I awoke this morning to Earth, Wind and Fire’s September refrain sounding in my head. Not sure if I’m spelling it correctly but “ba de ya de ya de ya” was stuck on repeat. I thought it remarkable not least because I couldn’t remember having heard it in the past number of months, anywhere. It isn’t in my iTunes account and I don’t listen to the radio anymore—where it’s overplayed, regardless of the time of year. But I also thought it amazing as this smallest of registries bubbled up from my spirit: An answer to prayer. Nothing fancy, mind you, just a brief touchstone between God and I. While I fell in love with the song upon hearing it for the first time maybe ten years ago while my parents went through the divorce cycle, I’d since come to disdain it. Back then, however, it was a bright spot, tinged with orange, that always lifted me upon hearing. At that time, I did listen to the radio, like, all the time; something to get my mind off the misery and depression of what I was going through. I think that as my initial affection for the song began to wane and as I took to changing the station every time I heard it following along with that pattern, enough time had elapsed to where said affection for the song could have been reset. And please understand, this song came to me this morning ex nihilo—out of nothing. It was in my head when I awoke. One of those (at least, in this case, the chorus of nonsensical syllables) dream-state thoughts that clears as you climb out of bed and taste the bad breath and rub the sleep from your eyes. I should add that about three or four days ago, I sent up a very deliberate prayer to the Holy Spirit that He remind me of a latent, if forgotten, song from my past. But I wasn’t expecting this.

“Commit thy works unto the Lord, and thy thoughts shall be established.” (Proverbs 16:3)

Here’s the thing about how God answers prayer. He’ll do so in a way that will surprise you. One of the curses of being earthbound, as it were, is that we always fight the natural tendency to see things lag and lose their luster and burn out. This had certainly happened with this song and if you had asked me about it, I would have answered along the lines of what you may have intuited earlier in the first paragraph: I’m still tired of it. But with the new dawn and such a quiet-but-remarkable reminder of something that had at one point in my mental space been such a bright spot, I guess I’m inclined to continue listening.

In closing, I would just like to say that God has that ability. Be it a relationship, a season, an affection—really anything that isn’t sinful—can he reimbue with His original purpose and the object’s (however abstract) intrinsic value and nature. Something only He can. Oh, and the song’s been on repeat since I started writing this post.

Emphasis Mine: Collective Soul/Rush

I recently came upon a quote by an anonynous individual. Brilliant stuff: “Words make you think a thought. Music makes you feel a feeling. Songs make you feel a thought.”

I don’t think I’m the only one who has integrated snippets of popular music into their life and worldview and philosophy. If you’ve read any of my posts (especially this one), you know that I think very highly of musicians and songwriters from every walk of life and their God-given gifts and abilities.
One thing I’ve sought to explain and thereby substantiate for my life (especially my adult life) is the thought or script that accompanies feelings. I’m very skeptical when it comes to good feelings that have no corresponding thoughts–evincing themselves upon attempted detection. I’d rather feel nothing than feel good for no discernible reason (a bold statement, but when it boils down and when it’s presented like that, I stick to that assertion). I’m digressing but I think this is a valid point that deserves elucidation in the future…

I write all that to say this: two bands that have helped me do just that–translate feelings into thoughts–are Collective Soul and Rush. If you’re not familiar with them, then please read on as I attempt to explain two ideologically different bands that unite, like heart and mind, into an amalgamated prescription that makes up much of the soundtrack to my life.

I suppose I should start at the beginning. Collective Soul is from Georgia. A small suburb of Atlanta called Stockbridge. The lead singer Ed Roland and his brother Dean-the band’s rhythm guitarist-are accompanied by bassist Will Turpin. These three form the backbone of the band and have been part of it since the band’s inception. Current lead guitarist Joel Kosche replaced original guitarist Ross Childress for their 2005 album Youth and is still with them. While they don’t have a current drummer, Sevendust’s Cheney Brannon did fill in for their 2009 self-titled album (It’s their ninth and most recent album and their second self-titled album), unofficially called Rabbit. He effectively replaced Shane Evans for 2007s Afterwords who had been with them since the beginning. I’ll get into their message–or at least my interpretation of it–later. First I’d like to introduce Rush.

