Thanks, But No Thanks.

Maybe you remember O Brother Where Art Thou, a Cohen brothers film from 2000. Set during the depression in the American south, the plot follows a small group of inmates as they attempt to get their lives together.

Everett, played by George Clooney, is especially interesting to me. Unlike his two simple companions, he sees no need for religion, no need for God, no need to pray to a nameless and non-attentive character in the sky.

That is, however, until he suddenly needs divine help.

clooney-mustache

Our inmates, during the final scene, have been caught by a ruthless county sheriff and are about to be hanged for their crimes.

Suddenly, Everett’s atheism evaporates as he falls to his knees, searching the heavens and praying for rescue. It is a poignant moment in a film that can too easily be seen as a fun ride lacking any depth.

Soon a floor rushes through, sweeping away the gallows.

And, needless to say, sweeping away Everett’s concerns about God.

He quickly dismisses the flood scientifically, insisting it came because of a state hydroelectric project. And whether that’s the case or not matters little, because Everett believes it to be the case. He puts his faith in science and in himself, ignoring the possible link between God and the life-saving flood.

No need for me to draw connections between Everett’s tendency to draw near to God during distress and the human tendency to do the same. It’s a universal trait. If we are honest with ourselves, we will see parallels between our own actions and his.

Now, a brief story from Scripture.

You can read it in the Bible’s Old Testament book, Daniel, chapter 6.

So there’s this guy, Daniel, a Jewish man who has been taken into exile from his former home by a group of marauding Babylonians led by the well-documented leader Nebuchadnezzar [who long name has surely confounded Sunday school teachers ever since ever!].

Maybe you already know the story of Daniel and the lions’ den, but if not, I’ll summarize for you. The new king, Darius, has appointed advisors who have become jealous on account of Daniel; he is a foreigner, but he is wise and is appointed to a special leadership position within the kingdom.

And the other advisors can’t accept that.

Without much forward thought, they get Darius to sign a law that prohibits prayer to any god but him, Darius, the king. And they cleverly get him to sign.

Soon, Daniel is busted for praying to the God of Israel.

Following his typical daily routine of authentic prayer, he isn’t trying to be politically divisive or antagonize anyone, but he does feel convicted to pray to the God in whom he believes, and not to a human king.

Though Darius is sad and fairly upset about the situation, he has to follow through: after all, it was his law. He stays up all night, sleepless and wondering whether Daniel will make it in a den of lions.

And… Spoiler alert… Daniel makes it. He is found alive and unharmed.

Daniel and Everett from O Brother Where Art Thou strike an interesting contrast, do they not? Everett prays during the one time he is in genuine trouble. And after his rescue, he immediately discredits any possibility of God’s involvement.

The account of Daniel is altogether different. Here, we don’t even hear mention of him praying while he was in the lions’ den, only before. And after his night in the den of lions, he credits God for having rescued him from the vicious animals.

Friends, I want to be like Daniel.

I want my prayer life and spiritual practices to go on whether things are awesome or awful, to honor God with my time and talent [and treasures too!] whether or not everything is going well.

I want practice gratefulness, and not just at Thanksgiving.

As a side note, prayer and spiritual practices are widely regarded as healthy and life-giving. The Harvard Medical School acknowledges the research on the benefit of being thankful, and even of acknowledging God’s care. Check out the research they point to here if you’re curious.

In a sense, we shouldn’t be surprised that grateful people are happier and healthier. And of course, as a rule of thumb, it will generally be more difficult to be thankful when we are doing really well-for then we are distracted from God. It can also be difficult to pray after a painful loss or searing rejection.

And yet, practicing faith through these daily rhythms is what Christians are called to. These prayer habits of gratefulness and petition just happen to harmonize with our physical health. The theme of physical and spiritual health running a common course comes up more than I realize!

We must continue to pray, continue to believe, and continue to be open to God’s leading in every moment. And when we do these things, more and more we notice how God has been at work all along. Then, when difficult times come, we will have an established pattern of being attentive to God; we won’t have to awkwardly stumble back to God and re-learn who God is.

But if we do drift away, we have every reason to know that God still listens and receives us back. God demonstrates grace throughout Scripture, grace for people who forget about Him and grace for people that misunderstood Him.

And though we make every effort at being constant in our prayer and in our faith, our passions are still divided, mixed with some lingering pride or un-forgiveness or quiet hate. And yet, stubbornly, we pray, waiting with expectation for the day Christ makes all things new.

 

 

 

Top 10 Turntables [for Fun *and* Information]

I do not often write about gear. In fact, this is the first time. It’s simply not a significant part of the vision behind my blog. However, I have found a way to justify it. Within the world of theology and Christian practice there is this subcategory that I love called aesthetic theology.

