Thursday, March 9, 2017

Food Review: Nori Sushi Scottsdale

Hello Ladies and Gents!
You all know that I take my film reviews pretty seriously. I’ve always enjoyed the cinema, and love to review films based on artistic AND personal criteria. Recently, I decided to start reviewing OTHER things as well - most notably coffee shops (THERE IS A BLOG ABOUT TO BE LAUNCHED REGARDING THIS) and, well, food. 

Food is an essential part of living, so it makes sense that we would invest a great deal of time into making it enjoyable! Reviewing food is an interesting process. For something so subjective in regards to individual palettes, it is an incredibly objective area of critique. 

For the percentage of people on the planet that enjoy sushi, there are a few criteria that almost all aficionados look for - freshness, flavor, and presentation - just to name a few. 

Anyway, enough babbling - now for the goods.

Nori Sushi Scottsdale (


Nori Tempura Roll 
Spicy Tuna Roll
Philadelphia Roll 
Chocolate Lava Cake


Nori Sushi is a small, but charming sushi restaurant located in the shadow of the McDowell Mountains in Scottsdale, AZ. I had heard from multiple people that their sushi was incredible, so I came in one evening with my girlfriend Kayla to eat and review… 

The staff was friendly, and we were greeted and seated as soon as we walked in. As far as ambience is concerned, Nori has a modern Asian Fusion vibe with ample sushi bar seating, as well as dimmed lighting and soft music. For those cooler evenings, there is a patio area available that features several tables and mood lighting. 

I always have trouble deciding which rolls to order when I’m in a sushi restaurant so I decided to try a Spicy Tuna Roll, one of my perennial favorite “basic” sushi rolls, and Kayla chose a Philadelphia Roll. We also chose the Nori Tempura Roll, which is one of Nori’s specialities (more on it in a second). 

The Spicy Tuna Roll and the Philadelphia Roll were both incredibly fresh, well prepared, and brought out quickly. The tuna and the salmon in these respective rolls were flavorful and tender, and I was pleased to note that the flavors of the individual fish were present. In too many sushi restaurants there is little to no distinction between the types of fish you order, besides color and maybe texture. Even in many of the higher-end sushi restaurants I have experienced, the sushi is just not “colorful” enough in regards to flavor. 
Spicy Tuna Roll (L), Philadelphia Roll (R)
NOT SO in regards to Nori. The spicy tuna had a distinctive kick, which paired well with the crunch and freshness of the cucumber. Both tastes were present, and the texture of the roll was softer than I’ve had in the past, allowing for the tuna to be savored. Soy sauce was present, but totally unnecessary. 

The Philadelphia roll was also delicious. I generally look for the balance of cream cheese as the deciding factor in this roll. The salmon was not overpowered, but accentuated by the cream cheese and cucumber. This roll is simple, but a favorite when prepared well.

NOW TO THE MAIN EVENT! - The Nori Tempura Roll. 
This roll is a specialty at Nori, and is prepared with spicy tuna and shrimp tempura, and has asparagus, yamagobo (a pickled burdock root), and jalapeño inside. It is deep fried in Panko Tempura and served with a delicious trio of sweet miso, sweet kabayaki, and sriracha sauce.
Nori Tempura Roll
At first I was uncertain about the presence of asparagus and jalapeño in a sushi roll, but this works. the bite of spicy tuna and jalepeno was tamed by the presence of the asparagus and yamagobo. The crisp shell was not greasy, and texturally was perfectly prepared. The sweet sauces brought the many different flavors to the forefront of my palette as I ate, and this quickly became a new favorite roll. I HIGHLY recommend. 

This IS a sushi review, but I couldn’t forgive myself if I didn’t mention the delicious chocolate lava cake. Sure, it’s not exactly a Japanese dish, but isn’t that the point of Asian Fusion restaurants? The Melding of cuisines…

Chocolate Lava Cake
The cake was moist, chocolate rich, and the gelato topping delicious. A perfect topper to an already amazing meal.


You made it this far, so I might as well give you my final rating :-)

Food: 5 out of 5 stars
Service: 5 out of 5 stars
Ambience: 4 out of 5 stars

Well done, Nori. 

