Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Gospel According to Les Misérables


Les Misérables comes to us in many formats: The Victor Hugo novel, the stage production, and the various movies and TV miniseries. In 1998, I got my first exposure to the story by watching the non-musical film version starring Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush. I was blown away. What an amazing story.  A skilled pastor could base an entire series of sermons on Les Mis.

I recently saw the new version, directed by Tom Hooper and starring Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, and Russell Crowe.  It was fantastic.  Here are a few unorganized thoughts:

1. Many have commented on the story and talked gushingly about how it's an illustration of Grace vs. Law, with the logical conclusion that grace is superior. But let's tap the brakes and take a second look. Javert (the police Inspector) existed because society needs someone to uphold the law.

Likewise, both Law and grace are equally important components of the Gospel. God is a just God, and demands justice. If sin is committed, someone’s gonna pay.

We can all watch Les Mis and talk about how God is all about grace instead of justice, but in fact, He’s about both. If He isn’t just, then the Gospel doesn’t have meaning, because we don’t need a Savior.

2. Not only does Javert represent Law and Valjean represent grace, they both actually mention those very words in their final speeches just before they die. Javert identifies himself with Law and order, and then, when Valjean is dying, he mentions the word grace.

3. A little less than a year ago, Steve Taylor, Christian musician and director of the Blue Like Jazz film, posted a blog piece expressing his desire to see the subgenre of “Christian” films come up with higher quality movies than recent examples such as “Fireproof” or “Facing the Giants.” It occurred to me while watching Les Mis that the Sherwood folks have not come up with anything with as clear a presentation of the Gospel as Les Miserables.

4. The 2012 film included a comic-relief scene which featured a quick shot of a prostitute riding a man dressed up as Santa Claus. The motions were pretty graphic. It really bothered me, and to be honest, I felt a little like Javert in saying so.  I'm still struggling with the idea of whether that's a good thing.

5. Although the acting performances were excellent across the board, Anne Hathaway took it to another level. I never choke up when watching films, but I barely kept it together watching her anguish as she sang "I Dreamed a Dream."  It was heartbreaking.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Sandy Hook: The Solution to the One Thing That Caused This Tragedy

Reading about the mass killing of kindergartners at Sandy Hook was heartbreaking for me, as I am sure it was for you. 
On a different level, I was also saddened while reading comments on Facebook and at the bottom of news stories, calling for changes to keep such massacres from happening. 

The tone of many of such comments was that they couldn't understand why people couldn't see that the clear cause of these incidents is _______________ (fill in the blank).  Unfortunately, many who believe there is a clear-cut answer to this problem have very different views of what the main problem is. 

Additionally, once you do focus on that one problem, then you find that there are people who disagree very strongly about how to address that one problem. For example, let's take the availability of assault rifles and handguns.  For some, common sense dictates that everyone carry a gun, to either prevent a shooting in a public place, or to stop it quickly once it starts. But to others, the answer is to keep people from being able to legally own such guns at all. 

But what's most striking is that, to both groups, these are the common-sense solutions, and they cannot see why anyone would see it different.

The reality is that no tragedy can possibly be so simple. These horrific events always--always--are the result of multiple factors. In the aftermath of this shooting,  the ones I heard mentioned most often:

Gun availability 
Mental illness and our nation's failure to take care of those who suffer from it
A broken world 
An unseen enemy (Ephesians 6:12)
A culture which perpetuates and glorifies violence through movies and video games
Drugs and/or alcohol 
A lack of prayer/bible instructions in schools
Sexual permissiveness (which leads to many kids being raised in single-parent homes) 

...and several more things which don't come to mind right now.

When I engaged in this discussion yesterday, I argued, and still maintain today, that those who choose to focus on just one item in this long list, and expecting that addressing that one item will have a significant impact, are engaging in wishful thinking. 

I'm sorry if such an argument is a problem for anyone. Most of us will look at that list of factors, and one thing sticks out as being the cause of the problem.  Thing is, for each of us, it's a different one.

And that, in itself, says a lot.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Math Formulas We Can Really Use

If any cry of anguish is universal across generations, it's this one, said by kids in Algebra classes throughout the land: "Why do I have to do this stuff? Am I ever going to use it in real life?"

Kids and adults alike acknowledge that we use elementary-school math in real life on a daily basis. We add, subtract, multiply and divide quite frequently. But when teachers start replacing the numbers with letters, and are introduced to terms such as "variable" and "polynomial", then those instructors meet resistance from students, and their protests often center around the idea that this kind of math will do them no good in the real world.

A lazy adult will simply affirm the students' suspicions by admitting that complex algebraic problems don't make their way into everyday life. It's an easy thing to say, but the truth is that life is full of situations in which formulas are required or at least helpful.

Here are some math formulas that ring true in real life:

1. Formula: C ~ 1/T

Real-life application: The size of a pickup truck is inversely proportional to the likelihood that the driver is a cat owner.

Where "C" is the likelihood that the driver is a cat owner (the dependent variable), and T is the truck size (the independent variable). As T increases, C decreases.

