Paraments: A Holy Saturday Meditation

No one else can see this.

Alone in the sanctuary I move from pulpit to altar to lectern

Exchanging bare wood for the white paraments of Easter.

The sanctuary is uneasy when it’s left unclothed

Maybe it’s because we only leave it that way once a year

On the day where we remember that God died

On the day the light goes out.

It doesn’t feel right. It shouldn’t feel right. But it’s reality

But  now, we can begin again.

The sanctuary refuses to stay bare forever.

It refuses to stay blank for long.

When the congregation files in tomorrow I hope they see something beautiful

Life returns to a place that desperately needs it.

The smells of creation filling this sanctuary as I drag in lilies that we had to hide on Friday.

And the cross, so recently a symbol of death and decay stands triumphantly empty, silhouetted by white blossoms and buds still waiting to bloom.

New life continues to grow

And so I keep moving from one place to another around the room, transforming a place that was left barren not a day ago into a place where life is found again.

I wonder if this is what God felt like

Working and preparing a display of new life in a place that had so recently been barren

No one else can see this

But we have to make ready anyway

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Millennials in an Alternate Reality

Millennials are the worst. They are entering the workforce at increasing rates and soon they’ll be the ones shaping the future. They are the largest demographic in the United States, and because they are the worst, everything is going wrong.

When millennials were growing up, only the winners received trophies. Their dispassionate fixation on results over process is a byproduct of this broken trophy-distribution system. Maybe if we hadn’t overemphasized the importance of final outcomes, millennials could enjoy the journey without thought of the destination. But it’s too late; millennials know that effort is only worthwhile if leads to a W.

When they were kids, millennials were told that only truly exceptional people could do exceptional things. Today’s twentysomethings never had to give up on being an astronaut because they never dared to imagine it. They’re very rational, but they’ve forgotten how to dream.

Millennials, defying even the most conservative estimates, are the most technology-averse generation since the Great Depression. Their comparatively poor social skills are likely a result of their tendency to isolate themselves from the effortless connectivity of modern technology.

Millennials understand that no one person is truly unique. Their parents constantly reinforced this theme, and as a result, millennials are bystanders – they expect somebody better or smarter to come along and do all the things that need doing.

A common refrain among millennials is “follow the money.” They are financially successful, because they eschew fulfilling careers for jobs more suited to their skills, but their careers are often marked by hesitancy. Because they generally do not believe they are special, they feel unprepared when it comes time for them to assume leadership roles. They often instinctively suspect that promotions are clerical errors or practical jokes. They accept unhappiness because they have never expected better.

This generation the least self-aware in recent memory. They’ve earned the nickname “the You generation.” Despite their stunted interpersonal skills, they are fixated on the well-being of others to a fault. Ask a millennial about his likes and dislikes, about her aspirations, and you will receive a blank stare. How can millennials be happy if they don’t know what they want? How can we continue to create art and music and literature if the largest demographic in the country has no concept of self to express?

Millennials are great employees. Just don’t try to have a stimulating conversation with one.

Always Forward

Always Forward

Romans 12:1-12

I was watching Luke Cage on Netflix the other day and something really stuck out to me in those first few episodes. Luke Cage, if you aren’t familiar, is a TV series about a superhero that opens the show trying to live a normal life in Harlem. He didn’t want his powers; they were forced upon him in a failed experiment while he was in prison. So he attempts to live a quiet life, sweeping hair in a barbershop and not making too much noise. The shop is owned by a man known simply as “Pop” who serves as a role model, almost father figure not just to Luke but the whole neighborhood. His shop is a sanctuary away from the constant struggle of life in New York, a place where even the fiercest blood rivals can sit down for a moment of peace. Pop lives by a motto that stayed with me for the entirety of the show and I couldn’t get it out of my head when I sat down to write this. It’s these two simple words: “Always Forward.” He would go on to say it many times, sometimes making sure to add in a reminder to never go backwards but the emphasis is always on forward progress.  Continue reading

Ocean Eyes and Staying Warm

Owl City’s Ocean Eyes is one of my favorite albums, and when I search the internet for opinions about it, the well-argued ones are usually blisteringly negative, and the positive ones are usually vapid and full of spelling errors. For whatever reason, people don’t seem to dig deep into Ocean Eyes and connect with it the way I do, and I think the internet needs an opinion on the album that’s positive and seriously considered. Here we go.

Ocean Eyes came out in 2009, and I’ve listened to it on and off in the seven years between then and now. Though it was commercially successful, most reviews around the time of its release were negative, saying that it was sickly sweet or that didn’t have the depth to keep listeners around. Reviewers said that the album floated along on the strength of meaningless pretty phrases and catchy but repetitive instrumental melodies. These criticisms and worse are true of Owl City’s other albums (but Maybe I’m Dreaming is decent). Ocean Eyes, though, is serious and emotional behind its pretty phrases and radio-pop instrumentals. Continue reading

Thomas Rakowitz Finds His Way Home

Sometimes, when you least expect it, the right piece of music drops into your lap. I’ve been in an anxiety funk recently, with potential big things coming up. I’m sitting up writing this knowing I should sleep soon, but I just hit play for the second time on a new track from Thomas Rakowitz because it’s perfect for where I’m at right now and I needed to write about it.