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Pages I - Nowhere, with a View

Pages - Volume I
[This is a new writing initiative. Typically I write for a purpose, but now I write just to write. Each time I post a "Pages" volume, I will literally have written the post without any planning or pre-thought. Welcome to my unfiltered brain. Rabbit trails may occur.]

2.25.17 - "Nowhere, with a View"

Two days ago I journeyed with a roommate to Hell's Canyon Wilderness, which is about 23 miles/30 minutes away from my front door. For months I have noticed the particularly jagged and unusually shaped peaks rising into the sky in the distance (they look like mountains that were just hurled as lava into the sky, and then solidified in midair instead of falling back to earth), but I have never been able to find them.

These mountains seemed to be painted onto the sky itself, rather than being a reachable location. I have spent too many hours driving down different highways and roads trying to get to these peaks, only to end up at a dead end or private property...

Until this week.

Past Lake Pleasant there is a road that drives north into the Hell's Canyon Wilderness. The average driver would turn around where the pavement ends, but this time I decided to keep going - pushing my little Kia Soul as hard as it could go onto steep dirt roads that wound unpredictably back and forth around the hills north of the lake.

The beauty of this place is in its variety. One direction there is a layered vista of mountains - each peak a bit further out of reach than the one before. In another direction is a wide open expanse of rock, shrubs, and cacti. From time to time one could see the dust kicked up from exploring locals in their 4-wheel drive vehicles. (I made sure to reassure my Kia Soul that I still loved it. Perhaps cars experience insecurity...) Directly behind us we could see the north edge of Lake Pleasant, a shimmering sheet of distant water. Considering our location in Arizona, it almost appears as a mirage - until the small metal angle of a boat is seen gliding quickly to whichever secret fishing cove the day calls for.


Yet the feeling is the same.
The view is closer, but we are still not THERE. We are not in the midst of Hell's Canyon, not at the lake, not drifting around dirt roads in a Bronco. We are still watching from a distance.

There was not time to try and find a trail, nor was there time to drive further up and in.
It kind of reminds me of the spiritual aspect of my life.

Ironically, my mind compared a place called "Hell's Canyon Wilderness" to Heaven, yet the journey and it's effect were the same.

I find myself seeking an ideal in my life of spiritual openness, of God-Centered community, of life to the fullest... yet the closer I get to it the more I realize how distant it really is. In a broken world, perfection is always out of reach.

This is why we must look up, look to heaven for our hope. I strive forward in my life, going further up and further in towards heaven... but it is all preparation for the day in which Jesus brings me all the way.

Jeremiah 29:13 says "You will seek me and find me, if you seek me with all your heart."

I find it so wonderful to have faith in a God who doesn't stay out of reach, who doesn't force me to keep searching without answers, without that VIEW... Instead, The God of the Bible is a God who gives us HIMSELF. He IS the view that we are searching for.

The longing I feel when I adventure is but a small piece of a larger truth in my soul - I was meant for so much more than just myself. I was meant to commune with God, to enjoy him, and to live epically.

What an amazing truth.

This has been Pages.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Top 10 Films of 2016

Well here we are, once again!
It has become one of my favorite traditions each year to recognize and celebrate the top examples of cinematic achievement for the calendar year. While 2016 was a difficult year for many marked by loss, never before have I seen such profound artistry and moving stories told through film. 

I like to consider films on both an objective AND subjective scale. Not only must a film be a high example of writing, acting, cinematography, scoring, and direction; but I also must be MOVED and/or DELIGHTED by the film.

While there are few big-budget pictures on my list this year, the indie filmmaker market exploded in 2016, offering numerous surprises throughout the year. For every Batman V. Superman there was a Sing Street...

So without further ado....

Honorable Mentions:

- The Nice Guys - One of this year's most entertaining (and original) flicks was the Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe buddy cop movie from director Shane Black. The 70's setting and hilarious story are part of what makes this movie work so well, but most of the credit is due to Black's writing and direction.

- The Witch - Robert Eggers' chilling horror film is a masterpiece, more of a tale of paranoia and fear than witchcraft. Everything from the atmosphere to the dialogue lends itself to getting under your skin. Anya Taylor-Joy is the top billed actress, yet there is not a bad performance to be seen here.

