Spikes and All

Priests and punk rock don’t often mix.  As open as I am about my past, stories from that phase of my life don’t often make it into my sermons.  Yet this Christmas, I reached way back to high school to tell the story of a brief conversation with Maggie (not her real name).  And for what may well be the first time in history, a tale of black leather and spikes managed to find its way to Bethlehem.  I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I liked preaching it.

Christmas, 2016

We’ve got three teenagers at home which means that in addition to the joy of watching them grow into young men and women, we’ve also had to endure our fair share of rebellion. But as difficult as their angst can be for us to endure, I try to take it with a grain of salt. Because to be fair, I put my parents through worse.

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If you’ve seen my Mohawk pictures then you understand just what I mean. My rebellious phase started harmlessly enough- camouflage army pants and some heavy metal sprinkled in with the prog rock. But once my parents announced their divorce things took a much angrier turn. In a matter of months I transformed from suburban dork to punk rocker.

I got a black leather jacket and started wearing the shirts of scary bands. As things progressed I added spiked bracelet and Doc Martens. And as much as it bothered my parents it also made me stand out in the preppy halls of Haddonfield Memorial High School. But here’s the thing about my punk rock phase, no matter how much paraphernalia I piled on, in my heart of hearts I didn’t reflect who I really was. I was really just a poseur.

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Haddonfield High

But there was one kid at school who wasn’t. Maggie was a genuine punk, one of few in all of Haddonfield. Her hair was dyed jet black and her nose pierced which, in 1986, was a MUCH bigger deal than it is today. She knew everyone in the scene on South Street. But her biggest credential was getting arrested. The rumor was that she got picked up for hopping the turnstile of the PATCO High Speed Line coming back late from partying with the other punks. No matter what percentage of my wardrobe came from Zipperhead, I couldn’t hold a candle next Maggie.

Anyway, one day I saw her walking down the hall and noticed that the back panel of her leather jacket had been completely covered with two-inch long spikes. I caught up and told her how cool it was. Maggie smiled and said, “Doesn’t it just make you want to give me a hug?”

A hug? Really? But I suppose that’s was the point (no pun intended). At the time I really didn’t give it any more thought. But now I realize that her quip, “Doesn’t it just make you want to give me a hug?” was in fact an extremely serious statement. Far more than just an expression of teen angst those spikes were armor… armor meant not for her body, but for her heart.

And you know what? I bet it worked pretty well. If someone was going to get scared off by those spikes, well then in Maggie’s mind that was someone who wasn’t worth getting to know anyway. But, if a person was willing to make the effort- to look beneath all the leather and scary exterior and still managed to see the creative and caring person underneath, well then that was a person who was worth getting to know… someone who was worthy of her trust.

For the most part, I’ve long since outgrown that rebellious phase. But you know, as far removed as I am from being that angry young man who tried to freak out my parents and scare the holy heck out of the rest of the school, there are times when I am still haunted by the same feelings of insecurity and doubt that so plagued my adolescence. When that happens, when people let me down or I begin to doubt myself, my instinct is to once again armor up and try and protect my heart against more hurt and disappointment.

I suspect I am not alone. Because regardless whether you were a cheerleader, a nerd or if the only leather you ever in high school wore were Sperry Topsiders, there is something universal in the urge to take your pain and project it outwards.

The unfortunate truth is that some of us are still putting on an act or erecting barriers, just daring anyone to actually try and get close. And it doesn’t matter if we wear a suit, work boots or a lab coat, when it comes to our pain and feelings of vulnerability we might as well be wearing Maggie’s spiked leather jacket.

The only way we know to protect ourselves is to keep others at a safe distance. Unfortunately, if we wear it long enough, we forget how to take it off and how to let people in. In the name of self-defense we drive person after person away. Then we look around at our lonely lives and start to wonder if we really are unlovable.

If that describes how you feel, then maybe it’s finally time to try something different. If you’re tired of being lonely, if you’re tired of being held back by fear, if you hurt so badly that all you can seem to do is to lash out at the very people who are trying to help, if what you want more than anything else in the world is for someone to love and accept you for who you really are, then I want you to know that this night is for you. Tonight, as we celebrate the birth of Jesus, we are reminded us of the incredible truth… namely that no matter how many layers of armor we put over our wounded hearts, there is nothing we can do that will scare G-D off.

