Lessons Learned: Slow Down, Part 2

Believe it or not, our busyness is one of the great threats to our spiritual lives.

In his book Soul Keeping, John Ortberg tells of a time when he was weary and frazzled and exhausted. His ministry was expanding, his writing career was taking off but Ortberg was miserable. He could feel himself drying up spiritually. So Ortberg reached out to one of his mentors, Dr. Dallas Willard. Willard was a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California, but he is best known as a Christian thinker and author. Ortberg calls Willard and asks, “What do I need to do to become spiritually healthy?”

There’s a long silence on the other end of the line. Ortberg says that with Willard, there’s always a long silence on the other end of the line.

After giving the question some thought, Willard said, “You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life.

Ortberg said, “Okay. Got it. What else?”

And his mentor replied, “There is nothing else. Hurry is the great enemy of spiritual life in our day. You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life.”

The great enemy of spiritual life in our day is…hurry?

Just because a Ph.D. says something doesn’t make it true. But what do you think? Is there some truth to this?

If I were asked to name the great enemies of spiritual life today, “busyness” probably wouldn’t be the first thing that comes to mind. I’d probably say something like secular humanism — the prevailing myth that we are capable of achieving our own salvation if we simply look within — or legalism — the religious myth that God’s grace is insufficient — or internet pornography or our phones or a number of other things before I ever got around to adding “busyness” to my list.

But the more I think about it, the more I think Willard is actually right. And the fact that busyness wouldn’t make our initial list might just be an indication of how subtly our enemy operates to wreak havoc in our lives.

I like the way the author John Mark Comer puts it:

Today you’re far more likely to run into the enemy in the form of an alert on your phone while you’re reading your Bible or a multi-day Netflix binge or a full-on dopamine addiction to Instagram or a Saturday morning at the office or another soccer game on a Sunday or commitment after commitment after commitment in a life of speed.

Let’s ask ourselves: what are we really seeking when we pack our calendars with event after event? A life of importance? Significance in the eyes of others? An Insta-worthy experience? And how is that working out for us? It seems that the hurried life is actually the worried life. All our frantic busyness doesn’t seem to be making us any happier or healthier or more spiritually mature. If you ask me, all our rushing about is simply a cover for the deep restlessness that grips our hearts.

I was talking to a good friend recently and he was telling me that he’s completely exhausted right now. He said he feels like he needs to hit the “force quit” button in his life — he needs to turn off all the applications and just be still for a bit. And I think so many of us can relate to that sentiment.

But we’re not just physically exhausted. Our physical weakness points to something even deeper: our heavy-laden soul’s cry for rest.

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Lessons Learned: Slow Down, Part 1

Last week I began a series entitled Lessons Learned. 2020 has been such a difficult year in so many respects, but there have also been plenty of lesson-learning opportunities along the way as well. Last week we looked at the importance of being grateful; this week, we move on to another lesson — the importance of slowing down.

Many of us were forced to slow down back in the spring during the COVID-related lockdowns across the country. Of course, we acknowledge that there were plenty of frontline workers who never slowed down: police officers, first responders, nurses, doctors, hospital employees…and we are so thankful for the ways they have tirelessly continued to serve our communities. But for many of us who do not work in those fields, that time of lockdown was both unexpected and unwanted.

And yet, for many of us, lockdown was a reminder to slow down. I’ve heard from many people — members of my church, close friends, family members — who mentioned that the quarantine exposed a sense of busyness and a pace of life that had become simply unsustainable. It gave most of us a little more quiet time, more time at home, and more time with our loved ones, all of which were unexpected blessings.

2020 forced many of us to slow down and rest.

These ideas are deeply embedded in the Bible, going all the way back to the creation story.

And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.

Genesis 2:2-3

There is something blessed — even holy — about the way “rest” is discussed in God’s Word. In the second chapter of the Bible, God takes a break from all His creative work. The Creator of time takes time to rest, to sit back and enjoy His good creation. God willfully disengages from work, saying, “That’s enough. This is good. I’m finished.” And He willfully engages in rest.

What do we do with this image of a God who takes time to rest?

Well, I’m not sure we do much at all with that image. It seems to me that we don’t take it as much of an example to be followed — despite the fact that just a few verses earlier, we’re told that we are made in the very image and likeness of God. No, American life tends to operate at a pace that even God doesn’t keep. We run ourselves ragged as we rush from activity to activity. Our culture typically idolizes work and productivity and 24/7 busyness.