- Rogue One: A Star Wars Story - I know, this one didn't make my top 10 list (please keep reading though!) simply because it WAS a flawed example of filmmaking. HOWEVER, the storytelling in the Star Wars universe has never been quite as strong, and one of the best 3rd acts in recent action film history make this a film worth seeing on the big screen

- Moana - The animation alone gives Moana a spot on this list, rivaling the detail and beauty of Pixar, but the story, characters, and amazing music push this film to the pantheon of such Disney giants as The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and Beauty and the Beast.

- Other People - Molly Shannon has been known as a comic actress for pretty much her entire career, yet she gives a heart-wrenching performance as a mother dying of cancer in Chris Kelly's pseudo-biographical directorial debut. Jesse Plemons of Breaking Bad/Friday Night Lights fame is the lead as her struggling, loner son. 

10. Love & Friendship - directed by Whit Stillman
Kate Beckinsale (yes THAT Kate Beckinsale) is an absolute delight in this adaptation of Jane Austen's novel Lady Susan. Fast witted, quirky, smart, and a lean 93 minutes; this is one of the best period films to come out of Hollywood in years, and a sure-fire contender for this year's Adapted Screenplay Academy Award. Director Whit Stillman understands the time period well, and manages the high-society dialogue and complicated character relationships with ease, practically dancing from one setting and character to the next. With nothing less than a Wes Anderson-esque intro for each character complete with placard explaining their relationship to Lady Susan, Stillman trusts the viewer to be able to figure out the social circles as you go, choosing to dive right into the story. While it is disorienting at times, this is part of the fun of a Jane Austen story, as the characters themselves often end up hilariously confused. With a supporting cast that boasts Chloe Sevigny and Stephen Fry, and some of the most detailed and beautiful period clothing and set design, Love & Friendship was a delight, and worth many viewings to uncover even more layers to the humor and wit. 

9. The Lobster - directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
One of the strangest films to be released in 2016 was the modern day parable from Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos. The Lobster is set in a fantasy-dystopian version of reality in which each single person is given 45 days to find a romantic partner. The penalty if they fail to do so? They are turned into an animal of their choosing. This bizarre setup is jarring, yet serves as a wonderful staging for a story that examines the nature of sacrifice and relationships. Colin Farrell is delightfully subtle in his performance here, hilarious with simple facial expressions and sighs. Rachel Weisz, Lea Seydoux, Ben Whishaw, and John C. Reilly round out the talented cast. While the actors themselves are superb, they are elevated to a new level by Lanthimos' direction. So much of the story is told in glances, breaths, and body language; and while the dialogue is smart, it is only part of what makes this work. While the story takes unexpectedly dark turns, there is always a heart to the film and always a ray of hope. Definitely a product of the times we live in, The Lobster is a profound exploration of humanity that serves as a wonderful companion piece to such films as Spike Jonze's Her and Richard Linklater's Boyhood.

8. Captain America: Civil War - directed by Anthony and Joe Russo
It has been a good year for Marvel Studios! While DC (and occasionally Fox) constantly flounders with their comic book properties on screen, Marvel has delivered hit after hit - both critically and at the box office. While Marvel's fall offering, Doctor Strange, was fun and creative, it was not the feat of filmmaking that was Captain America: Civil War. This film had to function as both a sequel to Captain America: Winter Soldier AND Avengers: Age of Ultron. With a cast of at least 16 major characters, screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely give everyone an organic place in the plot, never shoehorning anyone in, and STILL focusing the plot on Chris Evans' Steve Rogers and his relationship with Bucky Barnes (Stan Sebastian). Despite the massive set pieces and huge number of players, there is still a deeply personal story at the heart of Civil War. Gone are the global stakes and larger than life villains. Instead, we have a story of grief and grey morality that never gives it's audience a clear answer as to who exactly is in the right. Much of this is due to the handling of the story by the Russo Brothers. Somehow, they find the right balance of tone and action. For every airport battle there is an intense and intimate face-off between Tony and Steve, reminding us once again that these are people who are just trying to make the right decisions the best they can. 

