Thursday, January 31, 2008

Christmas is officially over

Yesterday I finally got around to taking the Christmas lights off my house. So you can all relax now. Christmas is over.

Or, we could look at it another way: There are 329 shopping days until Christmas.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Blue Man Group

For my birthday last week, my wife took me to see Blue Man Group at Universal Studios CityWalk. It was awesome and totally hilarious. What I was impressed by the most was how they made you laugh with just their eyes. They spoke not a word during the whole show and didn't even change their facial expression very much. But I loved their eyes.

After the show, one of the guys posed for a picture with us.

I was wondering, though -- what should I have called him? A Blue Man? One of the Blue Men? A Blue Man Group Man?

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Cloverfield

My wife and I saw Cloverfield last night. If you want to see a thoroughly engrossing, exhausting, and just plain fun movie, this is it. We really loved it!

The "live action" feel of the movie using the Blair Witch video-cam technique really made the film work for me. I don't think it would have been near as good a movie without that, just because we've all seen tons of scary movies with plots like this one. But with the first-person perspective, it was a real nail-biter. The acting was great, the special effects were great, the gradual disclosure of the crisis facing Manhattan was great.

And the ending was great, too! I won't say any more than that about that.

Besides the above, I loved how Rob, the main male character, illustrated the love of Christ, who doesn't cease to pursue his wayward, helpless Bride.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Jesus and fun

Jesus and fun? Aren't those mutually exclusive concepts?

During the early years of my Christian faith, I belonged to a house church that advised its members to give up TV, get rid of "secular" records, and stop celebrating holidays (even birthdays), among other things. I sold a bunch of LPs that I wish I still had. I even practically gave away my guitar -- a beautiful 12-string Giannini -- because it was "evil." We thought we were following the teaching of the ascetics, who said that spirituality is something you achieve by withdrawing from the world and refraining from things that bring "worldly" pleasure.

Granted, some things should be avoided (Christian TV, for example). But the idea that Jesus prohibits fun is not Biblical.

Think about the story in John 2 about the time Jesus attended a wedding feast and changed water into wine. I'm preaching on that this Sunday. Several things impress me about Jesus in that story. The most obvious thing is, he attended a party. I suspect these parties could get out of hand. They could last as long as a week, historians tell us. At this particular wedding party, a lot of wine must have been served because they ran out -- an unthinkable thing in those days. The host could be sued by the families of the bride and groom for not providing enough wine. Yet you don't see Jesus getting upset about all that drinking. In fact, he creates MORE wine...as much as 180 gallons of it!

(Make no mistake, the Bible condemns drunkenness. But not drinking per se.)

Jesus must have attended a lot of parties similar to this one, because one of the things his detractors started calling him was "a glutton and a drunkard" (Matthew 11:19). He went to a lot of dinners to which tax collectors and sinners were invited. These had to be fun affairs. As James M. Boice puts it, "Jesus was always welcome among those who were having a good time."

In the Bible, wine often symbolizes abundant joy. In fact, the Rabbis taught that "Without wine there is no joy." Psalm 104:15 says that "wine . . . gladdens the heart of man." Wine is mentioned by several Old Testament prophets in connection with the "day of the Lord," when Messiah will come to set things right and redeem a fallen world. Amos talks about wine dripping from the mountains and flowing from all the hills (Amos 9:13). Isaiah talks about a big feast featuring "the best of meats and the finest of wines" (Isaiah 25:6). Zechariah talks about "new wine" making young women healthy and attractive! (Zechariah 9:17).

So it's worth asking: Do Christians have enough fun?

Of course we are not just called to have fun. There are times when we need to "grieve, mourn, and wail" (James 4:9). There are times for work and service and repentance and prayer and worship, and many other things that don't fit the label of "fun." But given the preponderance of Bible verses and stories about celebration in the Bible, I think there's not nearly enough fun in the church today. We should be throwing more parties. (And maybe even dancing!)

Do you agree?

Monday, January 14, 2008

The Kite Runner

I read the book by Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner, some months ago, and was curious how the film version would turn out. I was not disappointed. I saw the movie today and thought it was a faithful, touching, and engaging translation of a wonderful book.

The main character of The Kite Runner is Amir, son of a well-to-do Afghan businessman. As a young boy Amir secretly betrays his best friend Hassan, the poor son of Amir's father's servant. For the rest of his life, Amir is paralyzed with guilt over his failure to protect his friend. At the same time, he resents Hassan. Amir's father inexplicably seems to prefer Hassan over him. Amir brings his father shame, not pride.

So Amir desperately wants the love of his father, but it eludes him. He does not operate from a foundation of grace, but of law . . . so he cannot face his failure and seek forgiveness for his wrongs. Instead, he tries to find atonement by putting Hassan down and coming out the winner.