In fact it’s just the opposite. G-D sees through all the layers of our anger and pain and G-D… G-D loves us anyway. G-D loves us so much that he was willing to do whatever it took to close that distance we had created. In order to draw close to us again he came down from heaven and became one of us.

Born in Bethlehem, Jesus joined us in the whole range of our human existence. That means he knew doubt, isolation, betrayal, anger, fear, grief and all of those other terrible emotions which have caused you to withdraw or to push others away. Yet, no matter how bad things got, in spite of all the pain, Jesus refused to give up on us. In fact, Jesus loved us so much that he allowed himself to be broken so that we had the chance to be made whole.

That’ sounds too good to be true.  Imagine what that must be like… to have someone who looks at all your mistakes you’ve, at all the people you’ve hurt, at the whole of your messed up and messy life and somehow, still love you anyway. If that’s true then it means is that Jesus is someone you can trust with your heart. Jesus’ love for us is so great that if we let him, he is willing to hug us, spikes and all.

Such a relationship would change everything. To finally have someone who accepted you without condition or judgment… someone who could look past your anger and see the pain that lay beneath it… someone who you didn’t make you feel ashamed… someone you didn’t have to push away. To have someone like that would have to be some kind of miracle.

Well guess what? That miracle… that two thousand year old, heartbreaking, universe-changing miracle, that is what we celebrate tonight. In the birth of Jesus G-D comes into our world once again, and he comes so that you might finally know the love and acceptance you’ve always longed for.15673076_1246014532144500_3635799269079202813_n

Tonight you have a choice. You can go about your life as you always have; holding onto your pain, refusing to let go of your anger and doing your very best to keep G-D and everyone else at a safe distance, OR…. or just for tonight you can take a risk and choose to believe that Jesus just might be worthy of your trust. You can dare to let him see you without your armor. Just for tonight you can let your guard down just long enough to let Jesus come close, open his arms in love and hug you, spikes and all. AMEN

#boycottthedecemberists???

Yes we can!

       Yes we did!

Yes we can!

       Yes we did!

So went the chant lead by Colin Meloy of the Decemberists and the packed house at the Electric Factory.  It was only a few days after the election of Barrack Obama in 2008 and Meloy (along with most of the crowd) were still abuzz with excitement.  However, as the chant went on I couldn’t help but notice that here and there a few fans turned around and left the show.

I must confess that at the time it didn’t really bother me.  But ever since the fervor that arose in the wake of Mike Pence’s visit to see Hamilton this past weekend, I have been thinking about the exodus of those fans eight years ago.

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Let me be clear.  My wife and I are theatre people.  We both performed from middle school through college and she has worked in professional theatre as a fundraiser ever since.  Thus it should come as no surprise that we fundamentally sympathetic to the actors.

The issue for me is not what the cast said (remember, the boos came from the audience, not the actors). Their words were both eloquent and respectful.  Indeed, vice president elect Pence has stated that he had no problem with them.   Moreover, contrary to what the president elect and others have claimed, the role of theatre (or any art) is not to create a “safe space” or to make people happy.  Indeed, it is patently absurd that some of those who previously criticized the idea of “safe space” for overly-sensitive liberal types are now demanding it for themselves.  But that’s beside the point.   Because this issue is not about the first amendment or being offended, it is about the sacred space between performer and audience.

This space has nothing to do with politics.  The piece can be political.  When not on stage the actors can be political.  But, once that relationship between actor and audience is established, things change.  The actor is no longer expressing their personal views but the voice of the character they inhabit.  Any politics come from the piece, not the person.

This inherent distance between performer and audience is known as the Fourth Wall.  And while a few artists (and Deadpool) make a career out of breaking it, the Fourth Wall is generally respected by both artist and audience alike.  And so when it is broken it naturally raises questions.

 

 

To be fair, while the performers never broke character to address Mr. Pence, they did use the stage to make a personal statement.  And that brings us at last to the real issue… should the stage be turned into the performer’s personal pulpit?

That’s a sticky issue because while we all have the right to free speech and free expression, those of us who perform or preach are called to willingly suspend them for the sake of our vocation.  And speaking of pulpits, if Mr. Pence or Mr. Trump were to walk into my church I can’t promise I would be able to resist the opportunity to somehow tailor what I had to say in order to speak directly to them.  Indeed, some would argue that if I didn’t I would be negligent in my prophet and moral duty to speak truth to power.

