“I’ll Be Home for Christmas” / 6 Months of Marriage

“I’ll Be Home for Christmas” isn’t my favorite Christmas song; that esteemed honor belongs to “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” by a wide margin.  But they share similar musical DNA.  They’re each melancholy in a way that stirs up both joy and longing in your heart, and they each seem to have trouble believing what they say.  I listen to “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” in its best iterations, and I hear people who desperately want to be home for the holidays, but they know deep down that it’s not going to happen.  Why something this depressing fills me with joy is confusing, to say the least, but maybe it’s because so few songs capture the spirit and disappointment of Christmas so perfectly, or because other Christmas songs feel so superficial.  This one really gets what it’s like to love people and long to spend time with them.

“I’ll be home for Christmas,
You can plan on me.
Please have snow and mistletoe
And presents under the tree.”

“I’ll Be Home” doesn’t mention Jesus, of course, but it points me to Him in ways that songs about the nativity or songs based on Scripture simply can’t.  A song like “I’ll Be Home” is an apt reminder of the disappointments of Christmas.  Every year, I anticipate Christmas with something resembling an overexcited chihuahua’s tremblings and spasms, though I usually manage to keep this excitement from boiling over into actual tremblings and spasms.  But every year, without fail, Christmas fails to live up to my expectations.  “I’ll Be Home” knows this all too well; the perfect Christmas is only in my dreams.  It most definitely doesn’t exist here on Earth.  I can listen to “I’ll Be Home” and remember that this isn’t my true home.  I can listen to “I’ll Be Home” and rejoice, because the best Christmas is yet to come, when I can celebrate with my Savior.

“Christmas Eve will find me
Where the love light gleams.
I’ll be home for Christmas,
If only in my dreams.”

This is the first Christmas that I won’t be with my parents and my sister in Plano, Texas.  If you’re wondering why, let me point you back six months ago.  On June 23rd, I married the love of my life; her name was Vicky Vargas and is now Vicky Bumgarner.  We’ll be spending our Christmas together with our new puppy, Winnie Bumgarner, in Norman, Oklahoma.  Norman, for now, is where we live; Vicky and Winnie are my home.  It will be weird to be away from Plano, away from my family, but the past six months have made it worth it.  It may not be “the perfect Christmas”, but I’ll be home.  And I thank God, knowing that it’s His grace that has made it so.

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Hark! The Herald Angel Sings

“Hark the herald angels sing
‘Glory to the newborn King!’
Peace on earth and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled
Joyful, all ye nations rise
Join the triumph of the skies
With the angelic host proclaim:
‘Christ is born in Bethlehem’
Hark! The herald angels sing
‘Glory to the newborn King!’”

This is my first Christmas as a graduate of grad school, a full-time employee, a married man.  I’ve reached that level of living called adulthood, and I’m not sure how I feel about it.  One of the things that is noticeably different is how I approach Christmas.  As a child and teenager, Christmas was the ecstasy of gift-getting.  When I was very young, Christmas couldn’t come soon enough, because then I could see what all my generous parents had put under the tree for me.  Even when I reached teenage-dom, when the magic had worn off somewhat, and I could joke with my sister that she got more gifts than I did without actually caring (because my parents love her way more than me, obviously), I still just wanted things, and that was the point of Christmas for me.  Even if I knew the real reason for Christmas and the hypothetical rationale for why we give presents in December, I can’t lie- the idea that Christ is the ultimate gift, and that it’s the reason we put gifts under the tree for Christmas, seemed trite to me. Continuing this honesty: as a seasoned adult of 24 years, that idea still seems trite.  It’s not like Christ came to Earth to inspire us to give more presents at Christmas.  I guess you could say I’m afraid of leaving the whole of Christmas behind if I embrace any one secular part; in this case, spending money on gifts.

“Christ by highest heav’n adored
Christ the everlasting Lord!
Late in time behold Him come
Offspring of a Virgin’s womb
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see
Hail the incarnate Deity
Pleased as man with man to dwell
Jesus, our Emmanuel
Hark! The herald angels sing
‘Glory to the newborn King!’”

My favorite version of this song is the version in “A Charlie Brown Christmas”, when all the kids point their faces to the sky and, as the animated blobs that form their mouths articulate indiscriminately, sing this centuries-old hymn in praise to Jesus.  My pastor preached on this song this morning, pointing out the rich theology hidden in verses that appear in department stores and on the radios of non-believers for a month or so out of the year.  Jesus came to reconcile us to His Father; He came in the fullness of God; He came to save us from death; He came to give us “second birth”.  This is the full story of Christmas, in the words of Charles Wesley.  And as my pastor reminded me this morning, the only response is worship.

“Hail the heav’n-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Son of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings
Ris’n with healing in His wings
Mild He lays His glory by
Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth
Born to give them second birth
Hark! The herald angels sing
‘Glory to the newborn King!’”

