Monday, December 25, 2006

Merry Christmas

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be upon his shoulders.

And he will be called:

Wonderful Counsellor

Mighty God

Everlasting Father

Prince of Peace

Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end.

He will reign on David's throne and over his kingdom,

establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness

from that time on and forever.

The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.
The Angel photo is a detail from one of the South windows at Covenant First.
God bless us, every one.
Soli Deo Gloria

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

With One Voice: David -- Israel's sweet singer and architect of praise

As Reggie Kidd works through his theology of the heart, he comes to a chapter where he focuses on King David. Reggie characterizes David with these two roles -- the sweet singer and the architect of praise. He uses the various portraits provided by Samuel and the Chronicler to sketch these different roles.

Samuel, according to Reggie, was likely composed in rough form during the reign of Solomon -- but reached it's final form (along with 1 and 2 Kings) during the Babylonian exile many years later. The stories of David's suffering, wrestling, repenting, and aching all would have struck a chord deep in the experience of Israel in exile. Characteristic of this narrative is the story of David playing for Saul to ease his suffering (Reggie points us to Rembrandt's painting as a fine portrayal of the human drama involved). We turn to the Psalms to find that there are 13 that are identified as coming from the experiences of David as a servant of Saul..
For instance Psalm 56 was written while David fled to Gath and pretended madness as a means of preserving his life. Even in the midst of such humiliation and degradation, David is able to sing of confidence in the Lord and His trustworthy word. Reggie writes “Within the exercise of crafting words to articulate his situation and express his feelings, David arrives at a deeper sense of the veracity of God himself. He can pretend to be confused – even mad – because he knows God’s Word is true; and what is happening outside himself does not threaten what is true within himself.” (55) Yet another instance where I wish I could write like that. Reggie also looks to Psalm 57 as an example of David's resiliency rooted in the Lord's provision, even in the midst of the adversity of being on the run, hiding in caves. "In a logic comprehensible only to a person who has learned that praise precedes understanding, David says he knows that Saul will fall into a trap of his own making." (56). Praise precedes understanding. I've been meditating on that phrase for a couple of days now. It brings into light the whole compass of Reggie's book -- we don't understand worship and then dispassionately engage it as an activity on par with attending a civic club or an interesting lecture. Rather, we give ourselves to heartfelt praise in trust that the Living One will shape our understanding.
"In the twists and turns of his fortunes -- embraced and then eschewed by Saul, shunted from Moab to Philistia -- David's singing has kept him anchored to a Rock who shows himself 'faithful to the faithful, blameless to the blameless, pure to the pure, and shrewd to the crooked' (Ps 18:25-26). He has been sustained by a vision of a God who saves the humble but brings low the haughty (v 27). Counter to the gloom that progressively consumed Saul and to the impotence that had Saul falling on his own sword (I Sam 31:1-7), David knows a God of light and power." (58) And therein was the difference between David and Saul -- Saul heard the songs of Zion as a refuge for a season in the midst of the pressures of administration and kingship. He looked to David's songs as a distraction to allieve for a time the inner angiush. David on the other hand, put his trust in the subject of the songs -- the singing wasn't totally an end in of itself -- rather it was David's instrument to express his trust and confidence in the midst of adversity. Singing wasn't escape, it was sanctifying.
Reggie shows this not just in his songs of confidence in suffering, but in his songs of penitence in the midst of sin (Ps 51 being the crown jewel of this theme -- but Reggie points out a slew of other songs of confession -- 6, 32, 38, 39, 40, 41, 51, 69. "This is blues of the deepest sort, blues sad enough to find redemption." (60). If David is the sweet singer of the soul, and he spends so much time in confession in his songs, then that in itself ought to train our hearts to greater self-examination and confession. David's songs become a mirror to our own hearts to dare us to look within and see our need for redemption. "In a way that is without precedent in the ancient world, David shows how we can come before our Maker and admit that at our core we are not right. All we have to offer is a song from a broken spirit and a contrite heart, and we can know that if we come in this fashion we will not be torn to shreds. David the singer introduces us to the notion that there is a blessedness that awaits those -- and only those -- who admit that rightness is nowhere within them, who look to God alone to account it to them for no motive besides God's own loving kindness (see Ps 32:1-5, 10-11)" (61).
As we turn from Samuel to Chronicles, the singer role recedes and the architect role comes to the fore. Chronicles was compiled during the restoration of Israel to the land and the rebuilding of the temple. The Chronicler focused on stories of David as a builder. Here we see music all over the place. Reggie shows how the account of the bringing the ark to the temple (I chron 15) is saturated with music (in contrast to the Samuel account where the musical component is played down). Reggie shows how David institutes a special assignment of Asaph and his family for leading the people in songs of praise (I chron 16:7-36) -- including a special song of commissioning. Now David has moved from being a singer to being a patron -- to establishing psalmody and singing as a part of the institutional structure. "David's commissioning of Asaph is the beginning of a whole new epoch of corporate worship. Beyond this particular occasion, David aggressively works to leave Israel with a tradition of praise, organizing the Levites...and setting in place commandments for music-making that would be appealed to in future generations." (67) Like the great patrons of art in the Renaissance, David was not only a sophisticated artist himself, but he understood how to weave it as a part of the institution -- he understood the power of song to shape souls, and paid special attention to keep song before his people.
"As no one before him, David realized that the atmosphere of God's presence -- and it is God's presence that the ark exists to symbolize -- should be made up of song" (68) "The Psalms themselves are as much a part of the building of God's house as anything else is." (68) This shows that togetherness and connnectedness are vital to David -- Reggie shows how the corporate singing of God's praise shows the high value of God's people together and connected in a symphony of praise, rather than a cacophany of solo voices each singing their own tune of self-expression.
The personal and the corporate -- blended together so nicely by Reggie's chapter here. David's songs and stories instruct us in both.
Soli Deo Gloria

