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Jeffrey Long Posts

The only way people stop being comfortable is when they become uncomfortable

Recently a pillar from my childhood church committed suicide. This tragedy was one more in a series of flame-outs by members of the Charismatic church I grew up in. As a pre-teen I was drawn to their fervent expression of following Jesus. As the years have passed, I’ve grown more and more disillusioned by the disparity between their youthful zeal, and eventual decline. It’s not just moral failures either. There is a general lack of enthusiasm among some who didn’t flame out. And many of them espouse conservative politics as much or more than Jesus.

A young participant on a forum made similar observations about the adult Christians of his childhood. Here is his question and my answer.

I’ve been raised in a Christian home. My parents are Christians. The people I’ve hung out with my whole life are Christians. As I get older, (I’m currently 18) I’ve noticed that many of the Christians I grew up with don’t seem too concerned with following Jesus in their lifestyle. While they arrive at Church every Sunday, and talk about being Christians, in an ultimate sense, it doesn’t seem to me that their motivation for anything really comes from love of Christ. I won’t judge about whether these people are saved or not. I’m content to leave that part up to God. My question is: how might I spur these people on to the point where love of Christ <em>is</em> their ultimate motivation for whatever they do? How can I somehow help these people to value Christ as they should? Is it enough just to “set the example” by my own lifestyle? Or is there an active way I can go about this?

When I was your age, I was passionate about the problem of lukewarm Christianity. I was especially frustrated that reaching out to nonreligious people wasn’t a priority. The churches in my small town sponsored a community “Singsperation” whenever there was a 5th Sunday in the month. People from all the churches gathered to share songs. I was totally into Keith Green at the time. As a piano player I loved his style. And was challenged by his message. So, I learned the song “Asleep in the light” and sang it there. Some lyrical highlights:

“Jesus came to your door, you’ve left him out on the streets.”
“Jesus rose from the dead, and you can’t get out of your bed.” etc. etc.

Needless to say, it wasn’t well-received. “Who does he think he is? He’s 16. He can’t judge us.”

The bottom line, though, was that I was also singing to myself. The Church as a whole, including me, is often apathetic. Her individual members get complacent in the comfort of their soft chairs, and polite sermons. We are kept passive by a form of Christianity that isn’t expressed by radical imitation of Jesus. And a lack of intention leaves our faith susceptible to slide off into irrelevance.

The only way people stop being comfortable is when they become uncomfortable. If you want to make a difference in people’s lives, it’s OK to make them uncomfortable. That doesn’t mean being a jerk, or condemning. But it is OK if the things you say, and how you live your life draw attention to Christianity being more than an intellectual assent to dogma, commitment to a holy book, membership in the correct religious club, and obeying the right rules. Christianity is about laying down your fishing nets, and following Jesus with your whole life. That will be attractive to some, and push others away. But people will be challenged to make their life more like imitation of Jesus.

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“Fast” Food

FiletOFish-ad-600On your drive to work this morning, look closely and you might spot an Easter Egg hidden in plain sight. It won’t be a hard-boiled egg splashed with food coloring. Or a candy-filled plastic egg. These easter eggs are deep-fried breaded fish between two hamburger buns slathered with tartar sauce.

Every year towards the end of February, I point out to my family that Lent must be near because the fast food chains began displaying fish sandwiches on their reader boards.

Most people don’t know about Lent. It originates from the 2nd century practice of baptizing new members on Easter Sunday. In preparation, novices spent 40 days receiving instruction in the Bible, and a week of praying, fasting, and study culminating at Easter. Over time this practice extended to family, friends and the entire church community. It became traditional to fast during this time. It usually wasn’t a complete fast, often involving only meat.

Lent is a season the church pretty much has to itself. Christmas is shared with Santa Claus. Easter is paired with a bunny. But on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, Christians have black crosses on their foreheads. Comedian Mike Birbigula posted on Facebook: “Either it’s Ash Wednesday or a lot of people have been experimenting with calligraphy.” During the Lenten season, many Christians imitate the early church and fast. Some cut out meat. Others give up coffee, or TV.