And yet, deep down we know that something is off.

That we weren’t made to keep up this pace.

That we need rest.

Children’s Hospital of Atlanta recently received an incredible donation from Arthur Blank. Blank is the co-founder of Home Depot and the owner of the Atlanta Falcons. Over the years, he’s made several contributions to Children’s Hospital — but this most recent one was the largest in the hospital’s history. Through his charitable foundation, Blank donated $200 million toward the construction of a new 1.5 million-square-foot pediatric hospital — which will be named the Arthur M. Blank Hospital. Construction has already begun and the hospital is set to open in 2025.

In conjunction with this generous donation, Children’s Hospital will be gifting each of it’s 11,000 employees with an additional 40 hours of PTO — paid time off — to go along with a standard cost-of-living raise for next year. Blank’s generosity freed up the hospital to recognize the exhaustion of not only their physicians and doctors, but also patient care technicians and employees working in food services, environmental services, and transportation. The hospital’s Chief Administrative Officer says, “The COVID-19 pandemic put a lot of strain on our employees, both financially and emotionally.” The PTO gift is an effort to encourage the Children’s staff to slow down and find some much needed rest.

This is what we do with the image of a God who takes time to rest.

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Lessons Learned: Be Grateful, Part 4

Luke tells of a time when Jesus heals ten people of their leprosy. This was an astonishing feat and in first-century Jewish culture, this would have been a clear indication that Jesus was the promised Messiah. But after the healing, only one person comes back to express his gratitude to Jesus.

Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan.

Luke 17:16-16

One person comes to express his gratitude to Jesus — and Luke adds an interesting little detail: he was a Samaritan! To the Jewish way of thinking, this meant he was not to be considered a true son of Abraham but something of an outsider. And yet, he’s the one who returns to give thanks.

Greek scholars note that the language Luke uses here is only used in reference to God the Father throughout the rest of the NT. So Luke’s point is clear: this healed man recognizes Jesus in the same light, as the source of his blessing. Luke is winking at us and says, “By thanking Jesus, this outsider is recognizing Him as God-in-the-flesh.” The Samaritan not only has better manners than the rest but also better theology. He’s learned the most important lesson. He cannot help but thank Jesus for this great blessing!

The practice of gratitude implies that we have someone to thank — that we know the source of our blessing. Secular psychology often extols a generic kind of thankfulness which has become quite commonplace in our culture today — this notion of being grateful “to the universe” for all that you have, which is really a bunch of hippie pagan nonsense. But the biblical story is such a gift to us because it lets us know who to thank for our blessings.

I read about one individual who has a unique answer to the question, “How are you?” Whereas most people reply with a reflexive, “I’m fine. How are you?” her response is both unexpected and intentional. When asked, she replies, “I am grateful.” She chooses those words to make a point: that gratitude is not simply a response to our good fortune but, more importantly, it is a choice we make. In all circumstances, we can choose to give thanks.

What if we started answering the same way every time someone asked, “How are you?” What if we responded by saying, “I am grateful,” — do you think this simple act could help alleviate our anxiety? Could that be a simple way to be faithful to the Lord’s command to give thanks in all circumstances?

More than anything, I hope 2020 has reminded us to be thankful for the enduring promises of God. So much has changed this year, but here’s what hasn’t changed:

  • God’s love hasn’t changed
  • God’s faithfulness hasn’t changed
  • And God’s promises have not changed — what Simon Peter calls the precious and magnificent promises of God.

When you look at it that way, we have plenty of reasons to give thanks.

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Lessons Learned: Be Grateful, Part 3

The word “anxiety” is derived from another word meaning “to choke” or “to cause pain by squeezing.” One of the Greek words for anxiety was used to describe the yokes that would be put on the necks of slaves in the ancient world. The Hebrew word associated with anxiety is often translated as “narrow space.” So these ideas help us understand how anxiety works in our lives:

  • Chronic anxiety can choke the life out of us. It can feel like something heavy sitting on your chest.
  • Chronic anxiety will enslave us. It gives a sense of claustrophobia, of being in a “narrow space.”
  • And chronic anxiety leads to catastrophizing, which is when we allow our minds to be controlled by “what-if” worst-case-scenario thinking.

