Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Most Remakes Are Awful - A Couple of Exceptions

I'll go ahead and say it: most remakes of hit songs are unnecessary. That is, more often than not, a singer covering a well-known song is doing something that the world would be better off without. In most cases, they simply do an inferior job; the new version isn't as good as the original. It typically plays out one of three ways:

1. Sometimes, the remake is so identical to the original that you have to ask "what's the point?" 

2. Some artists will try to avoid that scenario by making such radical changes to the song that it becomes barely recognizable. And usually, that's a disaster.

3. Many artists fails to realize that their voice simply isn't right for a particular song.

As with all truths, however, there are exceptions.

A notable exception to #2 above is Chantay Savage's masterful reworking of the Gloria Gaynor's anthem "I Will Survive".  One listen of this slow jazz version will abolish any notions of this as a disco song.





For situation #3 above, Sara Evans provides a nice antidote when she covers Rod Stewart's "My Heart Can't Tell You No". Her voice is so perfectly suited to this tune that it becomes obvious that Evans should have been the one who recorded this tune first. I can't take Stewart's version seriously anymore.



Tuesday, December 13, 2011

What I Read in 2011

Because I write reviews as part of Thomas Nelson Publishing's Booksneeze program, I have posted reviews of most of the books I have read this year. Click the link to see the review.  I don't get all my books through Booksneeze, so I didn't write a review of every book I read.

I listed these books roughly in order, starting with my favorite, but I liked each one. The top 3 are pretty much interchangeable in terms of preference. Also, I reviewed two bibles and several children's books, which I didn't rank. 

My Favorite Books I Read in 2011:
(this one has a comment from the author!)
Paper Angels
(So does this one!)

Fahrenheit 451  (I read several times as a kid, but re-read it this year)
The Book of Man
(this review got picked up by Burnside and generated some conversation)

Erasing Hell
Slave

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Too bad this one was Rated R; there's a great story in there if you get past the unnecessary titillating stuff)

Kids:

Bibles:

The year isn't quite over yet, and I am currently reading
Raising a Modern-Day Knight
Twelve Mighty Orphans
5 Conversations You Must Have With Your Son
Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy


Friday, December 09, 2011

Storms of Life

Image from AP: See bottom of page for link
It's the eternal question: why do bad things happen to followers of Christ?

I found an answer that works for me, in a portion of the story of Noah and the Great Flood, located in the 8th chapter of Genesis. This passage has given me guidance on how to react to the hard things in life.

It's important to remember that much of our Christian walk is described in the bible in pictures. The Flood was caused by an intense and lengthy storm, and storms often represent trouble in our lives. Read on for just such a representation:

Genesis 8:1
"And God remembered Noah, and all the animals, and all the cattle that were with him in the ark; and God made a wind to pass over the earth, and the waters subsided."

The first verse opens with a reminder that God doesn't forget His people, especially in storms. This truth applies even when the trouble is the consequence of our own sin. Often we have storms in life that we bring upon ourselves. Noah didn't cause this storm to come about, but Mankind did. Man brought this destruction on himself. 


TIMEOUT

Before continuing in Genesis 8, we need to take time to balance what was said in the preceding paragraph. That example was given to show that we often can be the ones at fault for the appearance of storms in our life. However, it needs to be emphasized that the opposite is true, as well. It is entirely possible to be in the middle of a tough situation which we had no hand in causing.

Here's an example:

Mark 4:35-40 MKJV
"And evening having come, He said to them on that day, Let us pass over to the other side. And when they had sent away the crowd, they took Him with them as He was in the boat. And there were also other little boats with Him. And there arose a windstorm, and the waves beat into the boat, so that it was now full. And He was in the stern of the boat, asleep on a headrest. And they awakened Him and said to Him, Master, do You not care that we perish? And He awakened and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, Peace! Be still! And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. And He said to them, Why are you so fearful? How is it that you have no faith?"


We see here that Jesus is the one who directed them to go where they would encounter the storm, and with it, an opportunity to learn a thing or two about trusting in Him.

I wanted to include this passage to make the point that God will allow storms to surround us, and we need not feel guilty about such circumstances. One of the tricks of Satan is to try and make us blame ourselves when things go wrong, or worse, to think that God is punishing us for our bad behavior. Hopefully, this passage will expose the enemy for the liar that he is.

TIME IN
Now, back to Genesis 8:1:

His mercy

God has been sorry He made man, but He shows mercy by allowing Noah to continue to live. We may go through storms, but He won't let us get destroyed completely; however, the destruction that does happen is for cleansing. Parts of us are being chipped away, parts that do not fit into the mold of His character.

A Need-To-Know Basis

Additionally, let us keep in mind that the storms will stop in God's time, not our own. Matthew Henry's commentary points out that God had told Noah when the flood would come, but He didn't tell Noah when and how the storms would end. God had to tell Noah about the flood ahead of time, as it was necessary to his preparing the ark, but telling him about the end of the flood would keep Noah from being able to exercise his faith and patience.

Genesis 8:2-3
Faith means not relying on what you can see

Modern pictures of the account of the Flood depict Noah as out on the deck, not unlike a cruise ship. In fact, however, he had closed the Ark off, and stayed down below. He didn't rely on what he could see; he relied on hearing from the Lord

Genesis 8:7
"And he sent out the raven, which went forth going to and fro, until the waters were dried from the earth."

The thinking of the carnally minded person vs. the Spirit-led person
It seems as though the raven never came back--not because he found land (he didn't). He probably went from one dead carcass to another, eating what he could. He never came back to the safety of the boat, which was provided by God. He may well have drowned. He represents carnality; the mind focused on this world, finding supposed safety and solice in what the world has to offer.

Contrast this with the dove in verses 8-11, who came back for rest and safety. In Scripture, the dove represents the Holy Spirit; or Spirit-led person; in this passage, it represent one who may go and look around to see if the storm is over, but knows to always return to the Lord, and trust in Him for safety and rest, and comfort.

Genesis 8:8-11

"And he sent out the dove from him, to see if the waters had become low on the ground. But the dove found no resting-place for the sole of her foot, and returned to him into the ark; for the waters were on the whole earth; and he put forth his hand, and took her, and brought her to him into the ark. And he waited yet other seven days, and again he sent forth the dove out of the ark. And the dove came to him at eventide; and behold, in her beak was an olive-leaf plucked off; and Noah knew that the waters had become low on the earth."

The meaning of the Olive leaf

The Hebrew word used here for olive means "something which yields an illuminating oil." Oil has spiritual significance as well, and usually represents the spirit.

Of course, the Olive branch also symbolizes peace; always remember that God does not look at His people as enemies.

Genesis 8:12-14

"And he waited yet other seven days, and sent forth the dove; but she returned no more to him. And it came to pass in the six hundred and first year, in the first month , on the first of the month, that the waters were dried up from the earth. And Noah removed the covering of the ark, and looked, and behold, the surface of the ground was dried. And in the second month, on the twenty-seventh day of the month, the earth was dry." 


Waiting on God's direction

Notice that even though Noah saw that it looked safe, he didn't leave the boat until told to by God. Waiting on the Lord is hardest when it seems safe, but as this story shows us, it only seems safe in our eyes, to our logic. And human logic always which falls short of God's wisdom.


