Thursday, April 27, 2006

Nickel Creek was awesome!

Suzy and I went to see Nickel Creek (see link on the right) in concert Tuesday night up in Gainesville, FL. We went with our son Michael, daughter Jennifer, and good friends Jonathan and Amanda from our church. Wow! is all I can say. This is my #1 favorite band out there today. We had great center-front seats (thanks to Sean Watkins of Nickel Creek - that's another story!).

Highlights from the concert:
  • Chris Thile (the mandolin player) played an unbelievable solo rendition of a 7-minute-long Bach piece.
  • Sara's voice and fiddle get better and stronger every time I see them in concert (this was my third time).
  • Sean was great as usual on guitar. He and Chris did some wonderful guitar-mandolin runs together all night long. They miked Sean's guitar better than the last 2 times I've seen them in concert.
  • We heard a good assortment of songs from all 3 Nickel Creek records. The one song I was hoping they would play but didn't was "Doubting Thomas" from the Why Should the Fire Die CD. I love that song.
  • They did more bluegrass than I was expecting, which was great. Especially in the encore set, when they performed a great cover of an old Jimmie Rodgers number.

If you don't know Nickel Creek music, you should. I suggest starting with their first CD, the self-titled one. Then get This Side (their 2nd CD), and finally Why Should the Fire Die (their most recent).

I can't wait for their next record!

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Jesus

Like I said a while back, I've been reading Donald Miller's book, Searching for God Knows What. Chapter 9 contains a lot of powerful statements about Jesus. Miller asks the basic question, What is Jesus like? And he comes up with a list of seven things that strike him from the Bible about Jesus.
1. He believed all people were equal.
2. He was ugly.
3. He liked to be with people.
4. He had no fear of intimacy.
5. He was patient.
6. He was kind.
7. He was God.

All of those things are worth pondering, but something Miller says near the end of the chapter hit me hard. I'll quote it for you:

"...the Jesus that exists in our minds is hardly the real Jesus. The Jesus on CNN, the Jesus in our books and in our movies, the Jesus that is a collection of evangelical personalities, is often a Jesus of the suburbs, a Jesus who wants you to be a better yuppie, a Jesus who is extremely political and supports a specific party, a Jesus who has declared a kind of culture war in the name of our children, a Jesus who worked through the founding fathers to begin America, a Jesus who dresses very well, speaks perfect English, has three points that fulfill any number of promises and wants you and me to be, above all, comfortable. Is this the real Jesus?" (pg. 146)

My answer to that question is no, that's not the real Jesus. But I do wonder how we would receive the real Jesus if He suddenly showed up among us. When He was here the first time, He generally made religious people mad. I'm a religious person. I hang out with pretty religious people. I wonder if He would upset me? And I wonder what He would think of how we (that is, we evangelicals) do church?

Compared to how He lived when He was here the first time, I think that if Jesus showed up I would feel embarrassed about how concerned we are about image, marketing, production, efficiency, and the like. I think He would ask me how hard I've tried to reach out to people that don't fit the profile. I'm afraid my answer would not be very satisfying to Him. I think He would wonder why I prefer busyness to prayer, and meetings to meals with friends. And I think He would ask me to talk to people more and email them less. Which would be hard for me to do.

So I think my first reaction when meeting up with the real Jesus would be -- discomfort. My unholiness in the presence of perfect holiness adds up to tremendous discomfort and conviction...

...Until I look again into His eyes and see, instead of anger, love. Instead of disappointment with me, satisfaction. Miller says it well when he writes, "Jesus would like me were we to meet face-to-face" (pg. 127). I believe that. I believe that because of His grace, He would look me in the eye and say something like, "I know. It's OK. You're my child and I'm delighted with you. I was thinking of you when I died on the cross and I've been thinking of you ever since. Yeah, you've messed up. But as far as the east is from the west, that far I've removed your transgressions from you. You are my friend. As hard as it may be to believe it, I am proud of you and can't wait to spend eternity with you and all the rest of my people."

