Lenten Listen #5: Ryan Adams – Ashes & Fire February 27, 2012Posted by Matt in Lent.
Tags: Ashes & Fire, Lent, love, personal change, Ryan Adams
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I didn’t get around to posting this yesterday, so you’ll have to deal with it being a day late. I’ll post one for today later when I get the time.
Ryan Adams is both one of the greatest and most prolific songwriters around and, though sometimes his work leaves me scratching my head in bewilderment, when he is on, he’s on. This work from last year is definitely my favorite since his solo debut Heartbreaker and it may be even better than that classic.
The sound of Ashes & Fire is one of a person in his mid-30’s who has finally come to grips with his place in the world, of someone who has decided to quit fighting for the sake of fighting, to discover contentment in his circumstances. It’s the sound of a person in love.
To my ears, it’s a near perfect work, one that became an almost therapeutic device for me as I’m finally settling into my niche, a place where I’m done with the fighting over trivialities and ready to truly live. I’ve changed a lot, a whole lot over the years, into someone completely different than I once was. It’s an evolution for the better, one that evokes more questions than answers, one that could be uncomfortable at times but it’s real and true and right. Change is good. Life is good.
Which then brings me to the great song “Lucky Now,”
I don’t remember, were we wild and young?
All that’s fading into memory
I feel like somebody I don’t know.
Are we really who we used to be?
Am I really who I was?
Your God vs. My God September 8, 2011Posted by Matt in Christian Beliefs.
Tags: 9/11, Christianity, Islam, love, peace, reactions, vengeance, violence
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Yesterday the obligatory post regarding the spiritual implications of 9/11 and its aftermath appeared on our church Facebook page. There were a few responses, religious reactions and spiritual questions, including at least one that characterized the God of Islam as one of wrath and vengeance and the God of Judaism/Christianity as one of love and mercy. Naturally, I had to insert my two cents:
I think we have to be careful not to paint all of Islam with the same brush. There are ways of interpreting their holy scriptures that portray a God of wrath and ways that show a God of peace. The same can be said of the Hebrew Bible (now there’s some divine vengeance!) to perhaps an even greater extent than the Quran. And that doesn’t even touch the violent hallucinations contained in the book of Revelation.
In the end, it seems to be a good time for reflection on ourselves and how we can best serve our world, while always being respectful and mindful of our differences.
Coming to Grips with Fundamentalism July 7, 2011Posted by Matt in religion.
Tags: evolution, freedom, fundamentalism, love, spiritual journey
In the world of science, the evolutionary process can take place in minute increments across vast expanses of time or in a giant genetic leap, and I think sometimes, on a more personal level, these same ideas can be seen to govern the very thoughts flitting back and forth and taking root in our minds. At least, I know this much is true for me.
I’ve written quite extensively in the past about my own spiritual journey, from the seeming straightjacket of fundamentalism, to the role of an embattled and lonely dissenter, to the freedom and joy of life today. It’s been a beautiful and much needed voyage, one that was slow in developing, but which ultimately proved to be unstoppable and life-changing. For some fifteen years, my personal philosophy underwent a series of modifications which ultimately changed its very structure, foreshadowing the creation of a wholly different organism than it was in the beginning. Over the past year, this evolutionary process has received jolt after jolt, leaping forward in a veritable Cambrian Explosion of the mind. Today I am a new and different and, I believe, better person, but the means to this end were not easy.
One of the most difficult things I have had to deal with in my new life is in the treatment of and thoughts directed to my fundamentalist past and those who choose that path in life. At first there was a great deal of anger and resentment, of bitterness and head shaking condescension, but as I became more ingrained in a loving, inclusive community, those destructive thoughts were quickly banished. Soon they were replaced by new ones of love and acceptance, of seeing the beauty in people despite their differences. It’s amazing what a change in environment can do for a person.
I learned that, thankfully, we do not all think alike and, though we may take different paths, whether it be the concrete highway of fundamentalism or my own meandering path through the religious wilderness, we have the same desire for an ultimate and universal divine love. In my little mind, that is what really matters.
All You Need is Love July 5, 2011Posted by Matt in love.