Genesis 8:15-20


"And God spoke to Noah, saying, Go out of the ark, thou, and thy wife, and thy sons, and thy sons' wives with thee. Bring forth with thee every animal which is with thee, of all flesh, fowl as well as cattle, and all the creeping things which creep on the earth, that they may swarm on the earth, and may be fruitful and multiply on the earth. And Noah went out, and his sons, and his wife, and his sons' wives with him. All the animals, all the creeping things, and all the fowl--everything that moves on the earth, after their kinds, went out of the ark. And Noah built an altar to Jehovah; and took of every clean animal, and of all clean fowl, and offered up burnt-offerings on the altar." 


The Importance of worshipping the Lord

The first thing Noah did after unloading the boat was an act of worship. How is your worship life? How is it while in the middle of a storm? How is it when the storms have done their damage?

Genesis 8:21
"And Jehovah smelled the sweet odor. And Jehovah said in his heart, I will no more henceforth curse the ground on account of Man, for the thought of Man's heart is evil from his youth; and I will no more smite every living thing, as I have done."

You may recall that God cursed the ground in Gen 3:17, but here He takes it back. He acknowledges that man has an evil heart. "From his youth" implies that it's genetic, not learned; it's the way we are, at least until God works through us to make us more like He wants us to be.

Genesis 8:22
"Henceforth, all the days of the earth, seed time and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night, shall not cease."

God doesn't just restore life to the earth, He restores order to the world; the seasons are now lined up according to His plan. Always remember that God will use storms of life to bring order to your life, to bring about the circumstances that are best for you.

Link to original image, along with many other amazing photos of Hurricane Irene.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Three Cups: A Review

As a member of Thomas Nelson Publishing's Booksneeze program, I get the occasional free book for review purposes. My latest one is a kid's book: Three Cups, by Tony Townsley, Mark St. Germain, and April Willy. Three Cups tells a story of a child who is given a way to place money that is given to him: one cup each for giving, saving, and spending.

I got the book for my own kids, and sadly, it was a couple of years too late. The book is written at a level of a boy or girl who's around age 4 or 5. It's probably the type of book which is best read to a kid.
That said, it's a great little book, and the story is interesting enough that the kid who hears or reads it doesn't realize he's being preached to or being taught.

Yet, they are being taught an important lesson: it's good to know how to manage your money, and it's good to spend some, to save some, and of course, to give some.

I like this book a lot. Just wish I would have gotten it a few years ago.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Forgiveness: New Thoughts

A short time after I started driving at age 16, I got my first speeding ticket, and countless more followed over the next few years. As I was working low-paying jobs at the time, I had to find an inexpensive way to resolve all these tickets. (Don't bother telling me about the best option--simply driving at or below the speed limit like a good citizen--I am very aware of that.)  I tried deferred adjudication, I tried getting a lawyer to get it off my record, and I even tried taking the defensive driving option.

Each of these remedies has its pros and cons, but I have to admit that I rather enjoyed my annual trips to defensive driving class. After attending it several times, I have become so familiar with the material that I feel like I could teach the class myself.

Another teaching I have heard countless times is the sermon about forgiveness.  I've been a Christian for a long time, and it's been a frequent sermon topic wherever I've been. Because of my frequent and prolonged exposure to this teaching, I thought I knew all there is to know about forgiveness. So imagine my surprise when I ran into some ideas in my personal prayer time that were fresh and new, at least to me. It all started when, a few weeks ago, I began to remember an incident which happened with I was just a 7th-grader.

Here's the scene: I was outside at school, during 6th period off-season workouts for football players who weren't on the basketball team. For reasons unknown, an 8th-grader came up and punched me in the face. To this day, I have no idea why he did this. But he hit me repeatedly, and by the time I gathered my wits enough to defend myself, others came over to break it up. Because nobody was around when this kid initiated it, it appeared to everyone that the two of us were fighting.

The head football coach, Coach Miller, came over and asked why were were fighting. I told him that I had no idea why, but this kid started hitting me. The kid said I shot a rubber band at him, which was not true. The coach had to decide who was telling the truth. He chose to believe the other kid, and then administered punishment to the both of us.

Whistle Sprints
This punishment came in the form of whistle sprints, an unpleasant practice where we are to run at full speed on the football field until the coach blows the whistle. When we hear that, we are to dive horizontally, straight ahead, and slide on the grass, then get up and start running till the whistle blows again, at which point we dive. Because this was winter, the grass was brown and not even a little bit soft. We were basically having to jump into hard ground which contained a negligible bit of grass.

I was upset, of course, that I was being punished so harshly, but even more painful was the fact that the coach didn't believe me.

Many years into my adulthood, I saw him in a restaurant, and I could have walked over and shaken his hand, but I chose to pretend I didn't see him.

The Scene As I Imagine it Would Happen
I had pretty much forgotten this unfortunate episode of my life, but recently it came back to mind. I began daydreaming. I imagined seeing the coach again, perhaps at a restaurant, and then telling him how wrong he was. I imagined him with a sad, remorseful, look on his face.

But then, I came back to reality as a sudden thought shook me: I realized that I had not forgiven Coach Miller for hurting me.  This came as a shock, because I really thought I had this forgiveness thing down. I began to ask God to explain this to me, and it was as if He said that as long as I held onto my right to tell this man how his actions had caused me pain, then I had not really forgiven him. My wish that Coach Miller would feel horribly guilty upon hearing this was effectively a desire to see him punished, and it was a desire that I would be the one administering the punishment.     

So What is Forgiveness, Really?
Since then, I have been re-thinking what I know about forgiveness. Perhaps it's not what I think it is. I do know this: it's separate from forgetfulness. As many commands as I can find in Scripture to forgive, I have yet to run across one instructing us to forget. But in my case, I was holding on to the idea of letting him have it--verbally--and that thought is based on revenge. Revenge and forgiveness cannot be roommates. If I choose to live with one, then the other has to go.

A couple of weeks ago, a video clip has been making the rounds, getting laughs. Two Canadian football legends, now in their late 70's, were brought together onto a stage for the purpose of discussing their playing days on rival teams. It turned out that the two men were still angry at each other over a hit in a game some 50 years ago. They got into a fight, right there on stage. One man hit the other with his cane, then the fists started flying.


Although someone shared this story with me for humor purposes, I didn't laugh. What I saw was two men who let anger and unforgiveness suck the joy right out of their lives for 5 decades. Can anything be more sad?

In Unbroken, author Laura Hillenbrand describes the main character's obsession with revenge toward a cruel POW guard, then says this: "The paradox of vengefulness is that it makes men dependent upon those who have harmed them, believing that their release from pain will come only when they make their tormentors suffer."
 
I have been praying that God will show me if there is something I have been holding onto for years or decades. He has answered my prayer, and uncovered a couple of things I am not going to delve into here at this time. But the responsibility is now on me to truly let go, to forgive people I may never see again in person. It's on me to let go of my "rights" to make someone feel as miserable as they made me feel. I need to move forward, and not delight in the idea of letting someone have it.

God help me do it. Life's too short to let stuff like this drain the joy out of my life.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Book Review: December 1941, by Craig Shirley

Craig Shirley's "December 1941: 31 Days That Changed America and Saved the World" is a powerful account of the days leading up to, and the days immediately after, the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor and subsequent entry of the United States into World War II.

This 500+ page book (600 if you count the notes) has a very simple format: it devotes one chapter to each day of the month of December 1941. The chapters describe the events of each day, either directly or indirectly related to the coming war.

Of all the things I learned, I was especially surprised that, prior to December 7, the mindset of many Americans was not in favor of the United States entering the war. We are used to such things regarding the Vietnam war and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the image we tend to get of 1940's America is that of solidarity. In fact, the national mood changed quite a bit as of December 7, but even then, it wasn't a case of undisputed unity.