And often times our anxiety is compounded by shame. We find ourselves feeling anxious about something and then we’ll immediately feel ashamed for our anxiety. We’ll tell ourselves that we ought to pull ourselves together. We’ll talk down to ourselves, saying, “If I was a better Christian, I wouldn’t be worrying about this.” And so we have all this anxiety on our plate and then we add a big side dish of shame — which, of course, produces even more anxiety. And then we’re caught in this destructive loop.

If you can relate to that, I just want you to know that you’re not alone. For starters, if the anxiety numbers have TRIPLED in the last few months (as we noted in the last post), then we most certainly shouldn’t feel alone. We’re all feeling the strain of the last few months right now. But we should also acknowledge the foolishness of spiritual self-deprecation. There’s just no room for that right now.

It really helped de-stigmatize all of this for me when I realized that experiencing anxiety doesn’t somehow make me “less spiritual” or a “lesser Christian.” It simply puts me in the company of someone like the Apostle Paul.

If you read 2 Corinthians, you’ll see that Paul had to deal with plenty of anxiety and stress in his life. He says in 2 Corinthians 1:8-9 that he and his missionary companions were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. Paul says he was in this dark place where his burdens had surpassed his strength and despair had set in. That probably sounds really familiar to some of us. Paul is in that “narrow space” of anxiety where stress threatens to press in. So Paul is a trustworthy guide for us because he knows what it’s like to be anxious.

This is why we should listen to him when he says, Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God (Phil. 4:6). Paul has learned that prayerful gratitude helps us forge a way out of our anxieties. If anxiety is that claustrophobic, narrow feeling, gratitude pushes those anxieties back a bit. I like the way the author Robert Morgan states it: “Gratitude is to worry what antibiotics are to an infection.”

Paul has learned that there is tremendous healing power in thankfulness. That’s why he can say, Give thanks in all circumstances.

Perhaps now more than ever we need a season of thanksgiving to help us overcome our anxieties.

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Lessons Learned: Be Grateful, Part 2

Gratitude is an important discipleship practice. And it is just that — a practice. Just like you’ll never learn to play the guitar without regular practice, we’ll never become the kind of people God will us to be — people of gratitude — without some regular routines of thanksgiving. That’s what makes this week such an important touchpoint.

The more I practice biblical gratitude, the more God forms me into the person He wants me to become. That’s why, for the Christian, thanksgiving is appropriate in any season — because God will always use gratitude for my spiritual development. So again, we hear His command: give thanks in all circumstances.

And this is important for us to remember — especially in light of the events of the last few months. The isolation and stress of this year has taken a toll on our mental health. New research indicates that anxiety rates have TRIPLED in the United States since the coronavirus restrictions were put in place this spring. We were already the most anxious nation in the world, but COVID has put all of this over the top. Just this week, I heard one counselor describe our situation as, “a mental health pandemic.” I wonder how many of us have felt an increase in our anxiety over the last few months, either stemming from concern over the coronavirus or the election or the economic impact of these shutdowns.

But God’s Word teaches us that gratitude works as a counter to worry. Amazon says that among Kindle readers, this is the most highlighted passage in the Bible:

Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.

Philippians 4:6

Embedded in this 2,000-year-old verse is timeless wisdom for the road we find ourselves journeying right now. God shows us that prayerful gratitude is one of the keys to overcoming anxiety.

In his letters to the church, Paul mentions thanksgiving and gratitude more than any other Christian practice. Just think about that for a minute. You’d think Paul would have more to say about worship or baptism or the Lord’s Supper or evangelism. But his teaching on those topics is usually concentrated to just a few places in his letters. But gratitude? Paul is ALWAYS talking about gratitude.

And this is important: I think Paul does this because he has learned that gratitude is a powerful weapon against anxiety and worry.

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Lessons Learned: Be Grateful, Part 1

We’ve heard it hundreds of times: 2020 has been a difficult year in so many respects. The coronavirus has claimed the lives of over 250,000 Americans and has completely disrupted our way of life this year. I read a line from one psychologist who says we’re no longer going through a crisis. She says a crisis only lasts about six weeks. After that, the crisis situation becomes one of chronic stress. And that’s where many of us find ourselves today.

