2016 – The Year in Review

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I’ve seen a lot of talk lately about how 2016 was a terrible year. While I disagree with that assessment in general, it is particularly false in my own life. In some ways, this past year has been the one I have been waiting for the greater part of a decade.

If you’re reading this, it’s probably no secret to you that I married an incredible woman back in June. It truly served as a watershed moment for the year, positioned almost squarely in the center. Most everything before that point lay in preparation of the day, and everything since has flowed from it as we have enjoyed and grown in our new life together.

While that momentous occasion certainly defined the year, there was more detail and nuance to celebrate and reflect on. Without further adieu, the year in review.

  • January through April were saturated with wedding planning as Dolly and I nailed down all of the details for our once-in-a-lifetime celebration. This included a couple of photo shoots, preparatory counseling, and more.
  • In April, I turned thirty. While I wasn’t thrilled, surpassing that milestone was easier knowing that I would be transitioning out of bachelorhood a couple of months later.
  • Sometime in May I had the pleasure (or misfortune) of replacing the drywall in the half bathroom, damage due to a previous leak. I spent countless hours in that tiny space and learned some new skills, although the craftsmanship is mediocre at best.
  • In late may, we traveled to Florida where Dolly’s parents’ church threw us a wonderful wedding shower. The kindness of the body of Christ continues to humble me.
  • June, of course, was dominated by the wedding. There isn’t enough space to detail everything, but suffice it to say we really were blessed with the perfect day.
  • Our honeymoon to Vancouver and Victoria in British Columbia was nothing short of fantastic. The cooler climate was a welcome respite as we rested and explored a place neither of us had been before.
  • The rest of the summer seemed a bit of a blur as Dolly and I adjusted to our new life together, although we did go see Jim Gaffigan in August
  • In the fall, we began leading a house church through Ethos. Though I’m far from a charismatic leader, God has used the space to knit a group together.
  • In October, we took the opportunity to visit Ohio for Dolly’s fall break. In addition to visiting my grandparents, we had a stopover to explore Cincinnati, which was delightful.
  • November was defined by a two-week trip to India, my first ever. I accompanied Dolly on business for the first half, and we had a wedding ceremony with her Indian family for the second half. While I certainly felt out of my element at times, it was a great adventure that I will never forget.
  • With all of the activity and changes, my reading throughput suffered. I did read the following good books, however:
  • Similarly, my absorption of new music tailed off, especially with the dormancy of Indie Vision Music:
  • All along, I’ve continued in my role as a web engineer at Kindful where I hope to step into new opportunities in 2017.

Overall, it has been a year of transition in the very best way possible. God has gifted me with a sweet and caring wife, and I can’t wait to see what the next year holds for us.

 

 

2014 – The Year In Review

2014 - The Year In Review

As I was driving back to Nashville a couple of days ago, I was thinking about what I would write in this ritual blog post. Honestly, I couldn’t come up with much. On the surface, 2014 wasn’t as exciting as some recent years. I didn’t leave the United States, and I barely left the state of Tennessee. Still, it was a year of great change for me professionally, and a reflective look tells me that my life is headed in the right direction, even if I’m not always conscious of it. So, here’s what happened in the past year.