Tags: beauty, love, meaning of life
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The oft-repeated proverb from those great 20th century prophets, The Beatles, that “All you need is love,” never seemed quite so poignant and real as it did to me yesterday.
After a great weekend with my family in Arkansas, I said goodbye to everyone, including our kids, and began the two hour journey from small town Arkansas back to our home in the outskirts of Memphis. After stopping for gas, I made one last swing through the town of my youth before heading back to the concrete and traffic of life in the city, and that was when I saw them. The elderly couple sat in a pair of lawn chairs in the monstrous shade of a large oak tree, holding hands and watching life speed by on Center Street and, though I knew them from my past life in this town, I smiled and continued driving. But, as the car moved on, I found it hard to continue accelerating down the road, for there was nagging pull somewhere in subconscious telling me to visit with the old man and woman, and when I reached the railroad crossing, where I was greeted by a lowering crossing arm and the blaring whistle of a coming train, I knew that I could spare a few minutes. So, I did an abrupt u-turn and sped back to their house.
As I parked and began to walk over to them, I could see a friendly, but quizzical look on her face and, as I greeted her, she asked me, “Who are you again?”
I explained to her that years ago I had gone to church with them and had visited with them quite a bit before we moved away more than seven years ago, and though she nodded, I could tell that the clouds of age had pushed aside any true remembrance of me. I shook their hands and told them a little about our family before saying goodbye and leaving them to again sit beneath the shade, feeling the uncharacteristically cool gentle breeze of July in Arkansas, in their small bit of Edenic paradise.
I turned on some music and began the trek across the Natural State and as I drove along, gazing out at the lovely, green flatlands of eastern Arkansas, punctuated by fields of corn and soybeans and cotton, at the old black men in their straw hats holding their can poles over unnamed creeks along the roadside, and thought about the simple beauty of it all, of love in all its splendor. Yes, this is what it’s all about.
Further Reflections on Spirit April 4, 2011Posted by Matt in Christian Beliefs, church.
Tags: Brahman, evil, Holy Spirit, indwelling spirit, love, qi, unforgivable sin
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Last week I wrote a piece about the concept of spirit and our discussion of it in that week’s Sunday morning class. In case you missed it and don’t want to click back on the link, we spoke of it as a universal spirit, indwelling in all of nature, a God-presence coursing through the very veins of creation. In its omnipresence and power, it may be compared to the Brahman of the Hindu religion or the qi of Chinese philosophy or even The Force.
Wednesday night our priest, Patrick, went further into this idea and took up the idea of the unforgivable sin – blaspheming the Holy Spirit. This whole concept has always been a bit mysterious to me because, really, what does it mean to “blaspheme the spirit” anyway? Do you have to say, “Hey spirit, screw you!” That just doesn’t make any sense.
Patrick explained it in this way: if the spirit inhabits all of mankind (or all of creation, for that matter), then blaspheming the spirit would be to point at a fellow human being and call them evil. This of course does not excuse evil actions, but it instead creates a distinction, one in which human beings are ultimately good, even made “in the image of God,” yet they have a tendency to misuse this divine power, to perpetrate acts that can only be described as evil. This evil takes many forms and can go far beyond the realm of depraved serial killers and their ilk, to one where even our inner prejudices and thoughts that we are better than others, is “unforgivable.” It was a profound idea and one that has stuck in my thoughts over the days since then.
So, then what hope is there for anyone if even our tendency to lock our car doors in certain neighborhoods or to look the other way when particular people pass by is “unforgivable?”
I think “unforgivable” is an unfortunate term to use in this instance because, in reality, nothing is truly unforgivable. In my eyes, this looks to be a piece of the hyperbole that Jesus was apt to use in order to make his point. You might compare it to his statement that calling someone a “fool” is a bad enough misstep to send one to eternal damnation. I mean, I seem to remember Jesus himself calling people foolish at times.
In the end, I think the best answer is to treat people, all people, as you want them to treat you. When we look at others as vessels for the divine, we do away with racism and bigotry and condemnation and instead find the joy inherent in life and love with our fellow humans.
