Archive for September, 2012

“Switchfoot is a surfing term… To switch your feet means to take a new stance facing the opposite direction. It’s about change and movement, a different way of approaching life and music.” – Jon Foreman (September 25, 2000)

Just shy of a decade ago, I had fallen in love with a girl who I hoped would one day become my wife. She however was less than sure about our relationship’s long term chances. So, in pursuit, this Southern California boy was visiting New England for the first time, approaching life and love and God from an unfamiliar stance.

One hot summer day in July 2003, Jaime and I took the train into New York City. It was my first trip to the Big Apple and in our travels we came across the now defunct Virgin Records Megastore in Times Square. Jaime’s younger siblings Robert and Cassidy had recently introduced us to a San Diego-based rock group called Switchfoot via shareware mp3 downloads and I remember pledging my musical allegiance upon hearing lead singer and guitarist Jon Foreman quote Pooh Bear as he lamented, “Tut, tut, it looks like rain”. Back in that era reigned by Napster, we were even willing to buy actual albums from this unappreciable band if only we could hunt down their CDs. After coming up empty in Connecticut, we figured if we could find these guys anywhere the Virgin Megastore was a good bet. Sure enough, there was one copy each of “Learning to Breathe” and their just released “The Beautiful Letdown” in stock. With $30 between us, Jaime and I had enough to secure the discs, but in the days before ubiquitous iPod use, the question was who would own which album?

I suggested this be our first official joint purchase as a couple. Jaime was not as committed to this idea and quickly countered, “What if we break up?” Hoping I would eventually be able to win her heart I replied that if we broke up, she would keep both albums. This settled the issue and as a memento I kept that receipt in my wallet for years until the ink faded right off of it. We rode the Metro North back home that afternoon poring over the liner notes of the albums and meditating on the lyrics.

Easy living, not much like your name
Easy dying, you look just about the same
Won’t you please take me off your list
Easy living please come on and let me down

The next summer, being “young and dumb” but willing to commit to God, each other and a life of the road less traveled we were married. We have been riding life switchfoot ever since, trying to embrace the change and movement that comes with living outside of your comfort zone. This choice has undeniably created in us a better story, though in all good stories something important must be at stake. Ours has been no exception, requiring forging ahead through hardship and the unknown.

It has not been easy to merge the lives of a West Coast introvert and an East Coast extrovert. It was not easy to be married at 21 while trying to finish college and make a new life in Montana, a place we had never even visited before picking up the keys to our first apartment. It was even harder to leave that first home together in Big Sky Country along with some of the best friends we’ll ever have in order to head back east. It certainly has not been easy to have three small children just three and a half years apart in an area of the country where raising children before all your ducks are in a row is socially frowned upon. It has not been easy to make it on one income, while trying to pay back loans for two college degrees, in order to allow Jaime to stay at home and intentionally mold our children. I certainly have not always enjoyed the transition from worrying only about myself to carrying a social work caseload between 12-18 families or adolescents involved in the foster care system who rely on me daily to help solve their problems in the face of poverty, homelessness, substance abuse etc. It is not currently easy to live in an experimental communal household, sharing everyday living space with a total of 12 people leaving little, if anything, that is solely one’s own possession. No, nothing has been easy. Instead, it has been beautiful. It has been worth it.

Last month marked the eighth anniversary of being married to the love of my life. In these years that have seen us start a new life and family together, Switchfoot has consistently supplied our soundtrack. Jon Foreman’s voice alternately dancing around and belting out the Gospel has become almost familial and the band’s own maturation over the past decade has seemingly mirrored our own journey and developing theology. Serious fans since that first joint purchase, Switchfoot gradually built up their status to favorite band as our common refrains have grown from “In the economy of mercy I am a poor and begging man” to “Do you love me enough to let me go? Every seed dies before it grows.”

While “The Beautiful Letdown” is an all-time favorite album and “Hello Hurricane” has become my constant companion on business trips down south, it was really Jon Foreman’s solo effort in releasing four seasonally themed EPs in 2007-2008 that set him apart in a class of his own. Acoustic throughout all 24 tracks, Jon artfully and intensely sings prayers to God and pointed criticisms of ourselves that are spot on. Some of the songs are so profound they had us wondering where this guy has learned about God and how we might be able to do the same. But while his recordings have great depth we found only shallow pools of information about Mr. Foreman’s own background. Thus, a pipe dream was constructed. Jaime and I wondered if it would be possible to someday ask him ourselves where he gets his theology?

