Thursday, December 29, 2011

Kindle

Shortly before I went to Japan on our church's mission trip I bought a Kindle. I knew I'd be sitting in a plane for 13 hours each way but didn't want to take a lot of books in my backpack. Kindle has changed my life! I am reading now more than ever - especially books that I wouldn't otherwise read. Here are a few of the books I'm reading...
  • The Girl on the Stairs: My Search for a Missing Witness to the Assassination of John F. Kennedy, by Barry Ernest - I'm hopelessly addicted to documentaries and writings about the death of JFK
  • Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, by Chip and Dan Heath - a good read for leaders
  • Let the Nations Be Glad!, by John Piper - a motivating book about missions and why we can be confident in the church's Spirit-given ability to finish the Great Commission
  • The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins - Right, I jumped on the bandwagon.
  • Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, by Eric Metaxas - very detailed but inspiring biography
  • Why I Am Not an Arminian, by Robert Peterson and Michael Williams - an excellent summary and recommended for anyone wanting to understand what the Bible says about predestination

I originally bought the Kindle Keyboard model, but found it laborious to use the keyboard for typing notes and searching for books. So I traded up for a Kindle Touch. I like it much better. The touch screen makes it a lot easier to type. And even though the screen is the standard size it's overall smaller than the older version. I also bought a Kindle Touch cover with light that is really cool.

So thanks Kindle!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Favorite Christmas memories

As a child, I lived in Mayberry. Ozzie and Harriet were my next door neighbors. Father knew best, and my best friends were Mike, Robbie, and Chip.

Well, not really. None of those things were true. But growing up in the small rural town of Union, SC, in the 1950s and '60s was like living in those insulated, idealized TV towns - at least until you peeled off the veneer of racism, class envy, poverty, illiteracy, sexism, crime, discrimination, etc.

One upside to my upbringing in a small southern town is that I have some very warm memories of Christmas. And I'm genuinely thankful for them.

Such as...
  • Going with my Dad to the "country" to cut down a Christmas tree
  • Popcorn balls and pecan pie
  • Waffles cooked with pecans on Christmas morning - Dad's specialty
  • Totally believing in Santa Claus, for an embarrassingly long time of my life
  • Leaving cookies in the den for Santa Claus
  • Thinking I really heard Santa Claus on the rooftop
  • Staring with wonder at the Santa and reindeer set that my parents put out on the living room coffee table
  • (OK, you get the idea; Santa was a big deal)
  • Keeping a fire going in the fireplace
  • Impatiently waiting for the grandmothers to arrive so we could begin opening presents
  • A new bike almost every year (complete with banana seat, raised handlebars, etc.)
  • Wishing for a white Christmas that never came (it seemed to rain every year)
  • Watching tons of corny Christmas TV specials with my parents (Andy Williams, Mitch Miller, Sonny and Cher... sheesh!)
  • The annual Christmas service at our First Presbyterian Church (here's a shout-out to Mr. Nabors, our faithful organist)
  • Walking the neighborhood and looking at everyone's Christmas decorations (our neighborhood gave prizes for the best exhibits, and Dad entered something creative every year)
  • Seeing Main Street decked out in lights
  • The annual Christmas parade, which featured my Cub Scout troop, Miss Union High, the Shriners, the marching band from the "black" high school - oh, and Santa always brought up the rear

My parents are both gone now, but I'll say a belated thank-you anyway for all they did to create special Christmas memories.

Monday, December 26, 2011

My Week with Marilyn

That's a movie title, by the way... I didn't spend a week with anyone named Marilyn, I promise.

My Week with Marilyn is a really good but sad movie. You'll enjoy it if you like true (or mostly true) stories about people who changed our world. Marilyn Monroe did that. Yet as this movie shows, she was a desperately lonely, unhappy person looking for love and being used by people for whom love was a means to power.

Michelle Williams plays Marilyn at the peak of her film star career (at age 30 or 31). The setting is the production of The Prince and the Showgirl in London in 1957. That movie also starred Sir Laurence Olivier, played here by Kenneth Branagh, one of my favorite actors. Eddie Redmayne plays Colin Clark, a 23-year old film student who got a job working for Olivier and became the inspiration for Marilyn to finish her role as Elsie the showgirl. Clark's diary and books about his week-long experience with Monroe (The Prince, the Showgirl, and Me, followed by My Week with Marilyn) were the source for this movie.

I was eight years old when Marilyn Monroe died at the age of 36. So I remember all the photos and gossip about her in the late '50s and '60s. I saw a couple of her movies, including Some Like It Hot (1958), and had the typical boyhood crush on her. What I didn't know at the time, and what I suppose was watered down for the public, was how difficult she was to work with, how she struggled with depression and alcohol/drug abuse, and how unhappy was her childhood. This movie brings all those things up to the surface. In the hands of Michelle Williams, Marilyn becomes the grown-up who never grew up, the victim of abandonment.

