7 People I’d Buy Dinner for in 2020

It’s the end of a year and the beginning of another. Thus come the lists of bests and worsts and favorites and least favorites and so on and so on.

I was tempted to do a couple on music (favorite song is Dean Lewis’ “Don’t Hold Me” or Alec Benjamin’s “Must Have Been the Wind”) or movies (“The Two Popes”) or TV shows (“The Mandalorian,” obvs). But as I was thinking about what I really want, what I most desire, it’s not more movies or music or TV. It’s time and conversation with people.

Thus I present you with my 2019 end-of-year list: The Seven People I Want to Buy Dinner For in 2020. They’re split into three categories.

First: People, sadly, I won’t be able to because they’re no longer with us.

Rachel Held Evans: Here’s what I wrote about her when she passed away in May:

As a writer myself, I love her style of mixing emotional self-reflection with life story, biblical application with textual criticism. She was both humorous and intellectual, realistic and self-deprecating. I want to write like her, to turn phrases with emotional impact and spiritual depth while pointedly approaching problems she sees. She wrote with compassion, understanding the reality of life as a Christian and a human, not taking any crap while seeing people’s flaws and elevating them [the people, not the flaws].

By all accounts, she was a wonderful person as well.

I’d want to take her and her husband to dinner with my wife and I. We’d talk about growing up evangelical, being Bible know-it-alls, going through significant faith changes and being a writer. That last part, particularly. Maybe she’d let me write a book with her. Or maybe she’d just read something I wrote and give me a good piece of writing advice.

Jarrid Wilson: Here’s what I wrote about him after his reported suicide in September:

This was a guy who, the day before his suicide was reported, wrote on Twitter, “Loving Jesus doesn’t always cure suicidal thoughts. Loving Jesus doesn’t always cure depression. Loving Jesus doesn’t always cure PTSD. Loving Jesus doesn’t always cure anxiety. But that doesn’t mean Jesus doesn’t offer us companionship and comfort. He ALWAYS does that.”

He was so, so, so, so right. And he lived that message! He was the guy who more-or-less singlehandedly, just through his presence on social media, helped me believe that it was OK to be a Christian who had depression and anxiety, that my mental illnesses did not disqualify me from being loved by God and loved by Jesus. 

By all accounts, he was a good guy too.

We’d talk, if he was willing, about writing and mental health, our own struggles and how Jesus loves us through it. With his permission, of course, we’d scheme about ways to raise awareness of mental illness and mental health in Christian culture and walk out planning to save some lives.

Second: People who are alive who are way too famous and/or busy for me to realistically have a chance to dine with them.

Andy Mineo: I enjoyed Andy’s music when he first landed on the Christian rap scene earlier in the 2010s, but it’s his latest stuff that’s really helped me appreciate his life and journey and our similarities. Maybe he could give me some writing pointers as well. But mostly, like Rachel, he speaks my language:

Yeah, built my life on this (huh)
Half my adult life like unlearnin’
Lies that I heard in a dumb sermon
What I unearth got me uncertain
More knowledge and more sorrow
Worryin’ that never fixed tomorrow

Andy Mineo, “Clarity”

Jon Bellion: I discovered him and his music this year. While he’s not my favorite, there’s a couple songs of his that just cut to my core like good songs do. I’d want to pick his brain on creativity and the music industry, how on earth he got such a good voice and what the inspiration for songs like “Human” is:

I always fear that I’m not living right
So I feel guilty when I go to church
The pastor tells me I’ve been saved, I’m fine
Then please explain to me why my chest still hurts

Jon Bellion, “Human”

Pete Enns: Pete wrote a book that radically helped shape my perception of the Bible this year. I wrote about it here. I’d want to get into the weeds a little bit on the academic and nerdy side of faith, but also learn how the academic connects to the trusting, spiritual side of things. He also seems like a pretty funny guy. I had a couple minor qualms with the book — that’s what writers do — but I also really liked it. I’d still ask him for writing advice.

Whatever else we do, and especially with issues that generate so much conflict, wisdom must be pursued by all and invited to take a prominent place in these discussions — if only so that they may remain discussions and not an exercise in lobbing back and forth ‘clear’ Bible verses as grenades. Using Bible verses to end discussions on difficult and complex issues serves no one and fundamentally misses the dimension of wisdom that is at work anytime we open the Bible anywhere and read it.

Pete Enns, “How the Bible Actually Works”

Pete Holmes: His book “Comedy Sex God” was one of the more enjoyable reads I had this year. He’s a comedian and actor, but my favorite thing he does is his podcast “You Made It Weird.” He interviews actors, comedians and authors about their line of work and various other things, but he always ends with faith and religion. The conversations are enlightening and hilarious. I’d want to have a similar one. I’d want to talk about growing up a Christian, growing up a white Christian male, where he’s at with his faith now and what marriage is like for him — he was married young, divorced after his wife left him and got re-married a few years ago.

