Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Music of Freedom

I have been following with great interest the recent visit of the New York Philharmonic to North Korea. I have read a lot about this performance, both pro and con. I think my fascination in this stems from my own visits to Eastern Europe, prior to the fall of Communism, more than 20 years ago.

I remember those visits so starkly; the contrast of oppression and freedom, darkness and light. The bland expanses of centrally planned Eastern Block architecture, the attempts to immortalize communist leaders, and the looks of resignation on the faces of the people we saw, these are the memories I will never forget.

Today, North Korea, with its highly centralized system and tight controls on the daily lives of its people, remains firmly in the grip of its leader, Kim Jong-il. He and his father, Kim Il-sung, are the subjects of a personality cult that requires portraits in every home and their images on lapel pins on the jackets of every official. Huge statues of the older Kim dominate cities (shown above, click to enlarge). The state operates what human rights experts say is a vast gulag of labor camps, many filled with the ideologically suspect and their families.

Into this comes the New York Philharmonic, playing the music of Freedom. Dvorak's New World Symphony, and George Gershwin's "American in Paris." Dvorak's New World symphony has always been quite moving to me; I think it speaks of freedom. It was written by the composer while here in the US between 1892 and 1895. For more details see

Lorin Maazel, the Music Director of the New York Philharmonic wrote recently:

"It is a role of the highest possible order: bringing peoples and their cultures together on common ground, where the roots of peaceful interchange can imperceptibly but irrevocably take hold. If all goes well, the presence of the New York Philharmonic in Pyongyang might gently influence the perception of our country there. If we are gradually to improve U.S.-Korean relations, such events have the potential to nudge open a door that has been closed too long."
I have posted a clip of the actual PyongYang concert below - it is haunting to watch the elite of a totalitarian state listen to music composed in the Land of the Free.

The music of freedom. Millions still long to hear it in their hearts. My prayer is that someday, like the millions of Eastern Europe, freedom might ring throughout the Korean peninsula. Until then, listen for the music of freedom.

Of Professors and Regular Folks

The previous post below, and an experience the other night, have me thinking again about what it means to form meaningful Christian community in today's world.

One thing I do know. Following Jesus, and having lives that make Him attractive to others today, is in no way similar to the way people did it in 1950, 1970, or in 2000, for that matter. Change is persistent; it will not go away. I have been thinking about this for a
long time now. And if you want to see a small peek of what change is looking like, look in the post below.

Professors' Thoughts
There is a little quote by a well respected theologian and
professor that fits this idea well:

"…so much ministerial training has focused on caring for the flock of God and on maintaining the “shop”. So much of our traditional theological agenda has been shaped by a Christendom-context mentality and has been largely confined to an internal debate between various theological factions. A missional theology, on the other hand, focuses on dialogue with unbelievers and those of other religions."
Listening Well to Regular People
I am currently involved in the beginnings of a number of conversations in the life of our church, that will hopefully begin the process of leading us where God may be calling us to go in the future. And that will likely be a very new place, something very different from where we are now. As in completely different; not in the Christ we worship and serve, but in the way we do those things.

Over the past several weeks, we have been gathering groups across generational lines and typical groupings, to discover what God might be saying in our midst. Now listen to what these folks are saying:

"Most people don’t know their neighbors where they live and work. In terms of church, it seems that a certain type of person comes to this church. I don’t feel like the immediate neighborhood is interested in this church – we attract a certain maturity and educational level – there is not anything wrong with this – and we may not need to knock on the neighbor’s doors.

But what is an active role in the life of the church? What does that mean? Does it mean that everyone needs to take an active role in the life of the church? Is three hours a week on Sunday, and 1.5 hours in the middle of the week an “active role”? Different people have different levels of vesting their involvement in the church. Sometimes a church is like a hospital, where others are nourished and fed. Not everyone who comes here is happy and fulfilled – perhaps a "church" is a place that extends beyond the “life of the church”.

