Recently in Faith Category

Love is Born
December 25, 2016 8:36 AM | Posted in:

Mary, did you know
That your baby boy
Would some day walk on water?
Mary, did you know that your baby boy
Would save our sons and daughters?
Did you know that your baby boy
Has come to make you new?
This child that you've delivered,
Will soon deliver you.

Mary, did you know
That your baby boy
Would give sight to a blind man?
Mary, did you know that your baby boy
Would calm a storm with his hand?
Did you know that your baby boy
Has walked where angels trod?
When you kiss your little baby,
You've kissed the face of God.

Oh Mary, did you know...?

The blind will see,
The deaf will hear,
And the dead will live again.
The lame will leap,
The dumb will speak
The praises of the Lamb...

Mary, did you know
That your baby boy
Is Lord of all creation?
Mary, did you know that your baby boy
Would one day rule the nations?
Did you know that your baby boy
Is Heaven's perfect Lamb?
This sleeping child you're holding
Is the great
I AM!

"Mary, Did You Know?"
Words by Mark Lowry, music by Buddy Greene

Coincidence? That's nuts!
October 30, 2016 3:44 PM | Posted in: ,

Have you ever found yourself in a situation where, if the details were only slightly different, the outcome would border on disastrous? Perhaps you drove through an intersection and when you looked in your rearview mirror, you saw a car run a red light and t-bone another vehicle. Or perhaps it was something as simple as coming back into the house from the garage before a weekend trip because you forgot your car keys, and finding that you'd left the cooktop on.

I've experienced these "happy coincidences" on a number of occasions through the years. For example, after a 20 mile ride through the Texas Hill Country, our bike chain inexplicably* fell apart...two blocks from the B&B where we stayed. Then there was the time our bicycle's rear wheel self-destructed while we were plodding along on a flat road at about ten mph, making it an annoyance; the weekend before we had barreled down a hill at three times that speed, and if it had happened then, it had the potential to be fatal. And I'm sure that many of us have the shared experience of finding that our car battery has died in the garage, rather than in the middle of nowhere.

I wouldn't try to argue with those who would claim that these things are simply the luck of the draw, although my belief is that there is some Divine intervention at work. Because sometimes, those "coincidences" are just too unlikely to have any other explanation. We experienced that earlier today.

I took my truck to the dealership on Friday for regular scheduled service, a part of which involved rotating the tires. I picked it up Friday afternoon, and drove it around town on various errands for at least fifty miles through noon today. I didn't notice anything out of the ordinary during that time.

As we returned home after lunch today, I turned down the alley leading to our garage, and noticed a shiny object lying in the middle of the alley, one house down from ours. I pointed it out to MLB, who hadn't noticed it, and she retrieved it after we parked. She brought it to me, and remarked that she thought it was part of a tool. It looked really familiar...I identified it as something similar to the locking lug nuts on each wheel of the truck. In my post chile-relleno-and-enchilada stupor, I decided that perhaps it had rolled out the alley from the garage of the neighbors behind us, and I decided to return it to them.

The mystery object
The mystery object

As I walked past the truck on the way out of the garage, my mind suddenly clicked...this didn't just look like one of the locking nuts...this was identical to them. Oh, surely not. I walked around the truck and when I came to the rear wheel on the passenger's side, my suspicion was confirmed. This was my lug nut.

The mystery object
A sad...and frightening...sight

The mechanic at the dealership had obviously neglected to tighten the nut sufficiently on Friday and it eventually worked its way off the wheel**. But the "coincidences" are fairly obvious, aren't they?

  • What are the odds that the nut would fall off mere feet from our garage after a multiple days and miles of driving?

  • What are the odds that I would notice it before someone else found it and disposed of it?

  • And consider this: we have some pretty significant road trips coming up soon. It's one thing to drive around town with a missing lug nut; quite another to log six or seven hundred miles at highway speeds.
I immediately remounted the lug nut, and checked all the others for tightness. The other three locking nuts were very slight loose - I could budge them perhaps 1/32nd of a turn with the wrench - while the non-security nuts were all perfectly torqued down (obviously down with an air wrench).

So, as it turned out, this situation resulted simply in a blog post (if you think that's a disaster in and of itself, well, keep that to yourself), rather than something much more serious. Feel free to consider this a happy coincidence and us as incredibly lucky. Personally, I'm casting my vote for an overworked guardian angel dispatched by a loving God.

*Inexplicable, except for the fact that I later found I had mounted the chain incorrectly. Go me.

**I have some experience with insufficiently tightened lug nuts. That's another story for another day; suffice it to say that seeing one of your car's wheels roll down the road ahead of you isn't something you easily forget.

God With Us
December 25, 2015 9:00 AM | Posted in:

Mary, did you know
That your baby boy
Would some day walk on water?
Mary, did you know that your baby boy
Would save our sons and daughters?
Did you know that your baby boy
Has come to make you new?
This child that you've delivered,
Will soon deliver you.

Mary, did you know
That your baby boy
Would give sight to a blind man?
Mary, did you know that your baby boy
Would calm a storm with his hand?
Did you know that your baby boy
Has walked where angels trod?
When you kiss your little baby,
You've kissed the face of God.

Oh Mary, did you know...?

The blind will see,
The deaf will hear,
And the dead will live again.
The lame will leap,
The dumb will speak
The praises of the Lamb...

Mary, did you know
That your baby boy
Is Lord of all creation?
Mary, did you know that your baby boy
Would one day rule the nations?
Did you know that your baby boy
Is Heaven's perfect Lamb?
This sleeping child you're holding
Is the great
I AM!

"Mary, Did You Know?"
Words by Mark Lowry, music by Buddy Greene

Sleeping Child :: Great I Am
December 24, 2014 9:39 AM | Posted in:

Mary, did you know
That your baby boy
Would some day walk on water?
Mary, did you know that your baby boy
Would save our sons and daughters?
Did you know that your baby boy
Has come to make you new?
This child that you've delivered,
Will soon deliver you.

Mary, did you know
That your baby boy
Would give sight to a blind man?
Mary, did you know that your baby boy
Would calm a storm with his hand?
Did you know that your baby boy
Has walked where angels trod?
When you kiss your little baby,
You've kissed the face of God.

Oh Mary, did you know...?

The blind will see,
The deaf will hear,
And the dead will live again.
The lame will leap,
The dumb will speak
The praises of the Lamb...

Mary, did you know
That your baby boy
Is Lord of all creation?
Mary, did you know that your baby boy
Would one day rule the nations?
Did you know that your baby boy
Is Heaven's perfect Lamb?
This sleeping child you're holding
Is the great
I AM!

"Mary, Did You Know?"
Words by Mark Lowry, music by Buddy Greene

"Dread Champion"
November 2, 2014 3:05 PM | Posted in:

Gladiator is one of my favorite movies, a masterfully crafted film with a compelling plot and outstanding performances (proving once more that a well-made movie can make a hero out of an unlikeable actor, but that's another topic for another day). 

The main character, Maximus, is a high-ranking officer in the service of the Roman Empire who refuses to bend a knee to the murderous new Caesar, and is given a death sentence. His family is slaughtered, but he survives and is driven to avenge their deaths by becoming the most feared gladiator in the Empire. Maximus is a guy you'd like to have in front of you in battle - honorable, skilled, fierce, and determined. He's a champion you'd want in your corner.

We all need a champion to help us meet the challenges of life. And wouldn't it be cool to have one at whose mere appearance all enemies quake and flee, unable to withstand even the sight of our protector. Guess what? We've got one, and He's not merely a champion. Here's how the ancient prophet, Jeremiah, describes Him:

But the Lord is with me like a dread champion; therefore my persecutors will stumble and not prevail. They will be utterly ashamed, because they have failed, with an everlasting disgrace that will not be forgotten.
Jeremiah 20:11 (NASB)

Incidentally, in The Message translation of this passage, that last sentence has this pleasingly graphic phrasing: Slapstick buffoons falling all over themselves, a spectacle of humiliation no one will ever forget.