  • Early in the year, I made the hard decision to leave my longtime job working for Dave Ramsey and join a startup called Kindful. Since I began in March, it has been a wonderful nine months of challenges and growth doing web development for a smaller company that serves the nonprofit sector.
  • In March, I got my fourth tattoo, a moth on my inner bicep. It’s my first piece that isn’t text-based, and if you want the meaning, I guess you’ll just have to ask.
  • Early in the summer I connected with a great new group of friends through Ethos. Though the group drifted as time wore on, some of the friendships I formed there have continued to be some of my deepest.
  • From June into July, I came the closest I’ve ever come to buying a house. Unfortunately, needed repairs pushed it out of my price range, and the search continued.
  • Around the 4th of July, I did my most extensive traveling of the year. I completed a road trip to West Virginia and back though Ohio to Nashville. It was good to visit a friend I hadn’t seen in years, as well as have some quality time with my grandparents and parents.
  • I bought a bike for the first time in August. I hadn’t owned one since I was a child, and it has proven to be a good way to mix exercise and exploration. I look forward to using it more.
  • On a similar note, I sold my electric guitar. Music has become less and less a part of my life over the past five years.
  • Throughout the fall I went on some dates. I learned some things.
  • In October, I welcomed a new niece for the first time in four years. Marielle Patrice Irvine is the sweetest little thing, and she kind of looks like I did as an infant.
  • Along the way I encountered the following excellent music:
    • Lastsleep and The Night God Slept by Silent Planet
    • The Urgency by Saving Grace
    • Everything by Ólafur Arnalds
    • Heroes and Ghosts and the self-titled LP by This Patch of Sky (my favorite band discovery of the year)
    • Lowborn, the farewell album from Anberlin
    • Ixora by Copeland (probably my album of the year)
    • Becoming Who We Are by Kings Kaleidoscope
  • And I read the following interesting books:
    • Surprised By Hope by N.T. Wright
    • Mansfield’s Book of Manly Men by Stephen Mansfield
    • The End of Money by David Wolman
    • To Have or To Be by Erich Fromm
    • You and Me Forever by Francis and Lisa Chan
  • In more recent news, I am in the process of buying a house I found in December. It’s far from a done deal, but it may just work out. Coincidentally, it is literally across the street from the house mentioned above. Maybe God wants me in that neighborhood for some reason (Acts 17:26).
  • Most of all, as I retrospectively look at 2014, I realize that the friendships I have in my life now are the deepest and most encouraging I’ve ever had. Perhaps that’s the biggest takeaway from this year that, on the surface, may not have been too flashy or exciting.

All in all, even if 2014 didn’t seem to have as much adventure as years in the recent past, it was full of growth and change. Life is progressing, and the year to come looks incredibly bright. Most importantly, may Christ expand his kingdom through me in 2015, regardless of whether my life goes the way I want it to.

My Cashless Month

Money on fire

Back in July, I read The End of Money, a book about phasing out physical currency in the developed world. The author gives numerous reasons that he believes it’s in everyone’s best interest to go ahead and shift to using cash as little as possible. As one who tries to implement truth and practicality whenever I encounter it, I was intrigued. For me, there could hardly be a larger shift in the handling of my day-to-day finances; I’ve been using a cash-based envelope system for my entire adult life. Could I make the jump to transacting and tracking all of my expenditures electronically? Would it be that much more convenient and helpful? I decided to try it for a couple of months.

Being somewhat tech-savvy, I first sought out the right tool for the job, ultimately landing on Mint.com due to its good reviews and easy-to-use mobile app. Within a few days, I had connected all of my accounts with their read-only system, even my HSA which I never check due to the credit union’s subpar online banking. I have to admit that it was quite nice to see a full financial picture in one place for the first time. Prior to integrating with Mint, I had to log into four or five different sites to check balances, and if I actually cared to sum any of the figures, that was up to me. With Mint’s mobile app, I could easily see daily fluctuations in retirement accounts (for better or worse), and their basic analytics even showed that my portfolio has drastically underperformed the major indexes this year, a fact that I would never spend the time to unearth myself. So far so good. This cashless thing may work out.

When it came time to port my budget over to Mint, however, is when I felt the first friction. Perhaps rightfully so, everything in Mint revolves around “the month.” Budgets are created for the upcoming month with expected income declared and expenses divvied into numerous categories. This may work fine for someone who gets paid bi-monthly, but I currently receive my paycheck every two weeks, meaning my income will seldom, if ever, fall at the beginning and end of the month. Because their system of tracking expenses focuses on staying “in the green,” I would start off in the red immediately. You don’t get paid until the 6th this month, but you spent $10 at Chipotle on the 2nd? You, sir, are in the red, regardless of the balance in your checking account. To say this is annoying is putting it lightly. Though it would be a foundational shift to their system, allowing users to set budgets for specified date ranges would make a world of difference. In my case, it would make the tool actually useful.