One there is, above all others, well deserves the name of Friend;
His is love beyond a brother's -- costly, free, and knows no end.
They who once his kindness prove find it everlasting love.

Which of all our friends, to save us, could or would have shed his blood?
But our Jesus died to have us reconciled in him to God.
This was boundless love indeed; Jesus is a Friend in need.

When he lived on earth abased, "Friend of sinners" was his name;
Now above all glory raised, he rejoices in the same;
Still he calls them brethren, friends, and to all their wants attends.

Could we bear from one another what he daily bears from us?
Yet this glorious Friend and Brother loves us though we treat him thus:

Though for good we render ill, he accounts us brethren still.

O for grace our hearts to soften! Teach us, Lord, at length to love;
We, alas! forget too often what a Friend we have above:
But when home our souls are brought, we will love you as we ought.

(John Newton, 1779)

Friday, April 21, 2006

Movies I don't get tired of

These are some of my favorite movies, in no particular order. I'm not usually one to buy a DVD or watch a movie a 2nd or 3rd time, but these I'll watch again and again:
  • Saving Private Ryan - That opening sequence of D-Day is gut-wrenching (literally), but wow, what a miracle of film-making.
  • What about Bob? - I'm sorry but this is the funniest Bill Murray movie ever. Did you know it was directed by Frank Oz, of Muppets fame?
  • Forrest Gump - This movie touches on so many issues of the heart: relationships, grace, God, etc.
  • The Sixth Sense - Yeah, I know...once you've seen the ending that kinda affects all future viewings, but I still think it's awesome. Those scenes where Cole sees dead people still send chills down my spine!
  • Black Hawk Down - So sad, but so well done it's amazing. Makes you admire our guys walking down those streets in Iraq right now.
  • The Wizard of Oz - I have so many associations with this movie related to my childhood...all good ones. At one time, this movie was shown by one of the TV networks at the same time each year. It was a tradition in my family to pop popcorn and watch it. Those flying monkeys gave me nightmares. I always get choked up at the ending.
  • A Beautiful Mind - The (mostly) true story of John Nash, a compelling journey into the mind of schizophrenia. Russell Crowe is great.
  • JFK - No, I'm not a fan of Oliver Stone. But I go nuts anytime a TV show about the Kennedy assassination comes on, and I think Stone did a great job even if he did rewrite history.
  • The Pink Panther - I laugh my head off at Peter Sellers.
  • Groundhog Day - Another great Bill Murray movie. And Andie McDowell reminds me of the town I grew up in South Carolina because her hometown is 30 miles from mine.
  • The Matrix - Indescribable it's so good. There are lots of connections with the Christian faith in this movie. Too bad the next two Matrix movies didn't measure up.
  • When Harry Met Sally - It seems to always be on TV and I almost always watch at least a part of it.
  • Signs - That M. Night Shyalaman guy is something else. My favorite scene in this movie is when the alien creeps out from behind a building on a TV news clip.

There doesn't seem to be a logic or rhyme or reason to this list, but there you go.

Praying the Psalms

I am not a great pray-er. I'm sure I often put the angels to sleep with my prayers. But lately I've been using the Psalms to pray, and it's really helped. Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in NYC, recently said in a sermon that one reason God gave us the Psalter was to teach us the language of prayer, much in the same way that parents teach their infants to talk. He said that some monks pray through the entire Psalter every week. I'm not ready for that, but I have tried to take one Psalm a day and pray through it.

I've found that a single verse or two of a Psalm can be used to praise God, to confess sin, and to pray for myself and others. Like take Psalm 34:8 for example: "Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the man who takes refuge in Him." That verse can easily be turned into praise:

"Father, you are so good in and of yourself. You are the Good. You are good to all your creatures. You give us life and health and food and work and friends and family and gifts too many to count. Above all you gave us Jesus. You have given us your Holy Spirit. You are our refuge, the One we can run to and find safety. Thank you, Father, for rescuing us from our sin and shame. Thank you for letting us taste and see how truly good you are!"