But if there’s something I personally need to learn from this song, it’s that the little things count as worship.  “Hark! The Herald” is widely regarded in the secular world as a curio from the past, a relic from a religion that no longer applies to this world.  Most Christmas hymns are seen this way, loved for the nostalgia associated with them and not for their religious significance.  This is why the gospel is proclaimed on the airwaves every November and December in the form of Christmas carols.  “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is the same way; the secular world embraces the TV special as a Christmas tradition, so Linus’s nearly word-for-word retelling of the nativity story is broadcast on national TV every single year.  It would be foolish to dismiss things that America at large accepts as secular tchotchkes as therefore useless.  And just because the culture I live in deems gift-giving as a secular act, that doesn’t mean I can’t buy gifts for my loved ones as worship of the Most High God, knowing that in my small way I am modeling how God is a Father who gives us good gifts.  My understanding of Christmas grows year after year.  This year, I don’t want to miss the forest for the Christmas tree.  God-willing, I’ll worship Him in the little things.

The Real Christmas

I was driving from Plano to Norman on Saturday, which is about a 3-hour drive.  I had plenty of CDs in my car to keep me occupied, but I really just wanted to listen to Christmas music, since it’s after Thanksgiving and not a sin to listen to Christmas music anymore.  I don’t own any Christmas CDs (a fact which needs remedying), so I had to scan the radio for a station broadcasting Christmas cheer.  There were less than I expected, but I found a few to keep me company.  Eventually after crossing the Texas border, I had to find new ones without static, and stumbling upon the Christian station in Dallas that I grew up listening to, I heard them say, “98.6 KJHG*, the real Christmas station.”

christmas1Now, let’s say I’m an alien.  I’m not a hostile alien, though, I’m a friendly alien.  Like Casper, except he was a ghost.  But he was friendly, see?  Anyway, I’m an alien, and I come to earth (America, specifically) around Christmastime, and I see the decorations on the houses, I see all the lights, and I see Santa at the mall, and I see families traveling to get together, and I see gifts under Christmas trees.  Then I’m listening to the radio and I hear about this “real Christmas.”  And (remember, I’m an alien) I’m totally confused.  So I ask my human friend, what is this “real Christmas”?  Is there a fake Christmas?  Is someone lying to me about Christmas?

He proceeds to explain to me that a lot of people celebrate Christmas only with gifts and Santa, but Christians believe that Christmas is about celebrating the birth of Christ, who they believe came to save them.  So I ask, “Well, okay, but what does that have to do with Santa and the Christmas tree?”  And he says, “I don’t know.”  Because he doesn’t know.  Because there is no connection.

christmas4Oh, you might be able to take Christmas back to its roots and explain to me about St. Nicholas and the origin of the Christmas tree and the tradition of giving gifts in celebration of God’s greatest gift to us, Jesus, and I’d believe you.  In fact, that would deepen my appreciation of my favorite holiday, and I’d be grateful to you.  But that wouldn’t change the fact that the vast majority of America, and probably the world, has become complacent with the disconnect between these two Christmas traditions, the tradition of Santa Claus and his gift-giving in contrast to the tradition of Christ’s birth.  To most of America, Christmas is about gifts and spending time with family, and Christ’s birth is a distant memory.  And the insistence of many of us Christians that our Christmas is the real Christmas is insulting to the people who love Christmas for secular, though still perfectly good, reasons.  Reasons like family and the looks on their kids’ faces when they open a desired gift and good food and wonderful music.

Of course, Christmas is about Jesus at its core.  But even Christians don’t live that way.  Christians across the country will make an effort this season to pay attention to Jesus and not leave Him out of the Christmas celebrations.  This is some kind of noble, but there’s almost a defensiveness to the way many of us approach Christmas.  When I see the words “Happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” I bristle, as if the intent behind the more broad statement is full of anti-religious malice.  And then those two words, “Merry Christmas,” turn out to be the only things that separate my Christmas time from that of a non-Christian.  Like most everyone, I will anticipate the gifts I’m getting on Christmas and I will spend a bunch of money on gifts for the people I love, and I’ll enjoy spending time with my family.  And none of that is wrong.  But I’ll try to shoehorn Jesus into that somewhere, instead of making all of it about Him.

christmas2I won’t pretend to have the answer to Christmas’s problems, but I can at least notice a tendency of Christians trying to fit Jesus into our culture’s traditions, instead of taking the traditions of our culture and redeeming them for God’s will.  This wouldn’t mean that I avoid gift-giving or –getting, or that I don’t sing Christmas carols that don’t talk about Jesus.  But it would mean that I do all of these things differently from non-Christians.  And I definitely shouldn’t pretend that Christmas is mine and no one else’s, and then treat it just like everyone else does.

