In The Holy Land: The Value of Traveling to Israel

Last June I traveled to Israel for the first time. It was one of those “study tours,” a structured, rigorous trip aimed at seeing as many biblically-relevant sites as possible – and learning as much as possible.

Israel. I try not to overuse the term “unique,” but it applies to this nation and its people. It exceeds my faculties and surpasses my knowledge. How does one fully appreciate such a trip? How can you capture the experience? What should I learn from it?

Perhaps it would be best to start with the negative. As a Christian, I came to value my time to Israel not for an experience of place. There’s nothing particularly spiritual about being baptized in the Jordan River, as opposed to a baptismal in Washington, DC or a swimming pool in Bakersfield, CA. My heart didn’t skip a beat when I touched the rock where Jesus was likely born or the rock where he was likely crucified. And the prayers I offered up at these places, though perhaps a bit more informed than they would have been otherwise, were not exceptionally sanctified compared to my prayers in America.

The legions of sketchy souvenir and pilgrimage shops around these places soured the experience. Watching them profit off tourists’ (should I call them pilgrims’?) attempts at piety, I thought of the money changers that Jesus purged from the temple: I don’t want your trinkets. I recall Jesus’ words to the Samaritan woman in John 4:

The hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father… The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.

Here, man seems to be looking on the outside, but the God of the Bible strikes me as more concerned with the inside.

shutterstock_135319565There are competing Catholic and Orthodox churches built on most of these traditional locations, lending an aura of spiritual significance to the place. At first blush I find this off-putting. It’s as if two millennia of religiosity, conflict, tradition, and superstition have marred and obscured their original simplicity – the earthiness of the place. I want to be careful here, though. I won’t presume to search out the heart postures of the people in these churches making the sign of the cross in front of a rock. As a born-and-raised Evangelical (who happens to be Baptist at the moment), I cannot empathize well with the high-churched and their icons, incense, and relics. Perhaps these physical elements aid their worship. I admit I feel a heightened sense of solemnity and awe in these Constantine-era churches, but I’m still wary. They’re just rocks, after all.

No, the true value of my time in the Holy Land was more subtle than that, but I think more beneficial in the long term. More than anything, it gave me a new appreciation for the poetry of Scripture – the beauty of its prose and the richness of its historical narrative. For me the parts of the trip that really mattered happened in the brief moments, the quiet moments alone in the places that inspired the biblical authors. At the spring of Engedi, where David fled from Saul and cut off part of his cloak in the cave, I contemplated the Psalms that may have been inspired by this brook in the wilderness:

Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me, for in you my soul takes refuge; in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge, till the storms of destruction pass by.

At Masada, one of Herod’s fortresses during the first century AD, we considered the words of the prophet Jeremiah. The fortress is basically in a desert, but it utilized a brilliant system of irrigation to catch and store rainwater in massive cisterns carved into the mountain. These cisterns were lined with plaster to keep water from escaping, and in the event of a siege they would have stored enough water to supply the defenders for years. They would have provided a lifeline in desperate times, but they could be damaged, infested with debris, and eventually exhausted, so they were a poor substitute for a natural spring. In Jeremiah 2, the prophet uses them as a metaphor for the vapid pleasures of the world compared to finding satisfaction in God:

Be appalled, O heavens, at this; be shocked, be utterly desolate, declares the LORD, for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.

While staying on the Sea of Galilee, one evening I walked to the shore and contemplated Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, watching as the sun set over the hills where he preached. Why should I worry? God knows what I need. The kingdom of heaven is like buried treasure. Will you sell yourself to buy the one you’ve found?

When Jesus says “You are the salt of the earth,” he may have pointed to a port on the Galilee called Magdala, which was a major exporter of salted fish at the time. When he says, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden,” he may have pointed to a real city on a hill overlooking the Galilee, the lights of which would have been visible across the entire region.

After all these years, we’re so used to those metaphors. It’s easy for me to lose sight of their tangible, historical roots.

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Outside of the geopolitical conflicts that torment the region, we hear mostly good things about the Holy Land – the glory of Jerusalem, the richness of its history, the fertility of its fields. But I think its religious significance gives us rose-tinted glasses. Israel isn’t a beautiful, remarkable land, at least not relative to many other places in the world. It’s southern California without Hollywood, Santa Monica, or San Diego. The hills and fields around Galilee look almost exactly the same as the Grapevine that connects California’s central valley to Los Angeles. I’ve taken it dozens of times. No one drives that route for its scenery.

But isn’t that just like God? Israel historically has strategic value, with the ancient International Coastal Highway running through it, creating a critical juncture of commerce between Asia, Africa, and Europe. For thousands of years, the world’s eye has been drawn to the land of Israel, and still is. And yet if God wanted his people to have a beautiful country or to be a world superpower, he could have picked a lot of other places. But God doesn’t operate by the same calculus we do. Here’s what he tells Israel about his rationale in Deuteronomy:

It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers.

