“It’s a Heart Problem, not a Gun Problem.” Is it, though?

Early this past Sunday morning, forty-nine people were murdered with an additional fifty-three people being injured at an Orlando, Florida night club in what is being described as the worst mass shooting in American history. This shooting is the latest in what seems to be a never-ending barrage of gun violence in the United States, and raises a plethora of questions and issues regarding sexuality, race, and religion in twenty-first century America.  The biggest question, for me, is how does our national consciousness correlate with our country’s gun laws and the rising tide of violence?

Inevitably, this shooting has sparked political debate around the topic of gun ownership, the Second Amendment, and whether or not guns are intrinsically to blame for the violence. Living in the Appalachian Mountains of rural southwest Virginia in the tiny city of Norton, stories such as the Orlando shooting and other mass murders often seem very distant from my own realm of experience as well as from that of my friends and neighbors.

Although in my personal politics, I am fairly liberal, the area I call home tends to be quite conservative. Many of my friends, neighbors, and acquaintances hold strong opinions about the Second Amendment. Now, if you are reading this and you are not from this area, your first inclination is going to be to judge these folks as gun-toting “rednecks,” “hillbillies,” or worse. I’m asking that you cast aside such judgments and understand, first and foremost, that the media representations you have been fed about Appalachian culture are mostly pure bullshit. Yes, we have our share of problems which have been well documented, and that is undeniable. But by and large, people here are peaceful, friendly, and willing to help out their neighbors in times of need, which is one of the reasons why so many people of my generation are opting to stay and try to build a better future for the region.

There is a meme going around that reads, “Cain killed Abel with a rock. It’s a heart problem, not a gun problem.” This one has been going around for awhile, and every time there is a mass shooting (one mass shooting is one far too often, but I digress), I inevitably see this meme floating around social media. I see my friends, my neighbors, good people mostly, sharing it and affirming its sentiment.

Heart not gun

I have to admit that I feel like this meme does have an ounce of truth in it. Now, in spite of (or perhaps because of) the fact that I’m currently enrolled in seminary studies, I’m not at all convinced that Cain and Abel were literal people who existed, but it isn’t hard to look at the media landscape in the United States today and see a culture that is drenched in fear, paranoia, and the glorification of brutish violence. When a man like Donald Trump is considered a serious contender for the Presidency, something has gone terrible awry with the American psyche.

We have grown fearful of one another. We deal with constant anxiety. We struggle and we suffer, often in a lonely solitude in spite of the fact that the internet has us more connected to one another than ever before. There is a foreboding sense that men must be hyper-masculine or else risk not measuring up, and I know this because as a man who has never fit the “hyper-masculine” mold, I often feel somewhat as if I am falling behind. In spite of the legislative progress we have made in terms of gay rights, as evidenced by this shooting and the recent bathroom bill controversy, it seems that homophobia and transphobia are on the rise right along with racism and the fear of members of the Muslim faith, even though it isn’t hard to see that one mass shooter no more represents the whole of Islam than one Fred Phelps represents the whole of Christianity. Yes, America, we do definitely have a heart problem.

Yet, it’s also undeniable from a place of pure common sense that it would be nearly impossible to murder forty-nine people and injure fifty-three more with a rock. To suggest otherwise is an asinine statement. According to this USA Today Article the two weapons used by the shooter were an AR-15 style Sig Sauer MCX .223-caliber rifle and a Glock 17 9 mm pistol. The weapons were legally purchased from a Florida store about a week before the tragic mass shooting. In 2016, there have been at least three mass shootings, and the United States is home to nearly a third of the world’s mass shootings annually. This article from CNN shows some of the relevant statistics. So yes, America, as much as we have a heart problem, we also definitely have a gun problem.

I’m not writing this to try to prescribe a solution.  I am not smart enough or arrogant enough to think that I have the answer to America’s ongoing struggle with violence.  I’m not a policy expert, nor am I a professional journalist.  But I am a concerned citizen.  I understand that, at least where I come from, guns are often just another aspect of life.  Many of my friends, neighbors, and family members are hunters and sportsmen.  I have enjoyed firing off a semi-automatic weapon or two in my own life with my friends.  Call me a redneck, but even though I’m not a hunter, it can be great fun and a great stress reliever to go out into the mountains and shoot at targets.

But let’s not forget that guns were designed with one purpose and one purpose only in mind:  to kill.  And too often in this country, the person pulling the trigger is not some hunter bringing home a deer for the winter or someone enjoying a round of target practice, but is instead a person full of hate and vitriol whose only goal is to take down as many of his fellow human beings as he can. Too often, the person on the receiving end of the bullet is not a target, but a living breathing human soul trying to peacefully live their life when hatred and gunfire tragically cut that life short.  This latest shooting saw that hatred unleashed on the LGBT community.  2012’s shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary saw the deaths of twenty-six people, many of whom were children.  Those are merely two examples of the most horrendous of American mass shootings in what seems to be a never-ending, everyday occurrence.