But as Winston Churchill famously said, you should never let a good crisis go to waste. As difficult as this year has been, I think we’ve also learned some invaluable lessons in 2020 — lessons that we’ll carry with us for the rest of our lives. I’ve recently been reflecting on some of these lessons, which has given rise to this blog series (and a corresponding sermon series) entitled: Lessons Learned: How Not to Waste a Pandemic.

One of the most enduring lessons we’ve learned during this pandemic: the importance of gratitude.

2020 has repeatedly taught us to be grateful for the things we once took for granted:

  • Eating out at our favorite restaurant
  • Going to the movies or to ball games
  • Hugging our brothers and sisters in church

These are simple things, but 2020 has taught us not to take the little things for granted — even something like being able to buy toilet paper at the store!

Many social media users participate in a monthlong celebration of gratitude in November. And that’s fitting, certainly in light of the Thanksgiving holiday coming up this week. But the Bible teaches the Christian to practice gratitude in each season of life.

Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

1 Thessalonians 5:18

This is a simple verse but a profound truth. According to the Bible, God wills for His people to be grateful in all circumstances. At first blush, this sounds odd, even unattainable the more we consider it. Does this mean we are to thank God for every thing that happens? Are we to pause and give thanks for every experience, no matter how mundane? And what of evil? Are we to be thankful each time our hearts are broken and our lives are shattered by the circumstances of life?

I don’t think that’s exactly the counsel we find here. If we attempted to thank God for every bit of minutiae in our lives, we’d never get around to doing anything else. Even more importantly, we’re never advised to rejoice in the wake of tragedy. For example, I live in the state of Alabama. We wouldn’t thank God that over 3,000 of our fellow Alabamians have died due to the coronavirus so far. That’s simply heartbreaking. But as we’ve noted, there are always lessons to be learned, even in the midst of heartache. And we can certainly give thanks for the lessons that draw us closer to God or cultivate a deeper understanding of His character.

Giving thanks in all circumstances is about maintaining a constant posture of gratitude and being open to the possibility that God can be present, even in the midst of the worst of circumstances.

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Galaxy of Lights 2020

We had a great time last night touring the Galaxy of Lights at our Huntsville Botanical Garden. This is one of our annual traditions. We normally drive through to see the lights; a time or two we’ve run the Galaxy of Lights 5K; and last night we walked through with some special friends. This is our favorite spot…so beautiful!

Galaxy of Lights with my Sunny
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National Honor Society

Super proud of this young lady, the newest member of the National Honor Society! She is extremely dedicated to her studies, always working hard to pursue her dreams. Abby Kate, you make us proud.

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Album of the Year, 1990-2019

Back in the summer, I posted about my favorite album each year going all the way back to my teen years. It was a fun little exercise and it helped take my mind off the fact that we couldn’t do all the things we’d ordinarily be doing all summer long: going to ball games, taking a summer vacation, preparing for our summer mission trip with church, etc. I even built a corresponding Spotify playlist and I’ve been listening to it quite a bit over the last few months.

As I’ve listened, I’ve decided to tweak a few of the selections. Something like this is constantly in flux — at least it is for me — as I come across music I might’ve missed when it was originally released. Or I’ll just remember some of the songs that really resonated with me that year and change the list accordingly.

At any rate, here is the revised list and the updated Spotify playlist. All of this is a prelude to my end-of-the-year music post. As bad as 2020 has been, at least we received new music from Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson and — with today’s release of “Starting Over” — Chris Stapleton. A bad year in so many ways, but definitely a good year for music releases.

1990 – Dwight Yoakam, If There Was a Way

One of the changes I made to the original list was I decided to start with 1990. I was 13 years old for most of 1990 and this was when I first started to own my own musical tastes. Growing up, Dad always had control of the radio and he made sure I had a healthy appreciation for Johnny Cash. But by 1990, Yoakam represented the closest analog to Cash’s outlaw / outsider vibe. If There Was a Way was the first album I ever bought with my own money and I kept “Turn It On, Turn It Up, Turn Me Loose” on constant repeat.

Honorable mention: Shake Your Money Maker by The Black Crowes and Garth Brooks’s No Fences.

1991 – U2, Achtung Baby

I’ll always be a country music fan — even if my tastes align more with Americana than anything coming out of the modern Nashville pop-country scene. But 1991 was when my tastes began to shift toward rock. And although I began listening to a lot of alternative rock in 1991 — particularly Pearl Jam’s Ten — the standout record of the year was U2’s masterpiece, Achtung Baby. You could argue that this is the album that brought U2 the mantle of “the biggest rock band in the world.” This is as close as the band would get to “alternative” but nearly 30 years later, Achtung Baby still sounds as vital as ever, especially “Ultra Violet (Light My Way)” and “One.”