Faith isn’t certainty, it’s adventure, something you’re going to come back from dusty and bruised, having seen and done things you never would have even considered before.

Pete Holmes, “Comedy Sex God”

The last category is the people I know for sure I can buy dinner for this upcoming year.

My wife. No explanation needed. She’s the best.

Life Songs, Pt. 1: I’m going through a process to stop seeing women as objects

Note from Zach: This is part 1 of a 14-part series in which I explore 14 songs that have meant something to me in my life. The order of these songs is not reflective on anything regarding their impact or depth of meaning, they’re simply done in alphabetical order of the artist.

“There are so many things that I don’t understand
Like why am I so lost if I have a captain?
I’m tossed back and forth by deceitful winds,
And if it all falls, look within.
I’ve been breaking hearts way too long
I did this from the start, now I’m all alone.
So focus on the heart if you want a home
I can’t settle for that cardboard box no more.”

One thing I love about Andy Mineo’s artistry is his transparency, especially in the album Heroes for Sale. He’s willing to talk about things and share personal feelings and concerns. One of the best examples is the song “Shallow” featuring fellow Christian rapper Swoope.

“Shallow” is all about how shallow men can be in their thoughts about women, even Christian guys. It’s something that I admit that I’ve struggled with. In the first verse, Andy talks about a conversation with his mother and he reveals where his heart is:

But let me be blunt, no pothead,
I’m going through a process to stop seeing women as objects
‘Cause the meaning of marriage is not sex.
It’s so much more, this ain’t no beauty contest
When you play that game then somebody’s always got next.
If charm is deceiving and beauty’s vain, then I bet
The standards that we judge most people with are nonsense.
I put too much emphasis on my preferences,
Dang, I’m feeling shallow just addressing this
‘Cause God loves me despite of how much a mess I am
And I’m writing off shawties whose bodies is less impressive like, dang.

When I first heard this, I nodded in agreement. It was my junior year of college and it hit me square in the eyes.

This is a conversation topic that doesn’t come up often generally in Christian circles. But among guys, talking about how a girl looks is common. For Christian guys, at least for me, there’s a conflict. Yes, we admire the beauty of certain girls, especially the ones we’re dating/engaged to/married to. But actually talking about that beauty brings some conflict.

We all have to go through a process to stop seeing women as objects because the meaning of marriage is not sex. And it’s a difficult process because our sinful hearts mix with our appreciation for female beauty. There’s something (the appreciation for beauty) that is in and of itself good and even godly in the proper context. But throw in the sinful nature, and it’s a mess.

That’s why I love this song. Andy talks about his heart and his attitude and I’m right there with him. I face that temptation to only look at a woman’s value based on her appearance. Especially for someone who’s single. And Andy’s willing to talk about it in a song.

That’s why this is one of my Life Songs.

You Don’t Have to Run Away

Everywhere that you turn
Somehow every face is another bridge that you burn
So you fade, you can’t stay
If you can find another life in another place
And hope the world forgets your name
But I can’t, no I won’t, forget you

I think there’s a bit of fantasy in every kid where they want to run away from home and experience the world. It comes in one of two ways:

  1. You’re ticked at your parents, and you want to run away as a sign of disapproval with the way things are going.
  2. You want to explore the world, and your home life is holding you back from the destiny you were destined for.

I remember one time when I tried to run away. I didn’t even get to the end of the driveway. I was just mad and running out of the house with no shoes on and claiming I was gone was my way to handle the problem that was going on. I think for a long time that was how I dealt with problems: running from them.

There’s a couple songs that I really like that deal with running away. And I think they both teach different things.

Runaway | The Afters | Light Up the Sky | 2010

The song is written from the perspective of a person who gets a phone call in the middle of the night from a friend who wanted to run away from their problems. Lead singer Josh Havens shares the inspiration for the song in a video linked here.

The idea behind the song is that, if you want to run away, remember that God really does love you and cares for you. Even if it seems like the world doesn’t care, God does. The God who is love will catch you when you fall:

You think you lost it all
And there’s nothing left of you
There’s nowhere you can fall
But love will catch you

I’ve been in this place many times. It’s a lonely place to be. You’re trying to find relief from something, and the easiest option seems to be running away from your problems.

The easy lesson here would be “don’t run away.” It’s not always that simple. In situations like that, what is required is someone who will listen, someone who will care, someone who will reflect the love that God has for us. But it does also take some bravery and gumption to be able to share what’s going wrong, what’s on your mind.

It’s not an easy process. And running away is the easiest option. But I’ve found that, when I don’t run away, when I do share, it’s freeing.