The divine reasoning is similar in the formation of the church, as the Apostle Paul writes:

God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are.

There is much theological debate among Christians over the significance of Israel today and its relationship to the church, but regardless of your position, both give us insight into God’s nature – his care for the poor and downcast, his concern for the integrity of the heart, his tendency to favor the underdog, his desire to make himself known to the world through his people, his longing to satisfy us with himself, and perhaps most incredibly, his willingness to get dirty.

I don’t know for sure if I touched the exact spots where Jesus was born and died. Just as you never step in the same river twice, I didn’t swim in the same Galilee water that Jesus walked on. But that doesn’t negate the reality that he did, in fact, enter history as a flesh-and-blood man – the same history on the same planet that I am living on right now 2,000 years later. Indeed, the land of Israel reinforces that reality, standing as a testament to it. God left the abstract realm of spirituality and ideals and theory, and he came down and got in the dust and grime and corruption of the human experience. He wept and hungered and wearied and bled, so that someday we wouldn’t have to.

In Israel. That’s a remarkable thing to consider.

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Ulysses and the Paradox of Freedom

Last year the band Switchfoot released an EP of songs they recorded for a documentary tour/surf film. One of the songs is called “Liberty.” As the title suggests, it is about freedom, but it begins with a metaphor that challenges our conventional understanding of what freedom actually is:

I tie myself up to the mast

Give up the semblance of control

The sirens sing, but I let them pass

‘cause only you can free my soul

The reference, of course, is from the classic Greek epic The Odyssey. At one point in his journey home, the hero Ulysses is warned about the irresistible song of the sirens, which entices men to chase after it to their destruction. Because he wants to hear the song, Odysseus has his crew tie him to the mast so that he can hear the song without pursuing its seductive beauty.

The songwriter Josh Garrels makes a similar reference in a song called Ulysses, in which he asks to be tied to the mast of the ship on which he is sailing.

But look at those first two lines from Switchfoot’s song: I tie myself up and give up control. What kind of freedom is this?

I had a professor in college who used to point out in his philosophy classes that anytime you are freed from something, you become enslaved to something else. In other words, you always freed into a new place of slavery. Any realistic talk of freedom must include this nuance because freedom cannot exist in a vacuum. The song gets this in the reference to giving up the semblance of control. To deny our “creatureliness,” as the late anthropologist Ernest Becker might say, is to live in an illusion.

“We don’t want to admit that we are fundamentally dishonest about reality, that we do not really control our own lives,” he writes in The Denial of Death. “We don’t want to admit that we do not stand alone, that we always rely on something that transcends us, some system of ideas and powers in which we are embedded and which support us.”

Odysseus-003Becker is saying that our meaning and motives are contingent on forces outside of us; we simply must give ourselves away to something or somebody. If we don’t, we will despair, go insane, and generally cease to live in any meaningful sense. It is our nature to latch onto something bigger and better than the self because we are weak and live in the constant shadow of death. This greater object can be a lot of different things – an abstract ideal of virtue or heroism, a lover, a god, or even something as debased as a number in a bank account.

The pastor Tim Keller gives a practical example to explain how freedom must coexist with slavery. If you want the freedom to play the piano, he says, you must put in long hours of practice, forfeiting the freedom to do many other things with those hours. But it is only after you’ve enslaved yourself to the practice of the piano that you can sit down and play stunning pieces of music.

When I was in college, I saw this firsthand as I roomed with a number of music majors. Many days they would leave for the practice rooms early in the morning and not return until midnight. Sometimes they looked weary and miserable from the grind, other times elated because of a breakthrough in mastering a new technique or portion of a piece. Their spirit changed according to how the work seemed to be going in the moment, but at the recital at the end of the semester I saw the fruit of their labor. It was always wondrous to behold – both the magnificence of the piece they played and the raw elation they displayed from performing it.

As finite beings that can only exist at a single place and time, any meaningful sense of freedom must therefore mean a sort of enslavement, because as the example of practicing music implies, saying yes to one thing means saying no to everything else.

Now extrapolate that freedom-enslavement paradigm to the soul – the self, the seat of our core identity and deepest desires. What would it look like to free that? What would it take to free the part of us that has the longings of eternity written on it? Is there any one thing, any one person, to which we can subsume all of the lesser pursuits of freedom?

The philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard thought so. Becker summarizes Kierkegaard’s view thusly: “Once the person begins to look to his relationship to the Ultimate Power, to infinitude, and to refashion his links from those around him to that Ultimate Power, he opens up to himself the horizon of unlimited possibility, real freedom.” In other words, real freedom comes when one grounds his identity and purpose fundamentally in the almighty God.

