Critic

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Remember the old show At the Movies with Siskel and Ebert?  It was a TV show with two movie critics who were about as opposite as they could be.  One was fat, the other thin.  One was hairy, one bald.  They even had completely different tastes in movies.  They would sit each week and review the movies that they’d watched.  They’d argue a lot, but if a movie got “two thumbs up,” you knew it would be good.

I used to watch the show sometimes, not really for the movies, but mostly because of the conversations and interplay between the two men.  What always struck me though, was that the joy of just getting lost in a film seemed to be missing from them.  They discussed plot elements and the charisma of the actors, but there was no awe.  I suppose that a movie critic wouldn’t be a good one if he just said, “wow,” about every movie.  But nonetheless, I don’t think I’d ever want to be one of those guys.

Actually, I’ve never wanted to be a critic of anything.  But I feel a bit of a constant struggle to keep that raw innocence, that “double rainbow” fascination with things in life.  My psyche keeps wanting to judge and consume.

I thought about this more when I recently had a friend email me some songs as part of an informal music exchange we’d been having.  I waited until I had the time to truly sit and absorb the music before responding.  One was depressing and felt a little like emotional manipulation, but other than that exception, they were all melodic and quite beautiful.

I opened up an email reply and started to type out a detailed dissertation concerning the qualities and various elements of each song.  One was lacking a significant hook.  One seemed to have excessive vocal runs.  On it went, till suddenly I stopped myself midsentence and…

I looked at what I had been typing.  This was truly a great job of music criticism, yet in my flurry of analysis a beam of clarity broke through.  My friend wasn’t sending me songs so that I could give them the Simon Cowell treatment.  The point behind the exchange was to say “Here is some music that is affecting me right now.”  It was about sharing a little of what is happening in our lives and hearts.  And here I was, trying to determine the musical quality of each song.

I don’t know exactly why my emotional train got off track.  But I do know that it seems a lot of people I talk to have become perpetual talent scouts of almost everything around them, and I guess I am starting to fall into the same sort of thinking.  But I don’t want to.

I don’t think God wants us to either.  As far as I know Him, God seems to be less focused on judging us all the time, as He is in enjoying relationship with us.  It is not God who focuses constantly on judgment, which is funny because He is the one who has the right to be.  It is us who have made Him out to be perpetually on the judges bench casting down pronouncements on everything.  My favorite quote of all time, by G.K. Chesterton goes:

Perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”

Maybe God makes the sunset every night both because He has just never gotten tired of it, but also because He just wants us to see its beauty.  No, I’m not denying that chemicals in the atmosphere and moisture produce the color.  But maybe God directs it all like some heavenly maestro, blues and reds, sweeping violets and touches of orange, all for some unwitting audience here on earth who spends more time focusing on our business than on any great cosmic ballet.

I’ve never sat looking at the sunset and picked out the colors that are lacking, or even debated whether it was as pretty as other sunsets I’ve seen.  I know people who can do that, but not me.  I don’t feel like I have the qualifications to do that.  I can’t make a sunset, but I can enjoy it.  It could be that is why God made it, for me to enjoy.

I want to approach much of life with that same wild-eyed wonder of a child.  I want to listen to music with a smile.  If I don’t want to be a movie critic, I should try not to be one in other areas of my life too.

In Defense of “God Damn!”

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Now that I’ve gotten your attention, yes I am talking about the epithet, but no, I am not really defending the curse.  Actually, I would just like to discuss language in general and why it seems to me like we are damning the wrong curse while completely ignoring its far more dangerous cousin.

This weekend I worked an event at the Texas State Fair.  It was for a campaign to screen people for COPD (just google it).  I will be doing a lot of work with the company running this campaign over the next month.  I know that this information seems to move away from any discussion of coarse language, but a few events this weekend made me spend a lot of time thinking about the words that come out of our mouths.

