Sunday, November 30, 2008

Heartbreak Indeed

I realize I might be in the minority on this one, but I really dig Kanye West's latest release 808s & Heartbreak. Though not as musically adventurous as his college-themed albums, West takes a huge leap in exploring his inner world in ways seldom heard on record. On it West sounds like a man who has had his world turned upside down, which of course, he has. Recorded after the much publicized loss of his mother and breakup of a long engagement, West is completely autobiographical here, breathtakingly confessional. Instead of getting a recording after all the processing has been done, all the lessons learned, it's as if West is processing aloud and we are drawn into the very immediate, raw, dark journey with him. In the process, gone is most of the bravado and swagger from previous albums (though the jilted lover is present throughout), as is much of the sampling he's best known for, but all this without sacrificing his knack for catchy hooks and clever lyrics. It's simply a very good pop/R&B record.

An interesting thread on the album is the heartbeat you hear on every track in the drum or bass line, similar to what Brian Wilson accomplished on some of Pet Sounds. On "Say You Will," the opening track is framed by the ever-present sound of a heart monitor beeping slowly, methodically, signaling that a heartbeat does persist, if barely, but at the same time raising the question of just how long this heart will hold on? Is this a man at the end of things or is this the beginning of a life? Or both?

In the middle of the record are the upbeat "Love Lockdown" and the club-ready "Paranoid," a song as catchy, optimist and reassuring as anything he's written. But most of the record is an introspective journal of self-doubt and existential questioning. On "Welcome to Heartbreak" he ponders if life has indeed passed him bye, if he's somehow gained the whole world but lost his soul. On "Street Lights" he realizes moments are passing, even while he contemplates how unfair life has been. The result is seeing his destination ahead, but no longer certain if he wants to arrive there anymore. The fact that that West records his voice through AutoTune on most of the album creates an interesting tension, sounding more machine on a very human record.

But the showcase of 808s is the final track, "Pinocchio Story," recorded live in Singapore. It's an emotionally raw and remarkably moving song for its vulnerability and passion, stripped of any instrumentation except for sparse piano. In it West seems to be resigned that he has sacrificed a real life (one not overcome with photographers or autograph-hounding fans) in pursuit of fame and the flashing lights. "What's it feel like to have a real life?" he asks the crowd, and you feel his anguish (even if you get the sense the crowd has no idea what the song is about). By the end of the track, he is at his most intimate, offering a glimpse into his tortured soul, wondering aloud if his own ambition for the American Dream is ultimately to blame for his mother's untimely death by plastic surgery. The depth of his regret and guilt is difficult to hear in its honesty. He closes the song by faintly offering, "The wise men say...'Someday you'll find your way.'"

Standing there by himself on that big stage amongst all those people, you can't help but sense that he is utterly alone. I suppose we can ask if we should really feel sorry for Kanye West, given his usual schtick and all that he has. But like the record began, it does leave you wondering if he will find his way and what that will do for his music. And that makes for an intriguing question for the moment.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Room For One More

It's holiday season, and with it, the onslaught of dinners with family and friends. All the more reason to recommend Christine Pohl's excellent book exploring the rich biblical and historical tradition of Christian hospitality through the centuries. It's not a "how-to" book, but more of a thoughtful read for the serious student on the topic. Especially wonderful are the chapters providing a theological framework for hospitality and the sober treatment of its limitations, boundaries, and temptations. Considering, as Pohl writes, "Hospitality is not optional for Christians, nor is it limited to those who are specially gifted for it," the book may be a worthwhile read for a lot of followers of Christ.

She puts forth that two NT texts in particular - Luke 14 and Matthew 25 - have shaped the distinction between conventional and Christian hospitality through the centuries. Of Luke 14, she notes that "Jesus challenges narrow definitions and dimensions of hospitality and presses them outward to include those with whom one least desires to have connections." Jesus is not exactly opposed to us inviting our friends or family over for dinner (certainly this the first step in hospitality and one that cannot be assumed in our postmodern world), but nor should we expect any special commendation for doing so - for even the larger society does this. What is distinctively Christian, according to Jesus, is to include the excluded, to radically alter in our eyes and company who we deem "good to be with."