I think a future post will focus on what the differences look like.  This is already a long post, and it wasn’t my original intent to talk about practical solutions, only to bring the problem to light.  I’m also only 23 years old, and I’m not married and I don’t have kids.  So my level of wisdom on the struggles of carrying out a God-centered Christmas is pretty limited.  However, I will leave you with this: a vast number of the people celebrating Christmas in this country aren’t Christian and don’t celebrate Christmas because of Christ, but that doesn’t mean they’re doing everything wrong, or that their Christmas isn’t real.  Christians can’t pretend to have a monopoly on Christmas; in fact, the exact opposite is true.  Christmas is a part of the world’s culture now.  We should treat Christmas how we should treat all of the good things in this world’s culture year-round: we meet the culture where it is, and then we let the Gospel determine our response to the culture.  That response should be more than fitting Jesus in.

christmas3Please feel free to comment and correct me if I say anything that is unbiblical and/or mean-spirited.

*I’ve changed all names to protect the innocent.

Top 10 Albums of 2012 (Sort of)

Full disclaimer: This Top 10 will without a doubt change between now and next September when I make my official Music Bummys Best Music of 2012 list.  I am writing this list now only as a favor to my good friend Scott Bedgood who wanted some pointers on how to make a list of this ilk, since apparently they don’t teach a class on top 10 lists in journalism school (the nerve!).  I’ll consume countless numbers of 2012 albums over the next 9 months and release a more accurate top 10 list of my favorite albums from this great year in music.  I just want to make sure all you Bummys completists out there are satisfied.  Don’t worry your pretty little heads, I’m not selling my esteemed opinion short by writing this list too early.  This is strictly for fun.

In fact, this will probably not be a very serious list.  Oh, the albums themselves are serious- I loved every album on this list, and will most likely continue to love them and listen to them voraciously in my car on my morning commute.  But as Scott released his list this morning (and, as I understand it, has already written the rest of his list) and I’m only writing mine now, I have to play catchup, and, frankly, I don’t have time to write intricately on each and every album’s strengths and weaknesses.  So, instead, I’ll have a little fun with it.  Scott’s list is the Frontier City version of a Top 10 of 2012 list- mine is the Six Flags over Texas.  Prepare yourself.

leavingeden10.Leaving Eden, Carolina Chocolate Drops: Listen, I’m aware that this is 2012 and a bluegrass record should hardly be on a top 10 list.  But consider this my requisite EDM pick for the year; I just replaced it with a better genre that actually sounds like music.  Beyond the fact that CCD has a name that (IS AWESOME) sounds like a delicious southern candy, CCD is downright committed to their sound.  They truly sound of another time, a time when Africans were slaves or maybe indentured servants, which requires certain panache to pull off without being offensive.  They sell it though; I love their mission to show the impact of African-American music on American music as a whole.  They play their instruments extraordinarily well, from the fife to the banjo, and lead female singer Rhiannon Giddens has a voice that sounds equally at home on the brassy barnburner “Country Girl” and on the lilting lullaby “Pretty Bird.”  Best Song: “Pretty Bird”

thefourthwall9. The Fourth Wall, The Vespers: You’ve never heard of this band, but that’s okay, because you hadn’t heard of Carolina Chocolate Drops, and they were awesome when you listened to their entire album immediately after reading my blurb above, weren’t they?  Yeah, so you can bet The Vespers is one top 10 spot more awesome, since they’re one top 10 spot above them on this list.  The Vespers is a brother-sister quartet that is entirely younger than me- the girls are 19 and 21, the boys are 20 and 22.  I’m 23.  But none of them are about to graduate with a Masters in Speech-Language Pathology, I can guarantee you that.  They can keep their incredible, youthful talent and word-of-mouth fanbase.  I’ll take my (future) paycheck and nagging sense that I should’ve been a movie critic anyday.  But really, The Vespers are sensationally talented.  And the folk gems they created on their April album The Fourth Wall display a consistently creative bent that doesn’t rely on the sometimes boring tropes of folk.  The Fourth Wall is an album from a group without limits, which is rare in folk music.  Best Song: “Instrument for You”

fionaapple8. The Idler Wheel Is Wiser than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More than Ropes Will Ever Do, Fiona Apple: Okay, so Fiona Apple is weeeird.  And I tend to go for music that leans more towards the melodic than the freaky (Animal Collective notwithstanding), but Apple has made it so I don’t have to choose.  She marries the wacky and the gorgeous so well on her June album that it defies explanation, much like the album’s ridiculously long name.  But even that long title adds to the album’s charm.  The Idler Wheel, etc. is decidedly unsettling but at the same time addictive and empowering.  Apple sings in disturbing imagery, but she still captures not the feeling of heartache but that potent feeling after heartache of being really pissed off at your ex-significant other.  And not only that feeling, but the feeling of trying to find meaning once being angry loses its appeal.  So while her album is a dead-on, indie hit, Apple herself is more like this. If she were an NBA highlight reel.  Best Song: “Every Single Night”