At the end of the day I don’t care that people were offended. They don’t have to listen to Hamilton or The Decemberists ever again.  But I do think that those of us who perform need to remember that it is not about us, it is about the art.  And that is what we must protect… not people’s feelings, not our ticket sales or attendance, but the sacred space between us and our audience, because without it, our art wouldn’t exist in the first place.

Mosh Pit: 1 Medial Meniscus: 0

“Did you go in the pit?”  My wife’s frown made it clear that this was no casual question.  She didn’t really need to ask.  I limped very slowly down the stairs, leaning on the bannister.  As I collapsed into a chair, exhausted and in pain, one question kept running through my mind, “If only…”

“If only…” How many times have you asked yourself that same question?  If only I had ordered chicken instead of fish.  If only I had zigged instead of zagged.  That morning the question concluded with the words, “If only I had gone to see Ruby the Hatchet instead of Alestorm.”

It was one of those rare occasions in which I had to decide between two concerts.  It’s rare enough that I have the time and energy to go at all.  Now I faced an embarrassment of riches.  Behind Door #1 was Ruby the Hatchet, my favorite slinger of stoner-doom-occult rock that’s straight out of 1972.  Door #2 was a wildcard.  Alestorm is unique, being, as far as I know, the only Scottish-pirate-metal band in the world.  Plus their tour mates, Nekrogoblikon, a melo-death act out of LA sporting a guy in a goblin costume, were pretty unusual themselves.

Perhaps you can imagine (then again, maybe you can’t) just how vexing a choice this was. What tipped the scales in favor of Alestorm was the fact that good friends were also going .  If I went to see Ruby, I would be flying solo.  Not the end of the world, but it’s always more fun to go with friends.

The Voltage Lounge (formerly Whisky Dick’s) was dark, filthy and cramped… in short, everything you want in a venue for this kind of show.  The all-ages crowd was remarkably diverse and included the usual motley assortment of denim, leather and obscure metal t-shirts.  But there was also a dude sporting an old school Mohawk, people in pirate and Viking garb, a few black metalers and a surprisingly large proportion of women.

Appropriate disposal of a PBR in the men's room at Voltage Lounge

Appropriate disposal of a PBR in the men’s room at Voltage Lounge

The first two bands were local acts whose surprisingly good chops were obscured by bad sound work.  There was a small pit going but nothing exciting enough to entice me, especially because I was still feeling right knee injury from a Gogol Bordello show in the spring.  I was happy watching from the balcony and resolved to take it easy.

Aether Realm took the stage and my friend Ben (remember Ben), who was already pumped from a round down in the pit, headed back.

I don’t have a rational explanation as to why I followed.  Maybe it was testosterone.  Maybe it was the Fatheads Headhunter IPA I just finished.  Whatever the cause, my better judgment checked out for the night.

By and large the pit was extremely energetic but good natured.  One standout was a young woman who didn’t just make a cursory pass through the pit but hung with the big boys most of the night.  In between songs I shouted to her, “You rock!”  She turned to me, gave me the finger, screamed, “Fuck you!” then immediately broke out into a grin and high-fived me.  But highlight of the evening had to the stage diving.

I haven’t been to a show where stage diving was allowed in more than twenty years.  But during Nekrogoblikon’s set people would surf up, dance on stage or even join in the singing, before hurling themselves onto the hands of the crowd.  It was so much fun that John Goblikon got into the act, jumping off the stage and surfing to the back of the crowd before making the return journey.

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When Alestorm finally took the stage things reached an even more frenzied pitch.  By that point I was not only winded but beginning to feel that my knee was worse for the wear.  Again, logic would have dictated a hasty retreat to a safer distance.  Yet I stayed.

It would be tempting to say “The beer made me do it.”  The only problem with this is that I had only two at the show and had been drinking only water for the last hour.  So I truly have no alibi.

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Halfway through the set I was done.  Looking across at Ben I could see he was fading too.  By the last couple of songs the whole pit was barely bumping into one another.