The stories and information in "December 1941" are excellent. I received a copy of this book for free for review purposes, with no obligation to deliver a positive assessment. Still, I highly recommend it for anyone interested in history, especially World War II buffs.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Heroes and Villains of the Bible--A Book Review

"Heroes and Villains of the Bible" is aimed at kids about the same age as mine: tween to early teen. The content of the book is right in line with the title. There are 50 stories, each about a different person in Scripture, and each clearly defined as a hero or as a villain. The first two, God and then Satan, are obvious. Some others in ensuing chapters are equally obvious: Moses, David, Daniel, Females are not to be left out, either: Esther gets a chapter devoted to her heroism, and Delilah is one of the villains.

Each chapter has high-quality illustrations which, at first glance, appear to be photographs. The text in each chapter is straight from Scripture (International Children's Translation). No extra narrative is given.

Interestingly,  there are a few lesser-known characters which receive some focus. Probably the most notable are Potiphar's wife and Herodias. I'm torn about the inclusion of these two in this book. On one hand, it's a good thing that more obscure characters are mentioned, as it helps the reader get beyond the best-known bible stories. However, both of these stories have sexual elements to them. My 10-yr-old, who read through this book in one day, has been made aware of the birds and bees, but his 7-yr-old brother has not, yet wants to read the book that his bog brother is reading. So be aware of that going in.

With that one caveat, I recommend "Heroes and Villains of the Bible" to anyone with kids in that general age range. We're going to be using it in our family's bible time every now and then.


Disclaimer: I got a free copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

The Book of Man, by WIlliam Bennett: A Review

When I saw the title and brief description of "The Book of Man", and noted it was written by former politician William Bennett, I had zero interest. I later saw a clip of him promoting the book, and the short clip consisted of him complaining. He complained about feminism. He complained about the emasculation of men. He even complained about the fact that a woman was taking over as CEO of Hewlett Packard. Or maybe it was IBM.  At any rate, I'm not a big fan of complaining, especially professing Christians complaining that the world is against them and their values. So my interest in the book went to less than zero.

But then, by chance, I went back and read a more thorough description of the book. I found it wasn't 500 pages of one man's complaints about cultural changes. It is, in fact, nothing like what I thought. The Book of Man is a collection of essays, observations, true stories, and anecdotes about men. About the character of a man. About how the bar is raised for men. About how a man can best benefit those around him, starting with his wife and children, but extending far beyond that.

This isn't the type of book to be read straight through, although you certainly can choose to do so. To me, it's more of a coffee-table book; something you can go back to and take in small bites, as needed. I'm finding parts that I would love my sons to read. Others for my daughter to read, to help her know that she needs to have high expectations for any man who wants to be part of her life.

My take: my complete misunderstanding about what The Book of Man is about almost kept me from enjoying an excellent read. Now that I have it and have gone through it, I highly recommend it. One doesn't need to be a Braveheart-loving, feminist-hater to benefit from this book.

I only hope that the publisher (Thomas Nelson, who provided me a free review copy through their Booksneeze program) will find a way to communicate what this book is really about. I'm guessing I'm not the only one who didn't get it the first time around.


Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Envying the Rich and Famous

I just read a comment by someone who expressed disgust at the opulence displayed by a Barbra Walters interview of a rich celeb who came from humble beginnings. Apparently that celeb should have given his wealth to charity. While I admire the good intentions of that comment, I also have some problems with it. My response:
----------
Hannah, I just re-read your comment. I’m not sure which specific wealthy persons were interviewed by Walters in the TV program you are referring to. But your disgust with their opulence got me thinking. Not having seen the show, I’m going to guess that what you mean by opulence. If I am wrong in the details, it doesn’t really affect my main point, so please follow me.

Rich celeb “X” buys large LA-area mansion. It needs work, so he hires contractor “A”, who employs Employees B, C, and D to come do the work. They knock out walls, put up sheetrock, install cabinets, apply paint, etc. Meanwhile, X also hires E, a 19-yr-old male who’s working his way through college, to handle the outside work in the garden, lawn, etc. for the estate. Finally, X hires E’s older sister F, who’s a single mom, to handle housekeeping duties.

While we judge X for spending his new-found millions to have much more house than he needs, we decide, on X’s behalf, that he should instead donate the bulk of his money to charity.

X refuses to take our advice on how he should spend his money, and the beneficiaries of his decision are A, B, C, D, and F, who are hard-working people who make normal wages and feed their families with those wages. Also benefiting is E, who will be the first college graduate his family has ever had.

I point this out not to say that materialism is a positive characteristic. But neither is short-sightedness, and certainly, neither is judgmentalism. For every yacht, chandelier, or indoor bowling alley owned by a person of wealth, there are hard-working people who are able to put bread on the table.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Rangers Game 6 loss: I'm done

I'm a die-hard baseball fan, but after last night, I'm done for the year. This thing traumatized me. I'm frustrated, deflated, and demoralized. I had to put my kids to bed while one was in tears. I barely slept. I tossed and turned, then when I woke up, I was still shaking. No sport is worth this.
Game 7 is tonight. I thoroughly expect the Cardinals to win handily. But I won't be watching. I'm taking my wife out to a movie. The emotional investment I am making in the Rangers is not worth it; an investment in my marriage is a much better one.

Monday, October 24, 2011

3 Weeks of TV is just about enough

Unlike when I was growing up, we don't watch much TV in our house these days.  As a kid, I watched so much TV I actually had the schedule memorized. You tell me a network and time slot, and I'll tell you what's on, even if it's a show I don't like. 

But by my 30's, I had narrowed down my TV interest to just a couple of shows, and then when the kids came, we thought it best to keep it turned off. They still watch videos, of course, and I may watch a late-night rerun here or there. But for the most part, we keep it turned off.

The one exception, since the kids turned 5 or 6, is sports. We watch some football and some baseball, especially when the beloved Texas Rangers are on. Mostly, they play on Fox Sports Southwest. Because we don't have cable or dish, we don't get FSSW, so watching a Rangers game is a rarity. A few Friday night games during the regular season, and then the playoffs. For the second consecutive October, the Rangers are in the third round of the playoffs, also known as the World Series. Throughout the 3 rounds, we've watched most of the games, and it's been a weird experience for us.

I say weird because we're spending 3 hours on the couch, focusing on the TV screen, 5 nights a week. We're seeing commercials we need to mute (or even change the channel from). We're not interacting. We're looking at the screen rather than each other. We're not enjoying the perfect weather outside. Honestly, I don't see how people can watch the screen night after night. I don't understand how we did it when I was growing up.

Don't get me wrong: I'm loving that the Rangers, after 4 decades of futility, are in a position to be the champions. I badly hope they win. I think it will provide some great memories that will be with us as a family that, 30 years from now, we can look back on. But I've had enough of TV, and I'm glad there are, at a maximum, only 3 games left. I'm ready to turn the television off.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Book Review: Beautiful Outlaw by John Eldredge

John Eldredge's latest title, "Beautiful Outlaw" is his first since switching publishers. After a longtime association with Thomas Nelson, he's now writing for Faithwords, home of the great Billy Coffey . [Disclaimer: I was given a copy of the book for review purposes] The subject of "Beautiful Outlaw" is none other than Jesus Christ Himself. Eldredge feels that many (most?) Christians have a distorted, incomplete, or one-dimensional view of Jesus, and he feels so strongly about this that he wants to set the record straight for all believers.