Rush is the darling of Toronto’s progressive rock scene. Though they outlived that simple definition decades ago. In spite of their fervent worldwide fan base and outrageous multi-platinum record sales, they have yet to be nominated (not even a nomination) for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Except for their first (self-titled) album, the three members have been together since the late seventies. They have a new album coming out in 2012 entitled Clockwork Angels. Rush is made up of lead singer and bassist (and sometime keyboardist, much to some fans’ chagrin) Geddy Lee. Lead (and rhythm) guitarist Alex Lifeson. And last, but certainly not least, lyricist and percussionist Neil Peart.

I won’t get into specifics with reference to the band members’ beliefs and ideologies (or lack thereof) because I can (almost) guarantee you that none of them believe the way I do. And I’m perfectly cool with that. And I suppose if I present the proceeding paragraphs as my interpretive license only, they’d be cool with that too.

I’ll open by saying that–for me–Collective Soul is the heart to Rush’s brain. That’s why they’re first.

Collective Soul released their first album, called Hints, Allegations and Things Left Unsaid, in 1994. Their first single was Shine, and that’s the first song I ever heard by them that turned my head, though it took about ten years before I discovered it. A strong Christian undertone permeates the whole record and I find comfort and strength in singing along. Shine is a winner. Reach shines on its own and Sister Don’t Cry is an excellent song and one of the few that I’m aware of (from any band) that touches on the subject of men and women, boys and girls, as friends only. It’s a song of encouragement without any romantic overtone whatsoever. We need more of this (1 Timothy 5:2). Please note that Ed is the main lyricist. He writes songs that can be interpreted in many ways (all positive) without losing their strength because of a diluted ambiguity. Their second album, released a year later was self-titled. Standouts from that include December, which won a Grammy. It deals with the end of a relationship and freeing oneself from the tentacled grip of one’s ex and their manipulation. The World I Know is a wonderful and poignant meditation on the inherent tragedy of life when viewed from a higher vantage point. And the [untitled] track (#2 on the album) stresses–to my mind–the importance of receiving one’s spiritual guidance from God alone. Moving forward, another song of note is Forgiveness (about coming around to its necessity for life) off their 1997 album Disciplined Breakdown. That album’s title track and the incisive Blame-about his falling out with his former producer-are also exceptional. The whole album is a confrontation leveled at the band’s producer for cheating Ed. I’m not sure about the specifics. The 1999 album Dosage contains No More, No Less (my favorite song and favorite album), about living on the fine line between humility and proud self-effacement. 2000s Blender is superb and highly polished. The song Happiness simply rocks. You Speak My Language is one of only two (out of a hundred, plus) that they’ve covered and they do it well-better than the original. Rounding out their discography is Youth, Afterwords and then Rabbit.

Currently, each of the four members (Ed, Dean, Will and Joel) are working independent of one another on side-projects but assure the fans that they have not split up and will be recording together as Collective Soul in the future. I look forward to that day.

Collective Soul imbues their excellent musicianship and composition with two themes that resonate with me very highly: truth in relationships and honesty in interaction. I find that Mr. Roland illumines the hidden chambers of the heart better than any other secular songwriter on my radar today. His song Burn from the live DVD ‘Home’ says it best: “got the combination to my soul”. I love that. Under God, he has helped me to obtain that very thing.

Besides my being a fan, one very odd link between the two bands is the Russian philosopher Ayn Rand. “The collective soul” comes from her novel Fountainhead. Whereas Ed chose that name but espouses none of her opinions, each member of Rush had independently read and been inspired by her works prior to forming as a band. Their early music is full of her ideas and ideals. And their record label is called Anthem (as is one of their songs) after another of her books. The name ‘Rush’ was an off-the-cuff comment from an acquaintance. It ended up sticking.