Here’s where the fish sandwich comes in. In 1962, Lou Groen, a McDonald’s franchisee realized he was losing a lot of business during Lent. So he invented the Filet-O-Fish, knowing that his largely Catholic customer base was allowed to eat fish during Lent. It was a hit, and is now on menus all year. Ever since, the fish sandwich heralds the coming of Easter just as the pumpkin spice latte is the culinary signal that autumn has begun. It is the “Shamrock Shake” of Lent. Fast food became “fast” food.

It would have been unimaginable to the first Christians that people would profit from this season of spiritual devotion. They were imitating Jesus’ fast in the wilderness. When the devil tempted Jesus to break his fast with bread, he didn’t ask if it came with a side of fries and a cola. He declared to his tempter that life is more than food.

“We rely on words spoken by God Himself,” he said. “God humbled the Israelites, allowing them to go hungry, so He could feed them with a food they had never seen before.”

Jesus’ point was that our lives have meaning beyond food. Our lives have meaning when we come to Him in poverty and humility, relying on hearing God’s voice, in whatever form that takes.

When Jesus came out of the desert, he taught his disciples to fast like he did. Some people intentionally looked gloomy, and disfigured their faces when they fasted, so that everyone around them would know they were fasting.

“These hypocrites have their reward,” Jesus said. “But that’s not what you want. When you fast, shampoo your hair and wash your face so that the people around you don’t know you are fasting. Your Father will. And he’ll give you a reward far greater than those hypocrites’.”

McDonalds won’t instruct it’s employees to wear sackcloth and ashes for Lent. But they will certainly have their reward when they sell an estimated 25 million fish sandwiches. That’s not what we want. God’s reward for people who don’t draw attention to themselves when they fast will be far greater than a sesame seed bun. We will hear God’s word and be all the more alive. And be given riches that money can’t buy.

The stories of Jesus’ temptation in the desert and instructions for fasting are taken from the 4th and 6th chapters of Matthew’s account of his life.

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Are you playing the notes, or are you playing the song?

As a public school teacher, I spend time with young children who are learning their alphabet, vowels and consonants, and how to pronounce words. Of course, they don’t need to know this to talk. We don’t learn to talk by studying consonants. We learn to talk by being around talking people. But to write and read, children need to learn the grammar of the English language.

But teaching English does not end in the 1st grade. This year, my son Elijah brought home a mural that showed that he had moved to the next step after grammar. He had combined those consonants and vowels into a story. Complete with pictures, it showed that he could do more then string words together into sentences. He could use those letters to create something that had never existed before. A story about himself and me.

At some point, music students must cross this same divide where their piano playing moves from a recitation of notes to the performance of a song.

Music, like English is made up of its own grammar. It is called music notation. In place of consonants, vowels and verbs, notation includes the notes, and rests, sharps and flats to communicate how a song should be played or sung.

The system we have and us for writing music developed over many centuries. But it is the means to an end, and not an end in itself. When a melody gets written down, only the surface elements are transmitted: pitch, and very bald rhythm. And if it is all that is used to communicate music, as a musician you are simply parroting the notation, like a 1st grader reading a sentence.

In her book “Creative Hymn Singing,” Alice Parker uses singing to describe playing the song, rather then reciting the notes. She says

“For millenia, music was transmitted only aurally; that is, from parent to child, from one village to another. A melody transmitted aurally keeps its tempo, pulse, pitches and phrases with all their subtlest inflections, to be modified as desired by the next singer.” – Alice Parker, Creative Hymn Singing, p. 6

In other words, the song is not a stoic representation of notes and rests. It lives and breathes. As players or singers, we must wrestle with the song, tapping into our own creativity to own the song for ourselves.

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Answer to an unbeliever

I participate in an online forum on faith filled with all sorts of crazies (like myself.) Recently, a member turned the tables and wrote from the perspective of someone who chose not to be a Christian. I decided to reply to this fictitious unbeliever and thought it might be useful to someone else.