Enter Hannah Lavoie.

Our good friend Hannah not only is a ginormous fan of Jon Foreman she also has become quite adept at tracking him down, boasting three different meetings with the man. Hannah was also about to celebrate her 20th birthday and had come across some insider information that Jon Foreman was going to be playing a FREE solo concert in New York City on the evening of her special day, August 3rd. Hannah wanted to know if Jaime and I wanted to conspire with her a way to get to the concert and possibly meet Jon. While both excited, my amazing wife took one for the team deciding to stay back with the kids to ensure a solid bedtime routine before embarking the following day on a cross-country family plane trip to San Diego. Meanwhile, Hannah and I formulated plans to get into the City early enough on a Friday afternoon to ensure a first-come, first-serve seat in an old high school auditorium seating less than 600.

Jon Foreman was playing in tandem with a church event facilitated by a newer and impressive group calling themselves Movement NYC and the night had the energy of a youth rally. At 29, I must have ranked in the 90thpercentile of age making me “old” folk for the pilgrimage, but I could not think of a better way to help Hannah usher in her 20s. After a time of worship and a devotional thought from the pastor of the church, Jon and drummer Aaron Redfield finally came out with electricity buzzing through the humid air of the packed facility. Dozens of fans leapt from their seats to crowd the front of the stage and Hannah and I exchanged a glance and thought, “Why not?” We joined the hard core fans up front and laughed at Jon’s jokes, sang our hearts out to favorite tunes plus a few covers and snapped some photos. Jon opened the show with a new song called “First Light” which carries the same soulful acoustic sound that powered his EPs and appealed to my own fascination with the light-dark theme:

Jon opens the solo set with his new unreleased song “First Light”

When your heart is feeling is low
And the weight is on your shoulders
And the tears begin to flow
From the lies

Just remember what you know
Just remember what I told you
The seed you planted, love, will grow
Give it time

And you know it
But your heart has doubts
You believe it
But you want it now

The day is dawning
The day is dawning
It comes in morning
First light

Highlights of the show included Jon mid-song inviting a fan up to play bass on his guitar while breaking out his harmonica and listening to him discuss life and music in between songs. In his humility, Jon stated he writes songs about things he does not understand, namely God, death, politics and girls. He played for over an hour jamming with Aaron and then for an encore asked if it would be alright if he played two songs before launching into pieces he refers to as cousins, “Your Love is a Song” and “Your Love is Strong.”

At the conclusion of the set, strategy ensued about how best to locate Jon for a chance to ask him some questions and maybe get a picture with him. I looked to Hannah’s expertise in this matter, but we found ourselves in a dilemma as Hannah’s tried and true formula had been to wait by his tour bus after the show. In such a small venue and playing as a solo act, there was no tour bus to speak of and there were multiple exits from the building. We made small talk with one of the youth pastors of the Movement NYC church who after hearing we had traveled from Connecticut and that it was Hannah’s 20th birthday stated he couldn’t tell us where Jon would be exiting the building, but did offer that Mr. Foreman had arrived in a van parked just outside the exit closest to where we were standing.

Rather surprisingly it didn’t take long for the crowd to disburse and less than a half hour after the show there was only Hannah, myself and maybe a dozen others waiting around for a chance to meet Jon. Hannah thought aloud about what question she might ask Jon and wondered if he would recognize her, this being their fourth meeting and third in less than a year. As for me, my question had long been rehearsed.

Aaron Redfield, the drummer for Fiction Family (a collaborative effort between Jon Foreman and guitarist Sean Watkins of Nickel Creek) who accompanied Jon during the show was the first to emerge and very agreeable, telling us a little about his life in Pasadena and introducing us to his lovely fiancée. Following Aaron we had a chance to meet and talk with Jon’s childhood friend Todd Cooper who served not only as Switchfoot’s longtime guitar tech, but actually was the one who encouraged Jon to learn to play guitar.

Then Jon came into view and this was our chance. We scurried over to his vicinity and after awaiting a few questions and photo ops from others it was our turn. I couldn’t help but give the guy a hug while explaining that it was so good to see a fellow San Diegan on the East Coast; while he may have been slightly caught off guard he took it like a champ, or maybe a President, though I refrained from lifting him off the ground. I told him of that first joint purchase Jaime and I made nine years ago just around the corner and with sincerity he told me that it was an honor to be included in our lives this way.