For the LGBTQ community of Orlando, for the victims of the shooting and their families, know that many of us here in these mountains stand in solidarity with you, and that you are in our thoughts and our prayers.  May we as a nation take whatever steps are necessary to put an end to the violence in our streets and the hatred in our hearts.  May we be unafraid to call out homophobia when we see it on display.  And may we be unafraid to speak out, using our voices to lift up those who have been marginalized and to speak truth to power whenever the opportunity presents itself.


Memorial Day 2016, 1:53 AM

“Do not be quick to anger, for anger lodges in the bosom of fools. Do not say, “Why were the former days better than these?” For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.”
–Ecclesiastes 7:9-10

“Can you not advance in your concept of God’s dealing with man to that level where you recognize that the watchword of the universe is progress? Through long ages the human race has struggled to reach its present position. Throughout all these millenniums Providence has been working out the plan of progressive evolution. The two thoughts are not opposed in practice, only in man’s mistaken concepts. Divine providence is never arrayed in opposition to true human progress, either temporal or spiritual. Providence is always consistent with the unchanging and perfect nature of the supreme Lawmaker.”
–The Urania Book

A few thoughts that have been on my heart tonight.

Over the past year, I’ve spent a lot of time mourning, grieving. The loss of a parent is never easy, and as I approach thirty, I feel like I’m also mourning the last vestiges of my youth and hurling into middle age more quickly than I’d like.

As such, I’ve been revisiting a lot of places and memories that I held dear in my childhood. I will also be able to return to these places when need be, but no one can or should live in the past. It isn’t helpful for one’s present state of mind, nor is it wise. In fact, too much dwelling on the past can inspire anger. It can make us begin to question, “Why aren’t things as they were? Why are things so messy now? Why can’t it be simple again?”

But as children of God (and we are all children of God, divine creations of one Great Architect, whether we know it or not), we are not called to glorify the past but to live fully now in the present in hopeful and active expectation of a better future to come. That is God’s promise. That is the supreme reality of the universe man inhabits.

Yes, we will face calamity. Yes, there will be bad times. And yes, the future is uncertain. But faith calls us to recognize that ultimately, all will be made right, that through trusting God to call us into the fullness of our own humanity, all things will be brought under God’s Providence. To recognize that even if the moral arc is long, it bends toward justice, as Dr. King famously wrote.

I see much of this yearning for “simpler” “better” times in the American spirit as well, especially here in the mountains. We want to retreat to a golden age that never was. We want to “bring back jobs” and “make America great again.” But these are empty words, devoid of meaning. They are blatant nonsense.

The challenges we face as individuals and collectively as a species can not be answered by looking to the past. No politician or businessman can save us, and anyone who says that they can is lying. Don’t be fooled. And don’t fool yourself into believing their “tickling of ears.”

The future is uncertain, yes, but it is ultimately in the hands of God. We must each walk our own path and pick each other up when we fall. Our hope lies in the love and compassion we build for one another.

As this election season approaches and heats, I remind both my conservative and liberal friends not to let our differences of political opinion keep us, all of us, from seeing each other as what we truly are: brothers and sisters, children of God.

And I remind myself not to fall into the trap of looking so fondly on the past that I forget that I have a bright future ahead of me.

Love you guys. Peace.

Living Into the Promises of Faith: a Reflection on Death and Resurrection on Easter, 2016

Crucifix on the altar of All Saints Episcopal Church in Norton, Virginia on Easter Sunday.

As I write, it is now the evening of Easter, 2016. I am holed up in my attic which also serves as my makeshift home office and writing space. It’s been quite awhile since I have written anything that I have felt that I needed to share publicly, and as such, this blog has mostly gone without being updated. It isn’t that there hasn’t been a lot on my mind. Far from it. In fact, the thoughts and emotions I have been dealing with for the past few months extend far deeper than anything I have ever faced in my twenty-nine years, and articulating much of what I’ve been feeling into coherent language has proven a challenge, though not for lack of trying.


Let me start off by saying that I have to make a confession. Although I am currently attending seminary, Easter has often been challenging for me. I want so badly for the message of Easter, on which the entirety of the Christian faith hinges, to be true. I want to believe in the empty tomb. I want to believe in angels in white, bearing witness. I want to believe in the reality of Eternal Life. I want to believe in the dead Jewish rabbi who has become the Risen Lord.

Most of the time, like many people, both religious and secular, I have a hard time believing in the literal truth of this claim. In my experience of dealing with death, no matter how much we mourn and grieve and cry out against the loss of those we love, the dead stay dead.

One of the last photos of taken of my Dad and I together, eight months before he died.

I lost my father unexpectedly in August of 2015. He died just six days after I turned twenty-nine. He was only fifty-seven. As much as I was grieving, and as much as I still am, in the days and weeks that followed my father’s death, I felt a peace beyond anything I had ever felt. It wasn’t an emotionless peace. Far from it, I felt love and joy and sorrow and pity for all of my fellow human beings beyond anything I have ever felt, and yet, at the same time, a serenity of mind overcome me, a feeling that, ultimately, all was well with everything. God’s presence was an ever-present reality that was not only undeniable but self-evident.