First, I can’t ((this is a footnote)) believe in Christianity because Christianity doesn’t know what to believe. Jesus supposedly lived, died, and rose again. Jesus himself said that when the Holy Spirit came, He would lead Christians into all truth. But it’s been about 2,000 years now and Christians still don’t really know the truth about anything! They disagree about everything! And it’s not like they only quibble over little things. Ask a Christian to explain the Trinity! Ask them to explain how someone gets saved! They disagree about the very basic components of their faith! And not only do they disagree, they’re NASTY about it. Am I supposed to be impressed by a religion that claims to be based on love and yet has to divide into a handful of churches (at least) in each town?

I think the obstacle you are running up against has its roots in “Christian” being defined as someone who believes certain things, tries to be nice, and gets together once a week in a building to sing songs and listen to a sermon. I don’t think you are at fault for defining it that way. The majority of Christians define it that way. But going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than going to McDonald’s makes you a hamburger, Christian musician Keith Green once said.

Keith went on to describe a Christian as someone who is “bananas for Jesus. Someone who loves God with all their heart, soul and mind, and loves his neighbor as himself.” It means getting to the core of who Jesus was. Learn what he taught about true living. How do you see yourself? How do you see others? What did he do for us. For you? And then put your stake in the ground and identify yourself with Him.

When people’s disagreements lead to divisiveness and a lack of love, rather than disqualify Christianity, I think it disqualifies those people as Christians.

So how do you become one of these kinds of Christians. My suggestion is to read the stories and teachings of Jesus by those who were closest to him. In the Christian Bible these are called gospels. I recommend Mark first.

Then, be on the lookout for people who are imitating Jesus’ vision. People who are devoted to God. Who are humble. Who are loving and accepting. Who aren’t living a sloppy life. That’s Christianity. When you see it, I’m not sure you’ll be so quick to reject it as the fake imitation you’ve seen.

Feel free to post questions either in this thread, or personally message me. I’d be happy to discuss it further and answer questions you have.

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The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text

While attending a pentecostal Bible college, I received a subscription offer for The Reformed Journal, a theological magazine from the Reformed Church of America. Little did I know that this magazine would have such an impact on me. This review for the book “The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text,” found in the September 1989 issue inspired me to purchase the book. Fortunately, the book was published durably as my copy is well worn from use. It exposed me to ideas about the Bible that I would not have found in my faith tradition. It became the bedrock upon which my view of the Bible and preaching were founded and its impact can be felt in every sermon I preach.

September 1989

How not to pervert the pulpit by John Vriend

Sidney Greidanus, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text; Interpreting and Preaching Biblical Literature. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989,374 pp., $19.95 (paper).

On May 14 of this year, the Sunday on which the celebration of Pentecost and of Mother’s Day coincided, I happened to be attending a church away from home. Since I was not totally unfamiliar with its liturgical tendencies, I dared not expect but could not keep myself from hoping that Pentecost would at least have the edge. To my utter chagrin, it was not even mentioned. Only the bulletin cover carried the emblem of the descending Dove. Instead, the pastor gushingly referred to Mother’s Day as “this day of days” on the church calendar.

The sermon was without theme or structure, introduced with anecdotal material that related to nothing in particular, and vaguely oriented to “family values” -a birds hot spray of advice of the do-the-best-you-can variety. Motherhood was elevated to mythical heights; children were told to be obedient. In a little excursus in defense of infant baptism, the pastor allowed himself the fervent exclamation that “nothing is too good for these innocent babes!” A miscellany of oblique references to Scripture concluded the performance.

Angry words came to my mind as I listened. “This domeheaded man in clerical gown is perverting the pulpit,” I fumed. How can these people stand it month after weary month? In truth, the majority seemed glad to meander with the pastor in this swamp of mindless sentiment. God the Holy Spirit was totally out of the picture.

The next day, still a bit hung over from the Mother’s Day fiasco, I began to read Sidney Greidanus’s The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text, sensing from the outset that I was entering a very different climate of thought. I was not disappointed. Here, on Monday, I found the cure for the malaise engendered by the perversion of preaching I had endured the day before.