While the phrase may sound complicated, it may not be so difficult to comprehend. Think back to a moment when your senses were overwhelmed with a surreal gratefulness and you just had to write or pray about it. Or maybe consider a time when you were at church worshiping and something about the hymn resonated with a deep part of your being and you simply felt at peace in God’s presence. If you’re someone like me who loves the outdoor world, think back to a time you saw a cascading waterfall or sweeping mountain vista, then think about the goosebumps. Love it or hate it, that powerful connection we feel to God through our senses and our imagination is called aesthetic theology.

For me, music is indeed a vital aspect of how I connect to God. I wouldn’t want to project this feeling on others, but I would certainly think plenty of folks would resonate with how I feel. Music, by its very existence, is a tiny clue, a step in the journey of understanding and trusting in the presence of our great God.

To justify writing about musical equipment, a guy needs reasons! Yes, vinyl happens to be one of my several hobbies, but I also need to keep my blog on point! Ok, on to the turntables.

The factors that go into my list are several, but in descending order they include quality, value, aesthetic appeal, and reasonable cost. Toward the end of the list, I compromised on the reasonable cost factor.

If you’re willing to put together a few hundred bucks, you can make one of these tables work long-term for your home audio situation.

1. Pro-Ject Debut

pro-ject-debut

Without a doubt, you’ll come across Pro-Ject when you take seriously the search for a quality turntable. The Debut series has been an enduring product line that has diverse options for any number of needs. Starting at $299 for the Debut III and ranging up from there, these Austrian-built ‘tables will suit the needs of most listeners and integrate well with any home audio system.

I personally own a Pro-Ject RM5 SE, another stellar performer in the sub-$1000 range, so you may consider my choice biased. However, thewirecutter.com, a respected  also loves the Pro-Ject as one of their best-rated options. A host of other reviewers agree, including Stereophile and UK-based HiFiChoice. It outperforms the other tables they review, and though thewirecutter.com selected another table as their “number 1” it was because of price, not sound quality.

Another fantastic choice if you like the Pro-Ject Debut is the Music Hall MMF 2.2. It’s made in the same factory but has some great features, even though it’s a bit more expensive. For the record [pun intended], years ago, when I first got into viniyl, Music Hall was my first love-but they led me to my soulmate, Pro-Ject.

I wanted to give a solid nod to Music Hall since I didn’t officially list one of their tables.

2. Rega RP1

rp1-titanium

The British are fanatics about vinyl. Made in southeast England, about 120 RP1 units are hand built daily to meet the demand of listeners around the world. This particular table is rather similar in design to Pro-Ject’s Debut, with a single plinth [the big square part of the turntable that everything is mounted on] and hidden motor. It’s $299, which is ragingly cheap for a solid product from a reputable company.

The Planar 1 is another great choice from Rega.

3. U-Turn Orbit

orbit-blue

I would be remiss not to mention U-Turn’s Orbit table.  Made in the greater Boston area, and again, with a single plinth, they utilize an exposed belt. This adds visual appeal while maintaining the isolation of the motor. Oh-if you aren’t sure what isolation means, no worries, I’m not some elitist. Motors makes a small amount of noise that can carry through to the needle, and since the needle vibrates to produce sound, you don’t want your motor interfering.

Starting at $179, this is probably the market’s cheapest ‘table that is a serious contender in terms of quality. The tonearm is the low point, in my opinion, but the overall design is solid and needle upgrades are always an option if you are looking for more nuanced sound.

4. Edwards Audio TT1

tt1

Reinforcing every stereotype [pun intended] about our British friends, this table is strikingly similar to the Rega RPM1’s no-frills design. That’s because the companies are related somehow. Unfortunately, I cannot tell exactly how. Go figure it out, I didn’t take the time.

Regardless, the TT1 is a great table. It comes with an acrylic platter, which is good both sonically and visually. The big issue with this ‘table is with its solid feet, it does not provide much sound isolation. Meaning, you’ll need to keep this thing on a heavy, solid table and away from any vibration.

5. Audio Technica AT-LP120-USB

 

audio-technica

To my eye and with all my biases, this ‘table is hideous. Really, it’s a table meant for DJs both in features and appearance. However, I wanted to include it on my list because of two reasons: it’s a direct-drive ‘table [the motor attaches straight to where the record sits] and it does USB recording. I’m not personally interested in either of these two options, but some folks want to spin/scratch and do DJ work. Others want to record and import their vinyl collection to their computer so they can stick the songs on their portable music player.