Honorable mention: Ten by Pearl Jam.

1992 – R.E.M., Automatic for the People

Okay, I’m noticing how many of these albums have a powerhouse trio of songs back-to-back-to-back. In this case, it’s the final three cuts: “Man on the Moon,” followed by “Nightswimming” and “Find the River.” What a way to close out an album!

1993 – Counting Crows, August and Everything After

On the short list of best debut albums ever. This is what high school sounded like in the mid-90s.

Honorable mention: This Time by Dwight Yoakam. It was his most commercially successful album, but it’s also really, really good.

1994 – Hootie & the Blowfish, Cracked Rear View

Of course you know the hits: “Only Wanna Be With You,” “Hold My Hand,” “Let Her Cry.” But have you listened to the rest of this album lately? It’s phenomenal. “Hannah Jane” sets the tone in the leadoff spot. “Running from an Angel” takes me back to so many great memories. And why isn’t “Not Even the Trees” more popular? It’s absolutely fantastic. Top to bottom, this is one of the best albums from the 1990s.

Honorable mention: Under the Table and Dreaming by Dave Matthews Band and Wildflowers by Tom Petty.

1995 – Oasis, (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?

I could write a lot about this album. Maybe I will one day. It came out my freshman year of college and quickly became a vital part of the soundtrack for this period of my life. It’s been super fun sharing this album with my children as well. (I literally just switched off a Spotify playlist my youngest son created. The last song we listened to: “Hey Now!”)

It’s all here: the melodic bombast of “Morning Glory,” the swelling chorus of “Don’t Look Back in Anger,” the sweeping Britpop guitars of “Roll With It.” Sure, some of the album’s trademark songs are notably nonsensical. (What exactly is a wonderwall or a champagne supernova, anyway?) But so what. Nonsense never sounded so good to my nineteen-year-old self. And 25 years later, the sound holds up.

1996 – The Wallflowers, Bringing Down the Horse

I have to brag a little: I was on this bandwagon before anyone else. At least before anyone I know. I came across this new release while browsing at Media Play in the Hundred Oaks Mall one lazy afternoon. Back then, you could sample new music by putting on a pair of headphones attached to a mounted Discman in the store. (Kind of gross to think about now.) By the time I finished listening to leadoff track, “One Headlight,” I was hooked.

Even though The Wallflowers were firmly billed as part of the radio-friendly, alternative rock slate, I’ve always kind of thought of this as a country record. Check out some of the lyrics, like “Three Marlenas” or “Josephine,” for instance. (And Jakob Dylan’s solo output, for that matter.) “I Wish I Felt Nothing” is more than a coda; it seems to make explicit what was hidden underneath all along. Wish these guys would make some new music.

Honorable mention: Being There, Wilco.

1997 – Radiohead, OK Computer

This is the alt-rock guitar masterpiece. It will never be topped and I will brook no argument otherwise. “No Surprises,” “Lucky,” and “The Tourist” are the go-to trifecta on this LP, but don’t tell “Exit Music (For a Film),” “Let Down,” and “Karma Police.”

1998 – Mercury Rev, Deserter’s Songs

For years, I struggled to find a definitive piece of music from this period. The record I probably listened to more than any other in 1998 (besides some of the ones already listed here) was Pearl Jam’s Yield, a fine album in it’s own right but not quite definitive. So when I started to refine this list a few months ago, I was determined to find an album from 1998 that I really loved.

I think I saw Mercury Rev’s Deserter’s Songs on a backdated “best of” post (NME? Rolling Stone?) so I gave it a listen. And at first, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Apparently the band went to the recording studio assuming they’d break up after these sessions, so they just decided to go for it and make the record they wanted to make. The result, of course, was a smash success. It certainly sounds like 1998; Deserter’s Songs has a certain alt-vibe strand of DNA, but there’s something else at work, a post-rock sound that would presage acts like Arcade Fire or Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. But I just found this album so intriguing, so interesting, that I couldn’t stop listening. There are a couple of filler songs here, but this is mostly moving, deeply affecting stuff.

