Saturday, December 31, 2011

Saturday Smile - Superiority

This XKCD Comic is a fitting follow-up to Thursday's post on Hitchens and Wilson. Have a great Saturday, friends.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Friday Family - Brother Joel

My brother, Joel, is the executive director and co-founder of For God's Children International. And if all has gone according to plan, I should be returning to Minnesota today from a quick Christmas visit to his home in Council Bluffs, IA.

Joel's home and the For God's Children International headquarters are located in Iowa, but his heart is often in Romania. Since the mid-90s, Joel has had what he refers to as a severe case of "Romania on the Brania." He just recently returned from a trip to Romania, and I believe this was his first trip during the Christmas season.

If you'd like to find out more about Joel's ministry with FCGI, visit their website. They could use your prayers and financial support.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Thursday Thinking - Collision

Last week, I posted about the passing of Christopher Hitchens. I thought I would follow up this week with a couple interesting resources that showcase his arguments against Christianity.

In 2008, the book Is Christianity Good for the World? was published. The book began as a series of open letters between Christopher Hitchens and Douglas Wilson published in Christianity Today magazine. Though Hitchens is well-known, you may be less familiar with Douglas Wilson, who is a pastor of Christ Church (Moscow, Idaho), a Senior Fellow at New Saint Andrews College, and a prolific author.

In addition to the magazine letters and the book, Hitchens and Wilson did a tour of public debates on the same question: Is Christianity Good for the World? Independent filmmaker, Darren Doane, produced a documentary, COLLISION, that captures the arguments and personalities of both men. If you are interested in the theological and philosophical debate about the existence or human knowledge about God, you'll probably enjoy this documentary.

I enjoy watching Hitchens and Wilson interact with each other as much or more than listening to their arguments about God. I love their ability to be relentless in their arguments and yet cordial in their relationship. For me, that's probably the most valuable payoff the documentary offers. It's worth watching.

See the Collision trailer.

Watch Collision online.

Visit the Collision website.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Wednesday Words - Mercy Street

Too long my feet have wandered these winding roads,
But I keep searching through this town.
My back in breaking under this heavy load;
Where can I go to lay it down?

What I would give if you could point me to that place!
I'm looking for Mercy.
I want to live on the avenue of grace;
I'm looking for Mercy-

Mercy Street,
Where the weary find rest.
Mercy Street,
Where the guilty are forgiven,
Mercy Street,
Where the weeping are blessed.
Mercy Street.

How I kept walking is a mystery;
My wasted days turned into years.
Until a stranger came along side of me;
He took my hand and dried my tears.

He said I've come from the place you hope to find,
I am from Mercy.
Cast off your burden and leave the past behind;
Leave it on Mercy-

Mercy Street,
Where the weary find rest.
Mercy Street,
Where the guilty are forgiven,
Mercy Street,
Where the weeping are blessed.
Mercy Street.

And now I walk the same old streets I used to roam,
Handin' out Mercy.
Come take my hand, I have been sent to bring you home;
I am from Mercy-
Mercy Street,
Where the weary find rest.
Mercy Street,
Where the guilty are forgiven,
Mercy Street,
Where the weeping are blessed.
Mercy Street.

"Mercy Sreet" - Words & Music by Dave Burkum.
© Copyright 1993 by Dave Burkum. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Tuesday Tome - Mere Christianity

A couple of months ago I was talking with someone about Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis. As we talked, I realized that it has been quite some time (too much time) since the last time I read that much-loved and much-quoted classic. And so, I've decided to read it again and make it the selected book for my next Pastor's Book Club at Valley Christian Church.

We'll be meeting to discuss the book on three nights:
Tuesday, January 31 - Discussing first two sections.
Tuesday, February 21 - Discussing section three.
Tuesday, March 13 - Discussing section four.

I invite you to read the book with me. Occasionally, I'll be posting quotations from and comments about the book here on Altered Faces (Tome Tuesdays and Word Wednesdays). Your comments are welcomed. If you live in the Twin Cities, please consider joining us for our book club discussions. Contact and location information can be found at

Publisher's Description of the book:
Mere Christianity is the most popular of C. S. Lewis' works of nonfiction, with several million copies sold worldwide. Heard first as radio addresses and then published as three separate books--The Case for Christianity, Christian Behavior, and Beyond Personality--this book brings together Lewis' legendary broadcast talks of the war years, talks in which he set out simply to "explain and defend the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times." It is a collection of scintillating brilliance which remains strikingly fresh for the modern reader, and which confirms C. S. Lewis's reputation as one of the leading Christian writers and thinkers of our age.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Monday Music - Gillian Welch

The first music purchase I intend to make in 2012 will be The Harrow and the Harvest by Gillian Welch. Gillian's recent appearance on A Prairie Home Companion with her long-time collaborator, David Rawlings, was a lot of fun. And then when I came across a video of a live performance of "The Way It Goes," I decided it was time to get the CD. Visit the Gillian Welch website.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Sunday Supplication - Christmas Day

Almighty God, you have given your only-begotten Son to become one of us, and to be born this day to live among us full of grace and truth. Help us to see his glory. Make us receptive to the salvation he brings. Help us to receive him as our Lord and Savior.