Indeed, there seem to exist two kinds of vinyl listeners: 1. those who enjoy the tactile aspect of having a hard copy of their favorite artists and 2. those who used to listen to vinyl back in the day who now want to combine the portability of an iPod with the nostalgia of their favorite tunes. I fit into the first of those two categories. It goes back to that aesthetic theology factor; when I take the time to dig out records and fire up my tube amp, I just love every little detail that composes the experience.

So, against my will, I’m including this hideous monstrosity on my list. At $249, it’s fairly cheap, and it gets the job done. For all you no-nonsense folks out there who aren’t concerned about appearance, this ‘table does come through. I can’t tell where it’s made, maybe Japan or somewhere in China. Not sure, the corporation is enormous. If you’re looking for something more attractive from Audio Technica, check out the AT-LP5. It’s a bit more expensive but a lot less hideous.

6. Gramovox Floating Turntable

fr_walnut_three_quarter

Made in Chicago, Gramovox prioritizes aesthetic appeal and simplicity. Yes, the ‘table sits upright, but that’s it’s one unnecessary-yet visually arresting-aspect. It’s purely minimalist design, very tactile, quite lovely with a walnut case. The other big thing about the Floating Turntable is that it is an integrated system, which means the speakers and pre-amp are all rolled into one. For $499, you get it all. 

For some, this is great. Others, however, want to upgrade these components. If you want to upgrade, you are in luck-the integrated system can be bypassed. But why would folks want to do such a thing?

Well.

The pre-amp in particular is an important part of a system because it boosts the tiny signal from the needle and makes it loud enough for the amplifier to boost to the speakers. In other words, it’s a bottle neck within the signal path [the signal path is the route from the needle, through cables, through a pre-amp, though an amp, through more cables, through speakers, and eventually to your ear].

People spend money on amps, speakers, cables, needles, and pre-amps because all of these matter for overall sound.

Fortunately, with its bypass feature, the Floating Turntable doesn’t force you to use its integrated speakers, pre-amp, and amp. This is one beautiful yet functional American designed and built ‘table.

7. Trntbl by Vnyl

trntbl

Ok, elites will hate me for listing this one, but hey-don’t hate, just read. This ‘table streams music. And it only streams music. Meaning, there are no cable outputs. To me personally, this is a big turnoff. But to others who prefer using Bluetooth speakers, it’s great.

The social features are where the Trntbl really shines. The unit identifies music it is playing-straight from the record-and allows the user to share this with friends or followers. Or, you can connect with others via Spotify and your friends can listen in to your music.

The Trntbl is available only for pre-order at $351, so it is yet to be tested extensively, but it appears to have decent components. Again, the quality will almost assuredly not compare with Pro-Ject or Rega, or even Audio Technica, but it has some interesting features that will surely stand out to certain listeners.

8. Pro-Ject RPM 10 Carbon

project-rpm10carbon

Twice I’m listing a ‘table from Pro-Ject. Why? It’s an incredible product. Yes, it’s $2999, and I get it, you have sticker shock. But this is one powerful and eye-catching means for spinning records. Look at that carbon fiber grain, the massive thick plinth, the belt, the sheer size. Plus it has an outboard motor which, just like an outboard boat motor, means the motor sits completely separate from the ‘table itself. The platter, where the record sits, is gorgeous and heavy. Gorgeous, because… well… people [like me, anyway!] love beauty. Heavy because it allows the records to play evenly without fluctuations in speed.

The RPM 10 comes with a heavy base to further isolate it from any sound or vibration in the room or neighborhood. Yes, jackhammers and construction equipment can indeed affect a needle. Plus, the base looks sick.

Oh-and did I mention? It’s tonearm is the carbon fiber Pro-Ject 10 cc. It’s essentially an upgraded version of the one that my RM 5.1 came with [props to me?].

9. VPI Classic

classic-002

A new old-stock Classic table is currently around $2800. Yes, paying close to three grand may seem like a lot, but I include this bad boy in my list because it’s a beautiful example of an enduring company that really cares about the details. Like the Pro-Ject RPM 10, it’s a true audiophile table. I mean, for goodness sake, it’s 65 pounds!  

Made in Cliffwood, New Jersey, VPI is a robustly American company using an old-school paradigm that prefers all-American components. They stick to their principles, and yes, they have expensive ‘tables. But the Classic is an enduring legend within the audiophile world.  My father in law, John, has sold [and loves] audio equipment professionally and recommends this ‘table for the price point. Yes, it costs as much as a used ’01 Toyota Corolla. But can that CD deck compare with this hoss?

I think not.

