Whoever wins

A week from now, we will be wrapping up election day. We'll be finishing up the crazy season and awaiting the official tallies to see who will be the next president.

No matter who wins, here are a few things I know for sure.

1. Roughly half of America will not like the results. That same half will criticize every action taken by the winning candidate for the next four years.

2. It will be a close election and a small but vocal group that supported the loser will cry foul, ask for a recount, or levy accusations of voter fraud. They might be a fringe populace, but they exist and they will seek attention.

3. The next president will not be able to solve our problems. They might be able to improve some things, but we live in a broken world and there will always be issues. People will still be unemployed. Poverty will still exist. Terrorists will still be carrying out their jihad against their perceived foes. Disasters will still display nature's strength and fury. No president will ever be able to erase those woes that ail us.

4. Four years from now, we will be hearing about the same issues debated ad nauseam. Jobs. Economy. Foreign policy. Medicare. Abortion. Gun rights. Gay marriage. These topics will not go away.

5. Pollsters will glorify the accuracy of their election predictions. Pundits will either revel in victory or preach gloom - whichever will give their ratings the biggest boost. MSNBC will still be liberally biased and FOX will still be biased to favor the GOP. That's how they make their money and complaining about it won't change anything.

Regardless of who wins the presidential election, I hope to see these few things.

1. That the losing candidate will concede gracefully.

2. That the losing candidate will find strength and comfort in his wife, family, and whatever support network they've built for themselves.

3. That both candidates will strive to be good husbands and fathers and pour out love onto their wives and kids.

4. That the winning candidate will seek wise council for the next four years, that they will be open to the input and advice of their predecessors, and that they show a willingness to work with their opposing political party.

5. That the winning candidate will place the needs of this nation ahead of the desires of their party.

I know, I may be asking for a bit too much.


The joys of being an adoptive family

Once upon a time, Zu was just a little baby bear. Bekah and I took her out with us to various appointments with her bundled up in her car seat where she would pass away the time cooing, sleeping, or sucking down a bottle of formula.

When we got into foster care, we knew there would be several challenges - difficulties that would be amplified when we welcomed a Native American baby into our family. However, nothing could have prepared us for the perplexing, biased, and sometimes demeaning questions posed to us.

On one of these trips where Zu rode along for a meeting, we faced one of those exchanges. As we talked with a banker, he noticed her brown skin in contrast to our lack of melanin and asked if she was ours.

We explained that we were foster parents. Since this was about a year before we would have the joy of finalizing Zu's adoption, we had to explain that Zu was a foster child.

"But she's so cute though," he replied.

Really? Do you mean that only ugly babies end up in foster care? That if kids were only cuter, kids wouldn't be so abused or neglected? Once we left and returned to our car, the only thing we could think to do was laugh. The audacity. The ignorance. It was too much.

Since then, we've heard worse. We've compared notes with friends of our who have adopted from overseas and their experiences are similar to ours. All of those silly questions, suspicious glances, and rude observations. All of it is humorously complied in this below video. The maker of this short film is not exaggerating. I've heard many of these lines from various strangers and acquaintances around North Idaho.

One of the more amusing occurrences happened when we had five kids in our home. A four year old, a three year old, and three two year olds. Not one kid looked related to any of the others, although two were siblings. While out shopping with all five, Bekah was stopped by a complete stranger who asked, "Are they all yours?" Bekah just smiled, answered, "Yes," and walked away.

All kidding aside, the adoption process has been a strange and wonderful journey. We have been blessed with three unique and wonderful children, two of which we've adopted. If you're counting, that means Bekah and I are out numbered. We don't live an easy life, but it is one that is filled with joy and odd surprises. If you're interested in adopting - either foreign or domestically - get connected with families in your area that have all ready completed that journey and check out Both Ends Burning.


Church vs. Art part 10: Getting It Right

In the American Midwest, you will find areas populated with free range cattle. These bovine roam and graze unencumbered by fencing or corrals. When they think that the grass is greener on the other side of the road, they cross that road and eat the greener grass. If you happen to be driving along that road, you might discover livestock meandering across the pavement in front of you. Just like pedestrians in suburban and metro locales, those cows have the right of way.

Free range cattle have the good life. They go where they want. They are liberated from the pressures of cowboys and barking herd dogs. No stampedes. No cattle drives. Just food and exercise.

We as artists need to allow our creativity to roam. Free range imagination. Feed our creative muscles and give them exercise. Give it room to wander and see where it finds greener pastures.

When I close my eyes and think of what is possible in the free range of my imagination, I envision a modern church where artists are not only accepted, but encouraged. I see church lobbies turned into a book reading for authors. I see multi-purpose rooms transformed into temporary art galleries. I see film screenings in church gymnasiums and concerts in sanctuaries. I see photographers and painters and singers and thespians all using their chosen forms of expression to speak truth and beauty.

I crave a church that opens its doors to the starving artists and all their eccentricities. A church that welcomes piercings and tattoos and dreadlocks. A church that treasures the stick figure scribblings of a five year old kid, and fosters their talent into a productive and artistic career when that child is no longer a child. A church that ministers to those who spend their lives ministering to others. A church where creative professionals can step off the stage of their day jobs and feel no demands to be on stage in the house of worship. A church that embraces the artist and tells them, “welcome home.”

It is easy for me to look at the relationship between the church and the artist and see the ways in which the church is doing it wrong. I count the errors that are roadblocks to creating the kind of church I long to see.

However, there are people who understand these challenges. There are organizations that are getting it right. These seven entities are either cultivating or propagating artistic expression. They are using creative elements to communicate God’s love. Visit their websites. Support them if you are able. Get involved if at all possible. At least let them inspire you. The church that I dream of is led by groups like these.

People of the Second Chance – Social media, photography, graphic design, short form video, storytelling, and a book. POTSC is a community founded on the principles of living life in light of second chances. Everything that they do is built on the concept that we have been given radical grace and in turn should give grace to others.
Art House America – Books, music, crafts, visual art, theater, culinary art, environmental care, travel, and much more. AHA is the brainchild of Charlie Peacock and his wife Andi Ashworth. They started by providing hospitality to those exploring art, faith, and what they call creative living. They now provide counseling, discipleship, mentoring, and community engagement for a wide variety of artistic pursuits.
To Write Love On Her Arms – Social media, short form video, music, fashion, photography, and public speaking. TWLOHA started as a mission of hope for a suicidal friend. Their connection to a community of musicians gave them a spotlight to fight against suicide and addiction. Through various campaigns, their purpose has grown to battle self mutilation and depression, increase mental health awareness, and encourage treatment for addicts.
I am Second – Short films, digital media, storytelling, public speaking, and a book. Primarily an online community, I am Second is supported by short films from notable celebrities and small groups across the nation telling personal stories of redemption. The films on the website feature musicians, actors, athletes, and politicians. Each tells their perspective of overcoming their struggles or tragedies through God’s intervention.
Hello Somebody – Fashion, music. Hello Somebody markets their own products as a means to fund relief projects. You buy a watch and they give much needed support elsewhere. Their campaigns include providing livestock to a school in Rwanda, helping the victims of sex trafficking, bringing clean water and sanitation to a community in Guatemala, and rebuilding efforts in Joplin, MO after tornadoes devastated the area last year. And their watches are snazzy.
The Identity Shift – Visual media, multi-media, short form video, animation, written word. The Identity Shift provides encouragement and support for the understanding and application of the gospel.
Lights Out – Lights Out is unique on my list because it isn’t ministering through artists but instead is ministering to artists. They provide pastoral support and hospitality to travelling musicians.


