Petra at the end

We all dread saying a final goodbye. Unfortunately, finality and parting are inevitable in this life. If there must be an end, the way to do it is to get together one last time, spend a couple hours together and have a great time, pretending that the end is not upon us, laughing and celebrating, reliving old memories and making new memories, and then finally wishing each other well and going seperate ways. Last night, I got the opportunity to wish a band from my formative years, the high school and early college years, goodbye.

When I learned that Petra was going to perform their last show in the United States ever in Dawsonville, Georgia, I called David and told him we were going to the show, no questions asked. After we bought tickets to the show, it was announced that there would be a couple more shows after this one, so we lost the “special-ness” of seeing the last show ever, but nonetheless, this would still be my last show. David and I became friends shortly before our first Petra show together in 1992, when we were high school kids looking for girls (though, if I were to get a girl I don’t know if I would’ve known what to do with her then.) At this show, David is now the father of a baby with his wife and I had just celebrated my fifth year anniversary. So much has changed since our first show together. Our musical tastes have changed greatly since then. I have gotten more into acoustic, folk, and occasional modern rock music. David is now fully into techno music. However, we were arena rock fans just for tonight.

The show took place at Christ Fellowship Church in Dawsonville, Georgia. The church was located in an old warehouse where the church also apparently owned the bowling alley/go karts next door. (I was reminded of Derek Webb’s “Ballad in Plain Red”, “…they got a gym and a ferris wheel…”, but I digress) There was surprisingly large crowd which had the church auditorium filled almost to capacity. People had come from all over to the show. Every person sitting around us had their own stories… I’ve been a fan for 10 years, 15 years, 20 years, I’m bringing my child to see the band I loved, and so on. There was even a 76 year old woman that flew in from California earning the title of both “Oldest Petra Fan” and “Farthest Traveling Petra Fan” at the show.

Not that everyone was on old fan at the show. There were mop-headed teenagers there wearing t-shirts from tours that happened before they were born (and I thought they might have some ironic sense of humor, but when the songs began, they knew every word, too.) Small children sat at floor of the stage and gazed up. It seemed like everyone, including yours truly, had a camera at the show, eager to catch for themselves one last moment of the band before the end. Even a police officer in uniform stood at the front of the stage taking pictures with his camera. Not that there was any danger of unruly crowd behavior in the form of moshing or stage diving. The only person to jump on the stage was a small girl no older than four who ran to hug vocalist John Schlitt at the end of the show.

Though there was the possibly of having to deal with an unruly crowd. Schlitt missed his plane and had to take a later flight, no doubt racing up Georgia 400 from the Atlanta airport at speeds that would frighten any SUV soccer-mom that normally flies along that highway. We all waited outside of the sanctuary for almost an hour when the promoter of the show stood up in front of the crowd and asked, “Have any of you ever been to a Petra show that started on time?” to which we all thundered, “YES!” The natives were becoming restless and I joked to David that it would be a Petra concert of all concerts that would be subjected to pepper spray and water cannons. Nonetheless, the concert did start and the opening band, Bread of Stone played about four songs to warm the crowd up. Their sound was fairly non-descript and muddy, but they didn’t make me angry, so they passed the Opening Band Test.

Petra took the stage and started right into their newest album. The band has almost totally changed since the first show I saw them. Gone are the stacks of keyboards from John Lawry. Gone are the Mickey Mouse drums of Louie Weaver. Gone is the bass guitar of Ronny Cates. The two new members, Paul Simmons on drums and Greg Bailey on bass were more than adequate replacements. Guitarist Bob Hartman had stopped touring with the band 10 years ago but recently returned, bringing back a technical skill that his replacements sometimes lacked. If anything, he sounded better than what I remember during the band’s heyday and even dared to improvise a little and stretch out some solos, giving a welcome unexpected feel to some songs. And there was vocalist John Schlitt, if his voice had changed at all, it was a little hoarser giving the songs an additional grit, but it wasn’t hard at all to close your eyes and pretend it was 1992 or even 1987 again.