By the power and grace of your Holy Spirit, transform our lives. Renew our minds. Change our hearts. And as Christ became like us, help us now to become like him.

On this Christmas morning, we thank you for the good will and peace you have extended to us through Jesus, even though we are sinners. Forgive us, O God. And make us ready and able to extend good will and peace toward those who have sinned against us.

O God, you have promised to deliver and sustain us. You have promised that we will find life and hope in you. You promise that if we will surrender to you, you will protect, provide, forgive, renew, empower, transform, lead, strengthen, and deliver us. Help us to trust in you completely, and to live out our trust every day and in every situation.

Through Christ, we pray. Amen.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Saturday Smile - Grilling with Santa

The forecast for tomorrow in the Twin Cities is for sunshine and a high near 40º. It's not very often that we get to have a patio campfire and grill on Christmas Day. If you really need some snow, do a google search for "let it snow" and watch what happens to your browser.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Friday Family - Good Press for the Blossoms

Looks like The Cactus Blossoms (my sons, Page and Jack Torrey) are getting some good end-of-the-year attention. The City Pages listed their recently released CD as one of Minnesota's Best Albums of 2011.
It's easy enough to phone in a cornball imitation of old country. Slap on a Western shirt and pair of cheesy cowboy boots, perfect a properly affected twang, and yodel along all the requisite themes: Mama, Trains, Trucks, Prison, Gettin' Drunk (thanks, David Allan Coe). It's another thing entirely to live and breathe the craft of writing and singing a good country and western song, as the Cactus Blossoms have done. The self-titled first release by close-harmonizing brothers Page Burkum and Jack Torrey features two traditional covers, but really takes wing in its eight originals, carefully smithed songs that prove these brothers are every bit as real-deal as their country predecessors. --Nikki Miller (See Article)
On the national stage, CMT News also gave them a nice mention in a December 20 article, The Most Overlooked Albums in 2011.
Finally, the album I've listened to the most this fall is by the Cactus Blossoms, a close-harmony duo from Minneapolis. These young men won a duets competition at the Minnesota State Fair last year, and this self-titled debut project of mostly original tunes proves they deserved that blue ribbon. It's true and traditional country, folks. --Craig Shelburne (See Article)

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Thursday Thinking - Science's Crisis of Faith

Old theories about the universe are now giving way to new theories about the multiverse. In a December 2011 Harper's Magazine article, Alan Lightman, a physicist at MIT, ruminates on why these new multiverse theories are an indication that physics is now stepping outside the boundaries of science and into the realm of faith.

The history of science can be viewed as the recasting of phenomena that were once thought to be accidents as phenomena that can be understood in terms of fundamental causes and principles. One can add to the list of the fully explained: the hue of the sky, the orbits of planets, the angle of the wake of a boat moving through a lake, the six-sided patterns of snowflakes, the weight of a flying bustard, the temperature of boiling water, the size of raindrops, the circular shape of the sun. All these phenomena and many more, once thought to have been fixed at the beginning of time or to be the result of random events thereafter, have been explained as necessary consequences of the fundamental laws of nature—laws discovered by human beings.

This long and appealing trend may be coming to an end. Dramatic developments in cosmological findings and thought have led some of the world’s premier physicists to propose that our universe is only one of an enormous number of universes with wildly varying properties, and that some of the most basic features of our particular universe are indeed mere accidents—a random throw of the cosmic dice. In which case, there is no hope of ever explaining our universe’s features in terms of fundamental causes and principles.

It is perhaps impossible to say how far apart the different universes may be, or whether they exist simultaneously in time. Some may have stars and galaxies like ours. Some may not. Some may be finite in size. Some may be infinite. Physicists call the totality of universes the “multiverse.” Alan Guth, a pioneer in cosmological thought, says that “the multiple-universe idea severely limits our hopes to understand the world from fundamental principles.” And the philosophical ethos of science is torn from its roots.

Read more . . .

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Wednesday Words - Some Children See

Please keep in mind the many refugee children who have come to live in the Twin Cities. Be a part of helping them see the love of Christ.

Some Children See Him
Some children see Him lily white,
the baby Jesus born this night.
Some children see Him lily white,
with tresses soft and fair.

Some children see Him bronzed and brown,
The Lord of heav'n to earth come down.
Some children see Him bronzed and brown,
with dark and heavy hair.

Some children see Him almond-eyed,
this Savior whom we kneel beside.
some children see Him almond-eyed,
with skin of yellow hue.

Some children see Him dark as they,
sweet Mary's Son to whom we pray.
Some children see him dark as they,
and, ah! they love Him, too!

The children in each different place
will see the baby Jesus' face
like theirs, but bright with heavenly grace,
and filled with holy light.

O lay aside each earthly thing
and with thy heart as offering,
come worship now the infant King.
'Tis love that's born tonight!

Some Children See Him, by Wihla Hutson & Alfred S. Burt 1951.© Copyright (renewed 1982) and 1957 (renewed 1985) Hollis Music, Inc., New York, N.Y. International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Tuesday Tomes - Havel and Hitchins

In the course of just a few days, the world has said good-bye to two exceptional writers and thinkers. Christopher Hitchens and Vaclav Havel were profoundly different men. Perhaps the only thing they would find themselves in complete agreement about would be their mutual love of cigarettes.

