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Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Epiphany 2015

My 7-year-old daughter has been asking about "Three Kings Day" ever since Christmas. She's been really excited about it! She really loved what we gave her last year, and she was looking forward to getting something else this year. How great is that, when your kids are excited to receive something which will remind them about Jesus? I was excited too... this is one of my favorite times of the year, when I get to speak things over each member of my family by giving them a special token of was my wife and I see in them. If you haven't yet tried it yourself... you really should!

This year when I sat everybody down (I always insist on sitting on the floor next to the Christmas tree) I wanted to explain a few things about the Magi. First, I read the verses in Matthew that talk about them:
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

(Matthew 2:1-2 ESV)
I told them that we don't really know exactly where these "wise men" came from, but some think that they may have come from the region of Babylon, and perhaps they came because they were familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures. I read them this:
Know therefore and understand that from the going out of the word to restore and build Jerusalem to the coming of an anointed one, a prince, there shall be seven weeks. Then for sixty-two weeks it shall be built again with squares and moat, but in a troubled time.

(Daniel 9:25 ESV)
This is from a prophecy given to Daniel in Babylon. The "weeks" are actually weeks of years, not days. The angel was telling Daniel exactly when the Messiah was going to be born! A man of wisdom in ancient Babylon would certainly be familiar with the writings of Daniel, who was one of the wisest advisers any Babylonian king had ever had. Maybe they were looking at their watches and wondering when it was going to happen!

Then I read this:
I see him, but not now;
   I behold him, but not near:
a star shall come out of Jacob,
   and a scepter shall rise out of Israel;
it shall crush the forehead of Moab
   and break down all the sons of Sheth.

(Numbers 24:17 ESV)
These were words given to a Gentile prophet named Balaam that talk about a future human person, but compare him to a "scepter" (meaning, he will be a king) and also a "star". This was widely considered a prophecy of the Messiah in those times. Assuming that these learned Gentiles knew about Daniel's prophecies and also about this one by Balaam, and assuming they had done the math and realized that Daniel's timing had elapsed, when they saw a "star" in the sky, of course they were going to go where it led them!

After explaining all of this, I told them that there are two things the Magi did that are what we want our Epiphany gifts to inspire us to.
  1. The Magi knew the Word of God. They didn't have all of it that we have now, but they knew the parts of it that they had. We want our family to know the Word.
  2. They searched for Jesus. They physically went looking for Him! We don't go anywhere physically now, of course, and Jesus has promised He is always with us. But we want our family to seek out ways to draw closer to Him.
With all of that out of the way, we went on to the gifts!

First, my daughter opened her gift. Last year we gave her a storybook, and she and I read through all of the stories several times in the months after we gave it to her. After going through it a couple of times we went on to other storybooks, but my wife (who tucks the kids in at night) told me that our little girl still keeps the book by her bed, and every night before she goes to sleep she reads one of the Bible verses. We decided to get her a book called Little Miss Grace Promise Book which has several Bible verses on each page, so she would never run out! We also bought her a bookmark to keep her place (the book has a ribbon bookmark built in, but we loved the one we found). She was so excited! She even took it to show her grandma later that night.

Next it was my son's turn. This year he entered high school, and not only is he taking his studies very seriously, but he is taking his music very seriously. He plays trumpet, and he is among the best in the school band, even as a freshman. My wife and I are both musicians also, and we know that one of the worst enemies any musician has is his own self-doubt. We gave him a little token, roughly the size of a quarter, that he can carry around with him. It says "No Doubt" on it, and has a Scripture on the back to remind him to never doubt God, and never doubt himself. (I don't have a link for the token, but here's a keyring with the same design.)

Later, after we had all opened our gifts, my son said "Why is it that the best gifts are always so tiny?" It may sound like irony to someone who doesn't know him, but he was being very serious. That little token apparently meant a lot to him!

Next, I gave my wife her gift. Like many women, she loves roses, and I gave her this mug, which just inside the rim where you can hardly help but see it when you take a sip has a Scripture that I hope she reads hundreds of times this year.

Finally, for the first time, this year I received a gift too! My wife had bought me the hugest coffee cup I have ever owned. It's a 20-oz mug, and it has a Scripture on the back of it (where you see it when you pick it up to drink). Because of things I've mentioned to her in recent weeks, she knew this particular verse would be meaningful to me. (If you stay with me in the coming weeks you will get to find out some of what she was thinking of when she bought it.)