“Holes,” for instance, sets the tone immediately. To me, it’s a song about nostalgia.

Time / All the long red lines / That take control

Of all the smoke like streams / That flow into your dreams

There’s a wistfulness to this opening, made all the more palpable by the tumultuous circumstances of its recording. It’s as if Mercury Rev allowed themselves to grieve what they were about to lose and they cognizance influenced the entire trajectory of this record. By the time Jonathan Donahue gets to the final line, I’m about ready to weep:

How does that old song go?

Bands / Those funny little plans

That never quite work right

Given how much I played this song back in March, it will always be associated with quarantine in my mind. But really the same could be said for “Opus 40” and “Hudson Line” as well. I only wish I had come across this album twenty years ago.

1999 – Sigur Ros, Agaetis byrjun (A Good Beginning)

I had the same dilemma with 1999; no album from that year just jumped out at me. So I went perusing through some “best of” lists online and eventually came to this strange record out of Iceland. Sigur Ros has been hailed as post-rock, dream pop, ambient, and art rock — and each of those labels applies while also failing to fully encapsulate their sound. The lyrics are entirely Icelandic, with the exception of some gibberish bits of language known as Vonlenska. Seriously.

But in a short period of time, this has become one of my all-time favorite albums. I suggest starting with “Svefn-g-englar” (that’s the second song on the album) or “Staralfur” (song #3), but you really should just listen to the whole thing. It’s amazing.

Honorable mention: Moby’s Play.

2000 – Radiohead, Kid A

Radiohead makes this list again with the masterful Kid A. The story is well known now in rock circles: after the critical success of OK Computer, band members were completely burned out and decided to radically depart from their signature sound. The result was this out-of-left-field marvel. Out with the guitars, in with the keyboards and drum machines — a move that was originally panned by some as “career suicide.”

Instead, this has become Radiohead’s defining work. I love this line from a Rolling Stone review written 15 years after the release of Kid A:

The music is full of self-doubt and embarrassment — these are artists who dedicated their lives to something they thought was important (i.e. becoming the World’s Greatest Rock Band), then wondered if they got taken.

Kid A is ultimately about agency, about taking control rather than acquiescing to the expectations of others. Hence the refrain in “Morning Bell:” Release me, release me.

Honorable mention: U2’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind and the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou?

2001 – David Gray, White Ladder

Technically, White Ladder was originally released in 1998 but it didn’t gain acclaim until being re-released by Dave Matthews’ record label in 2000 in the UK. Even then, White Ladder didn’t gain traction on this side of the pond until 2001, thus I’m including it for consideration in that particular year. It’s success is a testament to the resiliency of this music. And twenty years on, it still sounds relevant and fresh. “Please Forgive Me,” “This Year’s Love,” and “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye” are five-star songs in my opinion.

Honorable mention: The Strokes’ Is This It?

2002 – Coldplay, A Rush of Blood to the Head

This is a great example of art’s power to evoke memory. This music just “sounds” like 2002. The hits on this record (“Clocks,” “In My Place,” “The Scientist”) made Coldplay the biggest band in the world for a while there, but some of the quieter moments (“Green Eyes,” “Amsterdam”) make this a stellar record.

Honorable mention: Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and The Rising by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.

2003 – Explosions in the Sky, The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place

You probably know Explosions in the Sky for providing much of the soundtrack to the NBC hit show, Friday Night Lights. Their brand of ambient post-rock differs greatly from Sigur Ros, but it makes for some great study music. I’ve probably listened to this record as much as any other in the last year and a half.

2004 – Johnny Cash, My Mother’s Hymn Book

Anyone who knows me understands that I’m a huge Cash fan. (This post is Exhibit A.) And I’m especially fond of the late career renaissance Cash experienced under the tutelage of Rick Rubin. And the highlight of this American Recordings period, for me, is 2004’s My Mother’s Hymn Book. In the liner notes, Cash says that this was his favorite album he ever recorded. Accompanied by nothing more than his hand-strummed acoustic guitar, Cash sings the classic hymns of his mother’s hymnal. The result is a treasure.

2005 – David Crowder Band, A Collision or (3 + 4 = 7)

What I love about this album is the blending of different genres — piano ballad, pop, bluegrass twang, rock opera — united by the common thread of worship. As such, the album functions as a parable of the power of worship to united divergent styles and experiences under the banner of praise. I thought this record was brilliant when I first wrote about it in 2005; I say the same thing today.