2. Formula:
G = A - (C + RE)/O

Real-life application: If you've ever grocery-shopped, you are aware of the Obvliot, the one who blocks the aisle by having their cart on one side, and their body on the other. Shoppers like you need to be able to calculate the available space in order to determine whether to try to get through, or just go around.

-G stands for the Gap that you can drive your cart through.
-A is the width of the aisle
-C is the width of the cart
-RE is the width of the Rear End of the shopper who's trying to keep you from making progress in your journey.

and of course

O is the measure of how Oblivious the shopper is to the fact that they are in the way.

3. Formula: A = P x SF

Real-life application: The worse a perfume smells, the more is applied.

Where A is the amount, in gallons, of perfume that is applied to the offender's face/neck/whatever, where P is the perfume, and SF is the Stink Factor.

Do you have any more math formulas which apply to real life?

Tuesday, November 27, 2012


Sit back and let me tell you a story:

One day a couple of years ago, I made a trip to my local supermarket. I encountered 4 different people during this single trip; together, those 4 individuals confirmed for me what I always suspected:  people can be very selfish, and have no idea that they are. 

1. When I arrived in the parking lot, I wanted to turn into one of the lanes so I could park, but the car ahead of me had to go forward or somehow get out of my way. Alas, that driver didn't see things my way, so he just...kinda...stayed...where...he...was for a while. He didn't seem to care that someone might be behind him.

2. When he finally moved, I drove toward an empty parking space that I had spied on the way in. It turned out to not really be empty, because another person in another car in the adjacent space went wayyyy past their yellow line and effectively took up two spaces. And they were in a smaller-than-average car, I might add. There was no need nor excuse to take two spaces.

3. Once parked, I walked into the store, I had to wait what seemed like an eternity as the person trying to grab a shopping basket decided it was a good time, and place, to rearrange the contents of her purse. She did it in such a way that I couldn't get to any of the other carts.

4.  No story set in a grocery store would be complete with out a person who managed to block an aisle so that none could travel past them. Once I got my cart and onto the cereal aisle, this shopper had her cart taking up the right half of the aisle, and her enormous self taking up the other half, as she carefully studied the ingredients listed on the box of each and every box of Pop Tarts in front of her. Rather than allowing me a way to get down the aisle, she just kept reading that label, so I went the long way around, down the next aisle, back onto the other end of the aisle she had been blocking me from.

The common thread between the 4 incidents, which, I promise you, happened during a single trip to the store: They all were made possible by people exhibiting an astounding lack of common sense and general obvliousness to the fact that there might be other people around who are affected by their decisions and actions.

In the spirit of Brangelina and Bennifer, I have decided to combine the fact that these people are (a) oblivious and (b) idiots into the the one-words description: obvliots.  The sad thing about the obliviot is that there is no known cure. And they are everywhere.

NOTE: I just googled the word "obliviot" and found that someone else already invented it, and it pretty much means what I said it means. I had no idea. Must have heard it somewhere and remembered it in the back of my head. Oh well. I didn't invent the word, after all. 

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Best Songs You've Never Heard, Part 5

I'm going to post a few links to Youtube clips of my favorite tunes that have been criminally unknown or underappreciated. This is Part 5. click here for Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4

In no particular order:

Sam Moore, from 60's R&B legends Sam and Dave, showed in this late 80's recording that his voice was as strong as ever. He played an R&B singer in the movie John Cusack/Tim Robbins comedy "Tapeheads" and was featured singing this song in a sparsely-populated nightclub. While the movie is extremely funny, this song is as serious as it gets.  The powerful lyrics, combined with incredible vocals and a nice sax solo by Junior Walker, make this one irresistible.

"The Flame", by Spyche

Technically, we can't say this song is unknown, as it was a big hit for Cheap Trick. But this version, by a local Dallas musician with a day job, is a big improvement over the original. Take away the Cheap Trick over-emotive vocal, and strip away the over-production, and you have a great song delivered by a real songbird and accompanied only by a bass guitar, and you have a real gem.  Close your eyes and listen, and when she says "over you" at the 0:48 mark, your heart may just break in half.

"Tough it Out" by Webb Wilder

I'm not sure how this song is categorized. It's not country. It's Southern Boogie Rock. Whatever it is, just crank it up real loud.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Best Songs You've Never Heard, Part 4

I'm going to post a few links to Youtube clips of my favorite tunes that have been criminally unknown. This is Part 4.  Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

In no particular order:

"Old Habits Are Hard To Break" by Ronnie Milsap

John Hiatt wrote it and recorded it, but no version can compare to this one. Milsap's vocals here are as good as anything he's ever done. If you didn't know he had done syrupy ballads before, and heard him here for the first time, you'd swear he was a lifelong bluesman. This story of a man appealing to his female friend to get out of a destructive, soul-killing, relationship grabbed me the first time I heard it. It may be my favorite recorded song ever. 