(Next to a "normal-sized" cup for scale)

After everyone had received their gifts, we went over to my mom's house - Three Kings Day is also the start of the season leading up to Lent, and where we are from (Louisiana) there is a special kind of cake called "Kings Cake" that you can serve at parties this time of year. She had some ready for us, and we had something ready for her: we had gotten her a little insulated cup with a picture of the kids on it and a little note they had written her. (I didn't take a picture of it.) We had another little mini-party at her house, and that was our celebration!

By the way - I know I always post pictures of our Epiphany gifts here, but that's not done in order to brag. I describe our gifts and post pictures here hoping to inspire you, reader, to take some time to really think about the people in your life and what word from God you would like to speak into their lives. To do this right you really have to put some effort into it, and find something that is both meaningful and useful. If it's not useful, they won't have it out as part of their lives for the next year, and if it isn't meaningful, then it's just more clutter around the house. But if you approach Epiphany gift-giving with thoughtfulness and love, maybe you'll have someone who is still, after a year, reading her storybook every night before bed. Maybe your one little purchase will make a huge difference when they need it. Maybe you can start the new year off with something genuinely special!

Monday, January 5, 2015

Count Down to Epiphany 2015

Saturday my wife and I went out and did our Epiphany shopping.

What is Epiphany, you may ask? (If you haven't been reading this blog for the past few years, that is.)

Epiphany is a traditional holiday also known as "Three Kings Day". It is celebrated in some churches as the day the Wise Men/Magi/Three Kings brought gifts to Jesus and Mary and Joseph. For the past few years in my family, we as parents have taken it as an opportunity to bless our children with some very small gift which we hope will help them grow closer to Christ in the coming year. You can read about what happened in previous years in these blog posts.

Anyway, I wanted to remind my readers that it is coming up this Tuesday. If you have people who are close to you, consider stopping by a Christian bookstore - or any store, really - and picking up a gift for someone. Don't give them something expensive. Give them something meaningful. And it doesn't have to be a Bible, either... be creative. Give it to them on Tuesday, and tell them you hope that whenever they run across it in 2015, it reminds them that God loves them and wants to be close to them, and you love them, too. And be sure and stop by later this week when I tell you about what my wife and I chose for our family!

By the way. You may have noticed that I've been... well, pretty quiet in this blog for the past while. In fact, it's been nearly a year since I've posted anything! To be honest, it was a rough, discouraging 2014 for me, and I've come to think that it was probably mostly my own fault. I'll probably share a little bit of that in the coming weeks. I've started to itch a little bit to share again here, so I hope you'll join me as I continue to pound out my thoughts about God that the Bible and spirituality and music and whatever else comes along that I think might be interesting. Why don't we have a great 2015 together!

Monday, January 13, 2014

Ragamuffin: The Movie

This past weekend, my wife and son and I went to see a movie that I'm comfortable saying I will never forget. And I don't say that about just any movie. Ragamuffin is about one of those guys who left an indelible mark on the world, and then abruptly and unintentionally left it too soon.

Rich Mullins wrote a song that by now, pretty close to anybody who's been in church more than about ten minutes is familiar with: "Awesome God". He wrote a bunch of other cool songs about Jesus, too. In fact, come to think of it, almost every song he wrote was about Jesus. In the 80s and 90s when Rich was around the music scene, there was a lot of pressure to do otherwise - his focus on vulnerability and seeking to honor only Christ in his music made quite an impact on the Contemporary Christian Music industry he was in. And that's part of what the movie is about, but it's about much, much more.

Let me back up a little bit. Back when I was in high school I heard "Awesome God" on the radio, and instantly realized how unusual it was. These days, Christian radio is pretty much full of songs that you also find in church worship services, but back then it wasn't like that. Back then, if you were doing "contemporary worship" in your church, you were probably getting your material from one of several outfits that were putting out CDs specifically for that purpose... the Integrity Hosanna series, the Maranatha Praise series, that sort of thing. But this song was on the radio, and it sounded like a song you would do in church, complete with a full choir on the chorus! And yet, it was kind of subversive. Have you ever listened to the parts that aren't the chorus? By "Awesome" Rich Mullins clearly primarily meant "powerful", and the verses are about God displaying his power. Ever sing that line about how God poured out judgement and wrath on Sodom in your church? I didn't think so!