Rakowitz, as you know from following any of the other things I’ve written about his work, has this uncanny ability to paint with his guitar. “I’ll Find My Way Home” is no different. The opening chords are sparse, slowly echoing into nothing before some arpeggios come in underneath. It has this feeling of going in circles, but not because you meant to. Every time they come back it’s that feeling of being lost on a trail because you took a wrong turn and you can swear you’ve seen this rock before. I swear I mean this in a good way.

I don’t know if that’s what Thomas was going for, but that’s what I felt. Each time the picking comes back in under the chords it’s slightly different, building to a moment of clarity at the end of the track that feels like a discovery. I got chills near the end of the song because I heard this hopeful shift in the tones, this anxious crescendo towards actualization. Everything just fits together in this manner that seems to evoke searching for something and the confidence that comes from knowing it’s out there, no matter what the journey’s looked like so far. It’s 7 minutes of self-reflection, and it’s exactly what I needed. Thanks, Thomas.

Listen to “I’ll Find My Way Home” below, and if you like that (you will) you can click here to get Thomas’s double album The Musings of Balance

Secret Project Episode 4

This week on Secret Project, Travis and Jeff discuss The Indigo Girls, 1 Kings, and examining our privilege as it relates to history.

Song this week: “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” by the Indigo Girls

Join the conversation by following Jeff and Travis on Twitter at @jmesquire and @wtewton respectively or email us at secretprojectcast@gmail.com

As always, thank you to The Midnight Sons for our theme song “Variable” from their album Descartes.

There is Joy in the Work: Divinity and Dragon Punches

So as you may have heard me scream about for months on various social media platforms, I’m going to Las Vegas in July to compete at EVO, the largest fighting game tournament in the world. This is A Big Deal for me and so I’m going to write about it hopefully more than just this leading up to it and maybe do a couple of posts or vlogs or something from the event and a big post-mortem when I get back. That’s the plan at least.

On any given night you have at least a 60% chance of finding me in the following configuration: I’m sitting on the couch, with my dog curled up around my feet, going through something on my phone, with my laptop open on the cushion next to me. And on my lap is my trusty weapon, a big hunk of plastic, buttons, and wires that I trust to lead me to victory against an onslaught of strangers. Or at least it can help me figure out what in the world Justin Wong is doing in this video that I can’t seem to make work for me. Or maybe I’ll finally go through this frame data app that I’ve been told will make me a better player and figure out what it actually means so when I ask the guy next to me at the tournament, “Is that move safe?” I’ll know what it means when he says yes or no instead of just nodding sagely like I didn’t even need to ask in the first place. But mostly I’ll post up in the training mode of Street Fighter V and throw my Karin against the Ken I set up as the punching bag, trying to make magic out of these button presses.

I started playing fighting games when Street Fighter II came out on the Super Nintendo. I wasn’t really drawn to any particular character but I loved playing the game with (and most of the time beating) my dad, my friends that came over, anyone who would pick up the controllers with me. I had no idea what I was doing but those moments of victory after proving myself to be better than whoever sat next to me were worth so much. I fell out of the scene until I was in high school, when Street Fighter II came back as an HD Remix. I got my first arcade stick for Christmas that year and would take it to friend’s houses, finding new games to play with them and trying to be the best again. This continued in Street Fighter IV and all its variations, as I finally found a character I loved in Cody and wanted to be more than just the best of my friends.

So I would spend long nights in the training mode working on special cancels, combos, this whole new world beyond mashing the heaviest punch and kick I could find and hoping my opponent would walk into it. I saw that grey and red grid in my sleep in college, where I spent game after game trash talking my roommate, goading him into playing one more round where I would thrash him again. I started watching streams of EVO and other events and saw what these professionals could make their characters do and it felt like an art form. I loved every second of it and it made me want to work harder. Once I got to seminary, the copy of Street Fighter IV that lived on my laptop was a place I could retreat from stress and work. I would go to that familiar zone, working on muscle memory for my combos, working on my movement, it became a discipline that was almost spiritual in that I would play games, either win or lose and find myself in an intense self-examination phase as I tried to get better.

Eventually I decided to take my show on the road. I wanted to compete locally, so I found a place in Dallas that hosted a fight night and went thinking the work I had been putting in would lead me to the top. I got to the venue, played some casual games before the tournament started and won most of them. As they called my name to come play my first tournament game I felt confident, like nothing was going to stand in my way.

And I got worked. Just completely stomped in ways I could have never imagined. I went 0-2 and was out fast. I left without seeing who won, or playing any more games. I just wanted to go home. Maybe I didn’t know these matchups as well as I thought I did. Maybe my character wasn’t that good and I needed to learn someone else. Maybe I was just trash garbage and I had no business playing.

But when I got back into training mode, that familiar grid, all of those concerns melted away. I could just press buttons and learn something again. There was joy in the work that it took to get better. So when I went back I didn’t win the tournament again. In fact I only won one game, but it was against the player that eliminated me the last time. I learned something. I got better. There was joy in the work.

