Friday, December 31, 2010

The sun shines for the last time on 2010

It was a very nice day

According to Douglas Adams, my age is now equivalent to the answer to life, the universe, and everything.

So it stands to be a good year.

And it got off to a nice start. Wrestling with the girls in bed is a good way to wake up. Then off to Marlene's Deli and lunch with my parents. And presents. The girls went off with grandma and grandpa, leaving me alone to play the rest of the day. So I did the most adult thing I could think of, and went to Seattle Center and watched the new Tron movie, in 3-D, at the Imax theater. Yes. Good decision. Good movie.

After the movie it was a stroll a couple blocks over to the Crow for dinner. I had the chicken wrapped in prosciutto. she had the fish. We sat at the chef's bar, a long bar facing the kitchen, and we enjoyed bantering with Steve and his crew all night. He even gave us a sample of the risotto. Heavenly.

About 7:45 I checked the current score of the Holiday Bowl, fully expecting to find UW behind by 3 touchdowns. Surprise. It was almost halftime, and they were up 10-7. So we paid out and hurried back to the car, stopped for some coffee on Capitol Hill, and then drove home, with the game on the radio. Seriously, this is the Huskies. They had to find a way to lose.

But no, a signature win, finalized just as we pulled into the driveway. What a way to end a birthday. Good times, all around. I am blessed in many ways.

Oh, and Susan - as to your presents, I'll cherish them, always. I think.

Friday, December 24, 2010

After all. . .

A Poem for Christmas Eve

Where is this stupendous stranger
Prophets, shepherds, kings, advise:
Lead me to my master's manger,
Show me where my Saviour lies.

O most mighty, O most holy,
Far beyond the seraph's thought!
Art thou then so mean and lowly
As unheeded angels taught?

O the magnitude of meekness,
Worth from worth immortal sprung!
O the strength of infant weakness,
If eternal is so young!

God all-bounteous, all creative,
Whom no ills from good dissuade,
Is incarnate - and a native
Of the very world he made.

Christopher Smart (1722-1771)

Friday, December 17, 2010

Book Review: What is God Really Like?

"What is God Really Like?" is a collection of sermons preached by a long list of pastors for "One Prayer," which was, according to the book jacket, "a monthlong, multichurch campaign unifying churches around the world." Each sermon focuses in on a different aspect of God's character. They include:
- God is Here
- God is Certain
- God is Encouraging
- God is in Control
- God is Big
- God is Not Like Me
- God is Father
and a host of others (17 chapters in all).

On the whole, it is a powerful collection, and a good reminder to the reader to keep focusing back on God's character in the craziness of life. It is the immutable aspects of God that give us hope, courage, strength, and the ability to keep moving forward. And with 17 different sermons expounding on 17 different characteristics of God (well, there is some overlap), this book goes a long way to painting a fuller picture of the God we serve.

Equally helpful is the way each pastor explains the impact of God's character on our lives. It's not just a still portrait of a God from across the universe, it's a dynamic, interactive picture that invites the reader to form his or her own according life to God's purpose, to understand how God touches us, works in and through us, carries us through hard times and places us in amazing, wondrous places and situations. Pieces of this book sing in adoration of a God 'who so wondrously reigneth;' others dig into the tough places and explore God's presence in the midst of pain.

As a collection of sermons, it reads much like a devotional; each chapter stands on its own, so it makes for a good book to have lying around for spare moments. And as a collection, it has some variety; each preacher has his own style, his own method, his own way of painting this picture. Which means not every sermon will speak to the reader in the same way; truthfully, some I didn't really care for. But overall, there's something in here for just about everybody.

However, the book does have a few weaknesses. Not every sermon in here would fit in the 'outstanding' category. If this were preaching class, some of these sermons would be fortunate to get a 'C.' And, even with a large variety of pastors, they all still come from the same general sermon mode. No exposition here, no strong textual work; these sermons are more in the 'Encouraging Talk' mode. Not that those sermons are inappropriate; just that the reader needs to recognize going in that this book represents one particular method of sermonizing, eschewing the rest.

In addition, the book has a strong regional flair. Two of the preachers are from Los Angeles, one is from Hawaii, and all the rest are based in the southeast United States. Lots of Texas, Oklahoma, Georgia, South Carolina, Florida. . .in other words, lots of Bible Belt. And while some may say 'preaching is preaching,' the truth is the Church is a different animal up here in the Pacific Northwest than it is in the Bible Belt. The Church in the northeast is different from the Church in Texas. It would have been nice to see broader representation from across the U.S.; in fact, since the book touts itself as part of a "worldwide" campaign, I would have liked to read preachers from Mexico or Canada or Thailand or Germany or India.

Perhaps as part of the regional flair, the book comes from a fairly narrow slice of Evangelicalism. Lots of Baptist and non-denominational, but lacking in a broader picture of the church. It would have been nice to see a Presbyterian or Episcopalian or Mennonite - something to prove that the Church is larger than conservative Evangelicalism.

And one more. Every preacher in this book is male. If you really want to claim to represent the Church as a whole, you ought to include some voices from our sisters, as well. Craig Groeschel, the book's general editor, serves in a denomination that ordains women and is home to many excellent female preachers. He wouldn't have had to look very far to find even one or two.

You might think I'm nitpicking, but some of that comes from the claim made on the book's back cover, that these are "Reflections from the Best and the Brightest." (I know, that's probably put there by some P.R. rep trying to sell more books, but still, there it is). Even while ignoring the hubris of that statement, one would still have to believe that all the best and brightest preachers are a)male, and b)living in the Bible Belt. And I just can't accept that as true.

