Friday, December 2, 2011

Best Albums of 2011:

As there isn't a whole lot of new music due out the remainder of the year, I thought I'd go ahead and post my "Best Albums of 2011" list.

Having a very wide range of musical taste, I thought I'd post by genre. While there could be much debate as to whether or not each of these albums has been placed into the appropriate genre, I've placed them here per my own personal preference.  Anyway, without any further ado...

Best "Worship" Albums of the Year:
I loathe CCM.  I really do.  Fortunately, however, good worship music (both congregational friendly and non-congregational friendly) continues to thrive, and 2011 was no exception to this.

10,000 Reasons by Matt Redman: There probably isn't a better congregational friendly worship album released this year.  Most solid album by Redman since Facedown.  Definitely worth owning.

Economy by John Mark McMillan: Many folks don't know John Mark McMillan, but if I told you he wrote "How He Loves", you'd say, "Oh, I love that song!"  Well, Economy is everything but "How He Loves", however, the album is a great Rock-worship album.  Not congregationally friendly perhaps, but a fantastic listen!

Brokenness Aside by All Sons and Daughters: When I first heard this 7-track EP I was floored.  Tracks such as "All the Poor and Powerless" are as good (if not better) than Gungor's "This is not the End".  Seriously, it's that good.  I cannot wait to hear what they come out with next.

Worship Album of the Year! - Ghosts Upon the Earth by Gungor: RELEVANT Magazine said Gungor's album was an early pick for album of the year.  They were right.  Ghosts Upon the Earth is 12 tracks of pure amazing songwriting and musicianship.  And unlike many other albums released these days, Ghosts requires you to sit and capture the entire project in one sitting.  A true masterpiece.

Best Singer/Songwriter Albums of the Year:
Love & War and The Sea In Between by Josh Garrels: This album is amazing, and Josh decided to give it away free for one year.  If you haven't downloaded it yet, do it.  Seriously.

Barton Hollow by The Civil Wars: The Civil Wars took years to be noticed, but they kept plugging along.  Now they're nominated for a Grammy and rightfully so.  Fantastic songwriting.  Fantastic vocals. Fantastic album.

Invisible Empires by Sara Groves: If you've never heard Sara Groves before, she's got a huge heart for social justice.  This is well seen on her former albums (in fact, she once recorded a live Christmas concert from within a women's prison and released it for free.)  While Invisible Empires may not be her best work, it's still one of the best albums I've heard this year.

Deeper by JJ Heller: JJ's former album was awful, just awful.  Fortunatly, she's gone back to her stripped down acoustic roots.  And there was much rejoicing.

Mission Bell by Amos Lee: A friend of mine turned me on to this album, and I'm really glad he did.  It's one of the finest pieces in my singer/songwriter collection that I'll be going back to for years to come.

Yearbook Collection by Sleeping at Last:I haven't heard a set of EP's this good since Jon Foreman's 4 Seasons EP's released a few years back.  To be honest, this SaL collection may be one I turn to more often in years to come than Foreman's.  Yes, it's that good.  Definitely worth purchasing the entire collection.

Singer/Songwriter Album of the Year! - Bon Iver by Bon Iver.  This album probably won't be your cup of tea.  Justin Vernon sings in a constant falsetto (as he also did on For Emma, Forever Ago) and the music is far from most radio-friendly music heard today.  Nevertheless, this self-titled effort is so musically creative and well layered that it is probably my most listened to album of the year. 

Best Rock Albums of the Year:

Codes and Keys by Death Cab for Cutie: It's really a shame that Death Cab's non-belief in God is so blatantly apparent throughout this album.  Its' a pretty good project for Death Cab, but not one I'll put in regularly.

Helplessness Blues by Fleet Foxes: Perhaps this album belongs in a "Folk" section, I'm not really sure.  While Fleet Foxes have been compared to a lot of bands of years past, I liken them most to a cross between the Beach Boys and the Mamas and the Papas.  This album has superb songwriting and musicianship

The King is Dead by The Decembersists: Another "folk" album maybe, but The King is Dead is a great project by the Decemberists.  While it's not the quality of Helplessness Blues, it's still worth a good listen.

Nothing is Wrong by Dawes: One of the great mellow southern rock albums of the year.  Dawes may not be your style, but I found this album worth listening to a number of times, and I'm certain I'll hear it a lot more in the months ahead.

The Whole Love by Wilco: Wilco is a very interesting band, but they've been around for years.  And The Whole Love is probably one of the best albums in their career.  If the mood is right, you won't find a better record to listen to than this one.

