Tuesday, December 30, 2008


You will not know any of the actors, nor indeed the setting in Mumbai (Bombay) unless you've been paying attention to the news of late or have been to India. You will not find appealing the setting, or many of the situations that Jamal Malik, a child of the Mumbai slums finds himself in, nor will you be glad you saw human degradation at it worst (hence the R ratings). But like a diamond found in a coal mine in the midst of mere lumps of coal, this movie is a gem in many ways, and a brave and brilliant testimony to the resillience of the human spirit. And if you like suspense, and also surprisingly happy or bittersweet endings, this is the movie for you.

Danny Boyle, a British director has teamed up with a group of actors whose sphere is Bollywood, the Indian equivalent to Hollywood, and the result is compelling story telling for a full two hours. Perhaps most impressive in this movie is the juxtaposition of Jamal's life story with the questions asked him when he manages to get himself on the Indian version of the Millionaire TV show. As the last line of the movie shows, the theme is 'it is written', that is that there is a karma, a fate, a destiny that is guiding the action in this story and its outcome, and in this respect one can find this film quite similar to Benjamin Button. And like in the case of Benjamin Button we are dealing with a person in Jamal Malik who is an engenue, an innocent caught up in a maelstrom not of his own making. Unlike his brother who chooses to go over to 'the dark side of the force' Jamal maintains his innocence, and his quest to find a girl he grew up, Latika, a girl he loves unconditionally. In desperation, having been separated from her several times, he chooses to go onto the Millionaire show in hopes she will see him and find him.

In some respects this story will be reminiscent of many of the Rudyard Kipling stories coming from and set in India, and it is a true rags to riches tale ('Rikki Tiki Tavi' comes to mind in some ways) It's just that there are a lot more rags in India to overcome especially if one is born a slumdog, and indeed Kipling's poem 'If' would be apt in this movie as well. There is a winsome quality to the story of children overcoming adult evil including adults who prey on children.

I have little doubt this film will get serious consideration for best picture of the year, and it may well be the first film, not merely made in India, but really starring Indian actors and Indian production that registers with Americans, though we have seen Ghandi and other such western uses of India as a setting for a film previously. Though this film is about children and young adults, I only recommend it for adults because of its graphic quality (no there is not a lot of violence and no explicit sex in the film). But it is a film well worth seeing, carefully constructed, and as the closing line of the film says --the outcome falls into the category of 'it is written'.

Monday, December 29, 2008



Lord God, maker of all that is good, and true and beautiful, all that is right, and righteous, and holy, all that is giving and forgiving and merciful, we entreat you on this day to have mercy on our nation America.

We confess to you that we have been self-centered, self-seeking, self-indulgent, self-absorbed. Sometimes we have even assumed that we are your favorite people, but Lord in our better moments we know that arrogance and ignorance dull our spiritual senses and cause us to over-estimate our standing with you, over-compensate for our own sense of being a young and inexperienced nation, and over-react to those who would do us harm.

How much of the bounty you have bestowed on us have we wasted in over-indulging ourselves, in greedy pursuits? How much of the largesse you have bequeathed have we wasted on fighting unnecessary wars, alienating both friend and foe, wasting our moral capital on pointless pursuits and vain strivings, all for little or naught. In the eyes of even our allies we need a complete makeover, but more importantly Lord, where do we stand in your eyes? Are you ashamed of your violent children who refuse to trust you and leave vengeance in your hands?
And now Lord we are experiencing correction, economically and otherwise. Help us to receive it as the discipline we need. Help us not to point fingers of blame at others, but ask ourselves--- Is it I Lord? Have I contributed to our being a debtor nation? Have I spent money like there was no tomorrow? Has my capital run through my hands like water through a sieve? Have I built my financial house on sand or on solid rock?

Forgive us Lord our sense of entitlement, our sense that it is ‘owed’ to us, often without hard work, without fulfilling the Genesis mandate. Forgive us for seeking short cuts to success, to wealth, to opulence—gambling, lotteries, and the like. Help us to remember Lord that work is a gift from you, and while ‘the workman is worthy of his hire’, we are not entitled to riches, or early retirement or pension, simply because we have worked hard. Forgive us our dishonesty Lord… for seeking ‘something for nothing’ for seeking compensation without real injury, for seeking good goods for little or no money, and thus driving out of our nation the artisans, the blue collar workers, the furniture makers, the textile experts, and many others. We are reaping what we have sowed Lord, and the fruit is bitter. We have not loved our neighbor as ourselves much less loved our enemies, but rather we have loved things more than we have loved people, and so we have used people to get the things we love, rather than the reverse.

And Lord what of our leaders? We remember the stories in Samuel about how Israel got the king that they deserved, rather than the leader that they needed. We ask Lord as we stand on the cusp of a new administration that we will have godly leaders equal to the awesome tasks we face with daunting troubles both at home and abroad. Give us patience with our leaders as they try to dig us out of the enormous holes we have dug ourselves into. Lord, remind us to pray for our leaders even when they exasperate us, perhaps especially when they exasperate us. Give us leaders that promote a culture of life, not death, peace not war, equity not privilege, justice and liberty for all, not just for privileged few. Give us leaders that will appeal to our best and most Christian instincts, not our worst ones, leaders who will make faith rather than fear based decisions about our drastic circumstances.
Lord we do hereby repent of all our sins as individuals and also as a nation, but help us to daily live out that repentance by actually turning away from the very things that made for debt, death, destruction, disaster, and the demise of our nation.
We know you are not finished with us yet, and there may yet be more painful corrections along the way, but Lord we take them all as tokens of your love, for we know you chasten those that you love so deeply, so that our relationship with you will not go forfeit, so that we will seek your face when all else around us is falling apart and the dark clouds loom.

We remember your promise ‘If my people who are called by my name will repent and turn to me….” and we cling to it, like a man clinging to a rope from a helicopter who is being rescued from a raging sea. Lord, teach us to truly put you first in all that we are and all that we have. Teach us the meaning of doing justice, loving loving kindness, and walking humbly with You.

Most of all, Lord, we ask in the New Year that your Son’s image might be better reflected in our demeanors, our behaviors, our beliefs. Lord we ask in the New Year that when the world looks at us, they may get a glimpse of you. And for us Lord we ask that we might see thee more clearly, love thee more dearly and follow thee more nearly every single day of 2009.

In Your Blessed Name we Pray these things,



Friday, December 26, 2008

"I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now"-- The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

'Ars longa, vita brevis', is the Latin saying-- Art is long, life short, but it is not always true. In 'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button' (PG-13), the 'ars' is rather 'longa', 167 minutes to be exact, which in some ways is a surprise since it is based on an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story, but it is worth every moment of it. This movie involves an all star cast (Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Tilda Swinton amongst others), and a tale of epic proportions, reiminiscent in some ways of Forrest Gump in terms of its full life sweep and its decidedly southern setting (filmed and set in New Orleans, for the most part, Brad's recently adopted home town). The movie tells a story whose arc goes from 1918 until 2004 and Hurricane Katrina. Such is the curious life of Benjamin Button who is born old (though in the form of a new born) on the outside and gets progressively younger as the movie goes along, but on the inside he is aging normally, and finishes as an infant with dementia.

But a life is not summed up simply by adding up its number of years, and the tale of Benjamin Button is so much more than just the ticking of time's clock, even the clock in the New Orleans train station which was deliberately set up to run backwards. It is the tale of someone who was born different and remains different throughout his entire remarkable life. It is also a tale of pilgrim's regress and yet also his progress. What this film shows ever so clearly, is that aging or its reverse is not the real villain in life. Turning back the clock doesn't change human nature, and if one could do that, as this movie so admirably shows it would create more problems than it solves-- for one thing it would make it ever so difficult to have properly developing relationships and life long friends, much less finding a mate. There is a terrible aloneness to being Benjamin Button, even from birth when he certainly was not 'cute as a button'. Finding the fountain of youth, is after all not the same as finding the tree of everlasting life.

I have to tell you that Brad Pitt should certainly win an Oscar, and Cate Blanchett is marvelous as well. This is a very watchable movie, even if you are only watching them. But the movie is so much more than a star turn. And like in any good movie the cameo appearances and minor characters are interesting in and of themselves. The photography is grand, the sweep of the story is grand, there is tragedy and triumph.