My take on this book is mostly positive. It's well-written, engaging, and anything but boring. The reader will be enlightened and encouraged to love Jesus more, because once you know Him, you can't do otherwise.

Eldredge takes many familiar stories about Jesus and expounds on them in an informative and inspiring way. I am praying my way through this book, asking God to reveal Himself to me, and, while I think there's more to be revealed, this book has done wonders so far in the two weeks since I received it.

Longtime Eldredge readers will find many ideas familiar. At various times while reading "Beautiful Outlaw", I was reminded of "Wild at Heart, "Epic", and "Waking the Dead", among others.  But this book stands on its own. It's not a rehash of the same old ideas.

Now, the concern I have: There is a common thread among many books I've read over the past decade or so, despite coming from authors with very different perspectives. It's amazing that writers as diverse as Mark Driscoll, Donald Miller, John Eldredge, Matthew Paul Turner and Frances Chan, among others, find common ground. But in this case, they do.

Here it is: those writers, and many others, deliver messages which contain--although conveyed in different ways--the idea that  "most of Christianity is getting some major things wrong, and I'm here to set it straight. If Christians will see things as I present them  here, then the Church will finally be what it should be."

Of course, that's not an exact quote from anyone; it's my paraphrase. But here's Eldredge's own words from a recent promotional email about "Beautiful Outlaw":

"Jesus is beautiful and the church is a train wreck. What I mean is, the religious fog that has so long veiled Jesus is one tough veil to cut through. Even among our friends and those who love Jesus there is this sense of 'Really? Really? Can this be true? Can Jesus be this good? Why haven't I heard this before?' "

In a way, I can't argue with Eldredge (or the other authors mentioned above) on this point. I've been a believer for 35 years, and have seen more distortions, false beliefs, harmful mindsets, groupthink, and general untruthfulness than I can list for you here. I think back to what I was taught, and what I have taught others, and I can only shake my head and pray that God will undo the damage already caused.  There are some ideas out there, shared among Christians, which badly need to be addressed.

That said, there's a right way and a wrong way to do so.  I think Frances Chan has it most right: he simply says, without bashing others who disagree "let's open our bibles, and see what God says about this topic with as little bias as we can." He remains respectful of those with whom he disagrees even as he says specifically why they get it wrong. Chan's heart is for the Church to be as good as it can possibly be.

Eldredge, too, has a heart to see Christians see Jesus correctly, but in doing so, he insults most Christians who have differing perspectives. To hear Eldredge tell it, most Christians have not been walking with Jesus well for decades, possibly even most of Church history. They haven't even come close. See this video clip for an example.  He minces no words.

Sometimes, incorrect perspectives do harm, and they should be pointed out. But there are times in "Beautiful Outlaw" when he goes a little too far. For example, the first chapter has a section titled "The Poison of Religion", then refers to some beliefs, such as Jesus being primarily a peacekeeper, as "nonsense".  Well, it is and it isn't. If someone thinks Jesus is only a peacekeeper and nothing else, then Eldredge is right to call him out. But who really thinks that Jesus is only about one and only one thing?  This paragraph, which is near the very beginning of the book, sets the tone for the rest of it: he's dismissive of any who see this, or other topics, differently.

Because of my diverse church experience, I have come to the conclusion that most denominations, while flawed, carry with them an expression of God that He has ordained for them to have. Pentecostals worship God in ways that make non-charismatics uncomfortable, but most likely we will all worship God in heaven in ways we currently think to be undignified. Presbyterians may come across as "the Frozen Chosen", but their adherence to, an insistence on, correct doctrine is valuable and necessary. The Social Justice types are often deemed by conservatives as too light on sin, but their caring for the marginalized who struggle with sins, poverty, and addictions are reflective of a merciful God. The fundamentalists who are derided for their unwavering commitment to preaching about God's wrath, and judgment, are proclaiming a message that Jesus Himself proclaimed in several occasions.

The bottom line is that just as a bouquet looks best when it's represented by different flowers of varying colors, so also is the Church beautiful because of its diversity.  God gives different characteristics and passions to different believers; passions for causes which are important to Him. He doesn't give any one person--or denomination--the full load. Why can't we look at the Church, flawed as it is, and celebrate the different variations? Why not give God credit for being able to work through His church despite our shortcomings?

Too many Christians take their "thing" and try too hard to make it everyone else's "thing."  By doing this, and by disrespecting those who see Jesus from different perspectives, we set ourselves up to be used by Satan (the word "devil" means "one who divides") to harm the cause of unity among Christians.

John Eldredge is onto something here: people lose out when they miss the personality of Jesus, or only focus on one part of His personality. Eldredge absolutely should share that message. But I wish he would have shared that without spending so much time focusing on how much other Christians don't get it right. In doing so, he's lifting himself up as the one who has the answers everyone has been searching for.

“Let not a wise man boast of his wisdom, let not a rich man boast of his riches, let not a mighty man boast of his might, but let him who boasts, boast of this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the God who exercises lovingkindness and righteousness on the earth for I delight in these things.” Jeremiah 9:23-24

Bottom line: "Beautiful Outlaw" contains a very helpful message, and I recommend the book. I only wish Eldredge would have toned down, or left out completely, his attacks on those who have presented different perspectives about Jesus to us over the years. We're all on the same team, John.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Book Review: Jesus Calling Devotional Bible

If you're not familiar with Sarah Young's "Jesus Calling", I highly recommend it. It's a collection of many of her journal entries where she felt God was speaking directly to her. The words are presented to us in His voice, from His perspective, and contain wisdom which pertains to all of us.

As part of their Booksneeze program, Thomas Nelson recently sent me a copy (free for review purposes) of their new "Jesus Calling" devotional bible.It's the New King James translation, and the "devotional" portion is quite extensive, and very well done. A friend saw it at my house the other day and called it a "bible plus", an appropriate description, if you ask me.

A "devotional" bible can sound like a great idea, but result in something not so great. Bookstore shelves are full of devotional bibles which consist of the personal opinions of authors, or which seem to be a blatant attempt to capitalize on the popularity of some recent book, movie, or popular author. It appears that some were dreamed up by someone in the Marketing department rather than an attempt at truly benefiting the reader.   ("The Toy Story 3 Devotional Bible":  it's only a matter of time.)

The "Jesus Calling" bible, however, does not fall into such traps. The "plus" part of this "bible plus" is very well done. It supplements the surrounding Scripture, rather than trying to drown it out. For example, at the end of Job, the devotional calls to mind Romans 8:28, reminding us that God will cause all things to work together for the good of those who love Him. How many bibles or commentaries have the good sense to tie Job with Romans 8:28? How many preachers do that?

If you are in the market for a new bible, I recommend this one.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

5 Great Things about the Rangers Regular Season

Great things about the regular season:

1. Rangers get the most wins ever for the franchise (96).

2. Michael Young gets 213 hits, tied for the lead. This is special, and probably underappreciated.  Each year, maybe 5 players in baseball get 200 hits. Young has done this 6 times.

3. Napoli and Beltre, two Angels rejects, help us beat the Angels.

4. The Rangers win the last 6 games, refusing to coast after they clinched.

5. We did it with several solid starting pitchers, not just one Alpha dog.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Book Review: "Paper Angels", by Billy Coffey

Billy Coffey showed promise with his first novel,  "Snow Day", which was good overall, and great in places. But the leap forward from "Snow Day" to "Paper Angels" is a giant one for the author. From the very beginning, this story had my attention, and it never let go.

