10 Years at TheGathering Fort Mill

By my approximation, I’ve led worship at my church somewhere around 500 times in the last 10 years. It’s not complicated math. There are at least 52 Sundays per year (although in some instances there can be 53), and barring a few cancellations for weather or the random “spend Sunday with your family” thing, we’ve been on Centre Circle for each of those. And for a vast majority of those years, I was the sole worship leader, which meant that barring major sickness–and even through such things in many cases–I was there on Sunday. During my time as a student at Ashland University, there were two Sundays a summer where I was gone, and there were other events, like the morning after my wedding and during my honeymoon, that kept me away, along with some visits from friends who offered me reprieves from time to time, but mostly, I was there. To me, it has been an honor and a privilege to be there each of those weeks, and while I appreciated the weeks away, there was always a tinge of something missing when I was gone. In all honesty, the number probably comes to something less than 500, but it’s close, and I’m proud to have been a part of each of those, through all the highs and lows that have come throughout the last 10 years.

This is beginning to sound like I’m working up to an announcement, so let me stop the train before it hits the station: I’m not going anywhere, and barring any unexpected occurrences, I fully expect to be part of TheGathering for as long as the church continues to exist. But this Sunday we are celebrating our 10th Anniversary (although Facebook tells me that tomorrow is the actual day we launched 10 years ago), and I thought it was a good opportunity to take time to reflect on those years.

In some ways I have no idea how to really do that. I don’t remember much about that first Sunday, and photos of the day and our first years look foreign to me. The space itself looks different, all the people have gotten older or moved on to something else, and it’s crazy to me to think how little of our launch team remains 10+ years later. We’ve gone through lots of musicians over that time–although my good friend and multitalented instrumentalist David has been with me for about 9 out of the 10–and this has impacted our abilities to be flexible or multifaceted in our musical choices at various points in our history, often making it difficult to provide our ever-faithful group of players chances to just attend the gathering without having something to do. I can’t really express how vital their faithfulness has been to making my life a little bit easier, even though I often feel guilty for using them up as much as I can. I’ll miss someone if I start naming names, outside of our current crew of Lisa, Tony, Dale and Aaron, but I am thankful for all of you, no matter how long you were part of our little band.

TheGathering has never been a large church, and I’ll admit that sometimes that’s been hard to look around and see all these churches around us growing at astronomical rates, being financially stable and beyond and really appealing to large swaths of people. Sometimes I wonder why God chose them and not us; sometimes I’ve blamed myself, as if there is something inefficient in me that has somehow reflected negatively on the church as a whole. Then I look back and I see how far we’ve come. Most church plants flame out within the first couple of years, but for some reason God has seen fit to keep providing for us and enabling us to stay around. It’s not because we’re reaching masses or because we have eight locations meeting twenty-five times on Sunday morning, but I choose to believe it’s because we’re still doing good and faithful work for those who we have reached and impacted. People go to large churches, in part, because it’s easier to disappear there, but also because they tend to have resources to do more outside ministries or because those types of churches appeal to them for myriad other reasons–I’m not here to cast any judgement on anyone for that choice. But I can say that God must be enabling us to do something right, otherwise He would have removed us from the landscape long ago.

I have no idea what’s next for TheGathering Fort Mill. The church we planted out of has been gone for several years now, and while we maintain a small but faithful core group, we’ve not seen major growth in many years. That’s not to say it won’t happen, but it is to realize that I don’t know. My prayer is that we’ve done what we’re meant to do, and that if we’re looking back 10 years from now on 20 years as a church we can see what God has done to guide us there; or if we’re looking back on a church that ran its course, we’ll know that we’ve run it well. In the end, I think that’s all we can judge our church on.

Join us for our 10th Anniversary service on Sunday February 3 at 3545 Centre Circle, Suite B in Fort Mill. We’d be happy to have you.

The Wait is Over

Over the course of the last month or so, I’ve been keeping you, lovely readers, up to date on the happenings at our house. If you haven’t kept up with the saga, I encourage you to do so now. I’ll wait.

 

Okay, so now that we’re all up to speed, I can finally announce some good news: we are all moved in! It took many weeks of exasperation, true moments where I was thinking nothing was ever going to get done, and some help from various places (namely both mine and E’s parents), but all of our stuff is moved in and mostly in place. This is truly something I never hope to have to experience again.

There are certainly some upsides to what went down. We have great new flooring in the downstairs and fresh, soft carpet on the stairs and in our bedroom. It gives the whole place a new feeling that seems vital given the circumstances. This place is ours, and we’ve already gotten the chance to make our own mark on it. It also increased the rate of  unpacking, as after all this time with our stuff in boxes piled up in the otherwise empty house, I was rearing to get everything out of boxes and into place. Still, if all that could have happened without the lengthy delay, I would have appreciated it more.

And that leaves me with a sense of disappointment.

I know, what a strange thing to say given the fire we just walked through, especially since we came out pretty much unscathed. The disappointment stems from how worked up and worried I often found myself during the ordeal. I didn’t really allow myself to remember that I wasn’t in control of any of this, and that freaking out because we didn’t know what was going on all the time didn’t help matters. And the main reason I’m disappointed about that is because I feel like I keep having to rehash that lesson, and that I appear to be unable to actually retain the learning.

It’s ironic, really, considering I spend my professional life trying to get people to learn and develop writing and reading skills, and I get frustrated when I repeat myself and they don’t seem to ever “get it.” I can only imagine how angry I’d get if I were God, sitting up-there watching me get this same skill wrong over and over again. Yet another reason why it’s good that God is God and I am not. How fortunate are we to have a God who loves unconditionally, and although He expects growth and our moving towards maturity, He always loves us. In the middle of situations like we just walked through, where I often found myself angry and frustrated and taking that out on other people, I’m finding myself, as I stop to reflect on what happened, thankful that God doesn’t respond to me like I would if I were Him.