Unlike the trite Forrest Gump message 'life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you are going to get (until you sample it)' the message here is that life is rich, varied, unpredictable, and indeed co-entailed, by which I mean so many events hinge on the previous happening of so many other little events. At one juncture this is called kismet or fate in the movie, at another, just bad timing, but the picture becomes clear that one is not master of one's own fate in any case.

All our lives are intertwined and so many things can intervene and irrevocably change the course of a life. Benjamin Button is not just along for the ride, he has some say, and control in what happens to him, but only some. But imagine a life where you do not learn who your father is until just before he dies, and then your own child has the same sort of experience through reading your diary, only this time it is the daughter who learns this news too late to make a big difference. If this is like a box of chocolates there are too many pits in the cherries in there.

One of the most beautiful aspects of this story is Benjamin Button's actual mother (not the birth mother but the one on whose doorstep he was left), a black woman who raised him with love, and faith, and all that makes for good parenting, and the development of their relationship across time. Here is a relationship that is strong and solid as a rock. When Thomas Button finally reveals who he is to Benjamin, and shows him the picture of his birth mother who died in childbirth, Benjamin simply walks out the door saying "I'm going home". Parenting is much more than biology, and home is much more than a house owned by one's ne'er-do-well father.

There is so much more I would like to tell you about this movie, but the most important thing is--- GO SEE IT. You will be enriched by it.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008


The first volume of my two volume theology and ethics of the NT, will be out in 2009 with the second volume out in 2010 with Inter Varsity Press Here is the splendid cover design.

Joyeux Noel,


Sunday, December 21, 2008


The following is another poem from my book 'The Living Legacy'

Jaded, Jaundiced
Left out in the cold,
Cynical, clinical
Tired of getting old
Looking for something,
More glittering than gold…
The rebirth of wonder.

Seeking, searching
Coming from afar
Reaching, lurching
Wishing on a star
Wise guys, shepherds
Bordering on bizarre
Where’s the boy wonder?

Child-like, crawling
Wide-eyed, on his knees
Compact, contact
With everything he sees
Babbling, bobbling
Hoping to believe
Wandering towards wonder.

Silence, science
Analysis complete
Seeing, being
Honest but discreet
Empirical evidence
Incarnation’s feat
Makes you wonder.

Believing’s seeing
Not blinded by the light
Seeing’s believing
Leaves one in the night
Longing, aching,
Couldn’t love be right?
Wonderfully contrite.

Unveiled, unabashed
Breaks into the world
Shattering the smatterings
Of reasons we have heard
‘Why it could never be,
Of course it is absurd’
Until she bore the Word.

Child birth, new birth
Coming from the womb
Fine wine, wonderbread
Placed upon the plate,
Revelation, consummation
Never out of date,
The rebirth of wonder.


Saturday, December 20, 2008

Christmas around the World


Christmas at Rockefeller Center in New York Before the ball drops in Times Square, the Big Apple turns on its holiday charm with the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center.

A holiday tree is shown lit in front of the U.S. Capitol building. The Capitol Christmas tree in Washington, D.C., is decorated with 3,000 ornaments that are the handiwork of U.S. schoolchildren. Encircling evergreens in the 'Pathway of Peace' represent the 50 U.S. states.

Italy,Umbria, Gubbio town, Christmas tree on hillside mThe world's largest Christmas tree display rises up the slopesof Monte Ingino outside of Gubbio, in Italy's Umbria region. Composed of about 500 lights connected by 40,000 feet of wire,the 'tree' is a modern marvel for an ancient city

A 100-meter tall Christmas tree is illuminated on the wall of a skyscraper. A Christmas tree befitting Tokyo's nighttime neon display is projected onto the exterior of the Grand Prince Hotel Akasaka.

Czech Republic,Prague, Teyn Church at Christmas time. Illuminating the Gothic facades of Prague's Old Town Square,and casting its glow over the manger display of the famous Christmas market, is a grand tree cut in the Sumava mountains in the southern Czech Republic.

Glass Christmas tree in Murano. Venice 's Murano Island renowned throughout the world for its quality glasswork is home to the tallest glass tree in the world. Sculpted by master glass blower Simone Cenedese, the artistic Christmas tree is a modern reflection of the holiday season.

A Christmas tree is shining at the Manezh Square in Moscow. Moscow celebrates Christmas according to the Russian Orthodox calendar on Jan. 7. For weeks beforehand, the city is alive with festivities in anticipation of Father Frost's arrival on his magical troika with the Snow Maiden. He and his helper deliver gifts under the New Year tree, or yolka, which is traditionally a fir.

A 72-meter-tall Christmas tree stands at Praca do Comercio in Portugal. The largest Christmas tree in Europe (more than 230 feet tall)can be found in the Praça do Comércio in Lisbon, Portugal. Thousands of lights adorn the tree, adding to the special enchantment of the city during the holiday season.

Chapel in winter, christmas tree. 'Oh Christmas tree, oh Christmas tree': Even in its humblest attire, aglow beside a tiny chapel in Germany's Karwendel mountains, a Christmas tree is a wondrous sight.

Large Christmas tree inside the Galeries Lafayette. Ooh la la Galeries Lafayette! In Paris, even the Christmas trees are chic. With its monumental, baroque dome, plus 10 stories of lights and high fashion, it's no surprise this show-stopping department store draws more visitors than the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower.

Faithful surround the Christmas tree in St. Peters. In addition to the Vatican's heavenly evergreen, St. Peter's Square in Rome hosts a larger-than- life nativity scene in front of the obelisk.

Christmas Tree at Puerta del Sol in Madrid. The Christmas tree that greets revelers at the Puerta del Sol is dressed for a party. Madrid's two-week celebration makes millionaires along with merrymakers. On Dec. 22, a lucky citizen will win El Gordo (the fat one), the world's biggest lottery.

Trafalgar Square at night with Christmas tree, London. A token of gratitude for Britain's aid during World War II,the Christmas tree in London's Trafalgar Square has been the annual gift of the people of Norway since 1947.

The Romer and Christmas tree at night in Frankfurt, Germany Frankfurt's city hall since 1405 is shown.

Three trees in forest decorated with lights, location unknown.


In the latest you've got to be kidding, in funerary trends, funeral directors are now telling us that people currently under 40 are increasingly requesting to be buried with their cellphones, or in some cases with their Ipods or Xbox games.

“It really started happening within the last five or six years,” says Frank Perman, owner and funeral director of Frank R. Perman Funeral Home, Inc. of Pittsburgh, Pa. “But I expect it to grow exponentially, especially with the price of technology getting so low. It’s not that big of a deal to bury somebody’s cell phone.”

“I’ve seen family members place iPod earphones on the decedent and play songs as the casket closed,” says Pam Vetter, a Los Angeles funeral planner who helps create more personalized services for families.

“It’s comforting to the family to think mom’s playing her iPod or dad’s still got the cell phone that was attached to his ear all the time,” she said. “It’s comforting to think those things are still with them.”

The notion of staying connected also seems to play into being buried with one’s mobile. In an article worth reading by Diane Mapes at http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/28182292//wid/11915829?GT1=40006 we find the following quotes:

“I’ve seen people leave cell phones on and tell me they’re going to call their loved one later,” says Vetter. “Not that anyone will answer, but they want to have that connection. I’m sure the family gathers around the phone when they call. They feel connected with that person because it’s their phone, but at the same time it helps them realize that a death has occurred.”

"When Manhattan criminal defense attorney John Jacobs died in 2005, his wife, Marion Seltzer, not only buried him with his phone and a fully charged battery, she continues to pay the monthly phone bill and even calls him on occasion (since the battery’s now dead, the calls immediately go into Jacobs’ voicemail)."

I would suggest that among other things this reflects a hope for, and even in some cases a belief in the afterlife, however weird the conception of it. But if it is a manifestation of a delusion, namely that the person is not really dead and gone, then its not a healthy thing.