10. Origin Live Sovereign MKIII Turntable

origin-live-sovereign-mkiii-turntable-zoom

Don’t go buy one of these unless you’ve got way to much money-and no kids. It’s $7300, and that doesn’t even include a tonearm! But it’s one gorgeous, powerful machine. I won’t say a whole lot about it, but if you’re curious you can go learn more about it on your own. Once you’re into this $5,000+ category, there are a surprising abundance of options, and all of them probably have some great characteristics. Most of them look like something from the set of Alien or the new Halo movie. You half expect the tonearm on this one to morph into a laser or photon cannon. But, after reading the specs carefully, I’m afraid it does not.

Like fine wine, if you connect this ‘table to the same pre-amp, amp, and speakers, most of us couldn’t much of a difference between this and any of the budget models in my list. But then again, folks who buy this table are going to buy all of their gear commensurate with the turntable’s quality.

And they, unlike me, probably don’t have toddlers around. 

This is only one of many elite ‘tables out there that are visually and sonically arresting.

Summary 

Personally, I’ve hit my sweet spot. With a beyond-entry-level Pro-Ject RM 5.1, Jolida tube amp, and great inherited speakers and sub, my system is rocking. I doubt if I’ll change much, if anything. Maybe I’ll get a better pre-amp at some point or get fresh speakers, maybe a new set of tubes, but that’s way down the road.

img_4311

My system looks good, yeah? I’ll fish for a complement. I’m not above that. Not a good picture, but a great system. I hid the pre-amp and all wires underneath, naturally.

Now if I were someone out there with a few hundred bucks looking to get a solid system going, there are numerous choices in my list. I listed the Debut first because I really do think it’s the all-around best choice for the money, well ahead of the U-Turn on quality [see thewirecutter.com where the Debut strides far ahead of both U-Turn and Audio Technica]. I felt like I had to list models from Rega and Audio Technica because they’re perennial picks for good sound and enduring quality. The Floating Record player from Gramovox was a playful decision, as was the Trntbl, though they are both great for particular situations.

There may be a few folks out there with $5000-10,000 [or more] to sink in to a system, so I threw in a couple highlights from the very-high-end options that exist. There are so many out there, and it’s not really my area, so I only listed a couple.

A great many more ‘tables are out there that I didn’t list, spinning or maybe even scratching away. Can’t list ’em all, I suppose.

Anyway.

Enjoy music, folks, especially vinyl. May it, almost like a sacrament, remind you of the God who created the folks who creatively designed these machines, who created the folks who make the music that they faithfully reproduce. 

*

My Post-Election Thoughts

Well, as it turns out, I’m a bit naïve. And apparently so is the media-no one warned me about this election’s possible results.

Wow.

Trump won.

Clinton, Trump pick up big wins

Photo credit: Nigel Perry

For as long as it appeared Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump would eventually square off, I’ve been calling it a win for Clinton. Yeah, naïve, probably. Yet I am not the only one; many of us are caught off-guard. Not all headlines, but many, seem to say similar things: “it’s a shocking victory” or “surprise win for Trump.”

I’m thankful for Mrs. Clinton’s graceful concession speech, and I’m doing my best to be optimistic about the potential upside of Mr. Trump’s transition to the White House. It’s just really difficult for me right now as a Christian, as a citizen, and as a dad to see much potential after listening to the debates and hearing about the rallies.

Over the past several months I’ve dedicated my fair share of time tracking polls, blogs, the Twitter feed, and chatting with others about the eventual outcome. Since the results are in, I am searching for us all to thoughtfully move forward. I’m absolutely rankled by Trump’s hateful speech, his recorded bus conversation degrading women, minorities, Muslims, and the host of other woes toward about every demographic I can think of.

As a white middle-class guy, I’m sad and disappointed, and I can only imagine the response of women, minorities, LGBTQ folks, anyone less privileged than myself. With a net worth of 3.7 billion, we now have the richest president-elect ever waiting to take office on January 20th, and he arrives in office with promises of helping the everyman. Maybe he will indeed make America great [again], though I am personally unsure of the era to which he refers and for whom he intends to make the nation great.

To be fair, I do think Hillary has some egregious issues and untruths that polluted her reputation. And her inability to apologize sincerely did not help her leading up to the election. But I, like quite a few Americans, saw her problems as less significant than Trump’s. It’s a good thing we are allowed to disagree here in America.

All of that said, and now that you’re either bored or incensed, I want to offer some thoughts that will hopefully unite and focus us as we move into a new political era.