While both of them were brilliant thinkers and lucid communicators, they had decidedly different views and personalities. Hitchens had an aggressive and acerbic edge that could easily be mistaken for arrogance. Havel seemed a little shy and always approached his audience with a humble and respectful tone that could easily be mistaken for meekness. Hitchens was a journalist. Havel was an artist. Because of their intelligence, clarity of thought, and their outspoken and provocative points of view, both were important and influential in the public sphere.

Hitchens was a champion for atheism and believed religion to be poisonous to the world.
“One must state it plainly. Religion comes from the period of human prehistory where nobody-not even the mighty Democritus who concluded that all matter was made from atoms-had the smallest idea what was going on. It comes from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species, and is a babyish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge (as well as for comfort, reassurance and other infantile needs). Today the least educated of my children knows much more about the natural order than any of the founders of religion, and one would like to think--though the connection is not a fully demonstrable one--that this is why they seem so uninterested in sending fellow humans to hell.” [God is Not Great]
Havel championed conscience and spirituality, and saw atheism as a poison to the world.
But we are also living in the first atheistic civilisation, in other words, a civilisation that has lost its connection with the infinite and eternity. For that reason it prefers short-term profit to long-term profit. What is important is whether an investment will provide a return in ten or fifteen years; how it will affect the lives of our descendants in a hundred years is less important. However, the most dangerous aspect of this global atheistic civilisation is its pride. The pride of someone who is driven by the very logic of his wealth to stop respecting the contribution of nature and our forebears, to stop respecting it on principle and respect it only as a further potential source of profit. [Forum 2000 Address]
Havel and Hitchens saw things and approached things very differently, but both confronted boldly anything they believed to be untrue or destructive to humanity and the world. I don't know if they knew each other. Surely they must have had some occasion to meet. And if they did, I wouldn't be surprised to learn they had a good conversation and a cordial respect for one another. They were able to listen and engage in conversation with those with whom they did not agree. If bold confrontation combined with honest conversation is something we are able to learn from their lives and their writing, it will be a blessed tribute to their memories.


Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens (Christopher Hitchens)
"All first-rate criticism first defines what we are confronting," the late, great jazz critic Whitney Balliett once wrote. By that measure, the essays of Christopher Hitchens are in the first tier. For nearly four decades, Hitchens has been telling us, in pitch-perfect prose, what we confront when we grapple with first principles-the principles of reason and tolerance and skepticism that define and inform the foundations of our civilization-principles that, to endure, must be defended anew by every generation.

Hitch 22 (Christopher Hitchens)
Over the course of his 60 years, Christopher Hitchens has been a citizen of both the United States and the United Kingdom. He has been both a socialist opposed to the war in Vietnam and a supporter of the U.S. war against Islamic extremism in Iraq. He has been both a foreign correspondent in some of the world's most dangerous places and a legendary bon vivant with an unquenchable thirst for alcohol and literature. He is a fervent atheist, raised as a Christian, by a mother whose Jewish heritage was not revealed to him until her suicide. In other words, Christopher Hitchens contains multitudes. He sees all sides of an argument. And he believes the personal is political. This is the story of his life, lived large.

The Art of the Impossible
(Vaclav Havel)
This volume consists of thirty-five of these essays, written between the years 1990 and 1996, that manage to be both profoundly personal and profoundly political. Havel writes of totalitarianism, its miseries and the nonetheless difficult emergence from it. He describes how his country and the other postcommunist countries are learning democracy from scratch and are encountering obstacles from inside and out.

To the Castle and Back (Vaclav Havel)
From the former president of the Czech Republic comes this first-hand account of his years in office and the transition to democracy following the fall of Communism. A renowned playwright, Václav Havel became one of Czechoslovakia's most prominent dissidents under Communist rule – and the president after the Velvet Revolution, making him a key player in European politics. Here we see first-hand the challenges of creating a new government, tempered with Havel's revealing insights into the difficulties posed by an era of increased globalization and conflict.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Monday Music - Corelli Christmas Concerto

My first encounter with the music of Arcangelo Corelli was the doing of my childhood music instructor, John Grossman. Mr. Grossman, as I always refer to him--even now, was my music teacher through grade school, junior high, and high school. He conducted the first orchestras I played in. He's the one who got me started on violin, the instrument I managed to play all the way from grade school through my University of Nebraska undergraduate days.

Eventually, I learned that it was much more fun to write for the violin than to play it. I could think and write things that I knew full well I would never be able to play. So I majored in composition instead of the fiddle, but my writing for the instrument was greatly improved by the experience of playing it.

A favorite piece of my high school violin experience was when we played Corelli's Christmas Concerto. He's been one of my favorite composers ever since. In fact, thanks to a CD alarm clock, I've awakened to the music of Corelli almost every day for the past ten years. Believe me...the world seems like a better place to wake up to when Corelli is the first thing you hear.