This practice of being buried with a cellphone could have come in handy in the late Middle Ages in Ireland when heavy drinkers sometimes went comatose from drinking too much from lead tumblers, resulting in lead poisoning leaving the person apparently dead. Precisely because people weren't sure if Uncle Ian was dead or not, they would lay him out on the table in the parlor for a 'wake', to quite literally wait and see if he would awake. By the way, having the body in the parlor in the home is where the phrase funeral parlor originally came from. But when a sufficient time had elapsed, Uncle Ian would be buried. Unfortunately, sometimes real drunks were buried alive, only to wake up under ground. This was discovered in one Irish county when an ancient graveyard had to be moved. In moving a casket, the lid came open and fingernail scratches were found on the inside of the lid of the wooden casket. Thereafter, a string was tied to a finger of the deceased, and if it twitched, it would ring a small bell in the graveyard. Such a person was called a dead- ringer, and it was also said that he was 'saved by the bell'. But what if the person awoke at night, when all were sleeping? To remedy this problem, the church would put someone on night watch for a couple of days in the graveyard. The person was said to work, 'the graveyard shift'.

At Christmas, when we try to get to the bottom or source of things, even grave matters, it is apparently comforting to some to know that we can be buried with our technology, It would have been better to have had one's cellphone send an instant text message to Jesus upon expiring. The message would read--- 'Here I am Lord, beam me up', or perhaps, "Construction completed, thanks for your patience. This person ready for immediate pick-up.Lord have mercy."


Friday, December 19, 2008


First a little background info, courtesy of Amazon. Here is what they say about the author and the fairy tale book, which is the basis of the movie 'The Tale of Despereaux':

"Kate DiCamillo, author of the Newbery Honor book "Because of Winn-Dixie", spins a tidy tale of mice and men where she explores the "powerful, wonderful, and ridiculous" nature of love, hope, and forgiveness. Her old-fashioned, somewhat dark story, narrated "Dear Reader"-style, begins "within the walls of a castle, with the birth of a mouse." Despereaux Tilling, the new baby mouse, is different from all other mice. Sadly, the romantic, unmouselike spirit that leads the unusually tiny, large-eared mouse to the foot of the human king and the beautiful Princess Pea ultimately causes him to be banished by his own father to the foul, rat-filled dungeon.

The first book of four tells Despereaux's sad story, where he falls deeply in love with Princess Pea and meets his cruel fate. The second book introduces another creature who differs from his peers--Chiaroscuro, a rat who instead of loving the darkness of his home in the dungeon, loves the light so much he ends up in the castle& in the queen's soup. The third book describes young Miggery Sow, a girl who has been "clouted" so many times that she has cauliflower ears. Still, all the slow-witted, hard-of-hearing Mig dreams of is wearing the crown of Princess Pea. The fourth book returns to the dungeon-bound Despereaux and connects the lives of mouse, rat, girl, and princess in a dramatic denouement.

Children whose hopes and dreams burn secretly within their hearts will relate to this cast of outsiders who desire what is said to be out of their reach and dare to break "never-to-be-broken rules of conduct." Timothy Basil Ering's pencil illustrations are stunning, reflecting DiCamillo's extensive light and darkness imagery as well as the sweet, fragile nature of the tiny mouse hero who lives happily ever after. (Ages 9 and older) --Karin Snelson"

Several points about this precis: 1) note that this is a story about grief and forgiveness, and a bit about redemption as well that is written for 9-12 year olds, not small children. The same can be said for the movie, the message of which will go right over the heads of the kids, and, at least in movie form develops in too slow and plodding a fashion to keep younger children's attention; 2) Note that we are talking about four little books and stories, which while inter-related are nevertheless not a continuous narrative. And herein lies the basic problem for the movie-- it tries to turn all four into one narrative, with far too much lead in material and far too little climax and denouement. It's too bad because this could have been a wonderful movie that focused on fewer topics to greater effect.

Now for some facts about the movie. It is G rated, so deemed suitable for everyone, though there are some scary rat scenes in the movie. Secondly the movie seems quite long (and by children's movie standards today it is long, some 2 hours) and it offers not enough humor or really compelling action to keep the story humming along in a cheerful way. It has some recognizable voices as well-- Sigourney Weaver as the narrator, Dustin Hoffman as the lead Rat--Chiaroscuro, and Matthew Broderick, as well as others. And to offer more good news, whilst the drawing of the Sow story characters makes them look like refugees from Shrek, the drawing of Despereaux is, in equal turns charming and beautiful, and his character is equally winsome. But alas even he cannot rescue this movie, and there is honestly not enough of him in the movie. Too little time is also spent on the chef and his soup, and the one really comic character in the story-- the walking V-8 collection of vegetables that is the chef's muse. For the Kingdom of Dor, Soup day, had even eclipsed Christmas, but alas instead of this movie ending with a grand celebration of soup and food, ala Ratatouille, we are left with king rat drifting out to sea. In some ways this is a metaphor for this whole movie--- somewhat adrift. It has however some fine elements.

For one thing, Di Camillo writes beautifully, and so the narrator's bits bring us something we seldom see in children's movies these days--- excellent prose of the 'once upon a time variety', even if occasionally somewhat antique. For another thing, the exploration of powerful emotions, including fear, grief and forgiveness, are notable themes, too seldom explored in children's tales. Di Camillo has some good things to say on these subjects, including the notion that forgiveness is more powerful than grief. More time however is given to the courage vs. fear tandem, under the banner "are you a man or a mouse", and clearly Despereaux is not your ordinary mouse--- he will not scurry or cower, even when taught to do so. He has an insatiable curiosity, and indeed he fancies himself a gentleman. The subliminal message of 'you can be what you can imagine yourself to be' can only be pushed so far, because in the end, Despereaux remains a mouse who does not marry a princess, and Ms. Sow remains a working girl, who does not become a princess, despite her dreams. Living happily ever after in this movie is not about achieving one's dreams, but settling for less.

I must admit to having had great hopes for this long advertised movie in a post-Ratatouille world. Alas, it turned out more of a tale of "who moved or stole my cheese" that I was looking and hoping for. The reviews of this movie are equally divided, and not surprisingly so, since there is so little good Christmas fare out there this year. Kate's earlier story turned movie 'Because of Winn Dixie' was a better film for sure.

My word to you is, this may be the best family movie to see this Christmas, and it has some delightful elements and will do no harm, but it will leave you longing for more--- sort of like Despereaux himself.

Thursday, December 18, 2008


In a move that suggests that Obama does indeed intend to try to be everyone's President, the President elect named Rick Warren to say the invocation at his inauguration. Here is the link to the story---


The reaction today to this move was predicable as protests came from both the gay and lesbian lobby on one hand and from conservatives as well, but for different reasons. The gay and lesbian lobby of course was angry because of Warren's strong opposition to gay and lesbian marriage and support for Proposition 8. Some of the vitriolic gay response revealed the ugly face of gay and lesbian stridency and strong arm tactics to try and force their views on the majority of Americans who do not agree with them on their key issues.

But it would be hard to say that that response was uglier than the response of those Christians who are angry with Warren, their own fellow conservative Christian, for agreeing to PRAY FOR OUR PRESIDENT ELECT, in view of Obama's pro-choice views in regard to abortion. As Obama said however at his press conference today, Americans need to learn to be civil towards one another, and learn how to disagree without being disagreeable and ugly. In the case of Christians the issue is whether one can disagree and not do it in an unChristian manner. One thing is clear-- controversial appointments and actions do indeed smoke out people's real views and feelings, and often those feelings are subChristian at best, and positively carnal at worst.

Tell me how you respond to this story.



There is an enormously poignant story about Julius Erving and his long lost daughter Alexandra Stevenson by Tom Friend as a featured story on ESPN's award-winning show 'Outside the Lines'. Here is the link to the script of the story, and some video highlights as well----http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/eticket/story?page=drjandalexandra

It will show up as a TV broadcast next Sunday morning Dec. 21 at 9.a.m. on ESPN. It is a story, often sad, but also with hope and reconciliation about what happens when a celebrity commits adultery and has a child outside of wedlock, and then longs for forgiveness and reconciliation after the fact. So many have loved Dr. J through the years, and still do--- witness his recent Dr. Pepper commercials. But there is another side of the man, a man who cheated on his wife of many years Turquoise, several times, and on more than one occasion it led to the birth of a child--- in this case Alexandra Stevenson, a budding tennis player on the women's circuit. What I find especially moving about this whole story is Alexandra's willingness to forgive a father who had really no part in her life before she was 18, a father whom she still has trouble calling 'Dad'. For you see it takes more than paternity to make a real father, a real Dad. And this case it takes real forgiveness before the 60 something Julius Erving could even begin to be a Dad to Alexandra. Read the story and see what you think.