7. 10 Cloverfield Lane - directed by Dan Trachtenberg 
While it is not a traditional sequel to 2008's Cloverfield, this year's anthology sequel 10 Cloverfield Lane deserves recognition for both the film itself AND it's surprising marketing. A sequel to J.J. Abrams' alien pic had been rumored for years, but J.J. Abrams' Twilight Zone-style series dropped the 2nd entry with little warning. While Mary Elizabeth Winstead offers a fantastic and nuanced performance as a car crash victim who wakes up trapped in a stranger's basement, John Goodman proves once again why he is one of Hollywood's best actors with his performance as her captor. Goodman can be genuinely terrifying at times, as a gender-swapped version of Kathy Bates in Misery, but at times his character is presented in an almost sympathetic light. At it's heart 10 Cloverfield Lane is an escape thriller, but in a similar fashion to Cloverfield, takes an exhilarating sharp left turn in the final act. Much credit is owed to director Dan Trachtenberg for using the bunker setting well to create a sense of confinement and dread. Ultimately, 10 Cloverfield Lane creates an experience, and not a spectacle - which is where the original film faltered. 

6. Hell or High Water - directed by David Mackenzie
I have a love/hate relationship with westerns. While I love the classic films from John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, I feel like modern Hollywood struggles with these morally complex anti-heroes. Hell or High Water is the first "modern western" I have seen that boasts both a gripping story and worthy characters. The story setup is simple, allowing director David Mackenzie to examine and explore each character's motives. Chris Pine and Ben Foster play brothers Toby and Tanner Howard who rob banks to try and save their family farm. Jeff Bridges portrays the Texas Ranger pursuing them who is facing a life crisis of his own as he nears retirement. The story is simple, but the execution is flawless. Pine, Foster, Bridges all deserve recognition for their detailed and layered characters in this film. Mackenzie's direction is brutal and unflinching in his handling of violence, which pairs perfectly in the way he depicts the painful emotional heart of the story. There is no softening to the pain, and the bloodshed is harsh and tangible. In Mackenzie's Texas, life is cruel and every man fends for himself. 

5. Hunt for the Wilderpeople - directed by Taika Waititi
Most movie-goers are not familiar with the name Taiki Waititi yet, even though both of his recent directorial efforts are stellar films. While not as raucous as his vampire satire What We Do in the ShadowsHunt for the Wilderpeople is delightfully silly in many places, and deservingly could be compared to the odd sensibilities of Wes Anderson. Where these two filmmakers differ, however, is in the way that they approach grief. Whereas Anderson approaches emotion in a surreal way, Waititi is not afraid to move his audience. At its heart, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is about two people who have lost everything. Sam Neill and the wonderful Julian Dennison play a widower and his foster son who are being pursued in a national manhunt after a series of unfortunate circumstances. While trying to survive in the wild they are forced to face their new reality, and their relationship as an atypical father/son. Although Waititi's next feature is Marvel's Thor: Ragnarok, I truly hope that he keeps making wonderful and intimate films like this. Few directors have the confident ability to make you laugh and cry so much in the same film. Quirkiness in cinema does NOT necessarily mean devoid of heart, as evidenced here. 

4. Manchester by the Sea - directed by Kenneth Lonergan 
Let me start by saying that Manchester by the Sea is a VERY difficult film to watch. It's tragic in every sense of the word, yet is a powerful exploration (once again) of grief. Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a depressed and lonely handyman whose life is uprooted one day when he gets the call that his brother (portrayed by Kyle Chandler) has passed away, leaving him in charge of his 16 year old nephew. Director Kenneth Lonergan utilizes flashbacks to slowly uncover the complex history of this dysfunctional family, weaving a portrait of the relationships, the pain, and the coping mechanisms that each person has turned to throughout their lives. The film is a slow burn, taking it's time to make sure you know each character well before demanding an emotional response. Few films have such a punch-in-the-gut emotional impact. At times I was reminded of the cathartic development from such classics as Good Will Hunting or Dead Poet's Society. The core to this film lies in the performances, however. A screenplay this intense can only work if the actors are talented enough to convey this wide a range of emotion. Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams are already receiving nominations for their roles, and Academy Award nominations seem inevitable at this point. There is a vulnerability, and a messy emotional core to their acting that brings you into the story as a participant, and not just a bystander. Manchester by the Sea asks you to mourn with this family as they try desperately to move forward with life. 

