Monday, December 26, 2016

It Was a Very Good Year

Almost universally 2016 seems to be regarded by many in the broader culture as a very bad year. There were shootings and terrorists. There was a contentious election that offered Americans two dreadful choices. Peoples' lives fell to pot. There was a war in Syria that seemed to be less of a war and more of a holocaust. The list goes on. People seem to universally be ready to bid 2016 goodbye. I feel a little guilty I suppose, but I'm not quite ready to throw 2016 onto the trash heap of history.

As I write this post, I am listening to Frank Sinatra. And all I can think is that everybody else is wrong and Frank is right. It was a very good year. Of course, Frank is only right by accident the same way even a broken clock is right twice a day. For Frank a very good year was
Blue-blooded girls
Of independent means
We'd ride in limousines
Their chauffeurs would drive
When I was thirty-five
Personally, it was a very good year, but not because of girls and chauffeurs. I can only speak for myself, and perhaps for my family, but as this year ends I want to end it striking a note of gratitude and not of grumbling.

The time from when we were called to Pearl Presbyterian Church until now has been a whirlwind and filled with personal blessings. Not only do we have a church family that loves us and puts up with my odd fashion sense, preaching foibles, and clearly expanding waistline, but they seem to get me. The other day I was preparing to teach a Wednesday night Bible study and forgot I was wearing my converse sneakers with my dress pants and blazer. My wife said something about it, and one of our parishioners said, "Oh we knew what we were getting when we called Adam." It wasn't an insult in the slightest and I appreciated hearing it. It was the sound of someone who gets me.

Our family feels very loved by this congregation. Not only did they turn out in large numbers to help us move, but we have been welcomed into their homes, shared many meals, spent time over the holidays with their families, and become a part of their lives.

Materially, we have been blessed. We have our first ever home. After 16 years of marriage, my wife lives somewhere that she can paint the walls, hang up shelves, tinker with the landscaping, and customize to her heart's content. We have always lived in places where we couldn't have animals, and so my family now has a new kitten named Winter. She is soft and cuddly, but she scratches me and bites me a lot, and so our relationship is complicated.

In many ways, and on so many levels, this was a year of massive changes and improvements for our family. My wife is realizing that maybe she has a real gift for not only decorating her own home but also helping others to decorate their own houses. My children are all learning to deal with being in public school. I am learning what it is to be not only a preacher, but also a pastor (sure to be a long process, as my parishioners will tell you).

It wasn't all smooth sailing and salty sea air, though. January to July of this year was, without a doubt, the most stressful, difficult, and trying season I've ever personally endured. Once the last semester of seminary came, everything went from abstract and hypothetical to real and consequential. Our search for a new church home sent us on multiple flights to Chicago (our childrens' first time seeing skyscrapers in person). We traveled to the Tennessee countryside, and to the muggy swamplands of Georgia. At every stop we asked ourselves the very real question, "Could we see ourselves here? Could this be the place for us? Will this be our home?" (These can be exhausting questions if you consider them very seriously each time.) And of course, there is the added pressure of knowing that the churches are asking themselves similar questions about us. Travel took its toll on me physically, and it was a very difficult time. I experienced so much anxiety that I often found myself thinking I might need to see a doctor.

Looking back on this year I realize how much faithlessness and fear was intermingled with this season. Anxiety, paranoia, wondering what we would do if we didn't find a place to minister... all of these thoughts plagued me during half of 2016. Someone looking in from the outside might say, "Well Adam that doesn't sound like a very good year. Spending half of the year realizing how faithless and fearful your heart is sure sounds like a bad year to me."

Of course, we don't often see or feel it, but seasons like that are really a gift. It's one thing to acknowledge the providence of God. It's one thing to acknowledge and believe that you have been called by God to serve as a pastor. It's another thing to put those two realities - your calling, and God's providence - together and hold them in your heart and really believe them such that you can rest and sleep knowing that his plan is good and that his call is true. The reason this season was a gift was that, among other things, it exposed sin. There was no other way for this to be done! My family and I had to be tested, tried, and troubled so that the dross could rise to the surface. If I had sought a church and had something lined up in May as soon as I graduated I guarantee you I would have gone into a church situation as a smug new graduate, ready to lecture and teach, but lacking in tenderness toward those who struggle.

