don’t always say them aloud, even though we can’t always see them with the eyes, are written on our hearts as indelibly as if they had been written on our arms.

Amen. –Tom

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Epiphany 1: Same Water, Same Love

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.  I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:4-11)

Well, I just got some news I didn’t expect to hear today. A federal judge just declared my home state of South Dakota’s ban on same sex marriage unconstitutional. You read that right: South Dakota, that reddest of red states, a state I would have counted on to linger to the very end in this fight with the likes of Alabama and Mississippi, is going to have to let gay folks get married.

My first thought was a baffled, “Wait, is this for real? We’re not the last in the country?” My second thought was a rush of breathless excitement as I realized that, soon, my gay friends and family back home would finally have the same marriage rights as I did. My third thought was about an essay that went viral a couple years ago, written by a South Dakotan of my generation the day after Macklemore played Augustana College in Sioux Falls. (Augustana must have booked him just before “Thrift Shop” exploded, because a mere six months later he was packing the 17,500-seat CenturyLink Center in Omaha a few hours south.) In particular, the author, Dannika Nash, remembered his performance of “Same Love”:

Before the song, Macklemore spoke really simple words along the lines of: “Hey, you can all have your own opinions on how we treat gay people in this country, but this is mine.” And I held my breath in anticipation of some kind of uproar or walk-out…but the crowd cheered louder than they had yet. In our red state, in our conservative little city, the 5,000 young people in that arena wanted to hear about marriage equality.


For me as a Christian, the most piercing line of Macklemore’s song is the same one that Nash singles out in her “Open Letter to the Church from My Generation”: “When I was at church, they taught me something else. If you preach hate at the service, those words aren’t anointed. That holy water that you soak in has been poisoned.” It doesn’t matter how many times I hear it, it still stings. Because even as today’s decision sets my conservative little state on the path to marriage equality, I know that there’s still a lot of hate and unacceptance being hurled at my gay brothers and sisters from people who consider themselves the followers of a man who claimed that every single human being was a member of his family (Matt. 12:46-50), and who showed forth that radical acceptance in every (inter)action. No court decision is going to alter the fact that in “America the Brave, we still fear what we don’t know.”

But - “it’s a damn good place to start.”

For if we’re going to claim to follow this itinerant Palestinian Jewish preacher, who comforted the troubled and troubled the comfortable, who taught us to love our enemies and then went and did it, then preaching hate is not an option. If we have the audacity to baptize God’s children in Jesus’ name, then there is only one thing we can possibly say to those we welcome into our communities – the same words that Jesus heard at his own baptism and that he preached to everyone he met: “You are a beloved Child of God, with whom God is well pleased.”

That’s it.

Period.

To say anything else, to set conditions of sexual orientation or gender or nationality or race or any other fake human division on the Love of God, is to poison the Water of Life. And I’m no more prepared to accept poisoned holy water from my church than I would be to accept poisoned tap water from North Dakota oil companies. I signed up for a place where everyone can belong. I signed up for a God who loves us all, no matter what. And I will be damned if I settle for anything less.

So South Dakota, I’m proud of you today, for choosing love over fear. I pray that your people might live up to your laws this time – and that we all might live up to the Law of Love. We are all beloved Children of God, with whom God is well pleased. No conditions. No exceptions. Ever.

Amen. –Tom

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Tom’s Top 5’s: Most Anticipated Albums of 2015 (Addendum!)

Upon posting my Top 10 Most Anticipated Albums of 2015, friends questioned why I hadn’t included several other exciting new releases scheduled for the coming year. In my defense I can offer only ignorance: in most of these cases, I simply didn’t know they were coming out! So, before the year gets too much further on, here are five more records for which I’m every bit as hyped up as those on that first list.

1. ASTORIA (Marianas Trench – TBA)

Josh Ramsay was already one of Canada’s finest purveyors of anthemic pop/rock before he co-wrote and produced what might be the most obscenely ubiquitous chart hit of the last decade: Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe.” Brilliant advance single “Here’s to the Zeros” shows Ramsay’s ambivalence to the Top 40 world he’s conquered: “They say, ‘Where’s the next hit, baby?’/God, how could I top ‘Call Me Maybe’?” Equally brilliant advance single “Pop 101” goes it one better, though, setting a tutorial in formulaic songwriting to music – and crafting a perfect pop song that’s both upfront about its own commercial pandering as well as miles better than 98.7% of what actually makes the charts.


2. TRACKER (Mark Knopfler – TBA)

Mark Knopfler has long since traded in the guitar-hero pyrotechnics of Dire Straits’ arena-packing days for a more restrained style that suits his intimate, exquisitely-wrought character sketches and story-songs admirably. For me, though, it matters not one bit whether he’s barnstorming through “Telegraph Road” or laying down an exquisitely smoky (but no less arresting) solo on 2012’s “The Dream of the Drowned Submariner“; he is, without question and without rival, my favorite guitarist on the face of the earth.