2006 – Josh Ritter, The Animal Years

When I first heard of Ritter, a good friend compared his song-writing prowess to Bob Dylan. While I’ve enjoyed each of his releases, this was the first one that caught my eye and it continues to stand out.

Honorable mention: Michael Giacchino’s soundtrack to Season One of LOST.

2007 – The Avett Brothers, Emotionalism

I’ve gone back and forth on this one because 2007 produced three GREAT albums. And as much as I love Radiohead’s In Rainbows and Boxer by The National, I think I’ve finally settled on The Avett Brothers’ masterpiece, Emotionalism, as my favorite record from this year. Long before the more polished pop-rock sounds of their most recent work, the Avetts were soaring-harmony bluegrass band. And they’ve never sounded better than on this record. “Go to Sleep” was my favorite song for about a year but great songs abound here: “Shame,” “Die Die Die,” “Paranoia in B Major”…this is one of the best records of the last 15 years. And it reminds me of how much I once loved this band.

Honorable mention: Boxer by The National. About ten years ago, I wrote that “Fake Empire” was the perfect postmodern song. I stand by that statement. “Who knew existential theory could be reduced to three minutes?”

2008 – The Gabe Dixon Band, The Gabe Dixon Band

This may have been an eMusic find — an old download subscription service I used to find and purchase new music. I’ve always been a fan of piano-driven rock and The Gabe Dixon Band falls in line with acts like Ben Folds Five, Billy Joel, and Elton John. If you want to get a feel for these guys, take three minutes and listen to “Till You’re Gone” on Spotify. Then take four more minutes to hear “All Will Be Well.” Toes are guaranteed to be tapping by the time you’re done.

Unfortunately this was the last record for The Gabe Dixon Band. In 2010, the band broke up and Dixon now records as a solo artist.

2009 – Mumford & Sons, Sigh No More

This exercise has helped to reinforce how much I love some of these older albums, but there’s also a price to be paid. In the case of Mumford, I realize how much I miss them. It’s kind of like reminiscing with an old friend: sure, nothing can take away “the good ol’ days,” but remembering them only makes you realize the enormous delta between those great memories and the present reality that you really don’t know each other that well anymore.

That’s what I feel about Mumford & Sons these days. I’m all for bands continuing to grow and develop over time, but I’ve really soured on their sound after their last two albums. But listening to Sigh No More is a reminder of how much fun these guys were. Banjo is a proven cure for quarantine-induced doldrums. “Winter Winds,” take me away.

2010 – Arcade Fire, The Suburbs

Hard to believe this album is ten years old. Here’s what I said about it then.

The Suburbs, Arcade Fire’s third full-length record, is a pesky meditation on all that brims just below the surface in the superficial utopia of modern American suburbia: violence, apathy, easily discarded yearnings for meaning, and the pursuit of the almighty dollar.

My 2010 Best Album post

Ten years on, it still holds up. Still can’t stand “Rococo” but “Modern Man,” “Ready to Start,” and “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” sound as vital as ever. #10 on my Best Albums of the 2010s.

Honorable mention: The National, High Violet

2011 – Bon Iver, Bon Iver

I was late to the party on For Emma, Forever Ago. But I fell hard for this one — #8 on my Best Albums of the 2010s.

Here’s what I wrote about this record in December 2011:

Justin Vernon scraps the rustic cabin mournfulness of For Emma — the landmark album that put him on the indie-fanboy map — in favor of more lush soundscapes. Bon Iver is an expansive record, an ensemble response to Emma‘s solitary beauty. Trumpets, chimes, organs, guitars, pedal steel, banjo, even a weird instrument called a “bass saxophone” — they’re all here, fully alive and layered to perfection, pliably framing Vernon’s trademark falsetto. The track titles — “Calgary”, “Hinnom, TX”, “Perth”, “Lisbon, OH” — pay homage to a variety of geographic locales and serve as a nod to the album’s far-flung sonic direction.

In the ensuing years, Bon Iver would continue to expand their sonic palette but in hindsight, it seems this was telegraphed with this eponymous record.