Anyway, in the years following I enjoyed Rich's music very much, and I even bought a couple of his CDs, although I didn't try to snag every single one that came by. When I heard he was going to be playing a concert in Tulsa where I live, I jumped at the chance to attend! It was a terrific show, and I'm certainly glad I didn't play the "I don't have time, I'll catch Rich the next time he comes to town" card.

Rich never came back to town. I few weeks later I heard the news that Rich had been killed in an automobile accident.

Fast-forward to a month or two ago when I heard that this movie had been completed and was being shown literally a couple of miles from where I live! The only showing in the entire state of Oklahoma! My wife and I certainly weren't going to miss this! And I knew my son, who wasn't even born when Rich died but who has been a fan of his ever since he was old enough to be a fan of anything, would want to go too (he did).

The movie had a profound effect on the three of us. I think it moved my son more than any other movie he's ever seen. On one strange level, it's the same old story of a rock star who shone brightly, attacked life and music with gusto, and left too soon. On another level, it's the story of a guy who struggled to understand his own life and his own place in God's plan, but who always always always trusted God. All through the movie you desperately want to see Rich find an escape from the tumultuous things in his life. In the end, he does find that place, in the "Sunday-school answer" he knew all along: Jesus' love is that place of peace.

Rich had done interviews over the years, and I probably heard one or two of them, but most of what I knew about him was based on his music. Rich's songs are very tightly focused on Jesus and on God's love, but they also have a strong artistic sensibility about them. The lyrics are vivid, and (especially a bit later on) the musicianship and instrumentation are beautiful. This was clearly music created by someone who loved music very much, and who loved Jesus even more.

What I didn't know about were some of the details that a guy doesn't really care to talk about much in interviews with Christian radio stations, such as the unsatisfying relationship he had his whole life with his father, getting put out to pasture by the love of his life who apparently couldn't bring herself to follow him into his blossoming music career, and his alcoholism and smoking. The movie doesn't shy away from any of those things, and it gives you a very layered look at the man behind all of those beautiful songs.

But I think that you really have to be familiar with Rich's body of work to appreciate this movie for what it is. Rich's songs appear at many points during the narrative, but unless you have a firm sense of what Rich was trying to articulate in his music, what he truly believed with his whole heart, it would be easy to get a misguided idea of what the guy on the screen was really like. There aren't very many on-screen discussions of God; actually, there are a number of discussions that occur visibly, but narration sums up what they are about. The movie is about Rich's life; to find out about his beliefs you need to listen to his music. This is not a fault of the movie; this is what happens when you try to boil down 40 years of a complex man's life into a 2-hour movie. You hit the high points. And I think the move does a very satisfying job of giving us a bird's-eye view of the life of a very interesting human being.

The movie is not perfect. Judging from photos and videos I've seen of Rich, I think he generally had a friendlier vibe personally than was portrayed in the film. I suspect that in the movie Rich comes off more Jim Morrisony than he did in real life. However, Michael Koch (who played Rich in the film) does an impressive job of channeling Rich's vocals and piano/guitar playing, and his acting performance is certainly compelling. The story rambles a bit; instead of being a very clear exploration of one aspect of Rich's life (such as "this is the love story about Rich" or "this is the story of how Rich's music was made") it touches on a lot of things. On the one hand, maybe a polished Hollywood guy would have tightened that up a bit; on the other hand, I think to some extent Rich rambled his way through life, and maybe that kind of script is just the thing. It did give me the impression that the movie was longer than it turns out it actually was.

In the end, I am so glad I got the opportunity to see this movie. I would highly recommend it to anyone. I would go see it again in a heartbeat. If and when it comes out on DVD, I'll be picking up a copy. I've been listening to Rich's CDs all weekend, and now I see some dimensions of the lyrics that I didn't notice before (there are lines in "We Are Not As Strong As We Think We Are" and "Jacob and 2 Women", for example, that take on an added poignancy when you know about the Rich's love for a woman who turned her back on him). I won't ever hear Rich's songs with the same ears again.