I’m also quite thrilled because the house is coming along nicely and starting to feel like home. It’s strange having two floors to worry about (I woke up last night in a frenzy because it suddenly occurred to me that there were lights on downstairs, and quickly went down to remedy the situation), but I really enjoy the space of it. Unlike our apartment, our house feels roomy, especially downstairs. I am also realizing that I have ideas, albeit small ones, for upgrades and continuing to make it feel like ours. Just yesterday I replaced both shower heads and hung a curtain to divide the space between L’s room and our office (all thanks to some supervisory work from my dad), and the overwhelming feeling of it all is accomplishment.

This is much better than disappointment.

Sure, I imagine homeownership is going to have its downsides, but in general I think I’m going to like the ability to make choices and, for the first time in my adult life, making a house really feel like home.

Casting is for fishing or actors (and ironwork)

Confession time. I’ve been getting emails from John Piper’s ministry with daily devotionals for a number of years, and while my intentions are generally good, those emails have often gone unread. For whatever reason, the last few days I’ve been feeling an even greater pull to actually carve out a few moments in the morning to read the words of wisdom. They aren’t long, usually just a few verses and a paragraph or two of analysis/considerations, and it’s foolish of me to not do so. The last three days have been nothing short of miracles in terms of their timeliness:

On Monday, the verse came from 2 Corinthians 5:7 where Paul reminds the people of Corinth (and us today) that “we walk by faith, not by sight.” Piper then goes on to compare the concept of salvation to buying a house, and that instead of a mortgage, we actually get the house for free. Yet for some reason we as Christians still spend much of our lives looking to make payments on a debt that we can a) never repay and b) don’t have to repay. The metaphor is a might clunky, but hit home for me because E and I had the closing for our house set for the following morning. Hard for that to be coincidence. I should have paid better attention that morning.

Tuesday started with a familiar verse from Piper’s devotional:

Cast all your anxieties on him, for he cares about you. (1 Peter 5:7)

While I appreciated the sentiment of the verse at the moment, I was actually feeling like we’d reached the end of a season that was loaded with anxiety. The house buying experience was filled with questions that drove me to worry. Will we find a place we like in our price range? Can we actually afford to pay for it? Have we saved up enough for our down payment? Will we give ourselves enough time to move? Can we come up with all the money that we need to start-up utilities, move and all that entails? Will the loan go through? Will the house be in good shape? Will there be repairs we can’t afford? And yet, there I was on Tuesday morning getting ready to head to attorney’s office and feeling, for the first time in weeks, pretty relaxed about the whole situation. Piper’s email, while welcome, didn’t apply to me at that moment.

I really hate being wrong.

The signing of the documents went great. The sellers were nice people and their real estate agent was a funny guy who made the proceedings feel less stuffy and formal. Our agent brought donuts and while there were lots of papers to sign and a last-minute confusion left me going to bank right after the closing to wire our down payment, I walked out of the bank branch feeling accomplished and, finally, excited about our new house.

Then I texted E, who had gone ahead to the house to meet our agent for a celebratory photo and a deep breath of sweet release, only to get this in response:

“Huge problem here.”

Not exactly the words you want to see on the day you close on a new house. The key doesn’t work, I’m thinking, or the lights don’t turn on because the electric bill hasn’t been turned over to our name. Something small, please let it be something small.

“Carpet is soaked and water in the kitchen near pantry. Can’t find source,” is her reply to my query for more information. Then, a few minutes later: “Leak in other townhouse, the other one for sale, water house leak. The carpet is flooded over there and leaked to our side.”

Crap.

On the remainder of my drive to the house, I’m starting to roll over all the possible outcomes here. We didn’t plan to move for another 10 days or so, but we had talked about getting the living room painted, about cleaning the carpets, giving ourselves a fresh start and then moving in everything the weekend after next, giving us ample time to clear out our current apartment and get it ready for inspection. This was going to throw off the timeline, maybe not for the move, but for everything else, and I didn’t want to deal with it fully until I saw the extent of the damage.

I arrived a few minutes later, and saw that while a section of the carpet in the living room and inside the coat closet was pretty soaked, that part of it was still fine. There were little puddles of water in the kitchen and pantry, but nothing terribly problematic. The beginnings of a mold-like odor was starting to settle into the air, however, which our agent, who showed up soon after I did, noted would be the biggest issue. Fortunately, our seller’s agent had gone by to get the other set of keys from his lockbox on the door and had already headed out to Lowe’s to buy some shop vacs to help clean up the mess in both our unit and the empty one next door. While I protested against going into work, our agent assured me there wasn’t anything I could do, and in the 35 minutes it took me to drive to work they were able to get most of the water up, contact the seller of the empty unit, who was subsequently able to call someone to get out and assess the damage. I’m assured they’ll get started on fixing what needs to be.

Needless to say–but I’ll say it anyway–this is all pretty demoralizing. It puts things that I thought were finally settling back in unsure territory; and while it’s okay for us to start moving in some of our stuff that goes upstairs as soon as we want, there’s still the question of when we’ll actually be living in the house we just bought. If you know me well enough, you know that barrages like this are something I fight to avoid, making it all the more difficult for me to adjust to them when they happen. These days it feels like the assault is endless.