Church vs. Art part 9: Finally

If the nerd world practiced the tradition of sainthood, Leonard Nimoy would be the patron saint of all things geeky. Through the years, thanks to his groundbreaking role as Star Trek’s Spock, he has become a pop culture icon. Whatever wisdom he has gained through his 81 years on this planet, he imparted in the Fine Arts Convocation speech for Boston University’s graduating class of 2012.

His words, filled with humor and insight, were intended for an audience that had spent the past four years studying art as an academic pursuit in hopes that their collective talents would be put to the best possible use. In it, he posed a few questions that are not only essential to the creative process, but questions everyone should ask themselves. “What is the work about? What does it say to a contemporary audience? What light does it cast on our lives and on the issues that concern us and connect us? Indeed, how does it help to heal the world?” The answers to those questions give us a foundation to build upon.

Nimoy closed his address with a challenge, “You are the creators and curators of your own lives. You create your own life and your own work. Give us your best. Give us the best of your art. We crave it. We hunger for it. Help us to see ourselves, to know ourselves. Illuminate our lives.” This should be the goal of every artist.

How do we accomplish this feat within the realm of Christian morals? How do we stay honest and creative while honoring the God we worship? How do we push boundaries but stay within the limits prescribed by scripture? How can we be brave while giving the best of our art?

Paul, in his letter to the church in Phillipi, gave us a list of words to live by. If we, as artists, remain faithful to these values within our creations we will never stray beyond God’s will for our art. “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” (Philippians 4:8 NIV)

This is a checklist that gives us the strength to endure criticism, scorn, and outright mockery. Within these bounds we give our imagination free reign. We can confidently face our critics and speak. You don’t approve of my style? That’s OK because it is pure and noble. You don’t agree with my message? That’s fine, because it is true and admirable.

This liberates us to enjoy both success and failure. This allows us to learn, grow, and improve. In this, we gain liberty to create in times of joy and mourning. There is a time to laugh and a time to lament and we are free to do both within the bounds of Philippians 4:8.

These are the closing remarks that Paul gives to the Philippians. This is the “ps” to his letter. The exhortation is preceded by the word “Finally.” It is as if he is saying, “If you haven’t been paying attention to anything I’ve said before, you better start listening now. Finally, these words are of the utmost importance. Finally, if you forget everything else, at least remember this.”

From translation to translation, there is not an inglorious word among them. A few years ago I compiled the various terms used in this one verse from each of the English versions of the Bible for a presentation to a youth group. Collectively, this is a framework for us as artists. This should be the cornerstone for all we create.

Finally, whatever is true, honest, honorable, excellent, sooth, seemly, pleasing, compelling, commendable, of good fame, of good repute, of good report, truly worthwhile, the best, good, noble, respected, reputable, full of pleasantness, friendly, amiable, well thought of, kind, winsome, right, admirable, straight, fair, just, proper, holy, chaste, righteous, acceptable, pure, modest, clean, authentic, gracious, beautiful, lovely, lovable, worthy of respect, worth giving thanks for, worthy of reverence, of any virtue, brings praise to God, praising of discipline, or worthy of praise…

Think about such things. Just think.

ps. If you haven’t watched Leonard Nimoy's speech, you should.


Church vs. Art part 8: An Artist after God’s Own Heart

David is perhaps one of the most conflicted characters in the biblical narrative. He was anointed as king while still a boy, a hero that struck down a giant, and a warrior that took on armies. But he was hunted like a fugitive by a maniacal and obsessive man during the prime of his life. In power, he spied on and seduced the neighbor lady, then enacted a conspiracy to have her husband murdered. He was condemned by Nathan the prophet and feuded with his son, Absalom. He knew triumph and tragedy. He could be called a liar, a fraud, a cheat, and a murderer. Yet the bible calls him a man after God’s own heart.

Reconciling why David – in light of all his follies – was so beloved by God has been the study of theological debates that I’ll make no effort to resolve. But I do believe the way David spoke to God is vital to discovering how God viewed David.

He was an artist. A poet. A singer. A musician. A dancer.

David was a man after God’s own heart. David had the heart of an artist and that artistic spirit was in reckless pursuit of the heart of God.

There are two more rules that I left out of my blueprint for the Christian artist – two policies that cannot be summed up in a concise phrase. If we hope to be artists that find God’s favor, it might be best to learn two lessons from David, from the life of God’s favorite. 1. Be inspired. 2. Be undignified.

During the years that David was hiding from the wrath of King Saul, he gathered followers – future focused people loyal to David’s cause. The killer of Goliath was amassing an army that could be viewed as nothing short of an insurrection. The 12th chapter of First Chronicles details the numbers of men who defected to join this movement. The Bible is colorful in describing these men. They were brave and battle ready soldiers. They had faces like lions and were swift like gazelles. The army commanders are named from the first in command to the eleventh – and the weakest of them was strong enough to take on one hundred men. (I Chronicles 12:8-14)

More and more warriors joined David’s ranks. Members from each of the Israelite tribes – thousands at a time – came to follow and support this new army. From Judah, Simeon, Ephraim, Zebulun, Naphtali, Asher, each tribe shared a commonality. They were experienced, famous, fearless, and heavily armed. They were all fighting men prepared for war.

Yet when we get to verse 32 we find a group of oddities: men from the tribe of Issachar. This one group stands out like the geeky kid awkwardly navigating the perils of their first junior high school dance. Their numbers seem disproportionate to the other tribes – 200 chiefs with only their relatives under their authority. Yet it’s their description that makes them unique amongst the fierce militia that surrounded David. First Chronicles 12:32 calls them “men who understood the times, with knowledge of what Israel should do.”

David knew that if you go to war, you need soldiers. But he also knew the value of wise counsel. And he found that in the tribe of Issachar. These are the people that found inspiration in their culture and guidance in God’s will. The passage doesn’t state their prior profession; there isn’t any biblical evidence that these 200 sons of Issachar were artisans, but they provided the framework for all who consider themselves artists and followers of God.