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Visions of Grace: Artist Annie Ruth

Had one of those Providential moments this weekend -- I had taken Sarah Grace and Annalise to the Cincinnati Museum Center to see the Christmas train exhibit and to play in the Children's museum. As we were leaving the Children's museum, what do I spy tucked away in a side gallery off the lobby but an art exhibition. Always being one for forcing my children to have their two spoonfuls of culture, I dragged them over to see the exhibit. As we walked in, a smiling African-American woman warmly greeted us -- she was the artist, Annie Ruth.

She explained the exhibit to us: Lighting Candles: Embracing the Spirit of the Holiday Season. It was designed to be a celebration of the festivals of Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa. As I went through the exhibit, I found it to be great exploration of the sanctifying and sustaining work of the Holy Spirit. The theme paintings (pictured here) particularly capture that quality -- the photos here don't do these mixed media work justice -- you can't see the rich textures and the vibrancy of the color. The main painting is titled "Seven Golden Candles (Lighting the World). In it are pictured six sets of hands holding candles to the center -- underneath the hands are shadowy faces of elders. Each of these candles has a different word inscribed on it: City, Home, Family, Children, Community, Public Service. Underneath the hands is the inscription "I am the light of the world. Lighting the lives within my community-- Impacting my world -- Rising above my circumstances -- Empowered with faith, hope and love -- Living life -- Empowered with the legacy of giving sharing and believing by simply being that little light that shines." The great power of the piece comes from the glow of the seventh candle in the center from which all the other candles take their light. It is center top, the traditional place of the Holy Spirit in art (see the images in my earlier post on the connections between paintings of Pentecost and the inscriptions of Akhenaten's adoration of the Sun -- now add this picture to the mix). Matthew 6 immediately comes to mind "You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven." (Matt 6:14-16)
There were other thought provoking pieces -- She had a whole series of works that featured two different images cut into strips and then interspersed with each other. At first I found these disconcerting -- but one of the paintings, titled "My Angel" clicked for me: One image was of a figure standing above a child figure -- the other image (interspersed with strips) was that of a large broad shouldered African American man supporting the two figures. The technique dramatically demonstrated the parallel and interconnected nature of spiritual and physical reality.
Another winner was called "Prayer Request" -- at first it seemed like a total abstract piece consisting of texture and gold glitter. And then I began to discern a figure, kneeling with head tilted back and eyes shut in ecstasy. The hands (oversized for the painting) were extended forward in a position of prayer. All of this figure was shadowed over by a glittery cloud which recalled to me a graphic image of the Shekhinah glory cloud of the Old Testament.
A quick visit to her website showed me a lot more about Annie Ruth's work -- not just her art, but her writing (she very graciously gave Sarah Grace a copy of a children's book that she had authored). Stumbling around there, I found a link to an article in which she gives her testimony of faith -- a powerful story of how the Holy Spirit brought healing and wholeness in Christ after abuse and adversity. Read the story for yourself -- but here's how she wraps it up:
"I am here to fulfill my divine destiny. Before the foundation of the world, God called me. While I was in my mother's womb he set me apart. He instilled the artistic ability within me to minister to a dying world. Creativity is in my genes. And although, at this time, He has not called me to a title, as a child of God it is my obligation to proclaim that "Jesus saves!" God has called me in a nontraditional role. You don't hear about too many Holy Ghost filled believers telling the good news through the painting on a canvas or in a collection of narratives and poetry. God has called me for this purpose. In this calling, He has told me two things -"Be real" and "It's not about you Annie Ruth." I aim to be real and be that vessel who He is calling me to be."
Amen and Hallelujah, Annie. Amen
Soli Deo Gloria

Thursday, December 14, 2006

A new kind of numismatics

I used to collect coins -- still am in fact. I've been enjoying the State Quarters series (though I'm a little hesitant about the US President dollar coin series -- that will get a mite expensive).

But I heard on the radio this morning a story about coin collecting of a different sort -- collecting pennies and nickels and melting them for resale. Apparently, the cost of copper and zinc have risen so high as to make pennies and nickels worth far more than their face value. The story said that the mint has even passed a temporary rule restraining melting of these coins. I went out to the US Mint website (a pretty fascinating website -- they actually market our currency -- I'm not sure I understand why currency needs to be marketed -- isn't it something we all need? A little help from business gurus please) -- here's an excerpt from their press release:

The United States Mint has implemented regulations to limit the exportation, melting, or treatment of one-cent (penny) and 5-cent (nickel) United States coins, to safeguard against a potential shortage of these coins in circulation. The United States Mint is soliciting public comment on the interim rule, which is being published in the Federal Register.