frankocean7.channel ORANGE, Frank Ocean: With the July release of channel ORANGE, Frank Ocean became one of the best R&B artists with a name that I wish was his real name.  He joins the ranks of Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, and D’Angelo.*  I, for one, prefer to live in a world where those are all their real names, and where the stars aligned in such a way that parents birthed children and were prescient enough to give them stage names years ahead of their pending fame.  The fact that Frank Ocean’s real name is Christopher Breaux is a real buzzkill when listening to his album, seeing as how he doesn’t fit the frat style that a last name of Breaux would befit (just imagine what a musician named Christopher Bro would be like- something like this, I’d wager).  That being said, in all seriousness, when I listen to Frank Ocean, I almost forget about everything else surrounding Frank Ocean (his stage name, his association with the uber-annoying and –offensive Odd Future, his recent admittance that he’s gay/bisexual), because Ocean effortlessly croons at us one masterpiece after another.  It took me a while to warm up to this album, but eventually I learned to stop worrying and love it.  You’ll hear this over and over again at the end of 2012, but it needs to be said by as many people as possible: Frank Ocean is a genius at making music that is as easy to listen to as it is rewarding upon multiple listens.  Don’t let the hype turn you away; give him a chance.  Best Song: “Bad Religion”

boysandgirls6. Boys & Girls, Alabama Shakes: Brittany Howard, the lead singer of the little blues-rock band from Alabama, seems poised to do more for music than any other artist out there.  Adele’s 21 was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of album, but I worry that Adele will get swallowed by the pop music machine.  Howard’s on the outside of it, thank goodness, and if she and her band (the Big Brother & the Holding Company to her Janis Joplin) don’t get caught up in their own hype, they’ll have everything going for them.  They’ve got one hell of a singer, they’re young and not at their peak yet, and they already write songs that are both exciting and poignant (listen to the one about an unrequited love passing away, “On Your Way,” and ask yourself how many 23-year-olds can write something that mature).  So Frank Ocean will deservedly win the Best New Artist Grammy, but since the only people who believe in the Grammys anymore are nobody anywhere, I proclaim that Alabama Shakes is the Best New Artist.  I expect a phone call anytime now from Brittany thanking me for this honor.  Anytime now.  Annnytime.  Yep.  Anytime.  Best Song: “You Ain’t Alone”

davidcrowderband5. Give Us Rest or (A Requiem Mass in C [The Happiest of All Keys]), David Crowder Band: I’m not one for hyperbole, but- who am I kidding, I love hyperbole!  I live for hyperbole.  I’ll hyperb all freaking day.  I never met a superlative I didn’t like.  So if I say David Crowder Band is the greatest Christian rock band of all time, you’ll have to forgive me, it’s just in my nature.  But let’s look at the facts: David Crowder, along with Chris Tomlin (and just maybe the surging Phil Wickham), has written about 80% of the Christian worship staples of the past 10 years; their past four albums have reached the top of the Christian music charts; and they never won a Grammy, which is almost a guarantee of quality.  Regardless of whatever evidence I’m able to look up on the Internet (Wikipedia) and regardless of what I’ve left out, David Crowder Band as an entity has shaped Christian music for a decade.  They pretty much do whatever the heck they want, which explains the two double albums in their discography, including this 34-track, 100-minute opus that came out in January.  That may sound daunting, but no music could be more joyful or as easy to listen to.  There were albums that I loved more this year, but seeing as David Crowder Band is no more (they split after their tour to support this album), no discussion of the best albums of 2012 would be complete without Give Us Rest, not only one of the greatest records of the year, but one of the best of DCB’s career.  Best Song: “Let Me Feel You Shine”

japandroids4. Celebration Rock, Japandroids: What is this rock music you speak of?  You don’t hear much of it now.  It doesn’t get much better than Japandroids in this day and age, and not just because there’s not much quality rock music left in the world.  Their June album features songs that would feel at home with any of the classics, and yet they still feel of the moment, true punk music.  The problem with music nowadays is- well, one of the problems, at least, is that all the music seems to know that it’s trivial.  There’s nothing at stake in a Katy Perry song or most of Lady Gaga’s songs.  Taylor Swift’s newer songs don’t resonate, because the relationships are proving to be less and less important to her.  But Japandroids- shoot, lives hang in the balance of a breakup.  A meeting in the middle of the night has ramifications for years afterwards.  Cities have souls, and houses are made of living light.  This music is too good for the radio; this is rock and roll.  Best Song: “The House That Heaven Built”

brucespringsteen3. Wrecking Ball, Bruce Springsteen: The Boss has never made a bad album, but who makes one of his best records at the age of 63?  I’ll be lucky if I can even hear when I’m 63.  That’s one year removed from renting a cottage in the Isle of Wight, scrimping and saving, with grandchildren on my knee.  Springsteen doesn’t have to scrimp and save; he’s not only making music, putting out albums, but he’s fully expressing himself, as well as he ever did, same as it ever was, but he’s on fire for his nation, for his people in this album.  Regardless of which side of the political fence you come down on, Bruce Springsteen’s passion for the people resonates.  If you’ve ever read an interview with him, you can see an intelligent man; but that intelligence would mean nothing if he didn’t care.  Listening to a song like “Land of Hope and Dreams,” you see he cares.  You can hear the mercy in his voice.  We need more artists with a good grasp on that kind of mercy.  Best Song: “Land of Hope and Dreams”

