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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!

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Christmas, Day 2

'Turtle doves' photo (c) 2005, shankar s. - license: do you mean, "Christmas is over for the year"? Of COURSE Christmas isn't over. Yesterday was just the beginning! Don't you know there are twelve days of Christmas?

No, seriously. There are twelve days of Christmas. In Church tradition, December 25th is only the first day of Christmas, the celebration of the day when the child Jesus was born. In fact, the rest of December isn't "Christmas" at all; everything leading up to December 25 is called "Advent", which is where the idea for your chocolate "Advent Calendar" came from. So even if you're not a high-church kind of guy or girl, you can at least thank the Church for giving you an excuse to spend the entire month of December eating chocolate!

So today, December 26, is actually the second day of Christmas. But in lieu of giving and receiving gifts of turtledoves today, the Church calendar asks you to think about Christianity's first recorded martyr, St. Stephen. Today is St. Stephen's Day, and you can find a little information about it here at Wikipedia, if you are so inclined. Switch gears from the seasonal song you've had going on in your head the whole time you've been reading this post so far, and think about the first line of "Good King Wenceslas". Now you know what day the good king is supposed to have looked out on the deep, crisp, even snow and seen a poor man who needed his help.

In our family, we happen to have come up with our own little tradition for the day after all of the ruckus and presents and hubbub... many years we take December 26 as a day to bake a "Happy Birthday Jesus" cake and celebrate just a little bit longer. Not only is it a nice way to sort of ramp down from the adrenaline rush that is Christmas in the United States of America, but it's a small way to once again remind ourselves of what we as Christians are supposed to be celebrating. I'm sure there are lots of Christian families out there who have had the same idea and who have the same tradition.

It's not just December 26th that has a special meaning, though. Every day of the twelve actually has a significance in Church liturgy - I've never been part of a denomination that celebrated them, so I've only heard about and read about them. But one that has stuck for me occurs on the day after the twelfth day of Christmas. That holiday is called Epiphany, and it is the celebration of the day when the Wise Men arrived in Bethlehem (I blogged about it previously here). Two years ago I started a tradition in my family (and sprung it on my wife as a surprise that first year!) that we would get a small gift for each family member and give it to them on Epiphany, the day the Magi gave gifts to Jesus. This gift is never a video game or toy, though... this gift has to be different. This gift is carefully selected as something that will give that family member a way to focus on Jesus for the entire coming year. In that way, it is an intensely personal gift. It can't be the same thing for each family member; it has to be something selected specifically for their age, gender, and level of understanding of the things of God.

The first year I did this I did not tell my wife what I was doing until I had already done it... it was quite a surprise for everyone, but I thought it was a pretty wonderful experience. The next year she knew about it ahead of time, but I still pretty much handled it myself rather than truly bringing her into the situation (although I've always intended to). This year we've already talked about it briefly; I've got some of the gifts already, but there's more to do. But she'll be selecting the remaining gifts with me this time.

For me, it has been worth the effort every year so far. I hope my gifts have had the intended effect on my family members, but even if they haven't, the act of working so hard to come up with something for each of them to direct them to Jesus has had a profound effect on me. I look forward to it every year. I would definitely encourage any of you to spring the same surprise on someone on January 6 - whether it be a family member, a brother or sister in Christ, or maybe even just someone you know who could use a little encouragement. Jesus said that something done for "the least of these" who need a helping hand is done to Him... let's be wise enough to follow the example of the Wise Men, who brought gifts to Jesus, and truly bring Him our gifts this Epiphany!

Music by David Crowder Band to celebrate these "Bonus Days" of Christmas we Christians get to:

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

It's About Trust

This past Sunday, my pastor spoke about Jesus' temptation by Satan in the desert. Satan tempted Jesus three different ways, and Jesus had an answer from the Word for each temptation. But what all three boil down to, and what all of our temptations boil down to, is trust. Do you trust that God cares about you? Do you trust that He is concerned if you have financial trouble and don't have enough to eat or a place to live? Do you trust that He has your best interests at heart, and if you follow His lead, things will go well for you? Do you trust that God wants to see you in Heaven with Him one day? Pastor's point was that every sin we commit in some way comes back to a lack of trust that God loves us and cares about us. If we don't trust Him, we'll try to do it ourselves, and that's where sin comes in.

I think we can take that idea a bit further, though. I would submit for your consideration that there is nothing else we can trust in except God. We certainly can't trust in other people - people are very complex creatures, and every one of us lets someone down from time to time, despite our best efforts. We can't trust things that aren't alive, either, things like financial market forces or things that occur in nature like weather patterns or medical facts. There are certainly patterns at work in all of those things, but they are so complicated that they are beyond our comprehension, and they can be affected by things we can't foresee. Heck, I live in Oklahoma... I can tell you that you can't even trust it to be cold in the wintertime and hot in the summertime.

You may think that you have one thing you can trust: yourself. If you think that, you are wrong. You can't trust your own memories, for example... any psychologist can put you in a situation where you are absolutely positive you remember something that happened, and you are absolutely wrong. Witnesses to crimes get details wrong all the time, not because they are lying but because they don't remember just right. When a witness is being questioned, the interrogator has to be extremely careful not to provide information for the witness that he will later be sure he supplied himself. We can't even trust our own judgement, because sometimes we just don't have a complete enough understanding of a situation to choose wisely, and sometimes there are factors we weren't aware of.

To be completely honest, you can't even trust your own eyes. Have you ever had a fever and hallucinated something, and it seemed completely real? Have you ever been on medicine that gave you weird visions, or had a bit too much alcohol and saw something that wasn't there? If our bodies get the least bit out of whack, or have even a tiny bit of any of a huge variety of chemicals introduced into them, we get all messed up. It might not even take something that extreme to throw you off course... try not going to sleep for two or three nights in a row and see if you still have a clear picture of what's going on around you. Even eating the wrong kind of food, even legitimate food that is good for your body, can make weird things happen given the right allergy or in combination with something else. Your brain is a huge chemistry set, and if the wrong chemicals get in there, you definitely cannot trust your own five senses.

There is nothing in this world that you can trust 100%. The only thing in existence anywhere that is trustworthy is God. If you choose to put too much trust in anything but Him, you're setting yourself up for trouble, disappointment, and ultimately, utter failure. But if you do put your trust in Him, you are setting yourself up for a life where success is not only possible, it is probable. Or, dare I say it? If you put your trust in God, success in your life is guaranteed. It may not look like what a man on the street thinks means success, but you will obtain success that you know in your heart is the best kind of success there is.

Trust God today. All the way, without reservation. See where it gets you!