Prevailing prices of copper, nickel and zinc have caused the production costs of pennies and nickels to significantly exceed their respective face values. The United States Mint also has received a steady flow of inquiries from the public over the past several months concerning the metal value of these coins and whether it is legal to melt them.

"We are taking this action because the Nation needs its coinage for commerce," said Director Ed Moy. "We don't want to see our pennies and nickels melted down so a few individuals can take advantage of the American taxpayer. Replacing these coins would be an enormous cost to taxpayers."

I'm pretty sure there is a simple solution here -- change the metal. During World War 2, pennies were made with steel rather than copper. I'm no metallurgist, but I see no reason we couldn't go to different metals. What do you all think.


Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Arts as Soulcraft -- Introduction

GK Chesterton, in one of his essays on Shakespeare (regrettably, I forget which one, and he has a corpus of work that is as large as his physical corpus was), critiqued protestants for a shallow view of Shakespeare’s work. He said that Protestants were always looking for “a lesson” or “a teaching” in Shakespeare’s work, rather than simply enjoying it. Sadly, his comment does hit close to the mark. Ever since the Reformation, with its right return to Sola Scriptura, protestants have had an uncomfortable relationship with the arts – save music and poetry, which flourished as means of telling the story.

Protestants were suspicious of visual arts as objects of “popery”. They were known for stripping paintings and ornamentation from houses of worship, and thus gaining a reputation for being anti-art. That reputation is somewhat unjustified, for the scruples were against using images as an aid to worship and against having representations of the Lord. Cromwell and other Puritans had no problem with secular paintings that were used to adorn the home – indeed the protestant sense of exaltation of the homey and common led to the whole Dutch school of painting and a democratization that brought art out of the realm of the elite and into the realm of the everyday man.

Even so, protestants have often had issues with the arts for promoting sinful behavior and leading people into temptation. This led some of the more fundamentalistic branches of Christianity into a broad rejection of the arts – no dancing, no movies, no theatre, no entertaining novels of any kind (unless they contained a good moral) – the arts existed to be exemplary, not anything else. Thus, protestants have not developed a deep independent understanding of the arts.

There have been many laudable efforts – Schaeffer in his Art and the Bible and Phillip Ryken’s Art for God’s Sake have been diligent efforts at laying down a theology of Arts. However, most protestant efforts have centered around a biblical justification for the arts – starting with Bezalel and Oholiab as examples and moving through all different sorts of arts, they work to show how the arts are justifiable means of bringing praise to God. I’m not terribly interested in reduplicating the work, and indeed I question the necessity of it. After all, none of us feel the need to biblically justify the work of physicians. Seldom do we see anyone pointing to Jesus command to shake the dust off your shoes as a justification for the profession of cobbler. Lydia’s trade in purple cloth is not often used as a justification for engaging in trade. We recognize that most professions (yes there are one or two notable exceptions – but these exceptions are often perversions of a legitimate profession – and that is an idea that must be worked out in a separate essay) are fields in which righteousness or villany are worked out --- truly Paul says in Colossians “…whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Col 3:17)

I’m interested in exploring how the arts are a vehicle for growing in our sanctification. How is it that the arts make us stronger in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23)? Theologically, we all understand that such growth is a gift from the Holy Spirit, and we ought to pray and diligently seek it. Of course, we’re all aware that, relying on grace alone, we engage in the discipline of obedience to God’s word as a way of responding to Christ’s love. However, we also know that our spiritual lives are worked out in the fields of the world on a daily basis. I don’t propose to come up with a definitive framework – for sanctification is necessarily a personal process of drawing closer to God and becoming more Christlike. I do however believe that we can look at the arts through the lens of each one of these fruit of the spirit and ask “how is it that we’ve seen God at work through the arts to accomplish this end.”

So that’s what I propose to be chewing through over the next several months – not posting every day, but if I’m lucky once a week or every couple of weeks. These are just stumbling beginning thoughts, and I hope for your thoughts as we move forward. I’ll likely take them out of order – mainly because I have some thoughts around Patience that I would like to work up. Looking forward to hearing from you.

Soli Deo Gloria

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

With One Voice -- The Psalms

Reading Reggie's With One Voice is something like eating a well made pound cake -- the prose is rich and sweet with hints of subtle flavors (citrus, almond -- pick your recipie), but it's not so heavy as to leave you feeling fat and bloated and your head swimming in a sugar fog. He's got moments of prose that are so apt and right, that I had to copy whole paragraphs into my notes. I keep finding myself teetering on the tightrope between "Wow!!" and "Man, I wish I could write like that"

This second chapter introduces us to the book of Psalms as God's way of working on our hearts (just as the law works on our minds and the prophets work on our actions). He begins with the broad sweep of the book of psalms -- a slow movement from lament and struggle to ending with triumphant praise.

