I recently returned from a family trip that included visits to Glacier National Park in Montana, Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, and Devils Tower National Monument (also in Wyoming), along with several other places. I offer some random thoughts inspired by this trip:
God is real, and He loves you! Seriously.
A while back, I had a dream. Not an MLK-type dream, but the kind one has while sleeping.
As is usually the case with something like this, many of the details have been lost, but the main point remains. In the dream I was attending a reunion at the school we taught at in Ukraine: Kyiv Christian Academy. I remember I was playing volleyball, and one of my former students (we’ll call her Sally) was there. This is already weird, because I don’t remember the last time Sally crossed my thoughts.
I asked her if she was doing okay, and she responded that she was having some sort of problem. I don’t remember if it was a physical problem or something else. I asked Sally if I could pray for her and she said “Sure,” but she thought I meant later on, when I was at home. However, I meant I wanted to pray for her right then and there!
She was a little freaked out, but I prayed for her anyway. That’s all I remember.
I woke up and thought, “Wow, that was weird!” I think I prayed for Sally and left it at that.
A few days later, Facebook told me it was Sally’s birthday. I thought maybe I should tell her about the dream, so I sent a private message describing the dream and asking if she would like prayer for anything.
Her response gave me goose bumps.
Sally wrote back that she had gone through an “emotional breakdown” a few days earlier because of peer pressure and insecurities regarding her future. She continued, telling me she didn’t have a dream (the other kind) so she didn’t know what she was living for. Sally felt like the Holy Spirit told her she was feeling insecure because she didn’t have God in her life.
She continued to share that at that point it hit her that she couldn’t remember the last time she prayed and did devotions. Sally wrote, “I’ve been away from God for too long and it was the time to come back to him. Now I am in the process of trying to build a relationship with God again.” She recognized that my dream was one way God was speaking to her.
I could hardly contain myself! Jesus loves this girl so much that He gave me a dream about her. Sally and I hadn’t communicated in over two years. This was no coincidence. What an honor to be a part of something like this!
And a crazy as it may sound, this should be normal for those of us who call ourselves Christians. Let’s start expecting God to use us in this and other awesome ways!
Very little happens in a vacuum (no space pun intended), and this is true of my perspective on Star Wars. I’ve always been a fan—the first movie came out when I was five, and though the only one I remember seeing in the theater was Return of the Jedi, the films were part of my youth. I had some action figures, and I always thought Star Wars was cool. It wasn’t until I introduced my kids to it in 2012 that I entered the ranks of Star Wars nerd-dom. I blame it on my son, who quickly became obsessed with it.
With my “back story” out of the way, here are my thoughts on Star Wars, circa 2016.
Back in the early ‘70s, a young director named George Lucas wanted to make a movie of Buck Rogers, but was unable to get the rights, so he decided to make up his own space movie. He said he simply wanted to make a “fun, wholesome action movie.” I love the fact that he only had a vague idea what it would be about when he started laying the production groundwork for the first movie. He continued to modify it, making major plot/script changes even while filming.
The first movie was unlike anything anyone had ever seen, and it was a sensation.
In some ways, I wish he would’ve left it at that. But there was more to the story, so he made two more. The movies changed the film industry and popular culture itself. The original Star Wars trilogy fulfilled Lucas’ vision: they were fun, wholesome action movies.
But as is often the case with people, he couldn’t leave well enough alone. By cryptically numbering his movies as episodes IV, V, and VI, Lucas left the impression that he had a much larger story in mind. It was rumored that there were nine (or at one point even twelve) parts to this epic.
Yet, for all that, there were no more movies. Again, a part of me wishes Lucas would’ve left it at that. Those three movies would’ve remained as mandatory viewing in pop culture, and its characters and iconic moments (“I am your father”) would have passed into legend. Besides, Star Wars was cooler than Star Trek. The latter was for nerds, and had such a sprawling, complicated universe that only die-hard fans could really follow it.
Star Wars wasn’t like that. It was more hip, because one didn’t need to devote themselves to learning all the minutia of its world to appreciate the films.
That all ended in November 1994, when George Lucas sat down to start writing episode I (the movie wouldn’t hit theaters until 1999). At that point, Star Wars moved from fun pop culture phenomenon to geeky super-fandom institution.
Lucas wrote and directed episodes I through III, with the last installment released in 2005. He then said that was it—no more Star Wars movies. The common take on these movies (the “prequels”) is that they’re bad. The storylines are complicated and hard to swallow, the acting is terrible, and the dialogue is worse. The most hated aspect of the prequels is the character Jar Jar Binks, a clumsy alien with a prominent role in episode I.
Although I much prefer the original trilogy over the prequels, I don’t think they’re that bad. They’re still generally fun, entertaining movies with creative characters, locales and stunning visual effects. And while Jar Jar is by no means my favorite character, my kids love him and think he’s hilarious. Take that, critics!
Despite any shortcomings of the prequels, I was happy with six Star Wars movies. I did often dream of what it might be like if they made episodes VII, VIII, and IX. However, Lucas insisted it was over, and that was that.
Then suddenly one day in late 2012 came the galaxy-shattering news that George Lucas sold his company, Lucasfilm, to Disney, and that they were indeed going to make episodes VII-IX, which would include many of the same beloved actors from the original movies! I actually felt a little light-headed when I heard this. I was in the middle of teaching a class when I first heard the news, and had trouble thinking of anything other than Star Wars the rest of the day.