Vice Verses by Switchfoot: Jon Foreman and Switchfoot do it again! Vice Verses is a great alternative/pop/rock album.  You feel kind of torn as to what genre to place it in (depending on what track you're listening to), but they're able to make it work very well.  If you haven't picked this up, you probably should.

Rock Album of the Year! - The Story of Our Lives by The Violet Burning: It's true.  I could not in good conscious put forth a different "Rock album of the year" than this one.  Michael Pritzl's 34 track - 3 cd - box set compilation is as good as it gets. 

Let me know what I missed in the comments below!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Why All Christians Should Love Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3

After reading this blog the other day…I figured what the heck.  So without further ado, here are the top reasons as to why all Christians ought to be as excited as all get-out about Modern Warfare 3:

  1. The soldiers speak culturally relevant language.  Sure, the game is rated “M” for mature, but have you really read the bible recently.? People getting hacked to pieces, Jesus calling the Pharisees “Sons of Snakes!”…I mean the list goes on and on.  Not only that, but the language often spoken by the soldiers is clear and direct, often with a one point message, just like the parables of Jesus.
  2. MW3 offers campaigns in which you and your “brothers” must go into battle together.  Isn’t this what the real world is like?  Our battle may not be against flesh and blood, but having Modern Warfare 3 is an excellent training exercise for the real battle that lingers as soon as we leave the confines of our Christian homes.  And since Jesus commanded us to evangelize, we better get in as much brotherly training as possible.
  3. Unlike the crappy binding on many bibles today, CoD: MW3 comes in a plastic case guaranteed to last a lifetime.  While future gaming consoles will come and go, your purchase of MW3 is pretty much guaranteed to last an eternity...which will always remind you of your assurance of salvation.
  4. MW3 is a surefire guarantee to help you instill better character and grow in the Fruit of the Spirit.  You are guaranteed to be placed into difficult situations where you must “love” those who “kill” your friends (or “brothers”), you will experience joy in victory, and will ultimately be put to the test in maintaining self-control.
  5. Like #2 above, our beloved US soldiers always fight “for God and Country”.  Again, this is excellent training for real life.  We should all be putting God first in our lives, and the campaigns offered in MW3 provide excellent insight as to how we can all be putting God first in our lives, even when suffering through the most extreme circumstances possible.
All in all, I’m at least 17% convinced that playing CoD: MW3 is as good or better than reading the Bible itself.  After I engage in some more intense gameplay, there’s at least a 50-50 chance that percentage will go up.  It may not appeal to the masses, but neither does the KJV.  Yet every home has a copy of a KJV somewhere, and CoD: MW3 ought to be sitting directly beside it for generations to come.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Ghosts Upon the Earth:

Let me get this out of the way now: if you're looking for a "worship" album that contains a few songs that are easy to sing along while you're driving down the highway, this album is not for you.  However, if you're looking for something to really LISTEN to, something that provides some of the best instrumentation, powerful lyrics, and an overall taste of the best collective songwriting possible, stop reading this right now and go buy Gungor's latest album, "Ghosts Upon the Earth".

Gungor attacks themes such as creation, death, the afterlife, and even wrongful biblical teaching, and accomplishes all of this with lyrics and music that have a "faith like a child" feel to them.  It's beautifully, artistically, and painfully impressive all at once.  It's an album that will have you in deep worship one moment, and in a challenging self-retrospective state the next -- and then back again.  It's almost as if Gungor intentionally set-out to bring the listener into a state of worship, then challenge their perception of God, and bring them to an even greater moment of worship as album closes.  A truly remarkable accomplishment.

"Ghosts Upon the Earth" is truly one of the greatest albums of 2011. Enjoy!

To read all about the album, check out Gungor's blog.  This will give you the opportunity to have all lyrics on-hand as you listen.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Righting Wrongs:

At this time there are approximately 7 Billion people on earth.  That's 7,000,000,000.  It's a lot.  It's much more than most people would care to count.  In fact, if you live to the age of 70, your heart will beat approximately 2.8 Billion times. So if you really want to count that high you'd better be counting faster than your heart will beat.

Currently, I've lived less than 1/2 of that.  But I've discovered something that all people on this earth discover.  Not everybody thinks the same way I do.  Not everybody has the same convictions I do.  If I broke it down to Christians only, there would still be countless numbers of people who have written or said something I disagree with.  And on many, many occasions, I have become frustrated with them, sometimes to the point of anger.