We must be inspired and to be inspired we have to understand the times. The world around us is a wellspring of inspiration. The better we are aware our culture, the greater we can leverage our talents to speak to our audience. But we must also be mindful of God’s will as that is what provides us with the how, when, and what to do with our artistic pursuits.

Time passed. David got older. Saul lost his life in battle along with any biological heir to the throne. At the age of 30, David was crowned king of Israel. His army conquered the city of Jerusalem (and made it the capital city), then they defeated the Philistines. The promise given to him when he was a child had been fulfilled.

As a newly appointed king, he sought to bring the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem. The entire journey with the ark was accompanied by celebration, music and dancing. Scripture tells us that “David danced with all his might before the Lord.” (2 Samuel 6:14) The prudes of David’s day thought that the dancing got a little carried away. One critic told David that he should have been ashamed of himself for disrobing in front of the servant girls and the army’s officers.

There is debate over the degree to which David was undressed. Some translations say that he was wearing a linen vest while others state it was a linen ephod. Even the definition of an ephod is a little sketchy – ranging from a robe to a belt to ancient versions of boxers to what the Amplified Bible calls “a priest’s upper garment.” Explanations of this passage have made the claim that David was dancing naked, or that that he was wearing nothing more than undergarments, while others assert that it was a priestly version of a bathrobe. I won’t pretend that I am smart enough to definitively solve these varied theories. In my mind, how close David was to being nude is unimportant. He was stripped enough to offend. And even that is inconsequential to the lesson that artists should learn.

David’s response to criticism is the most essential element of this story. His answer came in two parts. He said, “I did it in the presence of the Lord. The Lord chose me… So I will celebrate.” David understood that his art served a single purpose, to honor his Creator. Even if no one else was entertained. Even if no one else saw the value in his dance. His aim was to please God. Then he continued, “I will become even more undignified than this, and I will be humiliated in my own eyes. But by these slave girls you spoke of, I will be held in honor.” Art isn’t about playing it safe, being proper, or fitting into a socially acceptable mold.

Artists of every variety must be willing to be undignified. They need to get down and dirty with their craft. Art requires risk. Art demands that the artist push boundaries. Employing creativity is not a practice that will ever please everyone. The artist will always face potential humiliation when their creation is presented to the public.

Every time a blogger hits the publish button. When the painter brushes the final stroke. When the photographer presents their work to a client. When an author submits a query. When an actor reads reviews. Criticism will come and often with a humbling cost. The true artist stands firm and declares, “I’ll become more undignified than this.” Such a bold stance will be held in honor by those looking to be brave in their own crafts.


Church vs. Art part 7: The Reason for It All

Why does it matter? Who cares if the artistic efforts of Christians are stripped down to the basest levels and marketed to the lowest common denominator? I think God cares. Therefore, it matters. I think that our culture not only needs us to rise above a watered down approach to art – but demands that we do.

If a society is defined by the art it produces, what does the current state of modern sacred art say about us? If we worship the maker of heaven and earth – the God who is the most creative being ever – why are we not living creatively? Why are we not producing masterpieces that reflect the depth, magnitude and originality of the God who we believe formed us from the dust of the ground? Why do we insist on making art that is lifeless when we believe our God is the source of life?

True artistry matters. Art can teach, it can heal emotional wounds, it can build unity, and it can inspire new ideas. When it is entwined in the divine it pushes us beyond ourselves, it points us to our Creator, and it shines light in the darkest places.

I don’t know who Paul Martin is. Googling his name yielded several possibilities, but I don’t know if any of those search results pointed to the Paul Martin I was looking for. I mention this ambiguity for one reason. It doesn’t really matter who he is, his words are true. Truth is important, regardless of its source. He said, “The possibility of depicting creation knowing God is dwelling in it: this is so incredible that it ought to change the world. If the most holy person in the world could depict the most concentrated, redeemed image, not only would sin be suspended but people would be moved to see the truth of their human condition and perceive God. All the artist can do is strive for that ideal.”

That is what we should be doing. We ought to be striving for the ideal that our art could suspend sin, that it would point people to truth, and our audience would recognize their humanity and see God. As Corrie Haluga at Relevant wrote in a recent column, “A new anthem can break speed limits. An interesting article can change a lifestyle. And sharing those moments can form a connection with friends, family and humanity in general.”

We must believe that art can change the world. And that should be the reason for it all.

I want to see more Christian artists take a stand like Kemper Crabb, artists who just prefer to be who they are. I want to see more Christian artists like Matt Wignall, artists who are brave enough to defy popular trends. I want to see more Christian artists like Michael Gungor, artists who take their art seriously. I want to see artists like Bezalel and Oholiab, artists with wisdom, understanding, knowledge, skill, and the ability to teach.

Of course, there should be limits. There should be a boundary within which we can work – a line that shouldn’t be crossed. Thankfully, I don’t have to invent these contours. I don’t have to dispense this as advice of my own invention. They have existed for a very long time. These rules do more than govern the Christian life; they are a blueprint for the Christian artist.

1. “Sing to him a new song; play skillfully, and shout for joy.” (Psalm 33:3 NIV)
2. “Again you will take up your timbrels and go out to dance with the joyful.” (Jeremiah 31:4 NIV)
3. “The answer is, if you eat or drink, or if you do anything, do it all for the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:31 NCV)
4. “Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father.” (Colossians 3:17 NASB)
5. “Let the teaching of Christ live in you richly. Use all wisdom to teach and instruct each other by singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” (Colossians 3:16 NCV)
6. “Speak to each other with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making music in your hearts to the Lord. Always give thanks to God the Father for everything.” (Ephesians 5:19-20 NCV)
7. “(He) was in charge of the singing; that was his responsibility because he was skillful at it.” (1 Chronicles 15:22 NIV)

This should be our guide. That we engage in something new with skill and joy. We do all things for the glory of God. We give thanks. Music is essential in teaching and instruction. Art demands the use of wisdom. It is our responsibility to utilize our talents.

You will note that none of those verses require a checklist of catchphrases that must be used. There is no edict to use Christianese. There is no demand that Jesus’ name should be used a certain number of times as if our art is nothing more than a tool to reach an oddly specific quota.

Yes, there is the verse that instructs us to “do all in the name of the Lord Jesus.” It’s tempting to want to read our own edit as if it says “do all with name of the Lord Jesus.” We feel like every song we write must be about Him. We feel like every fictional story must end with the hero either becoming a Christian, or leading a new believer to Christ. We feel like every dance must be an interpretation of the gospel story. Every photo that’s taken, every picture that’s painted, every story that’s told.