In Pohl's exposition of Matthew 25, she notes, "Those who have welcomed strangers and have met the needs of persons in distress have welcomed Jesus himself, and are themselves welcomed into the Kingdom...this has been the most important passage for the entire tradition on Christian hospitality. 'I was a stranger and you welcomed me.'"

Considering that offers of food or a meal together are central to nearly all biblical stories of hospitality, the community here at Epic is exploring ways to include the stranger among us, whether that stranger is the person sitting next to us, the new visitor we're meeting for the first time, or the homeless person who walks through our doors. We no longer assume everyone can afford to go out to lunch. Or that everyone has a place to go for the holidays. Or that everyone knows somebody here. So we're experimenting with creative ways to be the church together, to open up our lives and homes to include a diversity of people. And we'd like to take the church out into our neighborhood to share our food and company with the hungry.

But there are no romantic notions here. And if there are, they will quickly vanish with the first rays of reality. Hospitality is hard work. It is inconvenient. It is uncomfortable. It challenges our core sense of privacy, of individuality, of preference. Frankly, I'm not good at it. I'm convinced this is another one of those things that cannot be done without a good amount of prayer.

As Pohl so wonderfully explains, Jesus is both stranger and host. From birth, he was a refugee. Later he was not welcomed even in his own hometown. He described himself once as one who had nowhere to lay his head. And yet he was host - to the tax collector and sinner, to the prostitute and the hungry - inclusive in his own being to those most likely to be excluded. Jesus is our inspiration. He is our reference point.

We want to be Jesus in this way. All of us are a stranger to someone. And all of us can be host to someone. This is our hope at Epic. To make room for one more. And in doing so, make room for Christ himself in our midst.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

There are now officially 31 more shopping days until bankruptcy!

Like the economy, the music biz seems to be suffering a major slowdown, but here's a groovy, jazzy, new album from Jazzanova worth a long listen (DJ Kris Maddox agrees!); makes a nice stocking stuffer for under $10.

808s and Heartbreak arrives on Monday. Read the review "Kanye West examines real vs. fake, puppet vs. human" by Ann Powers, critic for the LA Times for an interesting take. You can stream the album on myspace.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

"This Just In...Evacuations In Diamond Bar..."

Thanks to all who have asked how we were doing with regard to the fires - we really appreciate it! We're doing just fine, but it was a little scary for a few hours there. I was at a meeting at church on Sunday morning, but was paying close attention to updates being texted to me from a couple of close friends explaining that evacuations had now reached Diamond Bar with the fire threatening our little city.

I had a few duties during worship service, but we moved them to the front of the order, so I could leave right away to make sure our house wasn't up in flames, the result of a stray ember. My friend Carey went with me in case I needed to pack up stuff, but when we got to my house, there was little smoke and no ash. And the traffic wasn't nearly as bad as I anticipated. The day before my family was supposed to attend a dinner in Huntington Beach, but couldn't even make it a few blocks from our place because of all the traffic pouring onto side streets, the result of the 57 Fwy being closed. Fortunate for us on Sunday, the wind was blowing in the opposite direction as was the case all weekend, such that though Diamond Bar was closer to Brea flames, Fullerton actually had way more smoke and ash. Our house was fine, but my heart goes out to those who weren't so fortunate.

While all this was happening, I kept thinking to myself that Diamond Bar makes the news for all the wrong reasons. We're a quiet little city that no one really notices us. But more recently we've made headlines for the suburban houses fronting illegal marijuana factories, then it was how our backyard may be home to the next LA football stadium, and now the Freeway Complex fire.

I suppose in our case, no news is good news.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Gas Prices. Downturn Silverlining!

Wow, I filled up my tank this morning and spent less than $30 bucks! Gas was only $2.29! Hallelujah! I have noticed that I do considerably less driving and have been more conscience of my spending, which is one of the benefits of not having any discretionary money. On a related note, I still occasionally wonder why the State increased the speed limit several years back from 55 to 65mph? The lower speed limit seemed to be safer and saves gas.