The other hurdle I encountered in using Mint was the delay in posting transactions. When spending cash, it is literally instant; you can see the bills dwindling in your wallet each time you visit the grocery store or a coffee shop. With today’s financial network (which stems from the 1970’s), it often takes three or four days for “credit” transactions to clear. This is a big problem for someone trying to make the most of their income. Unless one wants to keep a tally of expenses in his head (which defeats the purpose), there’s a tendency to be overly-cautious or overly-carless. Frankly, I took the latter approach. Once the mess of delayed transactions in Mint seemed too difficult to reconcile and untangle, I kept telling myself I would figure it out later. That time never came, and I still haven’t fully pored through bank statements to assess the damage done. Suffice it to say, I know that I overspent considerably on restaurants and other social fun.

A final consideration, one which Wolman mentioned in his book, is that spontaneous generosity is seldom possible. Were I to come across someone selling a street paper or in need of a couple dollars, I was effectively powerless to help. It became all too easy to give the calloused response, “I don’t have any cash. Sorry.” While I try to be judicious in giving money to strangers, I found my heart becoming hard due to not even having to wrestle with the thought. In a sense, carrying no cash distanced me even further from those in need, shutting down the conversation before it could even begin. “Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing, and you say, ‘Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well’—but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do?” (James 2:15-16). Coupled with the reckless spending I fell into, I did not like who I was becoming. Swiping my card all over the place and budgeting via mobile app, I became too hip, self-indulged, and uncaring.

So where does this leave me? As of my last payday, I made the ritual trek to an ATM and withdrew the cash I would need for the next two weeks. Ultimately, my attempts to go cashless left me feeling out of control, both in the sense that it was too easy to spend carelessly, and in the sense that I invested much more time managing money day-to-day, my finances effectively controlling me. I have returned to my trusty Google Docs spreadsheet whereby I spend five minutes each payday allotting funds, withdraw the necessary cash, and have few worries as I open my wallet for the next couple of weeks. Simple? Sure. But it works, and ultimately, going cashless did not work for me.

Until financial systems are advanced enough to eliminate transactional lag, until there is a well-integrated budgeting tool which is flexible enough to fit any situation, and until those in desperate circumstances are able to deal in money electronically, I will likely be carrying cash. The truth is that I have always done a hybrid system, paying many bills online and being paid via direct deposit, and I imagine that most people do. At this stage in the game, it doesn’t make sense to be an extremist and eliminate cash, even if that’s where society ultimately ends up.

Start (and End) With Why In Dating

Question Mark and Exclamation Point

A few years ago, I was introduced to the concept of “Start With Why” by Simon Sinek. The basic idea is to assess underlying motivations before beginning an endeavor. While its application is primarily focused in the business and marketing world, it is useful in most every sphere of life, particularly to a reflective creature like myself. What is my motivation for choosing one thing over another? Answering this question upfront can be a great filter to avoid heading down the wrong path entirely, even if the “what” (end goal) is worth pursuing.

As one still involved in the realm of dating, I’ve realized over time that the principle is particularly useful in that setting. Confusion abounds in my generation regarding the whole process. Friends and I have spent many a night discussing the opposite sex and whether there is a “right” way to approach the matter. I can’t help but think we would have avoided some of the perplexing scenarios if we had sincerely assessed our motivations beforehand.

It takes a brutal amount of self-honesty (a skill which I have yet to master), to start with why, but stop and ask yourself, “Why am I interested in this person?” On some level, it will be physical attraction, but is that the primary driver? Are looks dominant in the face of other factors that you know make a long-term relationship unlikely? Are you attracted to something in this person that is drastically different from yourself? Why? Are you just lonely and want someone? The answers to these questions can be hard to face, but if one is dissuaded from pursuing something unwise, the savings in time, effort, and trouble downstream are more than worth the discomfort.

Conversely, the “why” can be affirming, giving a green light to go for it. Maybe the attraction is based upon solid character qualities. Perhaps outer beauty is coupled with common interests and goals. Even an ambiguous answer need not be construed as negative so long as it’s honest. Sometimes someone really does just have a kind smile that makes you want to know them more. At least be aware if such a sentiment is your sole basis for acting. Then pursue dating if the “why” seems wise.

