Exploring Gracie and Rachel’s Cathartic Synthesis

Artist Focus, Music and Healing
Above image from Gracie and Rachel’s Facebook Page

Synthesis: Combining two separate things to create a new thing

The above definition of synthesis is a loose paraphrase of the dictionary definition, but it captures the essence. It carries the idea of bringing together two different things toward the end of creating something new. Depending on the ingredients and the outcome, the synthesis process can create something good, meaningful, even healing.

All art is an expression of some kind of synthesis. The artist combines intangibles such as inspiration, imagination, and experience with skill and craftsmanship. They then leverage those things together in combination with their brush, their movement, their pen, their keys, their strings, their computer… and at the end of the process, there is something new.

In late 2017, I became aware of such an artistic synthesis in the music of New York-based duo of Gracie and Rachel. Early in the year, I was exposed to their Tiptoe EP and later, I indulged in their self-titled full-length album. In this album, in virtually every song, I hear this synthesis occurring and it is unique, special.

This synthesis facilitates a palpable tension throughout the record. It is inescapable…

Gracie and Rachel are a study in duality: light and dark, classical training with a pop sensibility, Californians in New York. Their music pits anxiety and tension against an almost serene self-assurance…(from their website)

On the surface, this duality rests in Gracie’s piano and Rachel’s violin, but it goes so much deeper. According to them, that intense, almost conflicted feel “comes from the world we live in as a duo in the bustle of New York, living together in our music every step of the way, working together in the same household, breathing the music we create. It’s full of tension, but it’s also full of release.”

Release… yes. That’s it. That word captures something of the end result of Gracie and Rachel’s synthesis. But, there may be a better word. When I asked them which of their songs seemed to impact them the most, their response was telling:

The song “Go” is one that always feels like a meditation for us when we play it live. It sits on this rhythmic pattern that sort of propels us forward and yet keeps us grounded throughout. Lyrically, the song works as a note-to-self, to celebrate anxiety as opposed to suppressing it – if we can do this, we can find peace.

We can find peace… Again, a powerful thought. Peace. Shalom. True well-being. It’s the longing of every human heart, no matter what the mouth might say. Finding peace through embracing anxiety, even celebrating it, is a powerful thought in itself. There is something to be said for facing directly into pain, fear, anxiety, traumatic memories, and the like. It takes courage, but there is healing there.

Their duality or tension has been shaped by a variety of stimuli, not the least of which are their artistic influences. In their words…

Gracie’s greatest influences include the author Carlos Castañeda, for his questioning mind, the composer Erik Satie for his patient piano lines, and Agnes Obel for her thoughtful fusing of strings and keys, her effortless tension and release. Rachel’s are endless and so instead of listing a bunch, she’ll give it to a female choral composer of the 16th century, Hildegard von Bingen, for her unique treatment of counterpoint.

Tension and release… counterpoint… There is a theme here. These ideas speak to Gracie and Rachel’s synthesis. But, what is the end product? Is it release? Is it healing?

Catharsis: purification or purgation of the emotions (such as pity and fear) primarily through art

The synthesis of their experience, their passion, their instruments, their creativity, all of it… it all comes together as a cathartic experience. It seems that way from the artists’ perspective. And it certainly feels cathartic from this listener’s perspective. There is a universal truth to the themes running through Gracie and Rachel. From their site…

The nine orchestral-pop songs on Gracie and Rachel tell a story that’s rooted in the truth —their truth — but retain an enigmatic air that makes them relatable to anyone who has ever found their heart racing with doubt and pushed forward regardless, or triumphed in subverting expectations imposed from without.

Struggle and tension is a universal experience. We have all experienced “racing doubt” and “subverting expressions.” We have all been hurt… abused… neglected…oppressed… suppressed in some way. We have all gone through emotional and relational strife. At times, more than we’d like to admit, we all need catharsis. We need to get it out. To purge. To purify. Gracie and Rachel captures this incredible dynamic in their record.

This dynamic duo is getting noticed. Bob Boilen included them in a couple of his 2017 “Best” lists, as well as hosting them for a Tiny Desk Concert. They have toured with San Fermin and are in the midst of touring with the indomitable Ani DiFranco. Big things are coming. It is the hope of this particular listener that, as their influence grows, more and more people will feel invited into the cathartic synthesis underlying every song emanating from Gracie and Rachel.


Cracked Foundations: My Eaux Claires Troix Story

Live Shows, Music and Healing

Integrity is powerful thing. While, in many cases, we have reduced it to a measure of consistency in thought, behavior, speech, etc., it means more than that. It has to do with wholeness, with the pieces of a whole being held together securely. The foundation of a building begins to lose its integrity (or, practically, disintegrate) when it cracks, its constituency (brick and mortar) begins to disintegrate, and it can no longer support the weight of the building resting on it. At the start, brick and mortar were securely connected to one another. There were no cracks and no giving way. But, as the foundation begins to compromise… one crack leads to another and another and another until eventually the walls of the foundation begin to bow. Before long, the building as a whole begins to fall apart and is headed toward demolition.