The stage set was sparse. No grand stage set up like the days in the arenas. No ramps or backdrops or video screens like the 80’s or 90’s. There was only a simple screen in the back and the instruments on the stage. There was no need for pyrotechnics and exploding fireworks tonight. The music would be enough and the plain set up allowed the band to be loose and enjoy themselves. It was refreshing to see Petra relaxed as oppossed to their highly planned shows in their past. When drummer Paul Simmons’ had technical issues and disappeared from the drum chair to fix it, Bob Hartman joked that perhaps their drummer had “spontaneously combusted”, no doubt drawing connections to their own Spinal Tap-type history.

The set progressed through songs from their newest CD, Jekyll and Hyde and some of their old classics like “Dance” and “Judas Kiss.” and even their modified rocking version of “Amazing Grace.” The absense of keyboards was noticeable, but otherwise the songs, well, rocked. Rocked like arena rock had never gone away. They then blistered through a medley of rock songs ranging all across the span of their long career moving seemlessly from “Sight Unseen” to “It Is Finished” to “Think Twice” to “I Am On The Rock” to “Midnight Oil” to “Mine Field” to “This Means War.” The highlight of the show for me was the acoustic break in the middle of the concert. Greg Bailey laid his bass guitar down and sat down to play cello and Bob Hartman picked up the acoustic guitar. The band then played a medley of ballads from all across their history, each song given a nice rearrangement with the cello, going from “Rose Colored Stained Glass Windows” to “Road to Zion” to “More Power to Ya” to “Annie’s Song” to “No Doubt” to “The Coloring Song” to “Love.” From there, it was time to wrap up the show and when they started “Beyond Belief”, it really did feel like David and I were teenagers again. There were short drum and guitar solos that reminded us of days past when overblown solos were de rigueur for a rock concert. The encore followed with “He Came, He Saw, He Conqured” and the familiar praise chourses of “Lord, I Lift Your Name On High” and “We Need Jesus”

At the end of the night, just like every Petra concert, Bob Hartman shared the good news of the Gospel with the crowd (and more than any other show, this may have been preaching to the choir since an overwhelming majority of the crowd were hardcore Petra fans.) This, however, is what Petra has done and they will stay the course to the end. To their credit, across their 33 year career, while they have meandered from musical style to musical style as trends changed, this band has eschewed getting entangled in trendy religion fads, theological debates, political endorsements, or social commentary (save for their adamant message of abstinence and aid to third world countries.) Their message has never wavered from their first day, to know Jesus Christ personally and to know him more every day.

…and when it’s all said an done, that’s a pretty good way to be remembered.

The Music of 2005

With the year coming to a close and with everyone doing their review of the best music of 2005, I’ve decided to join the cool crowd.

These are the best albums that I discovered in 2005. Note that not all of these albums were released in 2005, but I first heard them in 2005. I’m not a huge fan of ranking my music, so the order is alphabetical by artist.

Andrew Peterson – The Far Country
I bought this album mainly because of the production and guitar work of Andy Osenga, but I discovered the amazing lyrical writing of Andrew Peterson. I had already been won over by his Christmas CD, Behold The Lamb Of God, but this CD reinforced his place in my mind. The theme of the album revolves around the concept that God is home and we are in the “Far Country.” Peterson borrows vivid imagery from Tolkein’s Gray Havens and C.S. Lewis’ Utter East to illustrate the songs and even draws some comparisons with one of his heroes, Rich Mullins, with songs about how this world is not our home. Wonderful piano and arranging by Ben Shive and guitar and backing vocals by Osenga anchor the album down with strong instrumentation.

Coldplay – X&Y
I think I still like Parachutes and A Rush of Blood To The Head better, but this album has remained strong over repeated listenings, much like the rest of their work. That speaks well for the band that I can listen to them so much without growing bored. I also love the overarching theme of marriage on the work (the songs “What If”, “Fix You”, and “X&Y” work the best) and I feared “Speed of Sound” would get overplayed on radio, but I guess I don’t listen to radio enough, because I still love that song.