That’s not what the Bible says. We’re commanded to work in God’s name, not with His name. If I wrote a love song for my wife, I can do it in God’s name without ever mentioning God. In fact, that is the essence of the Song of Songs. It is the only book in the Bible that doesn’t directly reference God. It is a sensual poem of romance, love, intimacy, and adoration of the female form. In fact the book is so steamy that some Jewish rabbis have suggested that people under a certain age shouldn’t read it. There’s nothing overtly religious about it. But there isn’t anything sacrilegious about it either. The most common interpretation (aside from the literal account from courtship to consummation) is an allegorical depiction of God’s love for his people. No matter how you view Song of Songs, it demonstrates how religious art can glorify God without using His name.

Personally, I prefer the literal interpretation.


Church vs. Art part 5: My Least Favorite Acronyms

RIYL. FFO. Those are two of my least favorite acronyms. They mean “recommended if you like” and “for fans of.”

There is a time and place where these abbreviations are useful or appropriate. In the realm of Christian art, they’re exploited.

If you like these bands, you’ll like these musicians. If you like these movies, you’ll like this movie. If you like these photographers, you’ll like this photographer. If you’re a fan of a, b, or c – you’ll be a fan of x, y, or z.

Overuse of these comparative acronyms is the epitome of laziness. It is a symptom of either the forced or willful absence of creativity. It is the agonizing slow death of artistic passion. Remove autonomy and you’re left with homogeny.

Industry insiders are all looking for the next big thing and the human brain is programmed to crave conformity. Those two factors conspire to impose a dogmatic approach to artistic innovation. This explains the influx of supernatural romance novels being published after the Twilight series became popular. This is evidenced in the countless grunge bands that were signed to major labels after the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind and Pearl Jam’s Ten. It defines the reinvigoration of fairy tales in pop culture with two shows from two different networks tackling the world of fables (Once Upon a Time, Grimm) and two theatrical releases portraying divergent interpretations of the Snow White story (Mirror Mirror, Snow White and the Huntsman).

But if truly original artists want to break big in the real world, all they need to do is build a fan base and then make that fan base bigger. Please don’t assume I am trying to over simplify things or make it sound easy – as if anyone could become famous. It is not an effortless process. For most that have achieved any measure of success in a creative field, it took significant hard work. I have seen that time and effort first hand as friends of mine tried to establish themselves as a new band in Boise. Several of my friends have started photography businesses and their self employment is nothing short of the very definition of hustle. My sister-in-law is in the process of getting her first book published, and that is the result of a decade of her trying and trying again. The point is that if enough people notice you and that recognition grows, eventually the industry will take notice.

Unfortunately, the rules are different in the Christian subculture. The notion that Christian artists must resemble something that is currently popular in the mainstream world is ingrained into the way that Christian industries function. They’re looking for the Christian version of Lady Gaga, or the Christian version of Stephanie Meyer. The reason this happens is logical: it is easier to market a new band or a new author when you can compare it to something that the audience all ready likes. It’s easy to sell something when you can attach the label RIYL or FFO.

The Christian industry goes a step beyond secular comparisons – it even looks to build upon its own successes. There is a desire to duplicate the success of TobyMac, or Ted Dekker. If it worked once, why can’t it work again?

The Assemblies of God church in my hometown was a hotbed for musical talent. Their youth group had a dynamic worship team and many of the kids there were forming bands. Around the time this was going on, Jars of Clay’s debut album was huge. The band was being nominated for Grammy awards; their single Flood was the number one most requested song on alternative radio and was finding frequent rotation on MTV. It seemed like no other Christian band had found that much success in mainstream markets. Every Christian teenager trying to start a band wanted to be the next Jars of Clay. That desire to replicate the Jars of Clay sound was apparent in our little community. Some bands did it right and had the open chord driven acoustic guitar rock with male vocals that sounded like Dan Haseltine. Those bands were able to attract larger audiences than bands that attempted a more imaginative approach to music.

I don’t want to disparage any of these Christian artists. I own every Jars of Clay album. I’m a big fan of TobyMac’s music. I’ve read many of Ted Dekker’s books. I’m encouraged by the work that these writers, artists, and musicians have accomplished.

Yet, I want more. I want to see a greater number of people like Kemper Crabb, Matt Wignall, and Michael Gungor. If you do not recognize any of those three names, you have proven the need for more artists of their caliber.

Kemper Crabb is an Episcopalian minister who considers himself an artist-priest. He’s a founding member of the prog-rock band Atomic Opera, has recorded with popular CCM band Caedmon's Call, and has released a handful of solo albums that have an old English feel to them – a style of music that has limited appeal in any market. His views on artistry are fascinating. It is his conviction that kept him from falling prey to the RIYL acronym. As he explained in an interview with The Phantom Tollbooth, the Christian music industry wanted to mold his band into something else. They wanted a Christian version of Fleetwood Mac. Crabb’s response: “Why would we want to be the Christian Fleetwood Mac? There's already a Fleetwood Mac, and they're better at being Fleetwood Mac than we could be, and we're not even interested in Fleetwood Mac being the pagan Arkangel. We'd just kind of like to be who we are.”

Matt Wignall is a songwriter, singer, guitarist, artist, photographer, advocate for tattoos, and an enigmatic man defiant of trends. I met him in the late 90’s when I was working a merch table at Tomfest. His band, Havalina Rail Company was set up in the booth next to mine. He stood out more than any of the other performers – not because of his appearance but because of his persona. For starters, his band was stylistically out of step with the majority of the other acts at Tomfest – a music festival that was known for attracting punk, metal, and hardcore performances. Havilina was an odd (and sometimes uncomfortable) mix of jazz, country, blues, punk, Americana, folk, and art-house pop. They described their sound as “Spy Music.” In the middle of a bunch of tattooed and pierced kids buying t-shirts and vying to get autographs from their favorite hard rock bands, Matt pulled a lap steel guitar out from under the table full of posters and CDs and started to play licks that would have felt more at home in the Grand Ole Opry than at an alternative music festival. I watched him play and the look on his face was at peace, like there was no place he’d rather be than there at that moment.

I caught the tail end of Havalina’s performance set. Matt gave a short speech in between songs that has stayed with me in the years since. The popularity of third wave ska had started to wane that summer, just as swing music began to garner frequent radio play. Matt recognized that swing was something that would fit well with the style of music his band all ready played. He said fans frequently asked him why they didn’t play swing songs. And he said something about how pursuing trendy styles is the opposite of what Christians should do. He said that our God was the most creative force in the universe and our art should reflect that powerful creativity. We shouldn’t follow trends set by mainstream artists; Christians should be setting trends that others want to follow.

Michael Gungor is another talented musician that is poking holes into the theory that you must sound like someone else to succeed. He even addressed this issue in one of the best blog posts I’ve ever read. He described the process of how much of the Christian music industry functions – to communicate the gospel in whatever medium you wish. Style doesn’t matter because, in Michael’s words, “It’s not about the art, it’s about the message. … If you want to reach emo kids, then sing emo music but with Jesus language.” He picked apart this method of creation. The problem is that the heart of a musical style (or any other artistic craft) is more than skin and bones. Songs are more than chord structure, tempo, and vocal inflection. The end result of stripping the spirit of a particular music style and just replacing it with positive feel good lyrics is that it reduces the final product to what Michael calls “a musical zombie.” Michael listed of two byproducts of this practice: it makes us dishonest and it kills creativity. I wholeheartedly agree with him.

But Michael also pointed out the fact that Christian artists who go against the status quo and get noticed are described as creative (a label that he found interesting). He said the “creative” descriptor isn’t often used for mainstream artists. It’s mostly something you hear in the Christian arts. It’s like we’re surprised to hear or see a Christian artist that is truly creative. Michael wrote, “when someone in the Christian industry actually takes their art seriously, everybody is like ‘holy crap, listen to how creative it is!’ It’s like a person that’s been living among zombies for years seeing an actual human being and exclaiming, ‘wow, look at how clean her face is!’”

When everything seems like it's intended for fans of something else. When everything you see is recommended if you like that other thing. When everything you hear sounds like someone else. What other explanation is there when you hear something that you’ve never heard before?


Church vs. Art part 4: In the Land of Double Standards

As I mentioned yesterday, I believe that there are two barriers between Christian communities and Christian artists, the first being our tendency to idolize successful artists and prop them up with impossible standards.

The second issue that creates a wedge between churches and artists is the propensity to hold double standards. Kevin Max also addressed this issue in his Cross Rhythms interview: “The funny thing is that the Church, the Christian community, when it’s observing somebody over in the general market, let’s say Johnny Cash or Bob Dylan or Bono, who are exploring their faith but again in a very realistic manner and talking about their weaknesses, they seem to somehow latch onto those people and make them heroes. But if they’re in their own backyard, forget it!”

The church loves secular artists that sound like they could be Christian bands. We look at bands like Collective Soul or Mumford and Sons and play the game of connect the dots to see statements of faith hidden in their lyrics. As highlighted in a blog post on Stuff Christians Like – we claim these Christianish bands as our own. Yet, when bands who genuinely claim to be Christians start singing about drug addiction or sexual temptation or any other topic that doesn’t fit into predetermined mold that’s youth group appropriate, we shun them. We disallow them. There is an unfortunately long list of albums that have been prohibited for sale in Christian bookstores for the most petty of reasons.

The first Sometime Sunday album was banned because the cough recorded in the intro to ‘Home’ sounded like a smoker’s cough. Their second album was banned for the use of the word “damn” in the liner notes. Don’t Know’s album was banned for using the word “crap” in their liner notes and singing a song about Taco Bell. Lust Control’s album was banned for a song about masturbation (even though the message of that song is aligned with most evangelical churches’ views on the subject). P.O.D. has had several albums banned for offensive cover art; as has Mortification, Zao, and Training for Utopia. Steve Taylor’s wife painted a portrait of Steve for the cover of his 1987 album, ‘I Predict 1990,’ and found that album banned in some Christian bookstores because people thought the portrait looked like a tarot card. Other bookstores took offense to the opening track, ‘I Blew Up the Clinic Real Good,’ a song that criticizes the bombing of abortion clinics. Bon Voyage was banned for their song, ‘Kiss My Lips,’ a love song the lead vocalist wrote for her husband. Stretch Armstrong was banned for their cover of Modern English’s, ‘I Melt With You.’ And Everyday Life was banned for a multitude of reasons including themes of racial injustice, coping with anger, the exploitation of Native Americans, alcoholism, and single parenting – not to mention featuring Marika Tur’s photo of Reginald Denny being pulled from his truck during the ’92 LA riots on their album cover.

I may be committing the sin of overkill by listing so many instances where Christian bookstores have outlawed music made by other Christians. But I want to make a point. The fact that I have to list more than one is ridiculous. Sadly, that isn’t even a full list of banned albums. That list doesn’t even include the books by Christian authors that have been banned for their content from select Christian retailers. *

And you won’t find the DVD’s for the TV series Chuck in a Christian bookstore even though its lead star, Zachary Levi, is an outspoken Christian.

I also failed to mention books and albums that were banned strictly due to their style. Genre bias is another double standard that builds enmity between artists and the church. The predisposed notion that certain styles of music are acceptable while others are not, or that one genre of book is better than another, or it’s OK to paint pictures of some subjects but not others is a pet peeve of mine.

This annoyance started during my teen years – if not sooner. My high school Sunday school class spent a few weeks on purity – the body being a temple and making wise choices with what you take in via your entertainment options. We talked about what movies and TV shows are appropriate for Christians to watch. Several of the kids in my youth group did their best to defend their right to watch Friends and we debated the value of Mel Gibson’s Braveheart. We talked about the unwholesome facets of popular love songs, and one week we were asked to bring in our favorite CDs to share with the rest of our group so we could jointly decide which albums would be suitable for the Christian listener.

First up was a country album brought in by one of the cool kids. I don’t remember which artist it was or what song was played. What I do remember is what the song was about – someone going to the bar and getting drunk over a lost lover. Being the good little Christian boy I was back then, I said it wasn’t the kind of music we should listen to. As I’ve said before, I was an outcast, so my opinion wasn’t worth much. The trendier and much more popular kids in my youth group all insisted that it was acceptable because it was country music and everybody knows country western is wholesome music. A friend of mine (one of the other outcasts) brought Superunknown – from his favorite band Soundgarden. He played the song Black Hole Sun. That song was immediately struck down as inappropriate because it was evil grunge music. To this day, I have not figured out what is so offensive about that song’s lyrics. My album was from the band Plankeye. Never mind the overt reference to a biblical passage in the band’s name, it too was deemed unworthy for Christian ears due to its punkish grungy sound.

That was fifteen years ago. The irony that a song by a mainstream artist that glorifies public drunkenness was determined to be more wholesome than music from a Christian band still puzzles me.

The fact is that the majority of Christian audiences are more critical of Christian artists than they are of their secular counterparts.

The result of such double standards is that it creates laziness in artistry. It encourages the artist to play it safe. It tells us that we must conform to absurd standards to make it as an artist; that to be successful, we must be like everyone else. That habit is the source of another pet peeve of mine – one that has to do with acronyms.