During my work, I had a great time meeting a lot of the people from the advertising company running the campaign.  They were nice, bright, and around my age.  We talked about all kinds of things and as always, they eventually asked about what I do for a living.  I told them.

The life I have chosen is not one which goes by unnoticed when I mention it.  I often try not to broach this subject until I know people a little bit, not because I am embarrassed, but because they always instantly put me in a little mental plastic box.  I become the somewhat strange person that they can observe, but must be kind of careful around.  It is like I’m suddenly Hannibal Lector.  It isn’t very fair to me, I must say.  I haven’t had someone’s liver in years.

One of the most common reactions is “Oh, I’m sorry about my language.  I’ll try to be more careful.”  When they say this, I wonder if they secretly think that they are teaching me to use new forbidden words that I have never before heard.  Like some two year old child, I would be at the platform the next Sunday saying “Screw You” (OK—worse) and then claiming, “I dunno, I heard it at the fair.”

In all truth, I do appreciate their reaction.  It means that they recognize that some of their language is not healthy and that they should do something about it.  I know that it isn’t them fearing me feeling judgmental, because I always tell them it is OK, that they can be normal, and people always then tell me that they need to stop cussing so much anyway.

But in all of these situations, what never seems to change is their use of “god” as a random interjection in sentences.  Sure, if they get angry and say “God Damn it!” they look at me with a guilty look.  This has happened on numerous occasions.  But when they say “Oh god, I’m so tired,” or something like it, they think absolutely nothing about feeling guilty.

This isn’t unique to the secular world, though.  In church, almost on a weekly basis I hear the “God, I _____,” quote emanate from some teenager’s mouth.  In my little kingdom at church, I can say something about this.  I stop and kindly remind them that it is rude to God when we do that, and that He thought it important to even include this as part of the Big Ten.

When someone say s, “God Damn it!” what they are saying is that they are really angry about something.  This phrase literally means, “send this thing to hell.”  I don’t think that this excuses the comment  at all, really.  If someone had done something blatantly blasphemous, or persecuted God’s people, I suppose one could make a case for the appropriate use of that phrase.  I am not sure what I think on that.  It is not our place to play judge and jury, or to call for vengeance.  On the other hand, David and the prophets were often asking for God to do such things.

But when we slip “God” casually into every sentence, the word has no meaning whatsoever.   When I was a teen, I used to say “like” almost every other word for a while.  I wasn’t really comparing things.  In fact, like I didn’t know I was even like saying it at all usually.  Sometimes it still slips into my sentences.

I really think that was the point of God’s prohibition in the Ten Commandments.  In the Exodus 20:7 mention, the one that everyone knows, the word translated from the Masoretic text as “vain” is the Hebrew word “shav.”  In the rest of the Old Testament, this word either refers to meaninglessness, worthlessness, or falsehood.

Psalm 108 uses this word when it says “vain is the help of men.”  Psalm 144 uses shav saying “…whose mouth speaks vanity, and their right hand is a right hand of falsehood.”  Both of these uses are commonly repeated in the Old Testament.  So which one is the case for the Exodus passage?

Partly , I think it doesn’t really matter.  There is no real doubt that God would want His name to be used falsely.  In fact, that would break another commandment anyway.  The real danger is in using His name without any meaning.  For when God’s name is used in falsehood, the person is trying to use God’s authority for trickery, not something we are commonly tempted to do.  That takes a real desire to rebel against Him.

But when we use God’s name without any meaning at all, it is lowering God’s position in our life to no different than an “and” or a “but”.  Yes, I know that this isn’t consciously done.  But doesn’t that make it even worse?  The fact that God’s people would be throwing His very name around with meaninglessness is deeply offensive to Him.  I think that this is just another reminder of the casualness that we have applied to God.

So let me say something a bit controversial in response to all of this:  There is no biblical precedent for approaching God casually.  It seems to me to be an American concept of God, that he is your best buddy who you can just hang out with.  When I was a kid, I used to tell God jokes at night that I heard during the day.  I still tell Him those jokes.  I think we all should, and I think that He loves that.  I bet He laughs—hard, even though He has already heard them all, and many of them were His inventions in the first place.