My first Eaux Claires experience, in a true and deep sense, shook my soul, my very foundation. If I’ve had a conversation with you about it, you know how deeply it impacted me. Quite literally, I took weeks to recover emotionally. Beach House’s Space Song haunted me on a regular basis and Bon Iver’s 22 (Over Soon) was a continual invitation into not only the rest of 22, A Million, but right back into the emotion I felt during those two days. I was overwhelmed with an awe of the God-given creativity I experienced that weekend and I felt as though I was a part of something very special.

Last Christmas, my beautiful and generous wife bought me a ticket for the third edition of the festival, and I couldn’t wait to hear about the lineup and start dreaming about what this year’s experience would be. When the lineup was announced, I was very excited to say the least. I mean, Paul Simon with yMusic! Sylvan Esso! Music for the Long Emergency! Now, while I was very much looking forward to the event, I was also trying very hard to temper my expectations. After all, Eaux Claires Deux was an emotional and spiritual event for me. I shouldn’t expect that to happen every year, right?

Well, I was wrong about that. Troix was emotionally and spiritually moving, just as Deux had been. However, the emotional and spiritual dynamics were quite different this time around for me. For this attendee, this year’s festival was a combination of joy and sorrow. I didn’t expect the sorrow, and it was the reason I actually  left the festival early on Day Two. It was a sorrow borne out of what I saw as extreme inconsistency, or compromised integrity, in several aspects of the festival.

Before I dive too deeply into that subject, let me reaffirm, there certainly was joy. Sylvan Esso. Sylvan freaking Esso. The Durham duo was incredible and they created such vibrant energy in the crowd… it was impossible to stand still during their set. It didn’t hurt that Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn looked like they were genuinely feeling it that night as well. I thought Perfume Genius was pretty incredible as well. Mike Hadreas and band came across as this eclectic blend of provocation, expression, and straight out fun as well. I also really enjoyed Collections of Colonies of Bees and Zebulon Pike. Collections was one of the first acts to play on Day Two and they were tight. Incredible creativity and craftsmanship. I need more. And Zebulon Pike… let me tell you, it did this old heart good to witness four guys about his age rocking like those guys rocked. The Minneapolis instrumental metal outfit were able to blend passion and precision in their performance in ways I don’t often see.

While these performances were great, the most poignant moment of the festival for me occurred early on Day Two, when s*t*a*r*g*a*z*e welcomed Minneapolis rapper Astronautalis to the stage. The day before, we learned of the acquittal of the police officer who killed Philando Castille. I hadn’t heard of the verdict until it was announced by Broder as he began his set on Friday afternoon (more on that in a bit). When Astronautalis took the mic, he was flowing on about how blessed he was to be a part of the day, to experience the beautiful sunshine, and on and on. But then his words told the story of his mixed emotions. Yeah, he was grateful and should feel happy about the moment, but he kept “thinking ’bout Philando.” It was a beautiful, soul-bearing moment in which he could not help but feel the weight of injustice. And my heart resonated with his. It was broken as well.

My recollection of that incredibly emotive, connecting moment leads me right into parts of the Troix experience with which I struggled terribly. As noted, the Philando Castille situation colored the festival. I first heard the verdict just as Broder was starting his set. Before the music began, the he mentioned what happened and encouraged the audience toward love and peace, which was beautiful. But then he said (this is verbatim to the best of my recollection), “Rest in peace, Philando. And rest in piss to the motherf*cker who (killed him).” This statement struck me as wildly inconsistent with his previous words about “peace” and “love.” For me, I found this kind of inconsistency to be a virtual theme running throughout the festival, and it ate at me throughout the weekend.

Another example of this inconsistency (or compromised integrity) was the festival being presented as an “All Ages” event. The Eaux Claires website states, “All ages are welcome, children ten and under are free.” “All ages” is also printed on the ticket. This would lead me, and likely others, to think the event is family-friendly. Now, I remember, during last year’s festival, seeing kids there and wondering if it was a good thing for them to be exposed to some of the lyrical content flowing from the artists. This year, that tension was palpable for me, and it began from the very onset. The first set on Friday saw Justin Vernon, Aaron Dessner, and friends playing what they called “People Mixtape” on a small stage. Now, creatively, it was a fun set and I really enjoyed it. However, one of the very first songs had Vernon repeating “I don’t want to f*ck it up” over and over again. As I stood there listening, just in front of me was a young girl, maybe 7-8 years old. As the father of an 8 year old, I would not want my son listening to that. This little girl stood there trying hard to protect herself from what she was hearing, hands clasped tightly over her ears. My heart sank a little bit in that moment.