Jon did recognize Hannah, this now being their fourth meeting, and remembered her as an admissions ambassador from Lipscomb University in Nashville. He told us the name Lipscomb always makes him want to speak with a lisp which he proceeded to demonstrate for us with a laugh.

I asked him about the comment he made earlier in the evening, the one about how he only writes about things he doesn’t understand. I told him I appreciated his self-deference, but also that he isn’t giving himself enough credit given that his lyrics prove otherwise and demonstrate being well-versed in the complexities of God, death, politics and girls. He smiled a knowing smile and then I asked him our question, “What informs your theology?”

“I read a lot,” he replied while beaming friendliness and continuing to project modesty.

Not wanting to let him off the hook that easy, I countered, “What do you read? Who do you read? I would like to read them too.”

He could tell I was being genuine, that this was not a flippant question. His countenance shifted somewhat, still affable but now with understanding eyes. He responded, “Kierkegaard, C.S. Lewis, Pascal… people who are smarter than me.” Then again with self-depreciating humor he added, “Basically everyone.” The crowd chuckled and I could tell this may be all I would get from the man tonight, and I was content to let that be enough. Hannah and I asked for a picture with him to document the occasion, but as we readied for picture taking position and found someone to take the shot for us, another eager fan named Corey approached with a query.

Hannah leads the way to Jon Foreman after a free concert in NYC on her 20th birthday August 3, 2012

This young man in his early 20s stepped into the frame with his girlfriend and told Jon that he hoped she would soon be his fiancée, but that as a musician himself he wanted to know how to balance being a good husband with being a dedicated musician. “You’re married, right? How do you do it? How do you do marriage and music at the same time?” Thinking about my own wife and some of the dreams we share, the nature of this question resonated with me. In Corey’s voice was a plea for advice from someone further down the path, wanting to know if it is possible to be passionate about your work when the nature of that work will require being drawn away from your family at times.

Again with a smile Jon replied, “The best things in life are darn near impossible. Marriage, it’s darn near impossible. But it’s beautiful. It’s great. Music is darn near impossible. You just have to find a way.” Sounds like riding life switchfoot to me.

“What, then, is the difference between an admirer and an imitator? An imitator is or strives to be what he admires, and an admirer keeps himself personally detached, consciously or unconsciously does not discover that what is admired involves a claim upon him, to be or at least to strive to be what is admired.— Søren Kierkegaard (September 27, 1850) 

Submitted Thoughts on Power (Redux)

Posted: September 16, 2012 in Christianity

I began this blog two years ago as a forum for sharing thoughts about God and life and to practice writing. Last month, for the first time in my life I submitted an article for publication. I was excited when the editors expressed interest in my work, but ultimately it did not work out. The submitted article was a remix of sorts of one I posted here a year ago, thus many of these ideas will be familiar to regular readers. However, I felt I put enough time into it and perhaps added a few new worthwhile thoughts, that it was worth posting the updated article. Let me know what you think. Thanks for reading!

In August 2011, Hurricane Irene stormed the East Coast causing major flooding and power outages from the Outer Banks to New England. Our experimental suburban community missed the worst of Irene as she passed through Connecticut. We lost only a few trees whereas some folks south of us had their homes swept into the sea. When the damage was surveyed following the tempest it became evident Hurricane Irene would not primarily be labeled a wind or water disaster, but a power crisis. In our small state alone approximately 840,000 people were left without electricity. Many of our neighbors continued to be without power for nearly a week, some still had no electricity or running water after a fortnight.

We couldn’t help but notice in the aftermath of Irene how frequently the term “power” was used as a euphemism for electricity. There were outcries for the restoration of power. Voices united in an attempt to get their power back. Neighbors expressed concern for each other, especially the elderly and disabled, who had lost their power. Radio stations changed their programming to air simulcasts of the evening news for the benefit of the powerless. Utility company crews worked through the night to restore power. Electricians arrived from across the nation to get power back to the right people. Everything power.

While electricity is a measurable indicator of power, the overuse of the word caused us to think about the real connection between power and resources in our culture. It is said that those who control their resources control their destiny. But do we collectively stop to think about how our resources are being allocated? Or how this power is being attained? Whom it may have been stolen from? It can often appear that our manifest destiny is simply a winner’s take on highway robbery.

Inevitably, an uproar of attention and assistance follows when people who are used to being in power lose it. Yet rarely are the oppressed aware they too have a voice due to frequently being occupied with more elementary needs such as simply surviving on limited resources and inadequate education. Standing up for one’s rights takes a backseat to drowning out harsh realities through self-injurious decisions which can lead to generational imprisonment. Who is intent on restoring power to these brothers and sisters?

