Monday, December 5, 2011
Monday, November 21, 2011
Hungary has taught us how to be spontaneous. The other night our friend Dáni Hamar came by to pick something up and hang out for a few minutes. As we stood in our entry way, talking about the change in weather and the boat trip we recently took together, Dáni’s brother, Dávid, called. It turned out Dávid was just down the street and Dáni wanted to know if his brother could pop in for a minute.
Now Let me pause the story here. Honesty is a quality we both admire and sometimes loathe in our Hungarian friends; it depends on the situation and what they are being honest about. But that night, as Dáni hung up the phone and waited for his brother to arrive, he made an honest inquiry about whether we could host the two Hungarian brothers for dinner. His boldness in asking us to host a meal on such short notice was both endearing and exciting!
Luckily for the brothers Hamar, Allie had already planned on whipping up some Tex-Mex for the evening. So there we were, two Americans rushing around the kitchen, eager to show our Hungarian friends that we too can be hospitable. When Dávid walked through the door, Allie was preparing chicken tacos with beans and rice, while I took the cork out of our best bottle of wine. We all stood in our kitchen, sipping wine and laughing as we told stories and waited for our impromptu supper.
The meal was a hit! Allie hit a home run, which is no surprise to anyone who knows her. Through out supper our conversation was only interrupted by, “mmmm” or “Ha! This is so good--Nagyon finom, Allie (very delicious, Allie)!”
Afterwards, we sat with our elbows on the table and reclined into more casual conversation. I kept thinking, “This moment was brought to you by ‘Spontaneity’.” And it’s true, because if we had said we were too busy or didn’t have enough food for everyone, we would have missed this moment. Nights like that one make me incredibly thankful for Hungarian spontaneity, honesty, hospitality and their appetite for life.
Thursday, August 18, 2011
One of the drawbacks to living overseas is IP restriction. For example, if you want to watch a late-night movie on NetFlix or listen to free music on Pandora, you will find an unnerving message awaiting you: “Due to licensing restrictions, we cannot allow you to watch/listen to this awesome site you once greatly enjoyed in the US--have a terrible day.” The first time Pandora recognized my European IP address and slammed its cyber-door, I scrambled to find alternatives for sampling new music. Thankfully, I stumbled upon Jango.com and there found the new album by the Cold War Kids, Mine is Yours.
The Cold War Kids were wedged in between Cage the Elephant and The Black Keys on Jango’s “alternative” station. Their “alternative” sound is exactly why I love CWK. Lead singer Nathan Willet’s unconventionally high voice and penetrating melodies are a perfect match for guitarist Jonnie Russell’s jagged riffs. The Kids from Long Beach, CA manage to channel Southern blues with triumphant soul searching and pulsing rhythms. Though they've not yet won awards for their creative efforts, their latest album establishes CWK as an unsuspecting talent with stories to tell.
In Mine is Yours, Willet and company get much more personal than their last two studio LP’s. Songs like “Louder Than Ever” and “Mine is Yours” portray a journey away from love and back into its arms again. Instead of detached, third-person storytelling, Willet sings about “I” and “you.” In “Louder Than Ever,” he reflects, “I was takin’ you for granted, you were holding the reigns, but I can hear you louder than ever.” The simple switch to first person opens up CWK for inspection and allows listeners to connect with Willet’s winding path.
When I listen to Mine is Yours, I hear someone who has traveled the globe, tapped into the full spectrum of human emotions and lived to sing about it. And after the last few years, it's a surprise to many that CWK is singing at all. Following the huge success of their first album (Robbers & Cowards), the Kids received scathing reviews for their sophomore album (Loyalty to Loyalty). The effort was criticized as sloppy, loose and devoid of any real substance. In an interview with RELEVANT Magazine, Willet admits to selling his own bandmates short by closing himself off and "not stepping out and saying something" in their earlier efforts.
The darkness, confusion and even criticism of their second album seems to have laid the groundwork for something more authentic. The result is a weathered, yet brighter, musical expression, one that I can respect. The song "Finally Begin" betrays the wounded heart of an artist who faces the cold, cruel world and is left with a decision. "Do I open up my arms wide and learn to trust again or keep my eyes to the floor and just look out for myself?"