Then Reggie zeros in on Psalms 1 and 2, confessing that he's using them not only to introduce us to the purpose of the Psalms, but also to show us the personal soulcraft that has worked on him through the songs of Zion: “We are all inveterate idolators, little Pinocchios trying to work our way from puppethood to independent personhood. In this chapter, I want to confess my own false gods, because my passion for the importance of a snug theology lies in the way God has used music and song to carry out his campaign against my pet idols. Others may worship elsewhere, but I worship at the twin altars of Reason and Action – also known as Knowing and Doing.” (35)

Reggie tells the story of his coming to faith -- how he had started as a hard nosed intellectual who lusted for a clean and tidy intellectual system overseen by an aged-english actor type God (imagine John Geilgud portraying a Great Unmoved Mover). However, in college, he met Mort, a Presbyterian Pastor who challenged him with a vision of a God who intervened and meddled in the universe -- and by so doing, this God suffered wounds and hurt and bled:

“One night Mort heard me sing and play on the guitar one of the many love songs I knew. ‘From the way you seemed to feel that song, it sounds like you’re going to need a bigger God than just Someone who can explain why E=mc2 works,” he mused ‘Okay, but what did you think of the song?’ was my rejoinder, but some other voice inside of me muttered, ‘So he knows.’ Finally, there was the night Mort, frustrated after an extended conversation about whether God existed, blurted, ‘Reggie, I thinkyou worship your doubts. Could it be you just enjoy being the aloof inquirer?’ While part of me looked for a clever repartee, a deeper part confessed ‘He’s right.’ My intellectual curiosity was a smoke screen for a psyche that wanted to stay untethered. I wanted a God I could manage, not a God who would meddle. I was having a hard time admitting that I needed a God who would do a lot more than meddle – that I needed the God who had scarred himself to heal the broken and out of control places I hid from everybody else. Within a few days, I succumbed to Christ, figuring that any remaining riddles needed to be worked out from inside
of the faith. I sensed it was wiser to accept faith’s mystery than continue in unfaith’s befuddlement. I was starved for what Mort’s intrusive God offered.” (36)

Then Reggie talks about how he began to experience this overwhelming intrusive God through music, particularly a performance of the Messiah:

“I was completely unprepared for the experience. It’s not that I had never
heard any of the music before. But I had never heard it in context, all at
once, or more importantly, from the inside, from a posture of faith.
Minutes into the program I was weeping. I was overwhelmed by the beauty,
the majesty, the poetry, the melding of passion and thoughtfulness, of lovliness
and truth – the things that make Handel’s Messiah the special phenomenon it
is. I felt bathed in a new existential awareness: what Christ
brought was more than truths to learn or disciplines to master. It was
more like his coming made me – made all of us – the object of a passionate
courtship.” (37)

I've talked about having a similar kind of experience in seeing Les Miserables on Broadway. I've always taken this as being touched with an experience of glory -- yet Reggie here sounds the experience out in more detail than I've ever been able to. It's that experience of leaving the performance and feeling better, cleaner, brighter than you were before. I'm not sure if this is what Aristotle meant by catharsis in his poetics -- maybe it is catharsis viewed through redeemed eyes. And the book of Psalms points us toward having this experience on a regular basis through the songs of Zion. “Psalm 1 tells us that God simply does not care to satisfy the intellectual curiosity of coolly aloof inquirers: his passion is for dragging ugly wallflowers onto the dance floor. When we come to him looking merely for a respectable philosophical system, he not so subtly reshapes the question: ‘So it’s truth you think you want? Come sing in my choir, then we’ll talk’ In other words, learn to praise. Understanding will follow.” (49)

Reggie moves from there to talk about Psalm 2 -- how are we to understand God's interaction with the world -- particularly in the face of injustice. He retells his early passion for social justice, particularly in combatting the rascism that he saw so evidently in the 1970s South. He was desperate to show that Evangelicals cared for social justice and were thinking Christians.

“My zeal over race left me with little energy for other spiritual practices, whether personal holiness or individual evangelism.” (44) In a class on modern theology, he was studying liberation theology. He reports how the class was almost monolithically angry because of the inequities revealed in the book – how the haves oppress the have nots. Finally, one class member spoke up “The thing that troubles me about this book and the approach to God it represents is that, well, there’s no joy in it. There doesn’t seem to be anything to celebrate.” (44) Reggie at first internally objected, but then realized that the theologian they were studying had indeed abridged the gospel to a political platform. He instantly had an inner memory of sitting with this student and others singing songs of praise and realizing that one of the ways we build the city of God – and just as necessary as social action – was the worship of the people of God. Being shaped and formed by singing the songs of Zion. He saw that there wasn't a dicotomy between "worship Christians" and "social justice Christians" -- joyful worship should send us forth to be salt and light in a watching world so that they may see our good deeds and praise our Father in heaven.

“I realized then that our outlook on history and society is anchored in the conviction that above us stands a God who laughs. He mocks the arrogance of the exploiters who misperceive the kind restraint of his wrath and refuse to repent. He laughs at the folly of sin’s residium in a redeemed person’s rascism. He scoffs at the demons who mock my redemption, as though the besetting sins I have yet to shake in thirty years of following Christ could lessen my Father’s commitment to see my salvation through.” (46) The laughter of God is a key component of Psalm 2 (and 37 and 59). Reggie wrestles with the discomfort of this concept, but finally finds peace in it -- for we are included in the objects of God's laughter.

