10 Influential Men

Yesterday, Thom Rainer wrote about influential leaders in his life.  Like Rainer, I am thankful for many men that God sent my way.  In my childhood and early teen years most of the men who influenced me were the big fat guys in boots and tights I saw wrestling on Saturday nights.  If Tommy “Wildfire” Rich is your biggest male influence as a kid, your future isn’t looking to bright but, for a time, that was the case for me.

But God graciously put several men in my life who in their own way taught and are continuing to teach me what it means to be a man.  In no particular order, here are the most influential men in my life.

1.  Robbie Floyd

Robbie lived across the street from me for a big portion of my childhood.  My father didn’t live with us and there were a lot of bullies in my neighborhood.  That made for a bad mix.  Whenever I got in a jam I knew that if I could just get away, all I would have to do is go knock on Robbie’s door and he would take care of things.  He did.  Within seconds, he’d load me up in whatever car he was driving at the moment with Def Lepard bumping through the speakers and go have a talk with my adversaries.

Robbie taught me how to play sports, how to stand up for myself and he introduced me to rap music.  I think God used Robbie’s compassion towards me, a kid 7 years younger than him, to show me the importance of speaking up for those who do not have a voice.  I’m thankful for Robbie.

2.  Turk Holt

Turk is my spiritual father.  He was my youth pastor in middle school but he was more than  an activities director or sanctified babysitter.  Turk taught me how to study the Bible on my own and he was the first person who taught me how to develop sermons.  When I read or teach from the Old Testament, every time I get to the great heroes like Abraham and David, I think about Turk.  In my mind he is the picture of what a godly man should.  I feel his impact on my life everyday.

3.  Keith Keller

I’ve written before about Keith’s influence on me.  He has a heart for getting the gospel to the nations like I have never seen before.  At the same time, when I’m with Keith I know I’m going to laugh.  Keith is the wisest person I know and I am a better man for having followed in his footsteps a majority of my life.

4.  Todd Wright

Todd was my pastor from the time I was in middle school until my early college years.  He couldn’t have been more than 25 or 26 when he became the senior pastor of our huge church.  I can’t imagine the pressures he felt.  Like Keith, when I think of Todd I think of his laughter and his heart for missions.  But the most prominent word that comes to mind when I think of Todd is perseverance.  Halfway through college, in spite of the best wishes of all of those around me, I wanted to quit school.  It was Todd that finally got through to me and told me to finish, if for nothing else, to get into a personal rhythm of finishing what I started.  I’m sure my mom was glad that he had that talk with me over pizza that afternoon.

Little did I know but at that time Pastor Todd was persevering through his own trials.  Some in our church were attacking Todd and it was destroying our church.  Maybe it has, but I’m not sure if that church has recovered even today from those power grabs and personal attacks.  But I do know that Pastor Todd is still serving Jesus by serving the Church.  He’s modeling the advice he gave me 15 years ago and he’s finishing strong.  I’m thankful that Todd taught me not to be a quitter.

5.  Marty Duren

The church where I grew up and where Todd Wright pastored is responsible for raising up a lot of young men who still today are serving Christ.  Marty is the poster child of those young men.  As a kid, Marty showed me from afar what it means to continue loving Jesus when everything else is falling apart.  As I have grown older, Marty continues to show me on a more personal level what it means to truly live a missional lifestyle.  I am a better pastor because of Marty Duren.

6.  Gerald Fowler

I have never known anyone who has engaged the local community with the gospel quite like Gerald Fowler.  The small town where I served as a youth minister was, like most small southern towns, racially divided.  Generally speaking, most of the white folks lived on family land while a large portion of the black population lived up on a place called Baptist Hill.  Gerald was one of the bridges between these two communities.  Gerald’s impact in the community was most visible with his involvement with the Greenville Patriots football team and the well documented illness of their former coach, Jeremy Williams.  Before Jeremy ever got sick and before most people cared about Greenville football, Gerald came along as a volunteer team photographer, hoping that his camera would open doors for him to speak the gospel into the lives of young men.  It did.

At a time when most men his age were considering retirement, Gerald was diving in deeper to serving Jesus by loving others.  Gerald is a living example of 1 Corinthians 9:19-23.

7.  John Piper

Shortly after we were married, my wife played a sermon for me from John Piper.  That one sermon from Romans 9 began my journey away from anemic, watered-down preaching and theology towards a greater grasp of the sovereignty and glory of God.  I’ve met John once but I don’t know him.  Still, I’m thankful that God used him to give me a bigger, more biblical picture of Jesus.

8.  Wayne Grudem

Wayne Grudem is another influential man who I do not personally know.  But his massive book, Systematic Theology, has been the most helpful extra-biblical resource to my ministry.  Every believer should own this book if for nothing else to help you with those nagging questions we all get about the Bible and our faith from time to time.  Friends who do know Grudem speak very well of him as a humble man who loves Jesus and is lovingly devoted to his wife.

