Here is a downloadable version of a piece I wrote for the most recent edition of Last Frontier Magazine.
These days there seems to be a great division between two camps of thinkers, particularly in the Western world. Side one argues that Islam is a religion of peace, and we should welcome oppressed foreigners in our midst regardless of religion. The other side claims that many Muslims are terrorists and we need to protect ourselves from their overbearing influence and potential danger to our way of life. I take issue with both of these perspectives for different reasons, but let me take a slightly more personal detour to make a central point:
I love being associated with Christ. Jesus is, to me, the most fascinating, wonderful, brilliant, person to ever walk the earth. Everything in me wants to be as much like him as possible. Unfortunately, all too often, my life does not look like His. In fact, in many ways, the entire religion of Christianity has ventured from His likeness. Some of that is out of willful disobedience and some is due to the simple fact that it’s hard to sustain a movement like the one Jesus started without eventually boxing it into one particular form or size or structure. We often fail to accurately represent Jesus to the world.
.Gandhi said “I like Christ; I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”…John Lennon said, “Jesus was alright, but His disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.”.
All this to say, while there are many things about the organization of Christianity that make me proud to be found among its ranks, there are also a lot of things “our people” say and do that make me want to separate myself from the institution. I know there are many people who reach a similar conclusion, although they may journey there in a very different way than I do.What I’m getting at is that I don’t want to be judged by my association with a religion. I want to be judged by my likeness to Jesus. (And I’ll be the first to admit, as I already have, that I have a long way to go in reaching that reality.)Today, all across the world, Islam is on the rise. A couple weeks ago I read an article that said if current trends continue, by 2050 the number of Muslims will equal the number of Christians on the planet. All of us, and particularly those of us who are followers of Jesus, need to determine how we are going to approach the topic. Here is my genius suggestion: stop approaching it like a topic and start treating Muslims like people.
In the same way that I don’t care to be lumped into whatever stereotypes people hold about Christianity, I don’t think it’s fair to talk about Muslims as one complete, uniformed entity. We can evaluate Islam as a religion, just as we can evaluate Christianity as a religion. But in the same way that there are many Christians who do not look like Christ (I’m on the journey myself), there are many Muslims who do not hold to the fundamental tenants of Islam.
Many of the Muslims we currently live amongst are, like all of us, products of their cultural environment, and their ties to Islam are about as close as many American country singers’ ties are to Christianity. My neighbors are peace loving, generous, hospitable people. I feel safer walking the streets of downtown Beirut at night than I did in any of the American cities we have previously lived in. I had never been asked by the owner of a convenience store to come inside and sit down for a cup of coffee until I moved to the Arab world.So how do we respond to Muslims? The same way we respond to any human being made in the image of God: with love. With sincerity. With concern for their physical and spiritual needs. Not just with words to speak, but also with ears to hear. I’d say the Pope did a good job upholding these ideals in his recent exchange with a group of migrants in Europe.
Nabell Qureshi was born in Pakistan to Muslim parents, but as he grew up he explored the claims of Christ and ultimately became His follower. He currently works with author and apologist Ravi Zacharias. In one recent article,he says this:
If we want to know how to respond, if we want to understand what the security risk is, both internal and external in the United States… we need to understand what Islam is versus who Muslims are, otherwise we’ll just get caught up in this rhetoric.
Let’s not get caught up in the rhetoric. Let’s not add to the noise. Let’s love like Jesus.
In the spring of 2006 some dear childhood friends of ours, Casey & Shayle DenBleyker, were moving from Kansas City and heading toward the pacific northwest to chase a vague dream associated with better views
and finer coffee. (Or so I like to think.) Their journey was prefacing our own relocation to Boston, causing us all to collide with joint sobriety and excitement. Leaving will do that to you.
A few days before their departure, we drove together up to Parkville, just north of the city, and sat along the banks of the Missouri River, a winding, muddy body of water that has long served as a metaphor of desire for myself, Mark Twain, Lewis & Clark, and many others along the way. I opened to the first pages of a book by Donald Miller called Through Painted Deserts, which wonderfully chronicles his road trip from “old” home in Dallas, Texas to “new” home in Portland, Oregon. Miller’s words captured me enough that I think it’s worth including a longer portion of them here.