As exciting as it was, George Lucas’ decision to sell the franchise to Disney marked the death of Star Wars as we knew it.
If there’s anything Disney isn’t known for, it’s restraint. Not only are they making a new trilogy, they’re also making “spin-off” movies focusing on individual characters and events outside the main episodes. A few years back, Lucasfilm gave us a computer-animated TV series called The Clone Wars, which takes place between episodes II and III, and now they’ve moved on to a new one entitled Rebels, that takes place five years before the original movie (episode IV). I’ve really enjoyed these shows, but now I think they’re just the tip of the iceberg. It seems inevitable that the slew of upcoming feature films will be joined by more television series.
If following the Star Trek storyline is roughly the equivalent to a graduate-level course (thanks to numerous movies and TV series), then Star Wars may well take a PhD in nerdology to understand.
I thoroughly enjoyed the newest movie (episode VII), and will probably watch all the upcoming films, but I also mourn what we are losing. Some of the iconic characters, lines, and music from the original movies will gradually become lost in a sea of new movies and characters who, no matter how good they are, just won’t be the same. It’s like ice cream: it can be a delightful treat, but if you eat it every day, it’s not so special any more.
We’re now being told that there will be a fifth Indiana Jones film, and that Harrison Ford will reprise his role. He’s currently 73 years old. I understand that movies like Star Wars, Star Trek, and Indiana Jones are cool, but sometimes you’ve got to be able to say enough’s enough.
I don’t think Hollywood will ever figure that out.
One of the best things about living where I do is the wonderful variety of weather. There are four distinct seasons here in Minnesota, and while each certainly has its drawbacks, I’d like to focus on the positive aspects of each.
Let’s go chronologically from the first of the year. January is notorious around here, but I think it’s beautiful. I read somewhere that it’s the sunniest month of the year (November is the cloudiest). I’d take a bitter cold sunny day over a mild dreary day any time (well, most of the time). God could’ve made snow ugly, but I think He gave us its beauty to make winter easier to handle. And while it can get pretty cold here in January, it usually doesn’t last too long. There was a stretch in 1936 where the temperature never once got above zero degrees Fahrenheit for over a month, but I’ve never experienced anything like that.
By the time February comes around, one can feel the change in the air. While it may still be pretty cold, temps gradually start to rise, and if you pay attention, the light starts to look different as the days emerge from the darkest two months of the year. This continues through March, when our hopes for spring grow as we typically get a few tantalizingly warm days.
If I have a least favorite month, it’s probably April. I know I said I was gonna stick to the positives, but April can be downright cruel. One day it’s sixty degrees and glorious; the next it snows. I remember in 2008 we seemed to have a blizzard every weekend, with a doozy the last weekend of the month, which actually closed lots of things down. By this point I’m tired of winter and just want warmth.
But by May those cold, yucky days give way almost entirely to spring. It’s so exciting to see buds start to open up, smell lilacs, and spy the first robin of the year. Another favorite spring experience (usually occurring in March) is the smell of EARTH. It’s amazing how one forgets the smell of wet dirt, and how enchanting it is to re-discover it each year.
Spring around here is often very windy, as winter seems reluctant to give up its dominion, and summer has to fight to return. June can be pretty tempestuous, but by the end of the month, summer finally reigns supreme. There’s almost a violence to the intensity of the green bursting forth as summer dawns. The sky also takes on what I call “That fourth of July look,” which is a happy, fresh, light blue. The days are so long that it’s light by 5:00 a.m., and sunny until after 9:00 p.m. I love it!
July is usually hot (for a Minnesotan) and humid, but whenever it gets real sticky, I just remind myself what’s coming in a few months. Like January’s cold, any hot weather around here usually doesn’t last long. With a well-insulated house surrounded by trees, we don’t have air conditioning, and that’s just fine (although there’s usually a couple days a year when we wish we did).
By August, things have settled down, and while the days may still get plenty warm, the nights usually start to cool off. The wind that wouldn’t quit finally loses its breath, as if caught up in the spirit of the dog days of summer. It’s this month that the light again starts to change, and the green of the trees is dark and rich, but fading. We’re coming to my favorite time of year.
For my money, you just can’t beat September in Minnesota. The days are warm and sunny, while the nights are cool and crisp. The first “frost warning” of the season sends panicked gardeners into action, laying out tarps over their delicate plants in hopes of staving off the coming cold. The deciduous trees turn, usually reaching their peak of colors around the last week of the month. I always wish it could last longer.
October can be anything from a wonderful continuation of September’s beauty to a soberingly premature return of winter. It can be pretty depressing to get measurable snow that month, and not just because annoying people start blaring Christmas music the second it starts snowing. But overall it’s not bad to feel a biting wind, because it feels good to be cozy again, wearing a warm sweater and eating hot soup.
November is brown and dark, but all that sun and warmth wasn’t long ago, so it’s okay. It’s also exciting to look forward to the holidays and the excitement that winter activities can bring. The late afternoon light is weak, but has that “Thanksgiving look,” as we gather to count our blessings.
I still get excited by the first snowfall of the year (even if it IS in October), maybe because it was always so fun as a kid. I love sledding with my kids and playing hockey, which helps make winter more tolerable. The dark days of December are a great time to snuggle up with a book or movie, or to play board games on the floor next to the Christmas tree. And yes, it’s even nice to listen to Christmas music.
There’s a lot to love about Minnesota’s four seasons, but that doesn’t mean I won’t someday want to spend my winters somewhere warm!