Wednesday, December 17, 2008


The Delta Blues. It is interesting, and strange how most white Americans, even those who know and love music well,know little or nothing about the Delta Blues of Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf, Little Walter, Robert Johnson, Willie Dixon, Etta James, and even Chuck Berry. And yet if you cross the pond to England you discover that many, if not most of the legendary white founders of 'the British Invasion' readily recognize and own their great indebtedness to McKinley Morganfield (aka Muddy Waters) and his kin. I am referring to Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton, Robert Plant, and so many others.

And yet folks ranging from Elvis Presley to the Beach Boys all stole from these pioneers, and many of them got sued-- successfully I might add, for stealing the music of Willie Dixon and his kin (case in point-- Surfin' USA, except for the lyrics was a direct pirating of Chuck Berry's 'Maybelline'). Well, there is a reason for this amnesia. The blues when recorded in the 50s was called 'race records'-- for African Americans only, and white folks back then could hardly admit to themselves they liked black music, never mind own up to being indebted to it.

It is fair to say had it not been for the artists of Chess Records, there might never have been any rock and roll at all, and Alan Fried, the disc jockey (see the 1956 movie 'Rock, Rock, Rock') who allegedly coined the term first applied it to the music of Berry and other Chess artists.

Long before Motown and the Supremes, the Chess musicians of Chicago had become cross over artists on a huge scale-- especially Chuck Berry and Etta James (apparently the daughter of the legendary white pool player Minnesota Fats and a black woman). Etta is the last 'woman' standing so to speak, of the great Chess artists, and you will find that even her most recent records still 'cook', and are featured in the music shops in Memphis, especially those that cater to the Blues Music. But in fact this is the music that came from the southern most part of Mississippi, the Delta, and this is where the movie 'Cadillac Records' basically begins with Leonard Chess, a Polish immigrant from Chicago who loved black music searching out and finding artists like McKinley Morganfield.

First a few facts about this interesting, and well made movie. It's a less than two hour film that has an all star cast and the performances of Adrien Brody (as Chess), Mos Def as Chuck Berry, Beyonce Knowles as Etta James, Cedric the Entertainer as Willie Dixon and others are wonderful and some are worthy of Oscar nominations. The movie is R rated, and has more than its share of foul language, and sexual innuendo and compromising scenes, but then this is a movie about the blues, and what prompts people to sing that way-- namely experiencing the consequences of their sin or someone sinning against them, and the sadness and suffering it brings. The blues are a person's way of trying to creatively deal with all that. If you want the Biblical equivalent, read a bunch of the laments in the Psalms, when the Hebrews are complaining about exile and sin and the like (see e.g. Ps. 51), an exile of their own making, in many cases.

Leonard Chess began his musical career running a club for African Americans in Chicago, with a goal of giving blues artists a chance to shine for an appreciative audience. He was about as strange a sponsor of such music as Ahmet Ertegun, the legendary Turkish producer of so much seminal rock and roll was. When the club was burned to the ground, he took the insurance money and opened up a storefront recording studio and record company named after himself.

Oddly enough, his first recording artist, Muddy Waters, had come to be known to him through the Library of Congress recordings made of 'folk' music from the Delta in 1941 and there after. It was 1950-52 when Chess managed to get things off the ground with the help of barnstorming tours by Waters and his session players, of course in the South where there were huge potential black audiences and plenty of juke joints to play in and make money.

Muddy Waters was a remarkable slide guitar player (if you want to see this sort of playing today, you almost have to be watching someone like Bonnie Raitt who owes her soul to Waters and the blues). Chess was an interesting man-- he did not do drugs, nor did he cheat on his wife (though he wanted to with Etta James towards the end), and he tried to do the remarkable tap dance of helping black music cross over to white audiences, whilst still trying to maintain segregation not only in the South, but also in most of the North as well when it came to clubs, restaurants and the like.

These were volatile times, and music was helping blur, and even tear down the racist walls that separated us. Nowhere was this more evident than in the career of Chuck Berry who against all odds began to gain fame as a black country guitar player and singer, and then came up with his own style of playing and singing on tunes like Maybelline and Johnny be Goode which did indeed help spawn the rock and roll craze. At the height of his fame he was arrested and thrown in an Indiana prison because-- despite not drinking or doing drugs or otherwise breaking the law, he made the mistake of dating white women. It was he who began the parade of Chess artists who successfully sued white artists who stole their tunes--- including artists ranging from the Beach Boys to Led Zeppelin.

This movie does a good job of showing just how ephemeral musical tastes and trends are when it comes to popular music. In the 50s and very early 60s Chess Records was riding high. By the time you have the Beatles on Ed Sullivan in 1964, the wave of Chess Records had crested and fallen, taking with it Leonard Chess himself. On the very last day he owned Chess Records and the day Etta James sang her last tune for him, he had a heart-attack and died whilst driving away from studio in his Cadillac. Having nurtured the blues for well over a decade in old Chicago town, his life became a script for a blues ballad, and indeed this movie, in part.

The movie takes its name from the fact that Chess realized that poor African Americans could seldom hope to own a fancy house, so they settled for fancy cars, especially Cadillacs. He knew that the way to the heart of some of these folks, was through giving them such a dream car. Chess bequeathed a Cadillac to all his star artists. He was a smart business man, but unlike many studio executives, this man not only loved the music he supported, he loved various of the players, and treated them with respect, often rescuing them from one soap opera escapade after another. More than they ever acknowledged both later soul artists (think Aretha Franklin) and white artists (think Hall and Oates or some of the blues guitarists like Stevie Ray Vaughn) owed a ton to these pioneers of the blues.

I cannot recommend this movie as family fare at Christmas, but for those who wish to understand that potent mix of music and social change and race relations in the volatile period of the 50s and 60s this movie is more than eye opening. In fact, it makes you want to sing the blues-- and that ain't always a bad thing, because singin' the blues is a way of tellin' the truth about your life, or life in general.

"I went down to the crossroads, fell down on my knees...."


Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Toby Keith Fights Back against 'The War on Christmas'


Certainly one of the most fascinating of all the seminars at this year’s national Society of Biblical Literature meeting held in Boston was the Graffiti Seminar. A series of papers were given, including discussions of recent findings of very early Christian graffiti in Izmir (=ancient Smyrna). We should deal first with the issue of definition. What counts as graffiti? Do ancient political advertisements for candidates painted on whitewashed walls count as graffiti? Or does the word graffito imply something clandestined, something possibly illegal, like the defacing of a building by modern graffiti artists in major cities in the U.S.? We could debate endless what does and doesn’t count as graffiti but if we take the broad view then we learn that there are several basic types of graffiti: 1) advertisements for politicians or for various sorts of businesses, often for the sex trade or for the sale of property; 2) religious comments of various sorts, usually about and for minority or even illegal religions or philosophies. We can also distinguish between graffiti that is meant to be timely and therefore is not put up in a semi-permanent way (e.g. painting on a wall) and graffiti that is meant to have more of a shelf life (e.g. something inscribed into stucco or even into stone or brick of some sort). One thing that immediately comes to light, and comes as something of a surprise, if not a shock is the vast amount of graffiti in a city. For example, there are some 10,000 political advertisements found in Pompeii alone! One wonders if they lamented as we do about the amount of ‘billboards’ besmirching the beauty of the landscape. If we count all kinds of graffiti in Pompeii, there seems to have been more writings on the wall than inhabitants within them. Methodologically if we combine the graffiti evidence with that from official and public inscriptions on tombstones, columns, walls, as well as the evidence on ostracons (e.,g. pottery shards with writing on them—‘made by Publius’ etc.) it may suggest a higher level of literacy than previously suspected in the Greco-Roman world. Normally estimates are between 10-15% of the population could read and write, but perhaps this is a somewhat conservative estimation.