"Only Human" by Rosanne Cash

Many years ago, I noticed a consistent theme in Rosanne Cash's music: it's extremely important to her how people treat each other, and when someone is less than considerate to her, she's going to say something about it. this is epitomized in "Only Human". For more examples, check out lyrics from her other songs:

"You were always so disappointed in me, because I couldn't ever do nothin' right."

"What did I say to make your cold heart be this way? Maybe I'll just go away today."

"You always find a way to hurt my pride. If I'm not crying, you're not satisfied. I don't know why you want to hurt me so."

"I don't have to be nobody's fool, and I won't make no exception of you. I don't have to crawl. I can just walk away."

Monday, November 19, 2012

The Best Songs You've Never Heard, Part 3

I'm going to post a few links to Youtube clips of my favorite tunes that have been criminally unknown. This is Part 3.  Part 1  Part 2 Part 4.

In no particular order:

"It Ain't Real If It Ain't You" by Mark Gray

Mark Gray was a country singer who never caught on, but this is a gem. His vocals are as soulful and meaty as it gets. Sadly, country fans probably ignored this song in order to pay attention to some line-dancing nonsense. I still have the 45 for this one.

"Nail It Down" by the Meat Puppets

I may be wrong, but believe that Dwight Yoakam's friend Pete Anderson produced this one. Straightforward rock and roll.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Best Songs You've Never Heard, Part 2

I'm going to post a few links to Youtube clips of my favorite tunes that have been criminally unknown. This is Part 2. Part 1  Part 3 Part 4.
In no particular order:

"Infested" by Course of Empire

I don't know if I'll ever understand why this one didn't make this band famous. It had a cool video. Course of Empire had a great regional following and a great stage presence. The sound fit in at a time when Grunge had brought back crunching guitars.   Ah well.
"Infested" needs to be cranked up to be properly enjoyed.

"Perhaps Perhaps Perhaps" by Doris Day

The two songs on this page could not be any more dissimilar. Still, a great song's a great song. This one's from the pre-rock era, early 1950's.  It has an irresistible melody that's not easily forgotten. "Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps" will stick in your head.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Best Songs You've Never Heard, Part 1

I'm going to post a few links to Youtube clips of my favorite tunes that have been criminally unknown. This is Part 1.
For the rest of this series: Part 2  Part 3 Part 4.

In no particular order:

"Penny To My Name" by Eva Cassidy
Eva Cassidy had one of the greatest voices I have ever heard. She recorded in a friend's studio and sang at local places near her Maryland hometown, but only became well-known after her death from cancer at age 33. "Penny to My Name" tells a heartbreaking story of a young woman trapped in a hard marriage, with young kids, barely scraping by while running a gas station and dealing with a drunk for a husband. What's really heartbreaking is that she's living in a place that many people want to escape to, but she has no appreciation for the gorgeous view she enjoys daily, and she only wants to see city lights and get away from what she thinks is an unexciting life.

"Don't Change On Me" by Ray Charles

He looks young here, perhaps late 30's. He belts out a song that expresses his love and appreciation for his partner exactly as she is.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Eyes on My Father

DING!  With a swing of the bat, the little white ball, headed toward the catcher’s mitt, was forced to do an about-face, and was now outfield-bound. The 11-year-old batter, realizing the ball was well-hit, was determined to stretch this one into a double.  As he rounded first base, the right-fielder reached the ball. The runner headed toward second as the outfielder scooped up the ball, transferred it to this throwing hand, then let it fly toward the infield. As the runner slid into second, the ball came in, just a tad late.  Jacob was safe with a double.
With a big smile on his face, he stood up and looked toward the dugout, where his dad, the team’s manager, was standing and cheering. The son’s eyes locked in on his father’s, and they shared a proud smile.  Neither noticed the noise around them, but it sure was loud.

That loudness was a combination of 40 or so adults cheering, clapping, and yelling not-very-helpful instructions to the players. Half of them were parents on Jacob’s team, yelling while the play was unfolding, cheering him on from the moment of the “DING!” to the moment the umpire yelled “SAFE!”. The other half of the noisemakers were parents from the other team, encouraging their fielders as they tried to throw that runner out, and then, once the play had ended, congratulating them for the effort.
Despite the noise, the boy on second base had narrowed his focus. He didn’t care that a bunch of other kids’ moms and dads were cheering him on; he just wanted his eyes to confirm what his heart already knew: Dad saw, and Dad is pleased.
At the moment I caught Jacob’s eyes as they locked in on mine, I realized my son was painting a picture for me of the ideal way any child of God should live their life: to push aside all other distractions and focus on pleasing his Father.
For much of my life as a Christian, I’ve viewed pleasing my Heavenly Father to be a nice bonus as I pursued what pleased me. I’ve paid way too much attention to the applause of those around me: the ones offering their approval as well as those voices which urge my defeat. I’d have experienced immeasurably more joy if I’d just blocked them all out and let the approval of my Father be my primary motivator.
Don’t read this the wrong way: God doesn’t love me more if I perform for Him than if I don’t, just as my love for my son doesn’t increase or decrease as his batting average rises and falls.  My heavenly Father has already demonstrated His love for me in the ultimate way: by sending His Son to die in my place. Neither the quantity nor the quality of His love for me can increase beyond that.   This isn’t about earning His love. This is about blocking out all distractions, and making Him the only One that matters.