I remember quite a few years ago when Gospel singer Sandi Patty was on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. He was trying to get her to admit swearing, but she wouldn’t. Finally, he asked, “What would you say if you hit your thumb with a hammer?” She replied, “I’d probably yell my husband’s name very loudly!”
I’ve been around a lot of swearing in my day. There was no swearing around home (okay, there were a few instances with my dad and big brother), but I never heard much until I started school. In particular, riding the bus gave me quite an education in the fine art of cussing. I don’t know how Bus 19 compared to other school buses, but as an impressionable little elementary kid I learned a lot of new words while riding to and from Lincoln School. Once at school, the playground was another source of fertile ground for four-letter words kids couldn’t say around adults.
Although I started to hear a lot of naughty words, I didn’t swear. I had been taught that it was bad, and I didn’t want to be bad. Sadly, I have to admit that as I grew up I was known to utter some of those words, though never publicly.
I’ve spent time around some people who make swearing an art. They use cusswords like Shakespeare used the English language. Okay, that’s a really bad comparison…I once worked with a guy on a golf course who found it very difficult to complete a sentence without vulgarity. I once tried keeping a tally of how many times he swore per minute, but as is usually the case with something like that, he suddenly toned it down, as if he subconsciously knew I was counting.
So why do people swear?
In adolescence it’s a sign of “maturity,” just like trying cigarettes and alcohol. It also seems to form lifelong, unhealthy habits, just like smoking and drinking. So do adults regret their swearing addictions like most do with nicotine and alcohol addictions?
Is it anger? Are these people just so mad and frustrated with the world that they have no choice but to cuss to show their disdain for the status quo?
Maybe it’s a sheer lack of creativity. Some people use the “F-word” like Smurfs use the word “Smurf”: “That sure is smurfy!” It also reminds me of the “Backyardigans” episode where they go to Mars and learn that “Almost everything is ‘Boinga!’” Some people I know could sing, “Almost everything is the F-Bomb!”
Do you ever wonder if chronic swear-ers cuss when they’re all alone? Or do they only do it when there’s an audience?
It’s one thing when guys swear, but I really don’t understand why females swear. There are plenty of un-ladylike things to do, such as belching, but swearing may top them all. Why would a girl or woman want to be as ugly and unrefined as a guy? Don’t they realize they’re taking a huge step backwards?
Ultimately, it’s my observation that swearing is almost entirely a symptom of insecurity.
Anytime you’re around a bunch of boys (grown or un-), you’ll see a pathetic amount of posing. Guys will practically beat their chests and grunt in their attempts to avoid any sign of weakness. Bragging and know-it-all behavior are a huge part of this, but swearing is one of the most popular ways to appear manly. It requires no thought or skill—just drop a few F-bombs and you’re one of the guys. What a deal!
It’s really kind of pathetic and even sad. Does swearing make people feel better about themselves?
Some Christians I know will intentionally swear from time to time. The impression I get is that they’re trying to show their “street cred,” as if to say, “Just ‘cause I’m a Christian doesn’t mean I’m some little ninny!” I think it’s the opposite. It takes a lot more strength and maturity not to use those kinds of words than it does to use them.
I’ve become much more sensitive to swearing since having kids. Throughout my adulthood I used slang words that were basically second-tier cuss words. I peppered my speech with words like crap, sucks, and so forth. When the kids came along, I started to notice this. I told them to use their mouths for good, but I realized that, even though I wasn’t technically swearing, the intent of my heart was the same. There’s really no difference between furiously saying, “This frickin’ car won’t start!” and using the “real” F-word.
In telling my kids not to swear, I’ve also felt compelled to tell them why they shouldn’t use those words. Life and death are in the power of the tongue (Proverbs 8:21), and it’s true that out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. (Matthew 12:34). I remember a rock guitarist I admire saying he doesn’t like swearing because it sounds like death to him. That really struck me.
Our words are powerful, and I tell my kids as much. I encourage them to use their words to speak life, not death. I never realized just how ingrained some of those words can become, and it’s been a challenge to clean up even my “second-tier” cuss words.
Well, it’s time to go. I’ve got a lot of <bleep> to do today!
One of the trendiest things for evangelical Christians to do these days is decry what people call the “Prosperity Gospel.” It’s nearly as hip to rail on proponents of “Prosperity Gospel” as it is to have a bushy beard and wear plaid. I’ve been hearing an awful lot about this topic lately, from the pulpit to social media to news outlets, so I thought I’d offer my two cents.
I guess you already know what I think by my title. My observations are merely my own, and aren’t based on any sort of legitimate research.
What really prompted me to write this was a column I read in a newspaper a few days ago. It was written by a lady who writes on “Religion,” which sounds terribly boring to me, but it had the term “Prosperity Gospel” in the title, so it caught my attention. In particular, it asked the question if a well-known Bible teacher who recently held a conference in our area preached the “Prosperity Gospel.”
The writer was a woman who apparently comes from a more traditional denominational background than the speaker she wrote about. In her column, she told the story of a male friend who said something to the effect of, “[This speaker] is going to be talking about ‘abundant life.’ Sounds like ‘Prosperity Gospel’ to me.” I have to admit, this set me off, and I thought, What a judgmental jerk! He’s obviously never read John 10:10! (In that verse, Jesus said He came to give us abundant life.) Now I’m not saying my reaction was appropriate, but that’s what I was thinking. Apparently the speaker in question was charging a fair amount of money for attending the conference, so that made her suspect in the columnist’s eyes as well.