The main character, Andy Sommerville, is a lifelong bachelor who owns a gas station. A severe injury puts him in the hospital and forces him to face many non-physical wounds from his past. Wounds which didn't so much shape him into the man he is as much as they derailed him somewhat from what he was made to be. As he is shown the meaning and importance of each of these hurts (represented by various mementos he had collected over the years), a new friend named Elizabeth helps guide him, addressing each wound by first peeling back the bandages that had covered them, sometimes for decades.

Most people have wounds that have stayed with us for years. What sets Andy apart is that he has a personal angel, provided by God as an answer to a boyhood prayer, who has stuck by Andy all his life, encouraging him to learn life lessons--and to save those mementos--along the way. Andy keeps the existence of his angel a secret from all who know him, which contributes to his tendency to distance from people, costing him an important relationship or two along the way.

The previous paragraph could lead the potential reader to consider "Paper Angels" as a print version of a lame episode of "Touched By An Angel", but nothing could be less accurate. It bears more of a resemblance to "The Kid", a powerful story disguised as a lighthearted Disney kids' movie starring Bruce Willis, than any angel-centered movie or TV show I can think of. Sadly, I can't explain more without giving too much away. I will say this, though: the supernatural aspect of an angel is not a big part of the story. From one chapter to the next, it is simply about Andy, with the help of Elizabeth the counselor, learning about his past one piece at a time, in order for the healing to begin. The result is a truly powerful book which, if I had my way, would be read by everyone important to me.  It's that good.

Hachette Books provided me with a free copy of "Paper Angels" for review purposes, with the only obligation to give an honest review. That said, I am recommending "Paper Angels" as strongly as anything I have read in at least a year, maybe two. It comes out in November. It can be pre-ordered here.

Monday, September 12, 2011

In the Potter's Hands

Isaiah 64:8 "But now, O LORD, You are our Father, We are the clay, and You our potter; And all of us are the work of Your hand."

Some years ago, it was pointed out to me that our relationship to God is described in several metaphorical ways, all of which matter. Some authors/teachers have even been known to rank the relationship descriptions in some way--for example, in levels of intimacy:

Clay/Potter
Slave/Master
Sheep/Shepherd
Subject/King
Son/Father
Bride/Groom

While I cannot argue with the theology of such a ranking, it does have the unintended side effect of causing the reader to dismiss the relationship descriptions listed earlier on the list. It's just as important to understand the potter/clay dynamic between us and God as it is anything else. He mentioned that particular picture dozens of times in books by no less than 4 biblical authors: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Paul, and John. Yes, He's our loving Father, but focusing only on Him as Father can lead us into missing out on some important truths.

We are clay, not pots
What is it about a clay and potter which describes how we are to relate to God? I've got a few, but let me first say what I believe the most important one: a clay is liquid. It's soft. It's essentially mud. Of the multiple passages which describe God as a Potter, only two of them describe us as pots, and in both of them, He reminds us that He can and will, if necessary, break us in pieces.

The idea of us being clay, as opposed to pots, is vital in our understanding that He shapes us, and is still shaping us. You are a work in progress. I am, too.

With that understanding under our belt, we can move forward in seeing what else this Potter/clay thing means:

1. Working out the bad stuff: At first, clay has things in it which shouldn't be there. The potter uses his hands to work out the impurities.

2. Shaping us: The potter shapes the clay into what he wants it to be. Sometimes, that means stretching, molding, pulling, pushing, and moving things around a bit. It's not always going to be comfortable.

3. The Sponge: while the potter's fingers  make changes to the general shape, he also uses a sponge to smooth out the bumps, so that the end product will be smooth.

4. Who's in charge: The clay has no say in what shape or type of vessel it will become. The Potter decides, and will make the clay according to the potter's purposes.

5. Beginning with the end in mind: Before actually starting, the potter knows what he wants to clay to look like when finished. He sees the completed cup, jar, or pot in that lump of clay long before anyone else does.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Saying goodbye to one set of twins, and hello to another

"It's been ten whole years already? Wow! Hard to believe."

Many a father will say something like that while shaking his head in disbelief, when his oldest approaches the 10th birthday. It's a milestone, not just for the kid, but for the parents. It's a head-shaker because I am reminded that on that day, 10 years ago, my life changed forever. In some ways, it has passed very quickly.  In other ways, it seems like it's been every bit of ten years.

There are two distinct things, though, about the ten-year anniversary of my dadhood. The first is that I became a father of not one, but two little bundles of joy that Tuesday morning. Abby was born at 8:48, followed by her brother Jacob at 8:50.

The second is that their birth marked some rare joy in the midst of the darkest day in our nation's history.  As my wife was in labor, a nurse came in and told us that an airplane had crashed into a skyscraper in New York. I turned on the labor room TV in order to find out details. But a minute later, a painful contraction led to a gentle but firm request that I switch off the TV and hold her hand. (I'm not sure how my hand-holding could make contractions better, but I had seen enough sitcoms to know that when your wife is in labor, you should be as accommodating as you can.)

So off went the TV, and the plane incident was completely gone from my mind as we went into the operating room. I scrubbed my hands, paying attention to instructions from the nurse to get the dirt that was under my fingernails. I watched as the anesthesiologist stuck a needle in Beth's back. A few minutes later, I held her hand while chatting with the the same anesthesiologist as the surgeon and nurses prepared for the Caesarian.

Before long, the nurse tapped me on the shoulder to alert me to a beautiful sight. I think my heart stopped momentarily as I saw my crying little girl, Abby. Her cry was so sad, and I melted. Her brother came out crying, too, but his cry was an angry one, and I chuckled.  I was told they checked out just fine, and everything was right with the world. As far as I knew.

-----------------------------------------------------

Once back in the hospital room, I started calling relatives, hoping they'd all be thrilled at the news I had for them. But the first one I spoke to, my brother-in-law, told me that our nation was under attack, and one of the World Trade Center buildings had fallen to the ground as the other one burned.

Wait, he said. Hold that thought. Silence.

As we were on the phone, the other tower fell. "There is no more World Trade Center", he said.

This is embarrassing to admit, but as I hung up the phone, I was ticked at the timing. How dare someone steal my special day!  I was now a dad, and everyone's mind was on something else! In hindsight, my selfishness that day was appalling, and I hate to admit it now, even in writing.

It took some time, but I have come to embrace Abby and Jacob's special birthday. One thing that saddens me is that that attack is referred to by its date. People don't refer to, for example, Pearl Harbor as the "December 7 Attacks." I have a sister who was born April 19, but nobody hears that and immediately thinks of the Oklahoma City bombing.  But for some reason, this one is named after the date in which it occurred. If you say 9/11, everyone thinks of a terrible event, not just a date. And every year as their birthday approaches, the TV news speaks of the tragedy and the lives lost. I'm guessing that will increase dramatically for the 10th anniversary.

But it doesn't end there. The pregnancy itself was bookended by tragedies. Back in January, when the OB/GYN determined the beginning date of the pregnancy (necessary to predict the due date 40 weeks later), she marked it as December 22, 2000. That happens to be the day my father took his own life. I had never known him very well, but I had hopes that grandkids might remove some of the bricks in the wall between he and I.  That chance was gone forever when he shot himself.

It was rough in other ways.  I was unemployed when they were born, having been laid off the week before. The added responsibility of two new lives who I couldn't even provide for was an enormous weight.