The more I thought about it, however, the more I realized that not only starting, but also ending with why is helpful for everyone involved. Dating is a process of exploration and collecting information. Ultimately, this information is used to make a decision: do I continue seeing this person or not? Having been on both sides of that decision over the years, I have never experienced an instance where ambiguity was helpful. It may be my strong tendency toward thinking (as opposed to feeling), but I genuinely appreciate knowing why things didn’t work out. The older I get, the better I am able to accept such information without taking it personally. Though my track record hasn’t been perfect, I always try to extend the same courtesy to others if they care to hear it. (Some don’t.)

The answer for why one is choosing to break things off can be even more uncomfortable and revealing than the initial motivation. After all, this is a person you presumably had some interest in, so what changed? Does her personality clash with yours? Does he seem flighty and unsure what he wants in life? Have things with another love interest progressed? Do you not find her physically attractive after the initial thrill wore off? The answer could be that you honestly can’t point to a specific reason; you just feel it. At least own the fact that you are deciding based purely on emotion and nothing quantifiable. Then share that information with the person if they want to know.

Of course, nobody likes to tell someone what they don’t like about them, but there are polite ways to say just about anything. “I’m just not that attracted to you,” doesn’t mean “you’re not attractive.” It means that the speaker personally is not attracted, and a mature adult will receive the message as such. Be aware, however, that your reasoning may say far more about you than it does the other person. Are you really breaking things off because they double-dipped in the salsa at dinner that one time? Acknowledging harmful tendencies is a starting point for fixing them. I’ve found that this practice brings unparalleled self-discovery and closure, often making it easier for both to move on with as few hard feelings as possible, certainly compared to giving no explanation at all. It may not always be pleasant, but if we’re all adults, I think it’s the most respectful way we can treat one another.

Starting with why is a helpful filter to begin. Ending with why is the clearest and kindest way to conclude. Dating in today’s culture is difficult enough without the damage of thoughtless pursuits and loose ends. Still, if my generation will take the time to reflect on what is driving us to make the decisions we do, just maybe we will end up with more clarity in an arena that has become all too ambiguous.

2013 – The Year in Review

West Coast Trip 2013

As has become my tradition, it’s time to sit down and take an honest look at how the year turned out.  2013 started with a good bit of uncertainty and wavered numerous times before ending with roughly the same amount of uncertainty.  There were high points such as exciting travels, and low points such as necessarily ending longstanding chapters in my life.  Here’s a detailed rundown of what I did on this trip around the sun.

  • Visited Costa Rica for the first time in January with my parents to meet up with my sister’s family who was living in Honduras at the time.  It’s one of the more developed Central American countries.
  • Tried online dating.  (No shame.)  Actually, it can be quite fun at times.
  • Got hooked on my first TV show in a long time:  The Walking Dead.
  • Plugged in to a great community of guys, primarily through weekly trivia at a local pub.  Though we grew tired of that activity, many of the friendships remain.
  • Attempted training for a full marathon and failed.  But really what motivation could I have had except pride?
  • Took my third annual trip to Honduras in June to help distribute water filters to those in need.
  • Put an offer on a house.  Of course, it wasn’t accepted…
  • Took a trip to the West Coast in July!  I visited Seattle, Portland, Petaluma, Los Angeles, and San Diego, traveling primarily by train.  I’m so glad I finally got to see that part of the country, hang out with some friends, and make new ones along the way.
  • Crashed and burned at container gardening.  Again.
  • Began writing for Indie Vision Music in July.  It’s great to be able to contribute to a community that has meant a lot to me the past few years.
  • Forever relinquished hope on a long-running chapter of my life.
  • Connected with my house church community more than any other I’ve been a part of.  We began our second year together, even as new faces joined us.
  • Saw my first show (City and Colour) at The Ryman in September.
  • More dating…
  • Lived in the same place for more than a year!  (It’s the first time that has happened since college.)
  • Joe and I finally released Map and Compass, our second full-length Hilltops and Coffeeshops album.  It was quite therapeutic to have it done.
  • At the advice of a friend, I ditched my college hairstyle in November… and instantly looked fifteen years older.  As much as I’ve tried to cling to youth, it’s the one thing I hadn’t tried.
  • Read the following great books, among others:
    • The Ethics of Paul by Morton Scott Enslin
    • Church Zero by Peyton Jones
    • Just Do Something by Kevin DeYoung
    • The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis
    • A large chunk of Signature in the Cell by Stephen C. Meyer
  • Discovered the following great albums, among others:
    • Rescue and Restore by August Burns Red
    • The Glory EP by Animal Giant
    • The Hurry and The Harm by City and Colour
    • Change Will Come by Least of These
    • Odd New Celebrity by Keep Quiet
    • World Without End by The Monarch