3. INVASION (Savant – TBA)

Norwegian glitch-hop auteur Aleksander Vinter aka Savant has spent the last few years cranking out incredible music faster than his fans can snap it up. (By way of example: 2013 alone saw the release of 3 full LPs and 3 EPs.) His last album, Zion, came out in December, and its follow-up, Invasion, is already set for release sometime in the next month or two. Invasion will reportedly eschew the concept album template Vinter followed throughout 2014, focusing on individual tracks rather than an overarching theme. Whatever the format, it’s sure to feature more of the glitched-out drops and blissed-out synths that have characterized Vinter’s work to date.


4. THE GRAND EXPERIMENT (Neal Morse – February 10)

In some meaningful sense, Neal Morse is a Christian Rock artist, and not just a Christian rock artist, so to speak. He’s written multiple full albums specifically about his conversion and subsequent faith life, and his Christianity undergirds even those songs that aren’t explicitly religious in content. And yet he somehow manages to make music that, far from being bland and banal, takes its place as some of the finest progressive rock of the 21st century. Way to buck the trend, Neal – here’s hoping The Grand Experiment continues in the same proggy-not-preachy vein.


5. TBA (Macklemore & Ryan Lewis – TBA)

The Tumblr SJW set can suck it – Macklemore is pretty much everything you could hope for in a straight white American male (and especially a straight white American male rapper) in this day and age. On balance, this fellow straight white American male appreciates hip-hop, but it’s not the genre that speaks to his aesthetic or his experience. But The Heist (which, hipster that I am, I was listening to before “Thrift Shop” blew up) is one of my absolute favorite records of the 2010s so far. So you’re damn right I’m jacked for the follow-up.


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Christmas 2/Epiphany: This Little Light of Mine

Arise, shine; for your light has come,
    and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
    and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
    and his glory will appear over you.
Nations shall come to your light,
    and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

Lift up your eyes and look around;
    they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from far away,
    and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.
Then you shall see and be radiant;
    your heart shall thrill and rejoice,
because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you,
    the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
A multitude of camels shall cover you,
    the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
    all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
    and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord. (Isaiah 60:1-6)

The Magi following the Light of Epiphany. How might we follow the Light in our lives?

Sorry for the delay on this, folks! But for 2 Christmas/Sunday before Epiphany (4 January 2015), I was back home at the United Church of Christ of Vermillion, SD as a guest preacher. And when I preach in front of a congregation, I typically decline to write my sermon out. I spend hours preparing my message, absolutely. But I consider myself a storyteller by nature and by trade; and if I can’t keep my story straight without the use of notes or a written text (I’m of the school that holds that a sermon should be no longer than 12 minutes), my congregation probably won’t be able to either. Anyway, the Spirit tends to come through most clearly in those moments that I don’t plan – in which respect preaching is a lot like jazz. So, I prefer to go it without a script – meaning I had nothing to post last weekend.

As it turns out, however, just today I was able to get my hands on the audio of my sermon from last Sunday. And so rather than transcribe it, I offer it at the link below for your edification (or at least entertainment, if I can’t aspire to edification). It’s a reflection on protest songs (specifically #BlackLivesMatter protest songs) and the very Epiphanic theme of light: what it means to follow the light, and to let our light shine for others. :)

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Tom’s Top 10’s: Most Anticipated Albums of 2015

Any year that kicks off with Kanye West and Paul McCartney collaborating on a Stevie Wonder-esque ballad is going to be a year of surprises. A mere week into the new year, it’s tough to say what curve balls 2015 will throw at us. Knowing what we know so far, however, there’s still plenty to get excited about on the musical horizon. Here are ten albums I can’t wait for. How about you?

1. SLURRUP (Liam Hayes – 13 January)

Liam Hayes’ soundtrack to the 2012 Charlie Sheen vehicle A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III might’ve brought him to a wider audience had the film not been so roundly panned. Either way, the experience seems to have spurred him into something of a creative renaissance: the film was quickly followed by last year’s endlessly melodic Korp Sole Roller, and this year’s Slurrup is set to drop only six months after its predecessor hit (digital) shelves.


2. GIRLS IN PEACETIME WANT TO DANCE (Belle & Sebastian – 20 January)

Belle & Sebastian’s reputation for wistful indie folk-pop has always concealed a broad range of sounds and influences, from the jagged New Wave edges of Dear Catastrophe Waitress’ “Stay Loose” to the neo-glam stomp of The Life Pursuit’s “The Blues Are Still Blue” to the straight-ahead synth-pop of “Electronic Renaissance” way back on their first album, Tigermilk. This latest record seems set to pick up where that odd-song-out in the B&S catalog left off, if lead single “The Party Line” is any indication. But have no fear: album opener “Nobody’s Empire” and recently-released “The Cat with the Cream” assure us that gorgeous, melancholic indie pop is still on the menu.