I’m reading a powerful, fascinating book by Mary DeMuth, titled “Everything”.  The author describes her newfound priorities this way: “We [she and her family] want to live a life where we crave the things of God, hunger for righteousness, and worry more about what God thinks of our reputations than what others think.”
DeMuth’s description of living for God is about so much more than a ticket to Heaven or material blessings. “The gospel…shouldn’t merely be the crutch we fall on when life gets ugly. It should be the legs we walk on, the air we breathe.”
The point of focusing on pleasing God isn’t to win His love or (especially) to earn salvation; by making it all about Him, we know Him better, and we give Him an opening to impact the world through us:
So that you will walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God;” Colossians 1:10

A few minutes after Jacob stood on second base, he came around to score our first run of the game, and that moment is captured in the photo above. Scoring a run after a double is nice, but when we make eye contact with our Father, and know that we have pleased Him…well, that’s irreplaceable.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Book Review: Wild Grace, by Max Lucado and James Lund

"Wild Grace" by Max Lucado and James Lund, is a spinoff of Lucado's book, simply titled "Grace".  The difference between the two is that "Wild Grace" is specifically targeted toward teens.  I asked for and received a free copy from Booksneeze for review purposes, thinking that perhaps my oldest two kids, age 11, might benefit from it. As it turns out, some of the stories conveyed in "Wild Grace" touch on topics, including drugs and pornography, that my kids aren't quite ready to read about, so I'm reviewing this from my point of view, not theirs. 

But even though it's not quite right for preteens, I came away very impressed with the book. It's interspersed with stories form the bible and with stories from modern-day believers who have experienced God's grace in countless ways. In one particularly stirring story, a man talks of his introduction to internet porn as a teen, and the ways that God came through at the time, and in subsequent years leading into adulthood.  

But it's not just about obvious sins like porn and drugs. It's about self-pity, and self-doubt, and dealing with people who hurt you. It's about prodigals, honest confession, and God's unflinching love for each of us. 

I highly recommend "Wild Grace", not only for teens, but for adults.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Top Ten Best TV Sitcom Characters of All Time

The title says it all. Broadcast TV only:

1. Lucy Ricardo
2. Homer Simpson
3. Barney Fife
4. Radar O'Reilly
5. Johnny Fever
6. Edith Bunker
7. Louie DePalma
8. George Costanza
9. Carla Tortelli
10. Mork

I don't have a Bottom 10 list, but I'm sure Urkel is on it.

NOTE: As I write this, I'm in the middle of writing a piece about last night's (10/16/12) Presidential debate. I needed to do something not so serious for a short while.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Two Years Later

Tuesday marks the 2nd anniversary of the passing of my friend Tim Wright. In a way, I lost him before September 18, 2010, as he was pretty much unconscious the last several weeks. But I did go see him a few days before he died. My friends Bill and Brian played guitar as we sang worship songs, and I held Tim's hand as he lay there. He didn't have the appearance of a man with a brain tumor; if you didn't know any better, you'd think he was just napping.

The next day, September 19, was a Sunday, and my oldest son Jacob was baptized. I loved the timing. Tim did wonderful work in the lives of people during his life, but here, less than 24 hours after his passing, I witnessed the continuation, in the form of Jacob's baptism, of the mark Tim left on the world. I say that because, while I'm not a perfect father, anything good that happens as a result of my parenting can be credited at least partially to Tim's influence on my life. So it was an honor to kick off Phase 2 of the Tim Wright legacy by witnessing Jacob's public proclamation of faith.

Now, two years later, I still feel a sadness when I think of Tim not being a part of my life. I want to sit across a table and rejoice with him about something that's going well in my life. I often want to hear his take on something that's not going so great. I want to hear his latest extremely creative idea. I want to co-teach a class with him again. I am bummed my kids didn't really get to know him. I must have had lunch with him 100 times, but I would love to have a few more.

I don't know if records are kept of such things, but I'm pretty sure Tim and Janice's marriage was the best one ever. Many men left that memorial service half-inspired, half-intimidated by the stories we heard about the kind of husband and father he was.

Although this post is about how saddened I am on this anniversary, the pain his family has endured is surely a hundred times worse. Feel free to pray for them today.


I just went back and re-read what I wrote just after he died. Remembering certain things about his personality, his habits, or just the way he said things, brings a smile to my face, even if it's a sad smile.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Truisms for September 10

1. One can never be too old to benefit from watching Mr Rogers.

2. Lefty-loosy, righty-tighty.

3. The size of a person's pickup truck is inversely proportional to the chances he's a cat owner.

4. "Are you better off than 4 years ago?" Is an incredibly stupid question which brings out the selfishness in people.