It should be noted that the 5 weeks of unemployment turned out to be a huge blessing, as Beth needed me around the clock as we tried to figure out how to take care of two new babies. And I got a better job just about the time she felt she could handle them for 8 hours by herself. But the day I got laid off, I didn't see it as the gift from God that it was. I was selfishly unhappy with God; yet another embarrassing thing to admit.

So how do we process this? I'd like to think that God has a purpose for even the details, so perhaps their birthdate is no coincidence. But as the Double Rainbow Guy would say, what does it mean?

Is there something to the fact that they are twins, and the WTC buildings were known as the Twin Towers?

Was it just a matter of adding a joyful event in an otherwise joyless day? Was God even involved in the timing?

Is there significance to their names? Abigail means "Father's Joy", and she has certainly lived up to her name.  And Jacob, of course, means Israel, the nation that was going to bless the rest of the world. Will their generation be the one which will be a blessing to all the others?

One thing is clear: the world changed that day, and not just for me, the new unemployed dad. My kids are at the beginning of a new, post-9/11 generation. One which has a chance of leading our nation and world into change; specifically, change for the better.

A generation which never experienced, as I had, the comfort of knowing that the US doesn't get attacked on its own soil.

One which accepts the reality that it will always have to remove shoes at the airport, because it has never known it to be otherwise.

One which can take its awareness that devastating attacks happen, and do some good with that understanding.

I recently was hit hard by this verse:

Psalm 24:6 "This is the generation of those who seek Him, who seek Your face--even Jacob."

Whoa!

Did that verse about a generation that would seek Him actually end with "even Jacob"?  I'm holding onto that one. For hope's sake.
====================================

Bonus: In 2002, the Dallas paper featured a letter I wrote for the one-year anniversary. Here's the PDF. I like the picture.  http://www.middletree.net/911pg8.pdf

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Cats are Better

As a former math teacher, I once postulated the following:

The size of one's pickup truck is inversely proportional to the likelihood that he is a cat owner.


For some unknown reason, many people do not like cats. My pastor says rotten things about cats, our only major theological difference.

Look, people. Cats are better than dogs. This is a truth that can be seen by comparing the top of the line cats vs the top dogs.

The chief cats are lions and tigers.

The best dogs can do is a fox, wolf or hyena.

Seriously, this is no contest. God said Jesus is the Lion of Judah (Rev 5:5) and when an angel spoke so powerfully that it sounded like thunder which shook the foundations of the universe, it was said he had a mouth of a lion (Rev 13:2).

Was Jesus the hyena of Judah? I don’t think so.

I can't believe I have to explain this stuff.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Embracing Jesus' Words Selectively

This passage looks longer than I usually start with, but it's a quick read, and an interesting story:


Luke 4
v.15  And He [Jesus] began teaching in their synagogues and was praised by all.
v.16-17  And He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up; and ...He opened the book and found the place where it was written,
v.18-19  "THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD IS UPON ME, BECAUSE HE ANOINTED ME TO PREACH THE GOSPEL TO THE POOR. HE HAS SENT ME TO PROCLAIM RELEASE TO THE CAPTIVES, AND RECOVERY OF SIGHT TO THE BLIND, TO SET FREE THOSE WHO ARE OPPRESSED,  TO PROCLAIM THE FAVORABLE YEAR OF THE LORD."

v.22  And all were speaking well of Him, and wondering at the gracious words which were falling from His lips; ...

v.24  And He said, "Truly I say to you, no prophet is welcome in his hometown. "But I say to you in truth, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the sky was shut up for three years and six months, when a great famine came over all the land;
v.27  "And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet; and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian."

v.28  And all the people in the synagogue were filled with rage as they heard these things;




This snippet of the event of a Saturday morning is fascinating.  When Jesus was telling the people what they wanted to hear, they loved Him. When He had hard things to say, critical things they needed to hear, (in this case about their lack of faith), Jesus quickly fell out of favor with them.

I see this happen in my own life, and it's something I am working on. Once I realized that all of God's words toward me are for His glory and for my benefit, it will be easy. It's getting easier, but I have a ways to go.

More importantly, there are many more Christians in the same place as the angry citizens of Nazareth. I am finding this out lately in discussions I am having, and blogs I am reading, from many Christians of all stripes. Topics like hell, sexual sin, and social justice seem to bring this out in people.

Some folks embrace the idea of a loving Jesus, but not the judgmental one. Some like the idea of a politically conservative God, but ignore His liberal tendencies toward the poor, and insisting that the rich forgive debts. Some see God being against needless deaths in one context, but aren't as concerned about protecting innocent life in other contexts.

What we need to do is get to know His words to us. All of them. And live them out in the course of our daily lives.

All of them.

Even the ones that make us uncomfortable.

Even the ones that conflict with the political party line.

Even the ones that challenge what we have been taught.

Even the ones that make us examine our opinionated positions to be sure they are in line with His will.

Even the ones in conflict with the denomination we belong to.

Even the ones that don't mesh well with the stance taken by that author we really like.


If we aren't ready to do so, then are we any better than the Nazarenes who liked Jesus one minute, then drove Him out of town?

Monday, August 08, 2011

What Exactly Are You Looking For in a President?

Like it or not, the 2012 Presidential election season is just about upon us. Although I hate to hear the most vocal blowhards deriding candidates that have already announced, some of the criticisms are making me laugh in ways that were not intended. Some people are so married to their political party that a considerable effort is being spent on their part telling anyone who will listen how the recession is either Obama's or Bush's fault, how Bachmann is crazy, how Kucinich is funny-looking, how Palin is a ditz, how Obama blew his chance today (just after the stock markets spiraled downhill in response to the S&P downgrade) in his speech which was to have reassured Americans that the economy isn't tanking.

From what I hear, his speech fell short. Or it was well-received. Again, it depends on who you listen to. Pretty much anyone these days is delivering their evaluation of our President, and of those who want to be President, based on the personal agenda of the one doing the evaluating. Many Republicans do not want to admit that Clinton might have been good, or that Palin isn't presidential material. And many Democrats are still hanging our nation's ills on Bush.

The thing is, I am not sure what people want in a President. Is it about good speeches? Is it about  the performance of the stock market? The unemployment rate? The ability to work with Congress to get a budget passed? The number of bible verses he is willing to use publicly? How photogenic he is? How he represents the US to other nations?

ESPN/Grantland columnist Bill Simmons did a poll a few weeks ago of the best movie presidents ever, and the top two vote-getters were Harrison Ford in Air Force One, and Bill Pullman in Independence Day. In the latter one, the character who is the current president is a former fighter pilot who joins in the effort to ward off the aliens. While he's still our president. In Air Force One, Ford's character fights off the kidnappers the old-fashioned way: with his fists and feet.

I can't imagine anyone who was a real president in my lifetime doing that. Can you picture Jimmy Carter doing that? How about Richard Nixon? Clinton? Bush?

It's true that Simmons' poll is massively unscientific, but thousands of readers did chime in. When facing a choice among presidents who did statesman-like political things (think Michael Douglas in "The American President") vs. the ones who fought bad guys, the voters proved that what we really want in our presidents is a guy who kicks behinds. That fact alone, set against the backdrop of what we have running for president this time around and what they promise us (budget-balancing, healthcare, fairer taxes), is worth examining. Thing is, I have thought about it for two weeks, and still don't know what it tells us.