9.  Dr. Stan Wilkins

It’s not original with Stan but he used to always tell me, “Get into God’s word until God’s word gets into you.”  Stan was one of my first seminary professors and he taught me the ins and outs of pastoral ministry as well as the skills necessary to develop a sermon.  But Stan wasn’t the kind of professor who was content just teaching in the classroom.  I had many conversations with Dr. Wilkins over the phone and in person that went beyond our syllabus.  Stan’s passion for God and his word was contagious and I’m better for having been around him.

Shortly after I really got to know him, Stan died.  I’m glad he’s with Jesus now but I really wish I could give him a call.

10.  Voddie Baucham

I do not know Voddie Baucham but his book Family Driven Faith is one of the most influential I have ever read.  I picked it up when my first kid was barely a year old and I’m glad I did.  Baucham’s book taught me the importance of manning up and be the spiritual leader of my home.  Last night I had the joy of sitting with my wife and two sons as we read scripture and sang songs.  I’m afraid I would have missed out on times like those if I never read Voddie’s book.

All of these men are sinners, just like me, so they make terrible gods.  But they were and many of them continue to be great influential men.  As I write this, I am overcome with joy that God saw fit to put so many men in my life that would, in their own way and whether they knew it or not, help me to love and serve him better.

Most of the men on this list are not famous.  Some of them aren’t even on Facebook.  Half of them have never written a book.  But God doesn’t need our fame.  What he asks for is our availability.  I’m so thankful that God made these ten men available to me.

Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.
(Hebrews 13:7 ESV)

Bad Guy

It was the early morning hours of January 8, 2012 when Jonathan Parisen found himself on a New York City railway staring down an oncoming train.  The day was young but so far it wasn’t looking like a good one for Jonathan.  Minutes earlier, he jumped off the platform and down on the tracks to retrieve his shoe.  Now, unable to pull himself back up on the platform, Jonathan was facing certain death.

And then he met Steven Santiago.

Steven couldn’t just stand on the deck and watch another man get run over by a train.  Steven didn’t know Jonathan but it didn’t matter.  Something had to be done.

At the last possible minute Steven jumped down in front of the oncoming train, grabbed Jonathan and pushed him back up on the platform.  In a matter of seconds, Jonathan Parisen went from nearly being mutilated by a train to receiving just a few bumps and bruises.  The hero, Steven Santiago, didn’t make it out so well.  For his troubles, he suffered severe head trauma.

Stories of ordinary people doing extraordinary things to rescue other ordinary people are very common.  We love these kinds of stories because they remind us that there’s still some level of decency in society.  Sometimes the good guys win.

But this story isn’t like that.  Sure, Steven Santiago wasn’t a cape wearing super hero but he wasn’t exactly an ordinary citizen either.  In the past decade, Steven served two terms in prison.  Steven has a past.  On at least two occasions in his life, Steven Santiago was considered the bad guy.

God has a way of using bad guys.

In Ephesians 3, Paul tells how he became a proclaimer of the gospel.  He tells how he would be the one man God initially used to bring the gospel to those who for generations and generations have been “separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12).

Paul didn’t find himself in this position because of his fine spiritual pedigree or because his grandmother was a really classy Christian lady.  Instead, he attributes his standing to “the gift of God’s grace which was given me by the working of his power” (Ephesians 3:7).  And then in verse 8, as if he is overcome with awe at God’s grace, Paul says, “To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given”.

Paul.  The one that almost single handedly drove the early church from its Jerusalem headquarters by overseeing the murder of one of its most prominent members (Acts 8:1-3).  The one who after that was on his way to do it again to other believers before Jesus stopped him (Acts 9).  Because of God’s grace, the one who once violently opposed the church would eventually give his life proclaiming the “manifold wisdom of God” through it (Ephesians 3:10).

The Bible is one account after another of God using broken outsiders to proclaim his gospel to other broken outsiders.  And it’s because of a perfect man who was  broken on our behalf that we don’t stay broken outsiders.  Just as Jesus’ broken body would eventually rise victorious over the grave, in Christ, we do not remain broken outsiders.

I wonder if Jonathan Parisen would have reacted differently had he known about Steven Santiago’s past.  Would he have rejected Steven’s attempts to help, hoping instead for a hero with a less checkered past?  What if Steven Santiago had disqualified himself from helping Jonathan Parisen for fear that his past mistakes prevented him from effectively offering any kind of help?

And I wonder how often our disappointments over our own past sins prevent us from serving the One who set us free from those very same sins.  If God can use a murdering blasphemer to spread his gospel message to others, he can use me and you, former broken outsiders, to tell of his power and glory to other broken outsiders.

I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.
(1 Timothy 1:12-16 ESV)

 

 

Spoiler Alert! Your Late Local News

Your late local news is scheduled to air tonight at 11.  Here’s what they’re going to say.

Apartment Fire!

Here are the three most dangerous places in the world to live.

1.  Juarez, Mexico

2.  Baghdad, Iraq

3.  Any apartment building in the metro Atlanta area

In a given week, you can count on at least one of these things catching on fire and making it on the news.  News stations love these and nobody has figured out why.  The only people who really need to know about it either already know about it or will very soon.  Save the helicopter for the next police chase.