It may sound odd to say, but nothing brings out the beauty in life quite like death.

Dad’s death was the most intensely I had ever felt this state of mind, but this wasn’t my first rodeo with the Big Sleep. Death has been a constant, unwanted companion in my life and in my consciousness for the past eight years, ever since my younger cousin, Stephanie, was killed in a car crash. Her father, Dad’s younger brother, followed her in a separate car accident, just over a month after she died. My great-grandmother followed the two of them about a year later. The events of 2008 and 2009 had left me mindful of my own mortality and deeply anxious and fearful about my own impending demise and the eventuality of losing everyone I loved.

My emotions following my Dad’s death were different. I found that I no longer feared death at all. I had faced it at its bloody worst, having watched my own father die of an internal hemorrhage. The thing about hemorrhages is that, at least in my father’s case, the blood didn’t stay internal. Transfusion after transfusion was bled out from the inside, pouring from his mouth and into a tube that poured into a clear bucket behind the hospital bed. I must have watched the nurses carry at least a dozen buckets of blood that had passed through my father’s veins out of the intensive care ward at the veteran’s hospital.


In Dad’s final moments, I prayed over his dying body. In his medically induced comatose state, I don’t know if he heard my prayer, but it is my deepest hope that he did. I didn’t beg God to spare my father. I didn’t beg my Dad to stay with me. I prayed instead, to my own father’s Heavenly Father, that it was my will that His will be done, telling my Dad that if he needed to go, he could. That he had given me all the tools I needed to be my own man, with the most important one being faith.
In that moment, I can honestly state that I had no fear of death whatsoever. And as my dad went into cardiac arrest, I remember a still small voice within me saying, “the years between now and when you see your father again will fly by faster than you can imagine, and when you see him again, Rance, you’ll both be young again.”

My Dad (left) as a young man with his brothers, John (center), who died in 2008 and David.

In that moment, I was living into the promises of my faith, releasing my father’s soul to the care of God and trusting completely in the promise of resurrection and eternal life. Though my soul had never known such sorrow as it did in losing my kind and gentle and unconditionally loving father, the reality of Heaven and the presence of God had never seemed nearer. There are still occurrences that I think back on in the days that followed my Dad’s death that seem to me to be more than coincidence, as if I was receiving messages and winks every day that my Dad was fine and was happy.

Now, though, it is seven months out from that day in the ICU, where my entire world seemed to take on the quality of a Renaissance-era religious painting. Though I am enrolled in seminary studies, and while I pray and attend church regularly, the world doesn’t seem as meaningfully filled with the Spirit of God as it did in the days and weeks after my father’s death. Life is normal again, and I am once again just a normal man facing the same struggles and trials and temptations and doubts that many of us face every single day. Dare I say it, heaven no longer seems so near, and life is once again mundane and routine. Working, paying bills, saving money, keeping up with my studies and trying to balance those responsibilities with my responsibilities to my family and my community take up most of my time.


I can even say that over the past couple of months, I have slipped into a mild state of restless depression. Not a sadness, no, the sadness has mostly departed, but an emptiness remains.

When even our sadness in the wake of a death leaves us, it is hard to believe in resurrection. It is hard to believe in eternal life. It is hard to believe in hope.

But I wonder sometimes, what would happen if I started to live as if I did believe in those things? How would I live differently if I believed that a man had risen from death? How would I live differently if I believed in the same unconditionally loving God that my own Dad did? Would I think differently? Would I feel differently?

Since enrolling in seminary, my faith has been tested, many, many times. I often feel, in my heart, that I am “not good enough.” Not good enough to serve. Not good enough to teach. Not kind enough to reach people. Not strong enough to meet people in their darkest moments, to carry the weight of their baggage and my own.

I’m too angry. I’m too bitter. I’m too cynical. I’m too fat. I’m too lustful. I’m too poor. I’m too filled with darkness.

I’m too empty. I’m too much of a sinner.


But today, listening to the softly singing voices of older ladies in the choir and eating the Eucharist, drinking the blood of Christ, I decided that I am going to try, God help me, to live into the promise of my faith.

You see, my faith promises me that there is no darkness that is too dark for God to shine His light into, including the darkness of a tomb. There is no sin that is too egregious to cancel out God’s unconditional love. Even as Jesus was crucified, his words cried out from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” There is no doubt that cannot be answered by faith and grace and there is no emptiness that cannot be filled by God’s love and no death that cannot and will not be ultimately overcome by Christ’s resurrection.

People often make the mistake, I think, of trying to “prove” or “disprove” an article of faith, as if faith is about a simple intellectual agreement with a propositional statement. But faith is about much more than that. Its true call reaches into the deepest and darkest corners of our being and unites us with the Being that is beyond all time and space.