5. "Man on Fire" is a criminally underappreciated movie.

6. Too many people treat their political affiliation on the level of their religious belief. Their loss.

7. If forced to make a choice, I'll take Queen Latifah over Queen Elizabeth.

8. The nation of Kyrgystan really should buy a vowel.

9. Nine truisms in one blog post is a good number.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Book Review: Surfing For God

The title and subtitle: Surfing For God: Discovering the Divine Desire Beneath Sexual Struggle, pretty much sums up what this book is about. Micheal Cusick offers an explanation for the fascination that men have with pornography and sexual images. Most of us have heard this fascination explained with something along the lines of "men are more visually stimulated than women; it's how we're wired."  But Surfing For God offers a radically different reason: we are made to worship God, and we men are finding a sort of substitute--something that promises to fulfill that need, even as it's guaranteed not to keep that promise.

It's an intriguing idea, one I've never heard before. I'm still digesting it, but I will say that the author makes a compelling case, using Scripture and science to back up his claims. I will say that it fits together well with many other recent attempts to explain why men do what they do. In fact, "Wild at Heart" author John Eldredge has endorsed "Surfing For God."

Lust is a common struggle for most men, and Christians do not get a free pass. I hope this books claims, if true, will lead to freedom for many of its readers.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Watching Perfection As It Happens

We all have our "thing." My thing is that I love watching someone excel. To do something very well, in my opinion, glorifies God. This clip shows each of the 27 outs that made up Felix Hernandez's perfect game today, and it's a site to behold:


Friday, August 03, 2012

Millions of Believers Can Be mobilized. Now What?

OK, my fellow followers of Jesus. We have shown that we can mobilize and have millions do something all on an appointed day. Now that we know we can do this, let's do something that will really make a difference.

I mean it.

Any ideas? Give free groceries in a lower-income neighborhood? Go to a gay bar and tell people how much Jesus loves them? Pass out school supplies to needy kids? Give free bibles? (Side note: when purchased in case quantities, the cost per bible is about one-third that of a chicken sandwich.)


These things have all been done on a small scale from time to time. But now we know we can mobilize as a nation. What can we do that will make a positive difference, all in one day? Something that focuses on Jesus and not an "issue"?

Then, we need a celebrity Christian with a Huckabee-like following.  Not that I know any.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Why I Won't be Eating Chick-Fil-A on August 1

Conan O'Brien recently remarked that it's a shame that our nation is divided along line lines of where you buy your fried chicken sandwiches. Of course, when he said it, it was funnier. But I'm having a hard time finding this episode funny any more.

As you no doubt are aware, Mike Huckabee appears to have gotten a lot of support for his declaration of August 1 as Support Chick-Fil-A Day. Clicking will take you to the Facebook page he has set up, inviting people who agree with CFA CEO Dan Cathy regarding same-sex marriage to show their support by spending money at Chick-Fil-A on Wednesday, August 1.   Over half a million have agreed, by "Liking" the page, and have pledged to go.

I won't be one of them.

For the record: I love Chick-Fil-A. I also hold a biblical view of same-sex relationships. Just a guess, but I'll bet Cathy and I vote very similarly. Additionally, I am very disturbed at the reaction from pro-gay individuals and organizations over the past week, much of it very unfair, and some of it (threats by local politicians to keep CFA from doing business in their respective cities) is not only illegal but a blatant example of bullying.

So what reason could I possibly have for not participating in an event which is designed to demonstrate support for a company that has been on the receiving end of this kind of treatment?

Simply put: there is nothing about the "in-your-face" reaction that reflects Christ. You won't find anything, anywhere, in Scripture which directs Christians to stick it to those who disagree with them. You won't see Jesus advocating this kind of response to those who persecute you. Whether you believe that the anti-Chick-Fil-A crowd is guilty of persecution, or if you want to tame that accusation down to bullying, there is no biblical precedent for teaching the bullies a lesson in this way.

Take a look at the few times that Scripture mentions how Jesus, (or, after His ascension, His followers), deal with opposers. When Stephen was the first martyr, did the Church protest? When Paul and Silas got jailed, were the other Christians beating their chest, demanding their rights? No, they were in a house, praying.

[This is not to say that the anti-CFA people are persecuting Christians, certainly not on the same level as we see in the book of Acts, but it's the closest example we have in the bible. The focus here isn't on the pro-gay adherents. I'm trying to draw your attention to the reaction of the early saints.]

Besides the aforementioned reason to not respond this way, there's also the unfortunate result: counter-protests. Already, several pro-gay organizations are arranging events such as the same-sex kiss event on Friday Aug. 3.  If this thing becomes a tit-for-tat fight between the two sides, then Chick-Fil-A stores will become the center of multiple protests. People who don't want their kids to see men kissing men will stop eating there. Is that what we want?

When His followers tried to drag Him into political and culture battles, Jesus repeatedly replied that His kingdom is not of this world. Who among us thinks that by flexing our muscle on August 1, we're going to change anyone's heart? That we're going to help even one person know Him better?