When I listen to someone give a great message via podcast, and then I read a book or blog they write that seems to completely contradict what I heard in the message, I get frustrated.  When a blog writer has an amazing post about loving others and then three days later writes a long verbal assault against someone who has different scriptural or political convictions...I get frustrated.  And sadly, when I read/hear these kinds of things I myself have been greatly tempted to speak against them, because, well....they were wrong!  It was obvious! (I justify to myself).  And strangely, my thought of them being wrong somehow caused me personally to feel wronged by them.

However, over the past 4-6 weeks I've spent some time meditating on two scripture passages in particular.  One is a short passage in the love chapter: 1 Corinthians 13.  As Paul is defining what love looks like he slips something in I don't like very much.  Something I've come to realize I've had a difficult time living out in my own life.  He writes, love "keeps no record of wrongs."

People have wronged me.  A few have wronged me deeply.  And it's so, so easy for me to continue to hold it against them.  But love keeps no record of wrongs.

The second passage is Matthew 6:14-15.  Jesus says, "For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins."  Ouch.

My meditation on these passages has led me to one ultimate conclusion: If Jesus is Love then 1 Cor. 13 is one of the best chapters to meditate on to figure out how to live like Jesus.  Jesus keeps no records of wrongs. If I have wronged him and he is keeping no record of that, should I not be living in the same manner toward others?  Others may cut me, wound me, spread lies about me, and in the end they may really be wrong.  But as a follower of Jesus I am commanded to keep no record of wrongs.  You are commanded the same.

In light of this, I would like to propose a challenge.  Think of somebody who has wronged you.  Maybe recently.  Maybe years ago.  Maybe it's somebody you've never even met.  Nevertheless, take the opportunity to re-read 1 Corinthians 13 many times over, and as you do so, adapt it a little bit for your own situation.

For example:
"If I speak in the tongues of men or angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal."

Here, Paul focuses on the importance of speech.  Am I truly speaking in love?  Or am I only a resounding gong or clanging cymbal?

"Love is patient, love it kind."

God is patient toward me.  God is kind toward me.

Am I patient toward *person who wronged me*?  Am I kind toward *person who wronged me*?  Do I speak kindly about *person who wronged me*?

"Love does not dishonor others..."

God does not dishonor me.  Am I doing/saying/writing anything that dishonors *person who wronged me*?

Read all of 1 Corinthians 13 this way.  Really reflect on what's written.  Like me, I am certain others have wronged you deeply.  But meditating on this passage may just help you to love them in ways you never thought possible.  And you may just find you're able to truly forgive others who have done nothing truly deserving forgiveness.

1 Corinthians 13
If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.  If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, u but do not have love, I gain nothing. 

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. 

But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Ghosts Upon the Earth:

Due out September 20, is Gungor's "Ghosts Upon the Earth".  The official trailer (video) for the album project is below.  Full review will come once I've had a chance to listen through the entire project.  From what I've heard thus far, this may very well be the best album of 2011.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Scientific Naturalism, Atheism, and God:

“I try to read all books on a subject. You know, try to get all the facts...and then decide for myself what really happened.” Kevin Spacey in Negotiator

This is a subject I’ve wanted to write about for a long, long time.  And admittedly, it’s not a subject I’ve read “all” the books on, as this would be an impossible task.  Nevertheless, I’ve read more books and articles than most and have had numerous conversations with others as well.  All this reading and research has led me to conclude that the amount of evidence for God, even more specifically, the Christian God, is far weightier than evidence against.  And while I’ll be sure to mention a few of these pieces of evidence as I write through this post, I’m initially inclined to write about what doesn’t make sense in the Naturalistic/Atheistic case.  While the case for Naturalism does have some scientific merit behind it, there are aspects to a Naturalistic worldview that just don’t add up.

I separate these two categories of Naturalism/Atheism for a couple of reasons.  The main reason is that not all atheists are Naturalists.  I recently listened to a debate between a Christian philosopher and an Atheist and the Atheist ceded the point that the definition and even evidence of a G/god provided by his debater were very good.  What it boiled down to was he just didn’t like the Christian God. He acknowledged the evidence for a G/god, agreed that it was difficult to counter, but then spoke for 30 minutes about what he didn’t like about this G/god.  He didn’t use Naturalistic arguments at all (which was evidence of him not personally being a Naturalist).  I found his argument fascinating, as he all but ceded the point that a G/god very well may exist based on the evidence.  However, it is true (at least I’m 99.9% certain it’s true) that all Naturalistic thinkers are atheists.  But because of the former, I’ve decided to separate these two groups for the time being.