It seems that Handel, with his Messiah and Hallelujah Chorus, is destined to be the baroque composer that gets most attention around Christmas time. That's okay and well-deserved, but if you want to put on some music that will truly transform the atmosphere of your home on Christmas morning, nothing will do better than Corelli's Christmas Concerto.

Corelli Concerto Grosso Op.6 No 8 "Christmas Concerto" in G Minor Part 2

Corelli Concerto Grosso Op.6 No 8 "Christmas Concerto" in G Minor Part 2

Click Here for Corelli's Christmas Concerto on Amazon.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Sunday Supplication - Fourth Sunday of Advent

Heavenly Father, make us aware of your presence in our lives and purify our hearts and minds. We pray that we would find our identity and our home in your Son Jesus Christ as we await the day of his appearing. Sustain us and shape us by the power of your Holy Spirit.

Thank you for your grace and mercy. Lead us away from temptation. Deliver us from evil. Forgive us our sins. And give us the grace and courage to forgive others just as we you have forgiven us.

O God, thank you for your promise to be with your people. Remind us that you are with us today. Grant us the strength and the faith we need to face the challenges and circumstances of our lives. When we are frightened, guard our hearts and minds with the peace of Christ Jesus. Protect us from discouragement, and encourage us by your Holy Spirit, through your Word, your people, your promises, and all that is beautiful and true.

Through Christ, we pray. Amen.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Friday Family - Miss Cheri

My wife, Cheri, operates Redbird Childcare. The entire lower level of our home is dedicated space for her licensed childcare center. Mondays through Thursdays from 7:30am to 5:00pm, Miss Cheri (that's what all the kids and parents call her) gives her all to provide eight to ten preschoolers with the best care possible.

They sing, learn, run, play, draw, eat, sleep, and generally have about as nice of a day a kid could hope to have. They also, let's be honest, cry and scream and dirty diapers and lots of other less than pleasant behaviors. It's a very demanding enterprise. I would go crazy, but Miss Cheri takes it all in stride. She's the consummate childcare professional. I'm super proud of her.

The most important thing about Red Bird is that Miss Cheri doesn't see it merely as a job--for her it's a ministry, a calling. Believe me, there are way easier ways to make a living. The truth is that Cheri loves these kids and the family she serves. She loves coming up with lessons and projects and songs and activities. She knows that doing her work well makes a difference in the lives of these children and their families.

So here's to you, Miss Cheri! Bless you, bless you. Enjoy having the house and some time all to yourself today! Oh...and maybe a little time with me too.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Thursday Thinking - John Polkinghorne

John Polkinghorne is both a physicist and a theologian. He's also just a lovely and decent human being. He's brilliant and winsome. He is able to talk about big and complicated things in down-to-earth ways. I've found so many of his ideas to be helpful to me in my own faith as I try to sort through issues of being, science, reason, theology, and belief.

BioLogos Forum has recently posted a short video and transcript entitled John Polkinghorne in a Nutshell. It's a nice little introduction to Polkinghorne, his work, and his philosophy of life. Here is a quotation from that transcript...
Everybody has to make a commitment beyond what they know for certain to be true. I would define faith as commitment to well motivated belief, accepting the consequences of that, not only for my intellectual attitude to the world, but also the way I live my life.
If you'd like to hear more, I would also recommend Krista Tippett's interview of Polkinghorne on her thought-provoking radio program, On Being (American Public Media).

Here is a link to that interview and transcript.

You can check out John Polkinghorne books HERE.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Wednesday Words - Angels I Have Heard

Angels I Have Heard
I was down and on my front porch,
I said, "God are you still there?
Well, I need to know you better...
I guess this is a prayer."

And I swear that in the silence
I could hear the Savior say,
"If you seek me you will find me;
If you look, I'll show the way."

And I'm sure that there were angels-
Angels in the sky,
Angels I could hear on high.

I was bruised and I was battered;
I was tryin' to serve the Lord-
Tryin' to live by faith in Jesus,
But I was dyin' by the sword.

On the road to Minneapolis,
I said, "Jesus tell me why?"
I could feel Him in my sorrow,
I was sure He heard my cry.

And I knew that there were angels-
Angels in the sky,
Angels I could hear on high.

Peace in every earthly test.
Good will! On you God's favor rests.

When my weary overtakes me,
When the dark of night descends,
When I'm lonely as a shepherd
In the hills of Bethlehem.

I think back and I remember
Another night alone out there
When a great light filled the heavens,
Shouts of glory in the air.

Yes, I think about those angels,
Angels in the sky,
Angels I have heard on high.

From the If I Close My Eyes album, words & music by Dave Burkum (1995).

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Tuesday Tome - That Distant Land

My introduction to the writing of Wendell Berry began about five years ago when I started reading his poetry. Last year I began reading his his fiction and have become an ardent admirer.

First, I read his novel, Jayber Crow, the life story of the barber in Port William "told in his own words." I loved the book so much that I felt sad the day I finished it. I wanted a few more chapters. I wanted to know more about the people, times, and places in and around Port William (a farming community Berry has imagined into the hills and history of Kentucky). I can't tell you how excited I was to discover he had written a whole collection of Port William books! I'm now taking a slow but steady journey through them all. I'll be taking my sweet time and savoring every page of the trip.