I've read that Colin Clark's memoirs about his week with Marilyn are not to be trusted. That may be so. But this movie tells an important story nonetheless. It says that you never really know people. The most successful person out there may be the most insecure and unhappiest. Appearances deceive. A confident, beautiful Marilyn Monroe on the outside may be a frightened, abused waif on the inside. One of Christianity's main beliefs is that God sees the heart. This means more than simply "it's what's on the inside that counts." It means that God knows us at the very deepest level. There is no hiding from him. This is a truth both scary and comforting at the same time. Scary if you've never repented and trusted in Jesus. Comforting if you have - because all your sins and failures are gone. Christians are people who can be their most true selves, because they've been freed from the need to establish a record of their own based on being "good enough." Jesus is good enough for us. Christians also ought to be the people who free others up to be their truest selves. Unfortunately, we often fail in that department. Church is sometimes the place where it's most dangerous to be real.

My Week with Marilyn also illustrates the importance of family. At one point Marilyn says to Colin, "Little girls shouldn't be told how pretty they are. They should grow up knowing how much their mother loves them." Good parenting certainly cannot prevent all problems from occurring, but it sure makes a big difference. We don't have to be perfect parents. That will never happen. But what we can be is PRESENT in the lives of our kids. Marilyn Monroe didn't receive that gift, and she struggled her entire life.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Here, There and Everywhere

I just read the book Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles, by Geoff Emerick. Geoff was the recording engineer behind most of the Beatles' music from Revolver through Abbey Road. After the Beatle break-up he went on to work with Paul McCartney and Wings. He also helped John, George, and Ringo with some of their solo projects. I wasn't as interested in that phase of Geoff's career. But the book is a fascinating expose of the wizardry and drama behind the Beatle albums that I love as much as ever.

When Geoff was just 15 years old, he was an assistant on some of the Beatles' early hits like "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and "She Loves You." The book starts there and moves on through the Beatles' career, sharing inside stories behind the best-known Beatle songs.

Much of the book focuses on the technical aspects of audio engineering. What I liked best was Geoff's recounting how, take after take, Beatle songs evolved into the finished products we listen to today. He also shares a lot about the relationships among the Beatles. It is clear that Paul McCartney was (and is) his favorite. Emerick did not care for George Harrison at all, and is often critical of George's guitar playing and voice. John and Ringo also get their share of jabs, especially when Geoff writes about the Beatles' late career. But you can tell Geoff Emerick loved the Beatles' music, loved playing a key role in their recordings, and grieves still over the world's loss of John and George.

The book illustrates common grace. God gives gifts to all, even to those who are his enemies. Some of the world's greatest musicians are people who deny that there is a God. Such seems to be the case with the Beatles (notwithstanding another book I read recently titled The Gospel According to the Beatles, by Steve Turner). Geoff Emerick is an incredible artist. His ear is precise, his hands careful, his mind quick and alert. Yet he apparently has yet to bow the knee to Jesus. This proves the truth of Acts 17:25, "[God] himself gives all men life and breath and everything else," including artistic gifts. Why is God so generous and patient? "...so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. 'For in him we live and move and have our being'" (Acts 17:27-28).

In other words, God is here, there, and everywhere.

Happy, Resolution-less New Year

It's customary to start a new year out with resolutions. We resolve to eat less, exercise better, pray more, read our Bibles with greater regularity, drink less Diet Coke, and all sorts of other things. The standard joke is that such resolutions stay with us a few weeks, maybe a couple months if we're lucky, and then fall by the wayside. Why is that? It's because most resolutions to change behavior just don't go deeply enough into the motives behind our behavior. Another way of putting it is that resolutions typically address the sin but not the sin beneath the sin. Human beings live from the inside out. Behavior change starts with heart change, and most New Year resolutions simply don't touch the heart.

So here's a thought: Let's start 2012 not with resolution but with repentance.

Repentance is different from resolution. Repentance is not so much a change of behavior as it is a change of direction. Repentance is not so much a decision to "do better" as it is a deep, shocking realization of why we don't want to do better.

C. S. Lewis put it well in Mere Christianity: "Fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement: he is a rebel who must lay down his arms. Laying down your arms, surrendering, saying you are sorry, realizing that you have been on the wrong track and getting ready to start life over again from the ground floor - that is the only way out of a 'hole.' This process of surrender - this movement full speed astern - is what Christians call repentance. Now repentance is no fun at all. It is something much harder than merely eating humble pie. It means unlearning all the self-conceit and self-will that we have been training ourselves into for thousands of years. It means killing part of yourself, undergoing a kind of death."