Collective Soul has a penchant for one word song titles: Blame, Link (from the album Disciplined Breakdown—awesome), Bleed, Run, Gel, Giving (and Give), Generate, All, et. al. Rush, on the other hand, deals with songs with a more broad-handed approach, few being less than five minutes long. Their song titles are more representative of the themes dealt with in the lyrics. Examples include: Vital Signs, Anagram, Natural Science, Spirit of Radio, The Body Electric, etc.

Look around on any online music forum talking Collective Soul and you’re sure to hear this common complaint, the first part of which is true: “The reason you don’t hear any Collective Soul on the radio (you actually don’t, not where I live anyway) is because FM is anti-Christian!”. Hmm. Any Rush forum says (almost) the same thing: “The reason you don’t hear any Rush on the radio (hardly any) is because FM is too Christian!” Funny. They can’t both be right. In further comparing and contrasting the two bands, Ed Roland has a burly, at times gravelly, yet still musical voice. Geddy Lee’s voice (he’s referred to it before as his “yowl”) is the main reason that people are turned off by them as a band. It’s definitely an acquired taste. If you can’t abide his high-pitched pipes, try their stellar instrumentals: La Villa Strangiato and YYZ (the call-letters for the Toronto airport).

I will open by saying that Rush is definitely not Christian. They espouse a brand of secular humanism (evident in Ayn Rand’s philosophy as objectivism, more on that in some future post) that, were you to add God and subtract the godlessness (as I am wont to do), is an airtight prescription for helping with self-assertion in the big, bad world. I have no trouble sifting through much of their unpalatable ideology for the kernels of truth that pop up amidst the awesome instrumentals and drum fills. This appeals to me as a man because many of their songs are aimed at, or have protagonists who are, teen boys/young men trying to find their place in the world: Subdivisions, The Analog Kid, Tom Sawyer, Red Barchetta and The Pass speak directly to that demographic. The music videos for Subdivisions, Lock and Key, Show Don’t Tell and The Pass drive this point home. Even the album covers for Roll the Bones and Power Windows feature guys on the cusp of adulthood or young-adulthood. And this is its appeal for me as a man. Nevermind the fact that each musician is world-class. I’m still trying to figure out how three guys can make all that noise.

I won’t get into the individual albums as Rush has more than twice as many as Collective Soul. My favorite Rush album is Hold Your Fire from 1987. The album is a strong shot of encouragement for the creatively-minded individual and well worth a listen for artists and writers. Most every Rush fan’s favorite album is Moving Pictures from 1981. Hailed by many in the industry as one of the greatest rock albums of all time. I mentioned it briefly in passing here. Fair enough. My favorite Rush song is Limelight from the same. The chorus from which contains an important maxim for life: “Those who wish to be must put aside the alienation, get on with the fascination, the real relation, the underlying theme.” It draws the distinction between seeming and being.

As Christians, we need to make sure, with God’s help and guidance, that we do more than just seem like we’re Christian. We need to be. Music, when seen through the lens of God’s love and His word, and directed toward God in worship and praise can make us be. And substantiating our thoughts on the ground of Jesus, His word and His work is so much fun with this music in the background.

Thank you for reading!

National Resurrection

“Righteousness exalteth a nation: but sin is a reproach to any people.” (Proverbs 14:34)

Whether you believe in God or not, the fact that you have the freedom to believe or the freedom to doubt is integral to the fabric of this nation. Ten years ago that fabric hung, tattered and knotted as we struggled in disbelief at the attacks on the East Coast. I watched from my TV, having just come back home from delivering a missed customer on my paper route. It took a long time to process what I saw and still some of the details are hazy. Like the New York skyline for weeks following.

Did God cause it to happen? Absolutely not. But I believe He was powerless to prevent it.

As it says in Proverbs (16:7), “if our ways please the Lord, He’ll cause our enemies to be at peace with us”. The pundits, preachers, poets, priests and politicians (thank you, Sting) pointed at this sin and that “sin” and blamed each other. Conspiracy theories littered the landscape like detritus from the war of ideologies. And yet, following this tack, it was indeed an inside job. Inside our hearts and minds we shut God out. All of the apathy and hate and ingratitude rising to heaven, we sacrificed compassion and conscience for hate and hedonism and as such the door was left open for the enemy. We paid the price. And as Ed Roland (of Collective Soul, in an unrelated song;10 Years Later) sings: “it’s 10 years later and still I haven’t a clue”. I see today, the same apathetic attitude we were infected with a decade ago.