But under no circumstances is God our buddy.  He’s the Father, the Maker, The Omnipotent Mover.  Any response to truly being in His presence is nothing even approaching cavalier, but an immense feeling of being altogether different, and a healthy fear, reverence.  When we lose that, we lose our understanding of our place in the universe.  We begin to believe that it is all about us.

We talk about the cross as if God got in a really bad situation ‘cause He just couldn’t live without us, so He had to send His Son for a sacrifice, a last-ditch effort that luckily worked out.  This is very far from the truth, and dilutes power of the cross.  God didn’t need us, he loved us.  We don’t deserve this miracle of atonement.  We deserve judgment.  God never owed us.  He paid a debt we owed Him.

In response, we have changed His name to an “um” in the middle of our sentences.

I am not suggesting that we start screaming and acting like Pharisees to anyone who accidentally copies the same speech patterns of everyone around them.  Instead I am suggesting that His Church start acting Christianly.  I am suggesting that we stop making it cool to be a Christian because we can look like everyone else.  I am suggesting that we stop approaching church as a hang out time with God, because He misses us so much, and we really should stop by and see Him once in a while.

I don’t see God writing a letter to the Church today asking if we could tone down the fancy clothes and the formality.  He might see that as extraneous, but not offensive.  But I am sure that He is hurt by His people making the Cross nothing more than jewelry, His House a hang out place, and His name an interjection in our sentences.

Reference: James Chapter 3, Ephesians 4:29

Cool Moon Picture

I took this picture of the moon from outside my house on the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival night. Since the Chinese calendar is a lunar calendar, most of their holidays are during full moons. Part of the tradition surrounding the Mid-Autumn Festival is to look up at the moon during that night.

Back to My Nets

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Peter

I have always felt a strong bond with the biblical character of Peter, one of Jesus followers in the New Testament.  The first time we meet Peter is in Matthew chapter 4.  Peter is a fisherman, the family business.  Like all Hebrew boys, he had done his time in religious school as a small child.  During that time, he learned large sections of the Torah (the Old Testament).

Maybe he stopped after he memorized the first five books, like most Jewish children.  Maybe he promoted and memorized all of the rest.  We don’t know.  But we do know that by the time he met Jesus he had stopped that schooling, meaning that he wasn’t judged good enough to continue.  He would never be found worth carrying the yoke, or teachings, of a rabbi, and no rabbi would assume that Peter would ever be good enough to follow him and learn to do the things the rabbi did.  He just wasn’t good enough.

We don’t know what Peter’s thoughts about all of this were.  Certainly somewhere in the back of his mind he had imagined that he could someday be a famous rabbi, commanding the attention of everyone and gathering followers who had traveled for days in order to hear him speak.  The rabbis of that day were like baseball or movie stars today.  I imagine young Hebrew boys in their backyards, instead of batting at some makeshift ball, playing Sanhedrin with the neighbor kids and making supreme religious judgments as their parents looked on, smiling at their words and at their own beautiful dreams for their children.

Somewhere in the back of his mind, becoming an apprentice fisherman under his dad had to have been a disappointment.  I bet that his parents had put a smiling face on it.  They had all really known that this is how things would end up, but still they had hoped.  Going into the family business isn’t usually the dream of small boys, especially when it is something as inglorious as fishing.  Peter settled into the life that everyone assumed he would always live.

But then, some random Thursday, a rabbi who was achieving sudden stardom amid reports of miracles approaches.  Peter hadn’t seen him on TV, but the rumor mill preceded Jesus travel.  This rabbi looks at Peter and says, “Follow me.”  Peter’s response isn’t surprising in this light.  Someone great was looking at Peter and saying, ‘you are worthy. I believe in you.’  Maybe Peter could achieve what everyone always knew he couldn’t.

