An Open Letter to President Trump

Author’s Note:  This letter was written on April 30, 2017 in the wake of Donald Trump’s first one hundred days in office and mailed shortly thereafter.  I wrestled intensely with whether or not to publish it in a public setting, and have decided in favor of doing so.

April 30, 2017

President Donald J. Trump
1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW
Washington, D.C. 20500

Dear President Trump,

Allow me, sir, to introduce myself. My name is Rance Garrison. I am thirty years old. I have a beautiful wife who I have been with the past seven years. We have no children yet, but we hope to within the next year or two. I live in the Appalachian coalfields of southwest Virginia. At this point in my life, I find myself seeking a master’s degree from Emmanuel Seminary in nearby Johnson City, Tennessee. Somewhat ironically, I also handle security for a regional rock concert promoter and work as a driver at a local pizza place while selling advertising for our local access television channel. I guess you might say I’m a bit of a hustler. I have dreams of being both an entrepreneur as well as a man of the Spirit deeply ingrained in the culture and community of my own little corner of rural America. I want to be clear that I do not represent any party, church, or institution private or public. I am only a single man, like yourself.

I sincerely hope that this letter finds you well. I wish to congratulate you on your first one hundred days in office as well as your victory in November’s election. I will be the first to admit that I did not support your candidacy. In fact, I was very outspoken about that opposition on social media, yet here it is now and here we are. I can’t say that I support some of the policies you have pursued or your divisive rhetoric, yet I find myself sensing that there is something very intensely human about you. You are a man who wears his flaws and even his sins openly and you seem to have little pretense about who you are, and for that, I must give you respect. As a sincere yet imperfect follower of the most authentic man to ever walk the earth, I respect people who are truly themselves.

I believe that man, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, has led me tonight to write this letter to you, and I write prayerfully that his spirit will move between you and me. You say you are likewise a follower of this same Lord, and I am trusting that affirmation of your own personal faith to be authentic in spite of my own unease and misgivings. I read recently that you were feeling quite lonely in your current position, and I imagine that the weight of the world would hang heavily on anyone’s shoulders who found themselves the President of this great country. I know it would be a weight on me, brother, and I cannot begin to imagine the day-to-day stress that you must be faced with. While I have never been your biggest fan, you are still a child of God, and when I put myself in your shoes, I always feel moved to pray that God will give you wisdom, strength, patience, and a strong sense of moral responsibility to the people of this country and to the world.

In that prayerful Spirit, I ask that you remember the poor, the elderly, and the downtrodden of this land, Donald, for it was they who elected you. The people of Appalachia are suffering. My hometown of Pennington Gap, Virginia lost its hospital in 2013. I do not know what the policy solution for Pennington Gap to have a re-opened hospital would be at the Federal level, but I do know that there are twenty-five thousand people living in a rural county with no hospital in Virginia, many of them elderly, many of them your supporters. In cases of medical emergency, these citizens of this great country, many of whom are older people with little financial means, are forced to be driven by ambulance as much as forty-five minutes away to the nearest medical facility. You are advancing in years, sir, and just as I have placed myself in your shoes, I ask that you place yourself in the shoes of the elderly and poor and sick who have little money and inadequate access to timely lifesaving health care in my own hometown of Pennington Gap and in the other economically impoverished areas of this wealthy nation.

Remember the sick. You have supported universal healthcare in the past, and I prayerfully ask that you support some form of universal healthcare in this country today. You could become a champion for people on both sides of this country’s political aisle-you could become a hero in the minds of many—if you truly took up the cause of the poor and downtrodden of this land. I know that you are a man of great means, and while I have always held something of a distrust for people of great means, many of this nation’s poor, sick, and old have seen something in you that has led them to be your most ardent supporters. You represent a turn from the usual political order, and people need hope now more than ever. What an amazing moment it would be if you truly did do away with a healthcare system that left many suffering, that cares more for money than for the lives of God’s children, and instead embraced the sort of socialized healthcare that the other developed nations of the Western world enjoy today.

