Friday, July 30, 2010

Head vs. Heart : Marriage and Cynicism

I'm always fascinated by the cynicism in our culture. It's not the classic bitter cynicism, the stuff our grandparents had, but a more modern to-each-his-own, there-is-no-truth cynicism. We live in a culture where true life-long love is scarce and becoming more like a fantasy than an attainable reality. The idea of Ultimate Truth is becoming referred to more and more as an ignorant, fascist idea of the past. We are the newly enlightened, the culture that surpasses all previous cultures. We even defy our natural roles and any traditional institutions because 'we're advanced and there are no rules but the rules we make.' I wonder why we think we're so special, like we have it all figured out. Is it technology? Has it got us feeling like mini-gods? It's true, the power of man is impressive, our scientific knowledge has never been as well documented and advanced. I'm often blown away by what my phone can do, or how far I can travel in just one day, and it's all happened so fast. Has it caused us to worship ourselves? I just ask because it seems like "Self" is our primary focus.

I wonder where all this progressive-thought is taking us, because it seems to me like we're becoming less and less a people of morals and conviction and more and more like a "whatever-works-for-you" culture. Please don't get me wrong, I'm not a conservative whistle-blower, I'm a staunch centrist who believes in selflessness. I believe in simple characteristics that are universally agreed upon as good. Characteristics that are scarce in our culture. The problem with the "whatever-works-for-you" type of culture is that it's focused on YOU. Our problem is an extremely selfish one. Things like honor, servitude, purpose, love, integrity and respect are becoming identified less like characteristics to strive for and more like a television commercial for the Army; fairy-tale-ish, naive and old-fashioned. It seems to me like our generation could be defined as restless and lonely, "tolerant" but with no meaning or purpose. The pills we take help us to remain unconcerned with what our ancestors might have deemed important. We've allowed our minds to drag our hearts through the existential muck to some lonely island on which we spend our days convincing our hearts that it's okay; Put off those pangs of longing, do away with those stabs of regret, distract that desperate unrest... Take this pill. After all we're advanced now, our brain says. You simply have to evolve, heart, and frankly you're taking your sweet time.

We are obsessed with self. The customer service industry has done this to us by telling us "The customer is always right." Our therapists, counselors and teachers have done this to us by telling us to "Do what's right for yourself." Our parents have done this to us by telling us to do "Whatever makes you happy." Of course this can be good advice at times, but when it's blitzing us constantly we start to think that whatever I want, I deserve (Watch "Sweet Sixteen" for real life examples). "Tolerance" we're told, is about being tolerant of different people regardless of their background or lifestyle choices, which I totally agree with, but being extreme beings we take it one step further. We elevate the individual and label any constructive critique, any careful warning, any nugget of wisdom to the contrary, however true it is, as "judgmental" and "intolerant." Now tolerance means "Everything-is-good-so-do-whatever-YOU-think-serves-YOU-best." In our culture truth is relative and self is god. We elevate self, and we're losing a lot of the principles that make people good people. We're becoming "whatever" people. We're selfish. We get married because of what we gain for ourselves, and not surprisingly that's also why we get divorced. We're constantly bombarded with outlets telling us that we are "#1," so much so that we start believing it. We flip our lids to the customer service person the second they tell us they can't help us. How dare they! I'm "#1!" (I love flipping my lid). What's incredibly ironic is that all this was bred in us under the ambiguous flag of "Tolerance," yet we have very little tolerance for those who would defy us.

Where has this selfishness left us as a generation? I'd say pretty sad and cynical. We have all the materials to be happy but it's not working. We still need to medicate our hearts. For some reason our heart won't go along with our head's propositions for attainable happiness. Where I live, you'd be hard pressed to find a twenty-something who really believes a marriage can work in this day and age, and what's even worse is that our divorced parents are feeding into this doubt, not just with their actions but with their advice. I have a friend who is loyally in love with his girlfriend but won't get married because his dad told him to "Never get married until you own property and dammit you should wait until you're older." Not surprisingly his dad was married out of high school without much to his name and his marriage failed, for whatever reason, but I'm sure it wasn't because he didn't own a house. He obviously created some notion about home-owning to disassociate himself from how both he and his ex-wife made a series of bad relational choices which led to divorce. What is more sad is that he's passed this notion onto his son, and how his son thinks it's as good as God's Word. So my friend has decided he's not going to be with anyone else but his current girlfriend, but has no plans to get married any time soon. Their relationship is at a standstill commitment-wise, and who knows how long that plateau is. People say the next step is moving in together, but I say that's the best way to not get married (or when you finally do, it'll probably be out of obligation rather than joy and excitement). You need to work up an appetite before you eat dinner, let alone dessert. I know that opinion will offend some people because you're living with your hope-to-be-spouse. I'm not trying to be narrow, I know there are many ways to do things (heck, we're doing things way different than our parents did, probably at least a few of them are wrong). But ask yourself, if you're not married, why? List the reasons. The only valid reason is the "I don't love them" reason (and maybe the "I'm only 16" reason, please wait until you're at least 21). All those other little fears don't add up to much, and are probably just cultural biases that hold no real water. Contrary to what you may have heard you do not need to own a home to commit your life to a person.