3. Arrival - directed by Denis Villenueve 
First off, if you are not familiar with director Denis Villeneueve (pronounced den-Ny vill-Newve), stop reading this article and go watch Sicario, Prisoners, and Enemy - like RIGHT now! Ok, ready to go? Arrival is the best sci-fi film I have seen in years. Villeneuve is a genius storyteller, and one of the most talented directors working today. In a refreshing change of pace, Arrival imagines a sci-fi story from a more grounded perspective. (Interstellar tried hard a couple years ago, but ended up being a bit too long and pompous  to be completely successful). Through the use of stunning imagery, deliberate pacing, and an intimate group of characters; Arrival tells a very personal story of a linguist named Louise Banks (Amy Adams) set against the backdrop of a global alien invasion. Although the core of the storyline revolves around the worldwide effort to communicate with these visitors, as the story plays out we are given snapshots and pieces of information that unlocks Louise's personal journey - leading to the best emotional climax in cinema this year. I really don't want to give too much away regarding the plot, as the way that it unfolds creates part of the experience. This is one of the few films I have seen this year that truly is perfectly balanced in every way. Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner work wonderfully together, and mesmerize the viewer. I fully expect this film to be nominated for best Actress, best Director, and best Picture - at the very least! Catch it on the big screen while you can. 

2. Sing Street - directed by John Carney
Irish director John Carney has only 3 directorial credits to his name so far, but each of them has done a stellar job of using music to aid storytelling on screen. Similar in spirit but vastly different from his debut/masterpiece Once, Sing Street tells the story of a young Irish boy named Conor growing up in the 80's who turns to music to escape the pain of his broken home life. For Carney's films, music is a character that challenges and shapes the people of his stories. As an homage to its setting, much of the original music in Sing Street is written in the style of popular 80's music icons - while lyrically containing the angst and frustration that we have seen Conor experience day to day. "Drive It Like You Stole It" is a particularly memorable tune, and has already been nominated for a Critics Choice award. As a musician myself, I love a film that understands the power of music to bring people together, to express oneself, and to escape the harsh realities of life. Carney understands this, portrays it well, and invites you to share this portion of life with Conor. The balance between pain and joy is handled well. While Carney's movies always have a melancholy tone, he knows how to bring out the joy in a moment. Part of this is due to the stellar cast, but Carney is the true auteur here - able to capture a feeling and recreate them on screen. Many of the performances on screen have an unscripted spontaneity to them, reminding the audience that it is the little moments in life that bring you joy and comfort. 

1. La La Land - directed by Damien Chazelle
One of the best movies of 2014 was director Damien Chazelle's Whiplash. Much of the acclaim for that film revolved around its stars Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons, yet it was one of the most deftly handled films of the year thanks to the confident directorial sense of Chazelle. On paper, La La Land seems impossible to pull off. Many directors have tried - and failed - to capture the sense of wonder and awe that the musicals of classic Hollywood had. The ambition has paid off however, rewarding us with not only the movie that we want to see, but the movie that we NEED to see after such a difficult year. La La Land is the story of Mia and Sebastian, two aspiring entertainers whose lives intersect in an unexpected way - ultimately shaping their paths and the people they are to become. Sort of a modern day combination of Once and Singin' in the Rain, the story is realistic yet never cynical; honesty, yet never without joy. There are tears to be shed, yet enough smiles to warm your heart. Oh, and a lot of singing and dancing! Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are majorly responsible for this, as I have never seen an on-screen couple with better chemistry. Gosling has always been a fine actor, but Stone proves she is a star in La La Land, stealing every scene she appears in. Both appear in impressive dance numbers and although neither of their voices are Broadway quality, both actors are wonderful singers as well. There is a rawness and emotional core to their duets that captures the moment in addition to the song itself. This is where the true magic happens for the viewer. Spontaneous song and dance numbers happen, yet they are more than just a spectacle to tease the eye and ear, they are an outward expression of an inward reality for Mia and Sebastian. While discussing the film with a couple friends, we remarked that Mia and Sebastian aren't supposed to be top notch singers, because in La La Land they are just two ordinary people who fall in love. We are able to relate to them, to root for them, and to feel the joy and sorrow the feel. I could sing praises of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone all day, yet would be remiss if I failed to acknowledge the music, written by Chazelle's friend Justin Hurwitz. Since viewing the film I wake up with "City of Stars" and "Someone in the Crowd" stuck in my head (and I am not complaining). La La Land is spectacular, a true work of beauty and joy that is uplifting and entertaining all at once. I'll be viewing it again, and highly recommend you do the same!