God, Eddie Vedder, and a Dark and Lonely Road October 25, 2009Posted by Matt in Christian Beliefs.
Tags: Backspacer, death, Divine Inspiration, Eddie Vedder, god, life, love, meaning, Pearl Jam, prophetic voice, youth
Headlights cut a swath through the dark canvass of night, lighting the two lane path through the rural Arkansas night as my car sped along the lonesome, unlit road. On either side of the vehicle lay fields of cotton and other assorted crops, flat, seemingly endless planes stretching unseen into the black horizon. The sky was dotted with what seemed to be an infinite number of stars to this boy from the city, where light pollution erased any semblance of star gazing, and I fought the urge to stare into the depths of space normally unseen. The road and the darkness were my only companions.
This had been a quick trip to my hometown of Beebe, some 130 miles from our current home on the outskirts of Memphis, on a Saturday evening in order to give our chocolate lab, Hershey, a new and better home with my in-laws. The drive usually takes around 2 hours and 30 minutes, give or take for traffic and construction, of which about half is on a two lane highway between Beebe and Brinkley, Arkansas, passing through small towns in various states of decay like Des Arc and Cotton Plant, before hitting I-40 in Brinkley for the second and faster moving leg of the trip through the eastern side of the state and across the river into Memphis. It is a rather boring drive, so I made sure to load myself up with an amount of caffeine that would no doubt qualify as liquid speed, beginning with a 5 hour energy shot before I left Memphis and finishing with a couple of cups of after dinner coffee at my parents’ house. As would be expected, I was flying high with energy.
Those of you who know me well know that there are few things more important to me than the soundtrack I choose to listen to each day. Music carries a special significance in my life for it is the fuel that powers my very being, it challenges and inspires in a way that few other things can. So I thought for a few minutes about what album or playlist I wanted to treat my ears and mind to for the drive ahead but it did not take very much time before the answer became clear.
This has been a stellar year for new music, but there is one title in particular that has truly grabbed me from the first time I listened to it. This powerful collection of songs bored directly into my very soul and I knew that it was something special, something transcendent that I would not soon forget. Of course, as most of you probably know, the album of which I speak is Pearl Jam’s newest release, Backspacer. As I’ve spoken of before, Pearl Jam have held a special place to me ever since their 1991 debut, Ten, and I have followed them diligently ever since that time, lapping up every melody and lyric that Eddie Vedder and the boys saw fit to release – and some that they did not. They were there during the confusion and challenges of my teen years, they accompanied me as I left school and began wading my way through the world, they shouted angrily alongside me at the perversions of justice during the first 8 years of the new millennium, and today, perhaps more than ever before, they stand beside me like a good friend, a companion into a new world, one where I am now in my 30’s with a wife and kids and a job, in which their accompaniment is as important as ever. It is hard for me to put into words how I feel about this new album, but this past Saturday night I experienced something that I have not in many years, if ever and that is the story that I want to tell.
Soon the loud Johnny B Goode-style riff of the album opener, “Gonna See My Friend,” filled the car and settled back, head bobbing to the driving guitar, but as I listened my mind began to wander, picking through the lyrics and the sounds and mulling over their meaning, and at some point it was a sudden realization struck my brain with an unknown force, an epiphany of Biblical proportions under whose weight I would have staggered if I had not been seated in a minivan. This was their story and, in turn, this was my story. The first four songs on the album are among the loudest and most upbeat as they tell stories of living fast and for the moment, dealing with their flaws (in their songs this includes what sounds like drug addiction, which is certainly not my personal problem, but I know we all have shortcomings with which we have to cope) and personal failings. I see within these songs the story of youth, a time filled with exuberance and mistakes as we hammer out our small place in the universe.
This section is followed by perhaps the most powerful piece on the entire album, a song entitled, “Just Breathe,” in which the narrative takes a sudden turn, for our heroes have discovered two things that change everything: love and mortality. This is really the point where my spirit perked up as I listened to Eddie Vedder’s emotion filled voice crack over a beautifully finger-picked guitar as he seemed to struggle through many of the words.
Yes I understand that every life must end, uh huh,..