Kristie has an acquaintance at work who lives with his girlfriend and has been with her for five years. When Kristie asked him if they were going to get married he hemmed and hawed about how "Yeah I guess, but she has debt and so do I, and my mom told me never to bring debt into a marriage." Not surprisingly, his mom is divorced. She obviously developed some notion that debt ruins marriages to disassociate herself from the fact that she and her ex-husband made a series of relational choices that screwed it up. What's even worse was that her son seems entirely unexcited about marriage. I mean, he already lives with her, so that whole butterflies thing? That whole giddiness of starting a life together? That whole "new adventure?" That's all gone. He's got the prize without the ceremony, without the party, so why celebrate now? His life won't change, if anything (and this is what our culture tells us) it will change for the worse. The cynics in our culture have endless jokes about the "ball and chain" and the lack of freedom, constantly hinting that "Your life is over now, man." The stigma is that people get married and stop having fun. They stop going out, stop socializing and stop enjoying life. Their dreams die. This stigma is conceived and trumpeted by cynics born of failed marriages. It's not a stigma based on wisdom, it's a stigma based on wounds.

When Kristie and I got married five years ago we had nothing. We had debt. We didn't own property or have any assets. All we had was each other. Despite all of our parents warnings that "You can't live on love," we proved that we could. When we got married our real adventure started. We didn't want kids right away, we just wanted to live together, to do life together, to go on an adventure as partners with no pressure to fit into what society deemed "normal." She took off on tour with me for a year. We lived in a van. Was it hard at times? Yes, but also so incredibly rewarding to work through those times together. There's nothing like growing up with someone you're in love with. Since then we've lived in four apartments and two others in-between. We've travelled the country, experienced the city one neighborhood at a time, and we've made and kept many friends. We maintain an incredible social life, mostly with unmarried people. Getting married by no means has to mean that now you're old, boring, washed up and your fun years are behind you (That happens when you have kids - kidding!). Sure, I had fun as a bachelor living in a house with a bunch of guys, but if I went back there now I'd probably hate it. Who wants to be nineteen until they're thirty-five? That's the real tragedy of our generation, people who refuse to act any more responsible than they did ten years ago. I can always have those weekends with the boys, and I have those tours with the boys, but I'm always so glad to come home. My adventure with my wife has been the best adventure of my life. It's the most fulfilling relationship I've ever had. It's given me purpose, drive and character far beyond any other friendship. Marriage is about starting a lifelong adventure with someone, dedicating your life to them, and promising to love them no-matter-what. It's not what the cynics say it is (unless you take their crappy advice). The marriages that effected them failed because of dishonesty, selfishness, pride, bitterness and unfaithfulness. When two people enter into a relationship willing to give their all for their spouse it is one of the most fulfilling things than anyone can experience.

Maybe it's because I live in Seattle, home of the most pretentious, progressive hipsters in the country, but it is so incredibly sad to see people miss out on this, and for silly reasons at best. We see people go from fling to fling without actually experiencing true intimacy, we see them fearful of marriage based on the faults of our parents generation and silly fears like debt and property ownership, and all we want to do is tell them it doesn't have to be like that. We aren't so enlightened that we no longer believe in true love, that we no longer believe in marriage. We're just damaged, trained to be selfish. Slaves to strange fear-based ideologies born only in the last fifty years. We aren't enlightened, we aren't any more special or smart than those who lived hundreds or thousands of years ago. They were wise back then, and it would probably do us some good to read up on that wisdom, starting with the best definition of love that I've ever read (written around two-thousand years ago):

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, 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.
1 Corinthians 13:4-7 (NIV)