Instead, God saw fit to tenderize me over a period of six months, to show me my own heart, to let me be stung by the barbs of my own fear, even in the face of the promise that God truly does ordain and control whatsoever comes to pass (Eph. 1:11).

If you feel that 2016 was a very bad year, I won't try to persuade you that you are wrong. It may have seemed pretty awful. But I would encourage you to ask if God was using the darkness to purge you or show you your own sin. Often giving our children what they want is the worst thing for them. God used this season to show me that fear and failure can be sanctifying in the life of his people when met with repentance and pleading for divine grace. It was a painful year, but by the help of the Holy Spirit, God turned it into a very good year.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Adam's 10 Favorite Albums from this Year

It is customary, at the end of the year, for people to list their ten favorite albums that were released in the previous year. I enjoy this custom, but prefer to revise it slightly. I'm going to be listing my ten favorite albums that I listened to the most this past year. These albums could be from this year (most are, actually) but they could also be from another time as well.

Without further ado...

10. The Dig Soundtrack, by Michael Land
Nobody knows about this. It was the soundtrack to a computer game that came out when I was a teenager that I fell in love with. Earlier this year I discovered that someone posted an MP3 of the soundtrack on an obscure website and have rejoiced endlessly. I know hipsters like to share obscure music. I'm not sure you get much more obscure than this. So there...take that!

This album isn't just obscure. There's more to it than that. It's a beautiful electronic soundtrack that is ambient and at the same time otherworldly. I cannot listen to this album without feeling like another world may be just outside my study window.

9. Everything and Nothing, by Hammock [Apple Music]
This is an album that is very beloved by me. I love Hammock and have listened to Marc Byrd's music even back when he was in the Christian band Common Children. Now that he is making beautiful ambient/orchestral music, I listen to everything this band puts out..

8. The Wilderness, by Explosions in the Sky [Apple Music]
I never get tired of the music these guys produce. To me, this album is just different enough from what has come before that it feels like growth without alienating me.

7. Integrity Blues, by Jimmy Eat World [Apple Music]
This is a great comeback album for a band that I haven't listened to for years. This strikes me as unexpectedly mature music from a band that I had written off a decade ago.

6. Blade Runner Soundtrack (25th Anniversary), by Vangelis [Apple Music]
Ever since I first heard this soundtrack and got my hands on it, I've never stopped listening to it.

5. Every Open Eye, by CHVRCHES [Apple Music]
If you're looking for crystalline electro-pop music perfection, I'm not sure there's a better place to look than CHVRCHES. This new album is exactly what I had hoped a sophomore album from this band would be.

4. No Man's Sky: Music for an Infinite Universe (Soundtrack) by 65daysofstatic [Apple Music]
The game No Man's Sky may have been a massive disappointment, but that doesn't mean that the soundtrack was a dud. As a matter of fact, it turned out to be the best part of the game, as well as one of the best parts of 2016.

3. God's Highway, by Sandra McCracken [Apple Music]
This is among my favorite albums from 2016. A collection of Scripturally based songs that I have found tremendously good for my soul. I have found rest by listening to "Be Still My Soul." I have found great joy in being reminded that God is "Steadfast" while listening to this album.

2. Skeleton Tree, by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds [Apple Music]
This is an album that was forged in the depth of great pain as Nick Cave wrote it in the aftermath of his own son's tragic death. It is clear that Cave has struggled over questions of the goodness of God and the immortality of the soul. "I called out, I called out/Right across the sea/But the echo comes back empty." This is mourning of the first and most honest order.

1. Westworld: Season 1 Soundtrack, by Ramin Djawadi [Apple Music]
I am not recommending the TV series. I am, however, HIGHLY recommending this soundtrack. As someone who is always looking for interesting, quasi-ambient music to play while I work on sermons, this soundtrack is quite the treat. String quartet and piano renditions from artists such as Radiohead, The Cure, Radiohead, Amy Winehouse, Soundgarden, and Radiohead delight the senses and bring pleasure to the soul. Yes, this soundtrack is filled to the brim with Radiohead covers.