Seeing reminders of what the Bible tells me about anxiety and worry sometimes does little but exacerbate the situation. I know this, I want to scream, so please quit reminding me of what I’m not doing! Casting is for fishing and acting, I retort, as if that lets me off the hook. And then I remember another definition of the word: the casting of something into a mold to make it what the creator wants it to be. This, to me, wells up in me an alternate reading of what we’re commanded to do with our anxieties. Yes, we are supposed to give them up to God to allow the burden of worry to be removed from our souls; but I also feel like it has something to do with the continued casting and recasting of our character into something closer to what we’re meant to be. It’s a remarkable re-consideration of the text, and one I’d never thought about before; it might even be misinterpretation, but to my mind, both are intended results of our needing to cast our cares on our Father.

And then this morning, Piper’s email reminded me of this:

“For this reason I say to you, do not be anxious for your life, as to what you shall eat, or what you shall drink; nor for your body, as to what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they?” (Matthew 6:25-26)

This was the reminder I needed today. Better yet, the email marked this as part 1 of the unpacking of this verse, meaning there’s more to come.

If this house thing is yet another fire that melts me down and renders me a better version of myself, then I suppose my only response is to allow myself to be poured out into the mold, and remember that I’ll be fed according to my needs in the end.

Unpacking the 6

This is me, according to the Enneagram Institute’s website:

Type Six in Brief

The committed, security-oriented type. Sixes are reliable, hard-working, responsible, and trustworthy. Excellent “troubleshooters,” they foresee problems and foster cooperation, but can also become defensive, evasive, and anxious—running on stress while complaining about it. They can be cautious and indecisive, but also reactive, defiant and rebellious. They typically have problems with self-doubt and suspicion. At their Best: internally stable and self-reliant, courageously championing themselves and others.

  • Basic Fear: Of being without support and guidance
  • Basic Desire: To have security and support
  • Enneagram Six with a Five-Wing: “The Defender”
  • Enneagram Six with a Seven-Wing: “The Buddy”

Key Motivations: Want to have security, to feel supported by others, to have certitude and reassurance, to test the attitudes of others toward them, to fight against anxiety and insecurity.

The Meaning of the Arrows (in brief)

When moving in their Direction of Disintegration (stress), dutiful Sixes suddenly become competitive and arrogant at Three. However, when moving in their Direction of Integration (growth), fearful, pessimistic Sixes become more relaxed and optimistic, like healthy Nine.

I discovered this whole Enneagram thing through a few friends of mine (namely Aaron B) and my wife has really gotten into it lately, looking at it as a way to try to understand herself better and, by some extension, me.

She’s a 9, which if you’re paying attention, is apparently the healthy version of me (and, ironically, my 6-ness is the unhealthy her), and that means there’s a lot to unpack just in the context of our relationship. But for my purposes here, I’m a little more interested not just in my interactions with her, although those matter a great deal, but how they impact my dealings with people everywhere else.

So that’s the modus operandi to be taken on in this space. I’ll take a look at who I see myself in my various contexts, and see how my 6-ness (a term I picked up from the Road Back to You podcast, which E and I soaked in on our drive to and back from Chicago) impacts those areas. Obviously this remains a curious exercise, and an on-going one at that, but maybe writing it down will allow things to kick into gear a little better.

Home: I fudged a bit. I do want to explore how my 6-ness plays out at home, but less so in terms of my relationship with E, and more so in terms of how it plays out with little L. She just turned 4 in June, and so her personality is coming out more and more the older she gets, even if it does sometimes manifest in manners I’d prefer it not to (such as whining or crying about things that, to my mind, should no longer be handled in that way since she’s fully capable of expressing herself through words). Obviously she’s too young for me to pinpoint her on the Enneagram (although at her age, I’d say she’s got a little 4 in her, but I also see from 5 and 8, and, on rare occasions, her mother’s 9), but I definitely would count a certain amount of our interactions together as stress inducing. She’s a toddler, she’s pressing issues and pushing buttons, trying to test her limits to see what she can and cannot get away with. On top of that, she’s got multiple living situations she finds herself in and out of, so there’s a lot of transitioning going on. She probably feels the stress as much as I do; but she’s 4 and isn’t good at expressing it in a way that makes sense.

Which brings me to my own situation as it plays out with her. Her pushing on me definitely brings out the 3 in me. It becomes a competition, and there is no way I’m letting a 4-year-old beat me at anything, especially when the game is Listen to the Adult. This impacts my effectiveness as an authority figure and a parent, because it becomes less about explaining what I need her to do and why and more–nay, completely–about my winning the battle. The more she pushes, the more I press into the you are not going to win this parenting style. In other words, no good for anyone. But there is something enlightening about seeing it written down–when I get stressed it taps into all my insecurities of being incapable, and so I’m fighting against those feelings as hard as I can. Unfortunately other people have to deal with me, and I am left, usually within a few minutes, ashamed that I’m not better at realizing my flaws and working them out in the moment.

Work: My professional situation is a lot different from almost anywhere else. While my years as a 7th grade teacher often left me beaten down and exhausted, for the most part my time has a college instructor has allowed me to separate the home and work situations pretty effectively. Sure, there’s some overlap, but my work time is work time, and home time is home time. That said, my 6-ness often comes out in its best light when I’m at work. I’m fiercely loyal to my job when I’m there, and work hard at doing my best job. Pretty much all of the characteristics listed on the “In Brief” section above come out when I’m at my best at work. That said, there’s still often an impending sense of “am I good enough” that can bleed into things, which can lead to a fear of venturing outside of comfort zone and taking on new challenges.

That has made the circumstances of the past semester all the more difficult. It’s hard for me to put myself out there and to reach out for something that might change my daily interactions with my job, and yet I did it over the past two years, only to have the message returned to me and sound like this: “Don’t bother. It won’t be worth it. You’ll just get used up and then sent back to where you came from.” It that isn’t the fearful, pessimistic side of my 6-ness coming out, I’m not sure how it manifests itself better. I’m still grappling with the repercussions of that, and it’ll probably linger over me throughout the semester as I reintroduce myself to life without additional, non-teaching duties. My hope is that I’ll lean into the opportunities it presents, seeking the optimism and relaxation promised in my move towards healthier version of me, rather than the competitiveness I can feel stirring up in me from time to time.