I especially love “Holocene:”

On “Holocene”, brokenness is held aloft as the key to true vision. And at once I knew / I was not magnificent / Strayed above the highway aisle / Jagged vacance, thick with ice / But I could see for miles, miles, miles. Allusions to Halloween and Christmas indicate a passage from the innocence (and narcissism) of childhood to the truth of adulthood (or the realization of one’s non-significance, per Vernon). But this is the truest vision: finding meaning and purpose amid all the insignificance. I’m telling you, existentialism has never sounded this good.

2012 – Jack White, Blunderbuss

I really struggled with identifying the best album of 2012. Some years are just like that. (See 2018.) But I’ve settled on Jack White’s wonderful solo LP, Blunderbuss, a genre-bending oeuvre of sheer brilliance. Classic rock guitar riffs, shimmering cymbals, pedal steel, strings, even a church organ…they all show up here, played masterfully by a diverse backing band. But the real scene-stealer is the piano work. Most of these songs are melodically carried by the keys, not the guitars — and who saw that coming? Heartbreak is the prevailing theme; see ‘”Love Interruption” and “Take Me With You When You Go.” Top to bottom, a great record.

Honorable mention: The Avett Brothers, The Carpenter

2013 – Jason Isbell, Southeastern

I’ve written a lot about this album over the years. It was my #1 album of the decade, probably my favorite recording ever.

Honorable mention: The National, Trouble Will Find Me. Always a bridesmaid…

2014 – The War on Drugs, Lost in the Dream

The first of back-to-back masterpieces for TWOD. A rumored new album was “70-80% finished” prior to the COVID shutdown of the music industry. Maybe we’ll have new music from these guys by year’s end. #3 on my Best Albums of the Decade list.

2015 – Chris Stapleton, Traveller

The first mainstream country album to make my list in 25 years, Stapleton’s Traveller was a revelation in much the way The War on Drugs are: in a neo-vintage kind of way. The sound here is classic country — “real country” is another oft-used label — with a modern update. Stapleton retains something — an ethos — that eludes the mainstream formulaic pop/rock coming out of Music Row these days. Maybe it’s the voice; maybe it’s just that he’s not trying so hard. But part of Stapleton’s appeal is simply the sense of continuity with the great outlaw and honky tonk records of the past.

These songs had been road-tested for years by the time Stapleton recorded them, resulting in a virtuoso performance. This is an artist in complete control of his material, making it one of my favorite albums yet, #6 on my Best Albums of the Decade.

2016 – Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool

Apparently I really like Radiohead.

Honorable mention: A Sailor’s Guide to Earth by Sturgill Simpson.

2017 – The War on Drugs, A Deeper Understanding

For a long time, I considered The Nashville Sound the best album of 2017. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit put out a record that I described as “country music with a soul.” Songs like “Hope the High Road” and “White Man’s World” contain what I consider to be extremely important messages these days. And “If We Were Vampires” is simply gorgeous. But the music I continued coming back to from this year was The War on Drugs beautiful LP, A Deeper Understanding. I’ve probably listened to this album more than any other in the last five years. The music here simply sounds fresh no matter how many times I hear it. And nothing compares to experiencing this record through your headphones; it’s an immersive experience.

The guitar solo on Pain; the layered beauty of Holding On; the raw energy of Nothing To Find; the hypnotic, expansive soundscape of Thinking Of A Place…this is some of my favorite music of the last decade.

2018 – Khruangbin, Con Todo El Mundo

2018 was another one of those years; I really struggled with identifying an album that really arrested my imagination. I had stumbled across Khruangbin, a Houston-based band specializing in fusing a wide variety of genres: soul, funk, psychedelic, jazz. I was really drawn to their sound and found myself listening to this mostly instrumental album quite a bit while studying. Over time, this record became a real favorite of mine. Looking forward to another new album in 2020.

2019 – Bon Iver, i, i

Yet another masterpiece from Justin Vernon and company.

There you have it, my comprehensive “best of” list of albums.

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2020 Cross-Country Sectionals

Today was a huge day for Jackson. He ran sectionals with the Madison Academy cross-country team, which is a big deal for him as a seventh grader. He ran in a varsity competition about a month ago and finished his three-mile run in 23:20. With that as a baseline, we were eager to see if he could set a new personal record (PR).

Well, he completely blew that mark out of the water, finishing his three miles in 20:52! What a great way to end his first cross-country season! I am so proud of this guy and all the hard work he’s put in this fall. Can’t wait to see the way this hard work pays off in the years to come!

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