“And so my prayer is that your story will have involved some leaving and some coming home, some summer and some winter, some roses blooming out like children in a play. My hope is your story will be about changing, about getting something beautiful born inside of you about learning to love a woman or a man, about learning to love a child, about moving yourself around water, around mountains, around friends, about learning to love others more than we love ourselves, about learning oneness as a way of understanding God. We get one story, you and I, and one story alone. God has established the elements, the setting and the climax and the resolution. It would be a crime not to venture out, wouldn’t it?
It might be time for you to go. It might be time to change, to shine out.
I want to repeat one word for you: Leave.
Roll the word around on your tongue for a bit. It is a beautiful word, isn’t it? So strong and forceful, the way you have always wanted to be. And you will not be alone. You have never been alone. Don’t worry.
Everything will still be here when you get back. It is you who will have changed.”
― Donald Miller, Through Painted Deserts: Light, God, and Beauty on the Open Road
Tonight I write on the eve of our departure to Beirut, Lebanon. Marisa and I have been carrying the dream of this move for almost 15 years, so tomorrow is a true fulfillment. However, a few hours ago, as I was hugging my niece and nephew who were crying the type of tears you would quite literally do anything to stop, the cost came into full view. Not just Marisa’s cost, or Lincoln’s cost, but the cost for the family that remains – grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, siblings… As we drove out, I remembered what Jesus said about these type of moments: “Anyone who sacrifices home, family, fields, whatever – because of me will get it all back a hundred times over.” There is some true consolation in that, but it doesn’t in any way lift the weight of what it means to go.
Leaving is exciting and full of possibility, but it’s also risky. More than that, it can be downright hard, particularly if you genuinely like the place you are setting off from. I sat on the couch across from my brother-in-law tonight who was confessing how normal our closing moments were feeling even though it seems they should be so much more epic. That seems to often be the case in monumental chapters of life (I recall being particularly let down by the normalcy of my high school graduation). But that’s no reason to stop chasing those dreams that only exist out there in the cloudy, foggy, grey unknown. After all, who wants to be boring or predictable?
It doesn’t have to be a geographical move, though it could be. It’s often simply a repositioning of your heart and soul.
There is a quote by Victor Hugo that stares down from the south side of the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. It reads, “The soul has greater need of the ideal than the real. For by the real we exist; by the ideal we (truly) live.” I will spend my life clinging to the ideal while enjoying the way it shows up in the real. I will keep leaving, whatever that looks like, however near or far, however slight of an adjustment or major an upheaval. I really do believe that the best is yet to come, and while contentment in the present is a wonderful, necessary grounding place, maybe the most orderly, normal existence, as exemplified by the God-created universe itself, is to risk. To change. To expand.
Perhaps it’s time for you too… to “lose all the life (you’ve) been storing…”
I feel inclined to leave this song open to a freer interpretation, as several conversations I’ve had about it have gone various directions, and I’d like to keep it that way. Thus, I’ll keep the commentary simple.
I read a highly recommended book last year called The War of Art, and in it author Steven Pressfield challenges artists and creatives of all kinds to face the “Resistence” between who they are and who they could be… and to overcome it without excuse. He explains, “We are not born with unlimited choices… Our job in this lifetime is not to shape ourselves into some ideal that we imagine we ought to be, but to find
out who we already are and become it.” That process reads very romantically but lives out very sacrificially, doesn’t it?
I hesitate to call myself an artist.
Maybe it’s because of the stereotypes that come with it. Maybe it’s because I don’t give myself to that artistic expression on a full-time vocational basis, and somewhere inside me I think I should. Most likely, it’s simply because if I call myself an artist, I embrace the inherent pressure to create and be creative… and that accountability is some high pressure stuff (that’s right, I said “stuff,” lay off me).
Maybe it’s just to fuel my momentum against Resistance, but I like to imagine everyone in the world waiting for some of the songs and stories inside of me to emerge. We spend so much effort trying to perfect our voice before we make it heard, but perhaps instead we should raise our voice and find it in the process. There is a war to making art of any kind, and I would argue that if you are holding back on the creative expression inside of yourself, you’re limiting God’s own creative expression in the earth. What if He deposited the next “Blowing In the Wind” or To Kill A Mockingbird or poverty-eliminating business idea inside of you, but your own insecurity – your constant complicating – your self-imposed distraction – is keeping it buried inside?