The same verse can be used for confession:

"I admit to you, Father, that I so often turn to other things to find goodness and life, rather than trusting in you. I try to taste success, and the praise of others, and things money can buy, seeking refuge. I hide behind my reputation, and my gifts, and my family, and my work, seeking security. Forgive me for thinking that those things offer lasting pleasure. Help me to hate the sin of substituting anything or anyone for you."

And the same verse can be turned into petition:

"Father, help your people find refuge in you today. Enable missionaries throughout the world to taste and see that you are good, and to be encouraged to persevere. Help our church to taste and see that you are good when next we meet for worship. Give me grace today to spread the fragrance of the gospel to those around me, that they too may see how good you are."

God has made it easy for me to pray, by giving me a book of prayers to use -- the Psalms!

One thing that has tripped me up in the past is that in many of the Psalms, the writer is praying for God to judge and punish his enemies. An example is Psalm 25:2 - "Do not let me be put to shame, nor let my enemies triumph over me." I used to think that I couldn't pray that prayer, because I don't really have any enemies (at least none that I know of!). But lately I've been reminding myself that I do have an enemy -- Satan. And along with him are his fiendish hordes of demons, allied together for my destruction. So when I come to Psalms like this I will change the words slightly and pray like so:

"To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul; in you I trust, O my God. Do not let me be put to shame, nor let my enemy triumph over me. No one whose hope is in you will ever be put to shame, but Satan and his demons will be put to shame because they are treacherous without excuse." (Psalm 25:1-3)

Even Jesus used the Psalms to pray. Some of his last words on the cross were a prayer from Psalm 22 - "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" If Jesus prayed the Psalms, how much more should we!


By the way, I took this picture a couple years ago while on a hike in Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park of Tennessee. It speaks to me of entering the presence of God in prayer.


Sunday, April 16, 2006

Resurrection

Happy Resurrection Day! Below is my favorite Easter hymn. It was written by a Baptist minister named Samuel Medley (1738-1799), who took his inspiration from Job 19:25. Bob Bennett did a great rendition of it on his First Things First CD (also on his Lord of the Past compilation). I like it because it reminds us of the present and future benefits of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

I know that my Redeemer lives;
What comfort this sweet sentence gives!
He lives, He lives, who once was dead;
He lives, my ever living Head.

He lives to bless me with His love,
He lives to plead for me above.
He lives my hungry soul to feed,
He lives to help in time of need.

He lives to grant me rich supply,
He lives to guide me with His eye,
He lives to comfort me when faint,
He lives to hear my soul’s complaint.

He lives to silence all my fears,
He lives to wipe away my tears;
He lives to calm my troubled heart,
He lives all blessings to impart.

He lives, my kind, wise, heavenly Friend,
He lives and loves me to the end;
He lives, and while He lives, I’ll sing;
He lives, my Prophet, Priest, and King.

He lives and grants me daily breath;
He lives, and I shall conquer death:
He lives my mansion to prepare;
He lives to bring me safely there.

He lives, all glory to His Name!
He lives, my Jesus, still the same.
Oh, the sweet joy this sentence gives,
I know that my Redeemer lives!

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Community

We talk a lot about community. Well here's something radical to think about.

Today, some people in my home group got together and went over to help out another couple in the group who needed some work done around their house. We trimmed hedges, pruned trees, cleared debris, pulled up a bunch of thorn bushes, and took it all to the dump. Then we went to a restaurant together. It was great.

While we were eating I had this thought: How come this is not normal for most of us Christians? How come it's only once in a very great while that we all get together and help somebody out? It seems to take a crisis -- a hurricane, a medical emergency, a new baby in the family, bankruptcy, and stuff like that -- to make us band together and pull someone's ox out of the ditch, so to speak.