PHEW! So there you go! I hope you found this post entertaining and inspiring! I would LOVE to hear YOUR top 10 films of 2016, and I will see you at the movies.

Signing out,

Monday, September 12, 2016

The Good Muslim (Updated!)

(This is a paraphrase of Luke 10:25-37 as I imagine it in America in 2016)

On one occasion a biblical scholar stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“What does the Bible say?” Jesus replied. “How do you read it?”

He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind,’ and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

In reply Jesus said: “A man was traveling from Manhattan to Brooklyn, when he was attacked and mugged. They stripped him of his clothes, took his wallet and phone, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead.  
A local pastor happened to be going down the same street, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 
Also, a seminarian when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side of the road. 
But a Muslim man, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pulling him out of harm's way. Then he put the man in his own car, brought him to a hotel and took care of him, cleaning up the blood and buying him a new set of clothes. The next day he took out $100 and gave it to the hotel manager. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I get back I will reimburse you for any extra expenses you may have.’

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of criminals?”

The biblical scholar replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
Food for thought, you guys. 

Do we only love those who look like us? 
            Who believe like us? 
                        Who share our faith, our sexuality, our skin color? 

The scandal of this story is that Jesus could easily have told a story about a rabbi or a priest whose actions matched up with their beliefs.... yet in so many of these stories, the religious are the bad guys...

We already know this, but it really doesn't matter what you say, or what you project your life to look like, if you don't have LOVE for others. On one occasion, Jesus called the Pharisees whitewashed tombs, "which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean" (Matthew 23:27). 

1 Corinthians 13 has been a beautiful platitude for weddings for years, yet we often look right over the glaring indictment against our kind of Christianity. "IF I DO NOT HAVE LOVE, I AM NOTHING."

How can we show a person the God of grace when we fail to show them the grace of God?

I am baffled by the calloused and cold response I see on a daily basis by so many who claim Jesus. Suicide, war, homelessness, grief, death, destruction - it is all around us... yet for some reason it does not MOVE us. 

Jesus looked over Jerusalem and wept, because he was so overcome by the brokenness (Luke 19:41). 
I am also struck by Jesus' response in Matthew 9:36. "When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd."

Back to the story:
The shocking twist ending of this is that neither of the religious leaders or moral leaders in the story were lauded by Jesus. Instead, the "neighbor" to be loved "as oneself" was someone who was reviled and unclean according to Jewish custom - a Samaritan. And yes, a Samaritan in the ancient middle-east was viewed the same way that Muslim refugees are viewed in America today. 

So I come back to my earlier question:

Do we only love those who look like us? 
            Who believe like us? 
                        Who share our faith, our sexuality, our skin color? 

The Muslim refugee is my neighbor.
The transsexual person is my neighbor. 
The Black Lives Matter activist is my neighbor. 

And I am to love them all as myself. 

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Journey to Anthem: Raindrops

Last Wednesday night I attended the final meeting of my Christ City Church community group. We call them "parishes," which often confuses people, but whatever you call it, it is a Godsend.

As I pulled into the south Memphis bowling alley parking lot, the rain fell steadily - blanketing everything with a soft gray haze. To my melodramatic soul, it felt a fitting forecast.

In the back of my mind I thought that this would be the last time I dealt with rain for a while. (although any monsoon-enduring Phoenix dweller will tell you this isn't true)

I think I sighed heavily as I hustled inside... away from the rain, and away from the gray blanket of security. Now I had to face my friends - no - my family. We prided ourselves on our vulnerability and love for one another, but now I was finding that vulnerability to be uncomfortable.

How in the world could I tell these people how much they mean to me?

I resigned myself to the fact that I would never be able to, and instead focused on being present with them for the rest of the evening.

Since I can't bowl (wrist issues) I was the unofficial photographer of the evening. My goal was to capture the spirit and joy of community we had by just being together. This was the beauty of my time in a Christ City parish - no matter where we were or what we were doing, we were bound together by the blood of Jesus and our love for one another.

I loved to notice the sideways glances from other bowlers in our general direction. They weren't annoyed at us, but curious... we were just so happy.

