Thoughts On Criticism

I thought that I was all alone, broken and afraid
Well I didn’t even know that I had lost my way

But You were there with me…yes…You were there with me.

I realize that there are valid criticisms of many Contemporary Christian artists and the product that they put out. I do not blindly (or mindlessly) support each and every singer, songwriter, or band that comes along and claims to fly the flag for Christianity. There are some absolutely terrible ones out there and they are terrible for various reasons. Some of them are musically trite and unimaginative. Calling them generic would be kind. Others are better when it comes to the music but their lyrics are uninspired, shallow, or outright silly. And then there are those who release good music but their lifestyles seem to betray the very things that claim to sing about. As I said, there are many so-called Christian artists who do not deserve the support they get.

I don’t want to address those particular artists. I believe that there has probably been more than enough written about them already. I do want to briefly talk about some of those groups (or solo artists) who don’t put out GREAT art or break boundaries with their imaginative and original compositions, but they don’t fall into that first group. I guess these are the ones I would call generic but not necessarily to the point of being offensive. These are artists who I believe are sincere and are doing the best with the gifts and abilities that God has given them. Let’s be honest, not everyone is a prodigy on his instrument or natural poet when it comes to crafting lyrics. However, that does not mean that these folks cannot put out music that is useful and encouraging to those who listen to it.

I must also pause to recognize the fact that we all have different tastes. The truth is that we don’t all like the same styles and what is music to one person’s ears may sound like noise to another. I tend to favor music with loud guitars and heavier riffs but I understand that it is painful for others to listen to it. I do like some rap and hip-hop but I cannot listen to it for extended periods of time. There are others who listen to it almost exclusively and that is perfectly fine. We don’t have to be carbon copies of one another. That being said, you may think that some of the artists I talk about here are absolute garbage. Once again, that is okay. I don’t expect anyone to like something just because I do. It’s all cool.

I began this with a quote from the band Third Day. It’s from their song Mountain Of God. It is on the album Wherever You Are which was released in 2005. It’s not a particularly original song, not even by Third Day’s standards. It sounds similar to several other songs that they have written, including Cry Out To Jesus from the same album. I wouldn’t call either of them great songs and I wouldn’t call Third Day a great band. They are good musicians (better than I am) and they are very entertaining in concert. All of the members (especially Mac Powell) seem like genuinely nice guys and appear to be serious about their faith.

I like Third Day. I like them a lot. For the most part they are a guitar-driven rock band that incorporate elements of Seventies’ southern rock and Eighties’ alternative rock. There is the occasional country-flavored moment but that is due mostly to Mac Powell’s voice. While they seem to have mellowed a bit since their earlier releases, if you like one Third Day album, chances are you will like the rest of them. They rock hard enough to please rock fans but they aren’t offensive and they balance it out with pop songs and ballads. There is a deliberate (some may say manufactured) sense of worship on most of their albums and they have even released two albums of nothing but worship songs.

I know some folks who love Third Day. They think they are the greatest thing since sliced bread. I know others who despise them and think they are a blemish on the face of the earth. Me? I like them. I have seen them several times (most recently in May of this year) and I can honestly say that they have never disappointed me. I don’t like every song that they have written but I like enough of them that I consider myself a fan. I have owned a Third Day t-shirt (I have no idea what happened to it) and I own all of their albums in digital form. I do have three actual CDs that I bought at shows.

You may be sitting there asking yourself, “Dude…what is your point?” The honest truth is…I don’t really know. I am not sure why I felt compelled to sit down and write this. I don’t know any of the guys in Third Day personally. I did see Mac Powell and his family having lunch at a Carrabbas in Marietta, Georgia once, but that hardly qualifies me to be a part of their circle of friends. I’m not even their biggest fan by any stretch of the imagination.

So…why do I think I need to defend them? I guess the biggest reason is because their music DOES speak to me. I have had moments of doubt and fear and pain when their music literally ministered to me. The simple message conveyed in their lyrics spoke peace to me. I didn’t need a deep theological lecture or a ton of Bible verses dumped on me. I just needed to hear that I wasn’t alone. He WAS there with me. The simplicity in the music and the directness of the lyrics worked much like the Psalms do when I read through them. They touched me on a personal, emotional level. Anything more complicated (musically or lyrically) would most likely have distracted me.