3. WHAT A TERRIBLE WORLD, WHAT A BEAUTIFUL WORLD (The Decemberists – 20 January)

I’ve always loved the Decemberists’ brand of theatrical indie folk-rock (especially on what I would consider their masterwork, The Crane Wife), but I have to admit that Colin Meloy’s faux-Gothic literary affectations can get on my nerves. The three new songs we’ve heard so far from What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World still sport Meloy’s expansive vocabulary, certainly. But they dial back the pretense, settling into a more intimate space both musically and lyrically. “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” this ain’t… but I actually rather like it that way.


4. HAND. CANNOT. ERASE. (Steven Wilson – 27 February)

Steven Wilson’s 2013 opus The Raven That Refused to Sing was one of my top records of that year and simply one of the best prog albums in recent memory. Word is that Hand. Cannot. Erase. will feature fewer extended epics, telling its LP-length story (that of a young woman who vanishes one day and whose friends and family do not notice her disappearance for three whole years) through shorter songs instead. But that doesn’t mean it will be more conventional than Wilson’s previous efforts – after all, it’s a long-form concept album by one of the reigning Kings of Prog.


5. GOON (Tobias Jesso, Jr. – 17 March)

Tobias Jesso, Jr. caused quite a stir when he released his home recording of “True Love” this past summer. It’s not every day an unknown singer-songwriter from Vancouver writes and all-but-anonymously releases the Great McCartney Love Song That Never Was on YouTube. And then drops another Great McCartney Love Song That Never Was a week later (“Just a Dream“). Meanwhile, “Hollywood,” the first official track off his upcoming debut LP, demonstrates that a professional studio won’t gloss over Jesso’s homespun charm and gorgeous songwriting.


6. JACKRABBIT (San Fermin – 21 April)

San Fermin’s self-titled 2013 debut, the brainchild of Yale-educated composer Ellis Ludwig-Leone, was a minor masterpiece of artful, artsy avant-pop. “Parasites,” the first singe from Jackrabbit is more frenetic than anything on the band’s first record, replacing the ladies from Lucius with new vocalists Charlene Kaye and Rebekah Durham but keeping baritone Allen Tate and featuring lots of spiky saxophone and dynamic and tempo shifts. I look forward to how Ludwig-Leone incorporates this newfound manic energy into San Fermin’s lush, highly composed sound.


7. 74 IS THE NEW 24 (Giorgio Moroder – TBA)

Giorgio Moroder’s collaboration with Daft Punk on the French duo’s world-conquering Random Access Memories introduced the Italian EDM pioneer to a new generation of eager listeners. In a genre currently dominated by young talent, the title of Moroder’s upcoming album (which is set to feature Britney Spears, Kylie Minogue, and Charli XCX, following on the heels of collaborations with David Guetta and Avicii) is nothing if not a statement of purpose.


8. TBA (Jens Lekman – TBA)

To be fair, Swedish indie pop genius Jens Lekman hasn’t confirmed that he’ll have a proper album out this year. But he has confirmed that he’s working on the follow-up to 2012’s exquisite I Know What Love Isn’t (one of the great modern breakup albums). And as he works on the new album, he’s made an ambitious New Year’s Resolution: ” I will sit down once a week, write down my thoughts, turn them into a song and share it with you directly.” If the first of these “musical postcards” is any indication, it’s gonna be a helluva year for Mr. Lekman.

9. TBA (Josh Ritter – TBA)

Not unlike Jens Lekman, Josh Ritter hasn’t technically confirmed a sequel to 2013’s The Beast in Its Tracks (which, coincidentally, is also one of the great modern breakup albums). But he has been posting photos from recording sessions in New Orleans on his Facebook page, and so I for one am holding out hope that the Idahoan Bob Dylan (just listen to “Lantern” and tell me he doesn’t deserve the title) will have a new LP for us sometime in the next twelve months.


10. NO PIER PRESSURE (Brian Wilson – TBA)

So: Pet Sounds is perfect. Like, literally perfect. As is Brian’s 2004 re-imagining of SMiLE. Also, the song “Live Let Live” from That Lucky Old Sun may have played a non-trivial role in my decision to attend seminary at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley. My point is that the music of Brian Wilson means a lot to me. So of course I’d be excited to hear Brian’s first album of all-new material in seven years (the lovely Beach Boys reunion That’s Why God Made the Radio notwithstanding), even if it didn’t feature Al Jardine & Dave Marks, Jeff Beck, Nate Ruess, and Zooey Deschanel, among others.

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