As we sit alone, I know someday we must go, uh huh,..
I’m a lucky man to count on both hands
The ones I love,..
And this was it. The point where my eyes teared up a bit, my mind raced and I realized that something had just struck me like a spiritual lightning bolt – the Divine was suddenly here, sitting alongside myself and Eddie. I thought of my wife and kids and how I don’t always show them how much I appreciate them in our busy lives. I thought of my own life and the short time that we have to walk this earth with the ones we love.
I’ve long had a feeling that I’m going to die young, but can’t quite put my finger on why. Perhaps it is due to the fact that I have already cheated death once, barely escaping its icy grip, and that the chances are low that I will once again evade it. Perhaps it is just general paranoia, though the idea doesn’t really fill me with fear, just some degree of sadness at the thought of missing my family.
And the rest of the album is filled with incredible songs having similar themes – ones of loss, regret, love, time and mortality. It is here that my melancholic soul found inspiration.
And so I press forward, inspired as a new man. If there is a lesson to be learned, it is that love is the most powerful thing. All else will fail you in the end, whether it be your money or fame or religious dogma. It is all for naught. Love is what will carry you. Grasp it and don’t let it go and hold onto it until your dying day and all will be right.
The aptly titled final song on the album, “The End”, puts this in perspective when Eddie sings in the first person of someone nearing death begging their loved one to stay with them.
Don’t leave me so cold
Or buried beneath the stones
I just want to hold on
And know I’m worth your love
But the end comes suddenly as he sings the last words of the album,
But not much longer
And the music abruptly stops.
It was as though the finger of God suddenly reached through the clouds and touched me for all seemed clear, like a new plane of existence had been reached, one in which this realization was made plain. Eddie Vedder is a prophetic voice in the wilderness, a man preaching the Divine in a way that I had never heard nor felt from a preacher or church before. This is true. This is right. I smiled knowingly through watery eyes and I knew what had to be done. I had to tell my family how much I love them for nobody knows how much time is left.
It is love and only love that matters.
Living a Life of Virtue February 11, 2009Posted by Matt in Christian Beliefs.
Tags: environmentalism, love, service, stewardship, virtue
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Following yesterday’s short entry, I was pondering the idea of virtues and of how we tend to emphasize some above others. By virtues I mean those actions or characteristics that we deem to be “good” (and yes I know that the meaning of good is nebulous, but bear with me).
That being said, in my life, I think I can point to two “virtuous” areas that I hold in the highest esteem: 1) Love for and service to those of lesser means around the world, and 2) Care of the environment. Both of these are extremely wide-ranging topics that can encompass every aspect of our lives and, though I’m not even close to perfecting either of them, my aspiration is to work on them to the best of my ability.
Monetary gifts to organizations striving to improve the lives of the poor is great and needed, but, to me at least, it many times just seems unsatisfactory and empty, an easy way to temporarily appease one’s conscious. There is just something about getting your hands dirty in service to others that has great appeal. The impact of personally toiling to improve another’s quality of life is felt not just by the grateful recipient, but also by the worker.
As we move beyond our neighborhoods and look at the rest of the world, the ideas of love and justice for those struggling across the globe become of even greater importance. We look at our national leaders and make choices based upon who will greater serve the entire world and not just our nation. We more critically scrutinize the products we buy and the companies that produce them in an attempt to avoid those perpetuating abuses of human rights in the poorest areas.
The second of these guiding principals is that of care for the world in which we live. Yesterday I railed on and on about recycling, a relatively simple act whose absence in areas that provide a recycling service is seemingly unconscionable and perhaps even irreconcilable with living a “right” life. The issue goes beyond that, though. It affects the companies we buy from and the things we purchase, the leaders we choose and the vehicles we drive. Being good stewards of God’s creation can change everything we know and do.
I haven’t got it all figured out yet and I don’t always practice what I preach, but I try to use these two ideas to guide my decisions in life. What about you? What kinds of virtues do you define your life by?
Seven Years Later… September 11, 2008Posted by Matt in Jesus.