How is the life of the church defined? I find it alarming, that peoples’ only involvement in the life of the church is on Sunday. And there is a significant difference in the lifestyle of the younger and older generation. Older generation is committed marriages, long term relationships, but the younger generation is often disconnected, single parents, lack of ability to make commitments. There is a huge generational shift occurring, and how do we make this work. How do we make this equitable? How do we do mentorship; connecting generations?"

I find this all fascinating, that a seminary professor, writing several years ago in Pasadena, knew what might be in the mind of a lay person at a church in Hollywood several years in the future. Hmmm. Wonder if God is up to something here?

Friday, February 22, 2008

Students Today

Alright. Stop. Watch this video. Twice. Maybe more times.

This, my friends, is the future. Deal with it.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Officer Down, Randy Simmons

He was only a year older than me.

He was a hero.

He loved Jesus with all his heart, and his life displayed it, consistently.

And now, he is gone. The entire City of Angels is something less because of this loss.

I will be praying for grace, peace and mercy for his dear family.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Mr. Lincoln

Today is Abraham Lincoln's birthday.

This piece came on KUSC this morning, as Nancy and I awoke. What an appropriate way to start this day.

This piece was composed by the legendary (and one of my favorite) American composer, Aaron Copeland, and was performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, under the direction of Zubin Mehta. The narrator is actor Gregory Peck.

This man Lincoln, and this moving piece, are two more reasons I am proud to be an American.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Majesty Above 10,000 Feet

Posted below is the reason why I love to is just amazing to me. Perhaps its in my genetics, as my Dad was a B-17 pilot. It is beyond me how anyone can book a flight and not ask for a window seat.

My Town, Samaria, Jesus, and Me

When theory and reality intersect, sometimes not much happens. At least that is my experience. I think about this a lot.

I have been a follower of Christ for the past 28 years. I have lived in the same town for the past 27 years. And I can count on one hand the times that where I live and what I believe have intersected.

I am wondering if anyone else has experienced this. Our church is 13 miles (and anywhere from 20 minutes to 45 minutes, depending on the lovely LA traffic) from our home. And, it seems, never the twain shall meet.

My church life is entirely divorced from my life in my local community. Why is this? Perhaps its because for the past almost 20 years of our married life together, our family has attended what used to be a mega-commuter church in Hollywood. This has been a church that over the years morphed from a church that drew its congregants from both near and far into a city church that now largely draws its folks from far, typically beyond 5 miles away, and often as far away as 25 miles.

Perhaps another significant factor is the way our culture works. Church life and civic life seem greatly disconnected. I long for a life that feels more integrated, where who I am on the inside is more connected to where I live, and how I interact with people.

Maybe its because life here in a larger city is just that way. Disconnected. Disjointed pieces never moving in a coherent pattern. I have my work life, my family life, and my church life; but they never really connect in a way that makes sense, or seems a unified whole. There is no meshing of home, work, and church.

I dislike this greatly, and it often makes me feel as if my faith is somehow, well, fake. I feel like this person who reads lots of books, thinks lots of thoughts, does the "church thing" but never really has a chance to live out the concepts and ideas in a lifestyle that gives real and deep meaning and purpose to the basic core of the faith.

My thoughts in this regard are not fully formed. But I know something is not altogether right, and I want to work toward a way (and a life) that is different than status quo now.

The sharing of these thoughts was instigated by my reading of Tim Stafford's most recent article in Christianity Today; a thoughtful comment upon the life of Christ following folk in current times. Take a look, it might shed more light than my ramblings.

Am I making any sense here? Does anyone else experience this?

Sunday, February 10, 2008

St. Olaf Choir - Remarkable Music

They are 68 strong, they hail from a small northern Mid-Western college, and they are (save for two members) all very white.

But they can sing like you are standing at the Gates of Heaven. I swear it.

I first heard of the
St.Olaf College Choir in December, when I saw their Christmas concert on PBS. And then, later that month, Nancy spotted a small add in a local newspaper that they would be on tour and stopping right next door in Pasadena.