And then there was the Spank Rock set on Day Two. In the months preceding the festival, I spent time trying to get to know the artists’ music so I would know whose shows I wanted to make sure I did not miss. Spank Rock and Danny Brown were two I quickly determined I wanted to miss. It wasn’t because of the music. I thought the few songs I listened to were funky, fun, and creative, musically speaking. But the lyrical content was just gross. The songs I previewed were sexually explicit, graphic, and unfortunately vivid, and some degraded women. So, I determined that I would be glad to miss those two sets.

However, when the time for Spank Rock’s set arrived, I decided to give it a chance. I thought maybe he would show some restraint in what had been billed as an “All Ages” context. Such was not the case. What made it worse was seeing children mixed in with the crowd while Spank Rock’s sexually explicit lyrics poured over their little ears, minds, and hearts. Now, we can debate on whether or not such lyrics should even be shared at all in a public forum, but I would suggest what is not debatable is that kids should not be exposed to such things. In fact, according to psychologist Dan Allender (in his book, The Wounded Heart), such exposure is tantamount to sexual abuse. My heart was broken for these kids. I walked away from the stage and tried unsuccessfully (more on that later) to escape the barrage of graphic language and content, and process what I was feeling about the whole Spank Rock experience. Again, the divide between the “All Ages” concept and the inundation of vivid sexual content for children’s ears screamed of the aforementioned compromised integrity.

Spank Rock’s lyrics are not only sexually explicit, but they are also blatantly misogynistic. He consistently refers to women as “b*tches.” Now, I don’t know if some folks are numb to this or if they simply choose ignorance, but this is wrong. Women are not dogs. Women are beautiful, powerful beings created in the very image of God and they are not to be demeaned in such ways. And several of the artists featured at this year’s Eaux Claires use that term when referring to women. It’s not okay. It wasn’t okay with Donald Trump referred to a woman as a “b*tch” in that infamous Billy Bush video, and it’s not okay for a rapper to do it either.

For me, this was perhaps the most glaring inconsistency I experienced at this year’s Eaux Claires. The vibe last year, for me, was one of connection, celebration, and respect. Empowering people to be who they are seemed to be part of that vibe. Women being seen as equals to men and being celebrated for who they are… this felt like an inherent part of the Eaux Claires ethos. But then we have artists take the stage and refer to women as dogs… There is no respect there. There is only misogyny (which was being funneled into the ears of little girls and little boys).

I mentioned earlier about not being able to escape the Spank Rock experience. There was a reason for that. When I was previewing music for the 2016 edition of Eaux Claires, I had similar concerns about Vince Staples’ lyrics as I did about Spank Rock (and Danny Brown) for this year. So, when Staples’ set was to begin, I simply walked up the hill and was able to escape, while enjoying other music (last year, the grounds were basically set up into two sections, a lower section housing the two big stages and a couple of smaller ones and an upper section with three other stages, separated by a walking path through the woods). This year, the planners reconfigured the grounds so that everything was on one level.

Now, I understand the idea was for the festival to be more of a shared experience. Admittedly, there were times in which the two separate sections felt fairly disconnected from one another. And I understand there were complaints about two popular acts playing in the same time slot (i.e. Beach House and Nathaniel Rateliff on Day Two last year). So, I understand why they made the adjustments and was optimistic about it going into the weekend. The organizers were explicit about wanting attendees to experience more of the festival “together,” and having all sets originate from the “lower” section was an effort to facilitate that togetherness.

However, for me, that change greatly hindered the overall experience. Yes, more of us attendees experienced the festival “together,” so that goal was achieved. However, the main grounds were significantly more crowded, obviously. I found the more densely populated main section a little overwhelming and at times I felt little claustrophobic. I know this was probably great from the perspective of the artists. After all, they had more people at their sets than they would have had in years past. But, for me, it made the whole weekend much less enjoyable. I felt as though, in an effort to bring people together, I was being forced into a shared experience, which is always going to hinder said experience.

In fact, this forced togetherness along with all of these perceived inconsistencies in mind, led me to feeling very alone amid the 20,000 or so people who were there. Whereas in 2016, I felt deep connection with what was happening, the music, and my fellow attendees, this year I felt isolated and as if I didn’t belong there. In fact, by Saturday evening, I was even feeling a bit depressed. Halfway through Feist’s performance, I walked over to stage known as The Creek, sat down in one of the plastic chairs, and found myself longing for home.

This was a far cry from what I had experienced on the Saturday evening of last year’s Eaux Claires. I still remember vividly how incredible Lucius was that night, how I was captivated by that performance, and how I couldn’t keep myself from moving. I was floating on the proverbial Cloud Nine. I can still feel how deeply I was stirred as I walked away from the festival to the tune of Beach House’s Space Song. But Saturday night felt much different for me this time around.