Tags: 9/11, Jesus, love, Osama
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God’s Voice pt.3: Inspiration April 15, 2008Posted by Matt in God's Voice.
Tags: creativity, god, inspiration, logic, love, religion
In the last entry, I spoke of three gifts of divine nature that God has bestowed upon human beings that sets them apart from the millions of other animals roaming our planet – logic, creativity, and love. While these are certainly not the only three heavenly characteristics in our possession, they are the first ones that came into my head as I composed yesterday’s entry. So now the question comes down to this: how does God speak through these divinely ordained gifts today?
Growing up, the point was always emphatically made that God’s inspiration is done. Finished. When the last apostle was laid to rest in the first century, all inspiration immediately ceased and any words spoken to the contrary were considered near blasphemy. As a younger person, I accepted this as fact with little room for argument.
Today, though, my beliefs have changed.
It is my firm belief that the inspiration of God never stopped. Never. His handiwork is still seen across time in works of art, in pieces of music, in poetry and prose, in mathematical proofs, in scientific hypotheses, and in the love we show to all we come in contact with. Being endowed with divine gifts means that His inspiration is upon each and every one of us, though, because of our free will (another gift of God), we may choose to twist the gift and pervert its purpose to fulfill our own selfish desires.
We each have the ability to accept this divine inspiration and turn it into something good, something that can change the world. And it is in this way that God speaks today – by inspiring us to employ the wonderful gifts that he has bestowed on us as we, in turn, bless those around us.
God’s Voice pt.2: Divine Gifts April 14, 2008Posted by Matt in God's Voice.
Tags: creativity, god, imago dei, logic, love, religion
Once upon a time, our prokaryotic ancestors of eons ago emerged from the primordial sludge and began that long, strenous track across the spectrum of time, weaving its way through life explosions and mass extinctions until finally reaching a new stratum of existence, that of modern man. Now, man was somewhat different from the other creatures, even those of his own mammalian family, for this being had certain traits far greater than those of his preceding stages. Compared to other living things of the day, man had ascended to a height of power that was near god-like.
We read the account of creation in the book of Genesis and, whether or not you believe it to be a highly accurate, scientific text in which the entire universe was begat in a mere 144 hours (and obviously from the paragraph above, I don’t), there is one bit of passage that really sticks out:
“Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness…” Gen 1:26
What exactly does it mean to be the imago dei – the image of God? Does it mean, perhaps, that God is a bipedal humanoid being and we actually physically look like Him? Or does it maybe mean something else entirely?
No, I would say that the image of God is not necessarily found in outward appearances, rather, it is an inward trait, one that presents itself in our very being and it is present in every piece of humanity around the globe. In my view, God bestowed a bit of Himself, a portion of His divinity upon us when he granted us our existence as modern man. In doing so, we may even say that He relinquished a bit of his divine powers in order to bestow upon us these powerful presents. So, in what ways does the imago dei within us present itself?
Logic and Reason – While it may be said that other primates show some very rudimentary abilities to apply logic to a problem, it is human beings that have crafted and employed this gift from above. Just as God crafted the cosmos and set it into motion according to the carefully constructed laws of physics, concocted a table of elemental substances of which all known matter is contructed, and began living things along their arduous evolutionary trek, human beings then took and eventually shaped many of these forces to do their bidding – sometimes for good and sometimes evil, from the near-eradication of deadly diseases to the horrific power of the nuclear bomb.
Creativity – Is there any doubt that God is certainly a great and wondrous artist? Whether gazing upon the purple mountains majesty or looking into the far reaches of our galaxy or theorizing about the smallest particles imaginable, His greatly imaginative handiwork can be seen all about us. So, it stands to reason that this gift has given us nearly unimaginable works of beauty by the human hand in everything from the beauty of poetry to the elegance of mathematical proof to the works of classical painters and sculptors. Creativity is surely a trait of the divine.
Love – Perhaps the greatest and most often neglected of our astoundingly great gifts in our overly-individualistic Western culture is that of love and community. As the great poet William Blake once said:
“And all must love the human form,
In heathen, turk, or jew;
Where Mercy, Love & Pity dwell
There God is dwelling too.”
To be continued…