“Mercury” from Sufjan Stevens’ new Planetarium Album

Sufjan Stevens’ newest project, Planetarium, has him teamed up with classical music composer Nico Muhly and Bryce Dessner from The National. In this album, Sufjan has taken the cosmos as his inspiration to write a series of songs that range the gamut across several styles, but all sharing an unmistakable texture that evokes…otherness.

This recording for NPR of Mercury, the album closer, is absolutely beautiful.

On Recognizing Truth

I’m going to keep this fairly short, as I’m not quite sure I have a huge coherent essay or anything planned for this.

The past year has been an interesting one.  I moved away from home.  There’s a lot more to that then I thought there would be.  I moved away from my family.  I moved away from my friends.  I moved away from acquaintances and coworkers.  I moved away from things I was involved in outside of work.  I moved away from the map in my head that let me get around very quickly.  I moved away from that coffee shop I like so much.  I moved away from my past.

Moving is actually a pretty traumatic loss if you think about it.  Especially if it’s the first time and you do it alone.  I found it really difficult.  Shift work also complicated my efforts to re-establish all those things here in Winnipeg.  It’s hard to build relationships with people when you’re not on a Monday to Friday, 9-5 schedule.

As a result, I’ve spent a lot of time doing two things: playing guitar and talking to God.  We’ll leave the guitar for another time.

Moving has probably been the #1 best thing for my faith ever.  The intense loneliness that I struggled with forced me to really explore my prayer life and really open up to and talk to God.  I learned how guarded I was against God in what I would and wouldn’t tell him.  I had to open up to Him, and it’s been one of the best things to happen to me.

God works if you let Him, and He did a pretty good job of fixing the whole lonely thing.  I still may not have had a lot of people around, and I was lonely in a “I miss people” way, but not in a “I’m completely alone” way.  This new depth to my faith introduced a lot of new struggles that I have had to deal with and that I am still dealing with, mostly centered around the balance between serving and taking time for myself, where things fit in my life and what I should be spending my time on, and greater issues of inequality around the world.  Being a Christian is not an easy thing.

I’ve been searching for answers to these questions.  Listening all the time for something that might help me figure it out, and this, this here is what I want to share.

No, I’m not going to tell the answers I’ve found.  I think the journey of finding some of those answers is equally important to the answers themselves.  I’ve found some of the answers in the Bible.  I’ve found some of the answers in Donald Miller’s Searching For God Knows What.  I’ve found some of the answers in conversations with both Christians and non-Christians.  I’ve found some of the answers at one of the churches I attend, saint benedict’s table.  I’ve found some answers while taking walks around the city.  I’ve found some answers on the side of the highway.  I’ve found answers in my relationship with my girlfriend.  I’ve found answers through prayer.  I’ve found answers in music.

The point is, I’ve found a lot of answers in a lot of different places.  Pieces that fit together and help make sense of everything.  How these pieces are given look drastically different.  Lyrics in a song are very different from a beautiful tree.  Words on a page are very different from giving somebody a piece of your heart.  A conversation over coffee is very different from driving alone down a highway at night.  Going to Church is very different from watching a T.V. show with friends.  However, one thing that is the same is that God is present in all these places, and he speaks through all these places.

And here is what I’ve learned.

There is a part of us that is hardwired to hear God.  Sometimes we need to work to dust it off and get it working again, but it’s there.  And it is the coolest thing ever.  God’s word is Truth.  And the neat this is that since we’ve been created in such a way that we’re wired to hear God, we’re wired to hear Truth.  And that’s what I’ve learned.  I’ve found answers in all these places because God has spoken in all these places.  He’s been walking with me and listening to my questions and prayers and He’s responding to me.  And despite how drastically his voice has sounded, be it words on a page, a random thought that pops into my head that has no way of being my own, a fun evening with friends, or a melody in a song, there is that part of me in the deep regions of my soul that just knows that it’s Truth.  Just knows that that what I’m hearing is right and I need to pay attention to it.

It doesn’t matter what it looks like, you’ll recognize Truth when you hear it.  We’re made to.

When I came to this realization I started thinking about the church I go to that I mentioned earlier, saint benedict’s table.  It holds a very special place for me; I have fond memories of my first time going, and they spoke to me in a way that I desperately needed to be spoken to when I initially went.  I look forward to going every time I can.  I seem to meet God there almost every time I go, and I find the teaching incredibly spiritually nourishing.

It’s an Anglican service done in an Anglican church that follows the Anglican liturgy.  Jamie Howison, the priest who ministers the service, has loosened the bolts in some places to allow for a few other ideas to be integrated into the service, but it’s an Anglican service.  The thing that amazes me is that I’m pretty sure that Anglicans are probably in the minority there.  It truly is an interdenominational service there.  I started wondering why that is.  Well, I wondered until I considered that maybe the connection I feel to God’s word there isn’t unique, that other’s feel it as well.  Then it hit me.  Truth is preached at that service.  And Truth is bigger than the lines we draw in the sand to define our Christian denominations.  People who come see that Truth, and they respond.  They put themselves where they can hear it.

It’s not just me.

It’s all of them, and you too.