Whose voices cried out for the powerless in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina? Who unites on behalf of the youth in our failing schools that are more segregated today than they were a half century ago? Who has the courage to incessantly pray on behalf of the disproportionate number of people of color who are murdered in our inner-cities and sentenced to inordinate prison sentences for first time offenses?

Are we aware that 86 percent of black fourth graders in our country currently read below grade level and 58 percent are functionally illiterate? This disparity contributes to the projection that one third of black males born today in the United States will become incarcerated during their lifetime. Complicating matters is the fact that by 2050, half the population of the United States will be comprised of people of color, yet 90 percent of our current lawyers and 80 percent of our law students are white. In a country which overwhelmingly selects attorneys as leaders and policy makers we have a problem.

At a recent Yale Law School symposium on educational disparity and minority youth, Susan Taylor, of the National CARES Mentoring Movement and former editor-in-chief of Essence Magazine, stated we have lost our way. Ms. Taylor added that at age 65 she wishes she could rest, but that she will not so long as “the village is on fire and our children are in dream-crushing pain.” She poignantly asked, “What are our churches preaching?”

What are we preaching? More importantly, what are we as the Body of Christ proclaiming in our actions above our rhetoric? God appears to be fond of using people outside the clergy to stand in the gap and call out the way things are versus the way things should be. What if God is calling all of us to be a modern day Amos? A church of the ordinary, refusing to continue selling whole communities into captivity and unwilling to persist in disregarding our treaty of brotherhood.

I write this as a white man cognizant of the irony and tension in these questions. Conscious of the evils of racism and socioeconomic inequality. Armed with stats and few solutions. Though, I am also a white man with a tithe of Cherokee blood running through my veins, the same blood spilled on the Trail of Tears nearly two centuries ago. Yes, I continue to benefit daily from the institutional racism forged by the inhumanity my forefathers impressed on others. However, this type of oppression can only persist so long before the oppressed begin to be represented within the oppressor. We share the same blood and thus hopefully begin to remember that we belong to one another.

We live in a culture divided against itself because we have bought into the illusion of us versus them. One of my heroes in the faith is Father Greg Boyle, founder of the largest gang intervention and re-entry program in the country, Homeboy Industries. Through Homeboy, former rival gang members work side by side baking and silk screening and Father Greg has pointed out there’s only us. Father G proclaims, “Once you have kinship, you can get to justice and peace. But if you think there’s an us and a them, we’ve got too far to go. And so the task is to remember that we belong to each other.”

Perhaps societal reconciliation starts with realizing that undoing racism and redistributing wealth cannot be goals in themselves, but that these are inevitable byproducts of knowing Jesus and committing to a relationship with Him and each other.

Jesus did not simply help the poor, he was the poor. While some have honorably joined Jesus in the streets, the Good News is not a mandate to poverty. It does however point us to regular interaction with the powerless and does so for all of our benefit. The Western church has frequently taken to either ignoring these folks or at best “serving” them on our own terms. I see now the Gospel is calling me not to simply do things for the poor but to do things with the poor, to share life together, not just an infrequent meal. Building these relationships aids in moving from judgment of the burdens they bear to awe of the things they have had to carry. If the Kingdom of God is forcefully advancing, we are not being called to RSVP but to participate now, and it is the powerless who know best how to lead the way.

As we try to discover what it means to be a dominant people in a dominant culture and also participate in this Kingdom, we hear the Spirit’s call to find out what it means to visit orphans and widows in their distress in our own communities. This voice led me to working with adolescent foster care youth in New Haven where I am privileged to be able to connect our society’s orphans with food, clothing, shelter and family. Many days I find myself standing by their side in Court facing possible jail time in front of Judges or sitting by hospital beds during the onset of mental illness. On better days we move into college dorm rooms, pick out furniture for first apartments or get out of Connecticut for a day to take in a comic book convention or basketball game.

God has promised us all a life abundant and these words have power. Recently I overheard another hero in the faith explain that the best things in life are “darn near impossible” to achieve. But we believe in the midst of life’s adversity there is a Way. We pray as we storm the gates of Hades together, that the strength of unified action in suffering love can be a hurricane force bent on restoring power to those without. Will you join us?

(Note: At the time of this writing, I had been led to believe that I had Native American ancestry. A 2014 DNA test revealed otherwise.)