As I hobbled very slowly back to the car I knew something was seriously wrong.  But for now there wasn’t much to do about it.  It was 1 am and all I wanted was a big glass of cold water, a hot shower, a handful of Advil and bed.

This brings us back to the beginning of our tale and my well-deserved spousal admonishment.  Fast forward through several trips to the orthopedic surgeon, some MRI’s, large needles draining pale yellow fluid from my knee, cortisone shots, a brace, a cane and a bottle of Advil and here we are.

As I suspected, the medial meniscus is shot If you don’t know what a meniscus is, that’s not surprising.  In simplest terms the meniscus is the rubbery knee cartilage that cushions the shinbone from the thighbone.  It can tear from being forcefully torqued which happened plenty in the pit.  Since I tore the meniscus of my left knee eight years prior, I have a pretty good idea of what I’m in for.  For the next three weeks I’ll be hobbled and have to take it easy.  Then comes the arthroscopic surgery.  The jagged edge of the tear will be trimmed and all the loose cartilage pieces floating around in my knee get suctioned out.

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Recovery isn’t too bad.  Walking cast for a day or two and some pain meds.  Then it’s just a matter of carefully working my way back.  More brace, more cane, more taking it easy.  Lord willing I’ll be back to 100% before Christmas which isn’t too bad.

But the real point of this cautionary tale is not so much the what, as the why?  Why did I go in that pit when I knew there was a real likelihood that I would get hurt?  It’s not the first time I have asked this question.  I’m not sure I can explain it but I am sure that at least part of it has to do with trying to deny the fact that I am getting older.  At 47 I can tell you my body just ain’t what it used to be.  Although I exercise regularly and eat a more healthy diet than I have ever before, the plain facts are that my joints ache and it takes me much longer to recover from a strenuous workout or injury.

So why do I continue to attempt such age-defying stunts when I know that there will only be an ever-increasing price to pay the next day?  If I ever discover the answer, I’ll let you know. In the meantime, if you have ever done something stupid and found yourself asking “If only…”, please share your stories and, if you have any, insights as to why.

Meeting Metal Matt

I was already a little on edge just walking into the show. A lingering knee sprain from a Gogol Bordello concert meant no mosh pit but even so, I was worried about how I would get along with the crowd who had come to see Behemoth.  Beside that I was on my own which created a certain amount of anxiety all by itself.  Yet there I was, finding a seat in the balcony.  Once I settled in and ordered a beer, my next job was finding a friend or at least a conversation partner.

I looked around for options.  To my right was a couple in their late 20’s with the usual leather, tats and piercings.  Several seats down on my left was big guy sporting a shaved head, lots of ink, a shirt that read “Blackcraft” and a laminated VIP badge.

I opted for door #1.

They were friendly enough.  We chatted about beer and the bands for a while but there was no real connection.  Once that conversation petered out I glanced back to my left.  I’m not a small man (6 ft and 225) but this guy made me feel puny.  He looked like he made his living as a bouncer at some very nasty bars.  Not the most inviting conversation partner to say the least.

So I had to decide… which fear was going to get the better of me?  Was it worse to go through the concert alone?  Or to broach a conversation with a guy who looked like he could kill you just by being a bad mood?

This time I went for door #2.  After the customary “How you doin?” I asked if he was with the band?  Turns out that he was just a fan who had come up extra early for a VIP meet and greet with Behemoth.  In fact he had left early that morning to drive all the way from south of Richmond, VA.  As he shared the experience of meeting Nergal and company and what nice guys they all were, I moved a seat closer.

I welcomed him to Philly and we introduced ourselves. I asked Matt what he was drinking.

“Jack and coke.”

I ordered our next round.  He insisted on getting the next one. While we waited I told him about the opening act, Myrkur, then we discussed other bands we liked.  Like me, Matt has wide-ranging tastes.  He rattled off a long list of genres that on his phone.  My ears perked up when I thought I heard him say “Praise Music” but I let it go.

After some time the conversation drifted from music to our families.  He’s got three kids, all younger than mine.  From there it was an easy segue into the trials and tribulations of parenting.  In addition to working hard as a telecom lineman, Matt also worked hard to instill decency, respect and morality into his kids.

At this point I couldn’t help but circle back.  “Hey Matt, earlier when we were talking about music, did you say you liked praise music?”

“That’s right.”

“So are you a churchgoer?”