Last week I spent ninety of the most enjoyable minutes I've had in recent weeks reading That Distant Land, a collection of Port William short stories. The story I read was "Pray without Ceasing." It recounts the sad events surrounding the murder of the narrator's great-grandfather, Ben Feltner. The story is less about murder than about the human condition. In the end it's a testament of the power grace has to turn tragedy toward humility, healing, thankfulness, and maturity.

If you're interested in joining me in reading the books of Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow and That Distant Land are two good places to start. I'd recommend reading "Pray without Ceasing" (from That Distant Land) as a helpful introduction. It's short enough to be a quick read, but long enough to give you a real sense of Berry's depth and genius.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Monday Music - Christmas Music for Kids

My wife, Cheri, runs a licensed childcare center in our home. Since I'm usually working out of my home in the mornings, I get to hear her interact with the kids and lead them in special activities. Every day they have something she calls Circle Time. It usually involves at least a little bit of singing.

This month she's been passing out the rhythm instruments and having the kids sing and play along to with "There Was a Little Baby" from the Raffi Christmas Album. The kids really love it and they sing their hearts out.

Raffi Cavoukian is a very interesting guy, and I sort of consider him to be the musical Mr. Rogers. He really respects children and has a calm, sweet, and relational tone in all of his music. He's also very non-commercial. If you're looking for a delightful and "sing-alongable" Christmas CD for your kids, you can't do any better than this one.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Sunday Supplication - Third Sunday of Advent

O Lord, move in our hearts with your great might. Work in our lives with your power. Through your boundless grace and mercy, deliver us from the sins that entangle and destroy us.

Thank you for the forgiveness and renewal you have given to us through Christ Jesus. Help us, as your people, to extend that same forgiveness to any and all who have sinned against us. Help your Church to be a community of grace. Make each local expression of your Church, in every place it exists on earth, to have a redemptive and healing impact on the world around it.

O God, thank you for the forgiveness and life we have through Jesus. You have promised that whoever believes in him will not perish, but have everlasting life. May all who seek you find you, O God. Help us to recognize Christ as King. Give us the willingness and the wisdom to make room for his saving and shaping work in our lives.

It is in his Name that we pray all these things. Amen.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Friday Family - Cold Foot Boogie

My sons, Page and Jack, perform and write together as The Cactus Blossoms. Here is a fun little tune I really enjoy. When I hear the line in the lyric--"The ice all melts when the music plays, I grab my gal and we join the craze"-- I always smile because it's so unlikely that I would ever write a line like that myself. Anybody who knows me well knows that I'm much more likely to grab my guitar and join the band in order to avoid the craze. But if there was ever a song that made we wish I could dance, this is it.

Looking for a Great Christmas Gift?
Purchase Cactus Blossoms CDs Here

Visit the Cactus Blossoms Website

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Thursday Thinking - Communication Tools

Making a PowerPoint presentation has become a normal part of my weekly sermon preparation. This was something new for me when I began my ministry at Valley Christian Church in 2007. At first it seemed like an extraneous burden and it felt like more work than it was worth. With time, however, I've come to value PowerPoint as a helpful tool.

Working to make good PowerPoint presentations has actually helped me write better sermons. Learning to use PowerPoint effectively has made me a better communicator by helping me speak without notes, move around the stage, and look directly into the eyes of my audience.

All that said, there may be some other creative alternatives to PowerPoint that I have yet to consider. The TED Talks video below, sent to me by my good friend Rob Miller, opens up a whole new world of possibilities for how I might enhance the delivery of my sermons. Watch it and you'll be amazed, and I think it would be pretty amazing to preach a sermon this way.

Dancing as an alternative to PowerPoint is a bold and fantastic idea, but there's honestly no way I could manage it on a weekly basis. On the other hand, if Rob and a few others from my congregation are ready to put on their dancing tights, I'm more than willing to give it a shot every once in a while.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Wednesday Words - In the Bleak Midwinter

The days are growing shorter, temperatures are diving, snowflakes are falling, and spirits are failing among those who struggle through the bleak days of winter. I have dear friends who have to deal with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). I may have a touch of it myself.

Personally, I'd be fine if I could just retreat during the dark days from winter solstice through February. Winter isn't the problem. The problem is trying to pretend that winter days are the same as summer days. They're not. And I'm not the same in the winter as I am in the summer. I applaud and even envy those who are able to feel and act the same through all the seasons, but that has always been a challenge for me. I honestly wouldn't mind winter if I could just follow my natural inclination, which is to hibernate, hide, read, rest, stare at the fire, and keep a mug of something hot to drink nearby.

Alas, life and family and calling require me to do more than that. I give it my best shot. Sometimes, however, the ubiquitous holly-jolly-most-wonderful-time-of-the-year songs annoy me as they seem to encourage a sort of seasonal denial. I guess that's why I find it to be a welcome relief to hear the stark and honest words of "In the Bleak Midwinter." It's lovely little Christmas poem written by Christina Rossetti in the mid-nineteenth century. Sure, winter and life have their bleak moments, but Christmas still calls the heart to hope. Rossetti reminds me that even the poor in spirit can be blessed as they consider the Kingdom of Heaven.