Everyone’s here, and they’re waiting… Start acting like a son and sing.
I have a tendency to overthink things. (I explain the idea slightly more eloquently in another song I wrote, called “Validation” from the album Moratorium.)
The final year we were in Boston, we lived in a small apartment that was part of a brownstone building dating back another century or so. It overlooked the harbor and gave us quite the view of the sun setting over the manmade mountains downtown. You know, the kind of scene that brings life into perspective.
“The (un)Examined Life” was inspired by that perspective, found with unusual clarity on the third story of 185 Webster St. as I battled another evening of mind games with myself. The hammer smashing the magnifying glass is my attempt to get rid of those complications and lay hold of the simple thankfulness that makes powerful people.
Socrates famously said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” I love this quote and the way it convicts people out of mediocrity and thoughtlessness. It’s a good foundation for philosophical thinking.
Cornel West, a modern American philosopher and professor, added his own spin, saying, “The unexamined life is not worth living, but the examined life is painful.” When you actually choose to fight your own apathy and engage in tough questions, you simultaneously open yourself up to disappointment and despair. To question is to revolt, and typically that involves some sacrifices to your comfort. That’s why a lot of people would rather just keep from examining things… which leads us to a conclusion of sorts.
Samuel Clemons, better known as Mark Twain, did his fair share of examining life; often making comical observations that demonstrated a philosophical insight and social commentary that few (next to Bill Watterson of Calvin and Hobbes fame) have been able to replicate. Twain said, “The unexamined life may not be worth living, but the life too closely examined may not be lived at all.”
Leave it to Sam Clemons to remind us to examine life, but not to the extent that we fail to actually live it. That’s the kind of life I want.
After Marisa graduated from law school in Boston, along with a good portion of her family, we headed a few hours further northeast to a little cottage on the ocean. In fact, Lubec, the town we were staying in, marks the eastern most point of the contiguous United States. We looked forward to being the first people in America to see the sunrise, but we encountered a majority of rain instead. No worries, it was still quite beautiful.
We arrived late in the afternoon, and I woke up early the next day to take a walk along the water. I saw a small peninsula off in the distance, and determined that I would reach the end of it before turning around. As I walked, I started singing about the eastern ocean meeting the land, reflecting on four challenging and inspiring years in Boston that was about to end with our impending move back home to Alaska in another month. I was grasping for words to encapsulate the ways that I had changed and grown over our time in the northeast, hoping that it looked something like a shift from “servant boy” to “dreaming man.”
As I walked along the beach and toward the start of the peninsula, the rain started coming down a little harder, and the wind picked up with a slight threat. I ducked my head and pressed on, raising my voice a little louder and allowing the weather patterns to provide the lyrical content: “Heaven’s rain is pouring down, more is lost and less is found, there’s still a storm I’m ready to confound.”
By the time I reached the peak of the peninsula, the tide was rushing in and I knew I had my work cut out for me in getting back to the cottage in one piece. But I felt untamed and ready to take on the wind (perhaps with the slight inspiration of Lieutenant Dan). I stared defiantly at the Atlantic Ocean and cranked out the bridge: “Your eyes as wide as the sea, no fear that you have to flee, your purpose: possibility.”
Long story short, I made the return journey (evidenced by my writing today). I closed the back door of the cottage and rushed to the bedroom, quickly transcribing the lyrics before I lost them, the paper smudged with the remnants of the rain and ocean water on my clothes.
The song was complete, and so was our time where the eastern ocean meets the land.
This song didn’t even originally make the short list for the album, but my brother talked me into including it. Thank him or blame him for the final result.
I like listening to author and apologist Ravi Zacharias, partly because he is a phenomenal thinker/speaker and partly because I enjoy having my mind blown from time to time. As those pieces of my brain slowly drift back to earth post-explosion, I feel somehow lighter and heavier at the same time. I highly recommend the experience.
I especially like what Ravi says in response to the question of life’s meaning:
“What brings meaning is when you can combine a sense of wonder, under-girded by truth, experiencing the richness of love, with the knowledge of security.”