It’s risky being an artist. Art asks you to put yourself “out there” for the masses to either empathize or criticize, understand or scorn and various shades in between. I appreciate CWK’s boldness in sharing their experiences, especially since they were at first hesitant to do so. It takes a lot of guts and talent to use music to tell a story, especially your own. Even so, the Cold War Kids' emotional investment on this album gives us something deeper than story, where narrative and experience intersect: real life.
Wednesday, July 13, 2011
Two weeks ago I met my friend Bence for coffee. The last time we met, we watched the Dallas Mavericks beat the Heat in a replay of the NBA Finals. Since our prior meeting had us feeling “quite American,” we agreed to meet at a newly-built Starbucks for a cup of Joe.
Inside the Starbucks at Király Utca (“King Street”), Bence was eager with curiosity. “I’ve never had Starbucks before, so this will be a first,” he said in a barely-excited rhythm fit for 9:30am. Unbeknownst to Bence, his morning was about to get very interesting when Hungarian and American cultures would engage in an awkward head-on collision.
Bence reluctantly dished out the money for over-priced coffee and was then asked, “And what’s your name?” The question caught him off guard and in a double take he replied, “tessék (“excuse me”)? He had already given too much money for coffee that ranks about average in Budapest, but Bence wasn’t sure he wanted to give his name to Lady Starbucks as well. Asking for someone’s name is just as personal as asking, “How are you,” and it doesn’t happen here as a passing gesture. All the same, he relented and the strangely friendly barista scribbled his name on the cup.
“What was that about,” Bence turned to me and asked. Now I had some explaining to do. Because my wife was once a fully-indoctrinated Starbucks barista, I was able to draw from my well of Starbucks corporate and consumer culture.
I explained that most Americans don’t sit down for a three-hour cup of coffee (which is common in Hungary) and so asking someone’s name puts a personal touch on an otherwise impersonal transaction. Cue the blank stare. I went on to tell Bence about the “third place,” a setting that isn’t home or work but a place where “community happens.” “You see, Bence, Americans go from home, to car, to office and so they need a place where they can actually interact with one another,” I said as we made our way to an air-conditioned lounge area.
I could tell that Bence’s head was still spinning. In Hungary, community is one of the primary values of the culture. We often have people apologize to us for being able to “only” spend two hours over tea, coffee or a beer. Even when you are growing plants on your balcony, everyone in the building will have an opinion on how they should be watered and taken care of. As opposed to America, one must work hard to separate themselves from community in Budapest.
Eventually Bence settled into his comfortable chair and enjoyed his first Starbucks coffee. We had a great conversation, talked about sports, music and international politics. But the best part of our time that morning took place when we left the American coffeehouse. For the next two hours Bence led me on a walk through the city. Much like our meandering conversation, we wandered about and simply enjoyed the cool, morning air.
Bence taught me that I don’t need a building to have community. All I need is people, time and genuine interest. As a timesaving, on-the-go American, I have gained a lot from Hungarians. And if we leave Hungary next year, I hope I can take back with me Bence’s high appraisal of community. I hope I can still schedule coffee appointments with no agenda or impending meeting. I pray I can make space for people to interrupt my schedule, even if it means paying four bucks for over-roasted coffee—for community, it’s worth it.
Monday, July 4, 2011
Monday, June 13, 2011
When the NBA Finals kicked off, I swore I wouldn’t be one of “those guys” who cheered for the Mavs simply to spite the Heat. Though Lebron James has done enough to make people criticize him from afar (see here and here) and the Miami fans are rumored to be the worst in the NBA (according to Charles Barkley’s trustworthy opinion), rooting against a team--or player--seems to suck the fun out of sports and replace it with bitterness. Even with all of this well-reasoned basketball moralizing, I caved in by Game Six and caught myself hoping for a Heat loss.
I turned sour towards the Heat after I saw a video with Dwayne Wade and Lebron mocking Dirk Nowitzki. I don’t watch a lot of Mavs basketball, but while we visited our family in the Dallas I was able to catch the Western Conference Finals. Dirk played incredibly and with great character, doing little, if any, trash talking. So when it was reported that Dirk played sick and with a fever against the Heat in Game Four of the Finals, I was impressed! The Heat, not so much. Apparently Wade and Lebron thought his sickness was a little feigned and that the media blew it out of proportion--hence the video linked above.