I would love to say that this was a story to how I rose up to dominate that scene and became someone to be feared in the fighting game community. But it’s not. I’m just a middling player at best who loves playing these games. And in those moments with my dog curled around my feet as I try to make my Karin do the same kind of things Mago’s or Justin Wong’s does I feel at peace because I know I will get better. When my fingers slip on those tricky links, when the moves just won’t come out the way I think they should, the way I see them performed on the screen, it is easy to get discouraged. It is easy to think that I’ll never be Mago, I’ll never be Ricki Ortiz, I’ll never be Justin Wong. But the point is not to be them, the point is to enjoy the process of playing these games, of learning what went wrong and doing it better next time.

I can’t go to a lot of live tournaments. There’s not exactly a thriving scene in Wilburton and most local-ish game nights are on nights I have church work or on weekends where I can’t travel so I can be there for Sunday mornings. That grid and online games against strangers comprise most of my practice. I had a rare day off so I went to a game night and got to play against real people. I didn’t do great, I ran into my problem matchups early, but when I hit my big Karin combo that I’d spent all that time in the Grid working on that ended with her laughing in my opponent’s face, it was hard not to crack a smile. There is joy in the work.

The first year of being a pastor has felt a lot like those days in training mode. I go out, I preach, I teach, I learn, I do something in the community, I talk to my congregation, I try to meet their needs and eventually I come and try to put it all together. I try to see what I can do to be better, to serve in a way that shows love to others and changes lives for the better. There are moments where I can look at what I’ve done, or see what my congregation has done together and feel the utmost joy knowing that we’ve accomplished something. There are sermons that I finish and know that God was present there. And sometimes I make mistakes, and I have to work out what went wrong and what we can repair. Sometimes there are habits I need to break in order to be more effective. Recently I went up to the big dance and found out that I didn’t know the matchup as well as I thought I did. I gave it my best based on what I had worked on and found out it wasn’t good enough. And I admit that every now and then I have those moments where it feels like a character crisis, and I wonder if I need a bigger change than a smaller tweak. But then I remember those moments, that there is joy in the work, that there is joy upon joy in getting to share this grace that I have found with other people, and I think that maybe it’s time to get back to that work. Because if there is joy in the work, there is work to be done.

Premiere! Thomas Rakowitz: “The Illusion”

This is the first time in a while I wished I had access to Myspace-esque autoplay functionality so I could just play the “This is a woooooooorld premiere” sample from “i” over and over while you read this. Go here and just listen to the first eight seconds a few times.

I’m beyond thrilled that I get to be the one to deliver the first single from Thomas Rakowitz’s album The Musings of Balance. Longtime readers will know that I discovered Rakowitz as a featured artist on Brian Altano’s Misanthrope and became enthralled with his guitar work, noting that it completely changed the sonic landscape in which Altano could play around and made for an even better experience. Rakowitz has released a couple of albums and a steady stream of one-off tracks since then, showcasing that he hasn’t lost a step and is (somehow) getting better and more adventurous with each release.

Which leads us to “The Illusion,” an early look at what’s to come on The Musings of Balance. This track is one to keep you on your toes as it moves along. The beginning seems liked it’s setting up for a prog track, with a drum and riff combo that gave me flashes of Coheed and Cambria’s “Time Consumer.” This little theme continues, adding in a loose-sounding bass, slapping every note to give it a bit of jangle to go with some fat low-end texture. Rakowitz’s layered vocals add an air of something impending coming just behind the next chord progression.

And when that finally arrives in the chorus, we get something that takes the familiar groove that Rakowitz has been playing with and completely transforms it into a blast of chords, familiar enough to be a stepping stone from what was built up before but adding a new kick to the track as a whole. Combine that with a brief solo to rise above the sludgy riffs before plunging back down into a heavy outro and you’ve got a recipe for a roller coaster ride that knows just how to play on your expectations without giving you too much time to rest. You can check out “The Illusion” below and check back here in a few days for a full review of The Musings of Balance before it’s released on March 16th.

Tuesday Two-Step: Tetherball & TW Walsh

Woo it’s been a bit since we’ve done one of these!

Nashville’s Tetherball has a way of combining smart indie-pop with an almost doo-wop sensibility on their new single “Social Jedi.” The guitars take you along “tumbling down this ladder” right behind the vocals while the drums keep you snapping right along with it. It’s a brisk little tune that felt like it was over too soon, a testament to how much I wanted to play around in the sound. Check out the Pac-Man themed video below and get a little more of a taste of Tetherball when the EP Pheromone Flood comes out February 26th.

We’ve also got a new video from TW Walsh, formerly of Pedro the Lion.  “Fundamental Ground” kicks off with the line “I’ve been in this room for way too long.” The song feels haunting in a way that expresses the melancholy of not going anywhere even as you search for something bigger out there, that base thing that must be holding up everything else. Walsh’s vocals have an uncertainty to them that plays up this theme.  Check out “Fundamental Ground” here and pick up TW Walsh’s new album Fruitless Research when it releases this Friday.