As I interacted with each of my brothers and sisters in Christ, I realized that this really wasn't the end. My life was changed dramatically by the testimony and actions of these Christians, and there was NO way that our relationship would just cease to exist.

Sure it will be hard. Skype and FaceTime are not the same as a coffee conversation with a friend, but the whole point of my time with this beautiful and grace-filled church was this:

I am meant to take this West.

My time at Christ City Church healed me from bitterness, it set me free from my own doubt and standards, but it more than anything gave me a seed to plant in my own ministry.

This seed of love, of mercy, of grace, of justice is going to be crucial as I relocate in Arizona. How else can I see the lives of those around me impacted? I myself must love, must show mercy, must be gracious, fighting for justice.

So in the midst of the raindrops I find the beauty - I see this precious gift in front of me, and I know what I am to do now.

Thank you parish family for everything you've meant to me! Thanks for accepting me, showing me love, and rejuvenating my spirit as I head west into a new season of ministry!

This is not the end.

"No one has ever seen God, but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is perfected in us." - 1 John 4:12

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Journey to Anthem: The Faith Factor

"We are closer to God when we are asking questions than when we think we have the answers."

It is now less than 2 months until I move to Anthem, Arizona. I am overwhelmingly excited to be starting a new chapter in my life out west, and am eager to see how God uses Crosslife Church to bring hope and restoration to our city through Christ. 

When the discussion first began over a year ago, there were certainly many doubts in my mind regarding the whole process. Where would I live? What kind of a job would I have with the church? Would I be able to find new violin students in Anthem? 

The list goes on....

In a surprising twist though, these doubts are still in my mind. I still don't have an apartment lined up, my job situation is up in the air, I have not been approached yet about any sort of music work.

But somehow, none of these questions keep me up at night. I have NO answers, yet I have never been more certain of anything in my life as I am of the fact that God wants me to go West.

For a while I thought that this meant that my faith was growing... and of course in my pride I would pat myself on the back and marvel at how much I was maturing as a Christian.

But no no no no no. This is NOT at all what was going on in my Spirit. In fact, those moments of seemingly great faith NEVER correlated with a "God moment."

I started to notice a pattern. When I had the biggest moments of doubt, THAT was when God chose to show Himself. It was never when I felt like my faith was the strongest, but in the moments of weakness that God provided. 

This is a pattern I have noticed throughout scripture. 

In Matthew 17 we read an account where the disciples were attempting to drive out a demon from a boy, but were unsuccessful. (Jesus of course did so with no problem.)

"Then the disciples approached Jesus privately and said, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?” “Because of your little faith,” He told them. “For I assure you: If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will tell this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you." - Matthew 17:19-20

Notice what Jesus NOT saying. 

He is NOT telling them that they were not trying hard enough, or that they weren't doing enough, or concentrating enough. 

He IS telling them that their faith is misplaced. Even the TINIEST amount of faith in Jesus comes with GREAT power, because Jesus has INFINITE power at his disposal. Colossians 1:15-20 describes the Jesus this way:

"He is the image of the invisible God,
the firstborn over all creation.
For everything was created by Him,
in heaven and on earth,
the visible and the invisible,
whether thrones or dominions
or rulers or authorities—
all things have been created through Him and for Him. 
He is before all things,
and by Him all things hold together. 
He is also the head of the body, the church;
He is the beginning,
the firstborn from the dead,
so that He might come to have
first place in everything.
For God was pleased to have
all His fullness dwell in Him,
and through Him to reconcile
everything to Himself
by making peace
through the blood of His cross- 
whether things on earth or things in heaven."

Do you follow the point here? When I was young I just assumed that Jesus wanted me to have more faith in Him - and so I tried to build that up, somehow, which is really hard for a man to do on his own (impossible, even). 

Imagine the relief I feel now, knowing that the amount of faith that I have is not the question, it is the Object of my faith - Christ! Even if my faith is small, He remains mighty. The same One that created all things and has redeemed all things by his death and resurrection is asking me to TRUST HIM. 

Jesus just wants me. He wants me to stop striving, stop worrying, stop trying to prove myself, stop trying to provide for myself apart from Him. 

The Object of our faith is FAR more important than the amount of faith that we possess. 

