Before You Know It

10/2017: Before You Know It
Before You Know It

A mystery of grace: watching one grow,
The unfolding of life: a breath-taking show,
The mind: grasping at what will be, although,
So shall it be: what will be, now being – before you know


Friend or Foe?

10/2017: Friend or Foe?
Friend or Foe?

I recently started reading the first book of the “Redwall” series by Brian Jacques. I had never read it before but have always been drawn to books in which animals are the characters. I decided to take a break from portrait drawings and do an illustration based on my mental image of the story.

This moment in the illustration follows the attack of Redwall Abbey, led by the legendary Cluny the Scourge. Cluny’s spy has recently stolen something from the Abbey which serves as a source of inspiration and identity-orientation for all within the Abbey. At this moment in the drawing, Matthias, a self-effacing yet fiercely loyal monk from the Abbey, is venturing to St. Ninian’s Church where Cluny’s army has setup camp to confront him. Along the way, he encounters Basil Stag Hare, a proud and elusive hare who offers his support.

I was first attracted to Jacque’s description of Basil Stag as a “patchwork” animal. I’m not quite sure what was meant by that word but it gave me the image of a somewhat rugged creature. I wanted to use this drawing as an attempt to draw some animals and portray the two figures from two different perspectives (head-on for Basil Stag and from behind for Matthias). I’ve also been spending more time adding background details to my drawings so this one provided many different elements for practice, including a distant figure of St. Ninian’s church, a dirt path descending over a foreground horizon line and continuing on into the distance, and various bits of forestry.

See more sketches at the Sketch Gallery.

Here’s your part – “American Hearts” by Piebald

Check out the song above while reading below. Thanks!

Punk rock. Or “punk rawk” as I used to spell it during the time when the genre frequented my ears. In those days of anger and questing betwixt 12-13 years of age, I had spiked hair, a skateboard, a thick chain necklace, and would have rallied around a ‘fight the system’ mentality without even being able to tell you what that meant or which system it was that I wanted to fight. At this stage, my developing sense of music appreciation resonated almost exclusively with the immediate sound of a song. My rave musical reviews probably consisted of statements like, “That drummer is awesome” or “When the guitars do that middly-middly thing at the end…it’s really good”. Nothing unusual there. There are many songs to this day that I appreciate for similar reasons. Essentially, if it gave me goosebumps, I was hooked.

It was only until later that I started noticing and weighing a song’s value based on its meaning. Although there are fabulous composers out there who can convey volumes of meaning through sound alone, lyrics are often a direct revelation of the songwriter’s intent.

Piebald’s “American Hearts” is one of those songs that I had heard a few times back in those early teen years. When I stumbled across this song via a Spotify rabbit-trail last week, listening to it was akin to plugging a pair of headphones into my 15-years-younger subconscious. I heard the anthemic voclas and the aggressive wall of guitars and drums. I saw my over-gelled and spiked hair, heard the calamity of my high school hallways, and felt the mysterious, unwieldy angst of youth in my chest. But I heard something new this time around: a message. My history was lecturing to me. It was as though a “you’ll-understand-this-when-you’re-older” concept from some long-forgotten lesson that fell on my youthfully deaf ears had decided I was ready to catch its meaning:

“Hey! You’re part of it.
Who? Me?

“Yeah! You’re part of it.”
Part of what? I don’t understand.

“This country is unequal still”
Yes, I have heard that. It’s tragic. But why are you telling me?

“History continues itself…”
But surely our current problems are different than those of our ancestors? Haven’t we come such a long way as a society?

“History continues itself…”
OK maybe so. The human race continues to destroy itself while clambering for money, status, and power. Slavery is illegal but racism is still alive in midst. We remember the genocides of history but the hatred that fueled them still lingers in the shadows of our society. Someone should really do something about that and fix our community.

“Hey! You’re part of it.”

And here’s the rub: You’re part of it. I’m part of it. All of us are parts of a community, a country, and a global human race. There are problems and graces to be found at each level and to greater or lesser degrees, we’re part of those as well by our awareness and advocacy or lack thereof. The state of the whole is determined by the state of its component parts.

And so at this present age, when I have much to say about the conditions of my community, this relic from my youth returns to shake me by the collar to remind me that there is no convenient middle ground of detached neutrality. With its refraining question, I am called to account for how I have utilized my sphere of influence and whether I am satisfied with how my decisions, compounded with similar ones made by billions of others, have impacted society. 

Be encouraged. You have far more influence than you think you do. Use it effectively and others will be notice. Eventually, you may be emulated and that influence will spread. May we never fail to include ourselves on the grand list of items that, if changed even just a little, could make the world a better place. After all, you’re part of it.