Both of the aforementioned songs have two additional components to their understanding of liberty that shows us why nothing short of this infinite God will do. The first is an implicit understanding that our impulses and desires are fundamentally flawed.  Ulysses understood that even though he had been warned that pursuing the siren song would kill him, he still had to lash himself to the mast. He knew his own self-control would not be enough to stop him from throwing himself to his doom, and so he gave up control. He sacrificed his own volition, but he preserved his life.

This is profoundly instructive for us today in a world where similarly destructive comforts and pleasures are ever before us, singing a siren song that sounds damn good. When one embraces his own self-centered passions under the guise of authentic self-expression or self-actualization, he will inevitably find himself thrashing after the siren song to an end of bitterness, despair, and (perhaps literally) death. Individual stories of these self-destructive pursuits abound – just read some history or great literature, or look at the lessons of your past.

Thomas_Cole,_The_Voyage_of_Life croppedWe’re bent out of shape, but how can we be set straight? What’s the solution to disordered desires? You can lash yourself to the mast, but that won’t help in the long run unless that mast is on a ship and unless the ship has a destination. Therefore, the final component to this theology of freedom we see in these songs is the idea of the present journey and the hope of home.

Here’s another line from Switchfoot’s Liberty:

Mine is the story headed home.

And Garrels:

I’m sailing home to you and I won’t be long…

So tie me to the mast of this old ship and point me home

Before I lose the one I love

Before my chance is gone

Here we see the faith that our lives have a destination, an ideal home that this world only gives us a small foretaste of. These songs understand that the experience of lashing yourself to the mast is not the end goal of freedom, but a means of self preservation until you make it to your true home – the final resting place.

But how can we reconcile that hope with the siren song in the here and now? How can you be free at your current home when so many of our impulses and desires are misguided? I believe Kierkegaard rightly found the resolution in Christianity, a faith that holds forth a paradoxical freedom by proclaiming both our liberty and our enslavement. One moment, Jesus Christ is saying “come unto me all you who are weary and I will give you rest.” And the next he says “if you would follow me, you must deny yourself and take up your cross.” The Apostle Paul says that “where the spirit of the Lord is there is liberty,” but then he says “you are not your own, because you were bought with a price,” and it is therefore incumbent upon you to live for God’s glory.

And so the Christian, looking beyond the limited possibilities of this present life, submits to a temporal, liberating enslavement. He entrusts himself to Jesus Christ, the freest man to ever live who, in his freedom as God-incarnate, submitted himself to the will of his Father. In being united to Christ, the Christian has hope that one day we will experience true freedom from our selfish, damning impulses in a new home – the Father’s house.

But for now we live in the tension of our depravity. In matters of the self and the soul, we only find freedom by denying our baser nature, fencing ourselves sin, cutting off hands and putting out eyes, tying ourselves to the mast and giving up the semblance of control. The sires sing, but we can let them pass, because only You can free my soul.

Dyin’ to Live: Smallpools’ millenial anthem

A good friend of mine once remarked that our generation is the first that isn’t willing to die for anything. I think he was on to something – not to say that we don’t care about anything (quite the contrary), but rather that confidence and conviction in something outside of self is hard to come by these days.

If Fun.’s “Some Nights” is the anthem of my generation, unsure of what we stand for, then the band Smallpools has written something of a secondary anthem with their new song “Dyin’ to Live.” It probably won’t make the same cultural waves, but it captures the digital ethos of the new millennium. Consider the opening verse:

I wonder, Have I lost my mind?

I was having a meltdown, but I don’t know why

‘Cause I sleep alright, and I eat just fine

I’m not scared of being a lonely man, or even dying, just missing out

That’s a remarkable statement. It is weighty with a sense of its own irony. Who isn’t afraid of loneliness or death? Those are the quintessential human fears. But it is pithy in substance. In the modern age, all of our immediate material needs have been met. We sleep safe and sound with a roof over our heads; we can afford to eat healthy. And so “FOMO” – Fear of Missing Out – is the not-so-deep and dark terror that haunts us. What could be worse than missing out – blowing a chance for greatness or love, not being there with your friends in the most “epic” moments, lingering in your own unfulfilled potential while everyone else goes out and lives awesome lives?

Image from WikipediaWhen you consider the current human condition in the broader perspective of history, it’s not hard to see that FOMO is trite. It is caught up in the present era, decidedly narcissistic, and arises from a skewed view of our friends and acquaintances. But trite or not, the lyric is still an accurate diagnosis. If you were to somehow chart my mind’s activity, a fear of missing out would come up much more frequently than a fear of loneliness or death. And I suspect I’m the rule among my peers, not the exception.