* I was lucky. The Christian bookstore in my hometown was owned by a family friend. She stocked many of the banned albums that I mentioned above, as well as books, videos, paintings, and other items that snobbier retailers would have looked down upon or considered controversial. My brother and I discovered many new, wonderful, and edifying musical experiences thanks to her bravery as a small business owner.


Church vs. Art part 3: In the Land of Pedestals

Despite biases in the modern church, Christians still engage themselves in artistic pursuits. Often, these modes of expression have turned into an industry. We have a Christian movie industry separate from Hollywood – cranking out films like Fireproof, Courageous, and Facing the Giants. There are also Christian clothing lines; NOTW, Hello Somebody, and Truth Soul Armor. The largest and most noticeable of all Christian industries was born in the Jesus People movement of the 60s and 70s – Christian music.

I don't want to disparage those that are making a living by portraying their religious beliefs in entertainment and fashion industries. Instead – I'd rather more Christians were actively engaged in creating and/or promoting the work of other Christians.

Furthermore, if we're going to do it – my hope is that we'll do it well.

Instead, the typical everyday believer seems to be set against artistic integrity. There seems to be an adversarial relationship between the Christian artist and the greater Christian community. So much so that a family friend posted the following on Facebook: “The church doesn't want creativity (at least not much and what it allows has to be tightly controlled) and the secular world doesn't want Christian artists who are determined to try to honor and glorify God in their works. So where does that leave a Christian artist? There seems to be no place for one.” *

This isn't an uncommon sentiment. Artistry is often misunderstood. Artistic Christians feel like they have no home – no one that accepts them. The church views their art as profane or too much like its secular counterpart. The mainstream community won't accept their art because of its sacred or spiritual themes. Daniel Martin Diaz has lamented on the irony that his artwork has been repeatedly censured by mainstream art publications and excluded from exhibitions for being too religious, but when he produced some artwork for something intended for distribution in Christian markets, he was again censured for being too graphic, sacrilegious, or occultic. Modern sacred art is ignored by both the religious and non-religious; it is left to exist in a vacuum. Unaccepted. Unwelcome. Ignored. Misplaced.

How did we develop this animosity? Why do Christian artists feel so isolated?

I think there are two contributing factors that prevent the church from accepting and encouraging the artists among them. The first I'll detail today. The second will be posted tomorrow.

Problem number one.

We treat the artists that find success as superstars and place them on a pedestal. We expect them to be flawless individuals and hold them to impossible standards. Their humanity is disregarded and when they exhibit the same frailties that the rest of us experience, we criticize them as failures or heretics.

No one is a greater example of this fall from grace than Amy Grant. After releasing her first album in 1977, Amy quickly became the darling of the Christian music industry. Her songs were universally adored, her music was promoted by church leaders and music stores with equal excitement. With her marriage to another big named Christian artist, she was viewed as the pinnacle of what a Christian should be. Criticism started in the mid 80s when she first released an album on a mainstream label. Harsher disapproval came in the early 90s when she released her breakthrough record, Heart in Motion. Critics said she was too worldly. Or that her songs were over sexualized and inappropriate for Christian audiences. By the time she went through her divorce in 1999 and remarriage to Vince Gill less than a year later, many church goers – including some of Amy Grant's biggest fans – were confused and disenchanted. This illusion of the perfect Christian was shattered in the midst of a crisis that faces too many Christian families.

Rather than treating her like any other Christian in the midst of a divorce, she was criticized as a heathen that betrayed the entirety of Christendom. From such a high pedestal, there's nowhere to go but down. The disparagement was so brutal that punk band Lust Control released a song called, ‘Leave Amy Alone.’ The song lyrically declared, “I'm her brother, she's my sister.” To avoid any ambiguity, the chorus screamed, “Leave Amy Grant alone!”

There seems to be a disconnect between the artist we want to see and the actual person that is that artist. We hold them to such lofty standards where there is no other option than to disappoint us. When these Christian celebrities reflect our weaknesses as a human being, it creates a cognitive dissonance that we don't know how to handle so we project on them our own insecurities.

God forbid that a Christian artist openly and sincerely talks about these failures. Kevin Max Smith (of dcTalk fame) summed up this concept better than I ever will in an interview he did with Cross Rhythms. He explained how rare it is that artists are honest about their weaknesses, resulting in a bubble that everyone wants to burst. He said, “that (bubble) represents the Christian music marketplace because people are looking for that shining example. And when they have an example that's actually saying, ‘Hey, I screw up. I've been divorced. I've probably taken the name of the Lord in vain a few times. I tend to drink once in a while when I'm on the road.’ It's like you expose those things and immediately you're outcast.”

* This statement is from Deb, one of my mother-in-law's best friends. And yes, she gave me permission to quote her.


Church vs. Art part 2: Art or Idol?

Top: Portrait of Jesus @ Anthem Friends, Hayden ID
Middle: Statue of Ganesha, temporarily displayed in Coeur d'Alene's Art on Loan program, photo courtesy of Thom George
Bottom: Statue of Jesus @ St. Thomas Catholic Church, Coeur d'Alene, photo courtesy of St. Thomas Church


Church vs. Art part 1: Then and Now

Through the ages, religion and art have been entwined. Some of the world’s most fantastic modern wonders have religious origins. Whether it’s the Tian Tan Buddha in Hong Kong, Angkor Wat in Cambodia, hieroglyphs inside Egypt’s pyramids, the stories told through Native American totem poles, or the statues of Grecian deities, much of the history of art is rooted in religious beliefs.

Once upon a time, Christians saw value in art. It’s in paintings at Megiddo and in Roman catacombs. Even the organized church encouraged it. They looked beyond the worth of art as a way to communicate and inspire; the church viewed art as something sacred and they commissioned the greatest artists of their time to create beautiful works that are still admired now – centuries later. Michelangelo painted The Creation of Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie has the mural of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper adorning one wall and The Crucifiction by Giovanni Donato da Montorfano on another. Songs were sung in hymns, chants, and psalms. Grand cathedrals built across Europe were filled with statues (Michelangelo’s David or Donatello’s St John) and stained glass (Christ in Majesty in Strasbourg or Daniel in Augsburg). Even the cathedrals – like The Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore or Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris – are architectural works of art.

Somewhere in the course of Christian history, the significance of art has been lost – either forgotten or ignored. In some branches of Christianity, art has become either shunned or reviled.

This isn’t a universally applied fact of all Christian churches. Crosses and crucifixes still hang in many sanctuaries and tabernacles. Some protestant churches feature portraits of Jesus. Several modern churches have found ways to incorporate theater into their weekly services. A few have opened their doors as galleries for the painters in their congregation. Even the church I grew up in held annual talent competitions for the youth to express themselves through writing, acting, sculpting, singing, and other arts. But the art that exists in the religious institutions of today is not held in the same esteem as the art of centuries past.