Ultimately, faith is about trust. Faith is about hope. Faith is about moving forward when we don’t even know where the destination is, let alone have the route traced on a map. But above all this, faith is about love. It’s about loving the unlovable elements that you find in other people and maybe, most importantly, it’s about letting go of your guilt and your bitterness and your anger and your sadness and seeing and loving yourself and others as God sees you and as God sees them.

With unconditional love and acceptance.

That, to me, is grace. That, to me, is the promise of faith. And that is what Christ in his resurrection offers each of us. The possibility of a better and more compassionate world and the hope of eternal life, lived without fear.

11891148_10155977474210346_7291437913122335138_nAn hour glass, which was going to be my father’s birthday to me.  My step-mother gave it to me the day after he died.  It is surrounded by smaller “egg-timers,” which my Dad bought me as a little boy.  This gift was a great comfort to me in the days after Dad’s death and still serves me as a reminder of his love and the preciousness of life and time.  

29 Years. 29 Albums.

I turn twenty-nine in tomorrow.

In honor of the beginning of the end of my twenties, here are twenty-nine albums (one from each year of my life so far) that have really spoken to me in some way. Although these are not necessarily my favorite albums of all time (though many of them would make that list), these are my favorite albums from each year of my life.

1986: Paul Simon: Graceland. Paul Simon collaborates with African musicians and creates a one of a king masterpiece. My dad had this one on cassette tape when I was a kid. I rediscovered when somebody played it a party when I lived in Johnson City. Still one of my favorites.

1987: Tom Waits: Frank’s Wild Years. The final part of Waits’ Rain Dogs trilogy, and his strangest record up to this point. It has the sound of Coney Island sometime in the 1920s. I first discovered Waits in high school, and he’s been my favorite solo artists ever since. There’ll be a lot of him on this list.

1988: R.E.M.: Green. Not my favorite R.E.M. album, but this is as good a place to start as any if you’ve never listened to them. It’s the perfect transition between their earlier Athens-based indie rock-period and the major label super-stardom that would follow in the 1990s. The album also features the first time Peter Buck would use the mandolin extensively in the band’s arrangements, a distinctly southern influence that would appear again in their 90s work.

1989: Bob Dylan: Oh Mercy. Legendary songwriter Bob Dylan teams with legendary producer Daniel Lanois and once again reinvents himself after floundering throughout most of the 1980s. “The Man in the Long Black Coat” is the stand-out track on this one, a ballad with religious and Western overtones. Other notable tracks include “Ring Them Bells” and “Shooting Star.”

1990: Depeche Mode: Violator. I have a confession. I didn’t discover Depeche Mode until two years ago. I found this album in the bargain bin at Walmart and didn’t stop listening to it for a solid month. “Personal Jesus” has been covered by everyone from Marilyn Manson to Johnny Cash, and this album arguably laid the groundwork for the electronic industrial of bands like Nine Inch Nails.

1991: Nirvana: Nevermind. The album that launched Kurt Cobain to into the reluctant role of “voice of a generation.” A true rock and roll classic. Enough said.

1992: Tom Waits: Bone Machine. Waits completely reinvented himself in the 1980s from the role of drunken crooner into the role of a true avant garde artist, with his wife and songwriting partner/co-producer Kathleen Brennan helping facilitate the change. Here, Brennan’s role becomes even more important in Waits’ work as we really hear the influence of Captain Beefheart and see why Waits is regarded as hero in the primitive and punk movements. This album also has a distinctly rural flavor that I love. I’ve read that most of it was recorded in a barn, and it definitely shows, most notably in the upright bass and dobro based Gospel blues of “Jesus Gonna Be Here.” The songwriting on this is album is some of the best of Waits’ career in a songwriting career that is right up there with Dylan’s. Arguably Waits’ greatest artistic achievement.

Honorable mention also has to go R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People, possibly the best album of their career.

1993: Smashing Pumpkins: Siamese Dream. 1993 was a year full of great music, so this was a really tough one. With songs like “Disarm,” “Mayonaise,” and “Today,” I have to give Billy Corgan and company the edge. Honorable mentions include Counting Crows: August and Everything After, Pearl Jam: Vs., Radiohead: Pablo Honey, and of course, Nirvana: In Utero.

1994: Neil Young and Crazy Horse: Sleeps With Angels. Partially inspired by the death of Nirvana frontman, Kurt Cobain, Sleeps with Angels is Neil Young’s most haunting and under-rated album. A bittersweet lament with spiritual overtones, I remember thinking, even as a kid when my dad bought it for me as a seven-year-old (I’ve always been a Neil Young fan) that this album sounded very different from the Neil Young material I’d heard before. This is probably the best that Young’s backing band Crazy Horse has ever sounded, and it also marks Young’s final collaboration with longtime producer David Briggs, who would die shortly after the album’s completion. The end of an era from the godfather of grunge.