“Indeed I am.”

“That’s cool.  I’m an Episcopal priest”

At that point Myrkur took the stage.

Between the sets we talked about Jesus.  We talked about the perceived contradictions of being a Christian and liking metal.  I asked him about the Blackcraft shirt. He said it was pretty much the same thing as liking Behemoth.  He liked the designs and didn’t worry about how others might interpret them.  He knew what he believed and the rest was of little importance.

I respected that.  I’m not sure that, even if I liked it,  I would ever feel comfortable wearing something covered in the symbols of Satanism or black magic, but I admired his sense of himself and his confidence.

So there we were, surrounded by pentagrams, goats heads, 666’s and every other imaginable symbol hostile to Christianity, and we were talking about Jesus and the challenge of trying to raise decent children in the 21st century.

Once the show ended I told him that since he was facing a seven hour drive he was welcome to crash at my place.  He insisted he was fine. Even so, I couldn’t let him leave without partaking of one of Philly great late-night institutions.

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We poured out of the TLA and across the street to Lorenzo’s.  I must admit that it was gratifying when he marveled at the size of slices.  Although the place was mobbed, we were given enough berth to finish our pizza comfortably (one of the perks of looking big and scary I suppose).

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Back out on the street we hugged and then he gave me his VIP lanyard.  I protested but he insisted that he still had plenty of swag to remember the show.  And this way I would have something too.  We exchanged numbers.  Not knowing his last name I just put him under “Metal Matt.”

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Some of my favorite Gospel stories show Jesus finding faith in the most unlikely people- soldiers, lepers, prostitutes and tax collectors.  Time and time again he marvels to find they have more than religious professionals and otherwise upstanding citizens.  When I first saw Matt sitting down the row, I was scared to talk to him.  By the end of the night I was happy to offer him the guest room in my home.  And from a concert that, at least on the surface, was all about celebrating Satan, what I found instead is that faith continues to show up when you least expect it.

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Breaking the Black Metal Seal

The room was a sea of black t-shirts that read “unholy” and “666” and there were more pentagrams than I could count.  Although I was there to see Myrkur, most were there to see the headliner, Behemoth, an extremely popular black metal band from Poland.IMAG01267

When it comes to what makes black metal “black” it does not get much more overt that what I saw that night.  Behemoth performed their new album, “The Satanist” in its entirety.  At one point the bassist, Orion, held a crucifix upside down over the crowd.  Later Nergal (who sings, plays guitar and is the undisputed creative force behind the band) handed out “communion” wafers that were imprinted with the band’s “unholy trinity” symbol (see below) to crazed fans in the first few rows.

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And there I was, in the front row of the balcony, trying to take it all in.

Such was my first trip to a black metal show.  Not surprisingly I was not entirely at ease with what I saw and heard.  Was my presence there inherently in conflict with my Christianity and/or my vocation as a priest?  As I have written before, this question has long vexed me.

Although I listen to a lot of dark, heavy music there have been bands that I wouldn’t listen to, not because I didn’t like their music, but because they were overtly Satanic.  But the more I thought about it, the more I began to question whether or not this divide was an artifice. After a lot of reflection, and in large part because I really wanted to see Myrkur perform her first gig in the USA, I thought it was finally time to push past those self-imposed restrictions and see how being at black metal concert made me feel.

It started with the crowd.  No one seemed particularly intent sacrificing a virgin after the show.  In fact, setting aside their appearance, most everyone I met was really nice.  It seemed that many, if not most, of the fans were there first and foremost for the music.

Of course you can find similar bands that don’t utilize satanic words and symbols so there must be some particular appeal to the pentagrams, et al.  If this wasn’t about religion per se then what was the attraction?

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If what I’ve read on the subject is correct then despite appearances to the contrary, it not actually about worshiping a supernatural being but rather the ideals they see represented by the character of Satan.  Nergal summarized it pretty well in an interview with the Guardian “To me, Satan stands for everything that is dear to me. I’ve always been very fond of independence and autonomy and freethinking and freedom and intelligence. Satan has always been a very strong symbol of all those values, so for me it’s very natural to take his side.”