Other relationships: Obviously this is a wide open context, as it depends on the nature of the relationship, but I’ll settle into the area of my close friendships, especially with those few friends I see on a regular basis. I think all elements of me come out at various times with my best friends. On one hand, I’m intensely loyal to them, and have always been to most of my closest friends throughout my life, which explains why one of my groomsmen in my wedding was my friend way back when I was 12 (and remains so). My friends are idiots sometimes (as am I), but it would take a lot for me to just jettison them from my life, because that’s the type of person I pride myself on being. The element of needing security and support really plays out here, as do both the 5 and 7 wings. I will defend the honor of my friends when they need it most, and feel like I’m generally a good buddy because of my ability to settle into my 7-wingness. My move to more healthy 9-ness is vital here, too, as I often feel much more relaxed with those people who know me best and with whom I can fully allow myself to just be with, regardless of how I actually feel in the moment. It sometimes manifest by my negative side coming out, by my allowing the fear and indecisiveness to come out, but that’s only because I feel comfortable enough with these people to let that come out.

And yet the unhealthy 3 stuff comes out with my friends a lot, too. I sometimes feel a need to be better at them at things, and this nagging sense of discord often accompanies seeing a friend accomplish something. This is an awful way to be, and it makes me sick to my stomach when it happens; I’m also working hard at pushing away those sentiments, trying to find the 9 (or even a healthier 6) in me during those times. This, I understand, will be better for everyone, as it will allow my friends to get what they need from me, free from my own hang-ups and lack of contentedness.

Faith: This is a complicated one. It worries me, too, because my 6-ness screams something about me that I don’t like: there’s a chance I’ve stuck to my faith out of a sense of loyalty. Now, I don’t believe this is true all the time, and I don’t believe it’s true at this point, but I do think there were times when I was in college where I had a chance to turn a different direction, but didn’t out of a loyalty to what I’d always believed. Over time, I’ve made it my own, and the loyalty stems from a sense of knowing who God is, rather than one that is bent upon not wanting to disappoint my family or something more along those lines. But there’s still that creeping sense, and it’s something I need to work to develop as a I continue to get older. In other words, the more I feel connected to God, the less it feels like I’m part of this family of faith because I feel like I should and more like it’s because it’s what I know is right. Most of the time, it’s the latter, but I’d be lying if I didn’t acknowledge that the former rears its head from time to time. Sometimes more often than I’d like.

And so I seek to find a place where I realize where my ultimate security comes from, and I think that’s the whole point of this Enneagram thing anyway. I’m supposed to remember that, above all else, I am who I am because that’s the way I was made, and that the Creator, not only of me but of all things, loves me just as I am.

10 Year Recall: Starfield’s “I Will Go”

It’s quite appropriate that just before sitting down to re-listen to Starfield’s 2008 album I Will Go, the band’s third after a self titled debut in 2004 and 2006’s Beauty in the Broken, I gave another shot to U2’s latest album, 2017’s Songs of Experience. That particular album continues to be pretty post-All That You Can’t Leave Behind U2, but that’s not why it was an appropriate lead into I Will Go. The Christian music industry is often (and most of the time rightly) accused of latching onto the rest of the world’s musical trends, and for better or worse, the first several years of the 2000’s were the heyday of the particular trend rearing its head.

U2 is an easy target because the band’s signature sounds–delay heavy lead guitar, driving rhythm section and big, soaring choruses–have essentially become the defining musical characteristics of modern worship music (see: Chris Tomlin and Matt Redman’s records during that period and since then as proof, as well as scores of other worship leader/songwriters). Starfield fell nicely into that box, although an argument can (and will, right here) be made that the Canadian rock band fits better into the modern/alternative rock of the early 2000’s than the lazy U2 comparison.

Certainly there are elements of I Will Go that delve into The Edge’s guitar tones, but that isn’t necessarily because they are influenced directly by Bono and Co. Instead, it’s easy to forget that secular rock bands of that era were also borrowing pretty heavily from those sonic choices, so it makes more sense to say that Starfield were working to implement the most modern rock sounds they could rather than steal from a band whose best recent album came out a full four years before Starfield made its debut.

The point here isn’t to argue that Starfield weren’t trying to sound like U2, though, but instead to make a case for the quality of I Will Go ten years later. The album came out on March 25, 2008, a little less than two years after the band’s previous album, Beauty in the Broken, which was the album that first introduced me to the band. That album was essential for me in 2006, because at the time I was finding myself less and less enthusiastic about the Christian music scene, so it was important that I found a band that seemed to share both my musical sensibilities (albeit a little muted) and my faith. While I think both albums have incredible moments of rock songwriting, the band clearly finds itself of two minds when it comes to song selection and writing, as well as when considering how heavy they allow their sound to become. The album features some noticeably huge sonic choices, especially on the opening track “From the Corners of the Earth,” which features cranked-to-eleven guitars and some electronic textures, and the title track, which almost sounds like punk-rock lite.

On the other side of things, however, is a band that recognizes who its audience is. The lyrics of the record are unabashedly Christ-centered, leaving no room for the band to ever find itself on non-CCM radio stations, which causes Starfield’s sound to often feel like it’s been run through a Christian-radio-friendly filter. The guitars can chunk and chug-chug, just not too much; the vocals can soar, but they better stay clean. This leads to sonically diluted songs like “Reign In Us” and “Great In All The Earth,” which toe the line, but never jump into the modern rock musical space as much as they could. And of course there’s a Sunday morning friendly cover of Brooke Fraser of Hillsong’s “Hosanna,” which features a guitar solo, but a not too crazy one, the perfect compromise for a band that can’t seem to figure out what it wants most.