In my judgment there is a difference between ability to read, and ability to write. Reading seems to have been a more wide spread skill than writing in the first century A.D., otherwise it is hard to understand the proliferation of all the official propaganda from the time of Augustus on. Writing was more of a specialized art, especially when it involved inscribing things, requiring a proper scribe or artisan. Surely the assumption of the propaganda of inscriptions, dedications, epitaphs and the like is that a significant number of the population could read these inscriptions, but only a distinct minority of them could produce such things. When one considers the incredible and lengthy inscriptions in scriptum continuum in capital Greek letters in Apamea alone in eastern Turkey (see the pictures in this entry), placed prominently to be viewed from the road, it is hard to doubt that the assumption is that many passing by would stop to read these inscriptions, or else what’s the point?

One of the more interesting survey presentations was by Zsuzsa Varhelyi of Boston University entitled “The Graffiti Habit in the early Roman Empire”. She demonstrated that the inscriptional boom seems to have begun with the beginning of the Empire, which is to say under Augustus, and was carried on in a big way as part of the propaganda campaign throughout the era of the Empire.
R. Benefiel’s lecture ‘Advertising in Ancient Pompeii’ showed just how prevalent and brazen and specific the ads were for prostitutes (‘Read this inscription first if you want intercourse. Visit Attice’—an inscription at Porta Marina on a wall just off the docks at Pompeii in a prominent place just outside the city gate). But there were also plenty of advertisements for real estate, both for apartments in an insula (the ancient equivalent of a high rise apartment building (see CIL IV 138*—from which we get the word ‘insulated’), and also for high end real estate (‘the Praedia [property] of Julia Felix, a large bath complex available for rent’). N.B. there are huge collections of inscriptions in both Greek and Latin from all over the Greco-Roman world. CIL stands for Corpus Inscriptiones Latinae, the Latin inscriptions and there is also CIG and IG as well for the Greek ones. It is fascinating to read through a good deal of this material. We especially learn a lot about Greek and Roman theology about the afterlife, from the grave art and epitaphs and encomiums. We also learn a good deal of what was for sale, for example we find drawings of vases or amphora in a place where wine was for sale.
The most obvious graffiti were the political ads and ads for gladiatorial games, sometimes with letters 2-3 feet high painted in bright colors on a white washed wall. You could hardly miss them when walking the streets. The ads the sex trade however were of a more permanent and prevalent nature, incised into walls at strategic locations (see CIL IV 4441, 4699, 1383, 4700). There is a new helpful volume on this whole matter by Z. and L Newby, Art and Inscriptions in the Ancient World, published by Cambridge U. Press, 2007.

Another of the more fascinating lectures given in this seminar was that by B.W. Millis on “The Population of early Roman Corinth as seen through Graffiti”. What he argues is that Corinth was not by and large populated with retired Roman veterans, as has sometimes been argued but that even Roman Corinth was largely populated by Greeks, including Greek freedmen, as the onomastica (the names found in various contexts) suggest. Interestingly, by contrast with Pompeii, there has been almost no graffiti found in Corinth—one Latin inscription and a handful of 2nd-3rd century A.D. Greek ones. Millis discusses graffiti found on pottery such as the inscription on one which reads “it is the cup which belongs to Dionysius”. This may profitably be compared to the recent cause célèbre—the Alexandrian Jesus Cup which probably has nothing to do with the most famous Jesus, upon further review. This sort of graffiti was hand scratched onto a pottery item after firing to make a claim of ownership, and the letters were often crudely incised. In Corinth, of all the inscribed cups, less than 10% are inscribed in Latin. Now the official language of Paul’s Corinth for legal purposes was Latin, and the official inscriptions for many things were in Latin (though not for the ancient Isthmian games held nearby). Millis’ conclusion is plausible—the population of Paul’s Corinth were mainly Greeks, who could be ‘Roman’ in public, and there were the Romans, many of whom had chosen to be Greek in dress and in private. The Romans had long idolized and aped Greek culture, and it is not surprising that they would become Grecophiles if they lived in a city like Corinth long enough.

For Christians, the most important of the graffiti lectures was Roger Bagnall’s “New Graffiti from Smyrna in the Context of Early Christianity”. He concentrates on what was found in the basement of a basilica in the agora (a basilica being a public building, often a hall of justice in the ancient world. Its architectural pattern was taken over by the church and used as a design for churches later in antiquity). This agora, which I have visited in Izmir is enormous and the basilica in question was first excavated by Turks before WWII. The basilica collapsed in A.D. 178 due to an enormous earthquake, but was reconstructed later. The part of the basilica focused on by Bagnall comes from the late first and early second century A.D. and there is plaster or stucco that was all over these walls, and they had graffiti on them. The assortment of graffiti is considerable focusing on sex, love, civic pride, politics, and religion all jumbled together.
Most importantly, Bagnall believes he has found the earliest Christian palindrome or word square of sorts, like the ‘soter-rotas’ square of greater fame. In the middle of the square are the words LOGOS ONOMA—THE NAME OF THE WORD. This was found with some gematria below it with the words KYRIOS= 800 AND PISTIS=800 (i.e. a numerical value is assigned to each letter and then the word’s total is added up, as in 666=Neron Caesaris Divi Filii Augustus).

But perhaps the most interesting of the graffiti found by Bagnall reads ‘ό δεδωκως το πνεύμα’ ‘the one who has given the Spirit’ (namely the Kyrios—the Lord Jesus). Bagnall claims this is probably the earliest evidence of Christian graffiti. What was the function of this graffiti, inscribed as it was in a public place? Well it does not seem to have been mainly advertizing for outsiders, but rather advertizing for insiders, who knew the key clichés, phrases, and gematric numbers to make sense of the graffiti. Like a code for insiders it announced that there were Christians in the city, who could be found and worshiped with. The reason for code is obvious, if one has read either Rev. 2-3 or knows the early Christian history in Smyrna. Polycarp (A.D. 69-155) was one of the most famous early martyrs whose life spanned the end of the apostolic era unto the middle of the second century. He became a bishop in Smyrna, and as the legend goes, after a failed attempt to burn the saint at the stake, he was stabbed to death. Christianity before Constantine was categorized as a ‘superstitio’, and as such was subject to persecution, prosecution, and occasionally execution, as in the case of Polycarp. The finding of the Christian graffiti in Izmir can only be called very significant, as it confirms both the presence of Christians there early on, and their need to communicate in code. Graffiti is the type of evidence that we must look for when we are dealing with those who practiced a clandestined and not officially sanctioned religion. These lectures help us to understand both the character and the level of literacy in early Christianity. It was by no means only populated by ‘women, slaves, and minors’ (i.e. the illiterate) as was the polemic of Greco-Romans who encountered and despised early Christianity. To the contrary, even ordinary Christians left their mark, not through writing letters or Gospels, but through graffiti.


Monday, December 15, 2008


O.K. so the news spin cycle seems to have stopped on Illinois just now, where all sorts of gnarly things seem to regularly go down, especially in the situation ethics sort of realm. I guess this is why Dan Fogelberg sang "Illinois, I'm your boy" but moved to Maine to live out his last days. I was reading the report on the 10 Worst Work Stories of the Year when I came across the following----

It seems that there were two security guards who worked at an Illinois Neiman Marcus store (or as I prefer to call it, a Needless Mark-up store). It seems they were video taped having sex on the job, and were fired. But did they feel ashamed and apologize to their employers for their behavior whilst at work??? OH NOOO.

Instead they sued Neiman Marcus for invasion of privacy and unfair termination for sexual activity! They claim the store manager 'secretly' video taped their tryst-- I guess its an invasion of privacy case, and then the manager shared the tape with others, including, apparently, wait for it, a nationwide online data base of security personnel. I guess that career in security jobs is looking a bit insecure now for those two.

Now I'm telling you this story with a disclaimer---it came from a Chicago newspaper, the same one that blew the whistle on their erstwhile governor. So, consider the source, some might say. All I can say is, this puts a new twist on the old 'I saw Momma kissin' Santa Claus complaint'.