Does that mean you should go out and start snatching up Third Day CDs? No…not unless you really like them and you have the money to do so. But I do think it means that maybe we should cut them a little slack. I know that sounds like I am contradicting myself…especially that first paragraph…and you know what…maybe I am. Maybe I am suggesting that we stop being SO critical of things that we don’t like…especially if it is just a matter of personal taste. If an artist is writing things that contradict or distort Scripture…by all means…call him out. If he puts out dumb, uninspired music…don’t buy it. Tell others your opinion if you feel compelled to…but don’t make people feel stupid for liking something that they honestly like. Why do we sometimes think that we are the harbingers of good taste and that others do not have a right to their personal opinions?

I am somewhat torn because I consider myself a songwriter. I have written things that are deeply personal to me and that have significant meaning in my life but the honest truth is that I am NOT a great musician and I am NOT a genius wordsmith. My songs are simple and, on many levels, they are generic. They are not that far removed from what you hear on the CCM radio stations. Many folks would openly criticize them for their lack of originality and complexity but here is the kicker…I am doing the best I can with the gifts God has given me. It hurts me if someone tells me that my song is crap or that it sucks…even if he/she thinks it does. And yes…I have had that happen to me.

If there is any point to this I guess it would be the following: it is okay to be critical of others but it should be done out of genuine love. The apostle Paul, in Ephesians 4:29 says: Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it my benefit those who listen. I don’t think it is wrong to give honest, critical opinions as long as we don’t destroy those we are criticizing. I can remember posting a poem on another website once and (if I am honest with myself) it wasn’t a very good poem. It was forced and pretentious. I can remember a friend up there addressing me and instead of just coming out and saying, “Hey man…this sucks,” he actually went through it line by line and showed me how he thought it could be better. He also compared it to another poem I had written that he felt was pretty good. Yes…he was critical…but merciful at the same time. That has stuck with me to this day.

I am often overly critical and harsh when it comes to things that I don’t like. My wife is constantly having to remind me that we all have different tastes and that when it comes to music and movies and other forms of art…well…good and bad are subjective terms. We all hear, see, and process things differently. And that is perfectly fine.

Robin Williams R.I.P.

I have been quiet the last two or three days. I was so busy on Saturday and Sunday that I didn’t get around to posting. I was honestly going to sit down and write something last night but after seeing the news that Robin Williams had killed himself…well…I just didn’t have anything to say. I will be honest…my heart has been heavy for the past week or so. The stories of Christians being murdered in Iraq continue to trickle out and they really leave me speechless. There is nothing (outside of prayer) that I can do for those folks. The same can be said for Robin Williams. Truthfully…I cannot even say that about him. He is gone now. I guess I could ask the Lord to have mercy upon his soul…but that’s in His hands…not mine. So…what do I say about it? What do I do?

The truth is that there are so many people STILL here who struggle with depression. We often don’t realize it until it is too late. They walk in and out of our lives every day and we are never aware of the pain that they feel. I guess if I have learned anything from the tragic death of Robin Williams it is this…I need to be aware of those around me. I don’t need to assume that everything is okay just because people smile and say, “I’m fine.” I need to pray that I am sensitive what others are going through. I don’t need to assume or judge…I need to love.

There is nothing that any of us can do for Robin Williams…but…there are millions who are here…suffering. They desperately need someone to reach out and love them.

Lord, Have Mercy

When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.

Revelation 6:9-11 (ESV)

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

Matthew 5:10-12 (ESV)

As I sit here in my nice home and write this…there are Christians being murdered in Iraq simply for being Christians. CNN interviewed a Chaldean business man who reported that ISIS (a Muslim group) has beheaded children publicly. My heart is heavy because there is absolutely nothing (outside of prayer) that I can do about it. This morning the U.S. began bombing ISIS targets in response…but will that really accomplish anything? The good news (if there is any in this situation) is that God sees what is going on. Those who are dying for Him are not dying unnoticed. They will be rewarded for their faithfulness.

Which brings me to…well…me.