Truth can look so, so different and come from so many places.

But you’ll without doubt recognize it when you hear it.

The New Theology

Now there’s a snappy, attention grabbing title.  Although, it’s not completely honest.  I’m not really here to present any revolutionary new theology that will change your life.  I am here to do a slight redefinition of theology that will, at least it has in my opinion, make theology a lot more relevant and understandable.

But first.  back on my tumblelog (opens in a new window if you don’t have it open already), scroll to just below the link to this post, and play the audio file while you read this.  

Tonight I attended a talk about the life of John Coltrane, and the struggle he went through to explore his relationship with God through his music.  A funny notion to many people.  Music is nice, but that’s not where you look for God.

Three quotes kept popping into my head through the talk, and it’s taken me a little bit of effort to string them together, but with a bit of prayer, it seemed to click.

First from Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:

…like the old philosophical conundrum about the tree that falls in the forest. The answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.

Second from the play Underneath the Lintel:

Would you recognize a miracle if it was on your doorstep?

And lastly, the greatest commandment of them all:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.

God works in funny ways.  He works in places you don’t expect Him to.  He works at times when you don’t expect him to.  He works in ways you don’t expect him to.  He likes to shake things up and take you by surprise.  The thing is, often, it’s easy to overlook it.  What Annie Dillard says really resonates with me; if you open your eyes and allow yourself to see it, you will see God working everywhere.  And once you start seeing His work, you just notice it more and more.  It’s inspiring and gives me great reason to be thankful.

But that’s just it.  Do we recognize it?  Is it easy to recognize?  No.  It can be very, very difficult to see God’s work at times.  There are times in life where I’m sure it’s hard enough just to be sure that He exists, let alone to see His works all over the place.  So often, though, so often He is standing right in front of us on our doorsteps, waiting for us to invite Him into our houses, into our lives, but we cannot see Him.  We cannot see past the struggles in this world that blind the Lord from our sight.

But we try.  It’s always important to try.  The greatest commandment of them all tells us to love the Lord our God with every ounce of our being.  Put everything you have into it.  It doesn’t give us a checklist of things we have to do, there is no bar that we have to surpass, we simply have to give it our best.  And God recognizes when we are trying.  And if you try to live for God with every ounce of your being, He has the grace and generosity to give us gifts that instill in us peace, that refresh us, that secure us, that allow us to love, that allow us to minister to others.  If you just try your hardest, He will reward you with rivers of living water.

But, these things are not easy to do.  This is why we like going to Church and hearing explanations of how scripture reveals to us both the character of God and our relationship with Him.  It is not a small topic, and it is not an easy topic.  In generalities, the institutional church has created somewhat of a definition of what “theology” is.  Usually, it’s writings that reveal God to us in some form or another, and the state(s) of our relationship with Him.  There are lots and lots of books on theology if you’re interested.  However, what if I presented this thought to you?  That the “rules” of what theology “is” and “isn’t” are so strict that there’s barely any room left for God?

The arts are one of the greatest forms of human expression.  Writings such as novels, prose, and poetry can have profound impacts on our lives.  Music touches all of us in some way or another.  The visual arts such as painting often can express and evoke emotions unexpectedly and abruptly.  There’s a beauty in the arts that is rarely found elsewhere; an inherent layered characteristic that makes everything say far more than the face value.

But more interesting than the art is the artists.  These are people who (for the most part) put everything they have into what they do.  They throw themselves headfirst into their art, desperate to get it out, to get a part of their being into some form of medium.  

Do you think a person has to be a believer in God for God to work through them? 

When you love with all your heart and all your mind and all your soul, you are loving for God.  And I think that God sees that.  And I think God works through people who throw everything they have and they are into something.  Can God be in a painting?  Can a saxophone melody be as much of a prayer as any words are?  Can colors and tones and textures reveal God?  I think they can.

We’ve fallen into a bit of a rut.  We look to writings for theology.  We look to writings to see God’s words and work.  I think it’s far more prolific than that.  Great theologians have a gift that God allows them to explore and explain their relationship with God through words.  It’s not an easy thing to do, and it takes great talent, patience, and love.  But, why just writing?  Why can’t we discover just as much about God through a painting?  Why can’t we relate to somebody’s longing for inner peace through an instrumental?  Why are these considered to be secondary supplements to writings?  Artists, writers, musicians, they all pour their entire beings into what they do.  They have to.  So why single out writing?

I have a challenge that I’m going to undertake, and I suggest that everyone else does too.  Open your eyes.  Look for God.  That struggle you’re having; look for answer your heart needs to hear not only in words, but through visual and auditory arts as well.  Look and listen for that desperate calling out to God for redemption that many artists, not just writers, express.

God gifts us all in special ways.  Some people can write.  Some people can take pictures.  Some people can play music.  Some people can paint.  Some people can love in extraordinary situations.  Some people can tell stories.  Some people can counsel.  Some people can pray.  Some people can make pastries.  Some people build bridges.  Some people can listen.  The point is, God has given them all gifts for his Glory to be exercised in different ways.  So next time you see that painting, or hear that saxophone solo, or eat that piece of bread, or see that beautiful building, or read a book, think the uncommon thought that what you hold in your hand might be a gift made out of love as service to God.  Writings are wonderful, fabulous gifts that we have, but I think often we make the mistake of thinking that’s the only place where God’s words are recorded, when really, it’s all around us, everywhere, every day.