As we dive into this post, I’d like to begin by stating what I’ve come to understand Naturalism to teach.  If you would happen to be reading this and believe that I’ve come to some misunderstand, feel free to highlight areas of disagreement.  But I’m going to provide quotes from some Naturalistic/Atheistic thinkers to help support my understandings.  With that said, here is a brief list of what Naturalism teaches:

1)      Scientism (or empiricism) is the only way we can really “know” anything.  All knowledge is based on what one can see, hear, taste, touch, and smell.  It’s all based on the 5 senses.  If it can’t be proven with the 5 senses, we can’t know whether it’s real (or true) or not.

My understanding on this comes from this quote by Sellars from the University of Pittsburgh, when he said, “Science is the measure of all things.”  There are many, many other quotes I could use on this understanding as well, but this should be sufficient for now.  This is, indeed, the most common view of Scientific Naturalism, and as you will see below this view doesn’t allow for morality, purpose, or free will.

2)  Naturalism does not allow for any purpose/meaning in life.  Everything in life is random and there is no real meaning to anything.  I once asked an atheist friend of mine what, if anything, the purpose of life is and he said, “There is no real purpose in life.  The only real purpose there is that we procreate so the human species may continue to evolve.”

Another quote on this comes from Stephen J. Gould. He was once asked about the meaning of life, his answer was: “The human species has only inhabited the world for only a quarter of a million years.  1/15 of 1% of the history of life…this fact makes our appearance look more like an accidental afterthought than the accumulation of a prefigured plan.  Moreover, the pathways that have led to our evolution are quirky, improbable, unrepeatable, and utterly unpredictable.  Wind life’s tape back again to the dawn of time, play it again, and you will never get human beings a second time.”

The downfall of this view is that this essentially means there are no morals.  Morality, in essence, is created by man as a form of control.   If not control, it is created only to help the human species continue to thrive.  Check out this article for an understanding of this view of morality. 

Strangely enough, however, there is a higher morality that all human beings are well aware of.  There are, quite simply, things we all know we ought not do.  Torturing a child would be one of them.  There are dozens of things all humans know we ought not do, and I would argue we know these things because there is a God who has given us a firm understanding of the knowledge of good and evil.  Without a higher morality given to us by God, morality is a man-made invention.

 Again, Gould states, “You may long for a higher answer, but none exists.”

Additionally, Carl Sagan stated, “The cosmos is all there is, was, or ever will be.”  I’ve read many other quotes and articles as well, and can assure you this position is very central to Scientific Naturalism.

Jeffry Dahmer understood this argument well when he said, “If a personal doesn't think there is a God to be accountable to, then --then what's--what's the point of--of trying to modify your behavior to keep it within acceptable ranges? That's how I thought, anyway.  I always believed the theory of evolution as truth, that we all just came from the slime. When we die, you know, that was it, there is nothing..." Dahmer also admitted that this was why he did what he did. If he had certain desires, why should he give in to those desires if there was no purpose behind his actions anyway? If he was only going to turn back to slime, why not do whatever it was he wanted to do to satisfy his desires?  The wonderful thing about this example is the more he thought about it, the more convinced he became that God existed, and eventually he was converted to Christianity.

Against this position of there being no higher morality I would argue that humans ask about purpose and meaning because deep down we know there is a purpose and a meaning to what we do.  If there wasn’t, morality was simply created by man, and there is no real higher morality.  (Note: this is another area where atheism and Scientific Naturalism differ.  Many atheists believe in morality, but most will attempt to use the sciences to explain it, and few – if any – have made a good argument as to where morality comes from if it’s not manmade.  The simple answer from an atheist is, “Morality, like everything else, has always been here.”  But as I’ll highlight below, this argument fails as well.)

3)        A Naturalistic worldview does not allow for a beginning of all things.

I once asked an atheist friend how everything in the universe began.  The answer I received was (like morality), “We just need to accept that it’s always been here.”  This is, in general, the most likely response one receives when asking this question.  Unfortunately, there’s a problem with this viewpoint. 

Let’s say that this graph here represents the general space/time continuum as we know it.  Earth (or where the universe is at this moment) is represented by the X on the line.


The Naturalistic and atheistic argument made is, “we need to accept that it’s ‘always’ been here”.  In other words, the universe has been around since infinity years ago.  The problem with this view is that it’s completely impossible to cross infinity to get to where we are right now on the continuum.  Check out the chart above.  It’s simply impossible to cross an infinite period of time and get to where we are today.  Without a starting point somewhere, we would never get to where we are today.  (Modern day Naturalists recognize this argument, by the way, and don’t yet have an answer for it other than, “We’re getting there.”  But the Judeo-Christian worldview of “There has to be a beginning somewhere,” makes sense on this account.)