So what is the answer? The song issues no grand aspirations to heroism, honor, or immortality; instead it cries out for an elusive, simple contentment:

It’s not much to ask for

We’re only trying to just feel alright

We’re only trying just to find that steady love

We’re only trying just to buy some time

We’re all just dyin’, we’re all just dyin’ to live

What an anthem. I can imagine this one in a live concert, all of the kids belting it out, voices raised in a unified cry. We wonder why we’re so sad, and feel a rush of fleeting camaraderie with the strangers around us. We think of the love we’re still looking for, and feel just a little more optimistic. We remember the times we wish we could have back and consider the ever-shrinking future. The very act of expressing the longing washes us in a wave of catharsis, which reaches its peak in the bridge:

I know there’s something better

I cannot fight what’s falling apart

I’ll get myself together, together, together

My shield of rusted metal can’t keep this world from falling apart

So let’s tear this down together, together, together

It’s not much to ask for

It’s easy to dismiss the young person’s angst in the midst of raging emotions and a life with hardly any meaningful responsibility. But as C.S. Lewis might suggest, this guttural sense that the life we have right now isn’t good enough is a clue about the deeper appetites of the soul. It’s pretty self-evident, after all, that the world is falling apart. We also know that our lives could be better. And we fear (rightly so) that there’s nothing we can do to stop it or fix it. We don’t think we want much, just to feel alright and find that steady love and not feel pressed for time.

Time, love, and a clear conscience, however, are a tall order. Should we really expect life to deliver them?

The older voices in our lives tell us to suppress these questions. They tell us to suck it up and realize the world doesn’t revolve around us. There’s a lot of practical wisdom in this. Most of us won’t amount to something “special” – whatever “special” means. We may find a surprising amount of satisfaction in casting aside some of our insatiable ambitions, making a decision, and sticking to it even if it doesn’t fulfill all our expectations. Planting ourselves in one place with a steady job, a spouse and a family may feel like settling, but there’s a lot to be said for stability – and for choosing contentment (which is a choice, after all). Here in the routine of selflessly sustaining others, perhaps, is something of that steady love. Maybe by letting go of our obsession over all the things that we potentially could be doing with our time, and enjoying on the present moment, we can buy a little more time.

Maybe. There’s a scene near the end of the film Boyhood where the main character Mason’s mother is about to send him off to college. At this point we’ve spent about two hours watching him grow from grade school nearly to adulthood. He decides not take a certain picture of himself to college. Why would he want to take a piece of his past with him like that, he reasons. His mother sees it, and for some reason the act of leaving the past behind, forgotten, triggers an existential breakdown. She begins to weep.

“You know what I’m realizing? My life is just going to go. Like that. This series of milestones. Getting married. Having kids. Getting divorced. The time that we thought you were dyslexic. When I taught you how to ride a bike. Getting divorced… again. Getting my master’s degree. Finally getting the job I wanted. Sending Samantha off to college. Sending you off to college. You know what’s next? Huh? It’s my f***ing funeral!”

I haven’t been through the generational process of marriage and children, but that scene scares me. It sounds like even the more traditional steady life, pursued as an end in itself, will leave us like Saito in the film Inception: lost in unreality, “filled with regret, waiting to die alone.”

Where, then, can you go for the life Smallpools is singing about here? I think they’re asking the right questions. They’re right to feel dissatisfied. Most nights we don’t know what we stand for, but we’re pretty darn sure it’s something better than what we’ve got right now. We’re all just dyin’ to live.

Calvary and the weight of the World

There’s a powerful scene at the end of the film Calvary, where the town butcher Jack Brennan (Chris O’Dowd) confronts his priest Father James (Bredan Gleeson) on a beach in Ireland. He has a gun that he’s prepared to use.

For five years, Jack was sexually abused by a priest, raped “anally and orally, as they say.” A week earlier, at the beginning of the film, he had come to Father James during confession and said he was going to kill him because of the abuse he suffered.

Midway through the film, someone burns down the church where Father James ministers. And shortly after that, someone slashes the throat of his dog. In both incidents, he weeps.

As Jack stands here with his gun pointed at Father James, he asks him if he cried when his dog died. Father James says he did. Then Jack asks him how he reacted when he heard the news of the sexual abuse scandal among the Catholic clergy.

“Did you cry then?”

Father James’ hesitation condemns him. He didn’t weep over it. It was like reading something in the papers, he stammers. Jack can’t take it, and so he puts a bullet through Father James’ head.

That damning question is one for us all: Did you cry then? How can you weep over the death of a pet yet skim over stories of sexual abuse and hardly bat an eye? What a powerful indictment – the notion that we could live life like everything’s fine, detached from such great scandal and pain. But don’t we all do it every day, every time we read a newspaper or surf the web?