Anyway, the column continued as the writer told how she attended the conference, and, though it was an “unusual worship style” for her, she had nothing bad to say. She concluded that she doesn’t know if this speaker is into the “Prosperity Gospel,” but admitted that it was an inspirational event. In case anyone is wondering, the speaker is a well-known evangelical Bible teacher who isn’t considered a proponent of the “Prosperity Gospel.”
As near as I can understand, the anti-“Prosperity Gospel” line goes something like this: People who preach the “Prosperity Gospel” have an evil Western [i.e. American] mindset that’s selfish and focused on their own comfort. They teach that if you stay close to God, you’ll never have any problems, and will be healthy and wealthy. They essentially rob poor people of their money by promising earthly riches as a reward for faithful giving.
Interesting. I’ve actually listened to a lot of preachers over the years who’ve been branded with the dreaded “Prosperity Gospel” label, but I’ve never heard anything like that from any of them. I’ve read books by some of them, but haven’t read anything like that, either. I’m not saying there isn’t anyone out there saying stuff like that, but I’ve never actually heard anyone say that.
I have heard repeated admonishments from these types of preachers to spend daily time with God in prayer and reading the Bible. I’ve heard them say that a life of faith is a lot harder than the alternative, but it’s worth it. I have heard them blame the devil for what he does (steal, kill, and destroy—John 10:10), than blaming it on Jesus, who came to give us the aforementioned abundant life (John 10:10 again).
I have heard things such as “God delights in the prosperity of his servant,” (Psalm 35:27). I’ve also heard, “I pray that you may prosper in all things and be in health, just as your soul prospers” (3 John 2), and so on. I once did some research on the topic of prosperity, and filled up a page and a half in my notebook with the scripture references of verses similar to those, so it doesn’t appear to be a case of “cherry picking” scriptures to make it say what you want.
A lot of Christians seem to think it’s bad to be rich, and that it’s more spiritual to be poor. To paraphrase the guy quoted in the article above, that sounds like Buddhism to me. Come to think of it, that whole philosophy sounds a lot like Eastern religions I’ve studied. On the other hand, what reputation do Jews have? I’m thinking wealthy, successful business people.
Personally, I believe godliness with contentment is great gain (I Timothy 1:6). Jesus said to seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you (Matthew 6:33). The impression I get is that we should follow God, give as He leads us, and He’ll take care of business for us. I’ve certainly found that to be true in my own life. I’ve heard the same thing from some of the “Prosperity Gospel” teachers.
I do find it interesting that the Christians I know who seem to be the most focused on money aren’t adherents to the “Prosperity Gospel,” but tend to be disciples of people like Dave Ramsey. I observe an obsession with money—some of these people seem to be consumed with worrying over every penny that comes in or goes out. I’m not condemning financial prudence in general or Mr. Ramsey in particular; I’m merely stating what I’ve seen.
This may sound harsh, but pretty much every Christian I’ve heard speaking against the “Prosperity Gospel” is a hypocrite, because they all live in nice houses, have nice cars, own a smart phone, etc. I think that if someone really believes prosperity is bad, they should put their money where their mouth is and live in poverty themselves. Could it be that some people feel guilty for their own prosperity, so they condemn the “Prosperity Gospel” types to make themselves feel better? I don’t know, but it’s interesting to ponder.
My suggestion would be to look into something before flippantly condemning it. I know how frustrating it can be as a Jesus follower to listen to people rip on Christianity without studying it for themselves; let’s not be the same way to each other. Don’t listen to what some flaky blog says (ahem); check out some ministries and find out for yourself what they’re actually teaching. Is what they’re saying Biblical or not? Also, consider the fruit of that ministry; Jesus said, “By their fruit you will recognize them” (Matthew 7:16).
I think the devil invented the term “Prosperity Gospel” to drive believers apart and prevent unity in the Body of Christ. I think it’s working very well. As long as there are two or more Christians, there will probably be at least two doctrinal viewpoints, but most of us agree on the big stuff, so let’s stop biting and devouring each other (Galatians 5:15).
It’s God’s will that we be brought to complete unity (John 17:23), so I say let’s examine how each of us can work toward that!
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A vital part of my growth as a Christian has been music. I’m the youngest of five, and from a young age I was exposed to the music my older siblings were discovering as they grew in their faith.
I’ve observed what used to be called “Contemporary Christian Music” since around 1980, and it’s been fascinating to watch. As a rule, Christian music in the ‘80s was bad. There were exceptions, of course, but overall it was bad. I remember my mom listening to the local Christian radio station and being annoyed with the cheesy songs that were often sung by children who were out of tune. If you look up “Jesus is my Friend” on youtube, you’ll get an idea of how bad Christian music could be in those days.
Over time it gradually got better, thankfully. My own musical journey started with a Scandinavian singer named Evie, progressed to Keith Green (who, in my opinion has yet to be matched for his fiery/prophetic messages), and Carman, an Italian-American guy who sang lots of crazy story-songs.
Then one day I heard Resurrection Band (aka Rez Band, aka REZ), and my life changed forever. They were the Led Zeppelin of Christian rock, and they ushered me into the world of hard rock and metal.
In general, Christian music in the ‘80s tended to lag about ten years behind their “secular” (or “mainstream,” if you prefer) counterparts. For example, about ten years after Van Halen burst on the scene, Whitecross came along, giving Christian rockers a genuine guitar hero in Rex Carroll (yeah, I know Phil Keaggy had been around for a while, but he didn’t shred like Rex).