Apartment Fire! is a distant cousin of Ladder In The Road that you so often hear about during your morning traffic report.

The School System

Somebody in the school system did something dumb today or got caught today for something dumb they did yesterday.  Most likely it involves a government issued laptop.  For their punishment they’ll get anywhere between 6 years in prison and a 30% increase in pay.

Musician Story Generator

Fill in the blanks below as you like and eventually you can see your very own story on the late local news.

“______________ (insert the word Rocker or Rapper) _______________________ (insert favorite troubled artist here.  Ex: Tommy Lee or Gucci Mane) was _______________________ (insert the word honored, arrested or killed) today for __________________________ (insert the phrase his role in a fight outside of a nightclub, driving 102 mph down the wrong way of a busy street or being famous).”

As a side note, if Tommy Lee lives to be 103 years old, the late local news will still put the word Rocker before his name.  He will always be Rocker Tommy Lee.  Tommy Lee is the first name(s) of the guy that was trying to arrest Harrison Ford in The Fugitive.  The word Rocker clears up a lot of confusion here.  Also, even though he has retired four times and owns an NBA franchise, Jay Z will always be Rapper Jay Z as far as your late local news is concerned.  They just want to make sure that you know which Jay Z they’re talking about.

Delayed Weather

“There’s a really big new system coming in for this weekend that you’re going to want to know about before you make any plans.  But first, let me spend the next 5 minutes talking about what already happened today and explaining to you why tomorrow at 2 a.m. will be the best time of day for you to go fishing.”

Now you can go to bed at 10:00 tonight.

Revival

I grew up in a church that had what we called revival services two or three times a year.  This is where the church would meet every night of the week to hear a special musical guest (usually a husband and wife that looked eerily like brother and sister along with their 12 kids) and a guest preacher.  Some of these preachers were good men that loved Jesus and some seemed more like characters.  For some reason, I remember the characters more.

There was the guy that dressed like he was an extra in Urban Cowboy.  This made us think he was edgy since he wore cowboy boots and jeans instead of those dress boots with zippers on the side that were popular among evangelical men in the 70s and 80s.  This guy finished out his sermon by asking us to bow our heads and close our eyes.

“Every head bowed.  Every eye closed.”

“No one looking around.”

“If you have sin in your life, would you please raise your hand?”

“Yes, I see you.  And you.  And you three over there.  Hands all over the house are up saying that they need to finally make Jesus their personal Lord and Savior.”

Wait!  I’m already a Christian.  Right?  What did I just do?

By the end of the service I felt like I just bought a gently used 1981 Datsun for 75 easy monthly payments of $235.

Then there was the well-polished revival speaker who dressed like he was running for mayor of the Love Boat.  This guy told some of the most remarkable stories I’d ever heard in my life.

“Just last week I was on a plane and the man next to me said, ‘Ronnie (name changed for protective purposes), I need to get my life together.'” 

“And right there on that plane, 30,000 feet above the ground that man gave his life to Christ.”

“Two minutes later that man’s heart exploded and he died.”

“That man was also the pilot of the airplane I was flying on.”

“I landed the plane.”

And there were other stories like the one about the kid walking out of a church service, scoffing at what he had heard only to get killed in a car accident minutes later.  I remember as he was telling one of these stories, seeing two or three teenage girls break out in loud sobs and running out of the building.  It was intense.

But for all of those revival services I sat through I don’t think I really saw revival very many times.  Tears?  Yes.  Insane stories?  Yes.  Lives and churches changed by the gospel?  Not too often.

One of the recurring themes in the book of Ephesians is Paul’s prayer for the church.  In Ephesians 1:17-23, he prays that these believers would have their heart’s eyes opened to the hope they have been called to, to the riches of God’s “glorious inheritance in the saints” and to “the immeasurable greatness” of God’s power.

This, more than a special week of church services, is a good picture of what a revival or spiritual awakening might look like.  How much different would the church be if we really saw the hope that is ours in Christ?  Certainly, this would mean victory over our fears and worries and doubts.  What if the church began to see our true identity in Christ?  This would, no doubt, help us to see the futility of searching for our identity anywhere else.  And what if our eyes were opened to the infinite power of God, the same power that raised Jesus from the dead?  I’m sure this would change the way we put our own sin to death and love the sinners around us.

I’ve learned a lot in my short time as a pastor.  One thing is that revival shouldn’t be something I put on my calendar.  Instead, It should be something I pray for.  I pray with Paul that God would open my eyes, along with those of my church, to the gospel.  I also pray for those whose eyes have never been opened in the first place because Satan “has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4).

We begin to understand revival better when we see it as hearts and minds that are opened to the gospel rather than hands that are raised before a character.

The Computer, Kathy: 2012 Oscar Snub

Oscar nominations were announced this week and there was a major snub.  Sure, this particular film was released a few decades ago but once you see this clip you’ll be convinced that Oscar missed it big this year.

Best Use of the Zoom In Button?

Best Use of the Zoom Out Button?

Most Exceptional Use of a Throne in a Cinematic Production?