All that said, listening to the album again is definitely an enjoyable experience. The songs aren’t complex, and I find myself wishing the band had taken more musical risks at several point during the record, but to my mind, they band accomplishes what seems to be its ultimate goal: to write songs they felt connected themselves and others closer to God. The problem with that, though, is that the statement suggests that harder guitars or a different vocal delivery would have precluded someone from that goal, something I take issue with. I get that there is a time and place for different styles of music, but the audacity of people who believe that loud, heavy and even scream-y music can’t also connect the faithful to their creator is beyond me. And I think it often leads to stale, less daring artistic choices.

I want to be clear: this isn’t just a Starfield thing (in fact, amongst the ranks of Christian artists, they’ve done well to continue to at least make attempts to take some calculated risks, especially on their 2012 independent release The Kingdom, probably their most interesting album from start to finish). This is an issue that exists across the Christian music scene, and it’s a difficult argument to dive into, but the question comes down to this: if we’re creating to worship a God who is greater than all things and worthy of our best, why wouldn’t we want to challenge ourselves as artists and as those who experience the art created by others? It’s a wildly complicated issue that I’ve touched on before, and one that I don’t have a final answer on other than to say that I believe God deserves our best, even if it doesn’t fit into a prescribed formula or box.

This took an unexpected turn, but it feels appropriate given the topic at hand. To sum everything up, here’s this: I Will Go is a solid Christian rock album that I’d place in third place behind Beauty in the Broken and The Kingdom as far as Starfield’s albums are concerned (in fourth is 2010’s The Saving One; I’ve never listened to their debut). As far as finding the right balance of music that speaks to my faith and what I want my heart to cry and musical choices, Starfield is always going to be one of my top choices. In that regard, I Will Go is definitely an album worth revisiting.

Eulogy

This past Monday evening, I was doing what I often do after the day has come to a stalling point: I was scrolling through my Facebook feed. My wife was at a women’s Bible study, the little one was in bed, there was little else to do, or at least I wasn’t interested in looking for something else. Then I saw a post by a friend of mine from high school that shook me a little.

Nabeel Qureshi was a year ahead of me at Princess Anne High School, and he was a person who was impossible to dislike. He was warm and charming, intelligent and thoughtful, with a wit that was both disarming and hilarious. In short, he was known by everyone and liked by most. One of my most vivid early memories of him is at one of our school’s football games, where he was part of the Bleacher Creatures, who ran around half-naked and painted in red, white and blue, cheering on the Princess Anne Cavaliers. As my time at PAHS went on, our social circles began to intersect more, and I found that I liked him as much from up close as many did from afar. Again, he was a hard guy not to like.

I tell you all this because my high school prom date posted a status that read like a quick eulogy to Nabeel, and I was shook by the suddenness of the news. I took to Google to see if I could discovered what had happened; surely a sudden death might have some internet presence, even if it was small. I was stunned to find out how wrong I was in that regard.

It turns out that after leaving PA, Nabeel had quite the life. He grew up in a Muslim home, but during his time as a medical student at Old Dominion University, he began to dig into the Bible, inspired by a friend of his. Before he knew it, he found himself giving his life to Christ and becoming a full convert to Christianity. In the years since then, he wrote a book about his experience (Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus: A Devout Muslim Encounters Christianity, which came out in February 2014), completed not only his medical degree but also a MA in Religion from Duke and began work on a MPhil and PhD in the New Testament from Oxford, along with joining the ministry of renowned speaker and pastor Ravi Zacharias in 2013. To hear my friend tell it, the last time she saw him was when he was getting ready to speak at a church near her in North Carolina; she says she was amazed by the number of people to hear him speak.

To be fair, if you knew Nabeel at all, none of this–minus the conversion–is surprising in the least. That he grew to have an impact on people around the world, that he was capable of great things, of influencing people and speaking in front of scores of listeners, this is all what you would have expected. He was always one of those smart guys that never let you know how smart he was. He never made you feel inferior (even though most of us were) or unwanted; in fact, more often than not, you always felt like the most important person to him in that moment. Exactly what turned out to be his life’s work is a little surprising, simply because there was no way to see those steps working out just as they did.

All of this was sudden and unexpected, to be sure, but honestly I hadn’t talked to Nabeel since my senior year of high school, when he’d return occasionally to say hello to old teachers and members of my class. After he left Princess Anne, he became, as many people do for me, out of sight and out of mind. This feels cruel to write, especially under the circumstances, but I think it’s clear that was “connected” as our culture is these days, it’s still easy to lose track of a person. It’s not terribly shocking; he and I were never close independently of other people (we weren’t even friends on Facebook, and I’m friends with more random high school friends than I can say, even people I knew less about than him). Still, I felt a lump in my throat the moment I found out about his death. Nothing, I’d dare to say, compared to the loss felt by those closest to him, but I found the death of an old friend impacted me in a way I wouldn’t have expected.

They say that in situations like these, death becomes more about the people left behind than it does the person who died. From my vantage point, I’m embarrassed to admit this might be true. While I feel sad for his family and close friends, I’m sitting here thinking about how this alters my life; and I fully believe it should. From my perspective, Nabeel did the best he could with the time he had, and that truth is challenging to me. I can’t help but wonder if I’m doing the same (and come to the conclusion that I’m likely not).

And so I’m here to send my condolences to those who were closest to Nabeel. I’m certain none of them will read this, but it should be said anyway. My hope is that he inspires those of us who knew him to continue to pursue our paths in life. For me, that means to continue to seek God as Nabeel did; to love my family and friends; and to be thankful for all that I’ve been given. Each day is a gift and I don’t want to lose sight of that.