But by the end of the decade, the Christians were starting to catch up. Throughout the ‘90s, it seemed like Christian music matured, if not lyrically, at least musically. Several bands and singers started to make an impact in the mainstream scene (I don’t have time to get into that), until finally I remember hearing a Limp Bizkit song and thinking how much it sounded like POD. Finally, the Christian bands were influencing others!
Then there’s the church music.
I grew up singing hymns in Lutheran church, and unlike most many from my generation, I love them. While there are plenty of hymns were, as C.S. Lewis put it, “fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music,” many of the classics are usually musically and lyrically far superior to most of the “contemporary” music out there. That being said, I’ve been singing and playing the “contemporary” stuff in church since the mid-‘90s.
Back then, songs tended to be pretty simple and featured a chorus of singers, as opposed to an individual leader. The songs had drums and electric guitar, but tended to be pretty “safe”—no threat of exploding into rock ‘n roll mayhem. As the decade wore on, the music reflected the ‘90s vibe of “earthy” music, and made one want to drink coffee and be contemplative.
After the movie Titanic came out, suddenly there were tin whistles and other Irish-sounding things everywhere. People also started to take old hymns and set the words to new music. Nine times out of ten the music was inferior to the original.
Overall, however, the music started to get better. For instance, Darlene Zschech’s “Shout to the Lord” got annoying because it was sung so much, but anyone would have to admit it’s a very well-written song.
As we got into the 2000s, the music still tended to be acoustic-guitar based and kind of folksy, but now the songs tended to be sung by a single leader. For a while it seemed every song on Christian radio had a string section (as in orchestral) included. In the past several years, there have been an awful lot of songs with big “Whoa-oh” choruses. Maybe the songwriters have been listening to old Bon Jovi albums…
Now suddenly bluegrass has become very hip, and I’ve started hearing banjoes, mandolins and fiddles in many of the newer songs. It’s also cool for guys to look like they stepped out of 1980, with bushy beards, seed caps, plaid shirts and vests. I wonder what’ll be next?
Okay, so I entitled this “terrible Christian music,” and that’s more to get your attention than anything else. I don’t want to offend anyone, but I’ve got some strong feelings on the matter. There’s actually a lot of great church music out there these days, but there’s also plenty of songs that leave something to be desired.
A popular song in recent years is “How He Loves,” also known as the “sloppy wet kiss” song for its most controversial line. I personally sing “passionate” instead of “sloppy wet,” but my beef with this song isn’t that line. It’s the fact that the verse is utterly un-singable by a congregation. Many times I’ve sat behind the drums and watched the congregation stand there, mute, as the leader sings the song’s overly-syncopated rhythms. It’s like trying to sing a Dream Theater song together, or maybe Rush or Yes.
To be fair, the pre-chorus and chorus of “How He Loves” is great, so at least half the song is singable. This same problem plagues another hugely popular song called “Oceans.” I think it’s an awesome song, but it’s not easy to sing—again, there are tricky rhythms. Maybe Christian songwriters should be required to listen to some Beatles songs before they write…
Music is one thing; lyrics are another. I recall my mother-in-law cringing at having to sing “Yes, Lord, yes, Lord, yes, yes, Lord” at our church. Then there’s the popular “Blessed be your Name,” in which everyone sings the bridge, “You give and take away,” which quotes Job after all that bad stuff happened to him. Never mind that even the most conservative commentaries state that Job was unknowingly in error, blaming God for what Satan did…
A few years back a song entitled “Above All” was frequently sung on Sunday mornings. It’s easy to sing, but the lyrics equate the sacrificial death of Jesus to a boxer cheating by going down intentionally (“you took the fall”) and that Jesus was thinking of ME more than anyone when He died on the cross. That seems the theme of many modern worship songs: ME. Just look at the lyrics you sing this week, or check out your local Christian radio station. Many of the songs spend a lot of time focusing on how I feel about Him.
Finally, there’s “All I Have.” The first line is, “What have I in this life but the love in your eyes.” Huh? Then the chorus proclaims, “Jesus, all I have is you!” What about God the Father? What about the Holy Spirit? What about the Word of God, other believers, the gifts of the Spirit, etc., etc.? And since it say “in this life…” What about a car or a house? A family? A pet goldfish? How can someone sing this song with a straight face?
I apologize if I’m being too harsh, but this gets on my nerves. Let me reiterate that there are some great, well-written songs out there, so I’m not saying all modern church music is bad. A few weeks back, I was at an event where the worship leader, who was highly skilled, played some great songs. The lyrics made sense, they were easy to sing, and I was actually able to focus on God, rather than figuring out the music.
And do we really need so many new songs? I wish there was a rule stating that no more than one new song is allowed per month in any given church. Worship team members need to find their musical fulfillment elsewhere. This is about the people entering into worship, not the Top 40 countdown of today’s hottest worship songs. Start your own band for that, but make it about Jesus in church.
Have you ever noticed what they sing about in the Bible? They don’t constantly mumble about how “beautiful” God is (another overly-used word in worship songs as of late). They specifically tell of God’s deeds, such as parting the Red Sea, driving out Israel’s enemies, and so on. I know that can seem clumsy and un-poetic, but maybe our songwriters need to lay aside the tired formulas of the Church music hit machine, talking about how beautiful God is and how they feel about him, and instead try their hands at telling of God’s exploits.
I can hear it now: “The Lord said to Noah, there’s gonna be a floody, floody....”
My aunt died this past summer.