Greidanus addresses himself, as his subtitle indicates, to the task of outlining the principles of interpreting and preaching “biblical literature.” The choice of that phrase is no accident. Whereas in earlier ages the Bible was usually mined for theological “truths,” and whereas after the Enlightenment it was primarily researched for the historical “data” it contained, in recent years the focus of studies has been of a more literary nature. Not that Greidanus wants to settle for any atomistic approach. That would isolate the literary and the historical dimensions from the theological; his whole point is that the divine message of the Bible can be clearly apprehended only through a careful study of the literary and historical dimensions of Scripture. “Holistic” is the word he favors as a description of his method.

This brings him to a consideration of the literary genres and conventions present in the Bible. Why is “genre” important? It is important, negatively, because failing to correctly identify the genre of a given segment of Scripture leads to all sorts of misunderstanding. Take apocalyptic literature-parts of Daniel, parts of the Gospels, and Revelation-and consider what restricted lifestyles and skewed political views have come about as a result of taking apocalyptic writings as literal previews of future events! Genre is important, positively, because it legitimates certain expectations from what one is reading and determines the questions one can appropriately ask of the text. For example, one no longer seeks to extract from the Song of Solomon a theology of the church; rather, one looks in it for the music and madness of connubial courtship in a covenant setting.

But if genre is that important, then preachers who ignore it are being less than completely literate. The outcome of this illiteracy is the practice of pouring the diverse contents of the several genres into a single homiletical mold. Clearly, the Holy Spirit fitted the several cartridges of literary form to the bullets of kerygma he wanted to deliver. If the preacher, armed only with archery skills, views each text as only a plain old arrow, the resulting loss of effectiveness is costly to the church. Accordingly, Greidanus’s thesis is that homiletical style ought to conform to the genre of the preaching text.

Curiously, Greidanus identifies seven major genres but treats only four: narrative, prophecy, gospel, and epistle. I could not find any explanation of why the remaining three-wisdom, psalms, and apocalypse-were left untreated. Perhaps the author will before long surprise us with a sequel.

Particularly illuminating is the section on Hebrew narrative. On the one hand, in those narratives in which the intent is to relate historical events, the author stresses the importance of historicity. One cannot speak of God’s covenant faithfulness if God has not been a covenant-maker in actual history. In accordance with the form of ancient Near Eastern treaties, the treaty-making king must preface the covenant proper with a list of his achievements in history for the covenant-receiving vassal to know himself in a position of obligation. On the other hand, history writing in the Bible is a far’ cry from the 19th-century ideal of “objective” history with its refined standards of accuracy. “Ancient standards allowed biblical authors much more freedom and flexibility to mould and shape the material in order to drive home their specific messages” (p. 191). So they freely rearranged the chronological order, highlighted certain facts while ignoring others, and offered highly condensed material in one place while elaborating in much detail elsewhere.

In this connection-that of historicity and the freedom to shape it artistically-the author has interesting things to say, for example, about Genesis 1. The creation account is clearly unique because it cannot possibly be an eyewitness account. Its structure (eight creative acts distributed in parallel fashion over two sets of three days) is highly stylized. Yet for the validity of its message, this narrative too requires its historical referent. In order for the message to be valid “one needs to accept as historical that God created the sun, moon, and stars. When and how God created them is a secondary issue which the author does not intend to answer … ” (p. 196; see also p. 64).

In this context the author emphatically asserts that “no historical narrative is a transparent windowpane for viewing the facts beyond; historical narratives are more like stained-glass windows which artistically reveal the significance of certain facts from a specific faith perspective” (p. 196). One is called to preach texts, not bare facts.

Pastors will find this work a splendid help and possibly a corrective for what has become a monochrome treatment of the colorful preaching contents of Scripture. At times they may find the author a bit too left-brained to lead them into a more imaginative mode of reading Scripture. He correctly deplores “spiritualizing,” for instance, and as an example offers “Jacob’s physical struggle at Peniel becoming our spiritual struggle … ” (p. 161). But this leaves my mind stuck in a spiderweb of sticky questions. Was Jacob’s struggle primarily physical? Is not this a naming, and therefore a transformational, story? Is it not the story of the Tricky Dickie of his generation, assailed by fear from within and an unfamiliar but powerful antagonist from without, being transformed into a prince called Israel and ending up a crippled victor in the bargain? Is not this the story of faithful Israel, past and present, as well as a paradigm in the lives of embattled saints? Sometimes I felt overdosed on criticism and left groping for alternatives.