It’s almost cliché to lob this critique at middle-upper class America, Christian or otherwise. We slam politicians for not addressing or speaking to certain problems, or we slam them for focusing too much on relatively trivial matters when there are bigger fish to fry. We lament our affluent, entertainment-laced culture, where people watch hours of TV a day and fool around on the internet laughing at memes and trolling on YouTube while elsewhere in the world terrorist groups shoot children and tear women in two.

And maybe all those criticisms have a point – they undoubtedly do – but Jack had a point about Father James’ lack of tears too. That didn’t make Father James a heartless monster. He spent his days faithfully, though not perfectly, ministering to the people under his spiritual care. The problem is that Jack’s brand of moralizing – heaping guilt on people (implicitly or explicitly) for not caring about huge evils in the world – inevitably condemns us in our finiteness.

Suppose I give up a few hours of TV each week to volunteer at a homeless shelter. And then a bit later I decide to see one less movie a month and cut back on a latte or two to support aid to a poverty-ridden country. Guess what? There’s still human trafficking in Asia and drug violence in Central America and abortion here in America, and war in the Middle East. And what kind of person am I to stand by with my unprecedented American wealth and safety and comfort and do nothing about it? Here we are going about our comfortable, middle-class lives, maybe paying lip-service to a few of these horrors with a hashtag or dumping a bucket of ice on ourselves if we feel especially moved. What heartless wretches we are.

Source: Pixabay.com

The intent is not to downplay any of these things. They are tragic and real and, for all practical purposes, without number. And yet because of that, our hearts can’t bear the weight of the world’s problems. We really can’t. Not the emotional weight, nor the physical poverty, nor the pain. If we came to a full existential grip with all of it – every rape, beheading, bombing, starvation, theft, suicide, abuse – well, it would crush us.

Once in high school, I remember talking with a few of my more intellectually-savvy friends about the concept of equality. One of them was arguing there’s a certain absurdity or lie to the notion that we can treat people equally by loving every last one of our neighbors the same. We claim we stand for equal treatment, but we practice favoritism, he said, because when we give money to, say, some sort of cause, it benefits a few people, but leaves countless others who need help completely untouched. You can’t split a dollar a million ways, so how can you ever claim to treat everyone equally?

I don’t remember the exact point he was going for, probably trying to show me the absurdity of Christian ethics or something like that, but it shows what can happen when you abuse the James 4:17 card: “whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” There is almost always something more obviously virtuous you could be doing. Like Father James and Jack, even the most righteous men among us cannot stand before every victim’s accusations. Sooner rather than later, we’re bound to appear callous. As this College Humor video illustrates, you can find a way to make it socially unacceptable to do just about anything. Some evils we have to choose not to care about.

So what do we do, then?

One extreme is denial, which I suspect we choose far more frequently than we’d like to think. Ignore it. As the band Dragonette sings:

“We don’t need a cure for the weight of the world, cuz it’s floating ‘round in the universe / Just swing it like it’s tied by a string that you hold, and let it go.”

We can adopt this carefree ethic of radical individualism and self-autonomy, choosing the bliss of ignorance by distracting ourselves. We can tell ourselves it’s not our problem because we didn’t do anything to directly cause it. It’s out there, thousands of miles away, in a different world, and we need not worry about it because others are more capable of helping and hence more responsible.

Such extreme apathy, of course, is despicable – perhaps downright sinful. But again, we can’t be a crusader against every evil. And who is to say where you draw the line and decide which ones?

The only answer that is both practical and principled, I’m convinced, is to turn everything over to a Being whose moral capacity and ability to act infinitely exceeds ours.

Christian means “little Christ,” but a Christ-figure is no substitute for the real Thing. In Calvary, Father James faces an inverse martyrdom – a vengeance that he bears as a public servant of God yet also because of the sins of those who outwardly claimed to be God’s servants. As a “little Christ”, he may be an agent of grace, but he is only one of many. As a finite, fallen man, he can’t dispense enough sympathy and counsel and prayers to support his community by himself. The world’s problems are as numerous as the stars in the sky. Who can bear it?

Weep with those who weep. Visit orphans and widows in their affliction. That’s true religion, sure. But Jesus tells us that sufficient for the day is its own trouble. And the Apostle Paul says to aspire to live quietly and mind your own affairs. We do not need to right every wrong, mourn every sin, and carry every burden, because we have a God who has already done it. And soon he will do so once and for all.

Spiting Winter: The Cold Is A Stage

Deep Creek Lake, MD – I’ve been here two days now. The weather app says it is zero degrees Fahrenheit outside. You can see the wind gusting as it picks up the fine powdery snow. That probably brings it down to a wind chill of negative ten or fifteen. I’ve hardly left the house, but I’ve spent a lot of time looking out the big glass door windows at Deep Creek Lake, a snowy plain for the sport of snowmobilers, with other cabins and hibernating trees surrounding it.