If you’re like me, you’ll stop reading right now. I strongly dislike sob-story tear-jerker things. Some people are strangely drawn to stories of tragedy and loss. I’m drawn to fun, interesting stories.
This is not intended to be a tear-jerker, but hopefully it is interesting!
My aunt’s name was Frances, but we all called her “Auntie.” We call her our “aunt” (not “ant”), but we pronounce “Auntie” like “Ant-ee.” I don’t know how this got started, but it was before my time, so don’t blame me.
Auntie was my mom’s only sibling. My mom died on May 2, 2001, which was my grandma’s birthday, and was just two days before Mom’s sixty-ninth birthday. Auntie was a special connection to Mom, the closest surviving relative other than my dad and siblings.
Arthritis robbed Auntie of her golden years, confining her to her apartment on “water tank hill” in town for years. She never married, nor did she drive. Auntie lived with my grandma until she passed away in 1987.
After years of living as a shut-in, Auntie finally ended up in a nursing home four years ago. Usually that’s a sign that the end is near, but as it turns out, this was a new beginning for her. She flourished in the social atmosphere. The staff absolutely loved her—I had several students who worked there, and they’d exclaim, “Ohh, Frances is so sweet!” when I told them she was my aunt. Though the arthritis had crippled her body, her mind was still sharp, which as you probably know is kinda rare in a nursing home.
My siblings and I were the only family she had, other than a cousin in Wisconsin, so she cherished any visits we paid, which, for some of us tended to be rare. It’s tough, because life is so busy, and we still have our dad to spend time with, so Auntie tended to get less attention. Some of us also struggled with the fact that Mom died in the room across the hall from Auntie’s at the nursing home. Visits had a tendency to dig up painful memories.
Things went along like this most of the time Auntie was at the nursing home. Then, this spring, she started to decline. We noticed when we visited her at Easter. She seemed a little “out of it” and disconnected.
A few weeks later, my sister Joyce contacted everyone to tell us Auntie had possibly suffered a heart attack and was in the hospital. This was a shocker, but even more so was the news that soon followed, sent via a group text message: “They think she’s dying.”
At eighty-nine years old, that shouldn’t be too shocking, yet it seems one is never prepared for news like that. We all rushed to her bedside, where she had been returned to her room at the nursing home. Memories of Mom came rushing back as I looked at her shriveled, unresponsive form. I got emotional, but realized it had more to do with Mom than Auntie.
I loved my aunt, but was impacted more emotionally by the fact that losing her seemed like losing a special connection to my mom.
After an emotional couple of days, Auntie surprised us by bouncing back. She became lucid again, and we could converse with her, albeit in a more halting manner. Still, I was so thankful to have her “back,” and to be able to interact with her again before she left us for good.
She spent another couple weeks in this condition before slowly slipping away. Joyce spent most of her waking hours with Auntie, which was remarkable. I got in there when I could, but it wasn’t easy.
Finally, we got word that the end was imminent. Late on a Saturday morning, we returned to the nursing home. I paused to look at her name on the directory inside the front doors, knowing this would probably be the last time I’d see it there.
We strolled by the common living room area where we had sometimes visited with Auntie Sunday mornings after church. We passed the dining room where we’d sat with her in the sunshine, past the lady in a wheelchair who’s always holding a stuffed animal, down the hall to the room across the hall from where Mom died.
There lay Auntie, amid her few remaining worldly possessions and pictures of family, looking again like Mom at the end. Joyce was sitting at her side, gently stroking her hand and hair, and speaking softly to her. Auntie’s Bible sat open—Joyce would often read it to her.
We said a few things to Auntie—I don’t remember what—and settled in to wait. The kids eventually went out into the hall to play “Minecraft” on the Kindle. We chatted with Joyce about nothing too important. I was trying to affix a screen protector to Kendra’s new cell phone when we noticed she wasn’t taking breaths. There had been some long pauses between them, but this pause seemed longer. Joyce and I looked at each other with expressions I can’t describe, but that communicated the question, “Is this it?”
As it turns out, it was. Kendra actually saw her die, though at the time she didn’t realize it. She had drawn a breath, and then her mouth twitched, and then she didn’t move.
I had never been with anyone when they died. We had gone home to sleep when Mom passed. I was always kinda scared of it, wondering what it would be like. I hope this doesn’t sound morbid, but it was really cool.
Auntie was ready to go. She’d suffered long enough with a body that was becoming more and more of a burden. She knew Jesus, and was ready to be with Him. It was so peaceful when it happened—she wasn’t in pain or anything. Like my mother-in-law (who’s a nursing home chaplain in another town) said, “Sometimes you can almost hear the angels’ wings!”
We went through the customary stuff one does with something like this. I was choked up through the entire funeral, again with memories of Mom and my childhood (the funeral was in the church in which I grew up and where we also said goodbye to Mom). It was so encouraging to hear Auntie’s chaplain speak, telling how seriously she took her faith, rarely missing a Bible study or worship service. My heart leapt as he said emphatically, “Frances loved the Lord!” She was very Lutheran and kept to herself about spiritual things, so it was encouraging to hear that.
I wish we would’ve spent more time with Auntie, but I cherish the memories of her, my grandma, and Mom.
A few years ago, Kendra (my wife) was invited by some friends to participate in a unique triathlon that consists of fourteen miles of canoeing (no swimming), twenty-nine miles of biking (a good deal of it mountain biking-type stuff through the woods) and seven miles of running. Afterwards she said it was “so much fun!” I thought it sounded awful.