Friday, July 23, 2010

Writing Songs

I've started writing songs again. This always happens after a long period of rebellious boredom in which I spend each commercial break making disdainful glances at my studio in the corner. Procrastination usually comes before inspiration for me. The whole commitment thing of writing a record's worth of songs is what scares me. I don't want to start, because starting means committing. It means finishing. It means hours spent working, thinking, writing, demoing, flinching and re-writing, singing, playing, quantizing, editing, sampling, flinching, re-singing and mixing. I'll go hours straight with my face to the screen from early morning to dinner time, only snapping out of it when I hear the front door shut announcing Kristie's arrival home from work. And then I realize my back hurts, my voice hurts, the song isn't that good, and the whole time I've been in my underwear, and "Wait a minute did I eat lunch?" I'm not trying to pull that whole "tortured artist" thing, because I love my life and I love making music, it's just a big commitment and I like to hold it off until I can't stand it any more. So I've started writing and subsequently I've been much less bored.

Let me clarify; I love writing music, and I love recording music. I even love performing music most of the time. What I hate is demos. I have this weird superstition that if I record a demo the right way, like if I really spend time on it musically and try my best to sing it perfectly, that the song will never be AS good again. I contract the disease we call "Demoitis" very easily. When I've sung exceptionally well in the demo I psych myself out in the real recording trying to recreate that same "magic." I want the song to sound it's best in my headphones as I'm tracking vocals for the real recording. I want to hear it like I'm hearing it for the first time, like I'm singing it for the first time. Demos mess with that, so I try my hardest to record them as sloppy as possible. I just want to get the shell of the idea down so that when it comes time to play ball for real I'll have a lot of room to grow and have less pressure to recreate some previous moment.

I procrastinate recording demos, but I don't procrastinate with writing. I'm always writing, and I don't think I really have a choice in the matter. I have hundreds of lines that I've written and plenty of songs in my head, with all of the parts worked out from drums to guitars to vocals to string arrangements. The problem is I have no way of communicating those things to other people unless I play it all myself (or play conductor for hours in our practice space, which is stressful). A demo allows my band members to get the gist of the vibe and the inspiration for the song so they can add their two-cents and hopefully make it better. 

I'm not one of those writers who thinks that my ideas are the best. Often times they aren't the most technical, well-thought-out or purest ideas. I'm a lightening-in-a-bottle writer, I'm not a technician. I mean, I've written my fair share of technical parts and time-signature changes but I've captured those things with not much thought. They just come in the moment. Those clever ideas (or "Little bolts of lightening") happen in a few short minutes as opposed to hours of listening and perfecting a part. I record the shell, sometimes underdeveloped and sometimes fully developed, and hopefully my band-mates take the time to comb through it with some technical thought. When I can't think of what to do I generally move on, but some writers play it back a hundred times and work out their creation with committed articulation. I am not that writer, but I need writers like that. I need my band-mates for that reason. I can do everything on my own, but it won't be as good unless others are inspired to come along and add to it.

I have around five songs demoed and around five more in my head. Some of these are the folky-acoustic type so maybe another acoustic EP is on the horizon, or maybe a side-project, or maybe just a completely different sounding TCC record. Either way it's good to be creating again.

Friday, July 9, 2010


This is a long one, maybe even my longest yet.

I've driven around, flown over, and walked through hundreds of cities and metro areas and I'm always somewhat amazed by the accomplishments of man; the towering buildings, freeways and streets, transportation systems and infrastructures with hundreds of micro economies functioning to prosper the majority. Sometimes it all just seems so ingenious, and it's somewhat smugly reassuring to observe what humanity is capable of. Until I take a step back. From the macro perspective, how fragile is our system! Our global economy is built on a bubble, on debt, on projected profit from that debt. It's an unstable facade, built on nothing ultimately sustainable beyond a hundred years. It's founded on the idea that the current generation is the most important. What we GET is what matters most. The plans that we have made are not plans that will last. They are not plans that will carry us much farther than the scope of our own life-spans. Civilizations greater than ours have arisen and disappeared throughout history, and the plans they made are now seemingly obsolete in the grand scope of things. What makes every generation think it is the most important? Thousands of years ago people much wiser than us implemented their plans with as much foresight as humanly possible, but even then the residual impact is little if any. Our plans are built on temporal knowledge, in the spiritual sense and the timely sense. The foundation for our standard of living is built on sand. Our plans are extremely fragile and near-sighted.