lecraetriplee2. Gravity, Lecrae / The Good Life, Trip Lee: Yep, I’m cheating.  2 in 1. Who gon stop me, huh?  It’s really a testament to the quality of the music this year that I couldn’t choose between two Christian rap albums for the number 2 spot on my list.  Can we pause for a second and appreciate how far Christian rap has come?  Hip-hop of the evangelical persuasion has been around since the 1980s, but please listen to this song by Stephen Wiley from 1985 and join me in cringing.  No doubt the artists making songs like that were well-meaning, but Run-D.M.C. they were not.  Even an influential band in the 1990s like dc Talk wasn’t above making bad hip-hop.  It seems like the Christian hip-hop culture is finally catching up to mainstream rap in terms of artistic integrity.  Lecrae has been leading the way in this mission for some time now, but Christian rap has genuinely reached its peak with this pair of albums from the two best in the genre.  I can’t choose a favorite, honestly.  Lecrae is the more solid musically, and he’s the better rapper, but Trip’s album features more focused and specific songs, rather than Lecrae’s broad themes on his album, which gives Trip’s a more potent emotional punch.  Maybe given time, I’ll be able to parse out which one is better, but for not, I’m totally down for enjoying them as two delicious pieces from the same pie.  Best Songs: “Mayday (feat. Big K.R.I.T.)” / “One Sixteen (feat. KB & Andy Mineo)”

andrewpeterson1. Light for the Lost Boy, Andrew Peterson: I’m getting married in exactly 6 months and 11 days.  I graduate in less than 5 months.  I’m about to start applying for jobs.  It’s scary and sobering, but also stimulating and exciting.  I’m not going to pretend that there’s an automatic maturation that comes with these milestones.  I can’t claim maturity quite yet.  I also can’t describe my musical taste as mature yet either; maybe in a few years I’ll be able to look at my own preferences with a more objective eye, but not now.  I’m still too caught up in what others think of me.  But I can look back and notice change.  For instance, I used to be really into Snow Patrol, Coldplay, and Maroon 5.  I still like those bands (well, I like old Maroon 5 at least), but I would no longer point to their songs as my favorites, and I hardly listen to them anymore, though I own several of their CDs each.  I seek out very different music now.  I don’t know if that qualifies me as a fuddy-duddy yet, but I’m terrified that it does.

Nowadays, there are three artists that I would pay anything to see if they come to Norman or Oklahoma City or Dallas, or even Tulsa or Austin.  One of them came to Norman this fall, and I made the questionable (though, ultimately, the right) decision to forgo seeing her to accompany a group of my friends to see Lecrae and Trip Lee with a host of other great Christian rappers in Oklahoma City that same night.  That artist was Patty Griffin.  The other two I would shill out anything for are Bruce Springsteen and Andrew Peterson.  This willingness to put their art over my checkbook comes not from my perception of the quality of their live shows, but from a deep connection I feel with their music.  Maybe it’s because my taste in music has changed or, if you want, matured, but I’m drawn to their music because I’ve learned so much from each of them.

Andrew Peterson is the newest of my favorites.  I loved his last album from 2010, Counting Stars, and I’ve been making my way through his discography this past year.  But with the release of Light for the Lost Boy in August, my appreciation of Peterson has solidified.  His sound grew between Counting Stars and Lost Boy, but to me, it felt like it was growing with me.  Counting Stars is the album of someone with a reckless abandonment to God; Light for the Lost Boy is the album of someone who’s been beaten down and needs reassuring, restoration of his soul.  Peterson surveys his childhood to find hope for the future; he looks to the old man to better understand the new man he’s becoming in Christ.  I won’t claim that I’m mature yet.  But I can look to albums like Light for the Lost Boy as checkpoints for times of serious growth.  This is an album that will remain with me forever.  Best Songs: “The Cornerstone” “Day by Day” “Don’t You Want to Thank Someone”

Honorable Mentions: Fable, Benjamin Dunn & the Animal Orchestra; Weight & Glory, KB; good kid, m.A.A.d city, Kendrick Lamar; Shields, Grizzly Bear; Babel, Mumford & Sons

*Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, James Brown, and Sam Cooke don’t count, since those are their real names, give or take an added “e” here or there.

Thanks for following me through this list.  It’ll likely change in 9 months or so.  Don’t fret though, I’ll be sure to let you know when it happens. My friend, Scott Bedgood, posted his top 2 today too- here’s his blog!

The Devil and James Harden

Much has been written in the short time since James Harden was unceremoniously traded from Oklahoma City to Houston.  It seems silly that we’ve written so much.  Even after three games, we don’t know how he’ll fare as a Rocket.  We don’t know why he or his agent made the decision to turn down Sam Presti’s offer.  We don’t know the details half as well as we pretend to.  But the trade was shocking- it’s altered the landscape of the league, even- so we have to write something.