As I sat there with my head in my hands, I seriously contemplated going home early. Paul Simon and yMusic was one of the sets I was most excited about and they had not played yet, so I really wanted to hang on and be there for that. However, I was also aware that to get to Paul Simon I had to wait through Danny Brown’s set, and I had similar concerns about his lyrical content as I’d had about Spank Rock. And I couldn’t escape the things he would say. There was no upper section for me to retreat to. Eventually, after a moment of prayer, I decided to go home.

To say I was disappointed in my 2017 Eaux Claires experience would obviously be a major understatement. I would never have dreamt that I would actually leave early, especially after the way last year’s festival rocked me. But I did. And as I walked away, I wondered if this would be my last Eaux Claires, a thought which saddened me deeply.

After several days of reflection, my heart and mind settled a bit, and I decided not to make any rash decisions about next year. I still think Eaux Claires is not only special, but it has the potential to be deeply and positively impactful for attendees. For that to happen, in my unsolicited opinion, there has to be more consistency, more integrity. If we are about love, peace, and creativity, then the content coming from the artists ought to line up with those ideals.

Eaux Claires Troix lacked integrity, from my perspective, just as a cracked foundation has lost its integrity. The desire was to connect people in shared experience, but that connection felt forced to me. Crack. Women are to be respected and valued, but our artists call them “b*tches” from the stage. Crack. Our tickets state the event is “All Ages,” but there is profanity, the degradation of women, and sexually explicit lyrics flowing through the speakers. Crack. Unless these cracks are filled and the foundation restored, I don’t know how long Eaux Claires will retain its uniqueness and its potential to create significant positive change both for its attendees and for the Chippewa Valley.

Your Body Is Safe: Powerful Testimony from Bri Murphy

Music and Healing

I recently joined locally-rooted artist Bri Murphy’s email list, and I’m already glad I did. I received this from her this morning. It is poignant, beautiful, and powerful. Maybe there’s healing for you in Bri’s story.

Note from Bri: The following contains a very personal story about my experiences in the music industry, with some mild (quoted) language and some hard times. If this content notice makes you uncomfortable, I wouldn’t blame you at all for not reading any further. Just know that I’m sharing my story not as an act of exposition, but as an act of wholeheartedness and radical self-love that lets me, in turn, express love more fully to others. To quote Brene Brown: “We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness and affection.”

your body is safe.

I moved to Nashville in 2011 out of an underlying, unshakeable love for music. I worked hard for four years and landed a touring gig with a country-rock band. I did what every musician who moves to Nashville dreams of accomplishing: I paid my bills completely from my music career. But there was a dark side to the dream. I was constantly told to use my body and my looks to my advantage. I was sexualized on stage night after night, for the audience’s consumption and entertainment. The lead singer told people I was the “band slut” and that I could be theirs “for the right price”. On more than one occasion, I had men come up to me after shows, thinking I was a prostitute. Despite the fact that I had “made it” in Nashville and was a full-time musician and songwriter, I was at the lowest place I have ever been in my entire night.

your body is safe.

That same summer, I was raped by someone in my extended friend group. Somebody high up in the industry. Somebody who I thought I could trust. It happened and then it was over and I was left shaken, stunned, and disoriented. The low place I was in sunk to new levels of darkness. Anxiety and depression settled on top of me like a second skin. I gained weight, my mind was shattered. My spiritual practice was nonexistent.

your body is safe.

This story is ultimately a story of love and grace, but at this point, we’re going to take a detour so that we can come full circle in the end.

In the global West, we are constantly bombarded with photoshopped ads and people more “perfect” than us. It’s no wonder we struggle with self-image, diets, and maintaining any holistic concept of health. It’s hard to keep track of the number of quick-fixes on the market for everything from unnoticeable bumps, to the marks of bringing new life into this world, to the lines we gain from years of laughing with loved ones. A quick search on Amazon for “self-improvement books” leads to 131,460 titles to sift through. That’s over one hundred thousand people trying to make money by telling you how to “do you” better.

your body is safe.

The split between the Self and Other hearkens back to the 19th century, which sought to name, number, and otherwise categorize everything in the world around us into neat little boxes. Thinkers from Hegel to Jung represent this desperate need to find the Self in what was becoming an overwhelming expansion of the world as we knew it. In the midst of unease and tension, it’s always easier to detach from our surroundings rather than do the difficult work of confronting, processing, and synthesizing the troublesome parts of our Selves. Rather than recognize the Self in the Other – which is, at times, deeply buried, but is always present – we put the Other in glass boxes in museums, hide them in our shadow selves (as Jung would say), and project them onto the monsters that hide under our bed, while we remain a beautiful soul (as Hegel would say).

your body is safe.