I decided last Thanksgiving that Winter has a beauty to its barrenness. I spent the weekend in a cabin in Virginia, much like the one I’m in now. In the morning I would go out to the big living room windows and look out over the gently hilled farmlands that precede Shenandoah. The unkempt grass still had traces of golden green. I could see bright red barns and silos and cows through the rising mist. A few small streams crisscrossed with aged barbed wire fencing to make little dividers in the hills. It was delightful, Psalmic even – streams and pastures and sheep and sublime divinity and all that. Seasons change as surely as God’s faithfulness. The days may grow colder and darker, but there’s a fire in the hearth, and I have a full belly and a heart of good cheer. Life outside may retreat, but it is replaced by a stunning stillness and peace that is wondrous to behold.

Being from California, the reality of Winter, as in Winter as a distinct season, is a new phenomenon to me. I can probably still count on two hands the number of good snows I’ve experienced. Now that I’m in a climate where temperatures regularly dip below freezing, I’ve determined that there are two different kinds of cold when temperatures reach such nether regions. There’s a gentle, welcoming cold that is pleasant to be out in; it wraps around you like a soft blanket without penetrating and sapping the vitality out of your body (I suspect humidity may affect this). Oftentimes this is the cold that accompanies a snowfall. But then there’s the hard, soul-sucking cold; it starts at your extremities – hands, feet, nose and ears – then travels right to your heart. Whenever you’re so unfortunate as to spend any length of time in it, it keeps you walking as quickly as possible for your warmer destination, and makes you stiff as a cold piece of plastic that would snap in half from a strong thwap.

This is undoubtedly the cruel sort of cold.

It occurred to me, as I was staring out at the pure, empty meat locker of a world stirring just a few inches away from me, that I was spiting Winter. Here I stood, oh so close to a world that could kill me in hours, if not minutes, calmly enjoying a cookie in my sweatpants and slippers. Someone had just flipped the switch to turn on the fireplace. Thank you, modern comforts. I’d been at leisure all day, and yet the elements raged and flew. The cold and ice used to constrain man as it pressed in, making us still and slow and impotent. Now it just makes us irritable.

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With this thought subconsciously in mind, I went outside on the lake for a few minutes this afternoon (pictured). The sun illuminated the world in white – beautiful clean light. Winter may command us to be still, may narrow our lives to this sharp focus of a single time and place, but she herself does not sit still. Not today, at least. The wind commands my attention and my senses, whisking up the powder as with a paintbrush, a ghostly, ethereal artist. We often use the wind as a metaphor for the spiritual, to show how it is unseen yet still real and felt. But I can see it right now as it catches up the snow, at least a little, like a current or perhaps a song around me. Yes, maybe that starts to get at the essence of it. What is the wind, or the Spirit, if not a melody?

Before the cold has seeped in to my extremities and nips crisply at my nose and lips with dry teeth, I feel a sense of grandeur on the lake, as if I am suddenly a great character in a great story bent upon a great mission. James Bond in some arctic locale, or maybe the dogged remnant of Shackleton’s crew. I follow the packed path of a snowmobile toward a bridge a few hundred yards away. It spans the lake, allowing automobiles to traverse the snowy hills. The wind whips at my back. I raise my hood to defect it. As I walk underneath the bridge the wind narrows between the pillars. Currents of frost dash around and between my feet. I can see through the ice more clearly under the bridge where the snows hasn’t fallen. It looks thick – at least six inches or so. I start to feel cold, like actually chilled, and I suddenly understand why that epic feeling swept over me.

This world of snowdrifts and flat white ice is beautiful; it has a sense of uncharted purity, and I must explore it, must chart the icy wonder. But more than that it is alien to me, and invites action. I must make it across the lake before my arch nemesis escapes, or find a way to stay alive among the ice floes until help can arrive. It fills me with awe and wonder, so why wouldn’t it be a stage on which I play out the adventure?

It also compels me for its hostility. The very act of existing in these conditions, putting one foot in front of another, slipping along the ice when the wind persists in its bitter course, is a feat. No sane person should be living out here, and yet here we are, conquerors against the elements. Life below freezing showcases man’s resolute will to survive, adapt, and take dominion, despite and against the hostility. But his boots, gloves, hood, and sunglasses give away his weakness – my weakness. I concede that this ten-minute adventure has been nice, but soon I am sprinting into the wind, letting the ice cut my eyes and face, so that I can get back indoors to the warm. I run as if a blizzard is behind me, to feel the cold in my lungs, to be chased by Winter, to admit that without the cabin and the road so close there is mortal danger. I can’t stay out here much longer. And so I flee, exhilarated, leaving a trail of heavy footprints behind me, and taste the first drops of exhaustion.