Assuming that the majority of fans echo his views this means that in essence it was really all about rebellion.  All the inverted crosses and blasphemy had much more to do with the adolescent rush one gets from pissing off the establishment and giving the finger to the family, school, boss, church or culture that has frustrated you and left you feeling alienated than it did with actually worshiping Satan.

That is a sentiment I certainly understand.  Getting into music in order to freak out your parents…check.   Creating a scary persona to intimidate your classmates… check. Indulging in everything dark and brooding in order to convince yourself that you are deep and profound… check. Been there, done that, still have the tattered t-shirts.

Of course recognizing this doesn’t leave me entirely at ease .  There are still some fundamental philosophical divides that merit further exploration. And doutbless there are some for whom all this is not merely a gesture but a reflection of deeply held beliefs that are in complete opposition to my own.  Yet understanding that for most the pentagrams were largely symbolic allowed me to sit through the entire show and find something to appreciate in the sounds, theatre and above all in the energy of the crowd below.  Click here to read a review of this show and see way better pictures than I took.

I’ll be writing more on this soon.  Until then I’d really like to hear your thoughts.

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Band of Brewers

As most of you know I’m a beer lover from Philly.  That makes me pretty darn lucky because there are lots of great things about Philly… neighborhoods, museums and food, the Rocky statue, the Liberty Bell and the only place where you can enjoy a nice frosty serving of “wooder” ice.

There are also many great things about the local beer scene.  We have the nation’s first and best Beer Week, we were the first city in the USA to import and promote Belgians and by and large, even though we have a ton of great breweries and bars, there is a wonderful sense of camaraderie in the industry.

If you needed proof of why this is such an awesome place for a beer lover to live, you need look no further than the annual Band of Brewers.  The concept is simple.  A bunch of local breweries each put together a band and perform three songs. The performance is judged and at the end of the show a winner is crowned.  Better yet the whole thing is put together for charity.

So, even though this is the sixth year, it was my the first time I was able to make it (doesn’t Mat Falco know I work on Sunday?).  I was excited to say the least but by the time I got there two bands had already performed.  Fortunately there was still plenty of music to come.  I caught up with friends and sipped on local brews while listening to some surprisingly talented musicians.

When Stainless Maiden took the stage I had no idea what to expect, apart of course from presumably being an Iron Maiden tribute that is.  Heck, I had never even heard of Broken Goblet Brewing before.

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It didn’t take them long to make an impression.  The moment the singer took the stage with his beer gut and faux six pack abs, I was amused.  The music didn’t disappoint either, pumping out solid covers of Number of the Beast, Run for the Hills and, get this, The Brewer, which as you will have surmised, was The Trooper with beer-centric lyrics.

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By the time the giant Eddie took the stage for the finale, they had the crowd in the palm of their hands.  To no one’s surprise they were crowned the champs.  You can see a whole lot more pics taken by a whole lot better photographers here.

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So move over Liberty Bell, you better make room for yet another reason why this not just a great city, but a great city to be a beer lover.

The Blog is a Cruel Mistress

As you may have noticed I haven’t written anything for a long time.  Or perhaps you didn’t notice because you unsubscribed and you know what, I wouldn’t blame you.  Each week when Wednesday would roll around I would stop and think, “Kirk!  You have to write something!”  Then invariably I would find something else that required my attention and before I knew it, it would be Friday.   So I’d hit myself in the head and say, “You have to write one next week.”  This pattern went on for so long that I actually started to wonder if I’d ever get back to it.

Well as you can tell, today I finally did.  Along the way I spent some time trying to figure out why I put it off for so long,  Truth be told, I’m not really sure.  I’m busy, but no busier than usual.  I still like to write, especially when it’s not a committee report or another sermon.  As you’ll see in the coming weeks I still have lots of stuff to write about. Cracking-the-Whip-1

Maybe I just needed a break.  Way back when I first started this blog a wise friend told me, “You know, having a blog is a lot like having a mistress.  It’s great at first but eventually it’s just one more thing you have to do that makes you tired.”  For the record, I have no idea whether or not this is actually true, but it sure makes sense in theory.

Whatever the reason, I’m back and recommitting myself to churning out posts on beer, music, God and all that other good stuff.  For now let me thank you for your patience and I hope you enjoy all that I have to share about recent concerts, the return of the Biblical Brew Off, how fasting from beer for Lent got me thinking differently about drinking, and lots more.  See you next week!