I do hope a lot of people see this movie and let God speak to them through it. If it's coming anywhere near your town, PLEASE go see it. You will definitely not regret it.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Epiphany 2014

Yesterday evening I sat my family down on the floor in our living room, as I have on January 6 each year for the past two. This year my wife knew what was going on (I got her help selecting the gifts!) but my two kids didn't know at first. "Today's a special holiday..." I started, and my 13-year-old son jumped in: "Oh, it's Three Kings Day!" Right he was! And his sudden understanding, appropriately, was an "epiphany" which is the other name for the day. Mostly for my 6-year-old daughter's sake (she's little, so she's going to need to full spiel for at least the next couple of years) but also for my son and wife's sake, I explained again this year that Epiphany or Three Kings Day is a day the traditional church celebrates the arrival of the Magi with gifts for the baby Jesus. I also explained something that hadn't really clicked with me until this year: the Wise Men are the first recorded Gentiles to come to Jesus. The holiday is called "Epiphany" because an epiphany is a revelation, and the arrival of the Wise Men was a revelation that Jesus was for everyone, not just for the Jews. How awesome is that?

My own tradition for the past few years has been to secretly purchase an inexpensive gift ($20 is about the max I spend on each gift) for each family member that I hope will inspire them to think about God more, or learn something about the Bible, or whatever. You can see examples of what I got them in the past two years here and here. The trick is to pick something that will truly speak to the heart of each person. This year was even more special because I invited my wife to pick the gifts for the kids with me. She was an awesome help! Frankly, I'm not sure I would have made the best choice for our daughter without her.

My little girl opened that gift first. My wife and I had spent a significant amount of time searching and searching through the stuff in the children's section at the Christian bookstore the Saturday before, trying to decide whether to get her a "real" Bible, some kind of Bible story book, or something else. We finally settled on a book called Princess Stories: Real Bible Stories of God's Princesses which is a book of Bible stories specifically of women and girls, told from their perspective. The artwork is very warm and inviting, and the stories are designed to give little girls characters from the Bible that they can think about and look up to. (Not many of them are technically royalty, but the point is that as daughters of The King, every girl and woman who comes to Jesus is a real live princess!) As a bonus, there is either a kitten, a puppy, or a bunny on nearly every page (on some pages you have to settle for a bird or butterfly, but that's OK.) My daughter was so excited to start hearing the stories that she didn't want to wait for bedtime to hear one! She begged to hear the one about the Bible character who has her same name... "Look, my name is right in the book!" she said. I think that counts as a successful choice!

Next, my son opened his gift. Since he is a newly-minted teenager, we thought we would give him something to help him really get a grasp on the "big picture" of the Word of God. I'd seen the "The Story" items when they came out a year or so ago, and I found the idea of formatting the Bible's grand narrative like a modern novel very interesting. The Bible can be so intimidating... it's long, things don't come in the right order, and most people barely know about what happens in a huge hunk of it. "The Story" is a whole series of books and materials focused for specific age groups - there is a The Story for adults, the Teen version we got my son, and even storybook-style versions for grade schoolers and preschoolers. The grander idea is that a church can launch a program where each age group studies the same section of their own The Story edition (there are 31 divisions in each book) every week, and the whole church learns the basics of the whole Bible together. Our church isn't doing the larger program, but hopefully my son will get interested in it using his own copy. He's actually a pretty big reader (when he's not playing one video game or another!) and he was surprisingly enthusiastic when he realized what he was holding. He was actually more excited than I thought he would be. He's a great kid! And my wife is actually so intrigued with the concept that we'll be getting the e-book (adult edition) for her to put on her cell phone so she can read through it as well.

(On a side note, at this writing is running a big promotion of "The Story", and they have the materials on deep discount. For example, the $20 adult edition of "The Story" is on sale for $5! Check the sale out at their "What Is The Story?" page.)

My wife had forgotten that she always gets a gift too... when I pulled out the gift I got her, she seemed embarrassed that she hadn't thought to get me something! I don't care whether I get a gift or not, but I suspect I will next year! I had gotten her The Duck Commander Devotional, a one-year devotional book written by the stars of the Duck Dynasty TV show, which she is a HUGE fan of. (I got her the girly pink one, of course, but there is a version with a green cover for the studly man in your life.) She was so excited that she almost decided to read the first six entries right away to catch up! I told her it was OK to wait and read those first few entries next January!