With some exceptions, the modern church seems to have a tenuous relationship with artistic expression.

There are denominations where members aren’t allowed to see movies at a theater (although adherence to that rule is fairly inconsistent) and if it’s not outright forbidden, it’s at least discouraged. Some churches have banned dancing. Some within the church have deemed one style of music or another as sinful. Jimmy Swaggart was famously condemning of rock music. He was critical of the recordings of his cousin Jerry Lee Lewis, but his criticism was also aimed at Christian artists like Petra, Steve Taylor, and Larry Norman. He wrote a book, ‘Religious Rock n’ Roll – A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing’ and compared rock music to pornography.

I dwell on Jimmy because his damning view on Christian art isn’t an isolated thing. We have a tendency to turn on our own. We try to discredit our most thought provoking writers. Donald Miller, Rob Bell, Rick Warren, Mark Driscoll, Gabe Lyons, and many others have all been accused of presenting a false gospel or believing in something other than Christianity. They’ve all faced opposition from fellow Christians claiming these men do not have genuine faith.

We want Christian bands to be heard in mainstream markets, but criticize those that cross over as sellouts or lost sheep. Even after watching or reading Bono’s testimony, we argue about whether or not he’s a true Christian. We want to minister to the hip-hop generation, but we’re not willing to learn their language and prefer that they learn ours. We see graffiti as vandalism and fail to see how anyone could use that style of art to tell the gospel story.

It is sad to see Christians hold such a negative view towards art. It broke my heart when I heard that someone walked out from Lecrae’s set at the Rock & Worship Roadshow because they thought rap music was godless and had no place in a church setting. It confounded me when I heard a Christian talk-radio host declare that any artistic depiction of Jesus is idolatry. I am amazed that people still equate guitars as tools of the devil. It bothers me when Christians look down upon the talents of other Christians or reject creative discourse.

It should bother you too.

In the book of Exodus, Moses is explaining God’s commands to the Israelite people. There are two men – Bezalel and Oholiab – that were chosen to lead God’s people through artistic work. God’s spirit filled Bezalel with wisdom, understanding, knowledge, and skill. Oholiab was given the ability to teach. They were chosen to work in metallurgy, stone cutting, woodwork, engraving, embroidery, and design. God ordered them “to engage in all kinds of artistic crafts” and called them “skilled workers and designers.” (Ex 35:30-35)

Art within the church isn’t just something that should be tolerated or permitted. It is something that should be embraced as an essential thread in the fabric of any religious community. It should be a fundamental element of the church and it is rooted in biblical command.


Church vs. Art: before we get started...

Before we look at the relationship between the church and creative people, lets take a glimpse at defining creativity. What is it that makes the artist work?


About the artist

A little over a year ago, I wrote the following statement: "Do you know who writes manifestos? Crazy people."

Then I followed that claim up by posting a sort of manifesto. I wrote about six areas where I believe the modern church is failing and what we could be doing differently.

Exactly six months ago today, I started writing another manifesto. It's still about the modern church, because realistically I still think that we could do better. However, this time I am focusing on a population that the church has abandoned. This is a community that I hold near and dear as it is one that I am a part of.


It is hard for the artist to feel at home within modern religious institutions. It is possible, but it is not easy. For years, I have felt out of place - like I am out of step with the people who share my faith. I know I'm not alone. I have talked to others who have felt a broad range of discomfort in churches. Awkward. Misunderstood. Pushed away.

Some have left the church, feeling unwelcome with in those sacred walls. Others ave abandoned the faith of their youth, finding unbelief easier in the arts world where religion is often looked upon with disdain. Others, like myself, have sat quietly and done our best to fit in where we might not ever belong.

If you've ever felt like that - like the church doesn't understand the creativity welling up within you, like the people around you will never comprehend or accept the passions that drive you - please continue reading over the next few days. I wrote this series with you in mind.

You might be a hobbyist plying your craft for fun on weekends for your own amusement or as a creative outlet. You could be a wannabe, attending every actor's workshop or musicians conference while your great stage play will never be written or your piano collects dust. You could be a professional: a photographer, a studio musician, an author - your art is your paycheck.

Or your art could be your ministry. I find it sad that those who spend their creative pursuits to further the gospel often find themselves disconnected from God's people.

We can do better than that. So I did the only thing that I know how to do. It's the only way that I am capable of inciting some measure of change. It's the only method I know to make things better. I wrote. Because I'm sick of disappointment and frustration. Because this is my manifesto. This is my eureka moment.

Tomorrow, you'll see a short post defining creativity. It's the process that brought me to where I am today. After that, you'll find a project that has taken me six months to complete. Please join me. I hope that it will shine light in the darkest places.

ps: Perhaps you don't consider yourself an artist. Maybe you're more of a spectator than anything else. Please read along. You might learn something.



About a year and a half ago, I posted a list of five restaurants that I wish we had in Coeur d'Alene. Today, I'm adding one more to that list: Coopersmith's Pub & Brewery.
If you're ever in Fort Collins, you need to try this place out. Coopersmith's is divided into two neighboring restaurants (a pub side and a pool side) with similar but not identical menus.

The atmosphere is slightly different between the two buildings. The pub side is more like a traditional pub. Of the two, it has more of the family styled eatery feel. Pub side has a greater menu selection, food options for kids, and it houses the brewery. The pool side is boisterous, energetic, and loud with blues music pumped through the house speakers.

The beer selection is phenomenal - from a green chili brew to a Panjabi ale. Massive variety and a flavor for every taste. If I was actually a beer person, I'd be like a kid in a candy store. They also have a wide assortment of scotch and scotch-whiskey blends imported from Scotland. The drinker will have diverse options before them.

Even sober patrons will find something to satisfy. The grub is amazing - enough to make any foodie salivate.

One member of our party recommended either the Fish & Chips or Bangers & Mash as the best items on the menu, and two from our group ordered the Fish & Chips - both praised their meal. One girl ordered a Smoked Turkey & Guacamole sandwich claiming it was delicious and filling. Across from me, another coworker ordered the Pesto Turkey. The chips are seasoned and fried potato wedges. The onion rings are beer battered. and everything smelled delectable.

I've never been disappointed in their food and this experience was no exception. I ordered a Chicken Pepperoni Sandwich and devoured it with delight. The charbroiled chicken is topped with a handful of pepperoni slices and rich marinara with mozzarella melted into all of it. It's served on a focacia roll that's seasoned with herbs, parmesan, and asiago cheese. It was delivered with lettuce, red onions, and pickles on the side. The onions added a nice kick to the spice of the pepperoni. The beer battered onion rings (that I ordered as my side of choice) were crisp and savory, and the creamy ranch for the onion rings was the best ranch dressing I've tasted in recent memory.