In his teaching, Ravi connects each of these four elements to corresponding seasons of life: wonder in childhood, truth in the college years, love in one’s middle age, and security as an elder. I wrote this song quite simply because I wanted to remember the elements. You can hear the flow if you listen through the verses and encounter a character of some kind (maybe the same one as he ages) at each stage of life. Ultimately Ravi suggests there is only one person who effectively encompasses all of these elements – that would be Jesus the Christ.
The chorus talks about the setting sun being beautified by the pollution that acts as a thin curtain in front of it. This idea emerged as I meditated on Ravi’s words and shot back in my mind to time I spent years ago in his home nation, India. The sunsets in the large cities were so striking, but were contaminated and thus felt somehow cheapened by the fact that the intense smog created much of that dynamic effect.
I’d say that’s a decent metaphor for discerning the meaning of life, but I’ll let you decide for yourself. (And if you disagree, you can talk to my brother about that as well.)
My good friend Shawn VanTassel joined my brother and I in the studio early on when we were finishing the scratch tracks and starting the drums. We were currently working on “Legacy,” and he made an off-hand suggestion that we use the heartbeat of my baby, currently in utero, as a metronome for the track. Now that’s a clever idea, Shawn. Most likely the best one you’ll ever have. (I kid, I kid…)
It was a big deal to hear that heartbeat. We had a miscarriage a year prior, and I still remember the immediacy of the shift from joy to sorrow when there was no pulse on the initial sonogram. The strong, steady heartbeat of this new, growing, tiny human was reassuring on a number of levels, and it is incredibly special to be able to share it with my son (as he turned out to be) once he’s old enough to care. The heartbeat heard on this track is recorded from the first time I heard it.
I really wanted to write an epic song for my first child, but I got stuck repeating a few of the opening lines and couldn’t manage to finish it, likely because I wanted it to be perfect. That’s probably part of the reason I left this at one verse and one chorus… there is no miracle that compares to this one, and I didn’t want to mess it up. Lucky for me, more breakthrough came in my family when my brother and sister in law, who had been trying to get pregnant for nearly a decade, discovered they had twins (and more cousins for my son) on the way. The chorus flowed freely from there:
We are prophets of a future not our own (tip hat to Oscar Romero)
We are children of a promise crowned upon us long ago (thanks, Father Abraham)
There’s a seed inside my family that’s growing wild (cheers to the Chud/Pepperd clans)
And this legacy is yours, my child (that’s for you, Lincoln David)
Lately I’ve been a little obsessed with the Humans of New York project, in which a very normal guy has started a wildly successful photo blog that simply pauses to bring notice to every day people and the stories they are found in (currently taking place in Iran). I love the way it has forced Brandon Stanton, the photographer, to see and savor the very “normal” moments that everyone else passes by.
I remember encountering a similar sentiment when I devoured Ken Gire’s book, Windows of the Soul, and particularly his reflections on springtime, which was conveniently taking place outside as I read. I started to realize all the lessons to be learned within the story nature was telling on a routine basis. Chief among them: in the thick of winter, when everything is dead, it’s hard to even fathom the notion of everything turning green again. But every year the miracle happens. Life resurrects. And every year I’m surprised.
To me, the rising sun in springtime operates a lot like the grace. There’s nothing you can do but wait for it to happen, but it’s inevitable that it will. Grace is tricky and mysterious and hard to get ahold of. It doesn’t quite make predictable sense, but it tells the most beautiful stories.
I met a friend for donuts every Monday at 6 am for a year or two while living in Kansas City. I loved the feeling of getting up before sunrise (once I had the first round of coffee in me), and driving home I carried a strange pride at the fact that most people were only now beginning their day while I was already well into it. I also began to make observations on those “normal” moments. That’s how the first lyrics emerged:
“When the shadows are long, when the day meets the dawn,
you’ll find me singing along with you, waiting for grace to rise.”
Props to Kara Pennington, a multi-talented friend who has the tender, piercing voice that accompanies this track. She also sings one of my favorite lines on the project: “I never knew it could be so beautiful and still so gray.” That’s spring for you, and that’s the glory of life on the edge of the in between.