I don't know what I'll do for lunch tomorrow: I'll certainly pray. I encourage Christians to ask WWJD? and do the same.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Review: The Beauty Book, by Nancy Rue

Reviewing this particular book may seem a little strange for me. However, I have a young daughter, now entering that age of transition from little girl to ....well, that next stage should be interesting.

One of the key elements of this next stage is that girls tend to pay more attention to how they look. It's no surprise that our culture has skewed this just a bit. It's my job as dad to help my girl understand what's important and what's not when it comes to outward appearances. Nancy Rue's "The Beauty Book" is a great way to help keep things in perspective.

Rue has written some fiction books featuring a character named Lily. This book, while non-fiction, uses Lily and her friends to help the reader focus on God’s idea of inner and outer beauty.

It's not a preachy book. It's appropriately fun, full of quizzes and other activities. And as I said, it keeps a focus on the right thing: how God created beauty, and how if we keep His perspective on the topic, we'll be alright.

The publisher's website says "This unique and creative book for girls ages 7–11 answers the common questions girls ask during this often confusing and overwhelming stage in their lives in an inviting and conversational manner."

Exactly. That sums it up very well.

Disclaimer: Thomas Nelson's Booksneeze program allowed me to have a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes. The opinions expressed are my own.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Soccer = Vanilla Ice

With the buzz related to the exciting finish to a championship soccer game in England last week, we get to be treated once more to accusations that Americans need to get on board and appreciate soccer, to be point of elevating it to a major sport.

This is a good time to address a few common misconceptions regarding Americans and soccer:
1.  If Americans would just give soccer a chance, they'd enjoy it more than baseball, football, or basketball.
Look, it's not like Americans haven't tried. First, we played it in both organized (league) and unorganized formats as a kid (Exhibit A: note all the youth soccer leagues throughout the nation). I played it for 3 or so seasons myself. In fact, I played it as young adult in a league for one season. I've attended games by local professional teams (I live in the 4th-most populated area in the US, and we have a couple to choose from). I've had my kids play in leagues. I have watched it on TV.

And yet, with all that, I still find it extremely uninteresting to watch, and marginally fun to play. I feel I have given it plenty of opportunities to grab my interest, but it fell short.
2. The atmosphere at a game in Europe or South America is infectious. Once you experience it, you'll be hooked. 
One could say the same about any sport with a good crowd that's really into it. Heck, there are probably political rallies, Amway conventions, and great sermons which also lead to an powerful experience. But this assertion completely misses the point: either the game itself is interesting, or it isn't.

3. Soccer is the most popular sport in the world.
The fact that large quantities of people like something does not mean I should, nor does it mean it's good. Vanilla Ice sold millions of CDs, but that CD still sucks.One can think of many cases where the masses showed themselves to be profoundly stupid.

4. Soccer players have to run for 90 minutes, and therefore are superior athletes to the ones in baseball or football, with their frequent stoppages in action. 
Just because one sport's athletes have more endurance doesn't make that sport any less boring. Coal mining may be more demanding than soccer, but it's not a good spectator sport. Probably.

Look, we Americans don't go around telling the rest of the world they should like football, baseball, hockey, or basketball more than they do. Hopefully, soccer fans will show us the same courtesy.

Friday, May 04, 2012

Star Wars vs. that other movie

Lots of folks are being clever with today's date, and associating it with Star Wars. (May the 4th = May the fourth be with you: get it?)

When Star Wars made it to theaters in 1977, I was 12. I went, got so bored I barely made it to the end of the movie. A few weeks before or after, a movie called "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" came out, and I loved it. It was a powerful story, far superior to Star Wars.

To this day, I don't get why, of those two movies, one became iconic and the other is barely remembered. I have never seen another Star Wars movie since, although I may sit down and watch them since my boys are about old enough to get into them. Hopefully, I'll find them more interesting than I did the first time.

I'm sure that Star Wars is more popular because of the effects, the use of music, the bad guy you love to hate, the light sabers, and the talking robots who seem human.  Sadly, the thing that is missing from Star Wars is the human-ness. 

Give me this mashed potato scene from Close Encounters any day. Dreyfuss' character breaks down and says he has a dream, and has to follow it. His family watches him, wonders what has happened to him, and, knowing their thoughts, he says "I'm still Dad." There's more genuineness in that scene than in all of Star Wars.  

Monday, April 23, 2012

Book Review--Here's Lily

Nancy Rue's "Here's Lily" is not the type of book I'd normally read or review, but I have a 10-year-old daughter who fits right into the target demographic for this and Rue's 100+ other books.

The title character is a 6th-grade redhead who, like most other girls her age, faces concerns about her body image, popularity, and friendships. Rue takes her through these challenges in a warm, caring way, without falling into melodrama. 

Compounding the normal tween/teen issues is a near-tragedy which affects Lily in many ways. Throughout, the love of Christ and the stabilizing presence of good parents promise comfort, wisdom, and guidance, and that alone makes this book worth the price. That said, "Here's Lily" isn't just a book with a good message. It's funny, entertaining, and never boring. 