Trouble With “Worship” As Genre

Here’s a complicated issue, because I find myself straddling a line that clearly exists. First, a little background. I listen to a podcast called The Bad Christian Podcast, starring Toby Morrell and Matt Carter of the band Emery and their pastor friend Joey Svendsen, who focus on what they believe to be the realities of the world around them with the slant of Christianity. A lot of the podcast is the three hosts discussing various issues of the day, often with guests, as a means of understanding and opening up dialogue. The goal, I’d say, is to avoid people looking at them as “typical” Christian people, instead hoping that listeners see them as more open-minded and thoughtful than the stereotypes.

I find myself agreeing with them more often than not, especially in their views on the church–although maybe not as far-reaching as they are willing to go in the physical church disappearing completely–but I do recognize that the church should be doing more, especially when the world around it is calamitous and needy. The complicated issue at hand is that of the idea of worship music. Toby and Matt both have history as worship leaders, so they would know a little bit, but the essence of their argument is this: the church was once at the cutting edge of arts, and now is simply following what the secular world is doing, something they see as backwards, since the main goal of church-created art should be as a form of worship. What does it say about God, Toby often wonders, if Christian artists are willing to phone in their work more often than not? The bar seems to be low. Recreate secular sounds and add words that sound vaguely Christian, throwing in a few “God” and “Jesus” references (or, in the case of an especially appropriate example of what Toby is talking about, Danny Gokey’s “The Comeback,” which features ZERO references to either), and you’ve got yourself a Christian hit.

Toby, an excellent songwriter in his own right, took this as a challenge on an episode of the podcast, and a few weeks later, brought a few “church” songs he’d written, trying to follow the “rules” he noticed in most Christian radio songs. Weeks later, Toby recorded one of the songs–cheekily titled “Forever Rain”– and released it on iTunes in the Christian & Gospel genre; and before too long, the song was climbing up the iTunes sales charts, likely boosted mostly by podcast listeners who were in on the joke of it and were willing to spend $0.99 to push Toby’s song as high as it would go (it peaked in the top 20).

The song itself is noticeably hokey. It sounds a little like Toby stopped listening to Christian music in the ’90’s, because the sonic space it occupies resembles church music in the latter part of that decade more than most of the current hits. And yet the lyrics match the often vague nature of many of CCM’s most-loved songs (although it should be clear that there does exist many a songwriter that better understands how to connect the truth of the Bible with lyrical content), and the dynamics of the song feel accurate in relation to typical Sunday morning worship songs. The trouble is, because Toby’s listeners–both to the podcast and of his bands Emery and Matt & Toby–it is difficult to tell if “typical” consumers of Christian music are buying the song, and as of yet, Christian radio doesn’t seem to have paid attention to it at all. So maybe the joke is noted from the outside more than the creators of the song believe.

Like I said, I find myself straddling the line here. I lead worship at my church every Sunday, and so part of what I have to do is pay attention to the worship landscape in order to not continually play the same songs every week year after year. That said, I do agree with Matt and Toby (and David Crowder, who was once a guest on the podcast and said essentially the same things) that music, and all other art, made for and about God should be the best art available. Indeed, most of the best Christian art is on the fringe, and therefore isn’t generally accepted within Christianity as a whole; I, for one, believe this is pretty messed up, and this is the point that Toby, Matt and Crowder (and others like them) are making. If something is good but not easy to understand at first listen or interaction but still serves a form of worship, shouldn’t this be the type of art we want as Christians?

Part of the problem is that most art–mainstream or otherwise–is pretty lowest common denominator anyway. Crappy mainstream movies are often the biggest hits at the box office, derivative music tops the Billboard charts all the time and poorly written, but page-turner books are the best sellers in every avenue books are sold. Most of the greatest artistic expressions are independent, underground or completely unseen or unheard, and so this muddies the argument in the first place. It is pretty clear, though, that almost more than any other niche of art, Christians settle for mediocrity. To me, this is the issue, and the point at which I can fully get on board with the argument at hand.

Do I think that Christians need their own art in the first place? Absolutely. Music, movies, books and all that for Christians are necessary in the same way that these arts probably exist for other sections of society, because those people who belong to these groups deal with the world in their own way and see it through a varied lens. So to box everyone’s experiences into a single form of art would be wrong, that much is clear. The problem is that we’ve made “worship” a genre for all these things, and that forces the music, movies and books to become a copy of a copy of a copy, and so on.

Obviously as a worship leader, I see that there are certain songs that work better for corporate singing, and that we want to use songs in that setting that are Biblically truthful. But I don’t think that the rest of Christian music needs to succumb to falling into the trap of mediocrity. I should be able to worship my God in whatever musical genre I want to or in whatever form I feel is best. As an artist, and as a man of faith, this feels like the right thing to do and the most honest expression of my faith.

Is My Tolerance More Important Than Yours (or Vice Versa)?

I’ll just get this out of the way up front: if you are a living, breathing, thinking, feeling human being, you’re a hypocrite. Obviously this includes me, but it also includes you, whoever you are.

I say this because I’ve been trying to figure something out. Why is it okay to call someone an idiot or a garbage person or spew some other sort of hatred at them because they have said or done something you disagree with? Better stated: if someone does something that you see as an act of hatred, why does the preferred response seem to be the return of hatred.

I’ll be more specific. Yesterday, a group of American pastors and church leaders released a statement on the beliefs regarding marriage that they felt should be embraced by the church based on Biblical tenets. This so-called Nashville Statement contains nothing that should surprise anyone who understands even the basics of evangelical Christianity. Essentially that marriage is meant to be monogamous and between a man and a woman, and the expression that concepts such as homosexuality and transgenderism are sins. The decision to go against these in any regard is a choice, just like a decision to lie, cheat or steal or commit adultery or any other sin.