What if there is an Ultimate Plan? A Plan that isn't limited to one person, or one life-span? What if history, ancient and recent, holds proof of that plan unfurling in the macro and the micro sense? I believe in that Plan and Purpose, because I believe in a God who loves and interacts with His creation, but also because I've witnessed His work on the micro level, in my own life, as well as through my parents lives before I was even here.

My parents became Christians in the late 70's. I don't know much about this time in their lives, other than that they were post-hippie travelers who randomly met in Vancouver, BC, thousands of miles from their respective birthplaces (my dad from Halifax, Nova Scotia and my mom from outside of Richmond, VA). While in Vancouver, BC they attended some Gospel meetings and became "born-again" by every sense of the term. Their habits and lifestyles spun a 180 as they implemented their new found moral convictions, got married and started a family. 

According to his testimony my dads conversion was a tedious one, spanning seven years and involving him being tracked down by a preacher who seemed to show up at the most random moments. These random interactions eventually led him to give his life to God. I think my moms conversion was a bit more impulsive. Either way, for several years they maintained a very black and white faith. 

In 1994 we moved across the border to the US. The new church we attended was more concerned with posturing and judgement than community and love, and the culture slowly chipped away at my parents faith. Areas of their lives and marriage were left unattended, exposed, and allowed to fester due to lack of depth, accountability, honesty, and care for the things they once deemed important. Eventually differences could not be reconciled in their relationship and it lead to their separation, subsequent excommunication from their "church," and divorce. Since then their faith has struggled as shame, resentment, regret and bitterness have taken seats at the table while things like grace, mercy, love and forgiveness grow ever-distant.

Of course this is only my take on the matter, and I'll admit that from the outside it's seemingly easy to discern the consequences and their causes; the causes being justifications for stubbornness, revenge, anger and bitterness, and the consequences being detachment, loneliness, lack of peace and loss of faith. Speculation can only add up to so much, however, and the truth is that things are more confusing and messy on the inside. What I do know is that as of right now neither of my parents are actively pursuing any portion of the faith that once changed their lives. My mom used to read the Bible to us every morning at breakfast, but I'm speculating that she probably hasn't opened it in years. One of the most enduring images I have from my childhood is of my dad sitting at his desk, pouring over his bible and studying scripture, but I doubt he has spent any time doing that lately. Needless to say, both of my parents currently seem concerned only with their individual, short-term plans. They've lost their faith in the Ultimate Plan. I'm not blaming them, because they've had a hard go of it, and I'm not confident that I'm exempt from their circumstances. It could happen to the best of us, and so I must tread lightly and remember that "There by the grace of God go I."

In my experience, something happens when you read the Bible. Something rings divinely true within its pages. When read properly, the Bible doesn't encourage your political stance, tease your intellect or simply resonate with the "poet inside." Instead it grabs your heart and squeezes it until the tears flow. The truth about love, forgiveness and sacrifice is simply that; Truth. It just rings true. It speaks to that part of us that longs for ultimate Truth and absolutes. It puts things in perspective and it causes us to live differently, to love better. It calls us to become a part of the plan. When we read the Bible, it puts us on track. I can tell when a Christian has spent time reading it with enthusiasm recently, and I can usually tell when they haven't. My parents, I suspect, haven't. (If I'm honest with myself it's been too long since I've spent significant time studying the Bible and the symptoms of that have been showing. #realtalk)

In an effort to totally redeem myself (sarcasm) I've been reading this book by Francis Chan called "Crazy Love," and it he discusses his discovery of Gods specific love and divine plan for his life. He comes upon this by reading Jeremiah 1:4-5 where God says to Jeremiah, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart." Thinking this might have just applied to the prophet Jeremiah, Francis was reminded of Ephesians 2:10, where we are commanded to "Do good works, which God has prepared for us in advance to do." His realization is that God knew us before we were here and prepared a plan for our lives. He planned for us individually ahead of time to follow Him in order to be effective stewards of His love, to do "good works" which advance His Ultimate Plan. We have to choose to be a part of it, and as with the Apostle Paul or my Dad, sometimes he chases people down. His plan is different for everyone in the micro sense, but He's the only Being with any eternal perspective in the macro sense, so we're forced to trust Him in order to be a part of it. People like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mother Theresa were figures who trusted God's plan and followed it into harms way out of conviction from the calling to do "good works," which I have no doubt God "planned in advance" for them to do. It's a humbling concept that an all powerful God would love us so much and want to know us so intimately that He would chase us down in order to make us a part of His loving plan. When people truly respond to His Plan, you see the loving approach to equality, sacrifice for the weak and service to others like MLK Jr. and Mother Theresa were characterized by.