Overall, nothing fundamentally changed in my life, and it really hasn’t for about five years.  I’m not sure what it could look like even if it did.  As usual, I have some vague ideas about what I want to accomplish in the year to come, but nothing to which I have such commitment that I’m not open to new or better ideas should they arise.  I guess we’ll see what happens.  Happy New Year.  Christ makes all things new.

Thoughts on Honduras 2013

Distributing water filters at the Baxter Institute in Tegucigalpa, Honduras

I recently got back from a mission trip to Honduras, my third time in as many years.  The group I go with has decided to distribute as many water filters as possible in the country where many lack access to safe drinking water.  This approach has proven very effective to restoring the health of whole households, and even neighborhoods, as those who receive the systems share the blessing of pure water.  It vastly reduces illness and malnutrition caused by bacteria, viruses, and parasites.  We partner with a clinic in Tegucigalpa and an excellent team of local Hondurans who help us find places and people to serve.

If there is any such thing as a routine trip, this one felt like it in some ways.  Our team of locals did such an amazing job of organizing and planning that virtually everything went off without a hitch.  With so many moving pieces trying to come together from thousands of miles away, there are usually bound to be a few snags.  This time there were no miscommunications, everyone showed up when and where they were supposed to, and even the weather cooperated perfectly.  It was almost strange, but it led to some more time for reflection.

Early on in our trip, as we were preparing filters at the clinic, I noted a large map of Honduras with some dots on it.  They were marking the locations of churches planted by Ambassadors for Christ, the organization which runs the clinic.  I had always assumed when we took two or three hour car rides outside the city that we were traveling to far reaches of the country, but the dots denoting the impact of the program spanned only a few inches on the enormous map, probably five feet across.  My ignorance of Honduras geography suddenly hit me like a punch in the gut.  The diligent efforts of the local AFC team and numerous American brigades had probably reached only a hundred or so miles into the rough countryside terrain, where living conditions are often the worst.  I felt so small.  Our work felt so small.  I imagined deep reaches of mountainous jungles unreachable by vehicles, children chronically sick when a simple $60 filter could change their life.  And that’s just Honduras.  There’s the rest of Central and South America.  And Africa.  And much of Asia.  We’ll never fix this, I thought.

As we traveled about the country during the week, I noted numerous large-scale projects that seemed a bit out of place in the developing nation.  There was a huge dam, electricity-generating windmills, and other civil engineering feats.  Each one bore the flag of another country or government.  Italy had assisted with the dam.  We were told Germany installed the windmills.  The European Union had chipped in on infrastructure projects.  To me, this made the reality of the situation even more overwhelming.  The largest and most powerful governments in the world have poured resources into the country on a scale that common man, and even the global church could not match.  Still, the poverty persists.  I’m glad for the way those governments have aided the people of Honduras, but it seems their projects stand as testaments to the failure of the secular humanist worldview.  Powerful governments with seemingly unlimited resources cannot fix their plight or the human condition.  I was reminded of these lyrics from “All the World Is Mad” by Thrice:

We can’t medicate man to perfection again
We can’t legislate peace in our hearts
We can’t educate sin from our souls
It’s been there from the start
But the blind lead the blind into bottomless pits
Still we smile and deny that we’re cursed
But of all our iniquities
Ignorance may be the worst

I understand that suffering in the world is far from a new thing.  My generation may even be poised better than any other in history to eradicate it, but without a coherent worldview, without Christ, there is no hope.  The human heart is broken, selfish, and corrupt.  We see this in the life of every person.  Christ showed us how to truly be human, how to properly bear the image of God.  “If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you” (Matthew 5:40 – 42).  The way of Jesus is the only hope for humanity, and I am more convinced of this now than ever before, even as I admit my woeful shortcomings.  Only in a world where everyone strives to live as Jesus would true redemption be possible.  Throwing money at problems does not eradicate corrupt government, economic exploitation, and evil intent.  The grace of Jesus in transforming the human heart, however, can and will bring Heaven to earth.