I ask you to remember the immigrants of this country, President Trump. While I understand that our nation’s security is of the highest importance, we also have a moral responsibility as children of God to respect and protect the stranger in our midst. For some of these people, America is the only home they have ever known. For others, the United States represents a hope that echoes that which must have been felt by the Israelites as they wondered in the desert in search of the Promised Land. These immigrants, too, are your people, sir. Be their protector, not their persecutor, and history will remember your name with honor and respect forever.

Remember our military and veterans, and in the words of our Lord, remember his command to “love your enemies.” In all matters of national security, seek the common peace above all else. Our country has been at war, it seems, for nearly all of my thirty years. This is tragic, sir. While I know that there “will be war and rumors of war” forever, the scope of our military industrial complex controls far too much of our foreign policy. You campaigned against this, you must take up that cause again. The state of our world is too dire. Most importantly, I know that you have children and grandchildren, and like any father or grandfather, I know that you must want the best for your descendants. We cannot risk nuclear war, and I know that the weight of that must bear down upon you. I pray that God will bestow upon you the wisdom, patience, and guidance to avoid such a tragedy, and that in this current climate of global fear and tension, a great peace will emerge such that the world has never seen. History will remember you as a truly great man, Mr. Trump, if you show that you are a man of peace. As our Lord once said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.”

Remember those who are struggling economically. So many people in my community are facing joblessness and poverty. While this area has traditionally been a producer of coal, the coal industry’s decline is irrevocable. Rural America supported you overwhelmingly. There are small towns throughout the Appalachian Mountains and across this great country that are full of people who have very little financial means or opportunity who absolutely adore you, Mr. President. Remember them, and do all that you can to expand opportunities for rural and Appalachian Americans. They are some of your biggest supporters, and you owe them a chance at the economic security and for a slice of the American Dream that all of us long for; however, this vision for an economically secure future must look toward the future, not the past, for inspiration. We must invest in technologies, education, and infrastructure to give all Americans, both rural and urban, a bright economic future and a shot at the sort of success that you have yourself enjoyed. If you work toward this end, history will remember you as a man of great vision.

Finally, I ask that you remember the whole spectrum of this country’s diversity, its viewpoints, its various internal cultures, its beautiful people, all of whom are Americans, and all of whom now look to you as their primary moral example. From our magnificent major cities to our beautiful small towns, you now represent America to the world and serve as a great moral influence on the souls of the people of this country. Seek to unify rather than divide, to heal rather than scorn. Be gentle with others, Donald, but above all, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of God, and so is every man, woman, and child on earth. Before Him, we are all equal, the mighty and the meek. You are loved, Donald, by many of the people of this country, but more importantly by the Creator Himself. If you walk before him and your fellow man with humility and a sense of equity toward all people, you will heal the divides in our country and restore our national civic pride.

The world needs examples of wise and courageous leadership. You can become that shining example. You can become the lion on the side of the marginalized. You can become that champion that the people of this country need. Your presidency is only one hundred days old; it is young and still yet full of possibility if you align yourself fully with the Gospel of Jesus Christ—a gospel which reaches to the places of despair in our midst and brings about life-giving hope in the darkest of moments. You can help show the world, along with the citizens of this great country, that America is a country where people of all races and all religions can live together in peace, where justice and equality reign, where Democracy and the common good are our highest national pursuits. You can steer this country toward a greatness the likes of which it has never seen, and you can do so by taking up the social and economic causes of those who are most marginalized in modern America.

History is calling, Donald, and the all-seeing eye of God bears witness to the ages. You are the President of the United States. You are a successful businessman. You are a celebrity. You may very well be the most famous man on earth. But even if you were none of those things, even if you were an ordinary Joe with less than a dollar to his name, you would still be God’s child, and like all of humanity, you would be loved beyond measure. Stand with the poor, Donald. Stand for peace and prosperity. Stand where Christ stood. Stand and be counted.

I cannot promise you my vote in November of 2020. That will depend on how the next few years unfold. But I can promise you my sincere prayers and best wishes. May God grant you His peace and wisdom in all matters of leadership, and may health and happiness be yours and your family’s. I sincerely pray that this letter reaches you, and if you, or a member of your staff, feel moved to respond to me, I would be quite receptive to that.

Sincerely, your brother in Christ,

Rance J. Garrison

Fort Henry Mall, Kingsport, Tennessee.