In many ways, Reggie hits on the theory of literary comedy -- Think of Shakespeares comedies -- they are all about wandering pilgrims faced with various tight lipped naysayers and villans. But in the end, even the rogues are reconciled, so long as they learn that the joke is on everyone -- as long as they stop taking themselves so seriously. I think Reggie's point here is that we need to stop idolizing our own actions, thinking that in our hustle and bustle and planning and conferences and efforts we save the world. We need to rest in the laughter of God who is sovereign and has called us according to his purpose -- we are called to be pilgrims with a song on our lips and blessings from our hands.

Heavy thoughts -- More to come next week.

Soli Deo Gloria

A hero for our time: Henry Orombi

This week's World Magazine has named African Archbishops Peter Akinola and Henry Orombi as "Daniels of the Year" (World's effort to celebrate christians who stand firm in the midst of pressure and trial).

Orombi's story particularly gripped me. I learned about his apprenticeship to Archbishop Janini Luwam, who was murdered by Idi Amin's thugs. He was there the night Luwan was killed -- the thugs came to the house and forced their way in "They forced him to go everywhere," says Orombi, "the chapel, the bedrooms -- under the pretext of looking for guns. Finally they came to this room and on this table was a Bible. 'This is my gun' Luwam told the men. Not long after, Idi Amin's men shot and killed Luwam" -- What a mentor -- what courage under pressure -- what composure in the face of evil.

Meanwhile, Orombi was jailed. What a trying time for a man who had dropped out of high school to become a mechanic, but found no gift for it. His father had sent him to a teacher's college where he became a Christian -- and opened up a love of children's ministry. He went on to study theology in Kampala (at what is now Uganda Christian University) and then for three years at St John's College, Nottingham. It was during his time as a seminary student that he worked with the Archbishop, and jailed.

Needless to say, he was eventually released and became a priest. His adminiatrative skill won him a bishopric -- he began the term in a new diocese with no infrastructure. Within a decade, he had established a complete system that included churches, schools, training centers, missionary airstrips and rural and community outreach that was a model for Anglicans around the globe "I did it by preaching the gospel fiercely" he said. He was soon appointed archbishop.

Now he ministers in a land that is torn by violence from 20 years of war with rebels in the Lord's Resistance Army (though a peace agreement has been recently settled). This is a man who is acquainted with suffering on a daily basis. All these things, I learned from the World Magazine article. This man is a hero for Christianity.

I did some checking on weblogs for comments about Orombi -- had to go back a few months to get material that wasn't just regurgitation of the article (which I provided nicely for you above)
  • GadgetVicar says: "What a cool Archbishop! He is passionate, funny, Jesus-centred and humble. A wonderfully encouraging hour in which the Lord drew near to me in a lovely way."
  • Terry in Singapore speaks of his visit there to promote the Alpha Course: "It was so good to meet Archbishop Henry Orombi from Uganda, who was in Singapore this week for a series of revival meetings. We were very blessed by his ministry."
  • Space in a Place that Nobody Knows gives a personal account of a vacation in Uganda spent with the Archbishop (apparently they are old family friends)

Other Posts on African Christianity:

Whose Christianity is it Anyway?

Advice from Africa: Start with prayer

Sometimes its good to go hungry

Bi-Okoto -- an African Experience

Soli Deo Gloria


Monday, December 11, 2006

Chirstmas books for children

Last year, Tammy and I talked about starting a new tradition for Christmas -- we'd go as a family to the bookstore and buy a special Christmas book that we can all enjoy together (as if we need more children's books....but that's a different subject).

We've not yet had the chance to pick out our book for this year, but I so enjoyed last year's book (now gracing our coffee table again after its long spring/summer/fall's nap), that I thought it worth commending to you: Mortimer's Christmas Manger. It's the story of a little mouse who comes out of his dark cold hole in the wall looking for a warm place to stay. He finds the family's manger scene -- and kicks out all the figures. Each day he comes back to find all the figures replaced, and kicks them out again. Finally, he overhears the parents reading the story of the birth of Jesus and he understands that the Nativity scene is there for -- the mouse gives the manger back to the little baby Jesus -- and he prays that Jesus would help him find a new home. And then, the book closes with the mouse finding the new Gingerbread house.

Now before you groan too much -- I am well aware that many Christian children's books are pretty corny -- and the story may sound like it's another festival of corn -- the mouse prays???. But somehow, this one works. Perhaps it's the high quality of art. I spend a lot of time looking at children's books -- I know high quality illustration from low quality. Illustrator Jane Chapman's work has a warmth and depth to it -- not like the lyrical beauty of Jan Brett's work, but more like the whimsical wonder of Felicia Bond. Also the story doesn't have the singsongy tired rhyme that characterizes second rate children's books (there are some authors that do the rythmic rhyme well -- think Dr Seuss, for example -- but often in imitators, it comes off poorly). The story is warmhearted and kind, without being syrupy. It just comes together as being right. We've found it to be a sweet funny little story (Sarah Grace howls at the illustrations of Mortimer schlepping the wise men out of the manger), and we've come back to it many times.