I often complain about the things that I have to go through. I gripe about life not being fair. I whine about the things that I don’t have. As a Christian I am often complacent and lazy. I actually believe that the majority of Christians here in America are complacent and lazy. We are too afraid to stand up for the truth. We are too apathetic about the souls of those who don’t know Christ. We make time to entertain ourselves but struggle to find an hour (or thirty minutes) to serve God in some way.

I am a pastor…and I am guilty too.

Our hearts need to break when we see injustice…regardless of where it is happening or who it is happening to. We need to be reaching out in love to those the world finds unlovable. We need to be taking the light of Jesus Christ into the darkness…wherever that may lead us.

I am a pastor…and I am guilty.

Lord have mercy on me. Lord let me have mercy for others.

Pastors & Social Media

I read Thom Rainer’s blog every day. He usually shares something that encourages or educates me. His post from two days ago was no exception. HERE it is if you would like to read the entire thing.

It addresses seven things that all pastors should consider when using social media. Seeing as how I am on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram…I found it to be very enlightening. The seven things (warnings) Rainer mention are:

1. The things you say last forever
2. People will misunderstand you
3. Emoticons don’t erase snarkiness
4. Personal attacks are seen as cowardly
5. Posting while agitated/excited is dangerous
6. Churches see what you post
7. Non-Christians see what you post

While most of these are common sense…it would still be wise to consider each and every one of them before, during, and after posting things online. It didn’t take me long to realize that you have no clue who is reading what you are writing. I have been pleasantly surprised (and totally mortified) to discover who was following me at different times. Back in the days of Xanga (you remember that one kiddies?) I had more than one unpleasant situation occur when I posted too much information. I learned that you cannot take any of the stuff you post back…you can only issue retractions.

Now that I am serving as a pastor I am keenly aware of the fact that many people in my flock are online and they are reading what I write…including this. I always ask myself if the thing I’m getting ready to share will offend, hurt, or confuse someone. I also ask if there is a way I can encourage others with the things I post. I have slowly learned that not everything I think is funny or interesting should be thrown out there for the world to see. I also understand that it is better to remain silent and be thought a fool…than to open my mouth and remove all doubt.

Hopefully this…and all my other internet babbling…make a positive impact on those who read.

Matthew 13:31-32

He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

Matthew 13:31-32 (ESV)

This is a good one. I think it (like the parable of the leaven) is more self-explanatory than some people want to make it. I have seen some people try to take the birds in verse 32 and make them mean all sorts of things. My favorite explanation is that the birds represent the evil that lurks within the church when it grows too quickly. Seriously? Come on guys.

I think it is much more simple than that. Verse 32 seems to be a reference back to Ezekiel 17:23.

On the mountain height of Israel will I plant it, that it may bear branches and produce fruit and become a noble cedar. And under it will dwell every kind of bird; in the shade of its branches birds of every sort will nest.

In that passage God promises to send someone who will provide shelter for all who come to Him. Jesus echoes that sentiment and reveals that the promised shelter is found in His kingdom. I do not believe that there is a need to interpret the birds as anything other than just that.

I do confess that I am not a scholar (in the true sense of the word) and that I depend upon the scholarship of those much smarter than myself. If there is some nuance that I am missing due to my lack of expertise in the original languages, I will concede to those who are more learned than myself. I do believe that The Holy Spirit does allow us to study (and understand) the Bible when we allow Him to. That is all I am attempting to do here.

If anyone out there reads something here and feels to compelled to share his/her opinion or correct the author when he is wrong, please do so. I welcome it.

The New Me

Colossians 3:1-17 (ESV)

1 If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. 3 For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
5 Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. 6 On account of these the wrath of God is coming. 7 In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. 8 But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. 9 Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. 11 Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.