Copeland – In Motion/Beneath Medicine Tree

I put both of these albums together because I discovered both of them this year. In Motion has a slick, glossy feel like many 80’s rock albums, while Beneath Medicine Tree feels more like an indie album. I love the hospital theme of Beneath Medicine Tree, it gives it a deeper, heartbroken feel. I’m really starting to love Aaron Marsh’s singing, too.

Jars of Clay – Redemption Songs

This is a band that is not only prolific, but continues to raise the bar on the quality of their music. Redemption Songs is a CD full of hymns, with some songs rearranged with new tunes or simply modifications on the old tunes. Jars of Clay collaborates with some great guest artists, most notably Ashley Cleveland. It would’ve been easy for Jars of Clay to continue cranking out the acoustic guitar themed songs that made their first album a success, but they continue to challenge themselves and re-think their music.

Mae – The Everglow
This might be the best album overall that I purchased in 2005. What makes the album so great is the total package. From the liner notes written like a children’s book, to the packaging of the CD, to the clever overarching story in the album. Themed albums that tell a story from beginning to end are a dying breed in music today and the general theme of loss and redemption is a theme almost everyone can identify with, making the The Everglow feel applicable to everyone’s life.

Over the Rhine – Drunkard’s Prayer
Any follow up to the grand scale of Ohio would be a daunting task, so Over the Rhine did the smart thing and went exactly the opposite direction, simplifying things and releasing a very stark album in Drunkard’s Prayer. Written during a trying year where songwriters Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist had to reassess their marriage, the album touches on themes of love that aren’t so popular (it’s easy to write songs about falling in love, it’s not so easy to write songs about staying in love.) I think I still like Ohio or Good Dog, Bad Dog better, but many of these songs translated very well live.

Sleeping At Last – Ghosts
This three-piece band is full of so much potential. I’m really hoping Interscope gives this band some exposure. The songs have such strong intensity while still retaining beautiful melodies. “Night Must End”, “All That Is Beautiful”, and “Currents” show strong influence by Radiohead, but they are not derivative. I also picked up their indie CD, Capture, which also displays their ferocity without devolving into mere noise.

The Choir – O How The Mighty Have Fallen
I can only hope this album siginifies a return of The Choir for a while and that we’ll get a couple more albums out of this great band that everyone seems to have forgotten. The addition of Marc Byrd adds nice background vocals and production skills that allow Derri Daugherty and Steve Hindlong to concentrate on their music instead of dealing with the nuts and bolts of producing the album, freeing them to be more creative. The Choir has always allowed their lyrics to mature as they’ve grown older and this latest album is no different as they tackle the issues of raising teenagers, showing forgiveness, and even struggling with the loss of love. The last two songs on the album formed the strongest ending of almost any album that I own.

Small, white lights

I kinda wished I’d waited until today to publish my yearly essay of the Darkest Night of the Year and worked this into it, but I generally make a policy of not significantly editing blog entries after I’ve published them, so this will have to stand on its own

A Christmas tradition that has stayed with me since I was a small child is getting in the car and driving around town looking at houses decorated with Christmas lights. Mom and dad would put me and my sister in a car and we’d drive around our neighborhood and maybe venture out into some of the nearby subdivisions. We’d ooh and ahh and marvel at the lights and even stop at some of the more elaborate setups. (You know, the ones with the entire elf village with Santa’s sleigh, right next to a nativity scene, all with “God Bless America” in blinking lights hovering over the whole thing. What a crazy mixture of messages.) Even when I lived in Florida alone, I would get in the car and drive around Boca Raton looking at the palm trees wrapped with Christmas lights. I’ve kept this tradition almost every year.

Adriene and I got our coffee and drove around the base of Kennesaw Mountain. Our favorite neighborhoods are the ones inhabited by the noveau riche. They always seem eager to show how much money they have by putting on as bombastic a display as possible. We always marvel that these gigantic manors are so close to where we live. We certainly don’t have a three car garage (nor a Hummer that won’t fit in that three car garage, either.) There are some tastefully done houses, too, with white icicle lights hanging from the porch or wreaths in the windows. Ribbons and garland across railings and little white lights all around.