Whatever their reason for poking fun at Dirk, the whole incident was arrogant and, in Dirk’s own words, “childish.” So I decided from that moment on to cheer against the Heat (oh yeah, and for the Mavs). What was I looking for in a Mavs win? For Wade and Lebron to be put in their place, to learn their lesson and recognize the higher road of integrity. In two words: too much.
I became like so many sports fans who put entirely too much stock in a game. In wanting “justice” for Dirk and heaping contempt on Wade and Lebron, I was acting no better than the European soccer hooligans I hear so much about, who fight and maim “football” players--on the home or visiting team--for winning or losing. All of the negative energy is tied to an unmerciful and unforgiving attitude. So I cannot help but wonder, what does my so-called defense-of-Dirk say about me?
When the Heat finally lost Game Six, Lebron was asked if it bothered him that so many people were hoping he would fail? He answered,
“Absolutely not, because at the end of the day, all the people that were rooting on me to fail, at the end of the day, they have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had before they woke up today...They have the same personal problems they had today.” (Brian Mahoney, AP)
I believe I’ve just been told. The uncrowned king has a point. All of us sports fans who hang our entire hopes and hate, cheers and boo’s or dreams and despair on professional sports need to get a life: our own. Lebron exercised outstanding wisdom by sending the hate he so often received back to its rightful owner. My hatred for Lebron, any athlete or team says a lot more about what’s inside of me than it does about someone’s sports performance.
Another King once said, “[O]ut of the overflow of [the] heart [the] mouth speaks.” And, “[H]e who has been forgiven little loves little.” I must admit that I’ve had a tough week and Lebron James made for a perfect whipping boy. On him I could hang my condemnation because it felt good to hurt other people when I was hurting. The times when I am most harsh on my favorite or most hated sports icons are usually those very times when I myself feel hated or condemned.
Lebron is right. I still have this aching heart and imperfect life, even after a Mavs victory. Sports is great for entertainment, but in terms of therapy it can only indicate which problems we have in life; not solve them. Jesus is also right. My reactions to these sports events are a telling barometer for where my heart lies. In the meantime I will continue to watch and enjoy sports. More importantly, I will continue to be thankful for the King who was and is willing to take my scorn, abuse, blows. For the One who through life and death revealed my hatred and then was gracious enough to begin healing it.
Friday, April 22, 2011
Monday, March 7, 2011
Monday, February 21, 2011
Friday, February 11, 2011
On my way home tonight I sat next to a homeless man riding the metro line around Budapest. Sometimes homeless people will ride the metro from the beginning of the line to the end because it’s warm and provides a comfortable place to sit. I watched as this man used the window next to him for a pillow and gazed into nowhere. I can’t stop thinking about that guy’s life. He’s not really going anywhere, but he still rides and the tram will take him somewhere.
Tonight I feel like the homeless and aimless metro passenger. It’s been nearly one year since we moved to Hungary and it still doesn’t feel like home. And when it comes to our service here, I’m moving forward but I don’t know where to. I’ve tried my hand in many different areas (I believe working with youth is my best option), but what impact can I really have in two years? I have lots of questions, but that doesn’t seem to slow this tram down.
I use to think my life’s calling was to be a teacher of the Bible. “If only I could teach at a church,” I daydreamed, “then I would be truly content and happy.” After all, I am creative, can tell a funny story, am an effective communicator and I love the Bible. Lately, however, I’ve realized that a few witty jokes, a couple of catchy phrases in a sermon and an enjoyable stage presence isn’t enough. It’s not enough for me or the world I live in.
So what do I do? I can’t help but feel like my well-crafted Bible talks aren’t going to change the world. These little blog posts will, at the most, render a barely-audible, “hmmm, interesting thought.” I also can’t help but wonder if the most important part of my week is spent playing Wii Tennis with a sophomore in high school. I wonder about those seemingly small interactions with students that slowly build a friendship. Isn’t this what it’s about? Sacrificing a little time, and sometimes glory, to waste my life on a high school student who just wants to know he’s loved?
I use to long for a cushy preacher job that provided me a book deal with Zondervan and a popular podcast. I know it’s important to reach a wide audience, especially if one has the gift of communicating God’s love well, but it’s not the end of the line. If I never write a popular Christian book, it doesn’t mean I haven’t “arrived.” We’re all riding this tram and all of us have to exit eventually. I still don’t know exactly where I’m heading, or at which stop I will have to get off, but at least I’m awake and growing aware of the people around me.