12 Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 13 bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. 17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

I keep waiting to see the new me. Every now and then I’ll get glimpses of him but he doesn’t seem to hang around for very long. Just when I think that he’s moved in to stay, he up and runs away, leaving me with the old me. For the record, I don’t like the old me very much. The old me likes to say things he shouldn’t. He jokes and carries on in ways that aren’t appropriate and uses language that he knows is not suitable. He’s lazy and undisciplined. He’s unconcerned with the lost and hurting souls around him. All he really cares about is having a good time and avoiding conflict. The bad thing is that he knows better. The old me picks up his Bible and scans over the same passages he’s been scanning over for years. He reads the words and can quote quite a few of them, but he hasn’t learned to live them. The old me is a survivor. He likes to fight until he can fight no more. He never gives in easily and he always goes down swinging. Sometimes that’s a good way to be, but not when it’s the old me. I want so much for him to die. I want him to take one last gasp of breath and be gone for good. I’ve already got the weapon to do it. It’s been in my possession for years, all I have to do is pick it up and use it. I need to kill him. It needs to be premeditated. I’ve even got the perfect accomplice to help me carry it out. It’s a shame I love the old me so much. I need to learn to hate him. I need to convince myself that he must die. I need to put a sword right through his heart. I need to do it today.

The Connells: Part Deux

I am still fixated on The Connells today.

I remember my t-shirts. I had three different designs and I wish they were still around…even if they wouldn’t fit right now. My favorite one was the one with the album cover from Fun & Games on it. I actually wore out two of those. The next one would be the one with the colored silhouettes on it. I had two of those…with different colored wording on the back. The other one was weird and had puppet/mask faces on it. I don’t have a clue what happened to that one.

Connells

So…why am I rambling on about old concert t-shirts? I don’t know…I guess it’s because the summer is just around the corner and I remember all the time I spent hanging out. This music (and the photos of me in those t-shirts) really brings out the memories. The Connells were MY band. Not many of my friends listened to them because they were into other things. There were only a handful of people I knew that were hip enough to be in on the secret.

I’ve lamented the fact that they really should’ve been huge…but looking back on it…I probably would’ve been a bit disappointed had they taken off and evolved into one of the untouchable superstar bands. I remember seeing Hootie & The Blowfish and The Dave Matthews Band back when they were doing the college circuit. At the time…The Connells were actually bigger than either one of them. Then they both hit big and became megastars. The Connells, Dillon Fence and countless other North Carolina bands continued to play on to their devoted fans whose numbers seemed to get smaller with each show.

Yeah…I wish (for their sakes) that they would’ve made it…but for my own selfish reasons I’m kind of glad they didn’t. It’s like I belong to a secret club and we’re the only ones who know the truth.

Silly…I know.

The Connells

I have a really hard time deciding who my favorite band of all time is. If I’m backed into a corner I’ll usually say Electric Light Orchestra and that’s probably fairly accurate. From time to time Rush and King’s X will climb near the top of the list as well. However, as I get older I’m really starting to believe that Crowded House and The Connells are probably tied for second place right behind E.L.O. I don’t know that any band will ever take that spot…there are just too many memories and too many great songs.

The Connells were hitting the peak of their local popularity right about the time I graduated from high school. I think my younger brother (who was just entering high school) probably turned me on to them. The first album I picked up was Fun & Games and I was immediately hooked. I was starting to come out of the whole hair metal thing and The Connells just happened to drop one of the greatest albums ever right as I was looking for something new. I had already started discovering R.E.M. retroactively and The Connells were cooler because they were North Carolina guys and their Dad actually lived in my hometown.

I don’t know how many times I saw them live between the years of 1989 and 1993…it was a bunch. I saw them in small clubs and theaters and I was there the night they became the first band to play at Walnut Creek Amphitheater in Raleigh. I was always expecting them to explode and become huge. I remember seeing the video for Stone Cold Yesterday on 120 Minutes and thinking that they had finally made it. Unfortunately that didn’t catapult them to superstardom. When Ring came out and they released the video for 74-75 I was SURE that they were going to be huge…but it never came. I can imagine that they were probably a little frustrated and baffled by their inability to break through here in the U.S.

A good friend of mine saw them a few years ago at a thing in Raleigh and his younger co-worker didn’t get it. Ken (my buddy) tried to explain to him the scene in the late 80’s and early 90’s and that The Connells were quite possibly the biggest band in North Carolina. It’s a shame that so very few people remember that time. I really miss it. I miss going to a club and seeing the guys just hanging around, being normal guys and then going up on stage and rocking it out. I enjoyed seeing them a few years ago in a little theater near my home town. For a couple of hours I felt like I was 19 again.

I really wish they had gotten their due.