My daughter was so pumped about our Epiphany gifts that she immediately decreed that I should have one too, and she got out her art supplies and proceeded to make me the crown you see below. I was actually kind of surprised when she did the whole thing herself over the course of maybe 20-30 minutes, including designing the crown, cutting out all of the pieces, and gluing it all together! The end result is terrific! It's a little small for my big Daddy head, but it fits pretty well on one of my stuffed doggies at work. It will definitely be treasured for years to come!

Make a habit of watching this blog for the next year. Come late December, I'll be reminding my readers that Epiphany is coming up. It's a tradition that has been very meaningful for my family, and I have no intention of ever not doing it. (Heck, when my kids grow up and have their own families, they may be surprised to find something in their mailboxes on January 6!) And even though it's January 7, it's not too late to follow my lead! Stop by the Christian bookstore and pick up some little thing... a bookmark, a toy Bob the Tomato, a music CD. Something to encourage a loved one to draw closer to Christ. It's never a bad day to have the epiphany that Jesus Christ is a gift personally given to you!

My Epiphany crown. And, before you ask: YES, it is
right side up. (She corrected me when I turned it over.)

Monday, January 6, 2014

Wise men STILL seek Him!

Wondering what this is all about? Click for the explanation.

Friday, January 3, 2014

In A Year, Take 2, Part B

By the way, yesterday I blogged about how I'm planning to take the Bible by storm this year using the YouVersion Bible app, but I didn't mention another thing I'm also doing this year. I have about a 25 or 30-minute commute in to work every morning, and I've decided to use that time every day to listen to my favorite audio version of the Bible. Several years ago I purchased this audio New Testament read by a guy named Marquis Laughlin. I've listened to a lot of it in bits and pieces, but I've decided to start it from Matthew 1:1 and just let it run in the car on my commute in (my commute home I'll listen to the radio or whatever else I want; I'm not in a hurry). If you think this sounds like a good idea, there are a number of audio Bibles for sale in several different formats - MP3, audio CD, even some devices that come pre-loaded with audio Bibles on them. Or, use your smartphone and one of the apps like YouVersion, Bible Gateway, eBible, or which have audio built into them for free (the app has "dramatized" versions, which will have one of two affects on you: either you will feel immersed into the experience, or you will find the dramatic music a bit over the top. Try it out and see which reaction you have!)

The main point is, use whatever tools you have at your disposal to get into the Word. You will in no way regret it!

Thursday, January 2, 2014

In A Year, Take 2

Three years ago about this time, I posted this. "This year I'm going to do it," I said - read all the way through the Bible. I wanted to go all the way through my ESV Study Bible (see what it looks like at and read the whole text and the study notes. Not to far into my quest, I also decided to read the notes from my NIV Study Bible (here it is at CBD) and get a second perspective on things. The plan was good, the materials were just what I wanted, and I made some great progress. In fact, I made it more than halfway through the Bible that year (read my end-of-year wrap-up here), and in the long run I made it clear into the Minor Prophets before I completely fizzled out. We moved out of our house into a smaller apartment, the spot where I could read wasn't as conducive to peace and quiet, and whatever other reasons there might be took the wind completely out of my sails. At this point, if I picked that program back up where I left off, I would be totally in the dark about what I was doing.

Holy Bible iconSo this year I decided to start over. This time, instead of doing it the "Give yourself a self-taught college-level Bible survey class" way, I decided to go with the "Get in, get it done, and get out Bible ninja" method. I still don't have a satisfactory Bible Study spot, but I think I can carve out a few minutes at bedtime every night. And I have a smartphone. It's got Bible apps. Bible apps have reading plans. In fact, I've used a couple of the shorter YouVersion reading plans before... why not jump in with one of the long-term plans?

So that's what I'm doing. I selected the plan based on The One Year Bible; it seemed straightforward enough. It's linked to the NLT version, which is generally not my preferred translation but it's easy to get through. And that's my goal for this year: get through all of the parts of the whole Bible. Read the whole thing. In my previous try I was hoping to get a pretty deep understanding of how the Bible fits together - I did get that understanding, to an extent, and the parts that I made it through should feel a bit like old friends now. This time I just want to experience the Bible on its own, without trying to hard to learn every detail. Some things about history and context I should remember; other things I certainly will not. But I have a lifetime to go back over that stuff. This year I just want to make it all the way through. And with the help of some 21st-century technology (the Internet and a smartphone) I think I can make it happen!