Thanks for nothing, Oscar.

 

Moms, Joy & Pain

The folks at MTV are fascinated with teen pregnancy.  It all started with the reality show 16 & Pregnant where cameras document a pregnant teenager as she tries to deal with her pregnancy, her parents and her idiot boyfriend.  Each episode typically ends with the teen mom giving birth with her parents by her side while her idiot boyfriend is out riding his dirt bike somewhere.  The show was so popular that two other shows have spun off of it, Teen Mom and Teen Mom 2.  These shows document a few of the more popular teen moms from 16 & Pregnant as they struggle with watching their parents raise their kid, trying to finish school and whether or not they should keep loving their old idiot boyfriend and his dirt bike or start loving the new idiot boyfriend who probably only started coming around just so he could get on MTV.

These reality shows are probably only about 60% reality but there’s still something to be learned here.  The girls on this show have some measure of freedom.  Many of them live on their own now and a few have parents that do almost all of the work in taking care of their child.  Also, these moms receive some amount of money from MTV for the rights to document them in their most embarrassing and heartbreaking moments so the normal financial turmoil that most teen moms are all too familiar with are foreign to them.  On top of all of that, they’re all famous too.  Just check out the cover of one of the magazines in the checkout line the next time you’re at the grocery store.

But there’s one more characteristic these moms share.

They have all that comes with happiness but they’re miserable.

Many people are driven to sample all the sources of joy they can find until they land on one that lasts forever but all they are left with is a wake of destruction and a greater emptiness than they had before.  They want something that will complete them but the search has left them more undone than ever.  As a result, when everything is going good, it really isn’t and when everything is falling apart, it’s even worse.

In James 1:2, James tells a group of suffering Christians, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds.”

That seems like a weird verse.  Who considers trials a joy?  At first glance, it even looks like one of those well-meaning yet hurtful things someone might say to you when you’ve lost a loved one.

“God just needed another flower in his garden.”

“There was a party in heaven and your (fill in the blank with the name of the loved one for whom you happen to be mourning at the moment) was invited.”

But James isn’t being trite here.  He knows that he is speaking to people whose joy isn’t based on their circumstances or environment.  He is speaking to people, who in Jesus Christ, can say with David in Psalm 4:7, “You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound”.  Theirs is a joy that exceeds any other so called joy this world can offer.  Also, this is a joy that completes.  Jesus let us know this much in John 15:11 when he said, “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.”

Whether or not you’re a teen mom with an idiot boyfriend, two things are true.  One, you were wired for joy and the only place you can find the real stuff is in knowing Jesus Christ. And second, you will face trials.  When your joy is based on Jesus Christ, who never changes, though tears may fall and your heart may race, your joy cannot be touched.

One of the most joyful people I’ve ever known was a single mom who had a hard time making ends meet.  Somehow, through nagging illnesses that would eventually turn into a chronic illness, my mom managed to raise me and my sister, thankfully without any cameras around.  When I think about my mom I think about a lot of miserable circumstances but I don’t think about a miserable person.  Through it all, she had a joy in the face of the most intense trials.  Towards the end of her life, my wife and I sat by her bed and we all sang hymns together.

We were all crying like crazy and our hearts were broken.

But all three of us considered it joy.

Moving West and the Truer Art: An Interview with Bill Mallonee

When I was in college there were these places called record stores where people would go to buy music.  I spent a summer working at one in the mall near where I lived.  This was in the mid 90s so that means I played a part in selling a lot of music by Color Me Badd.  I’m still trying to forgive myself.

In the back of the store there was a locker that was usually kept stocked with free music and other promotional items.  One day I picked up a pre-released cassette entitled Blister Soul from a band called The Vigilantes of Love.  It absolutely blew my mind.

When I got back to school I quickly shared this new find with my friend who knew a lot more about music than I did.  His mind was equally blown.  I had never felt such a connection to a songwriter.  When I was listening to The Vigilantes of Love I knew I was listening to greatness.  It was like C.S. Lewis and Flannery O’Connor had their own rock band.

Photo courtesy of Bill Mallonee

A lot has changed since those days both in the music industry and with The Vigilantes of Love.  But that songwriter, Bill Mallonee, is still making good music.  I had a chance to talk with him recently about some of the changes he’s experienced, his new music and a new generation of fans.

Your newest albums are Songs For The Journey & Beyond and The Power and The Glory. Talk about what sets one apart from the other.

Right on. “Songs For the Journey & Beyond” is a home recording. Done neat and pretty on a simple digital 4 track recorder. Pushes a certain minimalism at cha, but it I think that’s a great thing. Makes you think about what’s important in a song. I write about 40 songs a year. Use to be 60 or so. I needed an outlet, so I’ve been releasing Eps under the moniker WPA as a way to push some of these songs into the “broad light of day,” so to speak…It’s the 12th WPA EP in 3 years. A nice clip. Usually each EP has about 6 or 7 songs. They’re a good “barometer” of where I’m at as afar as song-writing goes, what topics are holding my interest. They are 4 track home recordings where Muriah, my wife, and I play all the instruments. Part of the acoustic Americana thing, I guess you’d call it. Lots of guitar harmonies, which is something I explored on “The Power & The Glory.”They’re visceral and intimate, earthy and immediate. Like I said, they tend towards the acoustic/indie-folk side of things, but there are some “noise-y” ones here and there.