Human nature being the unchanging thing that it is, we shouldn't be surprised when we read

1 Samuel chapter 18: "It happened as they were coming, when David returned from killing the Philistine, that the women came out of all the cities of Israel, singing and dancing, to meet King Saul, with tambourines, with joy and with musical instruments. The women sang as they played, and said, "Saul has slain his thousands, And David his ten thousands."

Are we any different from the Israelites saying they like David as king because he killed ten times more people than King Saul did?

I'm still thinking this one through.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Book Review: Thunder Dog

Thanks for Thomas Nelson Publishing's Booksneeze program, I received a free copy of Thunder Dog, by Michael Hingson and Susy Flory for review purposes. I got it a few days ago and devoured it in very short order. The book is Mr. Hingson's  account of his experience as a survivor of the attacks on the World Trade center in September of 2001.  He worked on the 78th floor of the first tower to be hit, and the bulk of the story is about his journey down the stairs, guided by his guide dog Roselle.

It's a great story by itself, but made much more interesting by interspersed glimpses in the life of the author, starting as a child whose parents refused to send to a special school for the blind. They insisted he live as normal a life as possible, which sounds great in theory, but a little scary in practice. For example, they let him ride a bike as a kid. A blind boy was allowed to ride a bicycle throughout the neighborhood. using his sense of where obstacles should be to guide him and keep him from harm's way.

As a whole, the story works. It's moving, exciting, heartwarming, heart-tugging, and powerful.

My Top Five Movies of All Time

In no particular order, these are the 5 movies that have moved me the most.


The Fisher King
Schindler's List
Up
The Kid
Cinderella Man
The Princess Bride
Shawshank Redemption
Stranger Than Fiction

Yes, I can count, so I know that my Top Five list has more than 5 movies in it. Sue me.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Fahrenheit 451: Worth Re-Reading

When I discovered books as a tween, one of the first books I ever read was Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451."  I have to admit I didn't understand its implications or more subtle points, so it didn't do much for me. A few years later, I read it again, and was deeply impacted. Obviously, I was still years away from being wise in the ways of the world, so there was a lot I didn't get. But I knew then that it was saying something powerful. Of course, being a high school student, I was assigned many other books which also attempted to say something profound. "Lord of the Flies", "The Good Earth", "The Grapes of Wrath". These and other works accomplished their intended tasks to varying degrees. They each had a point, which they communicated effectively.  Some, especially "Lord of the Flies" so completely lacked subtlety that they came across as preachy, and I did what I could to distance myself from such books.
A sad sidenote: I moved from one city to another in the middle of my sophomore year, so I ended up having to read LOTF twice.  Some books get better upon a re-reading. This was not one of them. I hated LOTF and have not gone back to it since that 2nd reading.

In contrast, F451 did get better upon re-reading. So much so that I took the time last month to read it again. I borrowed it from the library and devoured it. I probably should just purchase the dang thing. 

Chances are you've not yet read F451 because you have the impressions it's a silly sci-fi story about censorship. True, it is set in the future, which is why you will find it in the science fiction section; but F451 is actually much more than that.

The future setting serves it well. Futuristic sci-fi stories typically bring to mind Jetsons-like gadgets, silver bodysuits, and flying cars. F451 does have the flying cars, but only for a few minutes in one scene late in the story. The more important futuristic gadgets include:


1. Wide-screen TVs: In F451, homes have TV sets which take up entire walls, at a cost of thousands of dollars each.


2. Reality shows: Since fiction is more or less outlawed, the TV screens show something like what we'd call reality shows. They are not described in detail, but there are apparently a lot of characters who are family to each other and are regarded as family by viewers who get sucked into their stories, such as they are. Guy Montag's wife Mildred represents the masses who watch these shows, and when pressed to explain why she likes them, she cannot even say what the plot is. She does say these programs contain a lot of yelling. Sound familiar?


3. No regard for human life: When a neighbor dies, it's mentioned as just another event, like a broken-down car or rainstorm. No tears are shed. One wife is unfazed by the prospect of her husband being told he must go to war. Additionally, millions of viewers are urged to watch the police hunt down and kill a fugitive on live TV. 

4. Earbuds: citizens have little inside-the-ear earphones, called "seashells", where music, news, other entertainment, and commercials are constantly pumped to them by the networks. Seashells keep people from being conversant with those around them.

The list doesn't end here,  but these 4 examples are pretty interesting in light of this book being published in 1953, at the very beginning of the widespread acceptance of TV, and long before the appearance of anything resembling headphones which fit inside the ear, and a full half-century before Jersey Shore. 


The lack of regard for human life, however: well, that's been around for a long time, hasn't it?

Sunday, July 31, 2011

A Pretty Neat Gift

About a year ago, I had just returned from a vacation with my family to Wyoming. It was a great time in many ways, but it was not restful at all. When you have 3 kids of single-digit age, it's hard to find a way to truly relax. They just want to go, go, go. I don't regret that we didn't chill out that week, but I knew that what I needed was something quiet and relaxing, even if only for a day.

The thought occurred to me that what I really needed was a long drive. But how in the world was I going to accomplish that? I did what I wish I would do more often when I realize I need something: I prayed about it. And not long after, I had a work trip planned to my company's facility in Maryland. As a new manager, my boss told me I should take some management courses, and I found one that was being held in Arlington, Va, just outside of Washington. It was a one-day course. Afterward, I would drive 3 hours south to Pokomoke City, MD, to our plant, and meet the people who I support on the network, and spend a couple of days trying to solve some nagging network issues.

A management class, followed by some network troubleshooting? This is an answer to my prayer? As a matter of fact, yes it was. Because while in the DC area, I drove out to Ft Belvoir, where I had spent my last year in the Army. I couldn't get past the gate without a valid military ID, but just seeing the gate and the surroundings really took me back. It was an eventful year in many ways. I kissed a girl for the first time there (very late bloomer). I broke a toe playing soccer, then a freak ankle injury. I learned that I had no business planning to be a cop once I re-entered civilian life. I saw my first dead person while working a car accident. I arrested a couple of people for DWI. I took up reading again after a long absence of novels from my life. And I enjoyed what is perhaps the greatest year of music of my existence.

I had arrived at Ft Belvoir in March of 1986 and left at the beginning of February 1987.  For simplicity's sake, I consider 1986 to be my Ft Belvoir year.  And for me, the music of 1986, while maligned now, was, at the time, one great song after another. In 1986, I heard Simple Minds for the first time, and discovered Hooters (a great band before the restaurant ruined the name). There was new, great stuff from singers I had loved before, the standouts being Springsteen's Live 3-CD box set, and "Lost In the Fifties," a criminally underappreciated song from Ronnie Milsap.  Sammy Hagar joined Van Halen.  A reaction to the pop sound in country music included traditionalists Steve Earle, Dwight Yoakam, and Randy Travis.  And Lyle Lovett, who didn't fit in with that group but gave us the masterpiece known as "Pontiac" that year.

And so much more. Pretty In Pink. Wouldn't It Be Good. The Bangles. Lives In The Balance. Fabulous T-Birds. Sledge Hammer. Living In America. Bruce Hornsby.  Live To Tell (the first time I heard Madonna do anything of substance; this song is brilliant). Addicted To Love. Higher Love. Crowded House. Til Tuesday. Famous Blue Raincoat. Strong Persuader.  Mike + The Mechanics. Aerosmith, thought to be a 70's band, returns as guests of a rap version of their own song. The Jets. The Outfield.
The greatness of Paul Simon's "Graceland" CD.
Out-of-the-blue returns from The Monkees, Boston, James Taylor, and The Moody Blues.