This Self-splitting breeds undeniable feelings of isolation. Our physical self is suddenly an abstract concept that’s entirely separated from our emotional and spiritual selves. We think of emotion and spirit as messy and complicated because they are, but the last few centuries have complicated the individual – as well as collective – body politic to a point where it may be even messier, simply because we’re not even aware of our bodies as a vital constituent of our overall Being and connection to God. 21st century technology has further complicated the split between body, soul, and spirit; between Self and Other. As more and more screens enter our daily lives and the way we “connect” to each other involves more and more layers, veils, and filters, we drift away from serious spiritual life or contemplative practice and are increasingly unmoored from any sense of what it means to be a Spirit-filled human with an ephemeral body.

your body is safe.

It was a two-year journey back into my body. It’s one I didn’t make alone. I firmly believe it takes a village not only to raise a child but to lift each other up over and over again throughout our lifetimes. From my friends who practiced next to me while I literally clawed and sobbed my way through yoga classes; to my parents, who stood by my decision to take a break from music and held space for me; to a fantastic therapist who helped me validate and process my experiences; to a God who gave me grace through it all; I have an endless amount of gratitude for my “village”. Ultimately, I found that when I sat down with the monsters under my proverbial bed and opened my heart to learning from them rather than forsaking them, I discovered an even more beautiful soul and returned to God in a way that would have been impossible without the monsters.

your body is safe.

I like to envision my self-discoveries as pieces of light that I had lost in the journey, but recovered in the restoration. Here are the four that became cornerstones for me moving forward, and stay with me to this day:

“My body is safe.” I recovered the concept of security in my physical being.

“My body is sacred.” I restored a deep faith in a God who was, and is, always with me.

“My body is whole.” I reintegrated my soul and my spirit with my physicality.

“My body is mine.” I reclaimed my agency to move, think, and act from deeper faith.

your body is safe.

All of us experience some form of trauma over the course of our lives. I share my story as a further act of ownership over my being, and as an introduction to this series of meditations/mantras that I’ll be writing and sending your way once a month. They are meant to inspire, to invoke contemplation, and to encourage moments of unplugged silence in life and connection with higher, whole Self, whether or not you believe in God or any higher power. In yoga, this journey is called svadhyaya. In the Christian tradition, it’s represented by the Trinity, and the perichoresis, or “divine dance” that we choose to enter with God. Some dances will be longer; some will be short and sweet. For me, some will be infused with art or song or movement; all will be deeply rooted in my belief that my fragile and human heart was born in original blessing, and beats to seek light in even the darkest of times.


my body is safe.
my body is sacred.
my body is whole.
my body is mine.

Peace and blessings,


It Might Be Over Soon (But It’s Not Likely)

General Thoughts, Music and Healing

It doesn’t matter that the album was released seven months ago. Nor, does it matter that I first heard these songs eight months ago at a concert. No matter how many weeks and months pass, all I have to do is start listening to the opening few seconds of 22 (Over Soon), from Bon Iver’s 22, A Million and I’m pulled right back in. I am virtually powerless against its tractor beam. It’s like an invitation back onto a musical and emotional rollercoaster. I have a feeling this dynamic isn’t going away.


Leon Bridges’ River: An Invitation Into Truth

Music and Healing, Poignant Songs

There was a time, not that long ago, in which I was pretty sure I was the crap. I mean, I was right about everything, knew better than everyone else, and was fairly invincible. At least, that was the lie I put out there about myself. I lived according to that lie. And even though my performance of that role may have been fairly convincing to some, if I was honest with myself, I knew it was a lie. Inwardly, I was a mess.

The older I get, the more I learn about God and myself, the more I embrace that mess. That doesn’t mean I’m satisfied with it. I just recognize it’s the truth. And I try not to pretend so much anymore. The truth is this: I am desperately in need of mercy.

I think that’s why Leon Bridges’ River speaks so deeply to me. In it, I hear a deep desperation. I hear a man coming to an understanding that he is extremely limited and faulty. That he is in need of mercy… of grace… of salvation. Hey Leon, me too. Thanks for sharing this beautiful song. I see it as an invitation for all of us to see ourselves in the protagonist’s story. To stand in his shoes. To recognize our own need.


Been traveling these wide roads for so long

My heart’s been far from you

Ten-thousand miles gone


Oh, I wanna come near and give ya

Every part of me

But there’s blood on my hands

And my lips aren’t clean


In my darkness I remember

Momma’s words reoccur to me

“Surrender to the good Lord

And he’ll wipe your slate clean”


Take me to your river

I wanna go

Oh, go on

Take me to your river

I wanna know


Tip me in your smooth waters

I go in

As a man with many crimes

Come up for air

As my sins flow down the Jordan


Oh, I wanna come near and give ya

Every part of me

But there’s blood on my hands

And my lips aren’t clean


Take me to your river

I wanna go

Go on,

Take me to your river

I wanna…

A Day of Grief and Tension

General Thoughts, Music and Healing

Silent Saturday. Jesus is dead. His broken and mangled corpse has been removed from the cross, wrapped up in burial clothes, and sealed up in a cave. There will be no miraculous healing today. No poignant teaching. No confrontations with the religious elite. No, today marks the time in which the world experienced life without Jesus. And for the first time in three years, his closest friends and followers experienced life without Jesus.

Perhaps they had faint memories of him saying something about coming back from the dead. But it seems as if such memories faded in light of what they’d just seen at Golgotha. Jesus, the One to whom they had pinned their hopes, the One to whom they had committed their very lives, who they believed was the Son of God, was dead. Like any other human being subjected to the treatment of the cross, he died. He was gone. It would seem their hope had been extinguished.

The grief must have been overwhelming. Perhaps they felt lost. Destitute. Left wondering how things were allowed to happen the way they did. Again, they likely remembered Jesus’ multiple predictions regarding his suffering and death. But hearing him talk about it and then seeing it or knowing it actually happened is another thing entirely. Now that Jesus has actually been humiliated, tortured, and executed like a common criminal, their worlds have been turned upside down.

Some of them likely were feeling grieved not only by Jesus’ death, but by how they had abandoned him as he faced into the ordeal from the previous day. When the temple guards came to arrest Jesus in Gethsemane, his closest followers ran away. He was left alone and walked through the rest of the events of Thursday night and Friday by himself, isolated from everyone who cared about him. One of his inner circle, Peter, had even verbally denied he knew Jesus at all, not once but three times. And the whole ordeal was initiated by the betrayal of one of his friends. As the disciples sat there on that silent Saturday, maybe they were thinking about how incredibly unjust it was that he willingly endured the shame and pain of the cross for them, in the wake of their infidelity to him.

In hindsight, knowing how this story ends, those of us who know Jesus know that his death and burial is not the finale. We know the cliché: “Sunday’s coming.” We have the great benefit of knowing that Jesus would rise from the dead on Easter Sunday. But, his first disciples did not have that luxury. They were left in the tension of their grief, the knowledge of their own unfaithfulness to Jesus, and, if they were even thinking about the possibility of resurrection, wondering if it could actually happen. In their minds, there had to be great doubt. And so, on that silent Saturday, they were left to their grief and attempts to muster enough faith to believe that it wasn’t all over.

You and I know it wasn’t over. Jesus’ story was still being written. So, we don’t have to sit in that tension today. However, we still have the opportunity to consider the injustice of the event we remember on Good Friday. Jesus, blameless and perfect, took on the humiliation and punishment that was on the docket for me… and for you. He set his will toward suffering the shame, pain, and separation from God that I deserved… that you deserved. Despite our vast infidelity to him, his faithful love drove him to suffer and die to make a way for us to know God.

So, perhaps before we quickly jump into the celebration of Easter Sunday, let’s take a moment to reflect again on the injustice of the cross and what it really means for you and me. Let us consider the great love of Jesus that moved him to suffer and die for unfaithful you and unfaithful me. Let us reflect upon the unfathomable mercy of God on full display as Jesus died on that Roman cross and was laid to rest. Indeed, worthy is the Lamb.

The Injustice of the Cross

General Thoughts, Music and Healing

I can’t get the sound out of my mind. The forceful clang. The clash of hammer and nail. And as I hear the banging in my mind’s ear, I mumble curse words under my breath. This is wrong. This is just wrong.

He gave himself over to the authorities. He endured mockery, humiliation, and false accusation. He was flogged. And, he was nailed to a cross. This is wrong. This is just wrong.

He did all this, endured all this, suffered all this… for me. It was my sin that led him to the cross. I am responsible for what he went through on that hill outside Jerusalem 2000 years ago. I should have been the one on that cross. This is wrong. This is just wrong.

God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us… God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God…

Thank you, Jesus. WORTHY IS THE LAMB.

The playlist below is loosely based on the “Stations of the Cross.” If you would like to know more about this tradition, click here. I invite you to put on some headphones, shut out the rest of the world for a bit, and engage with the moods, flow, and emotion of this set of songs/pieces. As you listen, consider what Jesus willingly and courageously endured for you and me.

The Heart of Jesus’ Courage

General Thoughts, Music and Healing

When I was in college in the mid-90s, I discovered the wonder of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar for the first time. It had always been a bit taboo because of some serious doctrinal issues. Regardless, once I began watching the 1973 movie adaptation, I was enthralled. The music is funky, some of the individual vocals are amazing, and the creators’ take on the last week of Jesus’ life was pretty intriguing.