Disclaimer: Thomas Nelson's Booksneeze program enabled me to have a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Book Review--"Love Does" by Bob Goff

Readers of Donald Miller's excellent book "A Million Miles in a Thousand Years" were introduced to Bob Goff, a man who I'd swear is a fictional hero if Miller didn't insist he was a real person. Goff sounds like he's too good to be true.

The Good
The stories in Miller's book are pretty amazing: his kids invited themselves to meet with the leader of every nation in the world, and 29 presidents, kings,  and princes took them up on it. Goff started a New Year's day parade in which several blocks of neighbors participate. He managed to push through several judicial reforms in Uganda which resulted in kids being freed and witch doctors being put out of business. And that's just the start.

Bob Goff is a real person, and he's the real deal; he loves Jesus and has a desire to use what he has to show the love of Jesus in tangible, life-changing ways to as many people as he can. One cannot help but be inspired by reading these stories, and the life lessons that often come with them.

In fact, "inspired" is the key word here. Goff's book, "Love Does" is designed specifically to inspire the reader to live his/her life to the fullest. Not by checking things off of some bucket list, but by using their gifts and available resources to make the world a better place.

When "Love Does" stays on mission, it accomplishes its mission: it's a particularly inspiring read, set apart from many books written with similar intentions. You really get the impression that you, the reader, can make great things happen, with Jesus as your guide.

The Part I Wish Was Different
I say "when it stay on mission" for good reason.  Sporadically and unpredictably, the book deviates from that mission to offer bits and pieces of the author's theology. Ironically, many of these tidbits contain criticisms of those who are stuck on making sure that one's theology is correct. It seems that Goff is just as prone as the rest of us to insist that his perspective on things is the correct one. This idea seems to be on a collision course with itself.

Over the years, there has been a trend among Christian authors to call out those who they deem to be judgmental, and in the process, they become judgmental about judgmental people. Seems like every author/pastor from John Piper to Donald Miller to John Eldredge to Rob Bell to John MacArthur has had moments where they proclaim "Most Christians are not living the Christian life the right way. I am the exception; come be like me." The fact that the group of those who have made this declaration is so dissimilar is at once sad and bewildering. And now Goff seems to be falling into the same trap. 

Using the analogy of a basketball team: depending on abilities and physical gifts, one type of player is best at being a shooter, another is a guard, while a third player may be a good defender. The team that wins is the one that has the right people in place, doing the things they were made to do. What "Love Does" seems to forget is that the world, and the Church, needs the folks he subtly calls out:  black & white thinkers, the ones who study theology, the ones who call out sin; in other words, the ones who are very different from him. These folks, subject to borderline derision in a few spots in "Love Does", have their place, and play an important role in the world.  If everyone was like them, it would be a disaster. But Goff seems to dismiss them altogether, or at least to minimize their importance.

The Verdict
Thankfully, those kinds of things are not a large part of the book. The first few chapters are as heart-tugging as it gets. The last few chapters challenge the reader to act out his or her faith. The middle ones, however, seem to be there just to make the book go over a minimum number of pages.

Too bad. Strip "Love Does" down to about 150 pages by removing the theology which pretends to not be theology as well as the filler, and you'd be left with one of the most beautifully written books I've ever had the pleasure to read. As it is, it's still pretty darn good.

Disclaimer: Thomas Nelson, the publisher of "Love Does" provided a copy of this book to me for review purposes.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Blue Like Jazz--the Film, opens this weekend

James Williams and Donald Miller
Me on the left, Don Miller on right, at the BLJ screening

This is a rewrite of last week's review, as it appears on Burnside Writers Collective:

By making a small contribution to last year's effort to fund the making of "Blue Like Jazz" via Kickstarter, I put myself in line to receive an invitation to the Fort Worth premiere on March 21. This showing was part of a 30-city tour in which Donald Miller, the author of the book by the same name, appeared in person, accompanied by director Steve Taylor and lead actor Marshall Allman.

I went in guessing that the movie would likely stray far from the "Safe for the Whole Family" boundaries that many Christian-themed films seem bound to. And as it turned out, I was right: the PG-13 rating was earned. The story in the movie (which bears little resemblance to the book) is about a young man who renounces his faith before rediscovering it in a fresh way. This necessitated the depiction of various sinful behaviors and attitudes. There are a few naughty words, multiple instances of substance abuse, and flat-out mockery of Christianity.  Plus, a giant condom placed on a church steeple as a prank. One character is a lesbian, which, now that I think about it, was the missing element in "Facing the Giants". (Relax. I kid.)