Failing

Peter dealt repeatedly in the New Testament with failure.  He was always getting into some kind of trouble.  I am often amused by the fact that in every story of the New Testament where Peter, a fisherman,  and a boat are mentioned, he is failing at his nautical task.  Whether he is simply using a boat as transportation or he is fishing, he is failing at the job.  Even in the later New Testament, Peter is getting into trouble with Paul for taking some controversial stands.

Peter also has some great triumphs, and ultimately Peter stands as one on the list of the most influential men in history.  Let that sink in for a minute.  Peter gives the very first evangelistic sermon.  Peter is one of the most celebrated martyrs.  Peter wrote several books in the New Testament, and Catholics hold Peter up as the first Pope.

But all indications are that Peter constantly battled with feelings of failure.  When Jesus walks on the water, and Peter jumps out to the boat to meet Jesus, he sinks.  I had always assumed that Peter doubted Jesus-that he looked away from Jesus and doubted His power over the waves.  But this just doesn’t make sense.  He saw that Jesus was doing it.  Jesus wasn’t sinking.  Peter was.  He cries out, “Jesus save me!”

Jesus rescues him and replies, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

Peter doubted himself.  He doubted that he could ever actually do what Jesus did.  He had been rejected by the rabbis, deemed unworthy.  Maybe Jesus just hadn’t figured out that Pete was a loser, yet.

Of course the greatest failure from our perspective is Peter’s promise to follow Jesus to the death, followed hours later by multiple denials of even knowing Him.  When things got hard, Peter retreated into the failure that he always knew he really was inside.  He went back to fishing, after falling short in his one big chance for greatness.

Greatness

For me, the most powerful moment of Jesus resurrected appearances comes when Jesus is standing on the shore and the disciples are out fishing together, and again not succeeding at the task.  The men were facing their failure together, and Peter was most likely keeping a secret of his treason, which to him must have seemed ultimately greater than all the others’.

Standing on the shore and calling out to them, was Jesus.  Peter wasted no time and dove in to swim to Jesus on the shore.  He left his nets again.  Jesus asks him three times if he loves him, and then indicates that someday Peter will face persecution for his relationship with Jesus.  This moment changed him.

I identify with Peter for his boldness, for his desire to jump in without a net, to walk on water, and to repeatedly fail at almost everything he did.  I deal with failure and repeated feelings of never measuring up.  In my mind festers a million promises I’ve made and not kept, a thousand times I set out to do something only to quit when it got too hard, or once I got distracted by something new.

I remember my childhood, and Monday, dreaming dreams of what my life could become, only to sink into the harsh reality of just not being good enough.  Never the smartest, nor the fastest, nor the prettiest, just normal enough in all of the normal ways, and abnormal enough to be not quite normal.  This isn’t a pity-party.  It just is.  These feelings aren’t paralyzing.  They just are what I am, and probably what most people out there are too.

But my God is not a good of the pretty people, the fastest, or the smartest.  My God is a God of fishermen and nobodies and not quite good-enoughs.  I serve a savior who said, ‘You aren’t good enough, and you never will be, and that is why I am here.’

I follow Jesus in the footsteps of Peter, not the first Pope (whatever that means), but the guy who failed and went back to failing as a fisherman—the Peter who desperately wanted to follow his rabbi out onto the water and sank.  I try and I fail.  I lie and I lose, and every day I find Jesus on the beach of my failure saying, “Do you love me?”  I fall into His arms and I cry.  He looks me in the eye, and in His gaze I hear, “You are not a failure—because in your weakness I am strong.  I love you and I put destiny inside of you.  Feed my sheep.”

And that is always enough.

Texas Signs

From time to time I am going to add Texas roadsigns that seem interesting enough to catch my eye.  This grouping of signs is near a corner I see regularly, and gives me great insight as to why there are so many crazy drivers in this state.  Enjoy.