Honorable mention for me personally has to go to the final real Pink Floyd album (I don’t include The Endless River), “The Division Bell.” This was the band’s second album without longtime bassist/chief songwriter Roger Waters. It’s also the first album that I ever owned on CD. Though the lyrics aren’t what they were with Waters at the helm, musically, the band hadn’t sounded this on top of their game since Wish You Were Here.

1995: Smashing Pumpkins: Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. Speaking of Pink Floyd, this is the greatest double album since the Wall. Corgan and company spread their wings artistically, and give us some of the finest songs of the 1990s. The radio-friendly pop of “1979,” and the symphonic-driven “Tonight, Tonight” show us the band’s softer side while “Zero” and “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” are some of the finest hard-rock anthems of the time. The best thing about Mellon Collie is its diversity. With twenty-eight songs total, there’s literally something for everyone here.

1996: R.E.M.: New Adventures in Hi-Fi. The band’s final album with drummer Bill Berry, and what a way to send him off. Recorded during their North American tour, the album is a showcase of why R.E.M. was considered one of the best bands of the time with everything from rockers like “Leave” to the understated acoustic folk of “E-Bow the Letter” having a place among these fourteen tracks. Though not their best album of the decade, this is my favorite album released in 1996.

1997: Radiohead: OK Computer. This was such a tough choice as Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind was also released in 1997. At the end of the day, I have to give a slight edge to OK Computer. This album introduced me to Radiohead, and all these years later, it’s still one of my favorite albums of all time. A masterpiece in every way and foreshadowing of the band’s more experimental work in the new millennium, there’s really nothing I can say about it other than if you have not listened to this album, stop what you’re doing and go find it.

1998: Dave Matthews Band: Before These Crowded Streets. The peak of DMB’s career, everything about this album is perfect. Boyd Tinsley’s violin, LeRoi Moore’s saxophone and various wind instruments, and Tim Reynold’s electric guitar interplay beautifully with each given a chance to shine, while Matthews crafts the best songs of his career, using his odd vocal techniques to even greater effect than on their first two major label albums. Rounding out the rhythm section is Stefan Lessard’s bass and Carter Beauford’s drums, with a host of guest players including Alanis Morisette, Bela Fleck, and the Kronos Quartet making appearances throughout the album. Never again would the band make an album this beautiful or this dark.

1999: Tom Waits: Mule Variations. Waits returns to the boneyard once again and crafts one of the most personal albums of his career. More polished than Bone Machine and less experimental than his eighties work, Waits shows why he’s considered one of the greatest songwriters working with the album including ballads like “Hold On” and “Georgia Lee” to bluesy numbers like “Cold Water” and “Get Behind the Mule.” Also, when I die, you all better damn well play “Come On Up to the House” at my funeral. This wasn’t my first encounter with Waits’ music (that would be Alice), but this was the album that got me hooked, I discovered this album as a sophomore in high school. If only I could discover it again.

2000: Radiohead: Kid A. OK Computer saw Radiohead beginning to experiment with electronic music. This album sealed their reputation as musical geniuses. “Idioteque” was the first thing I ever heard from Radiohead, as I saw the music video on MTV 2 late one night. Simply put, I had never heard music like this before, and it blew me away. To this day, this is my favorite Radiohead album.

2001: Bob Dylan: Love and Theft. This was the first Dylan album I ever really listened to, and it’s still one of my favorite albums of all time. After the musings over mortality that marked much of Time Out of Mind, Dylan comes out swinging with some of the best lyrics of his career with his best backing band since, well, the Band. These are songs that only an older man, full of world weary wisdom yet too much of a son-of-a-bitch to die, could write. I hope to one day be half this cool.

2002: Wilco: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. What can I say about this album? A combination of experimentation and folk-rock that never fails to disappoint, every track on this album is a finely crafted masterpiece. Jeff Tweedy and company deliver. Big time.

2003: The White Stripes: Elephant. This album was my junior year of high school. “Seven Nation Army” and “Ball and Biscuit” saw the mainstream embrace Jack White as a guitar god. I just really dug the color scheme.

2004: Tie: Loretta Lynn: Van Lear Rose and Tom Waits: Real Gone.

Van Lear Rose: Speakin’ of Jack White, how about we team him up with Appalachia’s own country music legend, Loretta Lynn? Lynn shows that she’s still got it as both a singer and a songwriter while White tries his hand at producing. The result is a modern day country music classic that was largely ignored by the mainstream country establishment. The album still managed to win a Grammy for Best Country Album. Not bad, Jack. Not bad at all.

Real Gone: Waits incorporates elements of hip-hop into his music for the first time, with samples and beat boxing being used to great effect on many of this album’s sixteen tracks. This is also the first Waits album to feature none of his signature piano playing, with electric guitars, found percussion, and kick ass take-no-prisoners band making this the loudest, most distorted, heaviest album of Waits’ career, like Bone Machine on acid and steroids. The spoken word “Circus” and “Don’t Go Into that Barn” are downright creepy while even the quieter moments like “Dead and Lovely” and “How’s it Gonna End” are full of murder, mystery, twisted tales, and broken promises. Waits would also write his first protest song on this album, “Day After Tomorrow” an acoustic ballad about a soldier longing to be home from the battlefield. Though reportedly written with the Iraq invasion, the song could be about any soldier in any war.