In the Bleak Midwinter
By Christina Rossetti

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him, whom cherubim, worship night and day,
Breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels fall before,
The ox and ass and camel which adore.

Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
But His mother only, in her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.

What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.


Shawn Colvin sings a wonderful version of this poem on her Holiday Songs and Lullabies album.

CLICK HERE to see and hear a beautiful arrangement with choristers and congregants at Gloucester Cathedral.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Tome Tuesday - A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens is one of the most popular stories of the Christmas Season. Movies, plays, musicals, animations, even Muppets--this story has probably been told and retold in more ways that just about anything besides the Bible. And just as the Bible is one of the most purchased and least read books in the world, Dickens' A Christmas Carol, though a well-known story, has not been read as a book as often and as widely as it deserves to be.

That's too bad, because it is a truly beautifully written novella. It doesn't take long to read because it's only just over a hundred pages. If you have a Nook or a Kindle, you can probably get it for free, and a paperback is probably available for $5 or less. I'd recommend reading a real book with real pages by lamplight near a cozy fireplace with a cup of tea close at hand.

If you have never read it, I'd encourage you to do so. I think you'll discover there is more to this old story than you may have expected.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Music Monday - Nat King Cole

One of the classic Christmas records in my collection is Nat King Cole's The Christmas Song (Capitol - 1963). Most of the album was originally released under the title, The Magic of Christmas (Capitol - 1960) which was arranged and conducted by Ralph Carmichael.

Earlier, in 1946, the Nat King Cole Trio had recorded and released "The Christmas Song" (Mel Tormé) as a holiday single. Then in 1961 Cole re-recorded the song in stereophonic with a full orchestra conducted by Ralph Carmichael. Finally, this new version of "The Christmas Song" was added to the tracks from The Magic of Christmas (1960) and released as a new record entitled The Christmas Song (1963).

I love this collection for several reasons. First, Nat King Cole is simply one of the greatest singers of his era and listening to his voice is constant delight. Secondly, the collection is decidedly more sacred than secular in content–there is more Jesus than Santa in this line-up of songs. And last, but not least, the arrangements are by Ralph Carmichael. Carmichael was one of the important influences in my own early years as a musician. I was influenced by many of the well-known singer songwriters of the 60s and 70s, but it was the music and arrangements of Ralph Carmichael that made me want to become an arranger and learn orchestration.

For most people, The Christmas Song is a classic Nat King Cole album, but for me, it's actually more of a Ralph Carmichael album featuring Nat King Cole as the lead singer. Either way you spin it, it's a terrific record for kids from 1 to 92.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Sunday Supplication - Second Sunday of Advent

Merciful God, we thank you for every voice you’ve sent into our world to preach repentance and proclaim the way of salvation. Give us contrite hearts and help us to turn away from sin. And give us open and receptive hearts that joyfully welcome the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer.

Help us in this Advent season to honor Jesus in thought, word, and deed. Help us to follow him and to walk in the light as he is in the light. We confess our sins, trusting that you are faithful and just to forgive us and purify us from all unrighteousness. Thank you for the forgiveness and renewal you have given to us through Christ Jesus. Make us able and ready to graciously forgive those who have sinned against us.

O God, restore and renew us today. And make our lives a testimony of your power to restore and renew us. Help us to live by faith. And make our lives shining demonstrations of your promise to save and restore.

Through Christ, we pray. Amen.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Friday Family - Beansmith Coffee

This week I spent a few days in the Omaha area. I visited my parents and took a prospective student from Valley Christian Church for a campus visit at Nebraska Christian College. It was also my first time to visit NCC since it moved from Norfolk to Omaha.

Yesterday, before heading back home, I stopped by Beansmith Coffee where my brother, Jason, is the roast master. My nephew, Graham, does the brilliant art designs for the Beansmith coffee bags.

Beansmith has some really delicious coffee blends and you can order them online. I've ordered online on the afternoon of one day and had the coffee delivered to my home in the Twin Cities the very next morning.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Thursday Thinking - Good to Doubt

Peter Enns has posted an abridged version of a lecture he presented at Asuza Pacific University in November of 2010. I think he shares some important insights that will be very helpful to anyone wrestling with belief and reason.

What follows is an excerpt from that lecture. Click Here to read the whole thing.

The Benefit of Doubt

Doubting one’s faith in God is a very tough place to be. Faith in God is what keeps it all together when you are facing one of life’s many challenges.

Sometimes things happen in our lives—it may be one big catastrophe or a line of smaller things that pile up—and you start having a lot of doubts. At first, when you have those disruptive thoughts, you try to push them to the side, hoping they’ll just go away, before God notices.

They don’t and he doesn’t.

So you feel your faith in God slipping away—and it is unsettling, disorienting, and frightening to watch that happen. You doubt that God cares, that he is listening; you doubt that he is even aware of who you are—that he even exists.

In such a state of doubt about God, you feel like there is clearly something very wrong with you.