I think of my parents meeting out of what seemed like sheer happenstance, thousands of miles from their home-towns. I think of their dramatic conversions, how my dad was chased down through a seven year process where God, through experiences and interactions, would not leave him alone. I think of my childhood, my five siblings and my two Haitian-born sisters, the opportunity given to us to learn about God and accept His Plan for our lives... When I step back and look at all this, it doesn't seem like random chance. It seems to me like my parents were accosted by the Holy Spirit, chased down by a God that had a plan, and plan that they had no intent of fulfilling when they started their adulthood. I think about the people in my life who have steered me toward that Plan, even when I fought so ignorantly against it.

I've seen what I claim to be God's work in my life. It sounds crazy, I know, to talk about things you can't see or prove with your basic senses, but I've felt the peace of knowing my Creator. It's better than any other high I've experienced. I've felt drawn and called to certain things, hard things that I didn't want to do, but when I came out on the other end I realized how blessed I'd been for doing them. The point is I wouldn't be here if not for God's work in my parents, and regardless if they admit it or not they were used for His glory in their youth, and although in their 50's they have nearly forgotten His gift, His plan continues through us, their children.

Part of me says He's done chasing them, that His work in them was fulfilled in us, that their role in the Plan is done... but another part of me says He desperately longs for communion with them again. The God I read about in the Bible isn't one that turns His back on lost children. Jesus illustrates God as the father in the Prodigal Son parable. The son spent his entire inheritance partying and dishonoring his father, but in the end his dad accepts him back with loving arms and throws a feast for his lost son who came back to him. Jesus spoke about Gods love is like a shepherd who would leave his ninety-nine sheep in the wilderness just to find that one lost sheep. When I read that I don't think God is fine with any of His sheep or His children wandering off, going their own way, unprotected and vulnerable. I could be stretching it, but perhaps that parable also says something about our innate need for community. Perhaps the ninety-nine in the flock are safer because they have each other, they have strength in numbers, but the lost sheep is all alone, in desperate need of a shepherd and community, and because of it's unique situation the shepherds heart breaks for it. So much so that he leaves the ninety-nine "found" sheep to go find the lost one.

When I read about Gods Plan, I think about it's significance and how it far surpasses our own personal plans. This is much more than just life and death. "Lost" and "Found" have significant spiritual meanings and outcomes. It's true that not all who wander are lost, I've wandered my fair share and I believe it is a part of how I'm wired. I also think it's true that those who seek will find... I've found that when I honestly seek God without any conditions, He always shows up. Those who are truly lost and running away, however, are characterized by selfishness. They give very little. Lost people are plagued with worry and stress, they're misguided, prone to denial and indulgence in frivolity. Chan says in his book that "Worry and stress reek of arrogance." It's true that at their core, worry and stress are selfish feelings. The number one concern of those emotions is Self. Those emotions display lack of peace, distrust and ignorance of God's unconditional love and provision, and they also restrain the ability for one to love and sacrifice for others. Worry and stress cause us to implode, completely taking us away for Gods plan for us to "do good works" which He has "planned in advance for us to do." 

I once heard a quote that said something like this: "What you do for yourself in this life will die with you, but what you do for others will live forever." I don't know who wrote it, but it's definitely a Biblical principle. People who become obsessed with their tiny, insignificant plans, become characterized by worry and stress. They become selfish. They become lost.

Jesus tells us that if even man, who is sinful in nature, gives good gifts to his children, how much more does the perfect God of heaven wish to give to those who call him Father? He also says not to worry, because if God takes care of the birds, making sure they have nests and food, how much more will He take care of us, His most beloved creation? The difference is that as humans we have a choice. We can choose to have His help and peace, to live without anxiety or stress or worry or anger or any negative emotions. We can choose to trust in the Ultimate Plan and to do our part by doing "good works he has planned in advance for us to do." Or we can bear our own burdens, hyper-focus on our selfish, temporal plans and watch worry and stress swallow our lives and damage ourselves and our families.

May we all seek the bigger, better plans for our lives.

"For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future."

                                                         -Jeremiah 29:11 (NIV)