Modern-day Naturalists are now being to formulate a theory that a universe (or universes in general) are able to create themselves out of nothing, but then nothing within that universe is able to spontaneously create itself.  This is very new thought in the Naturalistic field, and hasn’t fully gained traction yet.  But because there isn’t a good answer to the question of when/how/where did everything come from, Naturalistic thinkers are doing their best to answer these questions, they’re just falling short at this time.
     4)  Scientific Naturalism does not allow for free will.  This is one of the big ones for me, personally.  Naturalism simply does not permit the freedom of the will.  One cannot choose to like beer, or ice cream, or pizza, or blueberries.  Everything is an automatic response that must be done but isn’t actually chosen by an individual.  This idea is called determinism.  It is determined whether one loves their spouse, children, others, but they cannot choose to do so on their own.  Everything is an automatic response due to previous environments one has been a part of in the past, and the current environment.

Quotes on this come from two different well known Scientific Naturalists.  Berkeley states, “Our conception of physical reality does not allow for the existence of freedom of the will.”  And Provine states, “Free will, as it has traditionally been conceived, simply does not exist.”

This view from a Scientific Naturalism worldview is very much the nail in the coffin for me.  If there is no free will, no one is (or should be) responsible for any of their actions.  Again, the consequences of this viewpoint are profound.

I could go on and write so much more but I think this gives a good picture of my current understanding of scientific naturalism.  Again, I emphasize that Naturalism/Atheism are not the same.   Yet many atheists I’ve communicated with use the sciences to explain their understanding of these topics.  Now, I’ll quickly write about why I believe in God.

1)    There is much more out there than what the 5 senses (Scientism) allows.  As a pastor I have had dozens of conversations with others about things that have happened that had no scientific explanation whatsoever.  Whether it be someone being able to suddenly speak in another language, visible appearances of angels and/or demons, or something as complicated as a stroke victim who’s brain was completely destroyed suddenly reviving to full health, these dozens of conversations I’ve had add up to much more than coincidence.

When a bone in a human body is completely broken and 30 minutes later is not, it’s not a coincidence.  When a husband receives word that his wife will die within 24-48 hours and there’s nothing at all that can be done about it, and she suddenly revives, it’s not a coincidence.  When thousands of people around the world hear missionaries preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and suddenly realize Jesus is the One who’s been communicating to them in their dreams, it’s not a coincidence…and this is happening today in droves.  And finally, when demonic activity occurs, is visibly seen by dozens of witnesses and is cast out, it’s not a coincidence, and it’s never something the sciences or 5 senses are able to adequately explain.
2)    There is purpose and meaning to life.  Believing that our only purpose is to procreate for the survival of the species really has no meaning behind it. 

On this subject, a few months ago I learned of an atheist who began attending our congregation a few years ago.  Her then 8-year old son came to her and wanted to go to church.  She figured it was a phase and began bringing him to our congregation.  But he wanted to come back…again and again and again.  After a while she heard the song Amazing Grace during one of our times of worship.  At that moment, the gospel message simply made more sense to her than her former atheistic beliefs and she converted to Christianity.

I could write more about this, but will simply let you decide the consequences of living in a world with no meaning whatsoever.

3)  There is a beginning to all things.  The universe as we know it had to have a creator at some point in time.  While there are many, many views as to what all happens between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2 and the time periods between then and the 7 “days” of creation, it surely makes more sense that an uncreatable Creator began everything at a set point in history.  Again, it’s impossible to completely cross an infinite period of time.

Additionally, all the “fuel” in the universe is burning up.  At some point in the future, all heat will cease to exist in the entire universe.  At this point, absolute zero will occur and all movement will stop.  This “fuel” had to come from somewhere.  And because of what I wrote in #1 (in this section) and #3 (in the above section) , it makes the most sense that God placed the fuel in the tank.

4)  I like blueberries.  I don’t like other foods.  I love my wife and my children.  This is not an automatic response to my current environment as Scientific Naturalism teaches.  It’s a choice.  I can choose to not love others if I want to.  But because there is a firm meaning to life, I choose to love others, and will continue to do so.

Finally, I believe we can “know” God.  While Naturalism/atheism teaches there is no G/god, it is agnosticism that teaches we will never really know whether there is a G/god or not.  But scripture teaches as much (maybe even more) about knowing God than about faith/belief.  Christianity isn’t about blind faith, it’s about believing in a God who can be known to be true.  We only have to decide whether we want to choose to know him or not.