There are lots of lessons to learn from this story. The message to parents is to make sure your kids know you are proud of them. Don't let them think you love them only when they're good, when they're at their best, and when they perform well. God's love is our model. Because God loved us when we were at our worst (i.e., the cross) - and loves us daily no matter how badly we mess up - we can face our failures with honesty and confidence. We don't have to win or put others down in order to build ourselves up. Amir's life would have been completely different if he had only admitted to Hassan how badly he had failed him. The way up is down. God gives grace to the humble, not to the proud.

Another message is the transforming power of redeeming grace. God loves to rescue hopeless people and situations. No one is hopeless. No problem is beyond God's repair. Fortunately, Amir chooses not to stay stuck in his sin. He decides to make something of his life by redeeming the life of his nephew. In this way Amir is a type of Christ. He gives up himself to save Sohrab, thus creating life out of death.

Even though the religion of Islam pervades the movie, The Kite Runner is really an illustration of how Jesus rescues us from our guilt and shame and makes us lovers of others. I loved it.

I finally got one!


I know . . . what I'm about to say qualifies me as a total nerd. But this was a red letter day in the life of Mike.

For several years, I've been collecting state quarters in one of those coin folders that nerdy people use for their coin collections. I've collected all of them up through the 2007 Idaho quarter. Except, until today, I had never been able to find a Wisconsin "D" quarter -- "D" being the letter stamped on the front side indicating it was minted in Denver rather than Philadelphia ("P"). I understand these are pretty rare. Plus collectors like to to hoard them because there are some Wisconsin "D" quarters that have a flaw on them which makes them more valuable.

Anyway, I went to Lowe's to get some fertilizer, and instead of paying for it with my debit card like I usually do, I used cash. And lo and behold, I noticed in the change a Wisconsin "D" quarter! So I gleefully took it home and put it in my nerdy "Fifty State Commemorative Quarter Folder."

A happy man am I!

What I'm listening to...

Two old-timers have put out really good records in the last few months.

James Taylor's new live record, One Man Band, is really pleasing to listen to even if you've heard "Fire and Rain" and "You've Got a Friend" a million times, as I have. What's different here is that you hear just how excellent JT's guitar-playing and voice are even after all these years. It's pretty much just him and his guitar, although on a few numbers he tries to spice things up with a drum machine (not successfully, in my opinion). He's not much of a talker, but there's no one better at touching the heart and putting together memorable tunes than James Taylor. He's always been my musical inspiration.

Another great thing about this recording is the piano accompaniment of jazz pianist Larry Goldings, who has been with JT since 2001. Sweet.

The other record features the strangest duo since Mary Matalin and James Carville. I'm talking about Robert Plant and Alison Krauss' CD called Raising Sand. I like how one reviewer put it: "this most improbable meeting of musical galaxies." I'd like to know who or what led to the concept of getting these two together. But somehow it works! I must admit, at first I thought it was about the sleepiest record I'd ever heard. But it's been growing on me. The songs are haunting. They are a throwback to the old days of rock & roll and country & western recordings. Creative for its understatedness, it's a beauty.

What I'm reading...

Over the Christmas holidays I read an interesting biography of Abraham Lincoln called Lincoln's Melancholy, by Joshua Wolf Shenk. Shenk examines how depression developed and affected Lincoln in often disastrous ways throughout his lifetime. I knew Lincoln was given to melancholy, but was unaware just how much this was so.

What I found especially interesting was reading the comments others made about Lincoln when he was alive. There would be no way Lincoln would be electable today, given that his depression was so well-known and he was quite honest about it. He certainly would need a lot of help from image-makers were he to run for president today!

I also appreciated the way Shenk (not writing as a Christian) shows how Lincoln's spirituality became better defined and more robust over time. If Shenk is right, there were periods when Lincoln questioned the very existence of God. But by the end of his life he had integrated his years of personal suffering with a Biblical and submissive faith.

For those who suffer from depression - and for those who love people who do - this book offers a view of depression that is sympathetic while also hopeful. Like the subtitle says, "How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness."

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Christmas in Colorado!

The week after Christmas, Suzy & I took some of our kids to the Rockies for a week of skiing. David and his wife Lindsay, Jennifer and her husband Tim, and Michael were all able to go. It was something I'd been wanting to do for years. We stayed in a bed & breakfast near Salida, CO, a little town about 2 hours west of Colorado Springs. It was called San Isabel B&B. It was a really cool place, out in a wide valley between ridges of Rocky Mountains all around. Out of every window was a different, beautiful view of the Rockies.

We skied almost every day at Monarch Mountain, a little-known ski resort that appealed to me because it is much more affordable and less crowded than the better-known resorts.

Another great thing we did was a 2-hour snowmobile tour. It was fun because all of us had some kind of mishap that kept our guide working hard! It was snowing like crazy while we were driving our snowmobiles. The beauty is hard to describe.

We came home inspired, and without anything broken. Our only regret was that Rebecca and her family couldn't join us. Maybe next time!