The trade effectively broke up the greatest trio of young ingénues in the game.  All three are superstars- Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Harden- but it was more than that; they were all best friends, or so it seemed from our vantage point.  This is a sad situation.  I don’t care what anybody says- OKC beating Miami looks hopeless now.  Not only that, but they’ve sent my favorite Thunder player to a city where he’s not going to win in the postseason.  Bottom line is, it feels as if potential has been squandered- the Thunder’s potential, Harden’s potential, even KD’s and Russ’s.  Something people had been dreaming of won’t happen.  Oklahoma City won’t win a championship with its core players.  It’s over, and I hate when things are over.

In the grand scheme of things, it’s not that important.  Durant will win a title someday- he’s too good not to.  Heck, I’m even willing to admit Oklahoma City will probably still win at least one title with its current lineup.  Everyone will make money.  I’ll go on with my life.  This too shall pass.

But this whole situation has opened my eyes to the reality of our idolization of athletes.  We turn athletes into extensions of ourselves.  As fans, we say, “We threw that game away, our defense shut them down, they couldn’t stop us, etc.”  Whether or not this is healthy (probably not), we definitely do it.  I definitely do it.

So when I heard Harden had been traded,* I felt genuine sadness.  I felt real loss.  I don’t even know Harden.  Why should I be so sad?  Highlights were replaying in my head- Harden driving through 3 Dallas defenders in the playoffs to dunk the ball at the rim, Harden cutting baseline for a dunk over Lakers defenders, Harden stepping back after my boy Ginóbili attempted a steal and draining a go-ahead 3.  I tried to wrap my mind around why.  I didn’t want to believe it.  It seemed such a waste- how could Sam Presti waste such an opportunity?  Was Harden just being greedy?  Some people didn’t begrudge him his search for a max deal, but I did.  I still do.

I just read a book called The Devil and Sonny Liston about the famous world champion boxer.  Liston was a huge talent, but he was surrounded by bad, bad people.  The media made Sonny Liston into the bad guy, the tough guy, so Liston ended up living that out, falling into drugs, abusing women, mob dealings.  Eventually, Liston overdosed.  The media wrote his story for him.  By having certain expectations of him, the media essentially guaranteed that Liston would live down to them.  The book reminded me of today’s athletes- Lebron James, Dwight Howard, Dez Bryant.  We wrote Lebron’s story- cast him as an underachieving talent, and for 8 years he lived that out.  Thank goodness he’s breaking free of that mold.  We’re writing Dwight’s story now- a selfish, immature superstar.  If that’s how the media continues to portray him, it’ll be nigh impossible for him to change.  It’s far too easy for athletes or celebrities to live into what the world at large says about them.  Look at what Dez Bryant has become- low expectations for his character certainly aren’t helping him.

I’ve heard things about Harden that portray him in a less than favorable light.  I’ve read articles about his partying and heard questionable things about his choice of girlfriends.  Can I just be honest?  All of this plays into the idea that he left OKC for more money rather than stay for the chance to win a championship with his friends.  Which option seems more pure to you?  How can he walk away?  I’ve judged him, like many others.  I’m letting the media portrayals of Harden color my own perception of him.

But I don’t want to write his story for him.  I don’t want us to expect him to be motivated by the money, the lifestyle, the girls.  That won’t help.  It will only hurt him.  I grow tired of rooting against people.  I no longer want to root against Lebron.  He accomplished something major this year and appeared to grow up a ton in the process.  Did I accomplish anything by rooting against him?**

It won’t do good for me to remain mad at Harden.  Sure, I can be sad about it.  That’s natural.  But not mad.  I should pray for him instead- pray that he excels in Houston and earns his max contract, pray that he uses his money well.  I should pray that Jeremy Lin is a good influence on him.  I should pray for his soul, that God would draw Harden to Him.  It’s not silly to pray for someone I’ve never met.  What better way to combat the media machine that picks over athletes their entire careers?  I know prayer works; I know God uses my pleas.  This whole fiasco has spurred me to judgment of Harden, but really, it’s an opportunity to pray for another soul.

I’ll root for Harden.  His personal life is his business, as was his decision to go to Houston.  Holding it against him would only make me tired.  If he’s truly made a deal with the devil, then that’s his choice, and all the more reason to pray for him.  If he made the right choice, then it’s going to be truly exciting to see him be the face of a franchise.

*Granted, I heard the news in the middle of a game in which my Sooners were laying down and letting Notre Dame run and pass all over them, so maybe I should be granted some clemency for my emotional response.

**It’s one thing to root against the Heat and want them to lose- but to root against an individual?  I know this happens all the time in sports fandom, but I’m tiring of it.

Done in London, or What Do I Do Now?

“And I long to go there,
I can feel the truth.
I can hear the promise
Of the angels of the moon.

This is a far country, a far country,
Not my home.”

-Andrew Peterson, “The Far Country”

I came to a realization this morning, one that staggered my soul and punctured the deep vibrancy of my young heart.  Be forewarned- this is not easy news to hear.

The Olympics are over.