Dread is an adjective that's rarely used nowadays, The Princess Bride and Predator 2 notwithstanding (go watch them again). It's defined as something that's regarded with awe; greatly revered, and also greatly feared. And while other translations of this passage from Jeremiah translate the phrase as mighty warrior or fierce warrior, there's something about dread champion that seems to surpass the mere human characteristics we might ascribe to a particularly skilled and brave fighter...especially knowing that champion implies someone who is not just an advocate for you, but is willing to do whatever it takes to protect you and defeat your enemies.

The next time you're feeling fearful and weak, remember that you have a Dread Champion ready to step in front and conquer the enemy that's attacking you. After all, as another wise writer put it, if God is for us, who can be against us?

How does the term "dread champion" resonate with you? Email me or leave a comment on my Facebook post!

The Importance of Being Earnest...on Twitter
October 11, 2014 1:44 PM | Posted in: ,

So this happened last week.
Let's backtrack a second. Here's some context, in the form of a brief partial thread on Twitter:

Screenshot of Twitter thread

That conversation thread was pretty innocuous, beginning with the other person's statement about wearing a personal fitness device to a wedding. My reference to the Pogo quote was in response to the other person's expression of an observation that was different from mine, but the subject was hardly controversial, nor the conversation adversarial.

If you're not a Twitterzen, that reference to a "friendly block" means that the person whose Twitter feed I was following will no longer allow me to post messages on or respond to their timeline. This is the type of action normally reserved for stalkers or people who post offensive things on someone's page. Or, in the case of this person, apparently, people who publicly express a belief in God or claim personal Second Amendment rights.

Here's the profile that seems to scare this person:

Screenshot of my previous Twitter profile

Now, I don't really know anything about the other person, whom I was following because of some interesting things they'd posted. I did know enough to understand that we had some significantly different views and values, but I'm not threatened by associating with people with whom I don't see eye-to-eye on every subject. Obviously, not everyone feels the same way. But it's hardly a life-changing event, and certainly not worth losing sleep over.

So why am I devoting a blog post to it, if it's not a big deal?

It did make me think about whether the public face I'm displaying on social media accurately represents who I am, especially on Twitter where you're limited to 140 characters. Am I unintentionally turning away people because I've been too cavalier in my self-descriptions, or used humor without the proper context that leads to misunderstanding?

In the case of the "guns and God" phrase in my Twitter profile, I was taking a not-so-subtle dig at Barack Obama's [in]famous quote. This is my semi-tongue-in-cheek method of displaying my political leanings, but some may read more into it than I intended.

If you're going to engage people on social media, especially outside the confines of friends and family, I think you need to be as transparent as possible about the values and interests that are so important to you that they form a big part of your personal identity. The preceding exchange caused me to evaluate how I was doing in that respect, and I realized that I was inadvertently making myself out to be someone I'm not.

For example, I'm a big supporter of 2nd Amendment rights, but guns don't really play a big part in my life. On the other hand, expressing a vague belief in God as almost an afterthought - and in a decidedly flippant manner - understates the nature and importance of my faith.

So, if someone decides to block me because I'm a Christian, I've got no problem with that. It's who I am. But if you block me because you think I'm a wild-eyed gun fanatic, then you've misread who I am. And, perhaps, that's because I inadvertently misrepresented myself.

Given those considerations, I've rewritten my Twitter profile so that anyone who sees it will be able to place in context anything I post or link to. It's not perfect, but I think it's better, and I hope it's adequate to let people know who they're dealing with.

Screenshot of my new Twitter profile

If you'd like to comment on this post, please email me or post something on my Facebook page.

The Directional Driller's 23rd Psalm
September 27, 2014 7:00 AM | Posted in: ,

My pal Kelly posted his version of the 23rd Psalm on his Facebook wall, written from the perspective of an oil driller. I was inspired by his version to create my version, which is similar - but since my company drills nothing but horizontal wells while Kelly tells me he's primarily drilling vertical wells, my angle (see what I did there?) is from the perspective of a directional driller. If you're not in the oil business, some of the jargon may be unfamiliar, so I've included links to pages that may clarify things a bit.

By the way, I don't think this is sacrilegious or disrespectful of Scripture, because we all seek (and find) God from where we are, and I believe He cares about all the details of our lives, and this includes what we do for a living. I think it's helpful and even important to try to relate Scripture to the everyday aspects of our lives. Given that, how might you re-word Psalm 23 to fit your personal situation?

The Lord is my Geosteerer; I shall not miss my target bottom hole location.

He makes me slide through soft shale; He leads me past thief zones.

He restores my mud motors; He leads me in the well path of mild doglegs for His name's sake.

Yea, though I drill through the zone of limestone stringers and chert, I will fear no DBR'd bit, for You are with me; Your agitator and kickpad they comfort me.

You prepare a directional plan before me in the presence of management skeptics;

You lube my wellbore with oil-based mud; my reserve pit doesn't run over.

Surely one-BHA laterals and cement to surface will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the cooling house[1] of the Lord forever.

[1] A cooling house, aka safety trailer or safety house, is an air-conditioned trailer placed on a drill site for the use of rig personnel who might be suffering from heat exhaustion.


Preaching to the birds
April 7, 2014 8:56 PM | Posted in: ,

Everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not act on them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and it fell--and great was its fall.
Matthew 7:26-27 (NASB)

NestI suspect that most people who visit this blog are familiar with the preceding Bible verses, and their context, where Jesus warns against putting one's trust into things without a firm foundation. He was, of course, not giving a lecture in architecture or civil engineering, and His intent was to address spiritual issues more than the mundane, practical things of life. But...that's not to say that there are no practical implications to this parable.

It's also quite possible to apply this principle to non-human undertakings, and if you substitute "bird" for "man," and "front door wreath" for "sand," and "West Texas winds" for - well, the parable does hit that one on the head - the logical conclusion might be this sad scene, which greeted us this afternoon after work.

Broken bird eggs on concrete

We had not even noticed the nest in the wreath until a couple of days ago, and I hadn't had a chance to see if there were eggs in yet (although I told Debbie that surely the birds hadn't yet laid any). But, judging by the carnage on the concrete, there were at least five, and possibly six eggs of unknown avian origin. Very sad, but...really birds? What were you thinking?

The nest is intact, and the wreath has been re-hung (and more securely), so we'll see if the parents were sufficiently traumatized that they'll give up on this location. But perhaps they'll try again. After all...Matthew 6:25-27.

God's blessings are not a zero sum game
March 2, 2014 5:00 PM | Posted in:

bless·ing [bles-ing] noun
1. the act or words of a person who blesses.
2. a special favor, mercy, or benefit: the blessings of liberty.
3. a favor or gift bestowed by God, thereby bringing happiness.
A friend recently shared this article on Facebook. The author is decrying what he feels is an inappropriate and non-Scriptural use by Christians of the word "blessing" in reference to good things of a material nature that we sometimes enjoy. He says we should stop using that word with respect to financial and material somethings and instead just say we're "grateful." He admits that he's dealing in semantics, but feels that in this case, the semantics are meaningful and shouldn't be ignored.

I disagree with his premise.

You can be grateful, but it's just a nebulous emotion unless you're grateful to someone. (Aside: This is why I'm always confused by atheists who observe Thanksgiving.) And why be grateful unless that someone has given you something special? And, gee, that sounds to me an awful lot like a blessing.

God's blessings come in many forms, and who are we to limit them to an arbitrary standard, however well-meaning?

Material blessings are Scriptural. Many references to them are found in the Old Testament (take a look at Deuteronomy 28:1-14...but be careful; in this rather significant passage, God actually ties His blessings to faithfulness!) and the God of the New Testament is the God of the Old Testament. His character doesn't change.