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Andy and I went to the Fort Henry Mall earlier today. It was the first time I had been there in probably at least six or seven years. In fact, I think the last time I went was on mine and Andy’s first double date with Kristina Garrison and Keaton Lawson back in 2009, so, it had been awhile.

I used to love going to the mall when I was a kid, and in high school, Mallrats became one of my favorite movies. Note, I never wanted to be one of the “cool kids” at the mall. I wanted to be one of those weird mall dwelling kids. Never buying anything, just hanging around. Possibly getting into some kind of most harmless mischief. Of course, we didn’t have a mall in Lee County, so getting to go to the mall was a pretty big deal for me and my friends back in the day, and the Fort Henry Mall was usually the destination of choice.

I also thought about all the times I had been there as a little kid with my mom and dad. That feels like another lifetime. I remember the old late 1980s aesthetic of the Fort Henry Mall included a lot of neon lights and dimly lit store fronts. They redid all of that for a more clean look in the mid 1990s, but stepping out of J.C. Penny’s into the mall proper used to feel like stepping into a neon wonderland of endless possibilities.

There was a pet store, two CD stores, two book stores, a KB Toys, and a store that sold grand pianos, basically every thing a kid with an interest in music needs. They also had a huge arcade called Tilt and a Spencer gifts that had a lot of lava lamps and stuff toward the back that my parents wouldn’t let me look at for some reason (reason being of course, as I now know, there are a lot of dildos in the back of a Spencer’s. No one covers my eyes now, though.) There were also a lot of clothing stores, but I was a kid. I didn’t care about that.

In high school, I do remember feeling disappointed that our mall didn’t have a Hot Topic. Johnson City got a Hot Topic. The mall in Nashville where my dad lived had a Hot Topic. They had Pink Floyd shirts at Hot Topic. And Radiohead. And Smashing Pumpkins. And Nirvana. Basically all the bands that a lanky awkward alternative kid would be into. The “real shit,” as the kids now days say, I think.

Anyway. The Fort Henry Mall holds a lot of memories for me. They’re currently remodeling the theater and they still have one of the CD stores (which now carries a large selection of Vinyl at outrageous prices), the grand piano store, a book store (though I don’t think it’s the same one that used to be there), and the arcade. I didn’t see a K.B. Toys anywhere. Just as well. I’m too old for toys and Andy and I don’t have kids yet.

We did get a couple of frosted sandwich cookies from the Great American Cookie Store, though. They were very good. It was a good day, and I shared it with the woman I love.

The Fort Henry Mall used to be a lot busier, though, than it is now, and parts of it are getting run down. Parts of me are also getting run down.

As Kurt Vonnegut used to say, “So it goes.”

New Album Announcement: Gilead

Gilead Cover

I am currently in the process of recording three new musical projects, and I’ve decided to release “Gilead,” an acoustic album in memory of my father who passed away in 2015, first. The title is taken from the novel “Gilead” by Marilyn Robinson. We read the book, which is written as a letter from an aging father to his son, as part of my seminary studies. Since this album is basically my own final farewell and tribute to my own dad, it seemed fitting. The tile also evokes a bit of a nostalgic longing for a place that I’m not sure exists.

In addition to that book, I was also inspired by Bob Dylan’s early acoustic albums, Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, Sun Kil Moon’s Benji, and Leonard Cohen’s early work.

After messing around with a lot of electronic experimentation for my last two releases, this one is going to depart from that and be very, very bare bones. Acoustic guitar, harmonica, and my own naked voice. It’s shaping up to be very rough around the edges so far but that also seems fitting. It’s the first time I’ve done a collection of songs using just acoustic guitar and harmonica since 2007 and back then it was just because I didn’t have anything else to work with, honestly.

I have three songs out of a possible ten or eleven completed so far and it’s coming along quickly. The cover image is of my dad, just after he came home from the Army in the early 80’s, though it looks a lot older than that.

I will be donating any proceeds from Bandcamp downloads (and possible CD sales) to Saint Jude’s Hospital.

To view my past releases, you can visit rancegarrison.bandcamp.com or search for me on Spotify, Amazon, iTunes, and other digital music retailers.

“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

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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.

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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.”

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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.