Here are my thoughts for moving forward:

1. Listen well

My friend Chris said this yesterday on his Facebook feed:

As I see the results coming in, it’s clear to me that I do not understand the experiences, values, needs and ideals of the majority of my country(wo)men. I have failed to listen deeply enough to stories whose hopeful ending appears on the horizon. Time to open my ears and take better care of those with whom I disagree. 

Wow, Chris. You nailed it. He and I have similar reflections of the events, and wherever we fall on the political spectrum, we all have at least 60 million people who see things quite differently than we do, since that’s about how many people voted per side. In reality, the numbers are much higher and the political gap much greater than that seemingly large number. With each side feeling quite strongly about their own position, it’s that much more important to listen.

Progressives, listen to how Trump voters substantiate their vote. Conservatives, consider why a great many people are concerned about the president elect.

Listening doesn’t mean agreeing, but it does build empathy. Here’s a brief quote from an anonymous someone with whom I personally disagree:

Feeling pretty conflicted this morning. Extremely happy that Hillary lost, but pretty disappointed at the same time that Trump won. The left has gone so far left, that I could never vote for a Democrat at this point. However, now the right has shifted to a place where they no longer represent me. I woke up this morning with an easier life and a president that caters to me as a late 20s white male, but, did my wife, daughter, minorities, etc wake up with that same feeling? Like I said, I’m feeling very torn on this election… 

I personally take plenty of issues with, well, nearly everything Donald Trump stands for, but the hardest thing is understanding how other people have arrived at a different conclusion. But again, it builds empathy and allows for dialogue.

As a Christian, here is something I’m bound to, from the 1st century writer, James [who many scholars understand to be the brother of Jesus]:

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. James 1:19-20

As a Christian, I need to get better at listening.

2. Pray

First, what I’m not talking about. I’m not talking about God-bless-America kinds of prayers. Clearly God is interested not only in blessing America, but in caring for all the people of the world, and nation-states are our invention. I would have to burst anyone’s bubble, but God is not American. Too often we conflate appreciation and support for our country with a sort of civic religion that subverts uniquely Christian concepts to praise soldiers that are serving the nation state. You’ve heard it before. “Their blood has made a way for us.” “Greater love has no one than this, than that a person would lay down their life for a friend; and these soldiers have done that…”

It is wonderful to be thankful for safety and grateful to soldiers for doing such difficult work, but let’s not conflate serving our country and serving God; those two things are often dramatically different, and they’re one of the factors dividing America internally.

When I say pray, I mean pray for people. Pray for people who are different than you. Pray for courage and strength for people who feel nervous and scared. Pray for renewed vision for people who are smug about election results and uncaring about how others may see the news. Pray for the peace and unity of all people, and certainly not just Americans. Pray for minority groups, whether you’re a significant part of one or not. If you are, pray for other marginalized people who share different concerns. If you’re white and male like me, pray that you can come to understand perspectives from other groups, then seek to live in solidarity with them, to give up power as Jesus gave up his power.

Pray.

3. Move Slowly, and Move Toward Those Who Hurt

I received timely wisdom on writing about the election and all its trauma. A friend encouraged pastors and other folks who want to write about recent events to pause and take some time before firing off a blog post or article.

I’m trying to take that advice. As I do, I look out the window, and thousands of high school students are pouring through the streets of downtown San Francisco in protest of the president-elect. It’s impossible to argue with their passion; they can’t even vote, as one of my colleagues noted, and they’re trying to live in solidarity with people groups who are struggling with what Trump represents. Surely there are other parts of the nation experiencing a far different response to the news, and that is part of the equation as well.

Wherever we find ourselves, my prayer is that we move slowly.

But we also have the opportunity in this season to move toward those who hurt.

I was speaking with one of my neighbors and her friend [they’re both 10 or 11] just before the election, and he was telling me that a young African American boy was crying at school that day. He was worried about the election and what it might mean for his family.

There were no words for that; no one can argue with a feeling.

I remember fumbling with my response, trying to be as optimistic as I could. Looking back, I realize I should have simply listened and sat with my 10 and 11 year old neighbors. I should have moved toward the hurt instead of trying to offer trite optimism. Oh, the things we learn as we look back.

Maybe you read about the young black child who cried about Trump being president and you think, “oh good grief, that’s preposterous.” Well, he was crying, and maybe he has some pretty good reasons to be crying. Maybe his sadness can be a reminder of how someone from a different demographic responds quite differently to the same results.

In the footsteps of Jesus, who moved toward pain in every step of his ministry and who advocates and prays to the Father on behalf of the hurting people of the world, may we too move toward those around us who hurt.

And, despite my many failures and foibles during this election cycle…

…may these changes start within me.