If a big change in the world is due,
The world needs a little change in you

What are we?

“It is…the task of Christian preaching to say: here is the church, where Jew and German stand together under the Word of God; here is the proof whether a church is still the church or not.”
– Dietrich Bonhoeffer

These words were penned by Dietrich in the middle of the 20th century, when the social tides in Germany were swelling with a tragic hatred stemmed from a manipulative sect that targeted the Jewish people and attempted to cast them as objects of national fear and spite. Bonhoeffer saw the crucial need for the church to remain undefined by such pressures which had begun to invade the nation’s congregations and distort their teachings. Far from being a dusty chapter in church history, this need is one that we are faced with today. Allow me to borrow and modify his phrase to reflect the present scenario:

It is…the task of Christian preaching to say: here is the church, where native and foreigner stand together under the Word of God; here is the proof whether a church is still the church or not.

What do you think? Christians, what do you believe? Are we the church or are we not? Is the church the hands and feet of Jesus Christ who gave his life for all and spent it with not only the immigrant and the foreigner, but also the poor, the criminal, the prostitute, the unchurched, the politically-opposite? Or is it not? Are we a part of the church Jesus founded and is continuing to build or are we not?

Today is the day we must face the fact that “faith without works is dead.” These are not the cold words of some ancient proverb. Read the fuller context and see how inescapably relevant these words are to us today: “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works is dead”
– James 2:15-17

This is the day when we come face to face with the refugee and the immigrant. We gaze over their bent shoulders to a tattered past and the war-ravaged lands from which they seek asylum for their children. We behold the dreams that they, just like you, are trying to achieve and the crippling memory of a home and a history that was stolen from them. These precious people are before us today and we must make a decision.

Now is when we find ourselves echoing the question that Jesus told us we would all ask of him at the end of all things: “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?” And it is now, right now on our very doorsteps, when his response to that very question takes on present-tense bodily form and refuses to be just some faraway prophecy for a faraway time in the faraway reaches of our theology: “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.'”
– Matthew 25:31-46

With the recollection that we too have personal or family histories of crossed borders and foreign roots, we must endeavor to give substance to the words engraved on the doormat of our nation: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the door”
Emma Lazarus, “The New Colossus”

What do we preach? Forget words for a moment. What do we preach with our actions? Much of the world already knows our Sunday school lessons and can recite them just as well. There are too many empty words out there; society is glutted with phrases and proverbs but starved of the actions to back them up.

The words of Jesus matched the doings of Jesus. Do ours?

There are far too many opportunities to engage, love, and serve out there for us to keep making excuses. Give food, time, money, shelter. Buy someone a meal, donate to a relevant cause, join hands with people that are ethically and righteously standing against injustice. No act is too small. Break chains with every word you write, shatter darkness with your art, lead the way with your voice. Do something lovely because you can and because this is what you were made for. Open your home, your hands, your heart. Do not let silence close your lips when the oppressed are bullied or mocked in your presence. Do not let fear filter your eyes such that the dark crimes of a select few stain the innocence of the masses. Do not let your mind become a warehouse of false propaganda. Your whole body is an extension of God’s home, refuse to let anyone else live in it: “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own”
– 1 Corinthians 6:19-20

Jesus calls us into the messiness of the world to bring something into it that wasn’t there before. Lights in the darkness, water in a dry land. With our words, we boast of a faith in God and his love, forgiveness, protection, and trust. Do we attempt the impossible task of reconciling this with our lives of silent distance and neglect? Or do we join him in this work for which we were made? Are we not his church?

“…Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter- when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?”
Isaiah 58:6-7

The colors of integrity

Forgive me for stating the obvious when I say that Martin Luther King Jr. was a man of integrity. As a man of moral steadfastness whose riveting words were supported by bold action, the word seems fitting.

But, to draw out the point, what I mean is that he is man whose many parts were integrated*. Until recently, I had only a public school knowledge of his life. I never actually knew what it was that he did for a living. Was he a politician? A preacher? An activist? Yes…but no.

Occupationally-speaking, he was a preacher at a church in Atlanta. But while he was at it, he travelled the country to pioneer the civil rights movement. He rubbed elbows with dignitaries and pop stars. He was invited (several times) to appear at the White House. He ran fundraising campaigns. He led protest marches. His thunderous voice rang from countless stages to address the issues of the times: poverty, rights for the black community, the war in Vietnam.

Why such cross-platform involvement? Isn’t it dangerous to mix faith and politics? Yes, it most certainly is. But as we’ll soon see, there was no “mixing” in the life of Dr. King.

So why did he do it? He had to. He knew that to be a follower of the person of Jesus would cause him to be a doer of the things of Jesus. In other words, there was no distinction between the faith and the politics of Dr. King. His political actions were the outward expression of his faith.