On the other hand: “The Power & the Glory” was a huge national release for us. It was album number 44 for me. (All of Mallonee’s solo & VoL’s work is up for listen and/or purchase at: http://www.billmalloneemusic.bandcamp.com). That’s a LOT of output over 20 years. P&G may be the best. The record was funded by fans and utilized a full band in a rockin’ studio. It’s firmly in the Americana/Rock genre. It’s gotten some fine reviews, so I’m glad folks are “getting it.” Best one could hope for, you know?

It’s been a while since you’ve made the transition out west from Athens, GA. How has your new environment impacted you as a musician, particularly in song writing.

Ah, sad to say: Athens was never very kind to Vigilantes of Love. The solo life wasn’t much better. But them things are in transition everywhere, aren’t they? We have a small but faithful group of nurturing fans in Athens, so we love playing there. We (VOL) always did far better nationally outside the town. We could never really understand why they didn’t embrace us there. I think VoL was a great “live” band and was constantly garnering good reviews nationally. So yeah, it hurt, because it’s always good to “have home to come home to.” I raised two sons there and worked in the community for over 30 years. I have many friends there, incredible people who are dear to me; Still, since the  “music thing” was ignored, it made it easy to say “so long, farewell” when an opportunity came. You learn to cut bait with negative energies and closed doors, you know?

The Southwest (we’ve lived in New Mexico for 16 months,) with it’s incomparable beauty and stark terrain, it’s vital mix of cultures (Native American, Spanish, and Catholic, to name a few) made it a wonderful place to “make camp.” All of the Southwest that I loved as a kid via western films, books and music, was suddenly available to Muriah & I. So when we had a chance to leave and land in a place that was inspiring, we took it.

I think it has made the songs more unique in terms of topics and themes. My world is very private. The songs have always been very confessional, but you have to skew that a bit. “Tell it slant,” was Emily Dickinson’s way of talking about it.  New Mexico is a fairly poor state, so the cost of living is pretty low in the “outpost” towns. We’ve lived in poverty for the last 5 years. It ain’t easy. I think it’s all the  uncertainty that’s pretty grueling, to be honest.

But, you know, we’re a nation going down the crapper these days. We’ve insulated ourselves by pulling up the drawbridge, but not engaging the system to solve problems. Lack of vision, lack of justice, and failed leadership at every level. Rampant cynicism and distrust. It’s gonna take some time to see just what elements we’ll affirm to “steer our ship” by as a country in the next decade.  We’ve seen it on the road for 6 years now. As a country, we are trying to figure out just what caused us our economy to tank, and why we allowed our government and Wall Street to delude us. It’ll be an interesting next decade.

We’re not alone. People’s ability to make a living doing has been compromised and denied all over this country. These are similar themes that occupied the great writers like John Steinbeck, Upton Sinclair, and folks like Woody Guthrie. They saw where we’d placed our “faith,” and they saw the toll in human lives. Modern day prophets like Wendall Berry and Jimmy Carter will be proved right in the end. Many of my recent works from say WPA 6 through the current WPA 12 explore such topics. They are very personalized in that they deal in the particulars of the poor, the disenfranchised, the lonely and lost.

Sojourn included one of your songs, “Knocking at Your Door”, on their latest Christmas album, “A Child Is Born“. What’s it like seeing a new generation of influential musicians honoring your music in that way?

 “Knockin’ At Your Door,” is really kinda a protest song, but since it borrows heavily from much of Isaiah’s images and vision, it qualifies as a Christmas song. Those dreams and texts are very much a part of the Church’s advent and Christmas readings. We’ve released 2 Christmas albums over the years with many Incarnational type songs that I’ve written. One is “Yonder Shines the Infant Light,” and the other is called “Wonderland.” We thought Sojourn did a great job covering it.

You’ve always been one to go against the grain in the music industry and that seems to be a big reason why so many fans are drawn to you. Talk about the industry now and how, if at all, artists like yourself can find their place.

I wish I knew “what” the industry was any more. To be honest I hear a lot of  paint-by-numbers-sorta stuff out there. And I think there’s an easy explanation for that: It’s what happens when all you can do is play your home town and listen to someone else’s records. You get “knock-offs” by the scores.

I think, in may ways, VoL were lucky. For 10 years straight, there was the ability to tour 6 months a year behind a national release. We had little or no safety net beneath us. It “seasoned” us. Here’s what happened: A particular view of this country and it’s people and their spirit began to integrate itself very naturally in the “bloodstream,” so to speak. But also a particular way of seeing ourselves emerged as well. It went into my songs, and hopefully it made them authentic, more “real deal,” or at least closer to such a standard.