I did a little sniffing around about the author. Karma Wilson (who has several other books -- of which we have Frog in the Bog) has published several other volumes. In this online interview, she talks about her goals in writing:

First of all I want my writing to be nourishing. Not "messag-y" but substantial. I want it to do what it sets out to do. For instance, if it's a humorous book I want to really make kids laugh--not just the "cheap" and "easy" jokes, but jokes that make them think. Let's face it, if you write "fart" or "booger" you can make a kid laugh. I'd like them to laugh because they actually "get" a joke. In essence I would rather write a book like a turkey dinner with big side salad and rolls than a book like a McDonald's happy meal if that makes any sense. My kids like happy meals, but they like turkey dinners much more and are better off for them. The happy meal books might be "easier" on the writers and the kids, and they have their place, but they should be minimal part of a kid's book "diet".

I would also like my books to be wholesome. Call me sentimental, or eventrite, but kids get enough "harsh reality" on TV, in their music, even in commercials. Cynicism
and sarcasm reigns these days and I detest it. I was almost sucked into that view of life, and I feel obligated not to go there in my writing. I don't aim to write books that are "realistic" in a worldly sense. I want kids to have something above the "norm" to look to and hopefully to strive for. I also want to write more books that share my faith in God, who is the hope of my life. There are a lot of great Christian books, but
many of the Christian books written are one of two things, messag-y or solemn--and far too many are both. These books aren't like turkey dinners but more like tofu and
brussel sprout dinners. Sure they're very healthy, but how do you get a kid to eat it? I don't think there is anything inherently wrong with "messag-y or solemn", but it gets old after awhile, and then what's the point? Too many Christian books are "preaching to the choir". So I aim to share my faith in a way that's hopefully fun and even humorous while also sharing hope, faith and Love.

I love this analogy she makes to reading and nourishment -- do you want turkey dinners or do you want fries with that? To be nourishing, the content doesn't have to be obnoxious about faith or values -- it has to be organically a part of the work. I think she's accomplished this in Mortimer's Christmas Manger. Hats off to you Karma and Jane -- you've given us a fine addition to our library....

Now we have to figure out what book to find to top it this year -- any suggestions?

Soli Deo Gloria

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Have a Coke and a Smile

Healthbolt has this terrifying post about the effects of drinking one soft drink on the human body. I'll admit that I've pretty much given up soft drinks (save on the occasional basis) a long time ago. But I still love a big dose of Iced Tea, southern style (that is with lots of sugar), and my guess is that it has a similar effect.

Sigh. All the fun stuff is really really bad for you.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Better than I'd thought they'd be

It's been a while since I've done a positive movie review -- so here's a two fer

Over thanksgiving, I went to see Casino Royale, the new James Bond film. It's a complete re-do of the franchise. Gone are the obsession with bizarre gadgets and tongue in cheek humor (and you can forget about Q, the gadget master). Gone is M's secretery, Moneypenny. Gone is the "shaken, not stirred" tagline (indeed, there's a bit where Bond orders a martini and the bartender asks "Shaken or stirred" "I don't care" replies Bond).

Taking the place of such traditions are grittier and icy cold fight scenes. This is a bond who actually gets hurt -- a lot. And because this Bond gets injured, he's actually much tougher. In the 80s, Bond became this kind of uber-cool superman. Now we've got a Bond who just barely survives -- this is a bond I can identify with. He hurts, he bleeds, he's human. He also falls in love and has his heart broken. It all works, and it works well.

Then, this weekend, the first DVD of Firefly arrived from Netflix. I'll be honest -- from all the hype I've received about this show, I thought I'd hate it -- "a space western" they told me. Space ships and six shooters and cowboy slang. I didn't think there was nny way this would work. And yet, the first episode into it, it's working great. Easily some of the best sci-fi dialogue I've heard in a long time. The plots are tight and the characters complex.

I especially like how they've worked in a preacher as a heroic character (not to mention, this is 500 years in the future, and it's the only sci-fi show I've seen to actually incorporate some kind of nod to the Christian faith).

Both Bond and Firefly are gritty, and contiain violence and sexuality (though not over the top -- it's there in the story, but the filmmakers don't linger and glorifiy in sex and violence). But the heroes in both reflect a deep understanding of human depravity -- they're up against villans and they confront these villans not with rosy colored eyes, but with understanding the human sin nature.

The feel of both is characterized by one of the characters in firefly who tells a new crew member on the ship "We're all lost in the woods. The difference is that the captin likes it." All the characters are making their way in a dangerous world where people are ambiguous and the heroes are tough on top with a soft spot underneath.

Good Stuff

Thursday, December 07, 2006

It's a Bird...It's a Plane....It's Vitamin T

Found this website through the previously mentioned Trendwatching briefing. Vitamin T is a website that lists daily "tips for living". I know this has been done before: Heloise in the newspaper, little hints in almanacs, Lifehacker weblog.

But this one is different -- for every tip you submit that they publish, they'll pay you $3 -- that's right, three whole smackers!

And some of the tips are pretty handy, too.


New Media and the Church

Web 2.0 is the buzz in all the tech/business circles. This is the big idea that most web content is being created by end users all across the globe and shared in networks. Rather than relying on the elite creatives to entertain us, now everyone can have their Andy Warhol 15 minutes of fame. Trendwatching labeled this trend as Generation C - a generation of creatives who were sharing photos, creating videos, and writing their stories online.