In conclusion, I’m certainly glad to have gone and spent time in Honduras.  Nothing I did personally scratched the surface of the issues gripping the country, but God’s church in action brings small slices of the Kingdom to the lives of people.  Yes, there are 135 more long-lasting water filters in use, but it is my hope that they are more than buckets, tubes, and better health.  I hope they are a glimpse of God’s love to the people and communities who received them, and that love begins healing Honduras and our world.

Thoughts on the arrest of Tim Lambesis

As I Lay Dying

It’s been a weird day.  The front-man of my favorite band, who by all accounts has penned some of the most meaningful lyrics I’ve ever read, was arrested.  When I first saw the headline, I assumed he was taken in for protesting an unjust cause, or violating a noise ordinance at the worst.  (Such was his esteem in my eyes.)  No.  He has been charged with trying to hire someone to murder his estranged wife.  And the evidence seems quite damning.  What do we do with this?  What do I do with this?

I could have told you immediately how mainstream culture would deal with it.  They would revel in the chance to call another Christian a phony, a hypocrite.  And they have.  Main-stream outlets would go out of their way to make sure readers knew he identified himself as a follower of Jesus.  Indeed, some would take the chance to tout the message that all of that heavy metal is “scary” and evil, that it’s no surprise he would do something like this.  But how can I  react when a brother I held in such high esteem has instantly fallen so far?  How should I?

The truth is that the fall wasn’t instant.  Nothing of this magnitude is.  My initial reaction is to want details.  Maybe the police are wrong.  Maybe someone set him up.  Give me details.  But why do we ever want details when it comes to someone else’s wrongdoing?  It’s because we want to judge.  We want to assess whether we would be capable of such an act, and often the more information we have, the more we are able to convince ourselves we aren’t.  The news stories cite that his wife had filed for divorce last September.  We want more details to see who was at fault, to judge who is right and who is wrong.  Details.  They distance us from the heinous acts of others.  But we’ve all done things we didn’t think we were capable of, things we hope no one ever finds out about.  It’s just that the earthly consequences are sometimes heavier, both legally and culturally.

In this particular case, Lambesis had long been a shining light in a genre of music notorious for darkness.  While others wrote songs centered on violence and hatred, he poetically expressed of the plight of the poor, of dying to one’s self for the betterment of others, and of struggling against sin.  For years he had been meek and humble in interviews, even as the popularity of the band exploded.  How much this magnifies his downfall.  I probably have more material from Tim than any other lyricist in my music collection.  Does this negate the impact of those albums full of inspirational words?  Can I ever listen to those songs the same way again?  Some, like “Whispering Silence,” almost seem too close to home.  These words from “Upside Down Kingdom” ring with such truth and profundity, but such hollowness at the same time:

For a kingdom is offered
Beyond that of golden streets
We can represent now
What will one day be complete

More than just writing deep and thought-provoking lines, Tim also seemed to walk the walk.  He and his wife had adopted three children from Ethiopia.  He often used his platform to champion charities and humanitarian efforts.  But this…  It stands in such stark contrast to everything I thought I knew about him.

Someone in a comment thread over at Indie Vision Music put things into perspective for me, at least partially.  “The Lord is my shepherd.  I shall not want.  He makes me to lie down in green pastures.  He restores my soul.”  Stop and think about who wrote that.  The man who composed those verses did have another man killed.  After he slept with his wife.  King David, the man after God’s own heart, who did things that make our skin crawl, wrote the majority of the Psalms.  We study them in quiet time.  We craft prayers and worship songs from them, the words of an adulterous murderer.  God used someone who broke the biggest commandments to create art that turns our hearts toward Him – not just before, but after his downfall and the consequences that came with it.

It will take me a while to process all of this.  But I have to believe that if God can redeem the life of David, he can redeem Tim’s too.