Although VoL had no resources to afford the big PR firms, the great distribution conduits or the “right” connections, we did have great word of mouth on the band. That’s the only reason it went on as long as we were able to muster. We “dropped through the cracks.” And a lot of folks saw it that way, as well, so I don’t think this is some bitter statement. I was there, watching it unfold over 10 years. We seemed “doomed” to be a well-respected, cult band. It makes for some transparent and sober song writing…but inside, after 10 years, it was killing us…

Now, the “digital age” has made it possible for anyone with a 5 chord vocabulary, a guitar, a capo and a Mac with plug-ins to record an album, profile it on the social networks and promote oneself as a “legit” artist. So be it. There’s no turning back.

But there’s a down side:

(I understand I’m a “minority” on this point.) To me it simply means “the pond” is incredibly overstocked with “artists” who are merely imitating what their favorite flavor-of-the-month is. It may not mean any of them have anything to say OR (more importantly) a way of saying it that’s authentic and unique. I know that sounds harsh, but it I think it needs to be said. It’s “all good.” (Maybe my years in a van or car and 40 plus albums at the indie level earned me at least the right to cast a “dissenting” vote?).

When people have come to the place where giving music away for free is considered “marketing,” it shows just how far music has been “devalued.” “Free” doesn’t make it better or more authentic. Too much of anything trivializes it and that’s the place we’ve come to. Sure, these days music is just “commodity” that is to be consumed. Good art and good artists really have to work hard and consistently (and pray for good old fashion “luck!”) when it comes to getting heard these days.

So, I don’t think there’s any one-size-fits-all solution. In my case, I believed hard work, 100’s of good songs, relentless touring and authenticity were a worthy treasure to offer. Given the dynamics that govern the music biz these days, that’s not enough. That’s the way I see it, anyway. Still, I try to put all of the trial and tribulation back into the art, into the songs, so while I don’t welcome another industry “sucker-punch,” I’m determined to make music my way on own my terms…and infuse it with those experiences.

One of the great things about your music has been your ability to mix deep theological truths with honest introspection and moving stories. What’s the secret to excelling at this kind of writing without turning every song into a sermon?

I don’t think there’s a formula. The first thing, I think, is to have no agenda.  Always, always: come with no agenda. I don’t write to ‘save you,” edify you or make you (or anyone else) feel good. I simply write to “save myself.” By that I mean, I write to shake, move, chastize, inspire, and awaken my Self. My theory is that if I do what I do with some transparency and no artifice then it will indeed “resonate” with almost anyone. So, no, I don’t play to or coddle the “pop Church’s” notion of art or aesthetics. I just try not to think too much about it at all. It’d kill the song I wanna write if I did so. It’s just unnatural.

Muriah & I are often amused by the manifestations of the fact that the Church doesn’t seem to believe that God’s Spirit is part of the Trinity. They don’t see Him as this tender Presence, wooing every soul that’s been created. We act as if God needs some serious help in His ability to reach folks. So when it comes to religious truth, the Church dumbs it down, sanitizes it, “spiffy-ups” the Good News.

We fail to truly “know ourselves” and to take our place as part of fallen humanity. Somehow that’s a form of lying to ourselves, I think. My view, anyway.

Today it seems the Church’s “artists” are more or less rewarded for producing what amounts to propaganda. Yes, it’s “propaganda” I’ve staked my life on. The tomb was empty on the first Easter morning. But often, such truth is so “glammed-up” and “pop-i-fied,” that it rings false. “No one’s buying,” so to speak. Real art, more than likely, places ourselves in real life. It does so in full identification with our brokenness, our wounded-nesss, recognizing our needs, our failures, life’s incongruities and inconsistencies. I think if the person of faith would realize that he or she is not so very different from everyone else (whether they be people of faith, doubt or even hostile to the idea), then I think a “truer” art would emerge.

You can find out more about Bill’s music at http://billmalloneemusic.bandcamp.com/.

Conservatively Confused

I’m having a hard time understanding politics, particularly the conservative variety.  I grew up in a conservative environment, one where Republican politicians were on par with 11 of the disciples and Democrat politicians were more in line with that other disciple.  I grew up being taught that the GOP stood for things like lower taxes and higher morals.  The only thing that ever kept them from getting their way was, of course, the Democrats.

But as time passed and I began to pay more attention to the news, I started to see that there really wasn’t much difference between the two parties.  And, in case I need reminding, George Bush took care of that by giving us the Patriot Act and No Child Left Behind.  And then there was this weekend.

I saw so-called conservative voters in South Carolina cheer a man for dodging a question about his serial adultery and then hand him a victory because he stood up to those commies at CNN who dared to ask him a question about his personal life.  No doubt, many of those cheering on Newt were also cheering on the crusade to have President Clinton removed from office for his lack of self-control.  Both Newt and President Clinton have shown a grotesque inability to keep their marital vows but at least President Clinton only somehow managed to embarrass one wife.  Oh, but it was Hillary so it’s all good, right?

As all of this played out with Newt this weekend, I couldn’t help but think about Herman Cain.  Again, both men have proven themselves unfit for office but why did these so-called conservative voters turn a blind eye to Newt’s indiscretions while essentially forcing Cain out for his.  Maybe Cain should’ve sat down with Barbara Walters and taken a swing at her midway through the interview.