Whatever my strictures, however, the book continues to evoke in me the feelings of profound gratitude I mentioned in the beginning. It is a great cure for the unbearable mindlessness that still afflicts too many pulpits in the land and restores to biblical exegesis and preaching the joy of significant discovery.

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It’s time to hope again

“Without hope, you cannot start the day” – Jon Anderson

I gave up hope years ago. It followed a cascade of events that began when various people hurt me and my family both emotionally and spiritually. It continued as I struggled to find work and provide for my family and questioned God’s role in it all.

The problem, I’ve discovered, was that I based my hope on a high expectation of God’s miraculous work in those who choose to follow Him. But my hope was in what God does in others; not in me. Like many others, I believed that the issues in my life were insurmountable, even for God. So it was easier to have faith in God’s work in others than in His work in me. When I came face to face with people who hurtfully misrepresented him, my hope in God’s work was crushed. With that fatal blow, I was left with nothing.

This past Monday, a new woman joined our support group. When there are visitors, some of us take turns describing how the group has impacted our lives. It is common for certain long-standing members to be the ones who tell their story. As a result there is familiarity in what they share. But quite often, as they recite their story, something new will stand out and move me. On this Monday, the person sharing encouraged our visitor that through the group”…there is hope, when you begin to apply these steps to your life.” With those few words, a still small voice inside me said “It’s time for you to learn to hope again.” For the first time in all these years, I yielded to the voice.

“Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1)
Why could I hope again. As this Bible verse describes, I couldn’t see the evidence of faith or hope in my own life. But I could see real change in this group of people around me. That change didn’t come from some claim of a one-time miraculous cure. I’ve been cynical about those claims my whole life. Rather, as one of our books says…

“If it took time to get where we are today, we can’t expect to get better overnight. “Progress Not Perfection” reminds us that growth is not an event, but a process.” – Opening our hearts, Transforming our losses.

Every one of these people, empowered by God, works hard as they face the pain and habits of their life. This is no pollyanna cure-all. It is hard work. And it is work they are still doing. I realized, here was a place where I could find joy and peace through faith and hope, working side-by-side with other pilgrims.
“Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you believe in him, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 15:13)

It’s time for me to have hope again. Or to have hope for hope. It is a step of faith, but I know from those around me that it is a step worth taking.

What about you? What does hope mean to you? Has your hope been dashed by a traumatic event? How have you handled it? Has something happened to cause you to hope again? Please share what’s on your mind in the comments.

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Just say no!

A few months ago, a picture taken of my daughter and I at her wedding smacked me upside the head. It was a side-view. I posted on her Facebook page “someone needs to tell the father of the bride he needs to lose some weight.”

I’ve never wanted to talk about attempting to lose weight, because I didn’t want to be a whiner when the pounds didn’t come off as expected. But as many of you know, I really don’t do a good job not talking about something that’s on my mind or in my life.

I began by trying some of the ideas in Tim Ferriss’s “Four hour body” book, with pretty good success.The diet is dubbed “slow carb.” The rules were pretty basic. Eat a mixture of super-vegetables like spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, sauerkraut to name a few, legumes and beans, and meat. Stay away from processed foods. And don’t drink your calories. I lost about 10 pounds, and at least 2 inches off that wedding-photo-belly.

But the success hasn’t been long-term. Every week I seem to lose about 5-10 pounds, but then regain it. Fortunately, I’m not doing the rebound people talk about, where you gain m-o-r-e than you lost. I’m not horribly discouraged, because I know I can lose weight. I’ve seen the evidence. And, I’ve started studying nutrition, so that I’m using a more balanced approach.

I’ve learned a powerful lesson about my body through this experience: my body doesn’t just crave food; it craves crap. I didn’t realize that my body wanted a certain amount of sugar every day because I never deprived it of it. I’ve heard people talk about sugar addiction, and I believe them. My doctor says that when you are hungry, your body will scream at you to go eat something with empty carbohydrates because it knows it can process it fast, give you a dopamine high, and can store the fat. A certain level of sugar is part of a healthy diet, though it should be primarily eaten in fruits and vegetables. What I’ve discovered is that as a result of food choices I’ve made my whole life, my body wants more sugar than it needs. And it’s being rather demanding when I don’t give it what it wants.