What if, instead of doing yard work alone, we did it in small groups? What if, next time I need my house painted, I ask my small group to do it with me instead of paying somebody I don't know tons of money to do it? (Don't worry, guys, I don't need my house painted...yet.) What if, instead of each of us buying our own lawnmower and hedge trimmer and weed-eater and shop-vac and drill and every other tool we're supposed to have, we pool our money and buy one thing of each that we could all use?

I guess I'm talking about a modern-day evangelical version of the old barn-raising. But applied to more than just raising barns. It just seems dumb to me that we meet in small groups for Bible study and prayer but not (usually) for the stuff of life. What's the problem? Is it pride? Isolation? Self-reliance? All of the above?

I've been blogging about Donald Miller's book, Searching for God Knows What. His earlier book, Blue Like Jazz, has a chapter about community. In that chapter Miller makes a piercing observation. He says if you go into the typical Christian bookstore and scan the books, you get a very clear message: "Faith is something you do alone."

By contrast, faith in the Bible is relational. The early believers were "addicted" to fellowship:

"All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day...they broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts." (Acts 2:44-46)

To get this lifestyle going will require that we bring our needs to the attention of a small group of fellow believers. It will require that we admit we need help. It will mean that we adopt a new way of thinking about possessions and time and priorities. And it will mean that we have to start planning our days around the needs of others instead of around ourselves. Are we willing? It's easy to write about it in a blog, but I'm not sure I am ready for such a paradigm shift. But I want to have more days like today. It feels so..."good and pleasant" (Psalm 133:1).

Friday, April 14, 2006

My top ten favorite Beatle songs

I just never get tired of listening to the Beatles. I wish they were still around making studio albums. It's hard to pick just ten, but here are the 10 songs I like listening to the most:

1. The "You Never Give Me Your Money" medley on Abbey Road (yeah, I know, I'm cheating...that's really like 8 songs, but it's my blog and I can do what I want)

2. "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" - one of the best hard rock songs ever - also on Abbey Road

3. "Blackbird" - one of Paul's best - on the White Album

4. "Taxman" - some of my favorite Beatle songs were written by George, not John or Paul - on Revolver (my favorite of all the Beatle albums)

5. "Here, There, and Everywhere" - I'm a sucker for Paul's softer songs - on Revolver

6. "And Your Bird Can Sing" - love the guitar work on this song - on Revolver

7. "I Want To Tell You" - one of George's best, even though most people think it's weird - from Revolver

8. "If I Fell" - from A Hard Day's Night

9. "I've Just Seen a Face" - kind of a bluegrass number - on the original US version of Rubber Soul

10. "Fixing a Hole" - I have no idea what it means, but I love the song - on Sgt. Pepper

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Jesus loves the church


I enjoy looking at this picture of my son David and his wife Lindsay on their wedding day a couple years ago. It's a stunning human illustration of Jesus' love for His bride. You can't really tell, but David is crying his eyes out he's so happy. Lindsay looks as if she's just thrown herself into his arms with abandon. I picture Jesus, on the day He receives us into heaven, weeping with joy...and each of us throwing ourselves into His arms with laughter and wonder. It's the moment all of history has been yearning for, the moment we who love Jesus have been aching for. It's the moment Thomas Watson (d. 1689) described in these amazing words from his Body of Divinity:

"This is the felicity of heaven, to be in the sweet embraces of God's love; to be the delight of the King of Glory; to be sunning ourselves in the light of God's countenance. Then the saints shall know that love of Christ which passes knowledge. From this glorious manifestation of God's love will flow infinite joy into the souls of the blessed; therefore heaven is called 'entering into the joy of our Lord' (Matt. 25:21). Seeing God, loving God, and being beloved of God will cause a jubilation of spirit, and create such holy raptures of joy in the saints, that are unspeakable and full of glory. Now the saints spend their years with sighing; they weep over their sins and afflictions: then their water shall be turned into wine -- the vessels of mercy shall be filled and run over with joy; they shall have their palm-branches and harps in their hand, in token of their triumphs and rejoicing."

What a day that will be!