For me, the penultimate moment in Jesus Christ Superstar happens when Jesus is in the Garden of Gethsemane with his disciples. This particular part of the movie incorporates the three elements mentioned above: funky music, incredible vocals (Ted Neeley’s voice, especially when he belts out the “Why?!”… still gives me chills), and “interesting” doctrine. Take a moment and watch the video below:

Jesus Christ Superstar‘s version of Jesus knows he is heading toward suffering and death and he is struggling with this reality. Now, as compelling and emotive as that scene may be, that ain’t the real Jesus. In this scene, the identity crisis Jesus seems to be having throughout the movie comes to a head: “I’m not as sure as when we started.” When pleading with God to change the plan, he leans on how well he has performed in his role: “Could you ask as much from any other man?” But the real Jesus knew he was not just “any other man.” And he was certain of his mission that night in Gethsemane 2000 years ago.

However, the largest divergence between Ted Neeley’s Jesus and the real Jesus is his attitude toward God the Father. Superstar‘s Jesus is defiant, blaming the Father for everything. He sings of finishing what he started and then his attitude noticeably changes and he accusingly alters his statement to “what you started.” This defiant spirit may make for compelling drama, but it is a far cry from how that evening in Gethsemane actually played out.

As Jesus looks ahead to the cross on the night he was betrayed, the Gospel of Mark records the following (Mark 14:32-34):

They went to the olive grove called Gethsemane, and Jesus said, “Sit here while I go and pray.” He took Peter, James, and John with him, and he became deeply troubled and distressed. He told them, “My soul is crushed with grief to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”

About the only thing doctrinally correct in Superstar‘s “Gethsemane” is the deep emotional struggle Jesus experienced that night. The real Jesus felt that struggle too. He was “deeply troubled and distressed.” The following words from Jesus pierce my heart: “My soul is crushed with grief to the point of death.” I’ve tasted a glimpse of such grief before. It was almost unbearable at times, but nothing compared to what Jesus was experiencing that night. But, in response to that almost debilitating grief, Jesus does not turn to defiance.

Instead of getting angry with his Father, Jesus is honest with him about how he feels. He shares his heart with his Father, asking if there is any other way to accomplish his mission. Is the cross really necessary? The picture I see here is one of intimacy between Son and Father. Theirs is a relationship of deep trust. Jesus knows he can bare his heart. While we don’t know what the Father was thinking or may have said to him in those moments, my guess is that he grieved with his Son. He is not the taskmaster holding “all the cards,” standing back unaffected, pulling puppet strings. He is a loving Father who shares deep intimacy with Jesus.

It’s in the context of this intimacy, this deep love, that Jesus determines: “Not my will, but yours be done.” Jesus knew he would suffer and die, but then he also knew he would take up life once again. But in that moment, with betrayal, humiliation, suffering, and death nipping at his heels, he was feeling through the reality of what was to come. No human being can ever truly stand in his shoes and feel what he was feeling in that moment, but I can imagine it would be hard to see what’s supposed to happen on Sunday when your Friday looked like his would. I think it would be natural for trust to be challenged in that moment. Sheez, my trust has been shaken in the face of much lesser adversity.

But Jesus, standing on the foundation of his intimacy and experience with his Father, acquiesces to his Father’s will. And he doesn’t do so in some kind of backhanded “I guess you can have it your way” manner. No, the Jesus I see in Gethsemane, according to the Gospels, actually wants to do what his Father wants him to do. If his Father wants him to die on our behalf, to take on all of our sinful baggage, then Jesus wants to die on our behalf and take on our sin. Such is the seamlessness between Jesus’ heart and his Father’s heart.

I hope to experience more and more of that seamlessness with God’s heart. When I  consider what Jesus was willing to endure based on his intimacy with his Father, it makes my heart ache for such intimacy. My prayer (for both you and me), is that, no matter what our circumstances are, no matter if we feel great or our souls are being crushed, we will find the closeness with God that lends itself to deep trust in him.

And, as we look forward to Good Friday, I am grateful that the real Jesus was willing to take the penalty for all my sin. His willingness to endure the cross is what affords you and me the opportunity to not only know God, but to experience deep intimacy with him, the kind of intimacy that leads to deep trust.

Being the “Amen” to Jesus’ Prayer

General Thoughts, Music and Healing

I’ve always been an idealist. As a child, I was told  I would grow out of it, but as it turns out, that wasn’t the case (at least not yet). Recently, I took the StrengthsFinder assessment from Gallup, and the results only confirm that orientation… “strategic”, “ideation”, “futurist”… No wonder I get discontent easily. My heart is always longing for things to be better, to be the best they can be.