She continued doing it the next couple of years, when, in a moment of weakness, I decided that I too should give it a try. After all, it would be a good challenge and would provide motivation to get in shape. My friend Klay agreed to be my teammate, and thus I began my training odyssey. It generally consisted of alternating days of running and lifting weights. By the time of the race, I was running (okay, slowly jogging) about a mile and a half, and lifting weights casually for about half an hour at a time, being careful not to do enough to actually make me sore or anything.
When race day arrived, it was uncharacteristically hot for early June in northern Minnesota. By the end of the race it was eighty-nine degrees Fahrenheit, with plenty of humidity.
Neither Klay or I can steer a canoe for anything, so I had him do it, thereby avoiding the stress of knowing it was my fault when we didn’t go straight. I’m pretty sure we added about four miles to the canoeing by zigzagging. The biking was an endless death march on wheels during which we ran out of water and wondering if we were lost. When at long last we finished that, I tried to call my wife (who, along with her sixty-something friend was way ahead of us) to tell her I was done. Sadly for me, my cell phone had gotten wet and wasn’t working, so I had no choice but to complete the “run.”
Klay and I ran a total of about forty-five seconds the entire way, and when we finally stumbled across the finish line (after nine hours of agony), a race official asked him if he was Klay J., to which he responded, “sadly.” We were the last finishers, about an hour behind my wife and her friend. At one point during the “run,” some young ladies came up behind us. We said, “You can pass us,” to which they responded, “no, that’s okay.” We later realized they were the “sweeps,” people who come through the race course after the competitors to make sure no one’s hurt or anything. Embarrassing.
In addition to a barrage of dark thoughts in my head throughout the race, I often uttered things like, “This is the dumbest thing I’ve ever done!” and “I’m never doing this again!”
So of course, two years later I decided to try it again. I had two reasons: motivation to get in shape (sounds familiar) and the need to redeem myself after my pathetic performance last time.
This time I vowed I’d get in better shape. My partner this time would be Kendra (I couldn’t bear to subject Klay to it again), who is great at steering a canoe. Her former partner was again participating, this time with a co-worker. Since they’re both older than us, I was hoping they wouldn’t embarrass me this time around. My goals for this race were 1) to finish, 2) not to be last, and secretly 3) to beat our friends. Oh, and 4) have a good attitude (Kendra insisted on that).
In preparation for the big race, I bumped up my running (jogging) to two-and-a-half miles and actually started going on bike rides in the fifteen-mile range. Hardcore!!!!! I also prayed that it would be “cloudy, cool, and not too rainy.” I wish I would’ve been more specific, because race day dawned cloudy, cool, and pretty rainy. Kendra and I neglected to bring any rain gear, because isn’t it hot and sunny on triathlon day?
We were fairly soaked by race time, and the course had been altered because of the weather. The entire canoe leg took place on one lake (there are typically several portages), and it was very windy. No matter—I was determined to have a good attitude this time. I actually enjoyed the first two thirds of the canoeing. But then the wind gusts and realization that our older friends were actually gonna beat us in this leg made me miserable.
Finally, after over two hours of sitting in a canoe, we staggered ashore like so many drunken sailors. After a quick restroom break and change into dry shoes, we were off on our bikes (ahead of our friends!). At this point, I was freezing, wet as I was, and flying at what I’m sure were Olympic-rates of speed on my two-wheeler. Again I was having a great time, relieved to be done with the canoeing.
I enjoyed the mountain-bikey parts through crazy woodland terrain, but soon learned to dread the nicer paths and roads, because it was there that Kendra earned my new nickname for her: E.B. That stands for “Energizer Bunny.” My self-esteem sunk lower and lower as it became harder and harder to keep up with her. I’d worked out more than her, so I thought she’d have trouble keeping up with me, but here I was, giving everything I had, barely clinging to her. Humbling.
There were a number of parts where we had to ride through puddles (signs assured us that the bottom was firm, so it was safe). I loved doing this, as the water sometimes came up to the bike axles. There were a couple parts where a small stream blocked our way and we had to carry our bikes across it. Fun, but wet.
Again, the last third or so of the biking ceased to be fun, but I didn’t complain. Finally it was on to the run (it had long since stopped raining, thankfully). I was feeling good and wanted to actually so some, er, jogging, but Kendra didn’t want to. She strongly dislikes running, so most of it was a fast walk. We did frequently run for a minute or two at a time, and I actually did have to slow down for her, which made me feel a little better about myself, though the final third of this leg again felt like a death march.
We ran triumphantly the final hundred yards or so, and finished two-and-a-half hours earlier than I did last time, and not in last place. I do have to confess that about five miles were trimmed off the course (mostly the canoeing), so it was a little shorter than last time, but still I was happy with how it went. We did beat our friends by an hour (though one got lost at one point—it’s a remote course).
It was so cold that we took refuge in a state park building with a fireplace as we waited for our friends. Quite the contrast from two years ago! I’m now satisfied with how I did and can permanently retire from triathlons with my head held high. Just don’t let me ever do this again.
NOTE: I wrote this over six months ago, not intending to use it as a blog entry. It's written for people who have no clue who I am, but most of you know me. Just roll with it. Also, it's pretty long, but it's so awesome that reading it will make you smart and popular, so it's totally worth it.
Do you ask for directions when you’re lost? What about if you can’t find something in a large store, such as Walmart? I’ve always been the guy who never asked for directions or approached store employees for help. Whether it was pride, fear, laziness, or a combination of all three, I’ve always disliked those types of interactions.