And if the food and drink is not enough, Coopersmith's also provides entertainment options. Our group hung out for a while after dinner and played a few games of shuffleboard. In the game area, you'll also find several pool tables and a ping pong table. Being a college town, you're apt to see some colorful college kids occupying these spaces. We encountered one playing ping pong while dressed in cowboy boots, super short spandex shorts, and an untucked sleeveless dress shirt that looked like it had been borrowed from Larry the Cable Guy's wardrobe.

Overall - superb food, wide selection of drinks, entertaining atmosphere, amusing local patronage, and a great Old-Town location. If you're ever in Fort Collins - make this a must stop destination.


The most pathetic thing ever

I took the morning off today so that I could pack for my trip. Being home for the morning where I would normally be at work, Bekah took advantage of the situation and made sure that I was available to help with breakfast, get the kids dressed, and run kids to school.

None of that falls into my normal routine. I possess zero awareness of Bekah's morning schedule. To make up for that, we talked for a while last night about what mornings look like in our house. She filled me in on all that I usually miss. Our conversation went a little like this.

Me: What time does you're alarm go off?
Bekah: At 6:00.
Me: OK.
Bekah: Then I hit snooze. And I hit snooze again. And again. For the next hour. And I keep doing it until Christian gets up.
Me: That... that might be the single most pathetic thing I've heard all day.
Bekah: Once everyone is up, JJ will want breakfast but he has breakfast at school. Make breakfast for the other two but not for JJ.
Me: OK
Bekah: And he will ask for it. He'll say, "Momma, I want breakfast." I'll tell him, "No, you get breakfast at school." He'll say, "But they get breakfast." And I say, "But you get breakfast at school." Then he'll say, "I'm HUNGRY!" And I'll say, "You will get breakfast at school." We have the exact same conversation every morning.
Me: I stand corrected. That is the single most pathetic thing I've heard all day.


Five things we need to stop doing. Now.

It's the election season. The crazy times. The maddening. Or whatever you want to call it. It seems the weeks leading up to the first Tuesday in November always brings out the worst in people. It might be the over-zealous passion for or against a particular candidate. It could be that this is the only time people dig deeply into hot-button topics. Whatever the reason, I know that we can do better.

Perhaps, if we can survive the vicious political pandemonium that has become a semi-regular celebration in America without breaking hearts or destroying friendships, we might be able to carry on normal conversations with a hint of greater civility.

In the Mars Ill song 'Love's Not,' ManChild raps, "I know what love is and it just don't stop, but I can explain it better when I say what love's not." In a similar manner, I could explain things to do that would create a better world, but I can explain it better when I list the things we should stop doing.

Not only are these actions that should cease - but things that need to end immediately.

1. Stop calling things/people/places gay or retarded. In my experience, these terms are only used to deride something or someone that doesn't hold up to our expectations. Your buddy isn't gay because he missed a jump shot during a pickup game of basketball. Your computer isn't retarded because you lost a file before you had a chance to save it. When you use these two words, not only are you insulting the object of your ridicule, but you are also degrading any one who is gay or afflicted with mental retardation. I'm guilty with this one because I frequently called anything that didn't work the way it was supposed to "retarded." That was until my son was diagnosed with Aspergers. Now I'm probably over sensitive to its usage. Regardless of my personal feelings, this world would be a better place if we found better adjectives.

2. Stop demonizing people who disagree with you. Opinions are abundant in our world and truth is often an issue of debate. Someone somewhere will always disagree with you. Having a different set of values or beliefs doesn't make someone an enemy. Your opinion might be grounded in facts while theirs is rooted in emotion. You might be right and they could be woefully wrong. But the rightness of your argument does not make you better. Not liking Obama does not make someone a racist. Being pro-choice does not make someone Hitler. No one hates women just because they're pro-life. Not everyone who rallies for social services is a free loader. We can't continue vilifying everyone who holds a different view than ours. Doing so devalues the person you reject. It undermines your own beliefs. It cheapens the weight of your insult. Racism is still a problem in our world, but the more we call people racist just because they disagree with us the less impact that word will have when confronted with real racists. Free loaders exist, but that term becomes meaningless when we start calling everyone a free loader. Cooperation would be much easier if we stop creating enemies where none exists.

3. Stop labeling everyone. Labels can be useful when trying to find someone like a real life version of Where's Waldo. But labels lie. A person's identity and personality are far more complex than the labels we give them. Fat people are more than their weight. Gay people are more than their sexuality. Junkies are more than their addiction. Racial minorities are more than their melanin (or lack thereof), autistic kids are more than their diagnosis, fast food workers are more than their job. Everyone has the right to be treated with dignity and the first step is to look beyond the labels. Get to know people for their dreams and aspirations, not their label. Describe people for their better traits and not their flaws.

4. Stop living beyond your means. I think it's unfair for many Americans to demand a fiscally responsible government while they're living on maxed out credit cards, wearing name brand clothing, and buying cars that are clearly out of their price range. I marvel with a mix of amusement and revulsion when people complain about the economy while eating expensive fast food and updating their twitter feed from their brand new iPhone. Opportunities exist to get your house and money in order (and I highly recommend Dave Ramsey's Financial Peace University) that don't require a degree in economics. If more people could control of their own finances, we'd be better prepared to elect people capable of handling our nation's budget.

5. Stop giving up. There are valid reasons to quit and move on. A better employment opportunity. Infidelity. Reasons exist. But they are few and should be an exception - not the norm. Too many people quit jobs because "the work sucks." Then they move on to an new job that they'll hate just as much as the last one. Too many people give up on marriage because they've lost that loving feeling, money issues, or irreconcilable differences. It's a cop-out. Too many turn to suicide because they've lost hope. Their addictions or mental health issues remain hidden or unaddressed. We live in a nation of people who quit for the wrong reasons. What we fail to realize that we can learn to like jobs we don't love. We miss opportunities to build healthier marriages. We ignore the blessings of life and focus on the here and now. The problem is that being in a loving relationship is hard work. So is making the most of your current employment when it's not what you want to do for the rest of your life. So is looking forward to life when suicide seems like an easier option. Living life, being married, and any job can be rewarding if we put in the effort to make it worthwhile. CS Lewis said it more eloquently than I ever will: "There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind."


Oh for sleep

At 3:30 this morning, I awoke to the sound of cartoons coming from the TV in our living room. I wandered down the stairs to find Zu wide awake on the couch, watching The Powerpuff Girls. "I'm having trouble falling asleep," she said.

At 4:30, there was nothing but silence. Her show had ended and the television had faded to black. Now I couldn't sleep so I killed time on Twitter.

This is how I left her when I walked out the door at 5:15. At least someone got some sleep.