Runaway | Alex Faith feat. Andy Mineo | ATLast | 2013

Andy Mineo’s verse in this song is tight. Probably one of my favorites. He raps about having a hard time picking a girl to settle down with, not being able to commit:

I done found myself in the same position
Trying to pick a dame, but I can’t, playing games
Entertain different names, we exchanging digits
Uh, but you know what I’m thinking
I’ve been overthinking this whole commitment thing
Dang I wish I didn’t know the difference
Between a broken heart and one sewn with stitches

This is another way in which I tend to want to run away. I’m afraid to commit to things because I’m afraid it’s the “wrong thing” or I’m making the “wrong decision.” Basically, I’m afraid to take risks. It’s a fear thing. It’s taking chances. And that’s what Andy says in the hook:

You can stay here, runaway
Flee from town, runaway
You can hold on, runaway
Stand your ground, runaway
If you don’t take your chances there’s no way you’ll ever know
If you don’t take your chances there’s no way you’ll ever know

You can either take the risk or you can run away. And Andy’s repeated line at the end of the hook – “If you don’t take your chances, there’s no way you’ll ever know.”

So often I find myself scared to take chances. But if I don’t take that chance, if I don’t step out in faith, if I don’t take that risk, I will never know. That’s why I love Alex’s line in the first verse: “So I’m pushing back and I believe the promise that the Lord always gonna hold me down.”

We can take risks and not have to run away because, if we’re in Christ, God’s got us. Even if we make a mistake, we’re forgiven and loved by the God who created everything. That’s the ultimate mattress factory we can fall into.

You don’t have to run away. I don’t have to run away. Take the leap. Take the jump. God’s got you.

Lend Them Your Ear: My Top 10 Favorite Songs of 2014

Before I begin, an important distinction. There’s a difference between my “favorite” songs and my “best” songs. My “favorite” songs are ones I can relate to or I enjoy. The “best” ones are the songs that are well-constructed instrumentally and perfectly-written. These are my “favorite” for your reading pleasure.

1. “Fear” | Lecrae | Anomaly | Reach Records

There are so many lines in this song that I can 100 percent relate to. Lecrae raps about fear and how it can grip us, how it can hold us back from doing what God has called us to do, but also a reminder of how God is there the whole time, and all we have to do is call on Him. The line “Bible on my dresser that could teach my pain a lesson but I’d rather not address it” sticks out in particular.

I often find myself in that place when there’s things I’m struggling with. I use the wrong tools to deal with my issues, the wrong methods, the wrong paths, when instead, I should just go to the Lord, remember His Word, believe afresh in the truths of God. It’s like trying to drive in a screw with a saw: it won’t do anything positive and it will definitely hurt things. At least, that’s what I think will happen if you try to screw something in with a saw.

The beat of “Fear” is nice and the overall production is quite stellar. It didn’t get the Grammy-nomination-sized recognition that “All I Need Is You” did, but I think “Fear” is the best song on the album and my favorite song this year.

2. “Sweet Victory” | Trip Lee featuring Dimitri McDowell and Leah Smith | Rise | Reach Records

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” Paul asks. “Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger or sword?…No, in all these things we are more than conquerers through him who loved us” (Romans 8:35,37). Trip raps about the struggles that he’s faced from popularity and health issues and how we can only find victory in our circumstances through Jesus. I love this song because the message is true and it’s super-personal.

I love songs like this and “Fear” in which the artist is vulnerable and transparent, and it’s something that I’ve found is most beneficial in my life, when I’m honest about what I’m dealing with. It’s easy to feel overcome by life’s worries and circumstances, but we are more than conquerers through Christ.

The hooks from McDowell and Smith are killer, two great voices that contribute beautifully. I wasn’t a fan of this album as a whole, but this song went to my top list as soon as I heard it. Not even a question. And that’s why it’s here at No. 2.

3. “All of Me” | John Legend | Love in the Future | Columbia Records/G.O.O.D. Music

The soulful voice, the solitary piano, the honest, straightforward lyrics, I dig just about everything about this song. It’s well-written, something uncommon for a lot of popular songs today. It’s a unselfish look at love, with John praising his lady’s “perfect imperfections” and promising to “give (his) all” to her. The song is dedicated to his wife, which makes it even sweeter.

I’m a big fan of sappy love songs that are actually well-done, like this one. And I fell in love with chill music this year, and this fits the bill so well. And, as I said, it’s incredibly noble, especially when you contrast it with something like Pitbull’s “Give Me Everything.” When this song first got popular, two of my roommates and I had a brief heated debate about which one of us would claim it as our wedding song. I passed up eventually, but it wasn’t an easy decision. Plus, I imagine that stuff can change.

Also, check out this video with added violin by Lindsey Stirling. Just beautiful.