Now, Trendwatching's latest report is a riff on this concept -- it's called Generation C(ash): this is the idea that this legion of independent creators can earn some cash from their volunteer efforts. Now, instead of the A-list stars making all the money -- those of us and the J-list or below can get some extra jingle in our pockets for our efforts. Case in point -- you'll note that The Eagle and Child has an "Our Sponsors" section now. I was contacted out of the blue by a sponsor and asked about rates. I'd never considered selling advertising before, but why not? So I did a little sniffing around and negotiated a rate.

Now, this is where the Church comes in -- I consider this weblog an extension of my, I asked that the (very very very modest) proceeds from this advertising be sent to Covenant-First Presbyterian. It's kind of weird to blog about because it sounds like I'm tooting my horn -- but remember, this is a small (tiny, diminuitive, miniscule) sum of money. My point in telling the story is simply to show that Web 2.0 is a valid place for Churches not only to spread their message, but also to find new ways of generating funds for ministry.

From a different angle: Just yesterday, I came across Seth Godin's little document on 6 ways non-profits can use Web 2.0 for getting their message out -- again, the same subject. Seth encourages nonprofits to use YouTube, blogging, and other tools to establish an online presence that makes an impact. I while ago, I wrote a post about Blogging as the new town square. Now, in light of Seth's article, I think that needs to be modified into Web 2.0 as the new town square. And if that is the case, then it behooves us as Christians to sally forth into it in winsome and refreshingly honest ways. I made a few suggestions as to ways to do this in the Christians Engaging Web 2.0 post (almost a year ago), but as I look back at that post, I see that so much has developed since then. Social networking (such as MySpace) has exploded. In my original post, I had focused mainly on text sharing sites -- but whole new networks for sharing creative photos (such as Flickr), video (YouTube), or gaming (pick your online gaming world) compel much more traffic. It's no longer sufficient for an organization to have a web page and maybe a blog -- it needs a web presence across several different social networking sites.

Finally, As we wrestle with what it means to be a christian presence in Web 2.0, I commend to you John Schroeder's thoughts on Christian Blogging -- this is a theme that he comes back to again and again and I find his thinking to be sound, humbling, and quite honestly, convicting. Essentially, what will set apart Christians in Web 2.0 is the tone -- the evidence of the fruit of the Spirit working within us. Yes we have lots more opportunity to get our message out and to raise some funds for ministry -- but do we undercut the message by the way in which we present it? Are our words seasoned with salt and thoughtful. Does our creativity reflect truth, beauty, and goodness?

Soli Deo Gloria

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

80s Nostalgia

Anastasia at Ypulse put up a great post about 80s MTV videos finding a new life on YouTube. Ah, this brings back memories -- and so, for your viewing enjoyment, here are some that I still remember fondly, the Russell Smith Top five cool video countdown:

Number 5:
Phil Collins: Don't Lose My Number
The ever creative Phil gives us the best parody of making a video about making a video -- with stories told in westers, Mad Max, Shogun, and king arthur style and takeoffs of videos from the Police, the Cars, and Elton John.

Number 4:
38 Special: Back Where You Belong
Not one of their more popular songs, but the video was an inspired cross between Hill Street Blues and the Keystone Cops.

Number 3:
Huey Lewis and the News: If this is it
One of my favorite bands of the era -- it's hard to pick a favorite video, but this told a good story, and I liked seeing Huey get the nice girl in the end.

Number 2:
Scandal: The Warrior. Strange post-apocalyptic costumes combined with Patti Smyth's gutsy singing -- a perfect combo for the teenage boy in the 80's.

and the Number 1 Russell's cool video is:

Asia: Don't Cry. My favorite band of the 80's. This song came from the sophmore effort Astra (far inferior to Alpha), Don't cry had the distinct advantage of playing off the Indiana Jones craze of the early 80s.

The videos all had stories -- they appealed to the imagination -- they were poppy tunes, most of which centered around romance. And, like much of the 80s (the early 80s at least) they were lots of fun.


Tuesday, December 05, 2006

With One Voice -- the Singing Savior

I've had the book for about 6 months, but I've just not gotten around to it. This week I finally treated myself to starting through Reggie Kidd's With One Voice. Reggie was one of my profs at RTS. He teaches Pauline Epistles and Worship. On top of that he is the dean of the chapel, designing all the chapel worship services. I found his leading worship to be rich, thoughtful and Christ centered. His classes were a melange of art, music, scholarship, and spiritual exhortation. He came out with his work on worship last year, and so I'd like to process it together with you all.

One of the great things about Reggie is his lyrical writing style -- the man is a theologian with a poet's sensibilities. He begins with a quote from a sermon he heard once: "A theology that can't be preached is not worth having." and as he interacts with the quote he quickly tosses out the addition "A theology that can't be sung is not worth having either." Thus he begins what might aptly be called a theology of the heart. Before digging too deep into application, Reggie traces the Redemptive Historical line of singing through scripture and into the early church on to the Reformation and beyond.