Sunday, December 14, 2008


The NY Times has an important article this morning on the growth of Evangelical Churches since the beginning of the recession. It's interesting and well worth the read.... Here's the link. BW3


Friday, December 12, 2008


When I was teaching Sunday school many years ago in Durham, England, a little girl of about seven years of age named Rachel came up to me after the lesson about Lk. 2 with a quizzical look on her face and said “Now let me see if I got this right. If God is Jesus’ father and Mary is Jesus’ mother--- are God and Mary married? And if not, is Jesus illegitimate?” This was a better question than I have received from many seminary students about one of the seminal miracles in all of the Bible, and it bears some close scrutiny especially at this time of year. In fact, the miracle of Christmas has several components, but none more crucial than the miracle of the virginal conception which presents us with an explanation as to how the Incarnation happened. Several preliminary points need to be stressed.
Firstly, there are no real parallels to this story, despite the ‘Zeitgeist-ites’ contentions to the contrary. Mary of Nazareth was a historical person, unlike stories about Isis which are pure myths about mythological deities, not mere mortals. Furthermore, the mythological stories about the divine rape of a mortal woman by some male deity (cf. the story in Gen. 6.1-4 about wicked angels) are very different than the story of the virginal conception which stresses there was no intercourse with any kind of male, whether terrestrial or celestial. Then too, the stories about Caesar or other Emperors having divine origins besides being imperial propaganda (which even Romans recognized as pure P.R.) do not involve virginal conceptions. Finally, there are no comparable earlier Jewish stories. For example the stories about Moses’ origins (either canonical or extra canonical) do not include the notion of a virginal conception.
Secondly, it needs to be stressed that Isaiah 7.14 while patient of the interpretation that it refers to a virginal conception, was never interpreted that way before the time of Mary of Nazareth. Why not, because a literal rendering of the Hebrew there is as follows “an almah will conceive and give birth to a child…..”. The normal translation of almah is ‘a young nubile woman of marriageable age. Now, in an honor and shame culture, this would normally include the conception of the virginity of the woman, and thus we should not conclude that the LXX translation of almah is incorrect, when it renders the word as parthenos. The latter is a term with a more limited semantic field, focusing more clearly on the virginity of the woman. Even so, what Is. 7.14 and in particular“a virgin will conceive and give birth to a child” seems to have been understood to mean in early Judaism was that a woman who was a virgin would conceive by the normal means and give birth to a king. In short, no one seems to have been looking for a virginally conceived messiah in early Judaism. And this leads to an important conclusion—it was the unexpected event in the life of Mary that led latter Christian interpreters to search the OT and interpret Is. 7.14 as they did (see Mt. 1-2). In other words, the claims that the story of the virginal conception is an example of prophecy historicized, rather than being a reflection on an actual historical event, won’t work because Jews did not read that prophecy that way. On the contrary, it was the actual historical event that led to the re-evaluation of OT prophecies, including in particular Is. 7.14.
There are further problems with the contention that this story is not historical, namely in an honor and shame culture like early Judaism, and when we are talking about a religion that was evangelistic in character, no one in their right mind would make up a story about a virginally conceived messiah, because the skeptical would immediately conclude that what the real story was that Jesus was illegitimate, and in fact we know that that was the rebuttal in second century Judaism, with the suggestion being made that Mary was impregnated by a Roman soldier named Pantera or Panthera.
We can see the difficulties of explanation that were presented to a Gospel writer like the Jewish Christian who wrote Matthew almost immediately. How in the world does one squeeze Jesus into Joseph’s genealogy, as is done in Mt. 1, whilst maintaining that Joseph was not the biological father of Jesus? The genealogy in Mt. 1 is a patrilineal genealogy, a genealogy of begats, basically, which means you are tracing the line through the male descendents of King David and even before that of Abraham. The answer is--- you put Mary into Joseph’s genealogy!!!! And you prepare for that little surprise by mentioning in passing other women who had surprising or irregular unions with Jewish males from Israel’s past--- women like Tamar, or Rahab, or Bathsheba. Notice how the genealogy concludes---- ‘Joseph, whose wife was Mary, who bore Jesus….’ And then the author goes on to explain that if Joseph had not been alerted in a visionary dream to marry Mary even though she was already pregnant, Jesus might never have been part of a patrilineal genealogy going back to David at all. In other words, the actually historical occurrence of the virginal conception is what causes all remarkable these genealogical gymnastics. The story of the virginal conception is a story too improbable not to be true, as an ambitious evangelical religion in an honor and shame world would not make up a story prone to all sorts of negative alternative appraisals. The possible punishment for pregnancy out of wedlock by a betrothed virgin was stoning. The virginal conception imperiled Mary’s very life, and it is no wonder that she took a little trip to see her cousin for various months immediately after the shock of becoming pregnant in a highly irregular manner.
A few points need to be clarified at this juncture: 1) the virginal conception is a Biblical doctrine, not to be confused with the later Catholic notion of the immaculate conception of Mary herself, nor should it be confused with the later Catholic notion of the perpetual virginity of Mary. These are three different ideas, and only one of them is clearly grounded in various birth narrative stories in Matthew and Luke. 2) though the miracle we are discussing here is sometimes called the virgin birth, this is not quite correct. The miracle took place at the point of conception, and so far as we can tell there wasn’t a further one at the point of the birth of Jesus. This seems to have transpired normally. 3) What Mt. 1.25 certainly strongly suggests when it says “and he [Joseph] was not ‘knowing her until she bore a son and called his name Jesus” is that thereafter he was knowing her in the Biblical sense of ‘to know’. This, plus the references to Jesus’ brothers and sisters later in the text (see e.g. Mk. 6), who are quite specifically found in the company of Mary suggest that the idea of the perpetual virginity of Mary is not an idea that comports with the Biblical record; 4) it would appear that the local folks in Nazareth knew of the tale of Jesus being conceived without the aid of Joseph. Mk. 6 says that when he preached his first sermon in Nazareth the hometown folks objected, and in fact asked –“Is this not the son of Mary?” Now even if Joseph was dead, in that extremely male dominated society, you did not call a man a son of his mother, unless you were making a pejorative comment about his origins, the rough ancient equivalent of calling someone an S.O. B., and thus calling him a ‘mamzer’ or as we would say, a ‘bastard’. Despite all these possible problems, Matthew and Luke both relate the idea that Jesus was virginally conceived, and that Mary was his only human parent. It is especially interesting to note the retort of Jesus to his own mother in Lk. 2.41-52—when she, being distraught complains to Jesus “your father I have been looking for you (for days)…” Jesus’ reply is “didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house”, or perhaps we should translate this “be about my Father’s business” (either is possible). The Father in question is not Joseph, but God. 5) Furthermore, the story in Lk. 2 indicates that Mary needed to go through ritual purification and made an offering for sin, before the family returned to Nazareth. The idea of the immaculate conception or the sinlessness of Mary does not seem to comport at all with the story as we find it in Lk. 2. Nevertheless, this in no way diminishes the great faith and trust in God it took for a young teenage woman, barely nubile to respond to an angelic vision with “Be it unto me as you have said, I am the handmaiden of the Lord”. Mary is the first person in Luke’s Gospel portrayed as being a person of great faith and courage, in light of how people would likely view her irregular pregnancy.
Too seldom, in sermonizing about the Christmas story do preachers actually discuss why it was important for their to be a virginal conception. The answer has to do not with the sinlessness of Mary, but rather the sinlessness of Jesus. Jesus was not born with what we would call original sin, because, as Luke says ‘the Holy Spirit’ overshadowed and protected Mary, and the child miraculously conceived in her woman did not partake of the taint of human sin, either original or actual. The author of Hebrews was later to stress that Jesus was tempted like us, and indeed was like us in all respects “save without sin”. But why was this necessary?
It was necessary for a series of good theological reasons: 1) Christ would not later be able to be the perfect and unblemished lamb of God who takes away and atones for the sin of the world, if in fact he was a sinner either by nature or by behavior; 2) Christ came to be called by Paul the ‘last or eschatological Adam’ implying that the human race started over with him (see e.g. Rom. 5.12-21 or 1 Cor. 15), but for that to happen Jesus, like Adam needed to be without sin from the outset; 3) it was very important to demonstrate through the life of Jesus that sin was never intended by God to be an inherent property of being truly human. Whilst Alexander Pope was right that to err is human… the converse of that statement is not true--- one cannot say ‘to be truly human one must err or sin’. Sin is what Jesus came to save us from, not what he came to share in common with us.
Thus it is that the story of the virginal conception tells us how the Incarnation of the pre-existent Son of God happened, or as Paul says in Rom. 8 how it was that Christ came ‘in the likeness of sinful flesh’ without actually having a fallen human nature or being a sinner. He appeared to be just like any other mortal, only he did not share our ‘birth defect’, so to speak. As you meditate on all this, remember the words of John Donne---
“Twas much that we were made like God long before [i.e. created in God’s image]
But that God should be made like us---- much more.” Jesus came as an infant in order to identify with, and go through every age and stage of human life. He came in humble circumstances to make clear no one was beneath his dignity or love, no one was excluded by his coming. He came not to meet our expectations, but rather to meet our needs. As George McDonald stressed--- “we were all looking for a king to slay our foes, and lift us high// thou cam’st a little baby thing, that made a woman cry.”
So I say to you all ‘Joyeux Noel’ and leave you with one of my Christmas poems, now found in my book of Christian poems entitled ‘The Living Legacy’


A cold and listless season,
And full of cheerless cheer,
When hopes are raised and dashed again
And joy dissolves in tears.

