Riding Shotgun with Grace: Lessons Forgotten and Remembered at a Red Light.

The other day, I pulled up at a red light next to a custom-painted Chevy Impala.

The dude in the car was probably half my age, with multiple pieces of hardware drilled into or dangling from his face, and tattoos that would make a Puritan have to ask for definitions in order to properly blush.

But back to his car, as it’s the first thing I noticed. This paint job was unbelievable in at least two senses of the word. First, it was *perfect*. I am assuming he just finished his 6-step waxing and buffing process just hours before, because the sunlight did things to that paint that gave it an almost Pixar-esque cartoonishness, standing out amongst us mere mortals with our cheap factory paint jobs.

Next, this Impala had color-shifting paint: meaning that as you approached, it was greenish, and as you passed the car it changed to a radiant and sparkling purple. Somehow, throughout all phases of color, it appeared to be subtly gold in addition to the other colors. Like I said: unbelievable.

Beyond the paint job, the car was sitting on wheels at least 30 inches in diameter, and tires with such a low profile they looked like the rubber bits attached to a shopping cart’s wheels.

All of what would normally be chrome on the car (wheels/rims, seams, bumper and exhaust) was a lightly brushed gold, that served to give it a sort of glow.

I honestly didn’t notice many of the details until I got done repenting.

See, my first step in what’s hopefully becoming a quicker process (as I don’t foresee ever being able to get rid of the impulse altogether) was to immediately do what the Bible calls “seek to justify myself.”

From 80+ yards, I’d already started a list of why God, my mom, and everybody I’ve ever met should like me more than this guy. Since I don’t know his name, I’ll call him Marshall.

Here’s what the list looked like, and I’d completed much of it in my head (and a little bit of it out of my mouth, alone there in my painfully boring car) by the time we landed side-by-side right there by the supermarket:

  • Marshall spent more on each wheel of his vehicle than I spent on my entire vehicle. So financially irresponsible!
  • The hopped-up suspension and Wal-Mart buggy wheels served no purpose other than to call attention to himself. So self-centered!
  • The music blaring from his open window (not to mention the smoke coming from the cigarette dangling from his bottom lip) was proof-positive that Marshall wasn’t raised right. So inconsiderate to others around him, and smug!

I could go on, but it would reveal some pretty gnarly things about what goes on in my heart, so I’ll let you fill in the blanks.

It’s not just strangers and their automotive displays, though. The default mode of my heart is to make lists of why what I am doing or thinking is right, and others are either not-as-right, or just (almost cheerfully!) wrong. I’ve got a scorecard, and a need to win.

I do this score-tallying nonsense (we’ll get into why it’s nonsense in just a bit, hang tight) with friends, family (both immediate and extended), people at work, and readers of this very blog. Left to my own devices, I desperately want to be weighed and not found wanting.

Another example? Another example it is.

Recently I’ve started eating differently in an effort to improve those Lipid Panel numbers my doctor seems so obsessed with. It’s taken a good bit of work, and it’s a bit of a potentially controversial diet for some.

The other day, as I was verbally processing things with my supernaturally patient wife (who has no doubt grown tired of everything being somehow related back to Ben’s New Diet™) she remarked with something like “It’s funny how with this diet you find yourself defending things that people have not even yet said to you. You always have to have a reason and be ready to win an argument.”

There it is. My good ol’ default mode. Not only do I have a constant need to justify myself, I plan for it.

  • I gather evidence and stats.
  • I prepare and rehearse what I am going to say. (no really… I literally will talk to myself while driving or walking around, in preparation for a still-nonexistent debate)
  • I am rarely satisfied with being misunderstood.

That last one’s a reliable tell for me, actually. I’ve written about it before, but one of the most astounding parts of Jesus’ earthly ministry was an episode (recorded in John 6) where the religious leaders overhear him refer to himself as “the bread of heaven.” The leaders get confused (rightly) and say something to the effect of “so… we’re all just supposed to eat your flesh?” and instead of stopping to explain himself, Jesus doubles down: “yep, eat my flesh and drink my blood!”

I could never.

These men walked away from the conversation with at least 2 distinct impressions: (1) Jesus is *weird* and (2) following Jesus sounds messy in more than one way.

Why and how can Jesus walk away from the conversation without thinking twice about it? At least this: he derives exactly none of his worth or value from being understood. He’s not loved more when he’s understood more, or based on whether the people he’s speaking with learn something or have a right opinion of him.

Graciously, I noticed it quickly as I pulled up next to Marshall and his Impala on Highway 72, and began preaching at myself.