I recently heard a story through a friend of a friend about two snowboarders in Colorado who tried to make it down a run in a whiteout, much like one that came through and smothered the lake yesterday evening. I could barely see the trees 30 feet away. These two guys couldn’t see the run and mistakenly strayed onto a closed trail. By the time they realized their mistake, they couldn’t make it back. One of them huddled against a tree to wait it out. The other struck off for help, but only made it 500 yards in the wrong direction. The blizzard lasted two days. They were found six months later.

And so my looking out the window in serenity at the white plain and the gray trees and windy rivulets singing their song really is spiting Winter. My sense of adventure is not misplaced. The snow doesn’t exist solely for our enjoyment, but to stiffen the business of life, slow our routines, and make us wonder. That’s why I’m growing to love Winter, learning to give thanks for it, because when the whiteout storms through I don’t have the last word. My existence is subject to forces far beyond my control, and sometimes they demand humility. At best I can mitigate it, but my freedom doesn’t extend much beyond the glass doors through which I gaze. Instead, I must contemplate, blow the knee, and be still.

My top five albums of 2014

Last year around this time I posted a list of my top ten songs from 2013. Over the past year, however, I’ve listened to more music–and more new music–than ever before. I’ve also been going to more live shows of my favorite artists than ever before. It’s too hard to pick another set of top ten songs, so this time I’ve broadened the scope.

If I could only listen to five albums from 2014 for the rest of my life, here’s what they would be:

1. Fading West – Switchfoot

Anyone who knows me remotely well knows that Switchfoot is my favorite band, so it’s natural that their latest album would the top spot of the year. Spotify data further backs this up as most of the tracks from Fading West topped my 100-most-played-songs list.

As I concluded in my review of the album:

“The subjects and the struggles of Switchfoot’s songs are timeless – brokenness and depravity, cultural numbness and consumerism, time and morality, hope and restoration. Rightly grappled with, those never get old. They probe the vast depths of our humanity with questions worthy of song. In Fading West, Switchfoot found a way to skirt the clichés by returning to the same eternal questions in a fresh musical context, reminding us that true hope is ‘anchored on the other side / with the colors that live outside of the lines.'”

2. Rivers in the Wasteland – Needtobreathe

I will always remember 2014 as the year that I truly “discovered” Needtobreathe. I had heard of them and listened to their hits on Christian radio in junior high and high school, and while I didn’t overtly dislike them, my attitude toward them had been pretty “meh”.

Seeing them live changed all of that. Aside from Switchfoot, it was my favorite concert of the year. I’ve grown to love these guys for many of the same reasons I like Switchfoot. Since opening for Taylor Swift a while back, they’ve been straddling the line between the Christian and secular music scenes (they played in the Thanksgiving Parade this year, for example), but they do it by writing stinking good songs. I think Rivers in the Wasteland is their best album to date.

3. When I Was Younger – Colony House

If one could conceive of an alternative/indie-rock act in the tradition of Switchfoot and Needtobreathe, it might look something like Colony House. Two of the band members are sons of Contemporary Christian Music legend Steven Curtis Chapman. They’ve clearly inherited some musical talent but refuse to live inside their father’s niche. The result is a punchy yet spiritually substantive freshman album that is uplifting without being cliche, guaranteed to cure a case of the Mondays as well as provide emotional solace to those facing the worst of life’s sufferings.

“We’ve got to roll with the punches, fight through the fire,” sings vocalist Caleb Chapman in one of the my favorite tracks. “When the trouble comes baby we can work our way around it / Love is a lesson to be learned with time / If we can climb the mountain then we can work our way around it.”

Tell me you don’t feel better already.

4. Talking Is Hard – Walk the Moon

This one only came out a few weeks ago, so I may be biased by the novelty of it and have yet to see if it will stand the test of time. What I do know, however, is that it features the hands-down best party song of the year, “Shut Up and Dance.” For what it attempts to be, that song is perfect. What Owl City’s “Good Time” was to my summer of 2012, Shut Up and Dance was to the fall of 2014. It has already sparked a number of impromptu dance parties with some of my best friends. It stands as the cornerstone and inspiration for my collaborative “Chairdancing” playlist on Spotify (which you should follow). And I already have no doubt that hearing it live when I see Walk the Moon this April will be one of the best moments of 2015.

There’s much to be said for the rest of the album too, which solidifies Walk the Moon’s dominance in the indie rock world. The opening track Different Colors hits the catchy, progressive, millennial sweet spot, and Aquaman closes it down with some nostalgia-heavy, emotive 80s vibes.

5. Before the Waves – Magic Man

This Boston synth-pop group has been described as a mashup of Death Cab for Cutie and Passion Pit. It’s an apt comparison that effectively sums why these guys are so fantastic. Their music is downright infectious, but it has enough freshness and a sense of romance and wanderlust (song titles include “Texas” and “Paris”, for example) so that hipsters can listen to it without feeling ashamed.