Speaking of which, it should be noted that the creators of "Facing the Giants" were mentioned in a blog post written by "Blue Like Jazz" director Steve Taylor. In a bit of remarkable timing, his post appeared the morning of March 21, the same day I attended the premiere. In the piece, Taylor called out Sherwood Films, the makers and distributors of "Facing the Giants", "Courageous", and other Christian-themed movies, accusing them of blacklisting actors who had worked on "Blue Like Jazz."
While that part of Taylor's post got the most attention in the press the next few days, I was drawn to the meat of what he wrote: He challenged Christian filmmakers to deliver more excellent work, and he challenged Christian audiences not to accept mediocre films simply because they contained the "Christian" label.

Back to the movie: Because "Blue Like Jazz" is a book of essays, a fictional story had to be created for the film. In it, a Baptist goody-two-shoes high school student named Donald Miller finishes high school, then heads to Reed College, the most godless campus in the nation. Miller, upset by some hypocrisy he witnessed at his home church, begins to question, and then reject, his Christian faith. The more he tries to fit in at Reed, the more he distances himself from the Jesus he has known all his life. He befriends Lauren, who's not romantically interested in him (after all, he's male), and he befriends Penny, an under-the-radar Christian. He also makes friends with The Pope, a senior who's loudly irreligious, who wears a Pope hat, and who is hiding some hurts.

The story was compelling from the beginning, but there was one part everyone in the audience was waiting for: the Confession Booth scene.  Truth be told, I didn't expect a lot out of that scene, simply because I was very familiar with it, thanks to the book. It's difficult to move an audience emotionally when they know what's going to happen, because the element of surprise is gone.

Against those odds, the scene blew me away, and I wasn't alone. The audience gave this film a very deserving standing ovation. That one scene sealed the deal.

I can only think of a couple of things I wish were different about this film:  1. Lauren's open lusting toward other women. (In bringing this up, I am not focusing on her same-sex attraction. I would have been bothered the same had it been a man ogling, and speaking graphically, about the various female body parts that were getting his attention.) The over-the-top-ness of her drooling was a distraction.  2. Evangelical Christians, as a group, are treated a bit harshly in this story. In the Q & A session after the movie, this was brought up by an audience member. Miller disagreed that they were treated unfairly, but I guess we can explore that topic another time.

The above two items are not show-stoppers, but they're worth noting.

To balance the criticism with something positive, I also want to point out that, despite the well-publicized troubles this movie has had when it comes to finding suitable financing, Blue Like Jazz does not look like it was made with money scraped together from the sub-$100 investments of 4,500 contributors (which it was). Typically, you can tell when a film was made on the cheap. There was nothing about this one which betrayed its shoestring budget.

As I mentioned earlier, once the film ended and credits began rolling, Taylor, Miller, and Allman faced the audience and took questions. I was first to raise my hand, thanking Taylor for what he had written that morning, because someone needed to say it. (I am speaking of the part about the need for quality movies with Christian themes, not the tiff with the Sherwood filmmakers.)

It's a bit unfair when those who object to "cheesy" Christian films point to the makers of "Facing the Giants".  The reality is that most of cheesiest of these films are made by organizations other than Sherwood. Think "Letters to God", "Soul Surfer", and the "Left Behind" series.

To be fair, "Facing the Giants" and "Fireproof", while featuring imperfect theology and bad acting at times, have their strong points.  And credit should be given to Sherwood because "Courageous" is much better than their previous efforts.  Not as good as "Blue Like Jazz", but still.....

Final word: I loved Blue Like Jazz. On a 5-star scale, I give it 4.5 stars. Please go see it this weekend. Go to

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Book Review—Crater, by Homer Hickam

The first time I—and most people—can remember noticing actor Jake Gylenhall was in “October Sky”, about a high schooler named Homer whose homemade rockets demonstrated an understanding of rocketry far beyond his years. The real-life Homer wrote about his experience, and that book, “Rocket Boys” was the basis for “October Sky.”

A few decades and several books later, Homer Hickam has given us “Crater”, the first of what promises to be a series of adventure novels written for boys between ages 10 and 90.

As part of Thomas Nelson’s Booksneeze program, I received “Crater” for review purposes, and was excited to let my 10-year-old son read it. These days, it seems the vast majority of fiction written for teens and preteens is aimed at girls. However, I was pleasantly surprised to see that I liked “Crater” as much as my son did.

The story is set a hundred years in the future, where Earth has been ravaged by war, and several thousand survivors and war refugees have traveled to the moon to begin a new life. Crater is a 16-year-old orphan who works a low-paying—and dangerous—job as a miner of Helium-3, an excellent energy source which is not found on Earth but present in abundant quantities on the moon. Crater’s quick thinking saves the lives of fellow miners, and this action leads to a new, even more dangerous assignment.

When choosing something for your kids to read, you may, as I do, look for a few things which help make the book more attractive. Here’s what “Crater” offers: a main character whose integrity is evident to those who know him; Scripture references without the entire story coming off as preachy; a challenge to a young man to make his life really count for something; a fight worth fighting; an innocent but meaningful budding relationship with a young woman of character; a life purpose beyond the mundane; bravery; older men mentoring younger ones.

I’m glad my son read “Crater” and I’m glad I read it as well. I ‘m looking forward to the next one.