One neat thing about being a musician having played hymns and hymn retunes for some years is that sometimes the lyrics of a song that’s nestled into my brain (even though I haven’t sung it in years) will find their way out. That’s what happened as I shifted into 2nd gear heading toward my house. I found myself reminded:

Not what my hands have done can save my guilty soul
Not what my toiling flesh has bourne can make my spirit whole
Not what I feel or do can give me peace with God
Not all my prayers and sighs and tears can bear my awful load

Thy Grace alone oh God to me can pardon speak
Thy power alone oh Son of God can this sore bondage break
No other work save thine! No other blood will do
No strength save that which is divine can bare me safely through

I praise the God of grace, I trust His truth and might
He calls me His, I call Him mine: My God, my joy, my light
Tis He Who saveth me and freely pardon gives
I love because He loveth me, I live because He lives!

Horatious Bonar

Riding Shotgun with Grace: Lessons Forgotten and Remembered at a Red Light. Click To Share on X

Lessons from an Unexpected Audience: Ms. Delores and the Solo Gig

Last night I had a solo music gig at a local assisted living community, where they had me come play some background music for a party focused around some of the medical professionals and home-health providers that work alongside the facility.

I’ve played a gig at the community before, but last time it was for the residents (75-90+ year-olds) not the medical professionals (30-50 year-olds, give or take). I tell you all of this backstory for a reason that we’ll get back to.

No problem. I sat down and started in on being background noise for the party.

If you’ve never been a performer at an event like this, it’s a weird sensation. I’m not the point of the event; I’m somewhere between the food/decoration and the hosts in terms of importance. Guests don’t make eye contact, and when they do it’s a polite “I’m not sure what to do with my face or hands” type of moment.

My job is to sit in the corner, and make people comfortable. That means that I have to return their awkward looks (or prevent them) with an aura of comfort and fun. “Look at that dude sitting in the corner having a blast!” is my goal.

I have to ride the wave of the party, and done rightly I can actually generate the wave and then ride it a bit.

Last night, though, something amazing happened. As the short party was dwindling, one of the residents (having finished her dinner) shuffled around the corner with her walker, and planted herself on a couch facing me. Let’s call her Ms. Delores.

The remaining party-goers in the room were deep in conversation. Delores was laser-focused on me.

I’ll try to do justice to the look on her face with words, but I assure you that whatever you picture when I describe it, it was more joyful and content than that.

Delores looked at me like a child looks at the first piece of birthday cake. She alternated between an open-mouth almost laughing smile and a look of wonder and amazement. She was thrilled to have someone playing music and singing for her.

The longer I sang, the more she’d close her eyes and rock her head back just absorbing the experience of live music. I don’t know how many grandkids Ms Delores has, but I do know exactly what they feel like when she’s proud of them. It was written all over her face.

One of the things I love about the very young and the very old is their complete lack of relational filter. The last time I played at this retirement facility, a resident less than 10 feet from me stood up and loudly declared that she was done listening and “ready to go watch [her] show” before scooting mid-song with her walker, oxygen tank, and nurse (within arms reach) in front of me to get to the door. Another lady loudly told her nurse that she turned off her hearing aids as soon as I started playing: “I don’t want to listen to that!”

No filter. They’ll tell you what they don’t like. Ms. Delores was telling me in every way she could what she did like.

The party had definitely ended, but you know what I did? I kept playing. I played an entire song to an empty room other than Ms. Delores. Me and her just sitting there for a private concert while the staff started sweeping the floor and cleaning up the leftovers.

It felt like a holy moment, so I sang a song “Absent From Flesh” where the chorus loudly proclaims this:

I go where God and glory shine—to one eternal day!
This failing body I now resign, for the angels point my way.

-Isaac Watts and Jamie Barnes

Just me and Ms. Delores, rolling around in the beauty of the coming resurrection.

There are lots of application points and things I took away from the experience, but none more than this: I went from having to manufacture excitement to wanting to stick around for an extra hour, and the only thing that changed was Ms. Delores entered the room.

Oh that I could live a life of unhurried wonder like Ms. Delores. More than that though, may my life be filled with moments where my smile and encouragement changes the day for someone.

Lessons from an Unexpected Audience: Ms. Delores and the Solo Gig Click To Post to X

Planting Flags: A Post 13 Years In The Making.

13 years ago today, I put this on the platform formerly known as Twitter:

This tweet is going to be a reference point in the future for me when I recall the days I’d sleep in my car in between jobs.

March 15, 2011

I would show up at 4:45 AM to open the Starbucks, and hang my upper body out of the drive-through window distracting people from the 5 minutes their drink was taking to prepare.