Lewis is saying that it's relatively easy to change behavior, especially for people who are pretty self-disciplined anyway. We can teach ourselves a few new tricks. We can develop new habits if we try hard enough. But the funny thing is, we may develop new habits and find out that we're farther away from God than we were before. God is not really calling us to pray more, as though the mere outward act of prayer is what he's after. He's calling us to be less self-reliant and more dependent on him - and that's potentially very different from simply chalking up more hours in prayer. It's the heart that God is pursuing. He doesn't so much want my time as he wants ME. He doesn't so much want my money as he wants ME. And so on.

I'm not knocking all New Year Resolutions. But I'm saying that far more potent, far more transformational, and far more dangerous, is repentance. Lay down your arms. Identify the ways you avoid God and his people. Ask a trusted friend to tell you what he or she sees in you that is less than godly. Name people in your life for whom you have contempt. Name your idols. Identify ways you hide your true self from others. These are the kind of steps we should take throughout 2012 to practice repentance. It's "a kind of death," as Lewis says. But it leads to life.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Hugo

I saw Hugo, the new Martin Scorsese film, in 3D today. What a feast for the eyes and heart! I highly recommend it. Not only is Hugo an engaging story, but the acting is incredible (particularly by the two main child actors) and it's just a whole lot of fun to watch. For movie lovers like me, it's a must see for its exploration of the work of film pioneer Georges Melies.

I read online beforehand that compared to other 3D movies, the effects in Hugo are extremely well done, and I would agree. Most of the time, I can do without 3D. But this one is definitely worth seeing in 3D.

I went expecting a kids' movie. It's not so much. I imagine most kids would get pretty bored 30 minutes in. It's an adult picture that awakens the child in you.

The story goes like this (without giving anything away): Hugo Cabret is a young orphan who lives in a train station in 1930s Paris. Unbeknownst to everyone in the station, Hugo is the one who keeps all the clocks in the station wound up and set correctly. He's mechanically inclined and knows how to fix just about anything with gears and wheels, including an old automaton (a wind-up robot) that his late father found while scrounging around in an attic. With the help of the automaton and a young girl named Isabelle, Hugo solves a mystery that leads to redemption for himself and others.

At one point, Hugo Cabret gives voice to what we all instinctively know: we are broken. Like a machine in need of repair, we have been damaged by the fall of Adam. Sin has distorted the image of God we bear and we don't "work" quite right. Nevertheless, we each have a purpose - to glorify and enjoy God. In order to fulfill our purpose we must be fixed by the One who made us, has the key, and knows what to do. Jesus Christ came as our "Hugo" to rescue us from the junk pile. No one is beyond hope.

Friday Night Lights

My wife and I have become immersed in the TV series, Friday Night Lights. The five seasons are on Netflix. I read the book by H. G. Bissinger years ago and saw the 2004 movie that was based on it. I had no interest in following the NBC series that started in 2006 until my daughter Jennifer said she thought I'd like it. She was right - it's really good. We're about halfway done with Season 2. So if it veers off track later, as so many good TV series do, I'll retract what I'm about to say. In terms of the acting, story line, and characterizations, it's one of my favorite shows ever.

High school football is the thread that weaves together the lives of a dozen or so key characters in a small west Texas town. Coach Eric Taylor, his wife Tami, and teenage daughter Julie are the main characters. Numerous football players, their families, hangups, and conflicts come and go, with each episode focusing on two or three. The portrayals are realistic, often very sad looks into the hearts of people who have been damaged by betrayal, poverty, abuse, or disappointment.

Coach Taylor, played by Kyle Chandler (who finally won an Emmy for his role this year), is mentor and father figure for the many troubled people in the fictional town of Dillon, Texas. He has his own weaknesses, but he's an inspiring role model for the football players he loves and protects. The way the Taylors relate to each other is a refreshing change from the way most TV shows portray families. Eric and Tami's love for each other is genuine. They work through conflicts with their daughter with honesty and grace.

With FNL, I almost feel like I know these people and am back in my hometown of Union, SC. Buddy Garrity could have easily been one of my neighbors.

In Season 2, Buddy's daughter Lyla becomes a Christian and gets involved in an evangelical church. It's encouraging to see Christianity presented positively for a change (so far, at least). Through faith in Christ, Lyla's life is turned around and she becomes a compassionate and gracious friend to people who have used her in the past. Smash Williams, Dillon High's standout football player, attends a solid church and hears authentic presentations of the gospel. How often do you see that on prime-time television?

Friday Night Lights explores our broken human condition, shows the value of community, and at key moments points to the ultimate source of healing: the gospel of Christ.