I also thought about Newt’s biggest rival at the moment.  For most of this primary season, Mitt Romney has been the frontrunner.  I’m sure that some of this has to do with my being sheltered but I’ve yet to meet a person who claims to support Mitt Romney.  Mitt Romney is a lot like the band Nickelback.  They sell a lot of records but I don’t know anybody that has one.  And who are the conservatives that are so in love with this man?  It wasn’t that long ago that Romney was defending his support of a woman’s right to choose as well as passing a health care plan that was apparently drafted in the same room as President Obama’s.  I know.  I just don’t understand.  A Republican’s bad legislation is so much better than a Democrat’s.  It’s the lesser of two evils.  Yippee!

I also can’t keep from thinking about the Tea Party.  You remember them, right?  That was the group that wanted to change politics.  That’s the grassroots movement that wanted to do away with politics as usual and replace it with a limited federal government.  It’s also the group that came out in droves in South Carolina to support Newt Gingrich – the man who liked big government too much to cut any of it out when he had the chance.  Maybe Pelosi was right.  Maybe this grassroots movement was more astroturf than grass.

But the group that baffles me the most is the conservative, evangelical voters who came out like it was 50% off with your church bulletin day at the local buffet to vote for Gingrich and Romney.  Isn’t this the group, more than any other, that’s supposed to stand for family values and the rights of the unborn – two things Gingrich and Romney haven’t exactly devoted themselves to through the years?

And then, hovering somewhere around 10%, there’s Ron Paul.  Look, not everybody is a Ron Paul fan. I get that.  In fact, Ron Paul fans are probably the biggest reason why there aren’t more Ron Paul fans.  It’s sort of like political Calvinism – some of the loudest supporters get in the way of the beauty of the thing.

Still, when I hear someone talking about Ron Paul’s foreign policy being crazy, by the time what they’re saying reaches my ears, it sounds like this.

“Ron Paul is crazy because he doesn’t want to blow up Iran and keep telling Israel what’s best for Israel.”

Nothing’s more confusing than hearing a pro-life voter immediately disqualify a pro-life OB/GYN presidential candidate because he doesn’t want to kill a bunch of Iranians.  Nothing.  Not Algebra 2 and not the season finale of Lost.  Nothing.

So it looks like I’ll be going with a third party this November.  And I’m sure I’ll hear a lot of talk about how not voting for the GOP candidate is essentially a vote for Obama.  Even if my one write-in vote for Thomas Jefferson somehow puts Obama back in for another four years instead of giving us President Newt, I can’t manage to see the difference.

Spoiler Alert! Week 3 of the NFL Playoffs & Other Nonsense

The NFL’s conference championships are this weekend.  Here’s what’s going to happen.

The Baltimore Ravens at The New England Patriots

Everybody’s mad at Ed Reed because he, in so many words, said that his quarterback wasn’t very good.  Sometimes words can be painful, especially when they are so deadly accurate.  It’s sort of like telling a 13 year old that in anywhere between 3 and 18 months she’ll stop caring about Justin Bieber.  She hates you for saying it but deep down, she knows it’s true.

The Patriots on the other hand have a very good quarterback.  Maybe you’ve heard of him.  He wasn’t good enough to get a lot of snaps in college at Michigan but he’s somehow managed to adjust into a fine quarterback.  They call him Tom Brady.

The good news for the Ravens is that they’ve never had a legit quarterback.  Even when they won a Super Bowl, they did it with a guy that probably shouldn’t have been in the league but yet now spends his time on ESPN critiquing quarterbacks better than he was.  Defense has always been the name of the game in Baltimore.  Ed Reed is the best defensive back in the game, maybe even in the history of the game.  He’s allowed to say whatever he wants.  Oh, and there’s Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs too.

The bad news for the Ravens is that they have to play the Patriots.  Bill Belichick is a genius.  He probably had something to do with the invention of the iphone and math.  Brady has only thrown 2 interceptions since grade school.

Patriots 23, Ravens 10

The New York Giants at The San Francisco 49ers

What is it with the Giants?  They start out every year with all the hype in the world and by midseason Tom Coughlin is fighting for his job only to turn around and embarrass the Cowboys on national television in a game that puts them on a hot streak all through the playoffs.  I’m too busy to look up their record for this year but I think the Giants have only won like 4, maybe 5 games.  Do we really want a team like this to play in the Super Bowl?

Look, Coach Harbaugh.  Do the world a favor.  Please beat the Giants this Sunday.  Football fans are forced to constantly hear about the Cowboys and the Giants no matter how bad either team is.  It’s even worse when they’re winning.  The Cowboys have done us a huge favor by being bad for the better part of two decades but the Giants just wont do their part.  Coach, make them do their part.  I know you have a suspect quarterback but did you see that game last week?  Alex Smith actually played good.  I’m not talking about Elvis Grbac, well nobody got killed and we only lost by 3 points good.  I’m talking Steve Young, I’m running, no wait I’m throwing, oh, oh, now I’m running again, good.  He was legit.  Tell him to do that again.  The world needs this.  Do it for your country.