Not surprisingly, the backlash has been quick and angry, and this is where I am lost as to what opponents of this see as acceptable. I just find the hypocrisy of telling someone that they are an asshole or unloving or worse because you think they are being unloving is ripe with irony. Furthermore, and this has bothered me for years, but why is the supposed idea of tolerance only a one way street? Doesn’t anybody see that by denouncing someone’s belief system because they disagree with you is the exact thing that tolerance is allegedly meant to avoid? Instead, it looks like this:

“Oh, everyone needs to be tolerant of everyone. No matter if you’re gay or straight or bi or transgender or Jewish or Muslim or Agnostic or Atheist, people must be allowed to make their own choices.”

“I believe that my faith is correct, which means, frankly speaking, that those other religions are wrong and that all non-heterosexual relationships are essentially sin.”

“Well, then you’re wrong and I can’t allow you to think that way, so I’m going to call you an idiot and continue to tell you how wrong you are at every opportunity.”

Okay, yes, this is an oversimplification of the issue; and I grant that it works on the other side of things, too. There are people who are Christians who actually are hateful human beings, who may consider themselves correctly motivated, but whose actions are far from that. The situation in Charlottesville shows me that without a doubt, all humans are capable of hatred and violence, of being wrong about what they believe.

And I guess that’s where I struggle the most on this whole thing, and I feel this way every time these issues cycle back through the news feed. Why are those who look negatively on the issue allowed to tell the other side they are wrong, but if the situation is reversed, there’s no accounting for how hate-filled the responses will be? And those responses will be applauded, even though they are essentially the same level of hate that these people claim is coming from the other side. So even if the creators of the Nashville Statement never said they hated anyone, those who oppose the document read their words, see hate and then spread hate right back at them?

Do I have that right?

Because if I do, it doesn’t seem very tolerant. It just feels like hypocrisy piled on top of a brand of tolerance that allows most people to say and do what they want, but not all.

Look, I do want to make it clear that the timing on this is not good. Clearly there are more pressing issues happening in our country, especially helping to clear the devastation in Houston. But I think it’s also unfair to say that people aren’t capable of handling more than one situation at a time, or to assume malevolence on the part of the signers regarding Houston and this document. Furthermore, and more ironically, a thing’s existence does not automatically give it power; so by hating it and the people who created it, those who oppose this and similar ideas, there’s a sense that power is being given. In a technical sense, all this Statement does is affirm what has always been true about the Christian faith; there is no call to arms or new action to be taken.

Ultimately it comes down to this: I believe what I believe and others believe what they believe, and to me it’s more important to dialogue about issues of contention than to simply respond with the first emotion that comes to you, most commonly anger and aggression. But if the goal is really tolerance (and honestly I’m not sure it is), then there cannot be caveats or addendum to that; you must practice full tolerance of me and my beliefs and I of you and yours.

Otherwise, what is tolerance anyway?

The Trouble With Art & Faith

I’ll begin with a story.

I listen to a lot of music, watch a fair amount of movies and read books of many kinds. Art, in many forms, is an essential part of my existence. One of the ways I continue to make these pieces come together is by keeping up with what’s next in these areas. I have an app on my phone to track movie release dates, and follow several websites on Twitter to aid in my knowledge of music releases, a list I add to as a band or record label strikes my attention. A band that caught my ears a few years ago was Sorority Noise.

I first noticed them upon the release of their second album, Joy, Departed, via Topshelf Records in 2015, when I discovered the vinyl amongst the stacks at Lunchbox Records in Charlotte, NC. I was still kind of new to the vinyl game, and made it a habit to take recommendations from the staff at Lunchbox and buy something without listening to it. What I heard when I dropped the needle on side A of the album was a deep, melancholy indie rock sound, which immediately appealed to me. Yet in spite of the record’s title, the band actually delivers a fulfilling and ultimately hopeful gaze into the future. The production is warm, the lyrics thoughtful, and it’s an album that sounds best spinning on 12-inches of wax, as cliché as that may sound. I welcomed the band to my list of artists to watch out for moving forward.

In between albums, the band worked on a split EP with The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die and a proper EP of their own entitled It Kindly Stopped for Me, which has to be one of the most heart-wrenching collection of songs I’ve ever heard, so much so that I remember actually shedding a few tears in my car. Its emotional core, while moving, didn’t pull me in like the LP did, mostly, I’d think, because listening to Kindly was almost too emotionally complicated. Then, in early 2017, it was announced that the band was releasing a proper follow-up in March, called You’re Not As _____ As You Think, a cryptic, yet intriguing title. The announcement included a short trailer, where the band fills in the blank with various words, suggesting a very inclusive connection between band and listener; I was going to be able to decide what the blank was for me, a complicated prospect to say the least. A month later, they debuted the first single–and the album’s opening track–“No Halo,” which hinted at a slightly more upbeat Sorority Noise musically, even if the lyrics still suggested similar struggles with loss and deep sadness.

St. Patrick’s Day 2017 was the release date for the record, and I looked forward to listening to it, especially after having read an interview with lead singer/lyricist Cameron Boucher about the themes of the album. Boucher came across as a thoughtful, introspective guy, and I was even more excited to see what the band had developed over the two years between full length albums. The collection of songs was sonically exactly what “No Halo”–and subsequent singles “A Better Sun” and “Disappeared”–suggested the album would be, and to be fair, the lyrics were the kind of emotionally charged, introspective type that I expected as well; still, something felt off.