In this first chapter, Reggie lays out this vision that our singing functions as a spiritual discipline to help us draw closer to God, it functions as a comfort in times of darkness (in this section he relates his own wrestling with melanoma and the experience of Eva Cassidy who died of melanoma -- a powerful tale of spiritual comfort in the valley of hte shadow of death), and it functions to help us hear the ongoing song of God (he gives the illustration of the barbershop quartet, which when they hit their notes just right, they hear a fifth voice -- “That aural illusion created by harmonics is, I believe, a divine whisper of something that is absolutely true of our singing when we gather in worship.” (citing Jesus leading us in worship as spelled out in Hebrews 8:2 and 2:12).

Then Reggie hits his stride as he lays out the missional purpose to our song. He asserts “disbelief today is not a function of logic; it stems from a loss of imagination.” (22) Reggie states that many students who hear faith assaulted in college acquiesce quickly because they have not seen the faith lived out in a community -- they haven't experienced a full-orbed, enfleshed living out of the faith that gives what thinkers call a "plausibility structure" to help concretely understand the ideas of faith. “…God’s people, gathered in life, in belief, and in worship, are his ‘plausibility structure,’ God’s people – loving one another, submitting to a common life, praising his name, and telling his story – are the case God makes to a watching world, both visible and invisible.” (23)

Reggie keeps pressing: “in the face of the deconstruction of the Christian view of reality, the great cultural task of Christians is the reclamation of the imagination. This needs to be worked out across a broad front – from the way Christians conduct themselves in the marketplace and in politics to the way they educate the next generations and shape their churches. As vital as anything is the way they engage the arts: painting, sculpture, literature, poetry, cinema, dance, architecture, and, of course, music.” (23)

And again: “Music opens the imagination to the possibility that what we see is not all there is. Felix Mendelssohn composed no religious works until he encountered Bach’s Passion According to St. Matthew – after that, his work was God-soaked. Our singing says clearly that all other loves are idolatries without the love of God.” (24)

Finally, he lays out the plan of the rest of the book -- not a theology of worship in terms of what is acceptable and what is not acceptable. But rather a theology of worship that focuses on a Biblical picture of what the Holy Spirit does to us through worship.

I'm going to take this one slowly and savor it like fine Belgian chocolate -- likely doing a chapter a week. Hope you'll pick up the book and join the conversation.

Soli Deo gloria

Monday, December 04, 2006

Bi-Okoto -- an African experience

Honestly, I normally wouldn't have chosen it as tops on my list for evening entertainment. But one of our congregation members was performing in the recital -- and Tammy and I wanted to support her. So we sprung for a babysitter and tickets and went to see this weekend's performance of the Bi-Okoto Drum and Dance Theater.

I'm glad we went -- and I know we'll be back. Sure there were more than a few technical glitches -- they were performing in a new space and working out kinks with the sound and the lights. But when it came to performance, this troupe was on fire.

They performed the expected traditional African drum and dance routines -- which were interesting and high energy. But rather than two hours these routines, the Bi-Okoto threw a few surprises. After the second number, three young men came out to sit behind the keyboard, drumset, and bass guitar on Stage left. Then four elegantly dressed ladies came out and took their place behind microphones -- the three men struck up a reggae beat and the ladies began to sing a gospel tune, first in English, then in Ghanan. This group was the Hyssops African Praise Band.

After intermission, the Hyssops band was back, but this time with help from Mama Lizzy, a Ghanan woman leading a group of drummers. Mama Lizzy told us about the first song they would all perform together (in Ghanan) -- the lyrics were simply "I've been delivered by the blood of Jesus". After an inspiring set with that song, Mama Lizzy invited members of the audience to come forward and dance -- about 15 people went down and learned a few steps -- and then as the drums and the band continued with a dancable beat, each person took a few moments in the spotlight as a dancer. Then, after all the amateur dancers were thoroughly exhausted, Mama Lizzy told us about the next song: "It shall be well" -- encouraging the people that even in the midst of adversity, all shall be well through their faith and trust.

At that point, my heart was rejoicing. I had heard the gospel sung in Ghanan; I had seen people dance before the Lord (at least a few of the people were dancing before the Lord, for one of the audience dancers whom I know to be a Christian told me that she felt the presence of the Holy Spirit down there as she danced), like David bringing the ark home. Scripture kept ringing in my head: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3:28) All the nations find their union and ultimate fulfillment in Christ. "For at that time I will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech, that all of them may call upon the name of the Lord and serve him with one accord. From beyond the rivers of Cush my worshippers, the daughter of my dispersed ones, shall bring my offering." (Zeph 3:9-10) -- that new tongue is not necessarily a new language, but a purifying of all languages that every nation, every tribe on this terrestrial ball would ascribe Him majesty. And I love the imagery "From beyond the rivers of Cush" -- Cush being Nubia (today's Sudan). From the heart of Africa will come praise said the prophet -- and so it does.

Africa is reminding the world what it means to call upon the Lord. I didn't expect such a reminder in a cultural presentation of traditional African dance -- but I was truly blessed to experience it. Praise God!

Other Posts on African Christianity:
Whose Christianity is it Anyway?
Advice from Africa: Start with prayer
Sometimes its good to go hungry

Soli Deo Gloria