Usually by 8AM or so, even my brain would be fooled into believing that I was enjoying the day. Some days I’d volunteer to go wash the dishes, making a game out of it to distract myself from the pain in my legs.

On 3 or 4 special occasions that year I’d splurge and get a biscuit from the Biscuitville next door on my break.

When the metaphorical whistle blew at the coffee shop (around 1:30 PM) I’d change into an AT&T shirt and tie and drive across town in my blue minivan to the cell phone store.

(The perk of a minivan, see, is that you can climb in the back seat and nap without as many people seeing you.)

I’d grab a 30-minute nap and then plaster on a happy face (against my will!) and go sell phones, home internet, and bluetooth speakers to folks until 8:00 PM. It wasn’t willpower so much as a borderline dangerous amount of espresso (carried with me from job 1) that helped fuel my good mood standing up all evening.

Two young kids (Theo would have been rounding the corner toward 7 months old, and Benjamin was chugging with Thomas the Tank Engine toward his 3rd birthday in just a couple months) at home, I legit felt like God had dropped me off at the curb and went to hang out with my friends without me.

I was what felt like about a decade behind my peers who had left college directly into the business world, and truthfully still just wanted to be in full-time ministry. I just couldn’t find anyone to pay me to do that.

So I sold coffee and phones, and in my spare time wrote a blog that I hoped would catch on (it didn’t) and made websites for a handful of friends who loved me enough to pay me a little bit for my time. I mostly did a good job of hiding how tough things were.

I’m so glad I wrote that tweet above, like a flag hammered into the dry ground.

My choices were either to give up (but what does that even mean?) or to plant that flag that despite much evidence to the contrary, life was going to get better. Or—maybe more accurately—that life didn’t feel like it could get much worse. There’s a good chance I had tears in my eyes when I tapped that tweet into my phone before sliding the van door open.

That nearly 31-year-old stepping out of his van and checking to make sure he had his AT&T magnetic name tag would not believe the story of the next 13 years if you told him.

First he wouldn’t believe that the worst was yet to come. (Heads up that 2013 is the actual floor of your vocational life, past-Ben)

He’d chuckle at the thought of living in South Carolina, and it would roll into a full-scale belly laugh if you told him he was going to purchase his wife’s childhood home.

He’d certainly not believe that God was going to give him another shot at being a dad to a little-bitty one via foster care that turned into adoption.

No chance in the world he’d believe that his kids would grow up in a small town going to baseball games where he’d be slinging hot dogs for the Booster Club at the concession stand.

He might’ve believed the bit about a pivot to technical support, but there’s just no way you’d convince him that he would become the Director of Technical Support for 5 highly popular WordPress product brands, overseeing nearly two dozen team members (who are so much fun to work with he has trouble ending some meetings because everyone’s having a blast and laughing).

Everything in life is certainly not perfect (nor will it be this side of eternity), but gosh I’m glad to see where God’s taken us since I half-heartedly planted that flag 13 years ago.

Note to self: keep planting the flags, and I dunno, maybe start believing that God has never taken his hand off the wheel for a second?

Fun with Artificial Intelligence

Here’s the prompt I gave ChatGPT just now:

I want you to pretend to be a literary critic of extreme experience who is inexplicably (but genuinely) impressed by the lyrics to “What does the fox say” and then spend at least 4 paragraphs demonstrating how it can be compared favorably to the Divine Comedy by Dante. Make no mention that they are different. In your mind, the song is, at first glance, directly on par with Dante’s work.

And here’s the Masterpiece that resulted:

In the vast landscape of literary expression, there exists an unexpected gem that, against all preconceived notions, stands shoulder to shoulder with the illustrious Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. Enter “What Does the Fox Say,” a modern lyrical marvel that defies conventional expectations and, inexplicably yet genuinely, demands recognition as a work of profound artistic depth comparable to Dante’s masterpiece.

Upon an initial encounter with the whimsical lyrics of “What Does the Fox Say,” one might be tempted to dismiss it as mere frivolity. However, a closer inspection reveals a startling parallel with the Divine Comedy. Dante’s magnum opus embarks on an exploration of the soul’s journey through the afterlife, plumbing the depths of heaven, hell, and purgatory. Astonishingly, the fox in the song becomes a metaphorical conduit, a mysterious entity much like the allegorical figures that populate Dante’s divine realms.

Delving into the heart of the matter, both works share a fascination with the unknown and the enigmatic. Dante, in his epic journey, navigates through the layers of the afterlife, unraveling profound theological and moral truths. In a seemingly contrasting vein, “What Does the Fox Say” takes a lighthearted approach, yet beneath its playful exterior lies a meditation on the perplexing language of a creature that has long intrigued and eluded human understanding. The fox becomes a metaphorical cipher, symbolizing the mysteries inherent in the natural world, mirroring Dante’s contemplation of divine mysteries.