I read somewhere that in Anchorage, Alaska, they keep the white Christmas lights on all the houses during the whole winter, when the sun barely rises, all the way until March (“when the last dog from the Iditarod comes home.”) to keep the city lit during the constant winter nights. I liked the imagery of that. A feeble effort to shine out against a cold chill in the world that threatens to envelop. Tiny white lights fighting off the unending darkness until spring finally arrives.

The Darkest Night of the Year 2005

Today is the shortest day of the year. Here in Atlanta the sun sets by 5:00. When I visited Nashville, the sun set as early as 4:00PM. This is the time of the year that I most associate with night. This is the time of year that on some days I drive to work in the morning in the dark and then drive home in the evening in the dark, never seeing the sun. This is a very bleak feeling.

It is a fascinating juxtaposition that at this darkest time of the year, we are given the most hope. Christmas tells us that something big is coming, something is going to redeem us. Our time has finally come. No one knew what was going to happen, but everyone involved in Bethlehem from Joseph and Mary to the shepards to the wise men knew that something was about to happen. At the time when things seemed dark, when their very lives were ruled by a far away empire, there was a single light in a star that tells us all hope is not lost. I wonder if its a coincidence that all of this happens at the darkest time of the year?

The tug of war for the winter holidays seems to rage on. From one side, I hear that it is insensitive and rude to wish people “Merry Christmas.” From another side, I hear that it is watered-down and politically correct to wish people “Happy Holidays.” The TV tells me at all hours that I’m not a very thoughtful person if I don’t buy diamonds, cars, and video game systems for those that I love for Christmas. So many seem to hide under a shell of bitterness about this season because of past hurts or disapointments. I can understand why all of this causes so much stress, what with the past hurts and the demanding future schedule of commitments that we make at this time of year. It all does appear to be as dark it can get.

I don’t want any part of the Christmas the world wants me to have. They can have their expectations and demands and opinions on what this time of year should be about. I don’t want to buy their goods. I want Christ the child in a manger. I want a midnight candlelight service. I want to wish for Peace on Earth and Goodwill to all men. I want to sing “Away in a Manger” and “Silent Night.” That’s all that I need during this season. I want the tiny dot of light that cuts through the darkness.

Many years ago, this time of year symbolized the end of a dark period in my life and the hope of a new era. It’s still true today. Linford Detweiler once described this time of year as the part where the year finishes burning down (“if we’re lucky, we’ll all smell like smoke”) and I always loved that description. This is the time of year I reflect on the past year and assess all the achievements and failures, put them at rest and make a commitment to the new year. It will be good to get another chance, another year, and see what I can do with it.

There’s hope even now when it’s darkest that brighter days are ahead.

5 and 37

“Marriage is a fine institution…. if you don’t mind spending the rest of your life in an institution, that is.” – Trey Lampley

This weekend Adriene and I celebrated our fifth anniversary. It really does seem like yesterday that I was musing that I might never find the right person and get married, and yet here we are, five years later and still cruising along. We celebrated the date by getting a hotel in the Lenox area of Atlanta and went to see Narnia On Saturday, I indulged Adriene with a trip to Lenox Mall to indulge her for final shopping for Christmas gifts. Of course, it wouldn’t be right to celebrate our marriage without finishing things off at Cafe Intermezzo for coffee.

During the day, we reflected on how much things have changed in our relationship. We don’t have the “butteflies” in the stomach like you do in a young romance as much anymore, but we do have a familiarity and comfort around each other that really keeps us coming back to each other. It’s a long, slow burn, and we’re enjoying every minute of it. We also reflected on how much God has given us. Sure, there are things that we wish for and things we want to happen, but it’s hard to not feel blessed. We have a happy marriage, a safe home, jobs that we don’t complain about (much), and good families. We are happy and content.

This weekend was also my parents’ anniversary. They are just short of 40 years of marriage (in a couple years, we’re going to have think of something really cool to do for my parents’ anniversary) If I think my marriage has changed in five years, I can’t imagine how much everything will have changed in this time that they have been married. It gives me good perspective and gives me pause.

Lots to ponder deep in the skyscrapers and among the twinkling lights on trees and decorations about the city. It’s been a good weekend.