So, if a person living on a subsistence income is unexpectedly given a significant donation, would that person be justified in claiming a blessing from God? If your answer is "yes," then what is the threshold where such a gift is no longer considered a blessing, but is instead something for which that person is to simply feel gratitude?

I don't know why some are blessed with wealth and many more aren't. I don't understand why some saints have lives full of physical pain and challenge, and others appear to live lives free of stress and full of ease. I'm pretty sure both situations are not as black-and-white as we think; the former doesn't guarantee misery or the latter, joy. We'd do well to remember that God's economy is different than ours, given that He has a view of infinity and ours is rather less.

What I do believe is that God's blessings aren't a zero sum game. The wealthy aren't blessed by God at the expense of the poor. I find nothing in the Bible to support that view.

Now, I want to be very clear about something. I abhor the "name it and claim it" approach to theology. The so-called "prosperity gospel" is a distortion of Biblical principles and its proponents have been responsible for great harm to the body of Christ. But the acceptance, recognition, and even celebration of material blessings does not automatically put one in that camp.

These are questions worth discussing but at the end of the day, the real question - and the one area where I do agree with the author of the article - is not what have we been given but what did we do with it?

Book Review: "The Leftovers"
January 19, 2014 8:20 PM | Posted in: ,

I finished Tom Perotta's novel, The Leftovers [Kindle | iBooks] this weekend, and found it to be both compelling and unsatisfying.

The book was published in 2011, and if I ever heard anything about it, I had forgotten it. But it's recently been getting new press due to the film adaptation that is scheduled to appear sometime this year on HBO.

Book coverThe basic premise of the book is simple. Three years earlier, on October 14th to be exact, 140 million people around the world - people of all races, religions, cultures, nationalities, and other demographic affiliations - simultaneously and instantaneously disappeared. There was no warning; there was no explanation. The book follows the lives of a handful of people living in Mapleton [somewhere in America] who are trying to cope with the aftereffects of the most mystifying phenomenon in human history. And most of them are, frankly, a mess.

The first thing that might come to mind when you hear this plot premise is, "well, he's writing about The Rapture." Nope. While the author plays around the edges of that explanation, the book is completely irreligious. [Don't let the description of the HBO series lead you astray in this regard.] In fact, there is no attempt whatsoever to try to explain the disappearance phenomenon; it's left to the reader's imagination to put some context around the plight of the "survivors." In this sense, the author is showing respect to the reader, not feeling the need to explain everything, and is confident enough to let the story lead to whatever conclusions the reader desires.

We whose faith includes a belief in the Biblical Rapture might be offended by a portrayal of something that simulates an aspect of our faith without ever honoring it, but that would be an overreaction. This is a figment of a writer's imagination, possibly designed to provoke precisely that reaction, but more likely simply a way to stimulate our own imaginations.

I kept trying to make this into a science fiction story, but it wouldn't cooperate, staying stubbornly grounded in typically illogical human emotions, decisions, and relationships. It's not a book for children - there's lot of graphic sex, and some violence, and the usual quota of bad language. But mostly there are stories of broken people who are either trying to rebuild their lives after inexplicably losing loved ones, or who have twisted off into patterns of behavior that you know won't turn out well.

I've never lost a close family member to an unexpected event, let alone an unexplained one. Some of the questions the book raises are legitimately troubling. How do you live your life knowing that what happened once might happen again, and more of those you love might simply vanish? Would it be difficult to form friendships, let alone build a loving relationship? 

And how do you heal when there is no possible way to bring closure to the situation? How many times have we heard the parents of missing children express a desire to know something - anything - about their kids, if only to have that closure.

In the end, however, I found that I could only pity the characters in the book, as none of them seemed to have any concept or inkling of the true nature and character of God, or the comforting truth of Scripture, or the concept of healing grace. I don't necessarily look for this in the novels I read, but when one takes its primary cue from a phenomenon that is unique to Christianity, it's a shortcoming that leaves me, well, unsatisfied.

My Plans / God's Laughter
December 27, 2013 8:48 AM | Posted in:

If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.
Unknown Wag

For I know the plans that I have for you,' declares the Lord, 'plans for welfare and not for calamity, to give you a future and a hope.'
Jeremiah 29:11 [NAS]

I do agree that God laughs when we tell Him our plans, but probably not for the same reasons the unknown wag quoted above had in mind.

First, God laughs in joy when we, His children, feel comfortable and confident enough to confide in Him our wishes, hopes, and dreams for the future. He revels in that sort of fellowship and intimacy with His most beloved creations.

Second, His mirth arises from a divine inside joke - one that He wants us to understand, even though He also knows we're really resistant to doing so. It's the truth expressed in the passage from Jeremiah quoted above, giving us a glimpse at the truth behind God's laughter.

He laughs because He knows that whatever our plans and dreams entail, they're merely a fraction of the good things He has in store for His children, all who are "called to His purpose."

So go ahead...tell Him your plans, and rest in the confidence that He's laughing with you, and for you.

I was going to insert one of those "Laughing Jesus" pictures as a visual aid, but they're either really creepy, or they just don't match my imagination.

Heaven's Perfect Lamb
December 25, 2013 9:32 AM | Posted in:

Mary, did you know
That your baby boy
Would some day walk on water?
Mary, did you know that your baby boy
Would save our sons and daughters?
Did you know that your baby boy
Has come to make you new?
This child that you've delivered,
Will soon deliver you.

Mary, did you know
That your baby boy
Would give sight to a blind man?
Mary, did you know that your baby boy
Would calm a storm with his hand?
Did you know that your baby boy
Has walked where angels trod?
When you kiss your little baby,
You've kissed the face of God.

Oh Mary, did you know...?

The blind will see,
The deaf will hear,
And the dead will live again.
The lame will leap,
The dumb will speak
The praises of the Lamb...

Mary, did you know
That your baby boy
Is Lord of all creation?
Mary, did you know that your baby boy
Would one day rule the nations?
Did you know that your baby boy
Is Heaven's perfect Lamb?
This sleeping child you're holding
Is the great
I AM!

"Mary, Did You Know?"
Words by Mark Lowry, music by Buddy Greene

A Fitting Epitaph
June 19, 2013 10:01 PM | Posted in:

We went to a funeral this morning, a memorial service for a friend who passed from this life much too soon. It was held in the chapel of our church, a striking new addition with beautiful stained glass windows all around, illuminated this morning by a bright sun that defied the inherent solemnity of the occasion.

The service began with music, a recorded song, and the beginning notes were immediately recognizable to a few of us sitting in the pews. I was at first a bit puzzled by the song selection, but then the significance dawned on me, and I couldn't help grinning while perhaps fighting back a few tears as I listened to it. 

Was it one of the great old hymns of our shared faith, or a beautiful contemporary worship chorus? Well, not really, but it was deeply personal for those who knew the man and his surviving wife.



One of my memories of the couple - who had been married only a couple of years - was of them dancing, getting lost in each others arms, obviously in love and, yes, having fun with it. I suspect that most of the people in attendance at the funeral didn't even know that side of them...the man's family expressed surprise when I mentioned it to them in the greeting line after the service; I think they'd been puzzled by the music selection, too, and they were pleased to learn its significance.

I mentioned our shared faith; it's a faith that assures us that this life is just a prelude to a much better and eternal existence, one that helps us understand that this parting is just temporary. As such, a memorial service is equal parts sorrow and gladness, and as such, a country song that celebrates the joy of life and love is entirely appropriate. We Baptists may not be dancing in church, but that doesn't mean that our hearts aren't moving in time to the music, and beating in synchronicity and empathy and joy, even during a time of earthly grief.

My prayer for all married couples is that when that inevitable sorrow comes, that it not be avoided, but that it be tempered by the knowledge that the love they shared was, above all, simply fun.

My Spiritual Gift is Contortion
January 6, 2013 2:10 PM | Posted in:

We met as a congregation in our fourth location in the past 18 months, as we continue to deal with the inconveniences of a major remodeling/expansion program, complicated by a fire in end of the church not being worked on.

Today, we assembled in the auditorium of Midland Lee High School, a location where we expect to be every Sunday until construction is completed on the main campus in March. It's a pretty comfortable setting, and with a capacity of about 1,600 (including the balcony), it should accommodate our normal crowd. And the fact that its primary color scheme is maroon and white is an added plus for some of us (and one that God obviously approves of). 

Here's a photo of the stage and part of the floor, taken before the services from the camera stand where I set up shop this morning.

Photo

It's not without its inconveniences, however, especially from the media crew's perspective. While one of those challenges isn't a shaky camera stand, there are other issues. Take a look at this picture:

Another photo

See that "decorative" concrete shelf that runs the length of the auditorium wall, and how it appears to be right on top of the camera? Well, that's not all due to the perspective of the photo...that shelf is indeed almost on top of the camera. I spent almost the entire service with one shoulder touching the brick wall, with my head tilted slightly to the left as the right side of my noggin was up against the concrete.

Fortunately, while we're taping the services, we're not broadcasting them, so the general TV-viewing public will never experience the less-than-stellar camera/lighting/audio work that comes with the territory where everything must be assembled the night before, and then broken down and moved after the service, only to be repeated the next Sunday.

I'm confident the major bugs will be worked out, but it may be an interesting three months. And, of course, if hash tags had any relevance on the Gazette, the appropriate one for this post would be #1stworldproblems. Wish they were all that easy to cope with.

The real blessing is that our congregation continues to attract new members, regardless of where we're meeting. That might be a lesson worth dwelling on.

Bible Reading: A New Year, A New Approach
December 31, 2012 8:58 AM | Posted in:

The start of a new year is doesn't carry any mystical significance for me, and I don't view it as time of new beginnings - except in one very important area. For more than twenty years, I've read through the Bible during the calendar year, and one of the traditions I look forward to is reading the final chapters of Malachi and Revelation on December 31, followed by the first chapters of Genesis and Matthew on New Year's Day.

My reading plan during that period has been taken from the Open Windows magazine, a 75+ year old publication that is provided at no charge by our church. It provides daily readings from the Old and New Testaments along with a short devotional, and it has been an excellent tool to keep me organized and on track. Its only drawback is that it's treeware, meaning that I must have access to a physical copy of the current issue in order to follow the daily plan. This hasn't always been convenient.

Bible GatewaySo, in 2013 I'm going virtual, using Zondervan's excellent - and free - iPad/iPhone app, Bible Gateway (also available for Android devices and the Kindle Fire). I've been a big fan of the Bible Gateway website for years, and the transition to an app has only increased its usefulness.

Not only can you choose from a variety of reading plans (e.g. New Testament in a Year, Chronological, Historical, etc.) but you also have access to a wide variety of translations, commentaries, and dictionaries. There's an audio option for some of the more popular translations in case you prefer to listen rather than read (or follow along while someone else reads), and the ability to add notes to specific passages as well as marking passages as "favorites."

In the past, one of the significant downsides to the online resource was that you needed an internet connection to actually read the Bible. The latest iteration of the app allows you to download some (but not all) translations to your device so that you can read offline. My translation of choice (New American Standard) is not one of those licensed for download, but my second choice (New International Version) is, so I'll have that as a backup for those rare times when I have neither a wifi or cellular connection.

Of course, this is just a tool, and its usefulness depends on the commitment of the wielder. There are many tools to help accomplish this particular task; the cool thing is that God will bless the sincere application of any of them.

Behold our newborn King!
December 24, 2012 9:39 AM | Posted in:

Mary, did you know
That your baby boy
Would some day walk on water?
Mary, did you know that your baby boy
Would save our sons and daughters?
Did you know that your baby boy
Has come to make you new?
This child that you've delivered,
Will soon deliver you.

Mary, did you know
That your baby boy
Would give sight to a blind man?
Mary, did you know that your baby boy
Would calm a storm with his hand?
Did you know that your baby boy
Has walked where angels trod?
When you kiss your little baby,
You've kissed the face of God.

Oh Mary, did you know...?

The blind will see,
The deaf will hear,
And the dead will live again.
The lame will leap,
The dumb will speak
The praises of the Lamb...

Mary, did you know
That your baby boy
Is Lord of all creation?
Mary, did you know that your baby boy
Would one day rule the nations?
Did you know that your baby boy
Is Heaven's perfect Lamb?
This sleeping child you're holding
Is the great
I AM!

"Mary, Did You Know?"
Words by Mark Lowry, music by Buddy Greene

"For unto us..."
December 25, 2011 7:30 AM | Posted in:

Mary, did you know
That your baby boy
Would some day walk on water?
Mary, did you know that your baby boy
Would save our sons and daughters?
Did you know that your baby boy
Has come to make you new?
This child that you've delivered,
Will soon deliver you.

Mary, did you know
That your baby boy
Would give sight to a blind man?
Mary, did you know that your baby boy
Would calm a storm with his hand?
Did you know that your baby boy
Has walked where angels trod?
When you kiss your little baby,
You've kissed the face of God.

Oh Mary, did you know...?

The blind will see,
The deaf will hear,
And the dead will live again.
The lame will leap,
The dumb will speak
The praises of the Lamb...

Mary, did you know
That your baby boy
Is Lord of all creation?
Mary, did you know that your baby boy
Would one day rule the nations?
Did you know that your baby boy
Is Heaven's perfect Lamb?
This sleeping child you're holding
Is the great
I AM!

"Mary, Did You Know?"
Words by Mark Lowry, music by Buddy Greene

Is that post title cryptic enough for you? Tell you what...jump over to this page for a minute, take a quick look around, then come back and let's talk about it. I'll wait here for you.

*idle whistling*

*annoying fingertapping*

*impatient watch glancing*

Photo of braceletSo, is that cool or what? By the way, if I've coined a new term - causelet, a combination of "cause" and "bracelet" - feel free to use it without paying me royalties unless they begin to run into the six or seven figure range. Generosity would be my middle name if it wasn't something else.

And speaking of generosity, that's what Brandon Hawkins, the brains behind Chi-Rho Knots, is all about. Brandon graciously agreed to a quick mini-interview via email in which he shared some of the background behind Chi-Rho and the awesome handmade paracord bracelets. I think you'll be hearing more about Brandon, but here's quick intro, lightly edited, from his own keyboard.

Gazette: How did you come up with the idea of the shock-cord "causelets"?

Brandon: The paracord bracelet is not a new idea. In fact, I first heard about them over a year ago when I received an issue of BackPacker Magazine that ran a story about making your own "survival bracelet." Long story short, I bought the paracord to make a couple, did just that, then tucked everything away in a closet for a little more than a year. Then, about mid-September of this year for reasons unknown, I dragged it all back out and made a couple more. This time, my wife suggested that I attempt to add a breast cancer ribbon to one. Since Jess [ed.-Jess is Brandon's lovely wife] and I participate in raising funds for a few favorite causes each year (Breast Cancer Awareness, First Candle, March of Dimes, and the American Heart Association), she was thinking that I could sell a few as a type of "bake-sale,"and donate the funds. I reluctantly said yes (while thinking in the back of my mind...these won't sell), and proceeded to tinker. I finally found a way to make it happen in a practical manner, and off I went. Eventually, people started requesting them for other causes than breast cancer research. The rest has been a blur of a constant orders!

G - The bracelets look somewhat time-consuming to create. How many can you create in a day/week/month? Is this a full-time job for you.

B - Right now, I can make about 50 bracelets a day if I need to. It has taken more than full-time attention to make all this happen, but it's not all that I do. I'm currently tutoring nurses that are returning to school to obtain Bachelors and Masters degrees. It has definitely been a challenge to balance the two. As business grows, I can see this becoming my full time job.

G - Your website mentions that Chi-Rho Knots is a family business. What family members are involved?

B - My grandparents have agreed to sign on to my "little" project. My grandfather is a retired veterinarian, and my grandmother is a retired office manager. With their help, I've been able to keep up with the influx of orders.

G - What are your goals for Chi-Rho Knots? How do you feel about the response to it?

B - I've always had a giving heart, and I think that must fit into God's plan for me. I am humbled by the response! My goals for the company as of now are to continue to grow and expand responsibly, while raising as much money for research and assistance as possible, for the variety of medical conditions we are all dealing with in some form or another. This isn't my doing. It must be God's idea. That's really the only explanation for the insane success Chi-Rho Knots has experienced thus far. So, even though I like more than my fair share of the spotlight, the Glory goes to Him on this one, and I'm forever grateful. This endeavor has been a blessing in so many ways, to so many people. I'm honored to be a part of it.

Chi-Rho Knots is the kind of homegrown, passion-driven success story that people love to hear about. I've had the privilege to work briefly with Brandon on a web design project, and he strikes me as a guy with boundless energy and enviable creativity, and yet he's obviously strongly grounded in faith. I predict great things for Chi-Rho...especially if he can figure out how to incorporate a Fire Ant logo into a bracelet.

Steve Jobs
October 5, 2011 8:26 PM | Posted in: ,

Steve Jobs died today at age 56, and the world lost a creative visionary. Apple enthusiasts will freely admit the significance of the loss, while even those who rejected or denigrated his contributions will nevertheless continue to enjoy for years to come the benefits of the technologies he championed.

I didn't know Jobs, but I know enough about him to draw a few conclusions from his life and death.

  • Fifty-six years is too young for anyone to die, and it's a reminder that cancer sucks.

  • His net worth was estimated to be in excess of six billion dollars. Only in science fiction stories can money buy more life. Keep that in mind when setting your priorities.

  • Jobs was respected for his creativity, drive, and vision. But I never heard anyone talk about how much they loved him, or even liked him. He had a wife and kids, and I'm sure many people liked and loved him, but he'll be remembered for his achievements, not his character. I wonder if that's a legacy he'd be comfortable with.

In the end, the death of Steve Jobs seems to serve as a reminder of the wisdom of the writer of the book of Ecclesiastes

Vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What advantage does man have in all his work which he does under the sun.

Q. Are we living in the End Times? A. Yes.
July 11, 2011 2:18 PM | Posted in: ,

Jim Denison was our guest preacher yesterday. His message centered on the End Times, and he opened it with the question and answer that comprise the title of this post. Simply put, when Jesus Christ conquered death and the grave 2,000 years ago, He fulfilled all the Messianic prophecies.

Every. Last. One. Of. Them. (Yeah, I dislike that twee construct, but sometimes it just works.)

And when He did, that ushered in the End Times...the Countdown to end all countdowns, so to speak. It doesn't matter what your eschatology is, because the ending is certain, and the only thing that should really concern you is whether you're ready for it.

But I'm not here to preach, not today, anyway. I'm here to party, or at least set the mood to celebrate the reality that Good will eventually win out over Evil. Dr. Denison's message brought to mind a musical commentary on the subject. And I've invited my special amigo, Paul Thorn, to offer his special twist on the Big Bang Theory...the real one at the END, not that other fake one. Enjoy, and remember: bottle rockets are two for one, but salvation is free!


And while He was praying, the appearance of His face became different, and His clothing became white and gleaming. And behold, two men were talking with Him; and they were Moses and Elijah, who, appearing in glory, were speaking of His departure which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.
This passage of Scripture, excerpted from the 9th chapter of Luke (and quoted here from the New American Standard version of the Bible) has so many incredible implications and questions that volumes of speculation could be crafted about it. 

If you're not familiar with the context of the passage, Jesus was seeking some prayerful solitude at the top of a mountain (having just fed 5,000 people a week earlier) and brought along a few of His disciples (Peter, James, and John). Those three probably had no clue about the scene that was about to unfold. And, as was often the case, they fell asleep, only to awake to the incredible tableau.

I'm not qualified to do a rigorous exegesis of the passage, but as a curious and overly imaginative reader, here are some random thoughts I have whenever I read it:

  • When I was a corporate drone, I was part of a small team that went to the headquarters office in Los Angeles to make a presentation to corporate staff. At that time, my employer was one of the ten largest companies in the U.S. During a break in the meeting, we were standing around shooting the breeze with some of the corporate guys, including the CEO, and I thought, "how cool is this, to be hobknobbing with a guy who makes more in a week than I do in a year?" Now, multiply that feeling by about a billion, and perhaps we get an idea of what Moses and Elijah were thinking as they conversed with the CEO of the Universe.

  • On the other hand, were they talking to Jesus God, or to Jesus Man, if you know what I mean? They were discussing "His departure," which I interpret to mean His crucifixion and death, so perhaps divinity took a backseat to humanity in this instance.

  • Anyway, I would love to know the nature of the conversation. Were Moses and Elijah encouraging Jesus? Were they comforting Him, or giving Him advice? Did they really know the details of what was about to happen? And if they did, how did they find out? Does God conduct staff meetings and share things like that with a few special folks? And what was Jesus saying to them? "Yeah, I'm really dreading my little trip to Jerusalem. I don't suppose you guys want to come with me...? These guys I have now have good hearts, but man, they fall asleep easily." OK, seriously though - what did they talk about?

  • A couple of verses later in this passage, Dr. Luke refers to the departure of Moses and Elijah, and even that intrigues me. Elijah already had a reputation for dramatic exits, but this sort of sounds like they just...walked off? To where? Was there a stairway to heaven? An escalator? Am I being too literal? Perhaps.

  • And, finally, while we have a lot of details about what happened to Jesus following this event, I don't recall reading any other reports from or about Moses and Elijah. So, I wonder if they went back to the Father and filled Him in on the confab. Of course, He already knew all the details, but perhaps it was for their benefit, although to what purpose I can't imagine. It's not like they needed anything else to bolster their faith, for example. I mean, you're already in heaven, getting your marching orders directly from the top.

  • And speaking of that, this just occurred to me: why did God send those two, instead of His angels, like He did after Jesus was tempted by Satan in the wilderness? Was it important for Jesus to converse with other humans (albeit glorified ones)?
I could go on and on; this is one of those passages that just unfolds like a mystical, infinite origami, revealing more mysterious beauty with each new exposed surface. If you have any insights, revelations, or questions of your own about it, I'd love to hear them.



It's only fair to look at what one theologian has to say about this passage. William Barclay calls the transfiguration "another of the great hinges in Jesus' life upon earth." He goes on to say:
What happened on the Mount of Transfiguration we can never know, but we do know that something tremendous did happen. Jesus had gone there to seek the approval of God for the decisive step he was about to take. There Moses and Elijah appeared to him. Moses was the great law-giver of the people of Israel; Elijah was the greatest of the prophets. It was as if the princes of Israel's life and thought and religion told Jesus to go on.

What It's All About
December 23, 2010 1:10 PM | Posted in:

Mary, did you know
That your baby boy
Would some day walk on water?
Mary, did you know that your baby boy
Would save our sons and daughters?
Did you know that your baby boy
Has come to make you new?
This child that you've delivered,
Will soon deliver you.

Mary, did you know
That your baby boy
Would give sight to a blind man?
Mary, did you know that your baby boy
Would calm a storm with his hand?
Did you know that your baby boy
Has walked where angels trod?
When you kiss your little baby,
You've kissed the face of God.

Oh Mary, did you know...?

The blind will see,
The deaf will hear,
And the dead will live again.
The lame will leap,
The dumb will speak
The praises of the Lamb...

Mary, did you know
That your baby boy
Is Lord of all creation?
Mary, did you know that your baby boy
Would one day rule the nations?
Did you know that your baby boy
Is Heaven's perfect Lamb?
This sleeping child you're holding
Is the great
I AM!

"Mary, Did You Know?"
Words by Mark Lowry, music by Buddy Greene

Exchanging a stream for a cistern
October 2, 2010 10:36 AM | Posted in:

The Old Testament book of Jeremiah doesn't get a lot of press, and what it does get is mostly negative. It's understandable; it's not the most uplifting book in the Bible, as it's full of dire prophecies about God's judgment on the nation of Israel, and it's sometimes hard to figure out how it's relevant to our lives. But God saw to it that it became part of Scripture for a reason, and my reading this morning in the second chapter confirmed that. Here's how the 13th verse reads (from the New American Standard Version):
For My people have committed two evils: They have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, to hew for themselves cisterns, broken cisterns that can hold no water.
So, who in their right mind would do something like this? Who would trade access to a never-ending stream of water for a reservoir, regardless of how big or full it is? That's just crazy talk. And yet...

I don't know about you, but that sure describes what I often do. I try to save up blessings and provision, because, well, you just never know when the supply is going to dry up. But this passage in Jeremiah reminds us that God's blessings are perpetual to those who are faithful in relying on Him. And further, our self-reliance is guaranteed to fail. The passage uses a homemade, leaky cistern as a word picture of the futility of our trying to control and master the world around us, independent of God.

It's easier said than done, of course, but letting God's stream of blessing wash over us will ultimately be infinitely more helpful than obsessing over the filling of a leaky bucket in anticipation of the next drought.
Remember my mild rant about the lack of critical thinking skills among students? It's not just students who are falling short in this area; some newspaper reporters appear to be challenged in this regard. Here's a quote from a story in the Los Angeles Times about the results of this survey (link to a PDF with the results of the complete survey; to take a shorter version online, visit this page) from The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life:
If you want to know about God, you might want to talk to an atheist.

Heresy? Perhaps. But a survey that measured Americans' knowledge of religion found that atheists and agnostics knew more, on average, than followers of most major faiths. In fact, the gaps in knowledge among some of the faithful may give new meaning to the term "blind faith."
That's pretty provocative...and inaccurate, given that the survey is as much about the cultural and political aspects of religion as the spiritual ones. Our former pastor, Dr. Jim Denison, does a good job of explaining why the survey doesn't measure what it purports to, and why analyses like those in the LA Times are misleading.

In an exchange on Facebook someone asked me how I would craft a survey to measure "religious knowledge." I said I haven't a clue, but I'm pretty sure there's no way to assess the results of the entire history of human beings searching for God. Further, I don't think there's anything to be gained by the attempt.

I do believe that people of faith should learn as much as they can about the history and tenets of that faith, and in an increasingly diverse society, understanding important aspects of other religions is also valuable. But for many of us, it's not about what you know, but Who you know. Being able to answer Bible "trivia" won't get you to Heaven, and having an intellectual grasp of the moral imperatives of the faith isn't important if you won't apply them in daily life.

Does Praying Make You a Christian?
August 26, 2010 8:18 AM | Posted in:

Last week, in response to a poll wherein almost 20% of respondents said they believed that President Obama is a Muslim, a White House spokesman stated that "the President is obviously a - is Christian." The spokesman went on to support this assertion by saying "he prays every day," as if that settled the question once and for all.

I don't pretend to know whether Obama is Christian, Muslim, or anything else. I do find it odd that he would cancel the White House's National Day of Prayer breakfast but hold a dinner to celebrate Ramadan, but neither of those things are germane to what I really want to discuss, and that is whether prayer is a sign that someone is a Christian. And, of course, the short - and Biblical - answer is "no."

It's probably helpful for purposes of this discussion to define prayer, and I take a very simplistic view: prayer is speaking with God. We can make it complicated or ritualistic, but conversing with the Deity is the essence of prayer.

Prayer is an important characteristic of the Christian faith. Jesus Christ taught His disciples how to pray, and He spent considerable time in prayer. The Christian who doesn't pray is missing a cornerstone of his faith.

But, guess what? Using my broad definition of prayer, the practice is not limited to Christians. In fact, Satan and his demons pray. A passage in the book of Revelation describes Satan's habit of coming before God to accuse us of sin, continually (as if God didn't already know these things!). And one of Jesus' earliest recorded miracles was the exorcism of an evil spirit from a man; Scripture records a short, desperate prayer by said spirit before it was evicted.

These simple examples help demonstrate that it's not what we do that makes us Christians; it's what we believe. In this regard, the President's spokesman did him no favors in attempting to describe his boss's faith.

Two additional thoughts. First, while one might argue that the faith, or lack thereof, of an American president is nobody's business, it's a fact of life that such things are still of interest to an apparent majority of Americans. I fear for our nation when that ceases to be.

Second, while we're in the neighborhood, just as praying isn't necessarily an indication that one is a Christian, neither is knowing who Jesus Christ is. Knowing Christ is not the same as accepting Him as Lord and Savior. Check out this passage in Acts where more evil spirits make this point.

Caution: Band at Work
January 20, 2010 7:56 AM | Posted in: ,

Former Midlander Kyle Lent owns a recording studio in Georgetown (TX) and is also the lead guitarist for The Justin Cofield Band. The band is embarking on what it calls a "Grand Experiment," an aspect of which involves allowing us to watch their recording sessions via webcam.

If you've ever been curious about what goes on during a professional recording session, this is your chance to find out. They're streaming a session this morning beginning at 10:00 a.m. I assume that they'll provide a link somewhere on the above-referenced sites to allow you to tune in. (Unfortunately, I have a client meeting at the same time so I won't be able to watch.)

Update: I just realized that "Wednesday, January 19th" is an impossibility for 2010. Kyle, you need to check your calendar, bud.

For Unto Us A Child Is Born...A Savior Is Given
December 24, 2009 9:32 AM | Posted in:

Mary, did you know
That your baby boy
Would some day walk on water?
Mary, did you know that your baby boy
Would save our sons and daughters?
Did you know that your baby boy
Has come to make you new?
This child that you've delivered,
Will soon deliver you.

Mary, did you know
That your baby boy
Would give sight to a blind man?
Mary, did you know that your baby boy
Would calm a storm with his hand?
Did you know that your baby boy
Has walked where angels trod?
When you kiss your little baby,
You've kissed the face of God.

Oh Mary, did you know...?

The blind will see,
The deaf will hear,
And the dead will live again.
The lame will leap,
The dumb will speak
The praises of the Lamb...

Mary, did you know
That your baby boy
Is Lord of all creation?
Mary, did you know that your baby boy
Would one day rule the nations?
Did you know that your baby boy
Is Heaven's perfect Lamb?
This sleeping child you're holding
Is the great
I AM!

"Mary, Did You Know?"
Words by Mark Lowry, music by Buddy Greene

"The Color of Sin"
November 10, 2009 6:55 AM | Posted in:

An article in Scientific American entitled The Color of Sin--Why the Good Guys Wear White posits that "ancient fears of filth and contagion may explain why we think of morality in black and white."

The article cites the findings of a series of experiments in which words with "strong moral overtones" were printed in either black or white type, and shown to subjects who were asked to categorize what they saw (this is a variation of the Stroop test, a more familiar incarnation of which is found in games where participants are shown colored shapes with the name of the color printed in a different color). According to the researchers, there was a strong correlation between the identification of words printed in black as "immoral" and those in white as "moral."

The words used in the study were categorized by the researchers as immoral, neutral, or moral and included: cheat, crime, devil, hell, neglect, sin, torment, vulgar, aspect, calm, concert, east, motion, recall, sum, aid, angel, brave, charity, grace, honesty, saint, virtue.

They then extended the test and found that people "who expressed the strongest desire for an array of cleaning products were also those most likely to link morality with white and immorality with black."

I have no idea what to do with that last finding, but I can provide the researchers with some direction regarding their overall findings, as I think they're off base. Here's what they say:

Because of the shared connection of blackness and immorality with impurity, valence-darkness associations in the moral domain have a metaphorical quality. Accordingly, the concept of immorality should activate "black," not because immoral things tend to be black, but because immorality acts like the color black (e.g., it contaminates).

Wrong. Black is representative of sin not because it contaminates, but because it hides. That's why the Bible frequently contrasts good and evil in terms of light and dark, proxies for white and black. (e.g. Ephesians 5:11; 1 John 1:6-7; Ephesians 5: 8-10) Humans seeks out the darkness to do their evil deeds in the mistaken assumption that they can hide those deeds from others, or even more laughably, from God. Indeed, we are amazingly successful in hiding our shortcomings from other people; we're absolute failures when it comes to fooling God. Some of the accounts of the earliest human behavior involved man's attempt to hide his actions from God (see Adam and Eve in the Garden; Cain's murder of his brother).

I hope the aforementioned study wasn't paid for with my tax dollars. Their questions could have been better answered by reading a $2 copy of the New Testament.

Condolences
July 28, 2009 6:54 AM | Posted in: ,

Please join me in extending sympathies to Jimmy Patterson and his family following his father's passing last Sunday.

For Christians it's not a trivial cliché to say that his dad is in a better place. It's an assurance that allows us to celebrate even through our grief.

Those People
July 12, 2009 3:05 PM | Posted in: ,

This article in today's newspaper is an inadvertently honest depiction of what I suspect goes on in the zoning process of cities all around the world. It's an account of a proposed housing project that was so strenuously protested by the adjacent residents that the developer withdrew the plan.

On the surface, it's easy to see why the plan was rejected. The development would have placed almost 100 "modular homes" into a neighborhood of houses sitting on 1- or 2-acre tracts, spoiling the "rural life in the city" ambiance of the area. It's understandable that current residents would want to maintain the character of their neighborhood, and it's difficult to imagine anything more antithetical to that character than a bunch of tract homes on tiny lots.

But a couple of the quotes from the article reveal a more sinister motivation. The story refers to "residents who would not fit in," and the perception that while the development would have included "some good people," it also "would have brought in some undesirables."

So, the implication is that while the homes might be eyesores (in relation to what makes up the original neighborhood), the real concern is that the people who live in them just don't meet some arbitrary measure of acceptability.

It's unfortunate that we tend to judge people in this fashion. Your perceived worth is determined by the size of the structure you inhabit, or the nameplate on the car you drive, or the tags on the clothes you wear. None of us would ever publicly admit to this practice, but we all do it to one extent or another. We justify it because at some point in our lives we were either taught to do it, or we saw an example of behavior that somehow supported the judgment and allowed us to broadly extrapolate it to, well, everyone.

It's ironic that to some extent, in some fashion, to someone else each of us falls into a category of "those people." (If you disagree, I can assure you that you're now going to be judged as "one of those hypocrites.")

I don't know how we overcome this tendency (and you'll noticed that I use "we" a lot, because I'm not immune). A good beginning might be to see others as God sees us: imperfect beings who nevertheless are deeply loved. It might not make us any happier to have a trailer park in our backyard, but we might come to view the residents as friends rather than adversaries.

A.J. Jacobs's first book, The Know-It-All, chronicled his quest to read the Encyclopedia Brittanica from A-to-Z. Jacobs has now extended his version of literary flagpole-sitting to the Bible in The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, in which he describes his attempts to adhere to the laws and commandments - Old and New Testament - set forth in the Bible.

Jacobs is a self-described agnostic, a secular Jew who had almost no exposure to religion, Jewish or otherwise. The only Bible he had when he started was a King James Version which he had somehow acquired from an ex-girlfriend, and which he had never opened. But he was intrigued by the apparent fascination of millions (if not billions) of people through time with what was written in the Bible, and chose this method of trying it on for size, so to speak.

His efforts are, of course, a gimmick...a hook to attract attention (hence my earlier reference to flagpole sitting). He also picked a potential minefield to meander through, given the reverence many of us have for God's Word. (Can you imagine someone taking a shot at the Koran in this fashion, for the purpose of writing a humorous book about the experience?) So, you might be surprised that I recommend reading his book, especially if you are a Christian. Here's why.

In addition to being a well-written and entertaining diary of a man trying to live with one foot in the 21st century and the other in 4,000 B.C., Jacobs's observations and experiences provide much food for contemplation. Most of the following items were probably not even on the author's radar screen as he wrote his book, but that doesn't make them any less valid.

  • He reminds us of the Jewish underpinnings of our faith. Through liberal consultation with various religious advisers, Jacobs sheds light on the Jewish traditions surrounding many of the [primarily Old Testament] commands. We also get to see how some modern-day Jews continue to observe the letter of the Law.

  • He unwittingly demonstrates the absolute futility of living a life that's "good enough" to please God. Jacobs is quite forthright about his failures in living up to even some of the most seeming simple commandments, and his frustrations are a reminder of the importance of God's grace.

  • His attitude nevertheless serves as a valuable reminder of the importance of putting God at the forefront of our thoughts and works. We are called to be holy, even as God is holy. A good place to start is to dwell on His word in all things.

Of course, as interesting - and occasionally hilarious - as it might be to watch someone try to shoehorn ancient Jewish traditions into a modern New York City lifestyle, the ultimate question for Christian readers has to be: what about Jesus?

Jacobs lays out his quandary in clear terms: If I don't accept Christ, can I get anything out of the New Testament at all? What if I follow the oral teaching of Jesus but don't worship his as God? Or is that just a fool's errand?

In the end, Jacobs cannot - will not - acknowledge Jesus Christ as the messiah that his forefathers prophesied about, and the Christian reader will find his stance puzzling and disappointing. How can someone dive into the Bible - a book comprised of revelations inspired by God Himself with the overarching purpose of pointing mankind to the Savior - and still come away a non-believer?

Jacobs states that Ecclesiastes is his favorite book in the Bible, presumably because of its pragmatic wisdom and advice. It's ironic then that in his quest to live according to the truths of the Bible, he is unable to recognize The Truth for which the book was written. That, in the end, made his exercise the ultimate "vanity of vanities."

No one ever accused me of being on the cutting edge of anything. I'm behind the curve in all areas of life, slow on the uptake. I defend myself as intelligently cautious; those who know me would say that I'm just clueless. Anyway, I offer that as an excuse as to why I'm just now posting about a book that was published in 2003 and which has been mentioned many times by many better bloggers and writers.

First, I have to give credit to Jim over at Serotoninrain, who was the first to get my attention about Donald Miller's Blue Like Jazz. Jim is pretty much the antithesis to me when it comes to books, as he's always the first to find the good stuff, and you'd think that by now I'd learn to just immediately go buy and read whatever he recommends instead of waiting, like, five years. (I'd link to some of his posts that referenced the book but I think they were pre-Wordpress and therefore not searchable.)

But, then, it occurred to me that not everyone I know is as cool as Jim and it's entirely possible that some of you haven't read Blue Like Jazz either. This post is for you, especially if you are a Christian (or if you're curious about what it means to be a Christian).

Listen carefully: read this book. It takes just a few hours ñ a Sunday afternoon works great ñ and I promise that you'll come away with some new ways to think about Christianity. More to the point, you'll be challenged to look at your own flavor of Christianity through a new lens, and particularly if you grew up in the Bible Belt in a mainstream evangelical church.

Miller opens his heart and allows the lifeblood to spill onto the pages of his book as he describes what it means to be a sinner held fast in the arms of a loving God. His witness and testimony isn't powerful because of his theological or hermeneutic prowess; it's powerful because he tells what Jesus has done for him.

Along the way, he also manages to entertain the reader; this is no dry and somber work. It's often playful, even juvenile in a Dave Barryish kind of way. One of my favorite passages is taken from a chapter about money, where he describes what it's like to be a poor writer (this passage could, by the way, apply to bloggers, with the exception of the overstatement of how much they get paid):

Writers don't make any money at all. We make about a dollar. It is terrible. But then again we don't work either. We sit around in our underwear until noon then go downstairs and make coffee, fry some eggs, read the paper, read part of a book, smell the book, wonder if perhaps we ourselves should work on our book, smell the book again, throw the book across the room because we are quite jealous that any other person wrote a book, feel terribly guilty about throwing the schmuck's book across the room because we secretly wonder if God in heaven noticed our evil jealousy, or worse, our laziness. We then lie across the couch facedown and mumble to God to to forgive us because we envied another man's stupid words. And for this, as I said before, we are paid a dollar. We are worth so much more.

Christianity Today describes Miller as "Anne Lamott with testosterone" and compares Blue Like Jazz with Lamott's excellent Traveling Mercies. I wouldn't disagree; both books are now in my "read again every so often" collection, both for the writers' skill and for their messages. (Miller shares Lamott's dislike for Republicans and corporations, although he's not as rabid about it. The strength of my recommendation for this book is directly proportional to the negativism with which you assimilate this observation, as it gets right to the heart of what Christians should be about.)

You may be wondering about the book's title. The phrase comes from an almost-throwaway line in a passage about the beauty of the Grand Canyon at night, where Miller describes the stars as "...notes on a page of music, free-form verse, silent mysteries swirling in the blue like jazz." He writes about jazz a few times through the book, beginning with the introductory author's note, where he relates how he never liked jazz until he saw a man on a sidewalk playing a saxophone for fifteen minutes, and the man never opened his eyes. After that, he liked jazz; the musician's love for it was that infectious.

That, my friends, is how we are to be about Jesus, never taking our eyes off him. Because that's the surest way to show others how to love him, too.

Al Jazeera visits Midland
April 29, 2008 9:05 AM | Posted in: ,

I did some quick searches on a few local blogs that I thought might have already covered this, and found nothing. If you had a more timely report, please feel free to provide a link in the comments. 

I stumbled across the following YouTube videos after following an unrelated Google link. They are a couple of 11-minute programs produced by the [infamous] Arabic news organization, Al Jazeera in September, 2007, and are entitled Main Street USA - Midland, Texas. The reports focus on the role that faith and religion play in the public and private lives of our citizens, and, of course, how they influenced George W. Bush. Midland residents will recognize many of the individuals interviewed during the course of the filming. 

The underlying message is that Midland is a city of "Christian fundamentalists," a term used with great frequency, and applied both to individuals as well as the community as a whole. It's hard to tell if the Al Jazeera report is using that word as a term of disapprobation; if so, the irony is thickened given the network's Muslim target audience. 

Regardless, I found the reports to be fairly evenhanded, especially considering their source. A local Muslim was interviewed and expressed his happiness at being able to live in a community where he can practice his faith without fear. In a rational world, that should be a revelation to his counterparts in the Middle East, or at least a source of cognitive dissonance, but I'm not that naive. 

The most disturbing thing about these reports is not the content of the videos, but the comments left on YouTube regarding them. Read them at your own risk, if you're easily offended.
 

By the way, if you define "fundamentalist" as being someone who believes that there are certain doctrinal truths given down by a holy and just God that we as individuals and collectively as a nation ignore at our own peril, then I willingly place myself firmly into that category.

Note: This is my fourth attempt at this post, as I try to find the right approach to the topic. I've never been comfortable playing the role of a "critical critic," especially when dealing with so personal an issue as faith. Even now, I'm not sure how this will turn out, but as Ms. Lamott herself might say, I'm willing to throw it out and trust that God's grace will cover it. He's really good at doing that, you know.

Anne Lamott's Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith is essentially a sequel to Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith, published a little more than five years ago. Both books are collections of essays drawn from Ms. Lamott's experiences and observations, and most of those essays deal with her spiritual journey as a follower of Jesus Christ. Both are well-written and often brutally honest accounts of her struggles to find peace in a life that has been made difficult by a long series of bad decisions on her part.

Unfortunately for Ms. Lamott's readers, the past half decade has not been particularly kind to her political leaning, and the degree to which she shares this fact colors almost every chapter of Plan B. She makes no effort to disguise her contempt for George W. Bush, Republicans and "right-wingers," apparently seeing no irony in the fact that those with whom she aligns politically are often the ones who hold her faith in equally open contempt.

Think I'm exaggerating about her displeasure with our President? The slams begin in the third sentence of the book. Here's an excerpt:

ìI know that Bush is family, and that I am supposed to love him, but I hate this-he is a dangerous member of the family, like a Klansman, or Osama bin Laden. In heaven, I may have to sit next to him, and in heaven, I know, I will love him. So I will pray to stop hating him, and that he will not kill so many people, today.î [Ch. 10; p. 144]

And another:

I felt addicted to the energy of scorning my president. I thought that if people like me stopped hating him, it would mean that he had won. [Ch. 17; p. 217]

And, finally, this:

But then-a small miracle-I started to believe in George Bush. I really did: in my terror, I wondered whether maybe he was smarter than we think he is, and had grasped classified intelligence and nuance in a way that was well above my own understanding or that of our eraís most brilliant thinkers. Then I thought: Wait-George Bush? And relief washed over me like gentle surf, because believing in George Bush was so ludicrous that believing in God seems almost rational. [Ch. 24; pp. 314-315]

Of course, many people have equally strong feelings about President Bush, but I suspect that not so many of them profess to be born-again believers, claiming to share the President's faith. But, doctrinal correctness doesn't fare much better in Ms. Lamott's essays.

The far-left Social Gospel leanings that she displayed in Traveling Mercies are brought into full bloom in Plan B. E.g. God has extremely low standards. Pray, take care of people, give away your money-you're cool. You're in. Nice room in heaven. [Ch. 10; p. 129] Of course, her pastor isn't much help in this regard. She [her pastor] said you could tell if people were following Jesus, instead of following the people who follow Jesus, because they were feeding the poor, sharing their wealth, and trying to help everyone get medical insurance. [Ch. 17; pp. 222-223]

Then there's her view on sin. Well, that's my word - and God's - for it. That's not really an operative concept for her purposes, though. She falls into the usual liberal paradigm (is that diplomatic enough?) of choosing to emphasize God's love while ignoring the reality and implications of His holiness. Jesus was soft on crime. [Ch. 14; p. 183] Well...no. It's a nice turn of phrase, and something we all wish was true, in our human and selfish and fallen way, but there's nothing in the Bible to support that view. He is "soft" on criminals, but He detests "crime."

In the end, if you can get past her political rantings and her skewed and New Age-y version of the Gospel, you're left with stories that are, by turns, hilarious, heart-rending, infuriating, depressing and encouraging. If you're easily offended by vulgar language, especially when used in conjunction with spiritual themes, you might want to take a pass. (After all, it was Lamott who described her conversion experience in Traveling Mercies thusly: "...I stood there for a minute, and then I hung my head and said, 'F**k it: I quit.' I took a long deep breath and said out loud, 'All right. You can come in.'")

Anne Lamott remains one of my favorite writers because her narrative and observational skills are superb. She writes from her heart, and I give her credit for that. But the skewed doctrine and caustic political attacks leave me wishing that I didn't know her heart quite so well.

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