Read More

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Wednesday Words - There Is Room

Making Room is the theme of my teaching series for this year's Advent/Christmas season. As part of the music preparation for the series, I've updated and expanded the text of the old Christmas Hymn, There is Room in My Heart for Thee. I hope it will make the song a little more singable and the message a bit more personal.

There Is Room In My Heart
Lord, you left your throne and your kingly crown,
When you came to the earth for me.
But in David's Town, there was no room found,
For your Holy Nativity.

Come into my heart, Lord Jesus!
There is room in my heart for You.
Come into my heart, Lord Jesus!
There is room in my heart for You.

When they look for rest, even birds have nests,
And the fox has its den, you said;
But for you, God's own, there was found no home,
You had no place to lay your head.

Come into my heart, Lord Jesus!
There is room in my heart for You.
Come into my heart, Lord Jesus!
There is room in my heart for You.

You are Christ the Lord, the Incarnate Word,
And you shine with the light of truth.

But so few believed, you were not received,
And your people rejected you.

Come into my heart, Lord Jesus!
There is room in my heart for You.
Come into my heart, Lord Jesus!
There is room in my heart for You.

Give me open eyes that can see you, Lord,
Give me ears that can hear your call—
That in all I do, making room for you,
Jesus, you are my all in all.

Come into my heart, Lord Jesus!
There is room in my heart for You.
Come into my heart, Lord Jesus!
There is room in my heart for You.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Tuesday Tome - The King Jesus Gospel

My copy of Scot McKnight's new book, The King Jesus Gospel, just arrived a few days ago. I'm looking forward to reading it. The publisher's description of the book is as follows:
Contemporary evangelicals have built a 'salvation culture' but not a 'gospel culture.' Evangelicals have reduced the gospel to the message of personal salvation. This book makes a plea for us to recover the old gospel as that which is still new and still fresh. The book stands on four arguments: that the gospel is defined by the apostles in 1 Corinthians 15 as the completion of the Story of Israel in the saving Story of Jesus; that the gospel is found in the Four Gospels; that the gospel was preached by Jesus; and that the sermons in the Book of Acts are the best example of gospeling in the New Testament. The King Jesus Gospel ends with practical suggestions about evangelism and about building a gospel culture.
Scot is putting up a few teaser posts on his popular Jesus Creed Blog. Here is a recent post raising questions about how good works and salvation fit together in the Good News according to Jesus. Anybody want to read through this little book with me? Let me know.

I will also soon be reading N. T. Wright's Simply Jesus. I'm hoping that they will spark some inspiration for the teaching series I'll be preaching in July/August 2012.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Monday Music - Bruce Cockburn

With Thanksgiving behind us and Advent upon us, it's time to break out the Christmas Music. Bruce Cockburn's "Christmas" has been a longtime favorite of our family. It's a very special collection of songs that Cheri and I will be playing dozens of times in the next month.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Sunday Supplication - First Sunday of Advent

Almighty God, we ask you to help us turn away darkness and to put on the armor of light. Today, as we live in this place and in this time, help us to hold fast to Jesus. Thank you that he came to live among us in humility. Thank you for the promise that he will one day come again in glory on to raise us to eternal life.

Forgive us for the wrongs we’ve done and the good we’ve left undone. Renew us by your Spirit. Help us to turn away from what is worthless and, instead, make us able to do what is right. Show us how to act, think, and live as Christ. And as you have forgiven us, make us merciful and ready to forgive those who have sinned against us.

O God, save us from troubles and mercifully stir our hearts toward complete trust in you. Grant us a deep sense of your loving presence when the troubles of life threaten to overwhelm us. Remind us of your faithfulness. Calm our hearts. Help us to be still and know that you are God.

Through Christ, we pray. Amen.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Saturday Smile - Pie Chart

I hope you've recovered from your Thanksgiving Dinner.
How long will you be eating leftovers?

Friday, November 25, 2011

Friday Family - My Grandsons

Who was I then? And what must I become?
Like newly minted coins, their faces catch
the evening's radiance. They are so sure of us,

more sure than we are of ourselves. Our children:
who gently push us toward the end of our own lives.
The future beckons brightly. They trust us to lead them there.

Excerpted from "The Faces of Children" by Elizabeth Spires,
from the book
Now the Green Blade Rises. © W.W. Norton & Company, 2002.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thursday Thinking - Amazon Empire

I know this isn't the day to be a curmudgeon, but it really bugs me that the dark shadow of Black Friday is looming over this otherwise fine Thanksgiving Day. Corporate retailers are scooting up to our Thanksgiving tables and licking their chops as they prepare to consume us like a turkey dinner. Before they do, it might be good to pause a moment to think a little bit about commerce.

Of the little shopping I do, much of it is done on Amazon, and it appears that an unfathomable number of other people are doing the same. I knew, of course, that Amazon was big, but this info-graphic posted on the Frugel Dad blog showed me it was much bigger than I ever imagined. Take a few minutes to look through these nine amazing facts and let me know what you think.

Amazon Infographic


Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Wednesday Words - Nun Danket Alle Gott

In anticipation of Thanksgiving Day, I thought it would be appropriate to post the words of the well-loved hymn, "Now Thank We All Our God." The text for this hymn was written in the early 17th century (c. 1636) by Martin Rinkart, a Lutheran pastor who lived and served in Eilenberg, Saxony. The wonderful music we now associate with his words was based on a tune attributed to Johann Crüger, but later harmonized and perfected by J.S. Bach and Felix Mendelssohn.

Rinkart's life was difficult, to say the least. Eilenberg was a city of refuge for political and military fugitives during the 30 Years War and, as such, was subjected to deadly overcrowding, famine, disease, and war. During the worst of it, Rinkart performed as many as fifty funerals each day. One terrible year he officiated 4000 funerals, and one of those was for his own wife.

It is a testament of faith that this man who knew such heartache and misery should be best known for a glorious song of thanksgiving. I pray that I too, regardless of problems and pains, will be faithful to give God thanks for the blessing and promise he has given.

May we all persevere until that great and final day when together we will lift up our voices in the greatest song of thanks ever sung. God will wipe away all tears from our eyes, and though I know the scripture says he will make all things new, I would be very glad to find us still singing this old, old song.

Now thank we all our God, with heart and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things has done, in Whom this world rejoices;

Who from our mothers’ arms has blessed us on our way

With countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.

O may this bounteous God through all our life be near us,

With ever joyful hearts and blessèd peace to cheer us;

And keep us in His grace, and guide us when perplexed;
And free us from all ills, in this world and the next!

All praise and thanks to God the Father now be given;

The Son and Him Who reigns with Them in highest Heaven;

The one eternal God, whom earth and Heaven adore;

For thus it was, is now, and shall be evermore.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Tuesday Tome - The Big Book

Tonight at 7:00pm I'll be leading a group discussion of Stan Guthrie's book, All That Jesus Asks. Feel free to join us at Valley Christian Church. Everyone is welcome, whether you have read all or part of the book, or just think you might be interested in reading it.

A few days ago I received my first copy of The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. I ordered the book because I am working with several people at Valley to help our church offer a substance abuse recovery group that will meet one night each week. I've heard of the Big Book and seen it many times, but have never gotten around to reading it. I guess now is the time.

When it arrived, I took a quick glance through the book and realized that it's probably something every pastor should read–something I should have read a long time ago. I'm sure it will deepen my understanding of the human condition and give me a greater empathy for those who suffer with addiction.

Click Here for the Wikipedia article about The Big Book.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Monday Music - Blitzen Trapper

A couple of weeks ago Blitzen Trapper and Dawes played First Avenue. I didn't hear about the show until it was already sold-out. Too bad, because it was a show I would have enjoyed. Either one of these bands could take a time machine back to the 70's and top the charts. It's pretty weird (and great) to hear brand new bands that take me back to some of the good old sounds of my youth.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Sunday Supplication

Almighty and everlasting God, we pray and believe that you will restore all things through Jesus Christ, your beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords. In your mercy, grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his gracious Lordship.

Pour upon us the abundance of your mercy. Forgive us for the sins we’ve committed. Relieve our guilty consciences. Purify our hearts and transform us that by your Spirit we might turn away from what is wrong and, instead, love to do what is right.

Make us ready and able to forgive those who have sinned against us. Make us merciful and forgiving toward others, as you have been merciful and forgiving toward us. Fill our lives and our church community to overflowing with your grace and goodness.

O God, thank you for the fruitful lives we are able to live through Christ. Help us to stay connected to Jesus. And by the power and grace of his Holy Spirit, lead, teach, transform, shape and strengthen us, that we might delight in your will, and walk in your ways to the glory of your name.

Through Christ, we pray. Amen.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Friday Family - Tyler, Mat Kearney, and Leagues

My son, Tyler, will be performing at First Avenue with Mat Kearney and Leagues, Sunday night, November 20. Sorry, but no tickets are available because the show is sold out.

This is the last concert of the Mat Kearney fall tour, and we're SO glad Tyler will be able to get a break from the very heavy touring schedule he's had since May.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Thursday Thinking - Dr. Daniel B. Wallace

Daniel B. Wallace is the founder and the executive director of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts. This past September he gave a couple of short lectures at Biola University's undergraduate chapel sessions entitled, "Is What We Have Now What They Wrote Then?" This lecture (part 1 and part 2) is a very accessible introduction to how we got the Bible and how we should think about it. The website for the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts is worth a visit to explore their mission, news updates, and resources they offer.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Wednesday Words - Making Room

Advent begins on November 27. The theme of my advent teaching series at Valley is Making Room: The Christmas Call to Open Our Lives.

Thanks to Jason Daum for the wonderful artwork. Thanks in advance to Jonathan Miller for the theme chorus we'll be singing at worship times. Here are the lyrics I sent him yesterday morning.

Making Room
There is a knocking on the door.
It is the coming of the Lord.
The Light of Truth, the Living Word.
I'm making room, making room.

In this dark night I hear a plea.
A voice that calls with urgency,
And asks, "Do you have room for me?"
I'm making room, making room.

There is a promise to believe.
There is a Savior to receive.
Lord, you are welcome; do not leave.
I'm making room, making room.

My life is open, come inside.
Lord, be my vision, be my guide.
Be born in me; be glorified.
I’m making room, making room.