The search for endless family
The search for one true Friend
Leaves questers tired, disconsolate
With questions without end.

Best find some potent pleasure quick
Some superficial thrill
Than search for everlasting love
When none can fill that bill.

So hide yourselves in shopping
And eating ‘til you burst,
Use endless entertainment
As shelter from the worst.

And hope at least for truce on earth,
Though warlords rattle swords
As if to kill could solve our ills
We seize our ‘just’ rewards.

Mistake some rest for lasting peace
And calm for ‘all is well’
And absence of activity
As year end’s victory bell.

But what if Advent is no quest
Despite the wise men’s star
What if Advent isn’t reached
By driving from afar?

What if Good News comes to us
From well beyond our reach?
What if love and peace on earth
Are more than things we preach?
What if a restless peace
Is what He did intend
Until we open up our lives
And let the stranger in?

What if a peaceless rest
Is not the Christmas hope
What if nothing we could do
Helps us truly cope?

What if there is a bonding
With one who rules above
Who came to us in beggar’s rags
And brought the gift of love?

The God shaped hole in every heart
Is healed by just one source
When Jesus comes to claim his own
Who are without recourse.

So give up endless seeking
Surrender is required
The one who is the Lord of all
Cannot be bought or hired,

He’s not conjured into life
By pomp and circumstance
By Yuletide carols boldly sung
By fun or drunken trance.

He comes unbidden, unawares
Fills crevices of souls
He comes on his own timely terms
And makes the sinner whole.

‘We shall be restless’ said the saint
‘Until we rest in thee’
And find that we have been reborn,
Our own nativity.

How silently, how silently
The precious truth is given
And God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of his heaven.



Well there is bad preaching and then theRe is REALLY BADDDDDDD PREACHING. Here is a case in point.


Wednesday, December 10, 2008


Who was it who thought that having a wedding service on top of a swimming pool was a smart move?


Tuesday, December 09, 2008


The Nooma video series (from the Greek word pneuma--- spirit) continues to be produced apace at the rate of two-four videos a year, and we are now up to twenty two of these 13 or so minute presentations. The production values continue to be remarkably good, the background music continues to sound remarkably whimsical, (like it was out-takes from the Sgt. Pepper's Track 'Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite'), the content continues to be remarkably creative, and Rob continues to be remarkably Rob-- with that puckish grin and the Buddy Holly or Elvis Costello glasses and scenes mostly filmed in and around Grand Rapids Michigan where his church can be found. The DVDs still come with study guides or booklets to help along the reflection or use of the material, and they still come in those Carolina blue sleeves with some picture on the front and with one word titles (e.g. store, today,name, open,shells,she, and tomato are the titles of this batch included in this review).

In one sense these films are quintessentially post-modern. They tell stories about life with which most of us can identify in one way or another, and then the stories are related to this or that text, theme, motif in the Bible. Rob has a considerable gift of being able to speak clearly and directly even about complex theological and ethical concepts, and he understands the need to tease the mind into active thought. Some of the videos are more effective in accomplishing this than others, and some are actually provocative in a good sense.

Some of these videos have an anthropological focus. Take for example 'Store' which is actually about our experience of anger in all its manifestations from road rage all the way to righteous anger, or 'Tomato' is all about the false self and how it needs to die in order for a person to be reborn. Still others deal with traditional topics of Christian discourse for example prayer is the subject of 'Open' which is perhaps the best of this new batch of videos. More provocative (at least for some) is 'She' in which Rob talks about the maternal instinct of all sorts of creatures ranging from a mother goose he once encountered to God's maternal instinct (reminding the listener that the Hebrew word often translated compassion, even when God is the subject, means more literally 'womb'). God who is spirit, who is neither male nor female in the divine nature, nonetheless has aspects of the divine personality that we would associate primarily with women or with men. This is hardly a surprise since we are told that both male and female are created in God's image.
In the video 'Shells' Rob reminds us that the good is often the enemy of the best. Too many Christians spend time doing a variety of good things, which in fact prevent them from doing God's highest and best for them. In the video entitled 'Name', Rob talks eloquently about the difference between our personas and posturing and fronts, and our real identity, our real names, and our need to know who we really are, and whose we really are.

On the surface, some might be tempted to accuse Rob of serving up chicken soup for the soul, or pablum for the masses, or what passes for Christian pop psychology, but in fact on further review there is much more Biblical substance to these videos than might appear on first glance, and one needs to bear in mind that Rob is speaking to a post-modern generation that even if church attending are largely Biblically illiterate, and Rob is not. Indeed his teaching, including in his books tends to be consistently grounded in the Word, and those who keep complaining that this is not so: 1) need to lighten up; 2) need to consider the audience and level of discourse Rob is dealing with, especially in these videos.

Rob has learned the truth that you have to start with people where they are and lead them somewhere or persuade them to go on a journey of discovery. It is no good starting with them where you would like them to already be. And yet there needs to be enough challenge and impetus in the message and presentation to motivate a response, a change, a repentance, a recommitment. The testimonies from around the world to these videos, is that they are achieving the ministry Rob and others envisioned for them-- as they are used in Bible studies, small groups, youth rallies, Sunday school classes, evangelistic outreaches, and a host of other settings. Indeed, they accomplishing far more than Rob and his team could ever have imagined they would when they first envisioned taking on this project. I personally am happy for any and all creative and constructive ways of getting people to think about life in a more Christian and Biblical way. Kudos to Rob for pushing the envelope a bit, and advancing the conversation a bit in a Jesus haunted culture that is Biblically illiterate.


Friday, December 05, 2008

2008 Redneck Top Ten Awards!

My fellow Methodist good ole boy, Jeff Foxworthy, has made a living off of redneck jokes, and there seems to be an infinity of material to draw from. I once had to share the platform with Jeff in Georgia, who is the proverbial impossible act to follow (he did a routine entitled "You might be a United Methodist redneck if..." My favorite was "You might be a United Methodist redneck if, those cross and flame boxer shorts are high on your Christmas list"). As a tribute to Jeff, I offer you the following 2008 Redneck Awards. BW3













Thursday, December 04, 2008



The 92 year old, petite, well-poised lady was fully dressed each morning by 8 a.m., with her hair fashionably coiffed and makeup perfectly applied, even though she is legally blind. Today was a big day in her life, the day she was moving to a nursing home, for her husband of nearly 70 years had recently passed away, making the move necessary.

After many hours of waiting patiently in the lobby of the nursing home,she smiled sweetly when told her room was finally ready. As she maneuvered her walker to the elevator, a male nurse provided a visual description of her tiny room, including the eyelet sheets that had been hung on her window. "I love it," she stated emphatically. The male nurse replied "But Mrs. Jones, you haven't even seen it yet."

"That doesn't have anything to do with it," she replied. "Happiness is something you decide on ahead of time. Whether I like my room or not doesn't depend on how the furniture is arranged...it's how I arrange my mind. I've already decided to love it...It's a decision I make each morning when I wake up. I have a choice. I can spend the day in bed recounting the difficulty I have with parts of my body that no longer work or I can get out of bed and be thankful to God for the ones that do. Each day is a gift from the Lord, and as long as my eyes are open I'll focus on the new day and all the happy memories I have storied away just for a day like this in my life."

Old age you see is like a bank account...you withdraw from it what you've put in. So my advice to you during this holiday season would be to deposit a lot of happiness in the bank account of memories now. You'll need them later.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Memento Mori-- A Eulogy for my Father

Preached at Myers Park UMC Dec. 2, 2008

“Blessed are those who die in the Lord”

The Scriptures are clear enough that while Christians are expected to grieve, and weep with those who weep, they are not to grieve like those without hope. What then does ‘good grief’ look like, and what sort of theology of the afterlife does it presuppose?