In the end, however, the positives of this book outweigh any negatives. I'd gladly recommend this to anyone in my church, or anyone else who is trying to understand our God better. It's a nice choir of voices saying "Here is Your God."

Note: Thanks to Zondervan for providing me a free copy for the purpose of this review.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Lesser-known carols you should probably know.

In case you're sick of Jingle Bells by now.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

A quote worth pondering

From Fred Clark:

Whatever path you're on, God will meet you there. How you respond in that encounter matters far, far more than whatever path you happen to be on, or where you thought you were going, or whether or not the catechists think you have the correct answers to all the wrong questions.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Book Review: The Skin Map

The Skin Map Book Trailer from Magnus Creative on Vimeo.

I'm a big fan of Stephen Lawhead. If you read this blog regularly, you know he's one of the few 'Christian Fiction' authors I enjoy. I've read most, if not all, of his novels, and recommend him regularly over other, lower-quality Christian authors.

This time, not so much. Lawhead's newest release, The Skin Map, was disappointing. It's the story of a young man swept into an alternate universe, and the girlfriend he (literally) loses along the way. It's also the story of an ancient map, and heroes and villains out to find that map and the secrets it holds. It reads like time travel, since each universe is at a different point in history as the characters jump to and through them. We spend time in merry old England, an 18th-century Chinese port, and ancient Egypt. The primary characters are very much children of the 21st Century, but those they interact with include Bohemian royalty, salt-of-the-earth serving wenches, lords and ladies and footmen, priests and bakers and gentry.

And yet, it felt a little stifled. Colorless. More like random jumping from point-to-point than the grand, sweeping epics that Lawhead is known for. Many of the characters show great promise, yet come across as lifeless. Sometimes he paints vivid pictures of a particular scene, but create minimal action to fill that scene. And if there's one piece of fiction writing that irritates me, it's the over-use of exalted descriptives like "She was easily the most beautiful women in the world" and "It was the most beautiful scenery he'd ever laid eyes on" and "He was the most frightening-looking man in the world" (note: those are not exact quotes from the book, but there are enough of them in there). Because, really? How do you know she's the most beautiful woman in the world? And by whose standards? Far be it from me to criticize a master like Lawhead, but this is the sort of freshman-level writing employed by people who don't know how to write vivid descriptions, which Lawhead has already proven he knows very well how to do.

Of course, it was in many ways just the book I needed right about now - a mindless adventure roaming across the centuries and continents. It did require a modicum of brainpower to follow the various subplots, not to mention understanding the physics behind the plot of ley lines and travel between multiple universes. Yet it spritely moved along from scene to scene, with just enough intrigue and action to keep the pages turning. There's enough here that I look forward to the next book in the series. In the end, though, I hope Lawhead isn't simply going through the motions now that he's an established writer. He's built up quite a reputation and fan following, and The Skin Map just doesn't live up to the standards he's already set.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

The problem with pain

and grief in our society is that we don't seem to know how to handle them well. I've been learning a lot about wounding, grief, and pain lately, and I've noticed a tendency to fall off the map in two different ways:

First, we become cynical. Angry. We give in to the hurt, seeking validation for our pain. I suppose this fits in well with Kubler-Ross's Anger stage. We have been hurt, we face grief, and we get angry. It's normal, it's natural, and it can be productive in the right time and place. But sometimes I think the world is full of people who've been hurt and never moved on from this stage. I meet so many angry people, people holding grudges, suspicious people who take offense at any perceived slight (have you noticed they all tend to come out at Christmas-time, those cynical, perpetually-offended folks who take every opportunity to downplay the joy and happiness of others?). It's so easy to dwell in the pain, to feel self-righteous in the pain, to cherish the pain, to wallow in the pain. Some of us are professionals when it comes to righteous anger.

On the other hand, the second area in which we fail is to deny the pain. At least, to pretend it doesn't matter. We're good at fooling ourselves this way; we're often prodded in this direction by well-meaning friends. "It's not that bad. . .you just have to get over it" is the repeated refrain. So what that somebody lied about you? So what that somebody is gossiping about you? So what that a trusted friend betrayed you? Just get over it! (note to readers: this isn't exactly autobiographical, so don't start trying to read more into this than is here. I'm not speaking of any person in particular, just situations common to us all) We often tell ourselves "It's wrong to remain broken; I need to pick myself up, dust myself off, and keep moving as if nothing happened!" Others tell us "you just need to forgive and forget." But that's denial. You would never tell a friend with a broken arm "just get over it." So, too, we can't "just get over" a place that's wounded in our soul.

The real challenge is to maintain hope even while owning the pain. Either of the above two picks up on one of those pieces but misses the other. We claim to 'hold out hope' by denying the power of the wound, or we hold on to the wound but miss out on the possibility of redemption and healing. The lesson I'm being taught these days is the necessity of naming the pain, of accepting the wound, of choosing reality over denial (yes, life hurts sometimes) even while holding out hope that God is in control, God brings healing, God is our defender, God will make something beautiful our of our brokenness. All of which allows us to live with peace and joy even while nursing a broken spirit. It allows us to look deeply into the pain and mourn the loss, to grieve and lament the hurt, but it doesn't allow it to defeat us. Instead it reminds us that God is a friend who sits with us in our pain but also carries the pain for us; it also allows us to lift our eyes and see that, even in the valley of the shadow of death, we don't need to be afraid. The day is coming when we will feel the anointing of holy oil upon us, when our cups will overflow again, when we will dine at the table he has prepared for us.

Truthfully, it's not easy. It's hard soul work, something we're not naturally inclined to do. But it's a sweeter  road to walk, this walking in the light, this naming the pain even while holding out hope for a better tomorrow. It's a lesson I gladly accept from the Lord's hand.