Take a listen to the video at the top of this post. Here we have Dr. King preaching at his church, where many people would have liked to have kept him. But the subject of the sermon is Shadrach, Meeshach, and Abednego; three figures who resolved to trust and act on their faith in God, even when doing so yielded death threats and attempts from the ruling authorities. As the sermon progresses, one cannot help but see the common threads between biblical account and that of Dr. King:

These men were saying that ‘Our faith is so deep. We found something so dear and so precious that nothing can turn us away from it’…

[18:41] You may be 38 years old as I happen to be…and one day some great opportunity stands before you and calls upon you to stand upon some great principle…You refuse to do it because you are afraid…because you want to live longer…you’re afraid that you would lose your job…be criticized…lose your popularity…that someone would stab you or shoot at you or bomb your house. So you refuse to take a stand. Well you may go on and live until you are 90 but you are just as dead at 38 as you would be at 90…You died when you refused to stand up for right…when you refused to stand up for truth…

In this is revealed the heart of Dr. King’s mission. Just as Shadrach, Meeshach, and Abednego knew that their lives were found in standing literally and figuratively for God, so Martin Luther King knew he would only live when his life was laid down for the oppressed. Tyranny’s greatest weakness is the life of even one spent in servitude to its victims.

Too often, we attempt to dis-integrate ourselves. We would like to think that our lives are a series of boxes where each item is granted its own, unique space that is entirely separate and disconnected from the others. Our work life stays in the “work” box, our home life stays in the “home” box and so on. This is merely the recipe for living two or more separate lives. We are meant to be whole people, integrated people. To me, Dr. King is someone who allowed the contents of the boxes to be compiled into a cohesive whole. And this is exactly why we are still feeling the affects of his life so many decades after his death.

Our words and our actions will outlive us. Future generations will ride the crests of the ripples we now cast throughout the ocean of life. So it was with Martin Luther King, so it is with us, so it shall be for our children.

* I am grateful to Sarah Arthur from whom I first gained this insightful description of integrity as a character quality from her book Walking with Frodo: A Devotional Journey Through Lord of the Rings.

Forward and onward: 2016-2017

Quick preface: Every now and then you may discover a song, poem, image, movie, quote, or some form of media that speaks a message to you. The Meaningful Media” section of the blog is where I share such discoveries. I encourage you to listen to the song linked above while reading this post. This particular post is written in response to a weekly theme challenge (this week’s theme is “Retrospective“). Also, you may be interested in the background of the composer and his monthly film-score album release project and more on The Endurance expedition.  

“She’s going, boys” is the alarm call that was proclaimed among Ernest Shackleton’s crew as their ship, The Endurance, began to submerge into the depths of the Weddell Sea off the coast of Antarctica after being crushed and splintered by pack ice. Can you imagine? You, as a crew member, are stranded on an ice floe in sub-zero temperatures, miles away from civilization, and the only thing visible through your cloud of frozen breath is your home, slipping away beneath the surface. And there isn’t a thing you can do about it. What do you do now? This is the moment that inspired this song.

And what a song it is. How does it manage to convey such a tragedy so beautifully? And why does it seem so oddly relatable? Thankfully, I have never been involved in a shipwreck or been stranded anywhere where help wasn’t readily available. So why have I mentally latched onto this song saying, “I know what you mean”? Here’s my theory:

I feel that the chief purpose of a song is to tell a story. How this is done is a great mystery. Think about it: The right combination of sounds (they need not be lyrical) produced by wooden, metallic, nylon, and wind-based instruments will cause your mind to create images and emotions that perhaps you’ve never seen or felt before. The right song will even dust-off ancient memories of yours that have been tucked away for ages or elicit an emotion that you have felt come alive in a variety of other contexts. That is exactly what Adam Young has accomplished through this song. This is why we can relate to a story about a shipwreck.

None of us were there when the crew initially abandoned The Endurance when it became trapped in the ice and, later, when those jagged walls relented and she faded away into the sea. We don’t know the extent of that story. But we have all experienced loss in some form; the drifting apart of friends, the death of a loved one, moving away from home. The loss of anything that represented security and familiarity. We do know that story quite well.

It is notable that The Endurance was held afloat by the pack ice for nearly a month after it was crushed and swamped. During that time, the crew camped and drifted on the ice floes,  frequently returning to the site of the wreckage until she finally sank. How often have we camped and lingered near the shadows of things that are no longer there? Do we try so fervently to  resurrect things from our past that we blind ourselves to the present and the future ahead?