Even so, like everyone else, my senses can be dulled and my vision of the ideal can be diluted. It’s kind of like how a pitcher in baseball will intentionally throw balls that are high for the batter, just to change the batter’s line of sight. That way, the pitcher can throw a pitch that’s lower in the strike zone to the hitter and the hitter will think it’s too low to hit. The hitter’s perspective on the strike zone has changed and he or she cannot clearly discern when a pitch is a strike or a ball.

This happens to me on a regular basis. Life throws me some high heat and I lose sight of the strike zone. When disappointments come my way consistently enough, if I am not vigilant, I will lose focus on the ideal or the goal. I think this happens to all of us from time to time. When it does, we are in need of calibration. We need our vision reset to the standard. My hope is, as you read this, our vision will become more aligned with Jesus’ vision.

On the night before Jesus was executed, he shared a meal with his disciples. In that context, he prayed for them and for all the disciples who would come after them. Now, before I mention any more about that prayer, let’s be reminded of the context. Jesus is in the middle of a very intense week. He entered Jerusalem to the praise of people who wanted him to be their political liberator and leader, people who would soon be disappointed. He wept over the fickle hearts of those people. He violently confronted the ethnocentric money-changing and animal sales practices in the Temple. More importantly, he knew where the week was taking him. He was about to be betrayed, humiliated, tortured, and executed.

It’s in the context of all these significant and emotive events, surrounded by his closest followers, that Jesus prays about a variety of things. But there is one element of his prayer I specifically want to hone in on in this moment. These words are recorded in the Gospel of John:

I am praying not only for these disciples but also for all who will ever believe in me through their message. I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me… May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me.

“I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one…” Church friends, let’s let that sink in for just a moment. Theologians and pastors will tell you that Jesus and his Father have lived eternally in perfect harmony with each other. Jesus’ words and actions, as described in the Gospels, bolster that claim. He was always about his Father’s business, seeking do only his Father’s will, speaking only what he heard from His Father. That relationship is typified by oneness.

In this moment, as Jesus is looking forward to the cross, one of the most urgent issues on his heart is unity in his church. He longs for his followers to be one, to love each other so fiercely that we would lay down our lives for each other. He longs for us to experience real harmony. And why? Based on my understanding of Jesus, I am sure at least part of that longing is based purely on his love for us. He wants us to experience real deep connection with each other as he has experienced such with his Father. In and of itself, such a connection is rewarding and a worthy end. However, there is another compelling reason: “May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me…”

“…that the world will know…” Jesus regards unity among his people as such a big deal that the world will take notice. In fact, such unity would be convincing evidence of who Jesus is to an unbelieving world. It doesn’t take much consideration to recognize why unity within the church would be such a powerful force of conviction. It’s all about those fickle hearts of ours.

Human beings will divide over anything… political persuasion, border walls, ethnic background, denominational background, gender,  sports team allegiances… this list could go on and on. It’s not that we shouldn’t be able to disagree with one another. Certainly, diversity of opinion on non-essential things is good, and frankly, almost everything is non-essential. It’s not about that, it’s about letting our disagreements divide us. It’s about letting such things create “us vs. them” dynamics. Our selfish natures and fickle hearts lead us that way on a regular basis, to our shame.

I think this is why Jesus prays for unity. He knows that “perfect unity” in his church would be unique and miraculous, dare I say even holy. It would be set apart from anything the world has ever experienced. As such, this kind of oneness would be an incredible testimony of who Jesus is to those who don’t yet trust him.

In recent weeks and months, I’ve been considering these things quite a bit. I’ve come to a conclusion, one based on my own very limited human understanding, but I believe it is valid nonetheless. Here it is: Perhaps the largest barrier to people coming to Jesus is the lack of unity in the church. Ouch. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…” and yet our lack of oneness hinders the world from experiencing that love. And when it comes right down to it, we don’t have unity because we don’t really love each other very well, at least not enough to disagree without separating from each other. Just like the rest of our human compadres, we divide over any and every little thing that comes between us.

Yes, this is heavy, friends. I’m sorry… It’s heavy for me personally, because the truth is I’m part of the problem. I have let non-essential things come between me and my brothers and sisters. And I believe the reason I’ve done this is because I’ve lost sight of the strike zone. I’ve seen (and contributed to) so many dividing curveballs and sliders over the years that a fastball right down the middle is out of my scope. I haven’t seen things clearly and I’ve lost sight of Jesus’ vision for his people. I need calibration. We need calibration.

My hope for you and me, today, is that we will join with Jesus in his prayer from the night he was betrayed. Let us pray for unity along with him. May we go humbly before the Father and plead with him that we may experience the oneness he experiences with Jesus. And once we have said our “Amen”, let us then become that “Amen”. Let us live out the vision Jesus casted for real unity in his church. Let us learn how to disagree well, and love each other fiercely and self-sacrificially, honoring the One who sacrificed himself for us.