There's a SUV I see around my neighborhood every so often. It's a black Infinity Q56 with a Prop 8 sticker on the back window and a personalized license plate suggesting the power of positive thinking. But what struck me was the license-plate frame which humbly boasts: "Driver carries no cash...treasures stored in heaven." Really now? I didn't know you could actually drive heaven? Don't get me wrong, I do think a person can drive an expensive car and be a Christian, but if you're going to put your beliefs out there, it's fair game.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Thoughts About Election Night

First a disclaimer: My views don't necessarily represent those of Epic Church nor its staff. I realize there are good people, and a good many of people who may differ with me on who should have been the next president, as well as differ on the various issues at stake. I simply wanted to journal somewhere about what I experienced a week ago tonight on Election Night.

I was actually at a conference in San Diego with other pastors from around the country. After dinner, a few of us headed to the Karl Strauss Brewery next door to our hotel to catch the final results and to witness the speech of our next president.

Ken Fong of Evergreen LA, Jospeh Tseng of Vision Church in NYC, DJ Chuang of Leadership Network/L2 Foundation, and I saddled up to the bar with a big screen TV in front of us. I thought it was a pretty electric atmosphere in the full restaurant...most everyone was fixated on the election coverage, including the hosts, waiters, and waitresses.

When Obama finally made his way out onto the stage at Grant Park, I turned to Ken and observed, "He looks humbled, he understands and is appreciative of what's just happened to him." Obama's speech was certainly one of the most moving I've ever heard. At once humble, gracious, inclusive, determined, and inspiring, I was impressed at the way he was attempting to pull Americans together, appealing to those who voted for him, and especially those who didn't. As the cameras panned the crowd throughout the speech, it was apparent all the people in doubt overcome with joy at the historic outcome, but also, I think, with tears of hope, hinting at all the pain many Americans are feeling...hope that things can change. I thought it was a beautiful moment.

A few nights earlier on Charlie Rose, NBC News' Tom Brokaw called Barak Obama 'the first postmodern president.' And that really resonated with me for a lot of different reasons. Obviously he's the first black president in US history. But his story - born to a Kenyan father and Kansas mother, growing up in a single-parent home, raised by his grandmother in Hawaii - in his own words somewhat of a 'mutt', and certainly not the usual person of privilege. His use of language speaks well to this generation. Then there is his bottom-up approach influenced by his community organizing work, and his open approach to foreign diplomacy. When you add the results of what exit polls suggest, that Obama won the election among minorities, women, and young people - all of this seems in part to support Brokaw's keen assertion.

Later that night back in my hotel room, one of Charlie Rose's guests commented on something an ordinary American had said at one of the polling stations: "Rosa Parks sat so MLK could walk so Barak Obama could run, so Americans could fly." It may have been lyrical, but poignant nonetheless.

Today, I read a really good op-ed in the LA Times "A Vote Too Late For Obama" that I think captures well what I've been thinking and feeling in the week since, except that I did vote, and glad that I did. As we've taught at Epic, our ultimate hope can never be in an office, or a government, or a nation. But for one night, I had that unfamiliar feeling: I was really proud to be an American.

Say It Ain't So, Nic

This morning I awoke to an article in the LA Times' announcing that Nic Harcourt, DJ and Music Director of the famously-influential KCRW radio station was moving on after 10 years of hosting 'Morning Becomes Eclectic.' As I wrote on the station's blog, his leaving is bittersweet for me. Certainly no one can fault a person who wants to devote more time to their children while pursuing new creative endeavors (as the Times noted). But I will surely miss his familiar voice and especially his UK-influenced taste in music. I discovered everyone from M.I.A. to Coldplay to Corinne Bailey Rae to The Go! Team to the Arctic Monkeys from MBE over the years. Especially cool were his "in-studio" guests to close out most of his shows. Thanks Nic for 10 great years, my ears will never be the same!