I could go on and on. Just typing the sampling above has been meaningful. But not as meaningful as what happened last year. As I said, I visited the DC area, then set out for Maryland's Eastern Shore. If you haven't driven it, it's a fascinating drive. Towards the beginning is the Chesapeake Bridge. I have never seen anything like it.  From there, the drive south to Pokomoke is very very nice.

But there was a bonus to the drive: I had brought along my recently-acquired iPod Touch. Using the connector to plug it into the Aux input of the rental car's stereo, I listened to my music all the way down. But here's what made it so wonderful. This is the central point of this post: I didn't choose the songs. I made no playlists, no effort whatsoever to limit the particular songs that got played. I just let it play away. And for the most part, it chose to play songs from 1986. One after another. This despite the fact that I have thousands of songs on that iPod, spanning over 5 decades. And pretty much all I heard was 1986 music. From Prince to Simple Minds to Jackson Browne to Steve Earle to Van Halen to Eddie Rabbitt to The Bangles, it was all there.

I don't think God was trying to tell me anything in particular. I truly think He simply let me have, as a gift, a few hours driving around the location of a very meaningful time in my life, and the accompanying musical soundtrack. I can't prove it biblically; I can only recall it fondly, and thank God for it. It was a powerful time, and I wouldn't mind repeating it.

Note: Go here for a list of other tunes from 1986 which I didn't list above.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Book Review: George Washington Carver

 John Perry's biography of George Washington Carver sheds a revealing light on one of the more under-appreciated men in American history.  By "revealing", I mean that there is a lot more to Carver than peanuts.  From Carver's humble beginnings as a baby born to a slave who was later kidnapped, to the end of his life as a respected scientist, I learned many things I simply was not aware of.
Yes, he found over a hundred uses of the peanut (a tremendous feat in itself), but he also listed many non-peanut-related accomplishments on his resume.
Carver's life was nothing less than a never-ending obstacle course. He had to fight through the kidnapping of his mother, his own physical ailments due to premature birth, racism on a scale we are not exposed to in 21st-century America, lawlessness, very limited educational opportunities, threats of lynchings, and other very real threats to black men of that time.
Despite the daunting circumstances, Carver accomplished more than any ten men I know.

This book, part of a series of biographies from Thomas Nelson called "Christian Encounters" was  provided to me free for review purposes by the good folks at Thomas Nelson and their Booksneeze program (pauses to wave at the federal government). It is an engaging read for anyone from around age 12 into adulthood.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Songs I Am No Longer Ashamed Of

I confess: There was a time in my life that I developed an affliction known as music snobbery. In my transition from kid to young adult, my musical tastes changed. I went from being a fan of ear candy to a fan of tunes that had to actually have a little substance. My range was all over the place: country to R&B to Rock to New Wave. I loved it all, but I wasn’t into settling for music that pandered or sounded like it was made to be a product rather than art. Posers or slickness were unacceptable.

Because I read articles by, and made friends with, people who felt the same way, I began to put on the self-protective armor of the music snob. I made it clear to everyone I knew that there were a lot of very popular bands which I was way too cool to listen to. That music was for kids and idiots who were too dumb to know they were being duped by singers who knew how to push emotional buttons as a way of selling music.

In large part, this attitude was centered around making myself look cool in front of other music snobs, particularly the young men on my high school track team and, later, my fellow soldiers. It just wasn’t cool to like the bubble-gum junk that was coming out in those days. And in my effort to remain cool (in my own mind, anyway), I held onto to my musical snobbery for decades.
But now, I’m 46. I don’t have anything left to prove, especially to other men. I have 3 kids, and wife, a job in management, and hair on my chest. I am in no danger of having to turn in my man card. So I feel safe now in admitting that some of those songs I pretended to hate, back in the day, are actually pretty good songs. 

Here’s my list of the best uncool songs which come to mind from the period of 1970-88. Why 1970? Being born in 1965, I wasn’t musically aware when the early 70's songs came out, but they were still played on the radio years after I got old enough to listen to them. I chose 1988 as an end to this period because it was my first full year out of the Army, and I had just started college while working full time, and lost track with much of what was going on in music.

These are not the best songs of that period. They are not the cheesiest. They are the songs which come to mind when I think of songs I was formerly embarrassed by, but now embrace without shame.

Note: Songs which were cheesy but then became generally accepted, such as “YMCA” by the Village People  and “Superstar” by the Carpenters, do not count. They regained their coolness without any help from me.

In no particular order:

“Careless Whisper” -- Wham!
“Could It Be Magic”  and “Mandy” – Barry Manilow
“How Deep Is Your Love” – Bee Gees
“Papa Don’t Preach” and “Live To Tell” – Madonna
“Nights Are Forever” – England Dan and John Ford Coley
"Keep On Lovin' You" -- REO Speedwagon
“Rhinestone Cowboy” -- Glen Campbell
"Love On The Rocks" -- Neil Diamond
“Me And You And A Dog Named Boo” – Lobo
“Killing Me Softly With His Song” - Roberta Flack
“All Out of Love” – Air Supply
“Girls Just Want To Have Fun” – Cyndi Lauper
“Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” Rod Stewart

(Ok, I’m just kidding about that last one. It still sucks, and it will suck into eternity. )



Thursday, July 07, 2011

The Importance of Going For It: a Blind Man Shows Us How

As the saying goes, some are born great, and some have greatness thrust upon them.  The problem with the latter clause is that some interpret it as a mandate to sit back and wait for things to happen, when the reality is that we all bear a responsibility to use what God has given us, and take the opportunities when they are in front of us. Sometimes, we just have to go for it.

At a recent U2 concert in Nashville, a fan showed a certain level of "go for it!" and it resulted in a magnificent moment that, because we're in the Youtube age, we all get to witness.

As the story goes, a blind fan--Adam Bevell, from Arizona--was wearing a sign saying "Blind Guitar Player" while attending their show on Saturday, July 2. After the last song, the band waved to the audience, then headed out of sight, their evening's mission complete. But out of the corner of his eye, Bono saw the fan and his sign, and did a U-turn toward the fan. Less than 30 seconds later, the man was on stage in front of 45,000 people.

While the chance to share a stage with Bono is remarkable enough, it was only the beginning. U2's vocalist then asked the man what he wanted to play. He responded with "All I Want is You" which he said he wanted to dedicate to his wife. Bono placed his own guitar over Bevell's shoulders and then sang that very song as the man played along. Before too long, the other band members joined in, and the audience sang along. Can you imagine what that moment was like for this fan? "Once in a lifetime" probably doesn't begin to cover it.

As if all this weren't enough, after the song ended, Bono gave the man the guitar (an “Irish Falcon” Gretsch, one of only a few in the world like it). An incredible ending to an unbelievable story.  "Bono gave me hope in what literally is a dark world for me. I will cherish this memory forever", he said the next day in an interview.

And it all started when a man dared to wear a sign asking to play on stage with U2.  What audacity! Who does he think he is?

I wonder how many great moments I have missed out on simply because I didn't dream big enough. I don't say that as a lament, but I do recognize, as I type it, that God is challenging me to live a life that is not so restricted by my timidity and passivity.  What would my life look like if I lived by these words?  ‘Do not fear, for I am with you; do not anxiously look about you, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, surely I will help you, surely I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.’ Isaiah 41:10

What about you?
 
Note: See another version of this event on U2's site here.

(Tearjerker alert: When they got to the line  "You say you'll give me eyes in the moment of blindness" around the 2:38 mark, I choked up)