2005: The White Stripes: Get Behind Me Satan. Let’s face it. During this time, Jack White was unstoppable. Get Behind Me Satan is the White Stripes’ most experimental work, and in my opinion, though I know it’s an unpopular one, it is the band’s best album. White seems to be fighting back against the mainstream success of Elephant here with electric guitar largely taking a backseat to acoustic and piano based arrangements. The vibraphone even manages to make an appearance.

2006: Bob Dylan: Modern Times. Dylan continues his latter day resurgence with songs like “Thunder on the Mountain,” “Nettie Moore,” and “Ain’t Talkin’” showing that he is still rock’s finest poet and one of its best bluesmen while “Working Man’s Blues # 2” sees Dylan channeling the ghost of Woody Guthrie once again in a song about the trials of the working poor.

2007: PJ Harvey: White Chalk. Harvey, before known as one of the biggest badasses in women’s rock, hangs up her electric guitar and sits down at the piano. The result is one of the most haunting and heart wrenching albums I’ve ever heard. The album opens with the foreboding line, “As soon as I am left alone, the devil wonders into my soul,” in “The Devil” and closes Harvey’s banshee wail in “The Mountain.” In between are nine of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard. If ghosts could make music, they’d make White Chalk.

2008: Coldplay: Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends. I lost my baby cousin the year this album came out, and I have to say that this album helped get me through it. Coldplay creates their masterpiece, and the result is breathtaking. Full of gorgeous production and breathtaking arrangements, this is pop-rock at its finest: uplifting, soulful, intelligent, and beautiful.

2009: Vic Chesnutt: At the Cut. Sadly, Chesnutt would commit suicide shortly after this album’s release, and there are definite hints, if not outright signs, of the tragedy to come in the album’s lyrics in songs like “I Flirted With You All My Life” and stormy musical arrangements like the brooding opener “Coward.” Other stand out tracks include “Granny” and “Chinaberry Tree.” A tragic farewell to one of the most under-rated songwriting geniuses of our time.

2010: Bonobo: Black Sands. This mostly instrumental album from British DJ Bonobo is one of the most relaxing albums I’ve ever heard. Lavish arrangements and groovy beats meet with Eastern and jazz-influences. If you just need to chill for awhile, you’d be hard pressed to do better than this.

2011: PJ Harvey: Let England Shake. An album about the ravages of war, Let England Shake is Harvey’s most political work to date. It’s also her most beautiful. Most of the songs were written on autoharp with the instrument being featured prominently on most of its twelve tracks. Like a female version of an Old Testament prophet, Harvey calls out the hypocrisy and violence of our time. A modern masterpiece in every sense of the word.

2012: Bob Dylan: Tempest. The body count on Tempest is high. In nearly every song, someone’s drying a violent death whether its John Lennon being shot in the back in “Roll On John”or the sinking Titanic carrying its passengers to an icy and watery grave in the title track. When people aren’t actually dying, Dylan is threatening to have his dogs “tear you limb from limb” in “Pay in Blood” and demanding the bar keep plays for his “flat chested junkie whore” in “Scarlet Town.” Dylan’s voice fits the lyrics as it has now deteriorated to the point that it sounds as if he’s been gargling lava while shooting straight moonshine. Despite the ravages of age, Dylan assures us he “ain’t dead yet” and “his bell still rings” in “Early Roman Kings.” Even though time has left him ragged, Dylan has rarely sounded more on top of game.

2013: Phosphorescent: Muchado. “Song For Zula” is one of the most beautiful indie rock ballads in recent memory. The rest of the album is tinged by heartbreak and hopeful melancholy. Recorded in singer/songwriter Matthew Houck’s makeshift studio, the album’s production has an unfinished quality to it that some may find challenging. That doesn’t diminish the album’s overall power.

2014: Sun Kil Moon: Benji. Singer/songwriter Mark Kozelek, aka Sun Kil Moons, presents stream-of-conscious lyrics about family, mortality, and the meaning (and possible meaninglessness) of life over mostly acoustic arrangements. A deeply personal album that, in my opinion, was the best album of 2014.

2015: This year ain’t over, so I’m not going to cast my hat on this year just yet. I definitely have to list Modest Mouse’s return, Strangers to Ourselves, as a rock frontrunner, although the infectious hip hop of Kendrick Lamar’s “King Kunta” featured on “To Pimp a Butterfly” has also got my attention. We’ll see where the year goes.

Gravy and Biscuits and the Garden of Eden

When I was a little boy, after church my mother and I would visit the farm where she had spent her entire childhood to visit her family. That farm is an eighty-eight acre tract of land that lies on the mountain between Woodway and Stickleyville down in Lee County, Virginia. My mother lives there now, much as my grandmother did when I was a boy. To this day, whenever I visit it, I am filled with an intense array of emotions, most notably longing. This place, with its muddy creeks rushing down the mountain and its barnyard smell of cow manure and its lush trees which canopy the whole area around the house, is not only a part of my identity as an Appalachian, it is a part of the daily context in which I live my life as a human being, as a person. When I think of the home I want to return to, I think of my mother, and I think of this beautiful stretch of land.

When my parents divorced, my mother and I moved onto the farm. I would spend my weekend with my father and my father’s relatives, but through the week, the farm was my home. My uncles, who had never left there, were farmers: tobacco, cattle, corn, apples, cherries. Mostly tobacco. And cattle. The old farmhouse was heated by a wood burning stove in the Basement. Family photographs covered so much of the walls that you couldn’t see the bare plywood underneath. Most of the photos were black and white, or had once been in color but had aged into that sepia technicolor hue that we associate with the 1970s. The parts of the walls that weren’t lined with photographs were lined with bookshelves and books. Some people might suspect that a pair of bearded mountain farmers would be unread men, and they would be quite wrong, blinded by stereotypes and prejudice. My grandmother, who wasn’t afraid to use a curse word or four when the occasion called for it, which was apparently often, would sit in her rocking chair and listen to the sounds of bluegrass gospel. The Christianaires and the Good Shepherd Quartet are two of the ones that spring immediately to mind.


My grandmother refused to cook on anything but a wood burning stove, and so there was a second wood burning stove in the kitchen. One for heat. One for meat. My mother and her sisters had offered to buy her an electric stove. She always refused. And so every morning, at 5 AM, I would be brought from sleep, still groggy, by the sound of the morning fire being lit. Keep in mind, I am only twenty-eight as of this writing. It sounds very well as if I am speaking of a time long ago, but in truth, this was the mid-1990s, the age of the dawn of the internet, which, of course, we didn’t have. In fact, we didn’t have cable, either. We could pick up two stations on the television in the living room, which was the only one in the house. Channel eleven, out of Johnson City, channel five, though I’m not sure where it was out of, and a PBS station that you had to click the dial to the UHF setting to get to.

Soon after the fire was lit, I would begin to hear the crackle of bacon, its smell drifting into the bedroom where I slept. The air would still be cold on the winter mornings and the blankets would nestle me like a loving embrace. My grandmother cooked gravy and biscuits every morning on a wood burning stove, and that’s what I woke up to most days. Slowly, I would come around and wake up. I would get out of bed and feel the cool, linoleum floor beneath my feet. I would get ready for school and eat gravy and biscuits and rush off to the bus stop way down at the end of the driveway.


I didn’t know it then, but that was a sort of paradise in and of itself, living in the slow paced way of life of my childhood. These days, my first instinct in the morning is to check my emails, then drink coffee, then check Facebook, then make sure that I haven’t neglected to reply to anyone. The great irony of humanity’s technological advancements is that even as we have grown more digitally connected, this digital connectedness has in many ways isolated us from some of life’s simpler pleasures, and from parts of ourselves: the smell of bacon cooking slowly on a wood burning stove, the unhurried rising of the sun through the homemade curtains, accompanied by the rooster’s crow out in the barnyard. These are things that were a part of my daily existence in childhood, and I confess that I often wish they were a part of my existence now. I’m sure I’m not the only one, young, old, or in-between, raised in the hills of Appalachia, who feels the same way. It seems at times as if the world has moved on, but in our hearts, we have not.

There are still some of us who remember what the Garden of Eden was like.


A Couple of Passages that Have Struck Me Today from the Hindu Scriptures

Those closest to me (and many of those who aren’t so close to me, thanks to the wonderful advent of social media) know that I am deeply interested in philosophy, religion, theology, and the like.  For most of my life up to this point, that has meant exploring the Christian tradition I was raised in despite the fact that I have believed for years now that all religions contain divine truth.  Now, however, as I approach my twenty-ninth year, I have reached a point where I am no longer trying to hold on to my faith.  What I mean to say is that I have grappled with questions surrounding my own Christian identity throughout most of my twenties and have discovered that faith that must be constantly grasped and clung to isn’t really faith.

This is not to say that I have abandoned Christianity in any sense, but that I feel (notice I did not say “believe”) that whatever those of us who use such language mean when we speak of God or of the Divine cannot be contained within the confines of any one religion or book or, God-help-us, dogma.  Instead, for my part, I have decided that I will let the Spirit blow my intellectual and spiritual curiosity wherever it will.  I now float in my faith rather than grasp at it, to paraphrase the philosopher Alan Watts.

There is a book entitled “The Bible of the World” that has been sitting rather neglected on one of my bookshelves for quite sometime.  It is a considerably old book, at least from my perspective.   It was published in 1939 under the editorial guidance of Robert O. Ballou and contains English translations of many of the world’s major religious texts.  I am currently making my way, albeit more slowly than I’d like, through the section containing a selection of Hindu texts.  While my study of Christian theology and first-hand Christian experience has taught me that a religion is much more than its own revered books, reading through the Hindu scriptures has, over the past few days, filled me with incredible peace.

I’ve found the two following selections particularly beautiful.

“Even in bondage thou shalt live with the virtuous, the erudite, and the truthful; but not for a kingdom shalt thou stay with the wicked and malicious.  The vile are ever prone to detect the faults of others, though they be as small as mustard seeds, and persistently shut their eyes against their own, though they be as large as Vilva fruits.”  This was taken from the Garuda Purana. Obviously, I can’t help but notice the similarity to the words of Jesus in the Book of Matthew when he asked, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3).  It makes me wonder to what extent Christ and the biblical writers were exposed to the predating Eastern philosophy of the Indian people.  It also begs the question of why is it that if these themes are so well-entrenched into all of the world’s religious traditions that we have such a hard time applying them in our daily lives?   I can’t help but feel a tinge of guilt as I know that the capacity to judge others is definitely within me, even as I often give myself a pass on my own faults, much to my own detriment.
I was also especially struck by this passage in the Vishnu Purana:

It should therefore be the assiduous endeavor of wise men to attain unto God.  He dwelleth eternally in all beings and all things dwell in him; and thence the lord Vasudeva is the creator and preserver of the world.  He, though identical with all beings, is beyond and separate from material nature, from its products, from properties and from imperfections; he is beyond all investing substance; he is universal soul; all the interstices of the universe are filled up by him; he is one with all good qualities; and all created beings are endowed with but a small portion of his individuality.  Assuming various shapes, he bestows benefits on the whole world, which was his work.  Glory, might, dominion, wisdom, energy, power and other attributes are collected in him.  Supreme of the supreme, in whom no imperfections abide, lord over finite and infinite, god in individuals and universals, visible and invisible, omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, almighty.  The wisdom, perfect, pure, supreme, undefiled and one only by which he is conceived, contemplated and known:  That is wisdom.  All else is ignorance.”

A final note on this blog update.  I’m in no way claiming to be an expert on comparative religion or anything of the sort.  I am very much a student of these things and have much to learn.  If anyone who considers themselves a member of the Hindu tradition should read this, know that if I have incorrectly made any assumptions, misstatements, or have presented any un-truths about that faith that such things were done out of my own ignorance, not out of any sort of willful maliciousness.  I only wanted to share with my own small readership that which I had learned today.

The Bible of the World, published by Viking Press.

The Bible of the World, published by Viking Press.


I was approached by Roxy Todd of West Virginia Public Radio about writing a personal essay for Valentine’s Day that focused on my love, complicated though it may be, for Appalachia.  Of course, I can’t separate my love for a place from my love for my wife and large extended family, which is what really makes southwest Virginia home.

The audio essay was included as a part of West Virginia Public Radio’s Inside Appalachia programming.  You can hear my essay, along with the rest of these beautiful love songs to Appalachia, by using the Soundcloud player embedded in this post.  The transcript of my essay follows.


For better or for worse, through sickness and in health, for richer or poorer. Committing to a place and a community is a lot like committing to a marriage. It takes work. It takes willpower. It takes dedication. But above all, it takes love. As a relatively newly-and-happily married man , I can tell you first hand that love is the not-so-secret ingredient in any relationship. The struggles of day-to-day life, the bouts with sickness, the financial stress that most newlyweds face, it can all be conquered by love and love is ultimately what has kept my wife and I going strong for six years now as a couple and for eight months as a married couple.

I’m reluctant to compare living in Appalachia, or anywhere else for that matter, to something as sacred as marriage; however, when I really break it down and examine marriage as the beginning point of many families including my own; when I trace my own family line back through over a century of people who lived, and died, in these ruggedly beautiful mountains; a line that includes farmers and prison guards and automobile mechanics and coal miners and storekeepers and mothers and fathers and husbands and wives, I can see where you definitely draw the similarities.

As I approach my twenty-ninth year on this planet, family is becoming more important to me than ever before. Having all ready lost most of my grandparents, I know that I will not have the wisdom of older generations to draw on forever, and there will come a time in the near future when I will have children of my own to guide and to mold to the best of my ability. And there will come a time, hopefully several decades down the line, when my own life will draw to a close and it will be time for me to exit the stage, hopefully with grace and dignity, having left things in my community and in my world at least a little better than they were when I got here and having left something of value for the generations to come.

My family is here, and that is why when I think of Appalachia in general and southwestern Virginia in particular, I can only think of home. This place isn’t perfect. Its economic struggles have been well-documented and its spiritual ones have been as well. But show me a perfect city. Show me a perfect community. Show me a perfect family, or a perfect marriage, or a perfect person. And I will show you a carefully crafted facade. Perfection, at least in this realm, does not exist and never will. 

But Love does.   And home is wherever love is.  

And for better or worse, I’m home. Til death do us part.