Friday, July 29, 2011

Revisiting Michael W. Smith: An Album Review

Recently my brother Dave graciously sent me a couple of (completely legally) burnt CD's in the mail. One of them was Michael W. Smith's 2010 album "Wonder."

Me and "Smitty" go back, geez, as far as I can remember. I enjoyed his early material in the mid-80's, just after he went solo after being Amy Grant's keyboardist. There were songs like "You Need A Savior" and "The Race Is On." In the late 80's he had the hit "Secret Ambition," and there was the immensely overplayed but popular song "Friends."

And then Michael caused a stir when he attempted to "cross-over" into the non-Christian music market in the 90's, first with the song "Place In This World" and then with the entire album "Change Your World." He even received Best New Artist at the American Music Awards, which was kind of funny considering he had been around the Christian music scene for years.

His foray into the mainstream market wasn't permanent. He went on to record excellent albums such as "Live The Life" and "I'll Lead You Home." Then Michael entered the worship music market, having a lot of success with his two worship-centered albums.

I'm glad though that Michael has went on to record "regular" albums, and "Wonder"(2010) is the 53-year-old's latest (though by the album cover you'd swear he's 40). Here is my review after the first listen through.

1) The album opens with "Save Me From Myself" - Great sound to it, a rockiness to it that's good to hear. By the title I was thinking it might be a "I'm so terrible and sinful, please make me better" kind of song, but Smith doesn't seem to go there, rather he seems to be saying "I need help with my life and get caught up in the negative, so I'm relying on God to help me out."

2) The rockiness continues with 'Take My Breath Away", and it quickly becomes clear that this is no cross-over album. Smith talks about the beauty of the universe, God's creation, and invokes the Scripture which says "Who am I that you are mindful of me?" Or as I like to paraphrase "I don't deserve your love, thanks for having mercy on me," an idea I have major problems with. The song continues with Smith singing about the sacrifice of Jesus' life for humanity's sins.

3) Things slow down on "Run To You," a beautiful song about giving up control to God, or as I prefer to say "letting go and letting God." "I've tried for so long, I've tried to make it on my own, Now dreams are scattered on the ground, And now I'm down on my knees." For quite a long time now, the thought of dropping to my knees has been kind of offensive, or at least uncomfortable, as it reminded me of when I was a teenager and would almost daily fall to my knees to beg forgiveness for being a sinner. Call it a decade-long guilt trip. But now I think there is a place for it again, where we can symbolically say "Look God (Spirit/Universe/whatever you may call God), I don't know what to do with this situation, so I release it to you because I believe that you are working all things together for my good.

4) "I'll Wait For You" is one of those forgettable songs that almost every album you purchase has. 'Nuff said.

5) "Forever Yours" is a ballad presumably written for his wife (either that or he's got some 'splainin to do. Again, I tend to put this on the forgettable pile, and it doesn't compare well to earlier love songs he's written (i.e. I Will Be Here For You or In My Arms Again).

6) "Welcome Home" is a piano ballad about saying both goodbye to a loved one and then anticipating their welcome into Heaven. "I can hear the sound as angels gather 'round, saying this is where you belong." It's a simple beautiful song. What Heaven/the afterlife actually looks like is beyong me, but it's a beautiful song.

7) "Wonder (Not Far Away)" is basically a song that says that people can depend on God in any situation or any hardship, and God is, well, "not far away." Somewhere Bette Midler is singing "From A Distance" and going "WTF!"

8) "Rise" encourages people to leave their trouble behind and follow God by "walking across the sea and walking on the waves" like the disciple Peter. "Rise, he's calling you to come. Just leave it all behind and rise above." It sort of sounds like a modern-day altar call, like "Just As I Am" was for decades for Billy Graham. (As an aside, Michael sports a raspyness to his voice on this one and a couple other songs, and I can't decide if I like it or if it's annoying).