And that is something to be truly thankful for.

Personal Transformation

Moving to Winnipeg has been, to some degree, a life changing experience for me.  I mean, besides the obvious reason that a lot in my life has changed.  Over the past few months, I have undergone a huge change in who I understand myself to be, and who I see myself becoming.

When I left Edmonton, I left behind a lot of the things that kept me happy.  I left behind my family, I left behind my friends, and I left behind my Church; moreover I left my position helping lead Worship at St. John’s.  I had always enjoyed leading Worship, and it was a place that I felt called to, but it wasn’t until I left my position that I realized how important it was to me.  It was an active involvement in my faith that kept me close to God and kept me happy.

I found myself in Winnipeg: no friends, no family, and no anchor to God.  I went through some pretty intense loneliness, and found myself extremely unhappy at times.  Some of the feelings I felt reminded me of times in the past where I was at places I’d never want to be again.

There was a brief period of time where I turned to prayer, intensely.  I stopped playing my guitar.  I didn’t read, except for passages in the Bible I felt called to read.  I watched no TV, no movies.  Played no games.  When I wasn’t working, I was reflecting and praying.  I have come out of that struggle, my personal time in the desert, a changed person.  I have a hugely changed view of myself and what I am. 

That intense period of reflection was the beginning of it all; the main catalyst that has driven a change inside me.  I am far more realized now than I ever have felt before.

I am music.  It is fundamental to me, to my soul.  I am no longer content with learning music.  I need to write my own.  I need to have that outlet.  I am unhappy if I cannot play music.  Moreso than ever, I have realized how fundamental music is to who I am and what I am.  I am also not defined by my job.  I want to be as good as I can be at it, but I do not want to be known primarily for being a meteorologist.  I am social.  I am happiest with people, and I am a fish out of water when I don’t have that opportunity.  I want to get married at some point.  I want to have (a) kid(s) some day.  My faith is central to my values and my happyness.  I need to be more thankful.  Despite a rocky start, I have been extremely blessed in life and I am responsible to give back.

All of these things were in the back of my head before, but I did not have the resolve to them that I have now.  The biggest surprise for me was music.  I had always thought that it was just something I enjoyed.  To realize that it is so central to me, that whoever I end up with, it has to be something I can share with that person.  It cannot be segmented from the rest of my life.

I am very glad that I’ve had this realization.  I am more comfortable with myself than I have ever been.  I feel, for the first time in a long time, feel extremely comfortable with who I am, what I am, and where I am.  I am happy, I am comfortable with my own skin, I feel secure.

I am going to try and focus on some of these newfound things.  I am going to start by trying harder to write music.  I recently wrote a song that, for the first time, I truly felt like it was an extension of myself.  I listen to it and I hear a part of me.  It is one of the greatest feelings I’ve ever had, and I want to work on making that happen more often.

I am not the same person I was when I came to Winnipeg.  I am realized.

A Note On Music

I’m currently finishing up This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel J. Levitin, and thus far I’m finding it an incredily interesting read.  Of note:

The story of your brain on music is the story of an exquisite orchestration of brain regions, involving both the oldest and newest parts of the human brain, and regions as far apart as the cerebellum in the back of the head and the frontal lobes just behind your eyes.  It involves a precision choreography of neurochemical release and uptake between logical prediction systems and emotional reward systems.  When we love a piece of music, it reminds us of other music we have heard, and it activates memory traces of emotional times in our lives.  Your brain on music is all about, as Francis Crick repeated as we left the lunchroom, connections.

It’s a really interesting look into how the brain functions, and I’ve definitely been enthralled in learning how we process music and why it is that we love it so much.  Great read if you’re looking for soemthing!

John Mayer Is Pretty Much The Best

It should be no secret to most people that I really like John Mayer.  To this day, I think his album Continuum may very well be one of the best albums I have ever heard, both instrumentally and lyrically.  If you haven’t listened through that album, you need to do so right now. Lately I’ve been on a big John Mayer kick.  I have a thing for enjoying any music featuring talented guitarists, and I’ve always been able to hear that talent John has: in his progressions, his melodies, and his rhythems.  One of the things I’ve always wanted to hear was him really letting lose, rip out the blazing guitar solos that leave your brain half-melted and yourself in utter awe. So I’ve been looking up on his history.  I knew he used to be a blues musician and had somewhat recently switched to “pop.”  I found the album Try! by the John Mayer Trio, and I think John has moved into one of the top spots as my personal “guitar hero.”  He plays back to his blues roots, and really, really lets the solos fly.  The version of Gravity on it is also exceptionally well done.

It’s really interesting to hear where John’s come from, and to see the switch he made from Blues to Pop.  What I’m trying to get at here is that John Mayer is, in my opinion, one of the best musicians of our time, and if Your Body Is A Wonderland threw you off him, you give him another shot and listen to a full album.  I guarentee that you’ll be impressed.