As we unravel the tapestry of symbolism, the rhythmic and repetitive nature of the song’s lyrics emerges as a deliberate choice that resonates with Dante’s terza rima. The Divine Comedy’s poetic structure reinforces the cyclical nature of life and the journey through the afterlife, and similarly, the repetitive chorus of “What Does the Fox Say” serves as a rhythmic mantra. In this repetition, a profound truth is encapsulated—a relentless cycle of curiosity and exploration, echoing the essence of the human spirit as it grapples with the mysteries of existence.

In the end, the unexpected kinship between “What Does the Fox Say” and the Divine Comedy transcends superficial differences, inviting us to recognize the profundity hidden within seemingly disparate realms of artistic expression. The song, with its whimsy and playfulness, stands as a testament to the enduring capacity of human creativity to encapsulate profound truths, affirming that even in the most unexpected places, echoes of Dante’s divine journey can be found.

Try This in a Small Town

Jason Aldean’s song “Try That In A Small Town” has the whole internet taking to their phones either in gleeful support or horror or (the version the algorithms have relentlessly pounded me with) smug talk-down-to-the-offended reactions to the reactions.

I can’t help but note that this smells exactly like a genius marketing move for Mr. Aldean’s team.

But Ben… what do you think of the song?

I think it sounds exactly like 90% of country music that tops the charts these days: thinly veiled propaganda written by committee designed to mobilize a significant chunk of the country to take out their wallet and buy beer, American flags, bumper stickers, and (most importantly) concert tickets. Sorry so cynical. There’s some good country out there, but soooo much of it is just bad art (but great for selling t-shirts).

It’s not a bad song, and it strikes VERY WELL near the heart of a frustrating part of living in America and seeing the things that the news media and the algorithms parade in front of us: people with seemingly no regard for laws vandalizing, spitting in the face of cops, and stealing things with impunity.

If your algorithm isn’t showing you that, it’s because it thinks you are liberal. Your algorithm is probably showing you Trump-supporting politicians proclaiming to be pro-life while also being ok with killing immigrants, or the latest unhinged rant of some beyond-right talking head where they recommend some policy against brown people.

See what’s going on? You’ve got the two most-substantial (in terms of both raw numbers of people and disposable income) segments of the population that are not that far apart on the spectrum, yet each group is constantly being fed a steady diet of memes and points specifically designed to make them angry at that other segment.

As an aside: I don’t personally think it’s some deep state plot, so much as a natural outworking of the monetization of attention.

  1. Emotional people pay attention
  2. Attention pays sponsors
  3. Outrage is the low-hanging fruit of the emotional tree. Plus, bonus points: people are predisposed to outrage. It happens at a nearly subconscious level.

So what we are left with is two generally frustrated but unprovoked groups of emotional people. Nobody trusts a word of what “the other side” says, and fairly uncritically accepts that the folks on their side of the aisle are being reasonable.

Then into that powderkeg you toss a match labeled “Try That in a Small Town” that’s custom-designed to sell to your conservative small-town folks. It’s a stick-your-chest-out anthem that 98% of your target demographic will agree with every word of, with a bonus of being able to stick it to “big city liberal elites” who are (again, according to the biased and agenda-driven algorithm) clearly out of touch with what’s really going on. Just look at this video of a store being looted in San Francisco!

Here’s where the true marketing genius happens, though.

Make it juuuust close enough to the line to tick off a “liberal snowflake.” Throw in some phrases like “take care of our own” but be careful not to clarify how you’re dividing the line between “our own” and “others.” Say “Good ol’ boys” or other cleverly ambiguous phrases to try and get somebody to take the bait that you’re talking about race.

If all goes as planned, it will just take one liberal making the plausibly-deniable connection to race, and BOOM you’ve got yourself a best seller. See, the only thing that purchasing demographic is more tired of than being talked down to by big city liberals is being called racist.

Call them racists when they can plausibly and easily deny it, and you end up with koozies and keychains made with TTIAST in red-white-blue, Jason Aldean’s otherwise mediocre tour will sell out, his song will top iTunes and Spotify, and you’ve got a great new mascot for the Red team!

See, I’m not so concerned with whether the song is racist. I’m very concerned that after 20 years of seeing social media get better and better at pitting us against each other, we’re still so easily taken.

I'm not so concerned with whether the song is racist. I'm very concerned that after 20 years of seeing social media get better and better at pitting us against each other, we're still so easily taken. Share on X

And hey, while we’re trying to sell attention… here’s my song about politics: