Friday, December 14, 2012

Christmas Crafts

For many years, a family tradition was selecting a craft to make together. Mom, my sister and I would gather at my parents' home and work all day on some project.  We even managed to rope Dad into a few!  This year, Mom and I had a couple of projects: revising sweatshirts into Christmas-trimmed jackets and making felt bird ornaments. Here are a few examples:

These patterns were designed by an incredibly generous lady who has made them available free-of-charge on her blog.  You can find them here.   Susan, a Maine resident, has captured these critters perfectly!  Her blog has other neat things on it as well.

In fact, Susan has inspired me to try my hand at pattern making.  Here's my attempt at a Stellar Jay:

Wishing you and yours have a very Merry Christmas.  Joy to the World!  The LORD is come!

Monday, November 26, 2012

Why the End of the World Isn't In Your Future

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus repeatedly said, "You have heard it said. . ." or "It has been said" and then recounted some false teaching of the Pharisees followed by "but I say to you" and the correct teaching.  We know Jesus wasn't changing or correcting biblical principles, because He didn't say, "The Scripture says,"  "It is written," or another phrase indicating a scriptural quote.  In this teaching, He contrasts the false teaching of the church leaders of the age with truth.

If I may be so bold, I am attempting here to follow the example of Jesus and say, "You have heard it said, but Scripture says to you..."

At the church in which I grew up, we were taught to look expectantly towards the eastern sky for the soon appearing of the Lord in His Second Coming.  Imagine my shock when I discovered my new boyfriend (and soon-to-be fiance) didn't believe the end of the world was nigh.  In fact, he maintained this gloom-and-doom eschatology was not at all what the Bible taught.  Wanting to save him from such erroneous thinking, I began debating end times prophecy with him.  I lost - big time!

Today, I am firmly convinced the eschatological perspective I was taught (by my church, Hal Lindsey, Tim LaHaye, etc.) is not only wrong, but harmful.  It fills Christians needlessly with fear by misinterpreting Scripture.  It can paralyze Christians so they are not working to transform our world because, as one of the end-times teachers said, "You don't polish the brass on a sinking ship."  I don't believe these teachers purposely taught falsehood, but I do believe that was the end result.

If you are freaking out by unrest in the Middle East, or are a young person worried about never getting married because the Rapture is going to happen before you get the chance, or are not worried about planning for the future because you think you'll be raptured out before you get old, please know Christians through the centuries DID NOT believe this.  Lots of Christians today (myself included) DO NOT believe this.

Proverbs teaches us the first man's case seems just until another comes to examine him (Proverbs 18:17).  Too often, erroneous teaching is continued generation to generation simply by repetition and assertion.  Here are some example:

Does the Bible say the lion shall lay down with the lamb?  No.  Doubt me?  Read Isaiah 65:25.

Was Elijah taken up in a fiery chariot?  No.  Doubt me?  Read 2 Kings 2:11.

Does the Bible teach in the parable of the wheat and the tares that Christians will be taken before the wicked in the end times?  No.  Doubt me?  Read Matthew 13:24-30.  The Scriptures says (of the wheat and tares) in vs 30:  "First gather together the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them, but gather the wheat into my barn"

One little blog post is not enough to change your mind, but I hope it is enough to challenge you to be like the Bereans:  "These were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so."

Here are some resources to help you in your investigation:
A wonderful (and little) book called, "Why the End Is Not Near," which you can pick up for $5 here.

American Vision has this article about prophecy and what is going on in the Middle East.

And while preaching through Mark, my hubby did an overview of some eschatological talking points in this week's sermon.  You can find it here.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Bounds of Habitation

"And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation."  ~ Luke 17:26

Our congregation rejoiced this past Sunday when a couple from India, whom we have grown to love, joined our church family.  After Pravin and Abarna had assented to the membership vows, my husband cited this verse in Acts.  I was struck by the realization we were seeing a fulfillment of this truth right before our eyes.  They were my brother and sister in Christ; we were joined in the "one blood" of the church.  The LORD had ordained that this Indian couple's "bounds of habitation" would extend to Kentucky and enrich my own habitation.

I confess my mind wandered a little during the next hymn.  I thought of all the wonderful people who have been placed in my life from all points of the compass within the United States and of those wonderful unique friendships with people in far off lands such as Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Russia, Germany, Thailand, Afghanistan, and more.  I smiled at this thought as Elder Brian O'Leary read the scripture readings with his trademark Irish lilt. I am smiling now as I type in anticipation of future new friends whose predetermined bounds of habitation will overlap my own.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Gathered To His People

On the liturgical calendar, November 1 is All Saints Day or All Hallows (thus "Halloween" as a derivative of All Hallows' Eve).  On this day, we remember the Christians who have entered heaven.  This Sunday, the names of congregants who have died this year will be read during our worship service.  It's a bittersweet time for many as we rejoice in our loved ones' heavenly residence, but also grieve the loss of their companionship this side of heaven.

This year I'm especially reflective.  My Mom, sister and I recently made the southward trek to my parents' hometown to put autumn flowers on my Dad's grave.  My Dad is buried in the cemetery beside Parnell Baptist Church.  His grave joins the graves of generations of his ancestors who are also buried there.  As I walked through the cemetery, I realized more and more these names weren't just etchings on stone familiar only by the history Dad had recounted over the years, but now represented dear ones to whom I have said goodbye.

It may seem a strange thing to say, but I love this cemetery.  I love the literal "resting with your fathers" aspect of it.  It gives me a visual of the oft-used phrase in Scripture, "gathered to his people."  Every time I visit it, I am reminded death has lost its victory and the grave has lost its sting.  Like David's lost son, my loved ones can't return to me, but I will join them.  What a wonderful reunion is awaiting us!

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Victors forget, Vanquish remember.

I recently caught an episode of Paul Merton in Europe where he visited around in Ireland.  One stop was in Duncannon where the locals conduct a reenactment of a battle between the British and Nazi forces.  As I listened to Merton's narration, I realized he had just perhaps unintentionally presented a great truth about war:  Victors forget, the Vanquished remember.  As he filmed the reenactment, he remarked that the British uniform caused greater controversy than the Nazi uniform; in fact, he stated he felt safer riding around with Nazis actors than those in British uniforms.

How telling!  The military reenactment held at Duncannon Fort in Wexford County is in southern Ireland.  Outside of immigrants from the Emerald Isle and a few history buffs, few Americans are aware of the view that a cultural genocide against the Irish was waged by the British.  Not withstanding a recent resurgence, Gaelic unfortunately has seemed to go the way of Latin as a spoken language since the English-only requirement imposed on the Irish school system.  This is all the stuff of history books and yet, as Paul Merton discovered, the resentment towards the British remains in segments of the Irish population in the 21st Century.

Over the years, various "Yankee" friends have often remarked with scorn how we Southerners view the Civil War.  "Get over it, already!" is the frequent refrain.  I'm not talking about the political right or wrong of the war - that's for another discussion.  I am talking about the significant cultural impact which occurred in the South from the War of Northern Aggression and the resentment towards northerners that remains (especially when your IQ is accounted to be 30 points lower as soon as your accent is heard!).

This idea of losing sides remembering long after victors have forgotten is something we as Americans need to always remember as our armed forces are scattered around the world - especially in the Middle East arena.

We are aligned with victors.  We are fighting their vanquished.

We have forgotten.  They have not.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Liturgy in Life

Not having grown up with it, I was always wary of liturgical churches.  Men in robes, responsive readings and written prayers just seemed too “planned” to be spiritual.  The Lord has a wonderful sense of humor – I married a man who would become the pastor of a liturgical church and soon I would develop a love of liturgy.

In actuality, all churches, in fact, have a liturgy of sorts, a schedule or order for their worship services.  As my husband/pastor has taught his congregation, Scripture gives us a glimpse of a heavenly worship service in the book of Revelation and it is an orderly, liturgical celebration.  All the participants know their parts and respond without prompting.   C. S. Lewis describes this well: “Every service is a structure of acts and words through which we receive a sacrament, or repent, or supplicate, or adore.  And it enables us to do these things– if you like, it ‘works’ best– when, through long familiarity, we don’t have to think about it.  As long as you notice, and have to count, the steps, you are not yet dancing but only learning to dance.  A good shoe is a shoe you don’t notice. Good reading becomes possible when you need not consciously think about eyes, or print, or spelling.  The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God… But every novelty prevents this.  It fixes our attention on the service itself; and thinking about worship is a different thing from worshipping” (Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, 4-5).

Whether in sacred or secular endeavors, as human beings, we crave liturgy.  We desire ceremony.  We want feasts.  My hubby made this point as we watched the opening ceremony of the Olympics.  There were the athletes dressed in their finery, pageantry abounding around them with banners flying and stirring music serving as a soundtrack.  The official opening announcement and the Olympic oath were dictated by prescribed phrases.  The gold, silver and bronze medals were distributed at an orchestrated awards ceremony with a prescribed liturgy of events.

We see this ceremony, or liturgy, at all important stages in our lives.  Graduation has a ceremony.  The students wear robes, the speeches are carefully written, and the music has grandeur to it with one traditional tune even called Pomp & Circumstances. Weddings are an obvious example of liturgy in our lives with its gorgeous gowns, stately tuxes, and beautifully crafted flowers and decorations.  The ceremony has prescribed elements in it with prayers and pronouncements.   A ceremonial aspect is present again at the end of our lives when our friends and family say goodbye during our funeral liturgy, as it were.

Not surprisingly, liturgy is found in our lives as citizens as well.  Every four years, we watch as our new president is sworn in at an inauguration which has been arranged carefully with the intent of spectacle.  Speeches are carefully written, prayers are prepared, and order rules the process.  From our government to our courtrooms, we find prescribed order and oaths everywhere. 

If we accept and prefer this kind of planning with our political transitions and personal transitions of graduations, marriages, and more, then why should we not desire this when coming before the King of Kings, the Ruler of the Earth?  To my friends, I speak off the cuff.  When speaking formally before an audience, I consider my words carefully.  On my knees, I pray extemporaneously, but in our weekly command performance before the Lord, worship, I am happy to have well-thought out and considered prayers and responsive readings to recite before Him.  The prayers are no less spiritual or meaningful by being written than the written lyrics we sing.  The words to Amazing Grace are still as meaningful today as they were when John Newton’s poem was first published in 1779.

A worshipping liturgy is not limited to the words of a worship service.  It spills out into the colors of the linens covering the communion table, the colors on the pulpit and worn by the pastor, and, as with our church, the covers of our bulletins.  This association of colors with seasons is already present in our lives - red and green at Christmas, black and orange at Halloween, an autumnal palette for Thanksgiving, pastels for spring, and, of course, red, white and blue in July.

At my church, Christ Covenant Presbyterian, we observe a liturgical calendar, which means our “seasons” include the seasons of Advent, Pentecost, Lent and Ordinary Times.   The first half of the year the emphasis is on the life of Christ.  The second half of the year the emphasis changes to the teachings of Christ.  We celebrate St. Patrick, a Christian hero, just as we as Americans celebrate national heroes such as George Washington.  We celebrate special days significant in the life of the Church such as All Saints’ Day, a remembrance of those loved ones who have preceded us in heaven, just as we as a nation celebrate Memorial Day as a remembrance of the deceased. 

There is a richness to liturgical worship, an appreciation “of Him with whom we have to do,” as the King James Version puts it.  Having eschewed royalty, our egalitarian culture has lost the sense of deference and giving honor to those who rule and this includes, I fear, He who rules from heaven.   While worship renews us and strengthens us, it isn’t primarily for us.  It is, first and foremost, our command performance before the King.  It renews us and strengthens us to serve Him.  Liturgy serves to reorient our thinking to that of our being “…His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.”

Friday, July 06, 2012

Reading Through A Pastor's Stories

One of my husband's congregants and our good friend, Sherri Burgher, gave him a book she thought he might enjoy.  It was added to the mile-high stack of books he hopes to read one day.  This week, he came across the book and tossed it to me with  a "You might enjoy this."

And, boy, did I!  Stories I Couldn't Tell While I Was A Pastor by Bruce McIver had me crying both with empathy and from laughing so hard my stomach hurt as he recounts episodes from his time as pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas from 1958 to 1988.

Growing up in what was, at the time, one of Louisville's larger Baptist churches and serving on staff there for a few years, I recognized many of the people about whom he writes.  Sure, they went by different names in Dallas, but I knew these people!  Any one in ministry will tell you, certain personalities exist in every church of every denomination and size - the good, the bad and the ... well, you know. As a pastor's wife now, I read the stories on the page while also reading the stories I knew were there between the lines!

This little snippet had me picturing the Daisy Nells in my home church:
Daisy Nell didn't intentionally try to disrupt a worship service or any other gathering for that matter; she just couldn't help it.  She was the kind of person whom you heard approaching, who filled the room when she arrived, and whose dust you saw when she left.
She was loud, boisterous, and loved a good argument.  The subject of debate really didn't seem to matter to her.  Among her specialties, however, were the new church budget, taxes, relatives, Paul's missionary journeys, the price of groceries, and the length of hair worn by a church staff member.  She would talk as long as anyone listened on any of these matters.  I'm convinced that the Daisy Nells of life are sent to keep pastor's humble, other staff members nervous, ushers hopping, and Sunday school teachers intimidated. . . Every new staff member, sooner or later, was initiated into the real world of ministry through an encounter with Daisy Nell.
If you have every been involved in church work, you will relate to these stories and find yourself teary-eyed at the poignancy of ministry one moment and chuckling at the hilarity of it the next.  Especially if Daisy Nell wants to show you her scar. . .

Sunday, July 01, 2012

My Father's Gifts

I am usually hesitant to ask the Lord for little things in my life.  I pray for family, friends and associates, my country, and fellow Christians around the world.  I pray for wisdom for our church leaders and for myself in preparing Sunday School material.  I pray for big things.  For upcoming trips, I always pray for traveling mercies and good weather.  I prayed for these things recently when my hubby and I had the blessing of returning to Yellowstone with friends.  On our previous two visits to this unbelievably gorgeous park, I've asked for safety and good weather and the Lord graciously gave us both.  This trip, our family prayed for the usual things and then added a request to see wildlife.  This would be their first visit, so we wanted the couple joining us on the trip to have a wonderful experience.

We were barely five minutes into the Grand Tetons National Park, when we saw two grizzly bears not 30 yards from our car!  At Jenny Lake, we saw a black mink and had several marmots scampering at our feet.  We also caught sight of a western tanager and other colorful birds.  Later that afternoon on our way back to Jackson Hole, we were treated to elk, mule deer, pronghorns, and - a bull moose, the animal my husband had most wanted to see!  All this was before we even stepped foot in Yellowstone!

The blessings were just beginning.  We saw a total of 11 bears, four of which were grizzlies within just yards of our car!  We watched as cow elk grazed with their babies right beside us and heard them communicate with each other.  At incredibly close proximity, we watched a buffalo calf nursing and had the rare opportunity to see a bighorn sheep with two kids.  We stopped where a couple had a telescope on a great grey owl in its nest with babies and they graciously let us take a look.  We were tipped off to a beaver dam and arrived to see the beavers busy cutting plants and carrying them to the dam.  My husband wanted to get a picture of one of them swimming and would later admit he had stopped and prayed for this.  It was like the beaver heard his prayer, because the little animal swam right to him and seemed to stop and pose!

The four of us marveled at the blessings the Lord was bestowing on us and actually stopped to sing the Doxology at one point.  We heard of a mama bear with cubs in the vicinity.  We remarked how wonderful it would be to have an iconic Yellowstone experience like that - just minutes later we saw a black bear with two little cubs playing   on the side of the road and then the trio ambled across the road right in front of our car.  At this point, if a Bengal tiger had appeared in front of us, we wouldn't have been surprised!

The abundance of wildlife we encountered is not proof God is a good God who gives good gifts, that would be true whether we had seen the first animal or not.  What it is proof of is the graciousness of God.  What I learned through this is to appreciate my Father God.   I have experience with sanctification through hardship.  When it comes to learning spiritual lessons, I'm often dense.  The Lord has had to whop me upside the head several times in my life to get my attention.  I treasure the Apostle Paul's incredibly honest statement in Romans, "For that which I do, I allow not; for what I would, that I do not; but what I hate, that I do."  On this trip, I learned more about our God, not through His faithful chastening, but through His abundant blessings.  I repeatedly thought of Matthew 7:11:  "If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him!"  The beginning of the model prayer, "Heavenly Father." has a much richer meaning for me now.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

The Bait & Switch of "War Horse" : A Movie Review

It had all the ingredients:  boy and his pet, against-all-odds underdog, poignant World War I setting, and yet, as the credits rolled, I realized War Horse had left me cold.

The film is based on a children's novel by Michael Morpurgo, who purposed to tell the horrendous suffering of an entire continent and beyond during World War I.  Morpurgo spoke of his inspiration in 2010:

One of the kids who came to the farm from Birmingham, called Billy, . . .the teachers warned me that he had a stammer . . . and told me not to ask him direct questions because it would terrify him if he had to be made to speak because he doesn't speak.  They said, "He's been two years in school and he hasn't said a word, so please don't confront him or he'll run back to Birmingham," which is a long way from Birmingham and they didn't want that.  So I did as I was told and I stood back and I watched him, and I could see that he related wonderfully to the animals, totally silently, never spoke to the other kids at all, and then I came in the last evening, which I always used to do, to read them a story.  It was a dark November evening and I came into the yard behind this big Victorian house where they all lived, and there he was, Billy, standing in his slippers by the stable door and the lantern above his head, talking.  Talking, talking, talking, to the horse.  And the horse, Hebe, had her head out of, just over the top of the stable, and she was listening - that's what I noticed, that the ears were going, and she knew - I knew she knew - that she had to stay there whilst this went on, because this kid wanted to talk, and the horse wanted to listen, and I knew this was a two-way thing, and I wasn't being sentimental, and I stood there and I listened, then I went and got the teachers, and brought them up through the vegetable garden, and we stood there in the shadows, and we listened to Billy talking, and they were completely amazed how this child, who couldn't get a word out, the words were simply flowing.  All the fear had gone, and there was something about the intimacy of this relationship, the trust building up between boy and horse, that I found enormously moving, and I thought, "Well, yes, you could write a story about the First World War through the eyes of a horse, let the horse tell the story, and let the story of the war come through the soldiers: British soldiers first of all, then German soldiers, then a French family which whom the horse spends winters, and that maybe you'll then get a universal idea of the suffering of the First World War...

This concept works well in written form (and I am actually eager to read the novel).  In the book, the author could give voice to the horse's thoughts and perceptions, but even in the usual capable hands of Steven Spielberg, the concept falls flat in live action form.  The human characters are not sufficiently developed, thus no emotional connection is truly made between them and the audience.  You care about "Joey" the horse, but even his owner Albert is one-dimensional and weakly portrayed by newcomer Jeremy Irvine.

The ending is meant to be "feel good," but the journey to get there has been too rough.  There is very little pleasant about the movie.  Comedic and heartwarming scenes are followed immediately by brutality.   The movie is not a film about  a boy and his remarkable horse with WWI as a backdrop.  The movie is true to the book  in that it is an overtly antiwar film showing the sheer horror and heartache of war with the horse's journey as a backdrop.  That's the marketing bait and switch.  War Horse shows, in a line repeated several times in the film, "War takes everything from everyone."

War Horse was filmed in a style reminiscent of old-time classics like Gone with the Wind and other sweeping, epic films of that era.  Glorious sunsets, soaring John William's score, and breathtakingly beautiful cinematography aren't enough to redeem this emotionally manipulative movie.  It is indeed a tearjerker, but without the emotional satisfaction with which a fully realized film leaves its audience.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Global Warming Skeptics Unite

I'm weary of defending my position (and intelligence) regarding my skepticism of man-made global warming.  Thankfully, this article might help show my fellow doubters and I aren't completely stupid.  

Our perspective tends to be limited to our lifespan.  Younger generations are growing up with global warming hysteria and accept it as fact. However I remember hearing the same hysteria in our media and science magazines over "Global Cooling" and the coming of the next "Ice Age".   Ours is a cyclical universe. . .

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

(VERY) Brief Film Reviews

I have a huge weakness for "bargain books".  Put a clearance sign over a bin of books and I'm there.  That weakness has garnered me a few duds, but also an interesting read or two.  While strolling through the Dollar Tree (of all places), I came across a little black book entitled, "Four Word Film Reviews."  I glanced through, chuckled a little, and determined it was worth a buck.

These little pithy reviews are consistently witty.  Here's just a same of the book's offerings:
The Bourne Identity - "One Bourne, many die."
The Dark Knight - "An unbalanced Ledger."
Pirates of the Caribbean - "High-seas dead people."
Saw - "Survival of de-footist."
Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings - "Hobbit gains elf-respect."

Now, I'm hooked.  I find myself trying to come up with four-word reviews for films I watch.  Here are a few of my attempts:

Avengers - "Assembly required."
Thor - "Hammering worlds together."
Green Hornet - "Where's the bug spray?"

It's a great exercise in keeping your writing concise and still complete.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Hospitality Commands

I recently reread Alexander Strauch's The Hospitality Commands. I had forgotten what a helpful and convicting booklet this was. Strauch begins his book by walking us through a quick history lesson on the lives of Christians as described in the New Testament. He shows hospitality was an absolutely integral part of the early church, to the point of it being a defining characteristic of these first believers.

Scripture describes the relationship between Christians in familial terms. In fact, the terms brethren, brother or sister occur some 250 times in the New Testament, particularly in Paul's letters. Home is where familial relationships are built. Martin Luther's Table Talk is a compilation of just that - talks around his table recorded by his students and guests. Luther and his wife were known for their generous and frequently-extended hospitality. Sharing a meal, eating together, is an intimate activity.

Strauch says, "Unless we open the doors of our homes to one another, the reality of the local church as a close-knit family of loving brothers and sisters is only a theory...We cannot know or grow close to our brothers and sisters meeting for an hour and fifteen minutes a week with a large group in a church sanctuary."

Homes are natural places for the spread of the Gospel. I'll never forget hearing Chuck Swindoll repeat this quote on one of his radio shows, "People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care." Opening their homes to others has been a hallmark of Christianity since the beginning. Just think about the homes of Aquila and Priscilla or the home of Martha. We have the scriptural examples of Cornelius and Matthew opening their homes for the purpose of spreading the Gospel. Inviting visitors into your home (or out for a meal if the budget allows) shows loving concern and can be a more effective means of evangelism than all the talking in the world.

Showing hospitality provides us with more than just evangelistic opportunities. It lets us put the solitary in families (Psalm 68:6). We have the opportunity to give our singles experience with what a Christian home looks like, how a Christian husband and wife interact, and how Christian parenting is done (albeit all imperfectly). We have the opportunity to show "pure and undefiled religion" by caring for our senior adults (James 1:27) through the sharing of meals and fellowship. When we host visiting college kids, traveling Christians or missionaries, and others in our homes, it gives our families glimpses into their lives and callings that others may never see. When we help God's messengers, we become partners in their work (I John 8). Finally, we can't forget it gives us the opportunity to play host to angels (Hebrews 13:2)!

An experience in my 20s has had a lasting impact on my life. It was the summer after I graduated from college. I decided to delay starting a career until the fall to participate in my denomination's summer missions program and spend ten weeks in the American Southwest working with local churches. One week was spent in a home that could have come straight from the pages of Architectural Digest. The house was stunning, but I always felt I was an intrusion upon them.

Another week, I spent a week with a family who shared from their poverty, not their wealth. The home was humble and the conditions were, at times, downright challenging. I confess several mornings I woke up grumbling. My hosts were consistently warm and welcoming. When we left, this loving family gave my partner and me gifts. From observation, they didn't have the extra funds to do this. It brought me to tears. I have never forgotten that lesson on gracious, truly Christian hospitality.

Let me make myself clear: What differentiated these two families was not their socioeconomic levels; it was their love and concern for guests.

If we are going to practice hospitality, we have to plan to practice hospitality. Set a regular time each week or month to have people over for a meal. If you don't plan, typically you won't do because life will get in the way. Plan ahead simple (and budget-appropriate) meals. Remember, beans and franks, when freely shared, is showing hospitality. If you have an extra room or your kids could be persuaded to bunk up for a night or two, host a visiting missionary or traveling Christian.

Sometimes the scariest thing about having strangers or new acquaintances in our home is the fear of running out of things to talk about! Be interested in people's lives. Ask questions. If we're honest, we all love to talk about ourselves and our families.

It was a tradition after communion in the church of my youth to sing, "Blessed be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love. The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above." That blessed tie is developed and strengthened around the dinner table.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Book Review: Wordsmithy by Douglas Wilson

"Interesting people are interested people." If I had stopped reading on page 23, this quote would have made the book worthwhile. Staying engaged in life and culture is a must if you are to presume to have anything relevant to say. Douglas Wilson has lots of pithy quotes and admonitions for writers, and those of us who aspire to be called writers, in his book, Wordsmithy: Hot Tips for the Writing Life.

I was disabused of the notion my vocabulary was sufficient several times while reading Wordsmithy. Wilson's use of uncommon words or foreign languages phrases was not for pretension's sake, but rather to underscore his point that if we wish to be writers, we have to view words as our tools. Wilson encourages writers and would-be writers to keep a notebook handy to jot down an interesting word or turn of phrase that pops out at you while living a real life. "Words are the bricks with which you build. Buy the bricks before starting on the wall." (pg 104). Having a record of notable quotes is also recommended. Sad to say, some of my favorite quotes are not from classic novels, but from romantic comedies such as Under the Tuscan Sun ("Regrets are a waste of time. They're the past crippling you in the present."). [Maybe I'd better get busy expanding my notebook. . . ]

Wilson especially stresses living a real life - as in living in the real world. This is not the trendy call to authenticity that is all the rage today, which Wilson skewers delightfully:
One of our great problems today is that we have gotten caught up in our culture-wide quest for authenticity. We want our jeans authentic (pre-ripped at the factory), we want our apples authentic (grown locally instead of somewhere else), we want our music authentic (underground bands nobody ever heard of), we want our lettuce authentic (organically manured), we want our literature authentic (full of angst), we want our movies authentic (subtitles), we want our coffee tables authentic (purchased from a genuine peasant while we were on some eco-tour). . . This quest for authenticity, in its current configuration, is actually a quest to feel superior to other people, and because everybody has gotten in on this very attractive proposition, this presents a considerable marketing challenge.
Wilson's book is a book of 7s - seven chapters with seven subpoints in each. The advice is practical, the style is rather playful, and the suggested reading lists made me want to run to my local library immediately [always library first, Amazon second. Frugality reigns!]. He also advises writers to stretch their boundaries. Attempt writing forms and styles which are beyond your comfort zone. So, in that spirit, I'll conclude with my attempt at one of the forms Wilson mentioned, a clerihew:
Douglas Wilson writes on writing
Of all the errors that need righting.
On bon mots and clerihews,
on writing don'ts and writing do's.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Book Review - The Tipping Point: How Little Changes Can Make a Big Difference

Pop sociology at best, shallow science at worst, Malcolm Gladwell nevertheless had me rapidly flipping the pages of this now 10-year-old book. The phrase Tipping Point "comes from the world of epidemiology. It's the name given to that moment in an epidemic when a virus reaches critical mass." The book looks at products, societal changes, a certain Revolutionary War event and more through this prism. What made each go viral, become infectious, as it were? What creates a fad? A trend? A phenomenon? Is the importance of word of mouth dependent upon from whose mouth the word proceeds? Can ideas, products and behaviors become infectious?

Gladwell theorizes, "The success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts." He asserts it requires three types of people: Connectors, highly social with a huge Rolodex of contacts usually crossing several socioeconomic levels; Mavens, who devour Consumer Reports and actually read the product manuals and who relish passing on their knowledge; and, finally, Salesmen, the persuaders who convince the general populace to act on their recommendations. At times, one or more of these 3 personality types may exist in one person, which may explain why Paul Revere is a household name while another midnight rider, William Dawes, is not.

Gladwell presents the story of Paul Revere in light of his Tipping Point thesis. Revere was very integrated in many communities and knew the movers and shakers across socioeconomic lines (Connector). He had a reputation as being in the know (Maven) an, as evidenced by the response his alarm generated, was persuasive (Salesman). Gladwell describes the latter as personified by a person he meets: "He seems to ahve some indefinable trait, something powerful and contagious and irresistible that goes beyond that comes out of his mouth, that makes people who meet him what to agree with him. It's energy. It's enthusiasm. It's charm. It's likability. It's all those things and yet something more."

What causes rapid, dramatic changes in the market or society? According to Gladwell, it's the Context (the situational environment), the Idea and its "stickiness" (has to resonate) and the People involved (Connectors, Mavens and Salesmen). He believes when an idea reaches key people in the appropriate context, dramatic change can occur.

The book reviews the near demise and subsequent rebirth of the Hushpuppies brand of shoes. Prior to 1994, sales were down to 30,000 pairs and the brand was in trouble. Then the sales went to 430,000 and in 1995 they were 4 x that amount! What happened? Gladwell presents the difference between a brand being phased out and explosive growth as individuals in the fashion forward New York neighborhoods of Greenwich Village and Soho began picking up the shoes in consignment shops. Fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi and others were spotted wearing the shoes. Soon the shoes were featured in fashion shows presenting designers' new lines. Suddenly everything old is new again and Hushpuppies became de rigueur for wannabee fashionistas. Gladwell recognizes we have trouble accepting these types of epidemics in terms of geometric progression because the end results seem far out of proportion to the cause.

New York City's drastic decline in crime is given the Tipping Point treatment. This is where a lot of the book's critics takes aim. Some of his assertions may be overly broad, but I did find his Broken Window theory discussion interesting. (In a nutshell - when broken windows aren't repaired in a neighborhood, it gives off a sense of apathy and the criminal element feels free to act believing no one will care enough to do anything about it.)

Some of Gladwell's claims do seem questionable, at times he makes rather large leaps, and his evolutionary perspective made me groin, but he redeems himself somewhat when discussing such drastic changes as the Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood going rapidly from a modestly successful book to a blockbuster bestseller or of the success of children's programming such as Sesame Street or Blues Clues.

Flawed but fun, The Tipping Point made me incredibly curious about the genesis of recent trends and bestsellers. If books like Freakonomics fascinate you or you are interested in marketing and haven't yet devoured it, The Tipping Point will be an interesting and quick read.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Whitney Houston: A Lesson on Addiction

Whitney Houston's debut album was the soundtrack of my summer in 1985. Along with about every other girl in her teens and twenties, I sang Saving All My Love into an imaginary microphone. I played her follow-up album and danced my heart out to I Wanna Dance with Somebody. The vocals soared and the melodies were infectious. She was incredibly talented.

Watching Whitney's character fall for Kevin Costner in The Bodyguard, I almost believed he was sexy (almost). Hearing her sing, I Will Always Love You inexplicably brought me to tears each time. I had loved the Dolly Parton song for years, but Whitney transformed it into something completely new. She was amazing.

Bobby Brown had three children by two different women and a rumored history of drug use before Whitney married him in 1987. Like a lot of her fans, I wondered what the daughter of a gospel singer who had grown up in church was doing with the New Edition bad boy. It wasn't long before rumors of Whitney's drug use started appearing in the tabloids. In 2000, she was arrested for drug possession and a succession of rehab stays began shortly thereafter. She was an addict.

Her long-time champion Clive Davis spearheaded an intervention for Whitney. In 2011, he worked with her for what was hoped to be her comeback. During several concerts, the woman with the angelic voice was booed off the stage. The damage to her vocal cords couldn't be hidden. By February 11, 2012, she was dead.

The callous, cruel jokes began almost immediately. You've read them - "Houston, we have a problem." "Whitney Houston died. Did she fall off the wagon and hit her head?". What surprised me was reading these cold-hearted remarks from some people who had battled their own demons. It seems, "There, but by the the grace of God, go I" is a forgotten saying.

"Whitney Houston caused her own death." "She had everything going for her and threw it all away." I won't argue with either of those statements. However, I will ask for at least a modicum of compassion for a person made in the image of God who fell into the pit of addiction and couldn't find her way back out.

In his excellent book, Addictions: A Banquet in the Grave, Ed Welch points out that addicts feel trapped and out of control. They feel they can't let go even when the addictive behavior yields few pleasures and a great deal of pain. Something or someone other than the living God controls them. That controlling object tells them how to live, think and feel. Drunkenness, for example, is a lordship problem. Who is your master? God or your desires? Creator or creature? At root, drunkards are worshiping another god, alcohol. The drunk is controlled by alcohol as if he is its subject and it was his ruler. The alcohol worship is a form of self worship. We worship people and things to get what we want even when what we are wanting is destroying us.

I have a great deal of respect for Houston's mother Cissy Houston and Clive Davis for never giving up on Whitney. Mel Gibson, who has publicly crashed and burned and battled back numerous times with his substance issues, reached out to Whitney several times, which is why his name was on the funeral guest list. Addicts need people to love them enough to confront them and keep confronting and caring - as long as it takes.

I pray those who mocked Whitney Houston's death never find themselves needing such longsuffering compassion.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Thank You Power

A few years ago, I saw a copy of Thank You Power: Making the Science of Gratitude Work For You in a clearance book bin. What intrigued me about the book was who its author was, Deborah Norville.

In 1987, University of Georgia suma cum laude graduate Norville was selected to replace Jane Pauley on NBC's The Today Show. Cries of ageism immediately sprang forth as people protested what they saw as the usurpation of the popular Pauley. Struggling to defend her credibility when Jane Pauley left the morning broadcast, the pressure became unbearable for Norville, who left the show during her maternity leave in 1991. For a while, to be replaced by a younger worker was even dubbed being "norville'd". Many people, including the Emmy-winning reporter herself, thought she would never return to television. A few years later, Ms. Norville would regroup and write a book about her experience, Back on Track: How to Straighten Out Your Life When It Throws You a Curve.

Thank You Power is a quick and simple refresher course on the importance of gratitude presented in the context of studies in "positive psychology" and its role in personal happiness and intrapersonal relationships. Norville discussed various studies done on this topic and what the researchers learned in an interview while promoting the book:
[Positive Psychology] is a fairly new field, this notion of counting your blessings and the quantifiable benefits of gratitude. But what gratitude does is it puts you in a positive affect. You feel good from counting your blessings, you're more optimistic, you're less pessimistic, you even exercise on average an hour and a half more per week...You feel good when you do all those things. If you feel good, your dopamine receptors are activated. You're a better thinker. You will do better on a test."
Ms. Norville made a profession of Christian faith at the age of 15 and this perspective permeates her writing. The last chapter covers Scripture's admonitions to give thanks in all things and hold fast to the promise of Romans 8:28: We know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. She cites studies echoed in Arthur C. Brooks' Gross National Happiness.
Duke University's Center on Spirituality has done a great deal of research on [people of faith being happier]. Spiritual people and religious people live longer. Religious people are happier. There is even one study that encompasses many, many years called the Nun Study. It was published by researchers at the University of Kentucky...They took the writing of some sisters shortly after they took their vows and they looked at their explanatory style. They looked at their hopefulness. They evaluated the personality of these people based on their writings. Those who has a more hopeful explanatory style lived an average of ten years longer. So, simply being an optimistic person can add a full decade to your life. "
There's nothing new or profound in this little book. At times, the writing is cliched. However, I have enacted one of its recommendations. I now have a "Thank You" journal where every day I write down three things from the day for which I am thankful and who or what made these things possible. It is a wonderful way to be reminded to have an attitude of gratitude - regardless of whether it makes me live longer or not.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

It's All Greek To Me! A Review of "The Classics: All You Need to Know from Zeus's Throne to the Fall of Rome"

I know I should have resisted that title, but I honestly just couldn't! I blame the breezy, sassy style of Caroline Taggart's writing. This isn't the book for you if you are looking for a serious review of all the classical literature and mythology you have forgotten since college. Taggart's obvious love of all things Greek (and by extension Roman), doesn't stop her from pithy quips and irreverent commentary on the gods and goddesses of ancient Greece. This is a fun refresher of the Greek and Roman names, places and phrases that have become part of our everyday lexicon.

Taggart defends the study of the Greeks right off the bat: "So the Greeks didn't invent art, architecture or culture, either. Why all the fuss? . . . They invented our art, architecture, culture and philosophy. In the 21st century Western world, there are classical influences all around us." If you doubt Ms. Taggart, take a walk around Washington, DC past the ionic, Doric and Corinthian columns on temples devoted to our dead heroes. Our language tips its hat towards these Greeks. Throw in a funny ad lib while working on an ad hoc committee and you might have a Herculean task to get back to work. "We are just statistics, born to consume resources." A quote from the latest environmental book? Nope. That's Homer writing in the 1st century.

Taggart reminds many who have taken the SAT or ACT why they thanked God for their high school Latin classes: Biology: bio (life) and logia (study); monogamy: monos (one) and gamos (union); telephone: tele (far) and phone (voice) are just a few examples of Greek words adopted in the English language.

Taggart gives her reader a crash course in mythology and provides plenty of witty remarks disguised as footnotes. She discusses historical (and maybe not so historical) figures, gives her readers Homer's background and generally fleshes out those problematic crossword puzzle Greek names and phrases.

A parting shot, or more correctly a Parthian shot, trivia abounds and some of it was really nifty. I now know if we raise a glass to nunc est bibendum ("now is the time for drinking"), we have Horace to thank. Arachne challenged Athena to a weaving contest and ended up being turned into a spider. (Yep, that's how it became arachnophobia.) Nebuchadnezzar built the hanging gardens of Babylon (Yep, same Nebuchadnezzar.) The running of the Olympic torch wasn't part of the ancient games. The man responsible for the 1936 Olympics came up with the idea and the PR guy ran with it. Did I mention it was the Berlin Olympics and the PR guy was Joseph Goebbels?

This, like Taggart's other books, is light reading. If you're looking for a fun way to pass the time (and discover how Hippocrates is associated with certain personality tests), pick up a copy.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Thoughts on Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl

As I read the back cover of Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl, I kept thinking of those TV chefs that reel off ingredients so quickly you can't remember them all, but you catch enough of them for your mouth to water in anticipation. Reading the book itself, my analogy shifts to that of being in a virtual ZORB and pushing it around our world as a way to see it from different perspectives.

The narrative is incredibly sensory. At times, I rolled my eyes at the abundance of metaphors, but then I realized this excess was purposeful. This book wasn't meant to be an intellectual exercise as much as a sensate experience. Being in the Reformed community, I'm used to using the ol' grey matter to analyze and discuss areas of Scripture and truths of God. However, the Lord also made us with a right side to our brain and if we are going to be fully developed, we must use it in these endeavors as well. He writes in the introduction, "A neutral observer would not find this world to be believable. Ergo, the cause of said unbelievable world must place similar stretch marks on the imagination.

Wilson begins by looking at the created world as art, especially the devalued artistry of snowflakes - each one unique and masterfully created and yet so plenteous as to be thrown around by shovels and plows! That says something about the God we serve. Without a microscope, we won't see all the intricacies of these snowflakes, but the Creator is an Artist who creates beauty for His own enjoyment. Wilson pushes us to see the wonder, the whimsy, and the magic in creation:
"What is the world? What is it for? It is art. It is the best of all possible art, a finite picture of the infinite. Assess it like prose, like poetry, like architecture, sculpture, painting, dance, delta blues, opera, tragedy, comedy, romance, epic. Assess it like you would a Faberge egg, like a gunfight, like a musical, like a snowflake, like a death, a triumph, a love story, a tornado, a smile, a heartbreak. . . This painting is by an infinite Artist. It is a reflection of Himself (could there be a better subject?), worked out in colors, lives, and constellations, in a universe that to us seems endless but is to Him a mere frame, a small space, a confining challenge for His artistry."
Wilson says instead of philosophers:
"Give me priests. Give me men with feathers in their hair or tall domed hats, female oracles in caves, servants of the python smoking weed and reading psalms. A gypsy fortune-teller with a foot peddle Ouija board and a gold fishbowl for a crystal ball knows more about the world than many of the great thinkers of the West. Mumbling priests swinging sink cans on their chains and even witch doctors conjuring up curses with a well-buried elephant tooth have a better sense of their places in the world. They know this universe is brimming with magic, with life and riddles and ironies. They know that the world might eat them, and no encyclopedia could stop it . . . Marx called religion an opiae, and all too often it is. But philosophy is an anesthetic, a shot to keep the wonder away."
If this world is God's art, His story, then what character are you? What role do you play? Would you like yourself if watching yourself portrayed on the silver screen? Do you respond the way you would want the character in the story to respond? More importantly, if we are characters in His story, then we have a story arc with all that implies - tragedy and comedy, good and evil, wins and losses.

Wilson address "The Problem with Kittens." Go into any Christian bookstore and you'll see cards or plaques with photos of adorable kittens in baskets with a comforting verse tacked on. The problem is: The same God who made kittens made the kittens grown up to be lions, cougars and tigers who kill Bambi and other adorable creatures to feed to their young. The same God who made bunnies made red-tailed hawks and eagles who rip the cottontails apart with their talons for food. We must have room for kittens and lions, bunnies and hawks in our concept of who God is. We struggle with evil in our lives, but we don't in our art. We understand the evil in a story moves the plot along. Wilson puts it this way:
"The Problem Part Two: The world is rate R, and no one is checking IDs. Do not try to make it Go by imagining the shadows away. Do not try to hide your children from the world forever, but do not pretend there is no danger. Train them. Give them sharp eyes and bellies full of laughter. Make them dangerous. Make them yeast, and when they've grown, they will pollute the shadows."
Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl is rich in beauty and instruction. I loved the poetic look at our earth: "The ocean can never forget the Flood. It has tasted mountains. Waking and sleeping, it chews," and the four seasons as analogous to our lives: "My grandfather is like his house. Once strong and young, now his beams and timbers sag beneath the weight of long use, heavier even than the piles of snow on his roof and the fanged ice stretching down from the gutters . . . Let the Winter come. It is the only path to Spring. The house is battered with cold, but inside there is a warmth that cannot and will not die."
"Do you resent this world, this art? Do you hate Him for cancer, for car wrecks, and for the sudden shocking sleep of the young? . . . Go to Him or go to Hell. Those are the only two choices because Hell will be wherever He is not."
Our world is God's painting, sculpture and play. When the curtain is drawn on our role, we will walk off this stage and on to a greater stage - with Him or without Him.