Now I won’t pretend to be obsessed with the Olympics, but they were certainly more than just something to have on the TV while I talk to my roommates or fiancée.  For one thing, now that I am a full time NBA fanatic, I relished the chance to catch some more high-quality basketball from the Dream Team Lite*.  Though I would hardly call every game high-class drama, the gold-medal game certainly lived up to its hype.  It was a nail-biter until the last minute, and, though the commentators certainly gave the award to Lebron (19 pts, 7 rbds), its best player was none other than Kevin Durant (30 pts, 9 rbds).  That will never make up for a lost championship, but it certainly can give any Thunder fan hope for the future.

Not only did I quench some latent basketball cravings, but I exposed myself to some sports I would never watch otherwise, and ostensibly expanded my horizons, which should tide me over for another four years on volleyball, swimming, track and field, and gymnastics, not to mention rowing, steeple chasing, sprint walking, and diving**.

I ooh-ed and ah-ed with the world at Michael Phelps’ apparent invincibility.  Sure, he didn’t win all gold this Olympics, and Lochte beat him once, but how many golds does Lochte have?  5?  Exactly.  I fell in love with Gabby Douglas along with everyone else, and I was crestfallen when the men lost and elated when the women won.  I was enthralled by volleyball, both beach and inside, and I watched our men fall apart (both beach and inside) and our girls dominate, even if we only pulled out the gold (and the silver!) in beach volleyball.  In indoor volleyball, even poor Destinee Hooker couldn’t spike us to the gold against Brazil.

Something interesting happens to Americans during the Olympics.  First of all, there are only four countries in the world that cared about the medal count this Olympics: China, Russia, Great Britain, and us.  China probably cared the most about it, if only because they care about everything more.  I would say Russia cared, if only from the desire to reclaim some vestige of lost glory, except I think the average Russian doesn’t give a hoot about that.  They probably cared about it the least.  The Brits- well, obviously.  It was in London.  They’d be crazy not to want a better showing than usual, and I’m happy to say they got it.  But why do Americans care?  Does winning the medal count mean our American athletes wanted it more or worked harder or are genetically superior to Chinese athletes?  Does it mean our American spirit is stronger or that democracy is better than communism?  Does it mean America is better?  No, it means none of those things.  Maybe the medal count says we put more of our resources into athletic activities than any other country.  And that’s about it.

I cheered U-S-A just as much as the next patriot, but the constant obsession of the media over the medal count doesn’t make any sense.  What interests me far more are the individual stories, and not necessarily the inspirational ones.  Gabby Douglas has a great story, but aren’t Tyson Gay and Justin Gatlin more interesting?  Don’t you want to redeem themselves?  Let Gabby see some disappointment and I’ll cheer for her even harder.  Michael Phelps’s 8 golds in 2008 was amazing, but the story became immediately more interesting when everyone thought Ryan Lochte was going to beat him but fell short.  Poor Lochte didn’t stand a chance against Phelps, who turned out to be so much more than just a fluke.  How does a guy like Lochte handle being second best when everyone expected him to hit it big time this year?

I love America, but I wonder if our focus isn’t a little skewed during the Olympics.  The freedom we have in America is beautiful and God-given, but America isn’t my home.  There is a country far greater in store for me.  My focus should be on people, not on a faux glory that will fade within the next few days only to be challenged again in Rio*** in four more years.  That doesn’t mean I’m not going to cheer for America in 2016; I will, just not in the same way. Instead of cheering for our country, I’ll cheer for our people.  That’s more important.

*Especially since three of them play for the Thunder (KD, Russ, The Beard), two of them are the best players of their respective generations (Kobe, Lebronze), two are an offense’s worst nightmare (Iggy, Chandler), one of them has the cutest kid and happens to be both a stand-up guy and the best point guard in the league (CP3), one of them decided not to play with the Mavs (D-Will), one of them has no redeemable characteristics in the NBA yet plays his heart out in international play (Melo), one of them has a unibrow (Anthony Davis), and one of them is white (Kevin Love).

**Which wins the award for worst sport to watch on TV, since the only thing I’m capable of judging is the size of the splash.  Gymnastics is hard for me to judge as well, but gymnastics also had this.

***Btw, I cannot WAIT to see the opening ceremony in Rio.  British culture is far too familiar to me to wow me the way Beijing’s ceremony did in 2008.  The next one will be in South America?  In one of the coolest cities ever?  In a language that’s not Spanish, in a culture I know next to nothing about?  It’s going to be awesome.  Just you wait.

The People’s List

I read Pitchfork Media quite a bit, and I really enjoy their staff lists they put out at the end of the every year, as well as the ones they release every now and again about decades past. In fact, I love lists in general- can’t get enough of them, really.  So when they came up with the idea of having a Pitchfork readers’ compiled list of the best albums since they started reviewing music (that would be 1996), I jumped at the opportunity to spend countless hours (actually, maybe 2 at most) making a list of my own.  The minimum was 20, and the maximum was 100, so to conserve time and energy, I aimed for 100.