That’s sort of where the story takes a turn that you might not have been expecting. This isn’t an album review in the truest sense. In all honestly, I haven’t been able to push myself into a second listen for the record, and I’m not sure I’ve fully reconciled with myself the reasons why, although I have my suspicions. The aforementioned interview in Stereogum featured the following back and forth with Boucher:

STEREOGUM: Let’s talk about what has happened in the past year that inspired the songs on the new album.

BOUCHER: The record deals a lot with loss, and dealing with grief. Religion is another big thing. I was raised Catholic, and I strayed away from the church for a while because I didn’t adhere to a lot of the beliefs they had, social-wise. I’ve always been a God-fearing human, though, albeit with whatever religion is subservient to that belief. I became really good friends with Julien Baker, and she’s very vocal in her beliefs. When I’m at shows, sometimes people would ask me about this cross that I wear on my neck, and I would be like, Yeah, literally what’s wrong with that? Because Julien’s so vocal about her belief, and we became really good friends, that helped me to realize that there was value in that. There is a greater thing to all of this, and I think the record is very interrogative towards faith. I’m asking a lot of questions that I don’t know the answers to, and kind of hoping that someone can answer them for me.

I also had some friends take their lives during the past two years, and a lot of the record is based around dealing with their loss and trying to continue my life, and also live my life as a continuation of theirs.

STEREOGUM: Where do you stand with your religious beliefs today?

BOUCHER: I’d say I’m like a Christian. I’d say I’m like a Christian — that’s a weird way to put it. [laughs] I definitely believe in God, and I think that has helped me deal with the loss of a lot of my friends, knowing that if I believe there’s still a heaven, then my friends are watching and are still with me. If I believed that they were just rotting in the ground, then it’s a lot harder for me to swallow. That’s where I’m at right now. I’m not overtly in people’s faces about it, but it’s something that I believe myself. I pray when I can and I do what I can. But at the same time, we’re not going to mass on Sundays when we tour, and none of my bandmates necessarily share the same viewpoints that I do, so it’s interesting… But it gives me solace, personally.

I guess I should have led with this, and so I’m guilty of burying the lede a little: I am a Christian and my faith and connection to my church life are important pieces of my life. This complicates some of the relationships with the art that I alluded to at the outset, as I am often attracted to types of art that are more driven by wrestling with weighty issues, by doubt, by darkness and introspection. For myriad reasons, art in the Christian world isn’t allowed to do this, and while I would certainly argue that there’s a need for those of us who believe the way I do to be able to find a solid ground to stand on, it often feels disingenuous to me for people to pretend that life–whether you’re a Christian or anything else–is always sunny and optimistic. There’s joy, yes (and personally I know I could tap into that more than I do), but life sometimes kick the crap out of you, and that’s reality, too.

All this to say, seeing this connection between Boucher and myself created a false relationship. I tend to do this: finding out someone shares my faith, even if the connection feels a little too casual, binds me to them in a strange way. And while there’s nothing wrong with doing this per se, I do think it places unnecessary pressure on the art that person is putting out to fit into the box of my own Christianity, something which is obviously also potentially harmful to me, both as a person and a man of faith.

The reason that I suspect that You’re Not As _____ As You Think proved to be so difficult to me is that it really wrestles with faith and loss and anger at both of these in a way that I found uncomfortable; and frankly I didn’t know what to do with that level of honesty. I’ve never lost anyone that close to me like Boucher has, and I think it’s safe to say that I’ve managed to get through the first 32 years of my life without anything nearing that level of trauma in any arena. The truth is that Boucher’s songs are about more eloquent and sophisticated than most emo bands are capable of: he is reflective and honest, but also seemingly fluid in the way he allows these experiences to shape him. And in fairness, his response to the loss of his friend is exactly how I’d like to think I’d react to the same situation. In truth, there are some difficult-to-swallow moments on the record that challenge my belief, some of which, I might argue, border on bad interpretations of truth or even sacrilege. It doesn’t mean, however, that Boucher isn’t allowed to doubt or feel emotions, and that’s what is difficult about this album. My pushback, I deduce, is more based on my concern that I might not even be as strong or faithful as he shows himself to be, even in the midst of his doubt.

I was recently listening to the Don’t Feed The Trolls podcast, starring Matt McDonald of The Classic Crime and Nate Henry of Sherwood, two bands whose music I enjoy and two men whose opinions I find interesting. Both Matt and Nate grew up in Christian households, from what I can tell, and this, as childhoods are wont to do, shaped each of them in various ways. On “Episode 62: Beauty & The Beast,” the guys discussed the “gay moment” in the recent live action re-telling of the classic Disney animated film, but break the argument down to the idea that people–especially those on the Conservative Right side of American politics–create uproars about things like this moment because it reflects on their own fears. In other words, parents are afraid of the “gay moment” in Beauty and the Beast not only because they have a fear that it will somehow turn their kids gay or something along those lines, but also because it sheds light on something they fear about themselves. I’m not sure if I agree with Matt on this, but it is interesting to consider. I know for sure that we are all capable of sin against ourselves or against one another. I’m also certain that the things that bother me about other people are often the things I dislike most about myself. So it feels like the potential is there for Matt’s point to be valid on some levels; but like I said, the plethora of variances involved complicates the issue too much to narrow it into that level of simplification.

All of this–be it from Sorority Noise, the Trolls Podcast or any other art form that I choose to engage with–is pushback of the highest order. I’m not always sure of where I stand on various social issues, and my dipping toes into various forms of expression, both of the Christian and decidedly non-Christian variety, does impress on me the need to solidify my belief system where it matters; to major on the major and minor on the minor, if you will. So it feels like it doesn’t make a lot of sense for me to always flee that which looks negative from the beginning, because there might always be opportunities to engage in conversations with people who see the world differently than I do. This doesn’t mean I can’t be certain about anything in my life, just that I don’t automatically remove people who don’t possess that same level of certainty.