4. “Wanna” | Christon Gray featuring JGivens | School of Roses | Collision Records

This upbeat tune from probably my favorite Christian singer Christon Gray (no, not the one from 50 Shades of Grey) examines the dangers of succumbing to sinful desires, particularly with a seductive woman (which the video focuses on) and potential musical stardom. School of Roses just might be my favorite album from this year because Gray’s songwriting is a growing talent and his voice…good gracious, that voice.

The production is great and JGivens’ talent as an MC is super-evident throughout his verse. He appears once more on this list and is, I think, a rising talent in the CHH industry. Collision is putting out a bunch of good music right now – they’re one to watch for the future.

5. “Not a Bad Thing” | Justin Timberlake | The 20/20 Experience – 2 of 2 | RCA Records

Last year it was “Mirrors.” This year, it’s “Not a Bad Thing.” JT just has a pulse on my sappy love song desires right now. Again, a reminder that you don’t need vulgar lyrics or super-selfishness to make a great song in the “secular” industry these days. Plus, I want his voice. One of six people in the world whose voices I want, along with Michael Buble, Josh Groban, Matt Thiessen of Relient K, John Legend and Sam Smith. And, according to the personnel credits, JT also played guitar on the track. Bonus points.

It’s a song about taking a risk on love. “Don’t act like it’s a bad thing to fall in love with me, ’cause you might look around and find your dreams come true with me.” It’s a song about making a lifelong commitment, uplifting the woman and sacrificing for her. Plus, it’s got a sick boy band vibe (which makes sense). Anything with that kind of vibe, I can dig it. Always a good thing.

Note: the album technically came out in 2013, but the song was released as a single in 2014, and it wasn’t until it was a single that I found out about the song, so it counts as 2014.

6. “Doubts” | KB | 100 | Reach Records

KB begins the song explaining how his life since 16 has been all about living for Christ doing full-time ministry. He’s lived unashamed, like it’s his middle name. “But sometimes I still feel like I’m in the dark/Let me explain the conflicts of Kevin’s heart/maybe the fact that my father left me plays a part/and why I’m so afraid that I could one day walk away and leave God.” It’s another song with a high amount of honesty and forthrightness about struggles, something that Christian music seems to either avoid or be super vague about the majority of the time.

When I first head this song, I instantly related to it (in other words, bonus points). It hit me square in the chest because I’ve been struggling with doubt this year, doubt of my salvation, doubt in Jesus, doubt that God loves me, a lot of things. And to hear a guy I admire be honest about his struggle on an open platform really encouraged me. Is this the best or most creative song I’ve heard this year? No. But it ministered to me on a Top 3 level.

7.  “Royalty” | Mali Music | Mali Is… | RCA Records

I can’t remember how I discovered this album, but it’s probably my favorite album this year. It’s not the best album, but it’s my favorite. The voice behind the hook on Lecrae’s “Tell The World” brings a mix of storytelling and powerful statements, none more pertinent to believers than the one on “Royalty.” We who are believers are sons and daughters of the king, making us royalty. 1 Peter 2:9 states, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”

The production is top-notch, with piano keys complementing tight 808s with the occasional guitar strum and strings coming in the background. And his voice is almost as beautiful as that beard on his face. He challenges people to know their identity and to live their lives based on that. “Mercy changed everything for me and you,” he says. It did. And continues to do, those of us who are believers.

8. “Awkward Pt. 2” | Social Club featuring Abiv | Misfits 2 | Self-released

So this is a straight-up silly addition to this list, as is the next one. I discovered the rap duo Social Club through their mixtape Summer of George last fall, and their 2014 album Misfits 2 did not disappoint. This song is about being awkward, which is the calling card of Social Club member Marty. The song isn’t what you would expect from a couple Christian rappers, but that’s what Social Club is about, doing the unexpected.

9. “Paisano’s Wylin'” | Andy Mineo featuring Marty of Social Club | Never Land | Reach Records

There’s a music video coming soon, apparently, that I can’t wait to see. Bring in Marty of Social Club, and you get Andy Mineo’s goofy side. There are a couple good theological points in here, but really this song is aimed at paisanos (“a peasant of Spanish or Italian ethnic origin,” here Italian) having a good time. It caps off with a Godfather-tinged punishment for “running your piehole” from Andy.

10. “#SameTeam” | Swoope featuring Yaves, Tedashii, Dre Murray, JGivens, John Givez | Sinema | Collision Records

10a. “#SameTeam Remix” | Swoope featuring Jackie Hill Perry, Taelor Gray, KB, JGivens, Alex Faith, KIDD

It’s hard to mention the original without including the remix. The song promotes community and unity in the body of Christ, particularly in the Christian rap industry, not competing but working together, being on the, if you will, #SameTeam. Killer verses from JGivens, John Givez, KIDD and Tedashii make this pair of tracks must-haves.

Honorable Mentions: