Monday, August 25, 2008

Keeping it Between the Ditches: Living the Christian Life - Ray Sikes

Honest, non-religious writing about the stuff that matters

Keeping it Between the Ditches: Living the Christian Life
Author: Ray Sikes (raysikes@gmail.com)
Publisher: Ray Sikes
Pages: 201

Ray Sikes won me over right from the start in Keeping it Between the Ditches. He writes, "I’ve tried to avoid ‘religious’ writing and simply tell the truth about believing in Jesus." It’s a simple concept, but it’s what makes this book so rewarding.

Sikes goes on to tell of his frustrations and disappoints a couple of years ago when he wondered, "What I had missed out on in the ‘abundant life’ that Jesus had promised to his followers?" How many of us have felt the same way? Even though Jesus said that his yoke was easy, many Christians discover that living the Christian life can be complicated. With hope for finding help in my own life, I knew that this was a book that I wanted to read.

As I read further I could not help being reminded of Donald Miller, author of Blue Like Jazz. Sikes’ use of stories from his own life, the non-religious language and the revealing honesty are all reminiscent of Miller’s style.

It’s also obvious that he has a gift of teaching. He has a balanced perspective, his conclusions are Biblically-based and he shares the truth in love. His manner reminds me of the description of wisdom given in the book of James: "The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere" (James 3:17 ESV). These are characteristics that every teacher should aspire to emulate.

This book, however, is not a Bible study. Sikes is telling his story. It reminds me of a thought expressed by F. W. Boreham. No one has ever been born whose story is not worth telling. Sikes makes his own easy to read and fills it with meaning. Anyone with a heart that sincerely desires to follow Christ can benefit from the practical wisdom in page after page. The insights are on target—firmly rooted in reality.

Lines like the following, which speak of the difficulties in life, encouraged me: "Each day is an opportunity to serve God, love others, and rejoice, despite our circumstances. Even in the worst of times, there are glimpses of grace, and whatever comes my way is better than what I actually deserve."

Knowing that I write for a publication that caters to music lovers, I should add that music has been a big part of Sikes’ life. In addition to being a discerning music listener, he has played bass in Christian bands, contributed to songwriting and been a part of worship teams. Reflecting on his varied experience, he writes, "Over the long haul, the music I have loved and don’t get tired of is simply ‘real.’ It’s not so much a performance as a genuine bit of communication from one artist’s soul to the rest of us. I love three simple guitar notes that convey emotion more than a flurry of guitar riffs that are merely fret board calisthenics. Give me a ragged vocal that’s tinged with the scars of humanity instead of a pitch-perfect display of vocal prowess any day. Write an honest lyric about the love of God or even the love of a good woman, but don’t make me listen to religious platitudes or romantic cliches. I have better things to do with my time, and I’ve found that God often is found in silence and not in so much noise."

I think this observation reflects what Sikes has accomplished in this book. He provides a realistic perspective on a multitude of subjects that include: music, substance abuse, cultural engagement, sex, singleness, marriage, family, work, money, church, the Bible, prayer and more.
As a single person, I felt like I gained a more sensible view of sex and marriage. I came across unique thoughts.

I found myself identifying with some of the author’s experience in church life. He lays to rest the idea that the only way to serve God is through vocational ministry. If you have ever lived under that mindset, it can be a real burden and hindrance. His thoughts are freeing.

I was challenged by his desire to live simply and avoid the many forms of materialism. This book is worth reading for a Christian at any stage of maturity. It’s also a book that a non-Christian could pick-up and understand.

Keeping it Between the Ditches is a reminder that treasure can be found apart from well-known names, large promotional efforts and media hype. As Jesus said in one of his parables, it could be in a field, off the well-worn ways of commerce. This book is a keeper.

Monday, August 18, 2008

A Wheel within a Wheel - Southeast Engine


















As profound as Ezekiel’s strange wheels

A Wheel within a Wheel
Artist: Southeast Engine (http://www.southeastengine.com/)
Label: Misra Records
Length: 13 tracks/41:44 minutes

For those who like depth, A Wheel within a Wheel by Southeast Engine provides plenty to explore. This reminds me of a rock opera, but not in the traditional sense. The words don’t tell just one story. It’s more like a stream of introspective reflections with occasional apocalyptic images of Ezekiel making their way into songs and the intriguing cover art.

There’s none of the oratory bombast of Queen, though frequent style changes in song do give them an opera-like feel. Instead of a hyper Freddie Mercury, you get a world-weary Jeff Tweedy in vocalist and songwriter Adam Remnant. He pours out his heart and ultimately surrenders to hope, but it’s the journey that makes this interesting.

The music is an amalgamation of both old and modern. It has a little of the passion and raucousness of sixties rock—at times explosive with a few notes of discord thrown in for interest. This reminds me of the Biblical concept of meekness, which you could define as power under control. One moment contains gentle sounds, even strings. Thundering rock may be just around the corner.

It can be as unpredictable as Ezekiel’s whirling wheels. "We Have You Surrounded" is just one example. It starts off quietly and builds with hard rock rhythms before ending with a screaming guitar that sounds like an old-fashioned siren. It ends with the band playing a rough mix of power pop with some sixties background vocals. It can be diverse and raw, but it’s under control.

Lyrically, it’s a thicket of words—the loftiness of Ezekiel with the heart of a Jeremiah. It’s musings on everyday life informed by faith but avoiding clear articulation. One exception is "Oh God, Let Me Back In," which is a quiet, earnest plea for God to take the singer back.

In stark contrast, it’s preceded by one of the heaviest-sounding songs, "State of Oblivion." The sound is ragged—the band plays with reckless abandon—and the view is cynical: "Daybreak has broken and I’ve long since begun to set all my feelings aside to live in a state of oblivion where happiness is my guide where I’m in control where I’m in total control." "Quit While You’re Ahead" throws a few jabs at politicians: "tell me what I believe tell me what it is I need tell me you’ll provide it for me … I’ll mistake the lies you sell me for the truth."

For those who want to listen deeply, there is much to glean both musically and lyrically. These songs can be as simple and complex as one of Ezekiel’s wheels. Fans of alternative rock will enjoy this the most.

Make Some Noise - Krystal Meyers

Meyers makes noise that you can dance to on her third outing

Make Some Noise
Artist: Krystal Meyers (http://www.krystalmeyers.com/)
Label: Essential Records
Length: 10 tracks/36:31 minutes

Fans of Krystal Meyers’ previous recordings may be surprised by Make Some Noise. Though the cover art hints at what’s inside, it’s a stretch from the rock on the first two releases.

It starts with the opening title song, which—who would have guessed?—has a club sound. Heavy urban rhythms and infectious grooves support in-your-face lyrics about a generation called to make a difference. There’s even an interesting synth that sounds like a concentration camp siren. Could this be a metaphor for a generation not willing to be silent? An edgy (but not overly so) concept video, which will probably get a lot of airtime, can be seen on YouTube.

The lyrics to this song don’t contain any overt Christian language. Has she traded her faith to become the latest club sensation? You can forget that silly notion. Her faith is still in evidence, particularly on the more guitar-driven songs that alternate with the new sounds.

This new vibe gives the recording crossover appeal. You can dance to most of the songs, and those with more urban appeal, are more generic lyrically, lending themselves to different interpretations.

One of several relationship-oriented songs stands out. "Up to You" is a breakup song that asks, "You sure it’s what you wanna do? I’ll leave it up to you." It expresses the heartache and uncertainty of an unwanted demise in a relationship. Am I your lover or your enemy?

Producer Doubledutch loads this up with programmed tracks and dance club grooves but there are still songs that hearken back to Meyers’ previous work. Fans should give this a chance. The producer makes the alternating styles cohesive. This doesn’t sound like two different recordings rolled into one.

Meyers deserves credit for being willing to experiment. She acquits herself admirably, and Make Some Noise will no doubt attract new listeners. They may even discover her faith, which might make the risk of a new sound worthwhile.

Overflow - Hannah Kerr

Young women leading the way Overflow Artist: Hannah Kerr ( www.hannahkerrmusic.com ) Label: Black River Christian Length: ...