Now I no longer have a problem. Why? Because I can understand what they say! That might sound really weird, but a year ago I dreaded even approaching the cashier at our local grocery store. The reason was that almost no one spoke English.
My family and I were living in Kiev, Ukraine. We were advised that the language would probably be our greatest challenge, and that was very true. Since we only had about three months from first considering going until we arrived, we didn’t have time to learn the Russian beyond just a few internet lessons.
While Ukrainian is the official language, Russian is what’s spoken on the street in Kiev. When we stepped off the plane, we knew only a few words. Sadly, when we got back on a plane to come home nine-and-a-half months later, we didn’t know a whole lot more. My wife and I were both teaching full time, and between our jobs and our own kids, there just wasn’t much time to dedicate to learning the language. Not only that, but we taught at an English-speaking school, so I can’t say we were immersed in Russian.
Russian isn’t an easy language for Americans to learn. Not only does it use entirely different alphabet (Cyrillic), many of the sounds are difficult for our Anglicized tongues to articulate. Many of the missionaries we worked with in Kiev dedicate their first couple of years in the country exclusively to studying the language, and now we know why.
Week after week of passing billboards and street signs in Russian and Ukrainian, seeing television in restaurants and on the metro (subway), and trying to decipher labels on unfamiliar items in stores impressed upon me how there’s an entire culture I know very little about, and language is central to understanding that culture. There are endless stories, songs, poems, and expressions—all of them completely foreign to me. I’d pass two people having a conversation and have no idea what they were talking about. They’d laugh at jokes I didn’t understand and roll their eyes at clichés about which I knew nothing.
It can be overwhelming to consider all I don’t know about Ukrainians because I don’t speak the same language, but there are somewhere around 7,000 languages in the world. That leaves me clueless to about 6,999 of them. Would my life be more fulfilling if I understood those languages?
And what about my own language? Some people dedicate their entire lives to understanding English, while some don’t know the difference between your and you’re and seem to think the sentence “I seen him yesterday” is perfectly fine. Now, I admit English can be fairly ridiculous, so it’s easy to see how one can make mistakes. Take homonyms as an example: is it to, two or too? Should I use there, they’re or their? Still, if we don’t even understand our own language, how can we ever hope to begin understanding others?
So much of language goes beyond the basic meanings and pronunciation of words. To realize how overwhelming all this is, I don’t have to look any further than my own rural Minnesota community. Beyond the territorial differences (pop vs. soda, hotdish vs. casserole, and every Minnesotan’s favorite game, Duck, Duck, Grey Duck), there are some bizarre expressions we use across the United States.
Can’t you just picture a confused foreigner when you declare, “You’re barking up the wrong tree” or “Stop beating around the bush”? What about when you tell them you have to cut up that tree you cut down in your backyard last week?
Several years ago I worked on a golf course, and one day my co-worker and I had to stop and wait for some golfers who were coming through our work area. My co-worker was a golfer, so he watched with rapt attention as one of the golfers hit a drive. Impressed, he declared, “That dog’ll walk!” Huh? I of course was able to translate his message: “That gentleman did an excellent job of hitting the ball. The accuracy of his shot will help ensure a successful score.”
That brings up something I sometimes wonder: Who comes up with these sayings, anyway? Wouldn’t it be cool to be able to tell people you meet, “Yeah, you know the expression ‘high on the hog’? I came up with that!”
One of my friends in Kiev told me about a colleague of his from Israel who tried very hard to use American sayings, only to fall short. When he wanted a response from someone else, he’d say, “The nickel’s in your court,” and he’d often attempt to encourage others by urging them to “Take the bull from the horns.” I’m sure I’d sound just as silly if I tried to use another language’s idioms.
It’s easy to find plenty of similarities among different languages. For example, listening to one side of a typical phone conversation between two Ukrainians often sounds something like this: “Allo? Da. Dobre Dien. Da, da, da. Horosho. Da. Da, da, da. [possibly a couple more Russian words I don’t understand, and then] Da. Horosho. Da, da, da. Das vay donya.” So they pretty much said “Hello” and “Good day” before saying “yes” and “good” a lot. Then they said “goodbye.” Seems kinda weird, until you consider a Midwestern-American phone conversation: “Hello? Oh hi. How’s it goin’? Good. Uh huh. Yep. Oh yeah. Yeah. Uh huh. Yep. Okay, cool. Sounds good. Yeah. Okay, see ya later. Bye.”
While my Ukrainian friends repeatedly say da, we also say yes a lot, but in a variety of ways, usually none of them actually using the word yes. Think of a poor foreigner trying to learn our language. They think yes is all they need to know in order to answer in the affirmative, only to learn it’s only one of several words we use, and then only in more formal situations. Think about it: How often do you say yes to friends or family members?
As if all these differing languages and sayings weren’t enough, some people feel the need to make up their own languages just for fun. This is scary, but what’s scarier is that some of these have actually caught on, such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s various Elvish languages, and of course Star Trek’s Klingon. Who has time to figure out languages that some random guy just made up?
So here I am, still amazed at the wealth of languages in the world, and realizing that I know very little. I admire those who can navigate languages beyond their own. Last year I had teenage students who could converse in two to four different languages, and that was humbling. At this point I’ve got my hands full just trying to “talk good” in my own language. Uff da!
I've included some old blogs along with the new. Should you ever find yourself suffering from insomnia, this is the place for you! That's as poetic as I get...