9) "You Belong To Me" is, guess what...another love song to his wife. Check out this lyric: "So walk with me awhile, And we will spend our lives, Learning the mysteries of love." For the record, I used that line on a girl back in college and got kicked in the shins.

10) With "Leave" we truly have something different. Skipping well-worn lines about life with God or how much he loves his snuggly Mrs, Michael tackles the issue of child abuse, singing from the perspective of someone with an alchoholic father who physically abuses him. There are no platitudes or easy answers here, just crying out to God asking if He's actually there. Excellent song by Michael, definitely one of the highlights of the whole album.

11) "One More Time" is a pretty-sounding song encouraging people to press on towards their goals and dreams. "This is what you're made for, standing in the downpour, knowing that the sun will shine. Forget what lies behind you, heaven walks beside you, you've got to give it one more try."

12) The album ends with "Take Me Over" and I knew that I'd have issues with the song just by reading the title. But first the good. There is a real romantic notion in this song, and in a lot of evangelicalism in general, that still holds some pull for me. There's this lyric "Just to rest in Your arms, Close enough to hear your heart," or "With just a glimpse of Your face, all my fears melt away." These lyrics could easily be written for a lover. But the song continues "Jesus, Jesus, take me over now. I surrender. Everything I have I lay it down, all of me." This line is repeated over and over and sounds quite beautiful to end off the album, though I don't connect with it at all - a decade ago I would have. Maybe I'm missing the point here, but I think lyrics like this speak to the evangelical view that "Mankind is sinful and weak and therefore we need to surrender our sinful lives and ask God to take over." The line "Jesus, Jesus take me over now" sung repeatedly may be comforting to some - I grant that. But to me it also wreaks of zombie-like spiritual possession (I know that sounds harsh, but hey, it's what comes to mind). I'm happy to have God as part of my life, but that doesn't require me to beat myself down, think of myself as hopeless and give away my power.

In conclusion, I enjoyed listening to this album, and will add a few of the songs to my playlist. Michael is still putting out quality music after all these years, and it's also good to know that he can still rock it up a little bit from time to time. I give WONDER a score of 77%.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Amy Winehouse & Letting Go Of What Traps Us


I arrived here at Starbucks a couple of hours ago, opened up my mobile browser, and the headline blared "Amy Winehouse Dead At 27." I was shocked and saddened, if not surprised. 27 years old, so much talent, a dynamite voice.

I wasn't very familiar with Winehouse's music, but she was one of those artists who, whenever I heard about her or heard a clip of a song on the news, I would inevitably say "I really should pick up one of her albums." Her blend of jazz/soul and pop was intriguing.

Her death is for some reason making me think back to September 1997 when I heard the news that singer Rich Mullins had died in a car accident at the young age of 41. Mullins was another artist who I had been slightly familiar with, but had never went out and bought any of his music. That changed quickly after his death, when I first picked up one of his collection CD's, then proceeded to go out and order all of his albums. Tragically, Amy Winehouse didn't even have enough albums to warrant a collection.

Winehouse and Mullins were seemingly completely different people. Amy lived in the spotlight and was frequently in the news because of her drug and alcohol problems and scuffles with fans. Rich, meanwhile, was living in a trailer on a native reservation near the end of his life, forsaking fame and instead teaching music to small children. However, there was a brokenness about Rich Mullins that you could plainly see if you spent much time at all reading his articles or watching his interviews. I believe much of it had to do with loneliness.

Back to Amy for a minute though, who had been working on a new album and recently recorded a duet with Tony Bennett for his new album. She had been in and out of rehab and her most recent public appearance was just 4 days ago at a concert by her goddaughter.

My question this afternoon is: Why do so many of us hold onto things that so evidently poison us? I do not claim to know the answer to that question, or to know what was going on with Amy Winehouse. All that matters today is that a beautiful 27-year-old woman was found dead in her London apartment, cutting short a talented and gifted life. But still I can wonder, why do we hold onto such things?

Pick your poison. Drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, an abusive boyfriend, a shitty job that you hate, a toxic friendship that just brings you down. The list goes on and on. What do you hold onto?

For me, a big one is fear. I have dealt with anxiety issues for years. Now, while some of it may be physiological, a great deal of it is my reluctance to let it go, for one reason or another. It has often ate away at me, usurping my happiness and ability to be truly present in a situation.

I like the Bible verse that says that "perfect love casts out all fear." So why am I hanging onto fear, and why do people hang onto ? Could it be that we are afraid of perfect love? Maybe we're used to disappointment or pain or expectations never being met, and so instead we reach out to something that's more tangible and in great supply: the line of coke, the bottle of vodka, the one night stand sitting at the bar. Maybe we think the shitty job is all that we can get, and "hey, it pays the bills." That might work for awhile, but eventually a part of you starts dying because you're not doing what you were meant to do.

Maybe we aren't convinced that we deserve to be truly happy, so we do the S word: we settle. And why aren't we convinced of our deservability? Maybe it's because we aren't convinced of just how valuable and lovable we truly are. We have to fill the void somehow, so we reach out to something that seems to ease the pain for awhile, until it rises up and takes control, and we're hooked.

How do we change or break free? I think that it can start with even a simple desire to let go, whether it's from the obvious things like drugs or alcohol, or the roots like a lack of deservability or feelings of being without value. For me, I am a spiritual person so I believe in putting out the intention to release and let go of whatever it is that I am hooked to, and letting Spirit/The Universe find a way to bring it about. Do I have to do my part? Yes. This may very well involve things like therapy or for some, rehab. It can be hard work. But I am convinced that there is a deeper spiritual power who wants to work on our behalf, if we'd only trust.

I didn't know Amy Winehouse, but she certainly struggled with drugs and alcohol. Whatever we are struggling with, there is always potential for us to let it go and live a happier, healthier life.

Friday, July 15, 2011

"The Creed" by Ella Wheeler Wilcox

The Creed

Ella Wheeler Wilcox (1850-1919)

Whoever was begotten by pure love,

And came desired and welcome into life,

Is of immaculate conception. He

Whose heart is full of tenderness and truth,

Who loves mankind more than he loves himself,

And cannot find room in his heart for hate,

May be another Christ. We all may be

The Saviours of the world if we believe

In the Divinity which dwells in us

And worship it, and nail our grosser selves,

Our tempers, greeds, and our unworthy aims,

Upon the cross. Who giveth love to all;

Pays kindness for unkindness, smiles for frowns;

And lends new courage to each fainting heart,

And strengthens hope and scatters joy abroad—

He, too, is a Redeemer, Son of God.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Why I Didn't Pay Attention To the Casey Anthony Trial

It's been a few days now since the verdict came down in the "trial of the decade." Perhaps you're one of the rare people who have no clue who Casey Anthony is. If that is the case, I am envious. The only things that I know about her and the court case are this:

1) Her 3 year old daughter went missing and she didn't report it to police for a whole month. Caylee was found dead several months later.

2) She was arrested and there was a big trial

3) The media frenzy around the trial rivalled the Simpson trial

4) Anthony was found not guilty, will serve about 2 weeks in jail for a lesser charge and then will be released.

5) Millions of people worldwide were outraged at the verdict.

When I look at that list, it turns out I do know a fair amount about the case...and this comes from someone who PURPOSELY AVOIDED the coverage like it was the plague. And why is that? Because to me there is something macabre or at least unsettling about millions of people worldwide fixated on a murder trial.

Let me be clear. Little Caylee Anthony's death was a great tragedy, awfully sad to be sure. However, in saying that, how many hundreds or thousands more children are also murdered each year worldwide, yet we aren't glued to CNN every night listening to pundits erupt in outrage over their plights, are we?

CNN and other networks cover trials like this because they know that murder sells. People will watch and their advertising revenue will go up. So that explains the media coverage.

But what about us? What is it about us that makes us watch story after story about murders, or for that matter other crimes or wars or natural disasters? There seems to be a natural fixation that sets in when we see an ambulance rush by or when we come across a car wreck on the highway.

What is my point? Firstly, it is not to stick our heads in the sand and pretend that the world is all happy-go-lucky. But why become so fixated on tragedies if it is going to serve no purpose but to fill our heads with images and descriptions of atrocities? I think that if we didn't have such an almost-fascination towards the negative or violence, then the nightly news coverage would be much different than it is today. Tune into the 6 o'clock news tomorrow (something I rarely do) and the first five stories will be about a local murder, a local theft, a fatal car accident, a disease outbreak and the conflict in Libya.

Let me be clear: there is a real need for action and compassion in both our local communities and globally. We can do our part to ease pain, foster peace, and raise justice issues. We should not stand idly by as we see atrocities and pain around us.

But I'll ask you a question that I need to ask myself: Wouldn't it be better to ACT, or even stop and PRAY, rather than spending too many valuable minutes on

I will not get caught up in the almost-entertainment-like coverage of all that's wrong in the world.

Mark Andrew Alward

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Out With The Old (Preparing To Move)

2:54 a.m.

Doesn't it feel good to get rid of "stuff" that you seldom, if ever use? I've been doing just that for a couple of weeks now, mostly because I am moving out of my apartment after 7 years, and also because it's something that I've wanted to do for a long time anyways.

Documents, books, furniture, even a lot of photographs are finding their way to the back of my old apartment building where the garbage bins are located. My walls are increasingly bare.

I've wanted to de-clutter for a long time now, but perhaps I just wasn't ready before. For years I have admired people who live quietly and simply and thought "Wow, I'd like to do that!" But we get attached to our things. While I'm not saying that we all have to go live in a desert or move into a convent (I will be keeping my book collection as well as my Cary Grant/Julia Roberts movies), there's something to be said for simplicity. For one, I really think that the less clutter you have around you means the less cluttered your mind is.

I also think that one reason we can continue to collect "things" and surround ourselves with them is that we're trying to make ourselves happy and satisfied by the latest book, the latest piece of technology, better dishware. We can get caught up in the habit, even compulsion of purchasing and it seemingly never ends. One example of this that bothers me when I see it on the news is down in the States after Thanksgiving when stores open early and there are lineups down the street just so Bob can wait an hour to nab his flat-screen for half-price. I mean, bargains are a great thing, but there's something about the herd-like, materialistic look of it all that bothers me on Black Friday.

For some people, it takes a relatively short time span for them to realize that happiness comes from within and from the simple things. Then there's me, who seemed to have the head-knowledge that this was true a long time ago, but was just too scared to live it.

Because, if you're continuously buying "things," then you don't necessarily have to take a good look at yourself. And looking at yourself, drawing inward, is a very hard thing for many of us to do. We can be a hodge-podge of self-judgment, skepticism, distrust in ourselves so we'd rather just not do the work. It can be terribly hard, and can take a long time, but it's worth it. Because behind all that self-judgment and distrust lies a great truth. And for me that truth is that there is whole other, deeper level of beauty and wonderment that lies within each human heart. A big part of life, I believe, is realizing our oneness with everyone around us, but also each of us could and should spend an entire lifetime delving into just how magnificent, love-ly people we truly are.

If we spend even 10 minutes a day reflecting on this, taking joy in who we are as individuals, I think we'd see a lot of change. When we are more content, more accepting and even celebratory of who we truly are, we don't need to buy so many things or clutter our lives up in search of getting that latest rush. I know that I am happier than I've been in a long time as I subtract things from my life, rather than add them.

I will pound this drum over and over again and I won't stop. You are a wonderful person my friend, you really are. May this knowledge and experience be your real treasure today.


Mark Andrew

Monday, July 4, 2011

Don't Be Afraid To Turn Inward

Yesterday while I was on the bus on the way home from the Sunday morning service at my spiritual centre, a question came to my mind, which was followed by several thoughts. The question: What are the things or thought patterns that cause us to be afraid of turning inward? Why are we so scared of being by ourselves and truly with ourselves?

I think that many of us at one time or another in our lives get caught up in living "from the outside in." We can become a series of reactions to everything and everyone around us, rather than living out our unique selves. This kind of living can become very frustrating, as we effectively become chameleons, people who change into someone else for each person or situation that we are surrounded by. We can become desperate for people or things around us to make us feel better, and that can make us feel, well, desperate!

I think that we need to learn more and more each day to instead turn inward and become comfortable in doing so. This is not loneliness or isolation that I'm talking about, this is not signing up for the priesthood. Rather, this is a sense of inner space that we can develop in the middle of our sometimes-busy everyday lives. But this means spending more time getting comfortable with ourselves, feeling at ease in our own skin - two things that we may have had awful difficulties with during our lives. And why is that? Two possibilities immediately jump out at me.

Firstly, I think many of us grew up with the belief that we can't rely on ourselves. Perhaps we've been told that we are born weak and needy (or even sinful) and therefore are in need of an outside source to "make us better." Relying on ourselves, our inner strength and wisdom, can be viewed as being prideful, which more often than not has been seen as a bad thing. To sum up this belief in a phrase: "You are not enough. There's something missing, you need to spend your life finding something or someone to make you complete." Maybe that is a a friend, a romantic partner, or perhaps a God who is far off in the sky.

Secondly, a common reason why people feel that they cannot turn inward for wisdom and strength is because they were never able to develop a strong individual sense of self. That development may have taken a back seat to simply trying to survive trauma - perhaps at school, at home, etc. Being alone was not something to look forward to; rather, it often meant pain. These emotions and thought patterns can stay with us for years. Even though we may not be in that traumatic situation anymore, we still don't handle being alone very well. Rather than face those emotions, we can start filling up our schedules so that we're always busy and distracting ourselves. Suppression and more suppression.

How then do we turn inward? How do we become more comfortable in our own skin?

Firstly, I think that the long-held belief that we are born weak and needy and even somehow flawed should be let go like a weight off our shoulders. I believe that we are not born incomplete and thus in need of something or someone to make us better. We are born with all that we need, and children should be taught how to discover their innate goodness from day one. Anytime that a child (or anyone for that matter) is told that they must find their worth in something or someone outside of themselves, there is a potential for bigtime problems. Friends, family members, religion, etc. should not serve to make us better people, rather they should be avenues by which we celebrate our innate beauty.

Secondly, we must find a way to let go of our trauma. "But you don't know the hell I've gone through Mark, you don't realize just how painful my life has been!"

Firstly, I hear you, my friend.

Secondly, I do know what it is like to experience great trauma. I won't go into detail here, but feel free to e-mail me if you like and perhaps we can talk further. Let's just say that I have experienced that hell that you're talking about. While I may not know your exact circumstance, I know those feelings. In this light, I say again, we must find a way to let go of our trauma. This often does not happen with the simple wave of a magic wand or even by sheer will-power sometimes. Dogs may be called man's best friend, but I say that therapists are a close second. (Haha, I hope that none of my former therapists are reading this right now, it sounds like I'm comparing them to a cocker spaniel!) But I'm serious, if you don't have a therapist now, I encourage you to start researching and find a suitable one. We often need help from an uninvolved third party in order to let go of the pain that is holding us back. This is often not a "one-visit-fixes-all" kind of thing. It could take quite a long time. But it's worth it.

Finally, the ultimate goal here is to become comfortable enough in our own skin that we can turn inward, trust ourselves, like ourselves, and stop needing the approval of others, which can be awfully exhausting. Whether we are on a silent retreat, driving to work, or in the middle of a packed shopping mall, we can always turn inward and find peace within.

Blessings to you today,

Mark Andrew