There is a life-lesson here. I had no idea my body wanted too much sugar until I deprived it of it. In the same way, many faults are so much a part of who we are that we don’t even know that they are there. It’s not until we start making choices to change that we notice them. When we discover them, it is time to go to work at addressing these issues. While in some cases God waves his magic wand and poof, all of our sin-cravings are gone, it’s my experience that it usually doesn’t work that way. Instead, we have to work at it, just as I have to work at my diet. And just like my diet, it’s often 2 steps forward and 1 step back.

It’s important to not give up. As I compare dieting to making life choices to turn away from sin, I see a principle at work. When I see that it is possible to lose 10 pounds, I have hope for myself, even when I rebound. But if I focus on the times of failure, I will give up, believing change is impossible. So, it is important that when we seek change in any sphere of our life, we pay more attention to the times of victory, even if they are only a week, or month at a time.

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The state of my faith in 2012

[Editor’s note: This was the first post of my theology blog: I am reframing that blog with a different purpose, and felt this fit better in my journal here.]

I have always felt a tension between maintaining a professional presence online and speaking clearly about my faith. I’ve steered clear of writing personally for fear it would turn people off. As a result, I lost my “voice.” In 2012, I decided it was time to find it again and started my theology blog: Untrained Eye.

I have lots to say on a variety of subjects. But the themes I keep coming back to are why Christianity doesn’t work for some people and what to do about it.

I am one of those people. Here in 2012, Christianity as I’ve known it hasn’t been working for me. But for whatever reasons, I can’t abandon it. So I’ve been trying to figure out what to do about it.

It’s been a rough road. Is there anything more fundamental to our understanding of ourselves and our world then our faith? In many religions adherence is a life and death matter. Believe the wrong thing and you could wind up in hell. So questioning the faith I grew up with has been a rather hazardous endeavor.

About three years ago, in 2009, I had an intensely emotional debate on Facebook about the potentiality of leading people astray by being honest and failing to faithfully represent Christian ideology. I finally threw off the survivalist instinct to shoehorn myself into the beliefs of the Christians I felt I needed to agree with. That event became my declaration of independence. I haven’t looked back.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not critical of everything. In fact I am part of three Christian churches that I find very genuine. I believe in Jesus and the centrality of his life and teachings as the way to God. But some of the things Christians believe have been an obstacle to my faith and that of many other people I know.

My journey up until now hasn’t seen the light of day because I was attempting to write it like a book. But while reading another blog, I realized that my opinions are not simply a systematic and linear critique of Christianity and what to do about it. Faith isn’t a dry and dusty academic matter. It’s very personal. So, I’ve decided to present it that way.

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Energy drinks and the epidemic of insufficient sleep

I’m tired.
Do you know why?
Because I didn’t get enough sleep last night.
What is the solution?
Get more sleep.
…not according to the energy drink and supplement industry.

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The soundtrack of my life

Inspired by a book I was reading, called “The Happiness Advantage,” I decided to go through my iTunes library and create playlists of albums from different seasons of my life. This turns out to be a much different experience then starting a Pandora station with “Night Ranger.” Because, back then, we bought albums and <gasp> listened to the whole thing.

The more I go through my music with an ear towards what I was listening to at different times of my life, it evokes the sense of place during those times. I am transported back to the rooms I was in when I was listening to these albums.

In the mid 80’s, I listened to a lot of Keith Green, Kansas, Petra, Genesis and Prince in my bedroom (much to my mother’s chagrin.) In the late 80’s and early 90’s it was Van Halen, more Prince, Sting, and Chick Corea in my dorm room (much to the chagrin of my roommate.). In the mid 90’s, it was Van Halen, Arrested Development, Paul Simon, and Phil Keaggy, in my music room at our first house in Ephrata (to no one’s chagrin.)

But another thing I’ve done is to cull the stuff that I really liked. There’s a lot of music out there that I just played but really hasn’t stayed with me. Some albums brings back bad memories. Others, great memories.

It is remarkable how emotive music is.

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