But here is the beauty: Only after The Endurance sank did the crew truly abandon ship, forsake their navigation by incidental ice drifting, and begin their long and intentional journey home. Likewise for us, we must learn how to part well with the wreckage. Loss is a vast sea and the grief that comes with it is a ship that can carry us only so far until we are ready to set out on foot again. There are things in our past that we must make peace with so they can finally sink out of our waking lives without us onboard.

In a few days, 2017 will be here and we will embark on the journey of a brand new year. 2016 may have been a rough year for you. There was a lot of good to be found in the year but there was also some tragedy. My family and I welcomed a beautiful child into a conflicted and violent world. This past year found us celebrating at times and lamenting at others. I don’t know what next year will hold for us. But I do know that remaining adrift on the ice floes of 2016 is not going to help us get our bearings for 2017.

As the song fades out to the hauntingly beautiful sounds of The Endurance descending to rest beneath the sea, may the debris of our past do the same. After all, we have a long journey ahead of us. It’s a brand new year out there.

“But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”
– Phillippians 3:13-14 (NIV)

Enduring Folk – “The Valley” by the Oh Hellos

It seems that a folk-music revolution has been taking place in recent years. Elements of the genre have been showing up in various places, blending with other styles, and generally standing the test of time while moving more prominently into the spotlight of popular music. Such qualities of this musical melting pot phenomenon can be found in the song above, “The Valley” by The Oh Hellos (many thanks to my sister-in-law for introducing me to the group with this song). Before we talk about the song, let’s talk a little about the what it represents.

I suppose one could challenge the term ‘folk-music revolution’ if they are well-versed in the history of the genre which has always been marked by the blending of many elements: poetry, eclectic groupings of instruments, improvisation, etc… Additionally, folk music has been around ever since the concept of music and the folks to write it have walked the earth. In the summarizing words of Louis Armstrong: “All music is folk music; I ain’t never heard no horse sing a song.”

So whether we call it a ‘revolution’ or simply another entry in the archives of this broad and deeply historied genre, there are some interesting things happening in the wide world of folk-music.

In my observation, since the late 2000’s, many pop songs have born many signatures of the genre, including foot-stomping bass drums, the inclusion of folk instruments like banjo or mandolin, and guitars that sing melodically and are strummed frantically. In the grand portrait of the music industry, much of what has recently populated the airwaves has been painted with the colors of a heritage that is at once familiar to anyone who has ever heard a classic folk song, and yet fresh because of its long hiatus from the radios of popular music.

Please don’t misunderstand me; these artists are not plagiarizers perpetually under the shadow of the grandfathers and grandmothers of folk music Rather, they have further innovated on some recently rediscovered qualities of a music genre that reaches back into history like a good story.

The Oh Hellos are one such band that has done a phenomenal job of reinventing folk music in their own way. When I find a song that I enjoy, sometimes I pace how often I listen to it I don’t accidentally get tired of it. But I’ve listened to this one on repeat many a time and still come back to it with deep appreciation. The song has me hooked for at least the following three elements:

Gang Vocals
I have always been struck by the powerful sound of the vocals in the song. The entire song (with the exception of one or two lines) is sung by what sounds like an auditorium filled with talented vocalists. This is an effective production technique because it pulls the listener into the story of the song. Rather than placing the listener in the audience in front of a soloist, gang vocals surround the listener with a crowd for a more participatory experience in which they are invited to sing along.

Massive Percussion
When you think of a classic folk song, it’s likely that the percussion isn’t very prominent (if it’s even there at all). But the first thing you hear in “The Valley” is the huge thumping sound of drums and shakers. This percussive wave is maintained throughout the song as more instruments are brought into the mix, adding their own density to the overall sound. Moving the percussion to the forefront of the production is a fairly bold move but one indicative of a creative re-envisioning of folk song composition.

Lyrical Imagery
Out of all the folk song elements available to a writer, the lyrics of “The Valley” seem to be the most unaltered from their inspired heritage. Folk music is often characterized by lyrics that convey images and scenery. Think of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind”, Woodie Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land”, or the classic “Wabash Cannonball”. Each conveys a series of pictures and scenes to communicate their message. “The Valley” is no exception and communicates with artful mystery and poetry. I find the second verse to be a particularly beautiful sampling of the song’s story, piquing my interest to know more:

We were young when we heard you
Call our names in the silence
Like a fire in the dark
Like a sword upon our hearts
We came down to the water
And we begged for forgiveness
Shadows lurking close behind
We were fleeing for our lives

Music changes. Like an ocean that ebbs, flows, roars, and stills with the winds, music forms around the people of its culture. But there are always those ancient currents under the surface that exert their influence in ways seen and unseen. Folk music is, and always has been, a unique expression of people and their stories. As long as there are people, there will be stories. And as long as there are stories, there will be folk music.