 

Honorable mentions

(read: albums that would make a top 10 list and really good EPs)

Strange Desire – Bleachers: Fun. guitarist Jack Antonoff is a great artist in his own right.

Blonde – Ghost Beach: Self-dubbed “tropical grit-pop;” this is perfect escapist music if warm coastal locales and sticky-sweet electronic pop are your thing.

Supermodel – Foster the People: This is actually a really good sophomore album thanks to its heavy existential bent; I can’t figure out why it didn’t make more waves.

From the Spark EP – Grizfolk: I’d make this a centerpiece of any roadtrip playlist.

Parallel Play EP – Panama Wedding: All The People is the quintessential summer jam.

Smoke EP – House of Heroes: These guys might have my favorite album of all time in The End is Not the End. Their latest EP continues their signature, spiritually substantive, alt-rock.

The Edge of the Earth: Unreleased Songs from the film “Fading West” – Switchfoot: In addition to being an album, “Fading West” was also the title of a surf film that Switchfoot made; this EP of unreleased songs from the film made for a pleasant surprise later in the year.

Suburbia and the stock backdrop

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Since moving to Washington, D.C. almost two years ago, I’ve been trying to figure out why I can no longer stand suburbia. Every time I go back out to the suburbs, I want to leave after 24 hours – if that.

At the end of last summer, I was driving back from a camping trip in West Virginia with a few friends, and we stopped at a Chick-fil-A in the suburbs on the way back. One of them made a comment about how the shopping center we were in comforted her because it made her feel like she was at home, with its plaza full of nice chain restaurants like Pei Wei and Chipotle and stores like Office Max and Best Buy.

I agreed. It reminded me of my own home in California. You can find plenty of shopping centers like that in Bakersfield or Santa Clarita.

My friend was from Texas, though. And we were in Virginia. You could have swapped out one for the other and no one would know any better.

A week or two later, while listening to an obscure Switchfoot song called C’mon C’mon, it hit me. The first verse goes like this:

You’ve been living life like it’s a sequel

And you’re already bored with the plot

As if the cast and the score

Are more money than before

But the script and the backdrops are stock

The backdrops are stock.

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That’s it. Songwriter Jon Foreman is speaking about life in a much more holistic, poetic sense than the place you happen to live, but in the chain-restaurant-stocked malls of America, gleaming with affluence, we see the “real life” embodiment of the stock backdrop. It’s like those internet stock photos that make blog posts look like a dime a dozen. The pictures are framed correctly and well-lit, the models are attractive, the scenarios they communicate are clear, but my goodness they’re boring. They’re so ubiquitous these days that we can spot a stock photo in a second. They’re better than no image at all, of course, but they carry the stale whiff of banality.

It’s colorful and pretty, but excessively pastiche, the suburban scene. How can Virginia, Texas, and California all look the same? Why the hundred-store-chains?

More money than before.

There’s something remarkable about how a person can drive 2,500 miles from coast to coast of the United States and eat at the same restaurant every stop of the way. It’s one of those unprecedented facets of our era of late-capitalism. I can understand why postmodern thinkers and urban hipsters feel like the wealth of the suburbs is just a façade of marketing tricks obscuring reality. I can understand how people worry that the suburbs turns our experience of community into a series of isolated dots on a map rather than warm circles of neighbors.

At this point I suppose some readers will conclude I’m saying corporate chains are dehumanizing. Maybe I am. “Dehumanizing” is probably a little too strong though.

As a middle-class consumer, I’m glad that Walmart exists and appreciate how it frees up my budget, but it doesn’t make the world a more interesting place. There are better sights to take in than shopping malls full of Foot Lockers and American Eagles and Forever 21s. There’s more to savor than Starbucks and TGI Fridays. There’s more to do on the weekends than catching a flick at your local AMC Theater.

I love how Switchfoot’s song ends:

So C’mon C’mon C’mon

Let’s abandon this darkness

Oh C’mon C’mon C’mon

Let’s follow this through

Yeah so C’mon C’mon C’mon

Everything’s waiting

We will live like fire and gold

When everything’s new

When everything’s new.

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“Variety is the spice of life,” goes the old cliche, but it speaks to something intrinsic in human nature: the drive to find newness. I have found the true wealth of cities to lie not in dollars or possessions, but in their trove of experiences: the bars and coffee shops; the parks and museums; the neighborhoods and architecture; the surrounding rivers, beaches, and forests; the people from so many tongues, tribes, and nations. Yes, there lies the city, living, pulsating, breathing all around you, an inexhaustible well of newness – flawed and wretched of course – but still a taste of life as it was meant to be.

ADDENDUM: Tyler Castle has a wonderful piece at Values & Capitalism entitled “How the Hipster Ethic Is Revitalizing the American Economy.” It takes a much less subjective and much more clearly articulated angle on the idea I’m trying to get across here.