Even Christians have remarkably odd notions about the afterlife, so let’s clear up a few things from the outset. My father is not a lost loved one. If anyone is in Christ they are now and perpetually and vitally alive. Dad’s not lost, we know right where to find him—in the very presence of the Lord in heaven. Secondly, my father is not gone, in the sense of ceasing to exist. He has simply gone on, like a ship goes over the horizon to a far destination. The fact that I can’t see him anymore here on this earth, says something about my limitations, not about his at this juncture. Thirdly, Dad has not gone from a greater form of existence to a lesser, quite the reverse. He has left the realm of suffering sin and sorrow, disease decay and death, which is this world, and he has gone to a realm where every tear is wiped from every eye, and all is well. As the resurrection of Jesus shows, God’s yes to life is louder than and triumphs over death’s no. Furthermore, Dad has not exchanged earthly excitement for heavenly boredom. He’s probably pretty busy right now with that good baritone singing the appropriate Advent carols and getting ready for a Christmas celebration up there even Myers Park can’t eclipse.

It has been said that the hammer shapes the hand of the one who uses it repeatedly. Similarly, a person is shaped and defined by those or that which they love. Some people love money, and their lives are shaped and defined in its pursuit. Sadly, money won’t love you back. Some people love fame, prestige, glory, and their lives are shaped and defined in its pursuit. Sadly, fame won’t love you back. Some people love power, control, and their lives are defined and shaped in its pursuit. But power won’t love you back. My father was like none of these persons, he never loved things and used people to get, them, but he was defined and shaped by the ones he loved—his Lord and Christ’s church, his wife, and children and grandchildren. His friends, and neighbors. His country, and especially his home state, the Old North State, and of course his beloved alma mater—Carolina. My father had a largeness of heart and a generosity of spirit like his Master, and he had plighted his troth to all those he loved, and that love was unconditional, unrelenting, unwavering, unending throughout his life.

We are here to celebrate the life and full promotion of my father into the living presence of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ this day. And while it may be bittersweet in oh so many ways, it should certainly be celebrated as my Dad knew in whom he believed, and he was persuaded that he had the gift of everlasting life. Life’s not too short, when it is everlasting, you know. How does one do justice to a life of 92 years full of incident and variety in a short span of time? It is like trying to sum up the varied and buried treasures in the Library of Congress. There are too many interesting things to tell, and too little time.

Shall I tell you about the adventures of his youth in Goldsboro like the time my father accidentally helped burn down Mr. Powell’s barn or the Saturday when he and his friend Billy climbed up into the steeple of the Primitive Baptist Church for a lark, only to discover—those Prims held church on Saturday, not Sunday? And when those church folks showed up and heard prowlers in the belfry they walked across the street to my dad’s house and had dad’s Mom call the police, not knowing who was up there? Shall I tell you about his many scouting adventures with Mr. Weston and others, a Mr. Weston who somehow Dad managed to persuade to allow me and some High Point Troop One boys into the good graces of so we could go with him and his Goldsboro boys to the 1965 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows N.Y.? Shall I tell you of the Thanksgiving in Statesville when Aunt Harriett had slaved long and hard over that turkey and accoutrements and ask Dad to say the Thanksgiving blessing and a little flustered he said “Dear Lord please pardon this food and bless our sins in Jesus’ name, Amen.” He would never live that one down. Should I sing you some of Dad’s old camp songs like “Oh Buck that Tally, Rooster Flink, Barnyard Stink…” I could regale you with many such fun details, but they would only reveal the fun and adventure loving side of the man which so endeared him to so many of us. But these would hardly encompass the real character and scope of who my father was.

My father was in so many respects a remarkable man. Born in 1916 and reared in Goldsboro North Carolina the son of a man who worked for the Southern Cotton Oil Company and a mother from diminutive Stonewall Mississippi, he grew up a son of the South where barbecue is hickory smoked pork, and Cheerwine is a soft drink, not a hard one, and you don’t have to order grits for breakfast in a Southern diner, they just come. He loved the Old North State, and he double-loved his University where he ran track and was a cheerleader—UNC-CH. Be prepared in a bit to avert your ears as I will be singing one of his favorite odes to the Heels in a moment, with apologies to James and other Duke or Wake or State grads here present. My father loved the history, the geography, the very landscape and contours of our state. I remember so many trips to Civil War battle fields, old churches, the Blue Ridge Parkway, the beach, beach, beach…. This was our home and it seemed a good a pleasant land, indeed it seemed to be the Southern part of heaven.

Shall I tell you about all those football and basketball games we went to, to see the Tar Heels, having the privilege of seeing the Tar Heels win four National Championships in basketball? I do still dimly remember Dad and I listening to the voice of the Tar Heels when I was six recount the miraculous 3 overtime victory over Wilt the Stilt Chamberlin of Kansas in Kansas for our first NCAA championship in 1957? No wonder he most often called me Sport—we shared so many sports moments together. Shall I tell you all those WWII stories he recounted to me about being in Germany and Czechoslovakia late in the war and seeing its horrors? I could tell you a lot of these stories, but in the end they would only give you a tiny glimpse of who he truly was.

Instead I want to tell you four things that are most revealing. My father, one hot day in 1968 or 69 whilst strongly disagreeing with me about the Vietnam War nonetheless went with me down to the Post Office on Green Street to pick up the conscientious objector papers, with me being the only non-Quaker who asked for them. Yes my father, a decorated veteran of WWII understood it was a matter of conscience and he loved and respected me even when he vigorously disagreed with me and tried to talk me out of it. I still have that form, as I never filled it out.

Secondly my father on his own birthday used to give others presents! “It is better to give than to receive” says Jesus, and my father practiced that in spades. He was all about loving self-sacrifice like Jesus, and just as he would have laid down his life for his country so he would willingly do so for his family or his Lord. In an age of egotism and ‘me first’ and narcissism he was a breath of fresh air, that smelled like the aroma of the Gospel to me.

Thirdly, my father was there every Sunday he was able with Mom in church. My daughter Christy tells me that three weeks ago when she was sitting vigil with Dad in the hospital Sunday morning rolled around, and Dad, even with all the tubes in him, sat up in bed, swung his legs off the bed, and said "It's Sunday isn't it, where are my clothes, we've got to get to church!" Christy gently explained that his clothes were at home. My folks taught Sunday school they did the every member canvas, they went on trips with adults plus and many other groups, for their personal lives revolved around the Lord and their family. My Dad was married to and loyal to my Mom for almost 60 years, and that my friends says everything about his character. He knew that fame is fleeting, wealth withers, but a person who reveres and serves the Lord and his people will live a rich and wonderful life. And so he did, indeed. Knowing all the trials and travails in Dad’s life, I am often reminded of Jimmy Stewart in that wonderful movie that plays at this time of year--- It’s a Wonderful Life. It is you know.

My father had gone off to Carolina, only to have a tragedy hit the family, when his father Ben Senior came down with pneumonia and died many years before his time. And so Dad, the eldest came home to support his Mom, his brother Pat, and Aunt Midgie, helping them to get on with their lives so they could go to college. He would not finish at Carolina until after WWII and it was hard after a long hiatus like that. For him there was no question but he would come home and help his family survive after the tragedy of losing a father many years too early. As Dad would say “it was the right thing to do.” It reminded me of the point in his memoirs where he fessed up to the police he and Billy had climbed up into that steeple that Saturday passing it off by saying “so of course when he asked we told him the truth.” That was my Dad, he didn’t just believe in the truth, he lived it.

So Dad, this song is for you “I’m a Tar Heel born, and a Tar Heel bred and the day I die I’m a Tar Heel dead, so its RA RA Carolina, Carolina….” Were my Dad here to day, he wouldn’t want all this fuss made over him. He was all about serving others, as Jesus once said…. “I did not come to be served but to serve and give my life a ransom for many.” It has been said that you become what you admire…. Well when I finally grow up, I want to be just like my Dad. My sister gave my Dad a paper weight that still sits on his desk—on it, it says “ I have a super hero, and he’s my Dad.”

“Blessed and holy are those who die in the Lord” AMEN