Now I’m sure we can agree that lists are meaningless.  No one’s list will ever be the same; you’re not going to agree with mine, and I’m not going to agree with yours.  What good is it to rate something so subjective as music anyway?  The only good it does is to give others some ideas for new music they can search for, as well as give anyone who reads my list some insight into who I am and what I value.  Hopefully you don’t take that too seriously, since Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy ranks pretty high.  I promise you Kanye West is the last person I hold up as a role model.  But I did put this list together based on what albums I love.  However, if you ask me in a month or so to make this list again, the order could change.  Except for maybe the albums near the top.

Anyway, here’s my list.  I hope you look into a few of the albums here, especially the ones near the top.  I’ve linked to my favorite song on each album.*  Enjoy!

Best Albums (1996-2011)

1. Patty Griffin: Children Running Through

2. Radiohead: In Rainbows

3. Andrew Peterson: Counting Stars

4. Sufjan Stevens: Illinois

5. The Hold Steady: Boys and Girls in America

6. Gungor: Ghosts upon the Earth

7. Kanye West: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

8. Titus Andronicus: The Monitor

9. Belle & Sebastian: If You’re Feeling Sinister

10. Radiohead: OK Computer

11. Fleet Foxes: Fleet Foxes

12. Animal Collective: Merriweather Post Pavilion

13. Arcade Fire: Funeral

14. Caedmon’s Call: 40 Acres

15. Kanye West: Late Registration

16. Drive-By Truckers: Brighter than Creation’s Dark

17. Adele: 21

18. Wilco: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

19. Bon Iver: For Emma, Forever Ago

20. My Chemical Romance: The Black Parade

21. David Crowder Band: A Collision or (3+4=7)

22. M.I.A.: Kala

23. Relient K: Forget and Not Slow Down

24. Green Day: American Idiot

25. Jars of Clay: Who We Are Instead

26. Over the Rhine: The Long Surrender

27. Surfer Blood: Astro Coast

28. LCD Soundsystem: Sound of Silver

29. Jay-Z: The Blueprint

30. Bruce Springsteen: Magic

31. Band of Horses: Cease to Begin

32. The Tallest Man on Earth: The Wild Hunt

33. The Shins: Chutes Too Narrow

34. Gungor: Beautiful Things

35. The New Pornographers: Twin Cinema

36. Drive-By Truckers: Southern Rock Opera

37. Various Artists: O Brother, Where Art Thou?

38. TV on the Radio: Dear Science

39. Phoenix: Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

40. Bat for Lashes: Two Suns

41. Blitzen Trapper: Furr

42. Arcade Fire: The Suburbs

43. Jimmy Needham: Speak

44. Dixie Chicks: Taking the Long Way

45. Vampire Weekend: Vampire Weekend

46. The Black Keys: Brothers

47. Beyoncé: 4

48. Bon Iver: Bon Iver

49. Coldplay: A Rush of Blood to the Head

50. Drive-By Truckers: The Dirty South

51. Fleet Foxes: Helplessness Blues

52. Jamie Lidell: Multiply

53. Girls: Album

54. Justin Timberlake: FutureSex/LoveSounds

55. The White Stripes: Elephant

56. Switchfoot: The Beautiful Letdown

57. Jars of Clay: The Shelter

58. Raphael Saadiq: Stone Rollin’

59. Lupe Fiasco: Food & Liquor

60. Iron & Wine: The Shepherd’s Dog

61. Hot Chip: One Life Stand

62. Coldplay: Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends

63. Broken Social Scene: Forgiveness Rock Record

64. The Gaslight Anthem: The ’59 Sound

65. OutKast: Stankonia

66. Audio Adrenaline: Lift

67. Local Natives: Gorilla Manor

68. Burlap to Cashmere: Burlap to Cashmere

69. Caedmon’s Call: Long Line of Leavers

70. M. Ward: Post-War

71. The War on Drugs: Slave Ambient

72. Wild Nothing: Gemini

73. The Very Best: Warm Heart of Africa

74. The Strokes: Is This It

75. Lecrae: Rehab

76. Bruce Springsteen: The Rising

77. M83: Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming

78. The National: High Violet

79. Jamey Johnson: The Guitar Song

80. Cat Power: You Are Free

81. Patty Griffin: 1,000 Kisses

82. Robert Earl Keen: Gravitational Forces

83. Gorillaz: Demon Days

84. Switchfoot: Hello Hurricane

85. Dirty Projectors: Bitte Orca

86. The Hold Steady: Separation Sunday

87. Girl Talk: Feed the Animals

88. Drake: Take Care

89. David Crowder Band: Illuminate

90. John Mellencamp: Life Death Love and Freedom

91. Yeah Yeah Yeahs: It’s Blitz!

92. Vampire Weekend: Contra

93. Steven Curtis Chapman: Declaration

94. Miranda Lambert: Four the Record

96. MGMT: Oracular Spectacular

96. Robyn: Body Talk

97. Ben Rector: Into the Morning

98. Jon Foreman: Fall, Winter, Spring, Summer

99. Matt Papa: This Changes Everything

100. Michael Bublé: Michael Bublé

*Yes, I’m aware that this is far too much work for a list no one will ever read.  But a guy’s gotta try, right?