I always got frustrated how the characters on the tv program LOST would always talk about "You just have to have faith, Jack" or "I'm just going to have faith that this works" without ever mentioning what their faith was in. Having faith for the sake of itself is pointless. BUT, if we are placing our faith in a GOOD God who knows every detail of our lives and desires to be in a relationship with him, then we truly can have assurance of our faith. 

"Now faith is the reality of what is hoped for, the proof of what is not seen." 
- Hebrews 11:1

Imagine how pointless it would be to have a great amount of faith in my own ability to work things out for my own good, or how fruitless it would be to have faith that things were going to work out simply because I thought it... No matter how awesome a person I may be, I will NEVER have that kind of power. 

So, at the end of the day, my faith is growing yes, but not because I have done anything - but because the reality of what I hope for is found in Christ - and I have PROOF through his resurrection that He is who He says He is, and His power is limitless. 

That is something we can rest in. 

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Reflections on the Seminary Years

I am currently less than 19 hours away from having a Master of Divinity degree from Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. This moment has been 4 and a half years in the making, and as I sit in my room past my bedtime, I can't help but think back on how much has changed since January of 2012, when I first began my preparation for ministry.

First off, 23 year old me was much more insecure in his faith. I remember those early days, when I was so bound to my service to the church and my seminary preparation that I bought into the lie that my identity was somehow defined by my performance.

What a dangerous thought that ended up being...

I nearly worked myself to death, trying desperately to prove that "I'm worthy to go!" or "I'm worthy to serve." In reality, none of us are worthy.

I also found myself facing a new enemy - Depression. This foe sought to take my joy and purpose in living. I'm not gonna lie, those days were very dark - despite my 4.0 GPA and smiling face on Sundays and Wednesdays.

This depression stayed with me for 2 years at least, and rears its ugly head from time to time even now.

But I have changed - in my final year of seminary, no less.

After wearing my spirit out, buying into the lie that I had to keep DOING in order to be a good Christian, and seeing door after door slammed in my face in the church, I thought I had made a HUGE mistake. After all, if I was called to ministry, wasn't I supposed to constantly be leading, and shouldn't I feel JOY in my soul? At times I honestly didn't.

I was reminded though of something my friend Matt Cureton had warned me about before I began my studies. "It is going to be very hard to keep your personal walk with Christ going" he had said. "You are going to get so wrapped up in your studies that it will want to take the place of Jesus, but it can't."

It felt like I was so busy working FOR Jesus that I had ceased to even talk to Him anymore... and it hit me like a ton of bricks.

I ended up through a long series of events at Christ City Church in Memphis, where I am now a member, and being prepared in more ways than I could have dreamed for church planting. The people there for the FIRST TIME refused to allow me to find my identity in what I did. That is not ministry, they said. YOU need to just spend time with God, spend time with His people - LOVE HIM, LOVE HIS PEOPLE... and then follow what He says.

I tried so hard to find something to do - something to validate myself, something to scratch that itch of action... but Jesus wouldn't let me.

Something crazy happened in the past year. I was forced to be still for a second and actually listen. And it was THEN that I heard it.... Through God's Word, through his people... my identity or value as a person (or a minister) has nothing to do with anything I possibly can do, but who I am loved by. I realized anew that I was loved DEEPLY by God, and that before ANY other responsibility, He just wanted me to want HIM.

It was a rude awakening, and something that seems to be a given in seminary life, but it really is so hard to keep in mind - Jesus loves me.

Seems almost silly, right?

That's what I thought. But then it hit me... this identity was freeing me to tell my story, freeing me to no longer fear my imperfections or my past. The fast that JESUS actually loves me gives me the proper motivation for doing all of the ministry that I had been training for over this past 4 years... I am just a guy, who has nothing to offer, who has been saved by God because of nothing that I did or will do...

God's just good like that.

So as I prepare to walk in a few hours, I feel almost juvenile in the way I feel about my faith with Jesus... but at the same time I realize that this is my ammunition to combat injustice, wickedness, depression, hate. "While we were still sinners, Christ died for us." Romans 5:8.

Why was it so hard for me to really GET that? I don't truly know.

I have a heck of a lot of head knowledge now, and I am thankful for that. I know how to evangelize, how to teach, how to parse Greek and Hebrew, how to lead worship - but at the end of the day, the question really is this:

Do I really REST in what Jesus has done for me?