Sunday, April 09, 2006

A box of letters


In our garage is a large box containing things from my high school and college days. Suzy and I stored our high school yearbooks in there, along with some old pictures, certificates, and such. A big scrapbook full of newspaper clippings and mementos from my high school football years is in there too. There's even a pillow that Suzy gave me in college, which has a blown-up picture of the two of us on it - me wearing shorts that I cut out of jeans and didn't get the lengths of the legs the same, so I look really stupid. I also have a lot of hair.

Anyway, the most valuable thing in this box is a shoebox full of letters. They are letters Suzy & I wrote each other in our college days (1972-'76) when we were away from each other during summers and holidays. They are smokin' with passion! In the box are also a few cassette tapes, on which we recorded our voices and mailed them to each other so we could "talk" to each other. From time to time, we'll open up this shoebox and listen to the tapes and read over the letters again. They remind us how in those days we were, in the words of Solomon, "sick with love" (Song of Songs 2:5). If you read these letters they would make you sick too!

I think we should look at the Bible the same way I look at this shoebox full of letters and cassette tapes...as an unfolding love story, a revelation of God's passionate pursuit of His people. Of course the Bible is a book of truth, teaching us how to think, how to live, and what to believe. But to view the Bible only that way would be tragic. It would be like reading through my box of letters only to study the dating habits of two young people named Mike & Suzy. Boring.

I mentioned in my last post that I'm reading Donald Miller's book, Searching for God Knows What. Miller has a lot to say about how to read the Scriptures. In Chapter 4 ("Free Verse") he talks about the Bible being "stories of imperfect humans having relations with a perfect God." In Chapter 5 ("Naked") he does I think a great job reading between the lines in Genesis 1-3. Not sure I agree with all his conclusions, but it makes for inspiring reading.

I tend to read the Bible with the goal of getting through it in a year. Nothing wrong with that. Problem is, it's easy to let the task overshadow the thrill of hearing God speak words of devotion and affection into my heart...which might mean I just read one paragraph and stay there for a long while, just letting it sink in. Like this passage from Micah:

"Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy. You will again have compassion of us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea." (Micah 7:18-19, NIV)

Wow, now that's worth reading over, and over, and over again.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Searching for God knows what

I've been reading Donald Miller's book, Searching for God Knows What. Maybe I'll share some insights from this book over the next few days. Miller's earlier book, which made a big splash in some circles, was Blue Like Jazz. I really liked that book because it challenged my thinking in a number of areas, and this newer book is doing the same thing to me.

In Chapter 2, Miller goes off on some televangelists...you know, the ones that spend most of their time raising money and drawing attention to themselves. Miller calls them imposters. He says they are people who say they represent God but don't. An example is Robert Tilton. Wow, listen to what Miller says about him:

"I can't imagine he [Tilton] actually believes in God at all. I can't imagine what sort of horrible things are going to happen to him when he dies, what sort of terror he is going to face and what sort of begging and manipulating he is going to try to get out of what God has in store for him and to what degree God is going to make him pay for what he is doing to people."

Thank you, Donald Miller. Thank you for saying it straight. The guys and gals I see "preaching" on "Christian" TV make me really angry. Sometimes I pause on those channels and just stare at these self-proclaimed Christian leaders saying the most outlandish, unbiblical things, yet drawing enormous, adoring crowds...and making lots of money. Yesterday I watched this one preacher walking slowly back and forth in front of his congregation, saying "uh huh" over and over at least a hundred times, while people were laughing uncontrollably, thrashing about on the floor, clapping, babbling, and who knows what else. And it always comes down to "planting a seed" or "making a vow" or "giving a pledge," all of which is equivalent to sending in a contribution.

Now I know it says in Philippians 1:18, "But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached." Paul was talking there about some of the evangelists of his day who were out in the streets of Rome telling others about Jesus, but doing so with questionable motives. So I've tried to ask myself, Are these people on Christian TV preaching Christ? If they are, then I need to tolerate the junk I see on those channels and rejoice that at least the Word of God is getting out there.