49ers 35, Giants 9 

Football predictions are hard.  My accuracy is hovering somewhere around 30 to 40% which is about where my 12th grade Trigonometry average was until I found out that if I changed my diploma type I could replace Trig with Introduction to Electronics where we watched Short Circuit 2 at least three times a week.  I got an A in that class.  Sometimes easier is better.

On to some easier predictions.

1.  Over the weekend, Newt Gingrich will suspend his campaign and announce his support for, well, Newt Gingrich.

A brilliant strategy if you ask me.

2.  Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close will make a bunch of people cry.

Who made this movie?  Who wants to see this movie?  I’m sure it’s quality.  It’s got Tom Hanks in it and that lady that drove the bus for Keanu Reeves.  What’s her name again?  I think her kid plays for the Ravens.  Either way, there’s a good cast but could you think of a more depressing story that didn’t involve a guy kicking puppies for an hour and a half?  Listen to me again fellas.  It’ll make you cry.  I’m not talking about Top Gun cry.  This is more of a Brian’s Song cry.  Wait, you didn’t cry at Top Gun, when Goose died?  Yeah, neither did I.

Your wife probably wants to see it but don’t go.  Suggest a girls night out and stay home and watch Fresh Prince reruns.

You’ll thank me for this.

The Wickedest Man In The World

Last week, I saw a documentary about a teenage girl that was a slave in Atlanta.  She didn’t live in the 1800s.  It was more like the early 2000s.  She grew up in a normal middle class environment and even held down a part time job at a restaurant.  It was through that job that she would meet a man who showed her the kind of attention that no man had ever shown her before.  Shortly after meeting this man, he became her pimp.  This girl was a slave.

Anton LaVey was a satanist.  He wasn’t the kind of a satanist that just pretends to be evil so that he can sell a few extra albums.  I’m looking your way Marilyn Manson.  No, Anton was more legit.  In the 1960s he founded The Church of Satan and published the Satanic Bible.  I’m sure you’ll forgive me for stereotyping Mr. LaVey on this one but the fact that he wrote his own bible and started his own church, both in honor of Satan, leaves me with few options.  Anton LaVey was a satanist.

Aleister Crowley was a hedonist.  He had a big impact on Anton Lavey and a host of other influential people.  Crowley’s most famous quote is, “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.”  Many of Mr. Crowley’s supporters would stop short of calling him a hedonist but his excessive drug and sex addictions tell a different story.  Even the popular press at the time called Crowley, “the wickedest man in the world.”  Aleister Crowley was a hedonist.

Osama bin Laden is a more familiar name.  He’s the mastermind behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  He’s also the one that released videos threatening to bring that same kind of terror to America’s heartland.  Regardless of your political persuasions or views on the Just War Theory, if you are an American citizen that hasn’t yet renounced your citizenship and started training in one of those Taliban training camps that has an obstacle course with monkey bars, you were Osama bin Laden’s enemy.

A slave.  A devil worshiper.  A hedonist.  A terrorist.

Imagine if all of those descriptions could be found in one person.  What if one human being could, at the same time, be accurately described as a slave, a devil worshiper, a hedonist and a terrorist?

Does someone like this even exist?

Yes.  There are millions of people like this.  You may know some of them and maybe you’re even related to some of them.  Maybe even you are one of them.

In Ephesians 2:1-3, Paul describes man in his natural, sinful state.  He gives us a description of what man looks like when left only to his own free will.

There’s the slave who is “following the course of this world.”

There’s also the Satan worshiper who is “following the prince of the power of the air.”

And then the hedonist who lives in the passions of his flesh.

And finally, terrorists who are “by nature children of wrath.”

A slave.  A devil worshiper.  A hedonist.  A terrorist.  All in one person.

This is the way the Bible describes mankind apart from God’s grace.  No punches pulled and not much hope either, so it appears.

But thank God for the two words that begin verse 4.

“But God.”

The gospel is the story of God refusing to leave his people to their own free will.  It’s a story of God seeking them out to give them a new identity in Christ by grace through faith.

In Christ, I’m no longer a slave to this world and my sin.  I’m a slave to Christ (Romans 6:15-23).

In Christ, I’m no longer a worshiper of the prince of the power of the air but of the one who “disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them” (Colossians 2:15).

In Christ, I’m no longer under the law of “do what thou wilt.”  Instead, I find freedom in the Great Commandment of loving God with all of my heart and soul and mind as well as loving my neighbor as myself (Matthew 22:34-40).

My new identity is not a paycheck.  I didn’t get it because God owed me something or because he saw some potential in me.

No, my new identity in Christ is strictly a result of God’s love and grace.  Even to the point that the very faith I rely on to call out to him is a gift that he has given to me (Ephesians 2:8-9).

I’ve never drank goat’s blood or showed up to school with a black cape and a python wrapped around my neck, looking for someone to devour.

But at one point in my life, I was the wickedest man in the world.

But God.