God’s forgiveness is still extant and extravagant. Love, as Peter says (1 Peter 4:8), covers a multitude of sins. Any outward, behavioral sin, “a reproach to any people” (again, Proverbs 14:34), begins—towards God (Psalms 51:4)—in the heart and mind. So, too, do the virtues. A lukewarm heart, veneered over with rudimentary morality isn’t going to last. Let us turn to God again and let Him heal our nation (2 Chronicles 7:14). We need to “put aside the alienation” as Rush sang in Limelight. Only when we renew our minds (Romans 12:1-2) to the truths in God’s word will we experience real healing and prosperity. And freedom. From sin, violence and apathy. His love, mercy and grace will help us if we ask.

“If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.” (2 Chronicles 7:14)

A Creative License Suspension

Let’s shed some light on ‘The Muse’. As you may know, the ancient Greeks anthropomorphized the flow of their creativity. The myth has it that there were nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne (memory) and each one was identified as the muse over various disciplines such as writing, poetry and singing. Did they construct this idea so they wouldn’t be culpable if they couldn’t muster up the genius needed to produce said creative arts? Sort of like shifting blame to an unseen entity. I don’t think this is entirely implausible and I do think there’s more to it.

Nowadays, the muse is still seen as a positive thing. Maybe not a literal being with a name, but many writers and artists still see their ideas and inspiration as coming from an outside source and not just from within themselves. “Where do they get this stuff?” Neil Peart, when he sat down to pen the lyrics to Moving Pictures, one of the greatest Rock albums of all time, felt he was cheating because everything came so effortlessly to him.

As we desire to please God, we know that our creative vision comes from Him as well as the gifts and talents needed to see the vision become a tangible reality. This is why purity of heart and mind (James 4:7-8) is vitally important. This is so amazing to me: the writer/artist/musician has the means within to take an invisible idea—like a light in their heart—and turn it into something that every one else can see and partake of. Just make sure it’s edifying and inspiring in turn.

When I realize that I have a gift (Proverbs 17:8) that can be affected by an outside source, whether corporeal (human) or spiritual, it causes me to take a step back on the inside and reevaluate my creativity in light of God’s will. God is the most creative individual in existence, so in no way should I be concerned about being held back or stifled (Isaiah 55:9). What I should be concerned about, however, is that the gifts I’ve been given are put to the use for which they were intended. (See Matthew 25)

Inspiration can come from many sources. Make sure you develop your senses (Hebrews 5:14) along with your gifts so you know where you’re getting your ideas from.

Our Response-ability

Richard Florida, in his book The Rise of the Creative Class, says that “the service economy is the support infrastructure of the creative age”. What does this mean? It means, Who’s footing the bill?

He goes on to explain that the age we live in is indeed a creative one. If you’re in any way creatively inclined then you know what I’m talking about. Creative expression is one of the most exciting and fulfilling human endeavors. But, as the song Distant Early Warning by Rush points out, “we need someone to talk to and someone to sweep the floors.” Pray for that someone. Don’t be ashamed to reach out and brighten their day with a smile, a tip, whatever the Holy Spirit puts on your heart.

God is so generous. He does “exceeding, abundantly above all we could ask or think” (Ephesians 3:20). Have you thanked God for anything recently? How about ever? That last breath you drew came from Him (Acts 17:25). Everything good that we have (James 1:17). A little gratitude would be a smart idea (1 Thessalonians 5:18), it’s the polite thing to do.

Think about the people who make our life possible: The cleaning crew that vacuums your office. The garbage collector who comes every Tuesday morning (in my neighborhood). The barista who made the coffee you (or I) so desperately need. Everyone from teachers to police officers to servicemen and women.

We live in a world of fantasy if we’re taking these people for granted. The auspices of America cost something to maintain. Please practice frequent gratitude. Both to the men and women who serve us and to God for making the whole thing possible.