I suppose some of the televangelists are truly preaching Christ (don't ask me to name names). But guys like Tilton (and there are lots of them, and ladies too) are not preaching Christ, and here are five reasons why:

1. It's always about money...and getting back more than you put in.
2. The "Jesus" they preach is one who offers personal fulfillment instead of a cross; victory instead of sanctification; healing instead of wholeness; answered prayer instead of refinement; and immediate instead of delayed gratification.
3. It's almost always about "me and Jesus," instead of the community of faith.
4. They always use the Bible as a self-help manual, a promise book, a decision-making guide, a collection of principles for victorious living, or a set of predictions about the future instead of as a revelation of the Person and work of Christ.
5. The power they use to influence their followers is that of manipulative, self-serving, guilt-producing, and uninformed rhetoric rather than loving, well-reasoned argument from Scripture. Also, it often has a sensual, almost sexual feel to it, which explains a lot.

For these reasons, and I could come up with a few more, I cannot rejoice that Christ is preached by these people, because I don't think He is. Instead, they are preaching a false christ, a self-serving god, a messiah of health, wealth, and prosperity instead of the Messiah of Scripture.

Bottom line, it's all about money.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Learning to be still

I've noticed, a lot of times non-religious bands speak truth better than religious bands. Like the Eagles, for instance -- one of the best bands ever. They did a song back in the '90s called "Learn To Be Still." The lyrics are great. Here are some of them:

It's just another day in paradise
As you stumble to your bed
You'd give anything to silence
Those voices ringing in your head

You thought you could find happiness
Just over that green hill
You thought you would be satisfied
But you never will-
Learn to be still

We are like sheep without a shepherd
We don't know how to be alone
So we wander 'round this desert
And wind up following the wrong gods home
But the flock cries out for another
And they keep answering that bell
And one more starry-eyed messiah
Meets a violent farewell-
Learn to be still


William Wilberforce said, "This perpetual hurry of business and company ruins me in soul if not in body." Wonder what he would say if he were around today!! I think it's funny that when people could be alone and quiet -- like while driving, or walking down the street -- they choose to talk on their cell phone or listen to their iPod. Hey, what am I talking about...I do that!

So how can I learn to be still? I think the first step is to realize what's at stake...what I'm in danger of losing. Henri Nouwen said, "You have to listen to the voice who calls you the beloved, because otherwise you will run around begging for affirmation, for praise, for success. And then you're not free." Constant noise and busyness are really symptoms of insecurity, and the more I feed it the more insecure I will be. Another step is just the common-sense elimination of distractions. I don't have to listen to talk radio every time I get in the car. I don't have to answer the phone every time it rings. I don't have to watch a TV show live and suffer through all those mindless commercials; I can DVR it and watch it later. I don't have to meet with everyone who asks for an appointment. I have to draw the line. I have to listen to God "who calls me the beloved." I have to...learn to be still.

I love this picture of the ruins of Windsor Mansion near Port Gibson, Mississippi. My wife and I visited the place some years ago. It's so quiet and still. The mansion was built in 1859, completed in 1861, and the owner -- a man named Smith Daniell -- only lived in the house for a few weeks before he died at the age of 34. The stillness of the ruins is a vivid reminder of how short-lived we are, and how important it is to learn to be still, before it's too late.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Fearfully & wonderfully made


Meet my new grandbaby. It's Rebecca & Scott's #3, due in October! They don't know if it's a boy or a girl, so they don't have a name yet. It's awesome to think that this child has been known by God before time...that his or her life is part of God's plan...and that God is taking care of this baby right now, inside Rebecca's body. That's what the psalmist David meant when he said,

For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
Your works are wonderful, I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place.
When I was woven together in the depths of the earth,
Your eyes saw my unformed body.
All the days ordained for me were written in your book
Before one of them came to be.
(Psalm 139:13-16)

I am praying for you, little one. We can't wait to meet you!