And so, last Tuesday night, in the company of dear 20+ year friends Jeff & Sparky and Jamie & Polly, off we went to hear the Mid-Western white kids sing.

And sing, they did! The concert, in a word: amazing.

Powerful, subtle, moving, engaging, wonderful. Choral music is by no means a dead art. I promise you. At one point I was moved to tears by a choral treatment of Robert Frost's, The Pasture:

I’m going out to clean the pasture spring;
I’ll only stop to rake the leaves away
(And wait to watch the water clear, I may):
I sha’n’t be gone long.—You come too.

I’m going out to fetch the little calf
That’s standing by the mother. It’s so young,
It totters when she licks it with her tongue.
I sha’n’t be gone long.—You come too.

You come too, indeed. Words of a simple rural life, so long gone from where I live today, busily hurrying through my urban life. Flying here and there, things to accomplish. Sometimes, I think I would rather clean the pasture spring.

Just a peek more at the St. Olaf's choir is found below, in a treatment of Mark Jennings "O Crux" (O Cross). I could not find the english translation from the Latin, but watch this, I think you will be blessed.

Friday, February 08, 2008


His name was George. He never missed a church committee meeting, or a potluck dinner, his weekly Sunday school class, or anything at church, for that matter. Nothing. He was there for everything. Part of the landscape. A fixture. It had been that way for years.

But to me, George was much more than just a fixture. He was a pain in my rear end.

You see, by fate, or Divine Providence, George and I seemed to end up involved in the same activities at church all the time. Constantly. I could not avoid him. Have you ever met someone who has an opinion about everything, whether you want to hear it or not? Someone who seems to act as if they might be the only person alive? A man who is easily hurt, constantly annoyed, and permanently angry. Joyless. Ever met someone like that?

I've heard others say he sould be medicated. Immature and annoying some might say. Unbalanced, say others. Completely annoying, many say. George would easily tell you about all the faults, shortcomings, and inabilities of others; but never imagine that he might have some faults of his own. His picture should have been next to "tedious" in the dictionary.

But a man like George does not merely evolve out of nothing. There was something distinctive about George. It was his past. His life had been one of nearly constant struggle and enough emotional pain for several people. Broken marriages, disconnected family. When you took a bit of time to hear his story, if only in outline form, all the crankiness, all the negativity, all the medling behavior makes much more sense. It was as if the sum total of all the pain, loss, and long suffering in his life had etched itself upon George's soul, and was constantly clawing to get out. Pain always there, without hope for removal, save for Heaven.

Given his past, it was a wonder that George even showed up, at of all places, our church. And yet, there he was every week, in the same pew, holding fast to a faith in Jesus that was muted through a cranky and painful exterior. Figuring out his Belief, right there next to the rest of us. Together.

A while back, I was placed on a committee with George for a very long time. We met often enough that George worked his way into my skin. His neediness, his complaining, his sour outlook on life wore me nearly completely down. There were nights when I would get in my car after our meetings and wonder what in the world I was doing on this stupid committee. I could have been home, for heaven's sake! Some nights, I would get to my car, hit the freeway ramp home, and scream as loud as I could, just to release the energy of frustration I was feeling from having to deal with ...... George.

And then, one particularly late committee meeting night, as I drove home feeling frustrated yet again, I was struck by something. Call it a thought from God, maybe. I'm still not sure.

I thought to myself of exactly where both George and I would be heading home to that night; and the contrast of the two. I was heading home to a house with two lovely little daughters, a wonderful wife, a chocolate labrador, and a cat. All sleeping when I came in the door, close to midnight. A home. Full of people and love and blessing, laughter and life; but quiet now, in the dark. The happy ending of the movie.

George, on the other hand, would pack himself up in his ancient import car, and ride home to a small apartment in a not-so-great part of town where he lived, alone. With his thoughts, his loneliness, and a 15 year old color TV. Not much else. Alone.

And then, as I sped down the freeway, another thought occurred to me. I remember
somewhere in the Bible it said something about "bearing others burdens". Becoming Christ for others.

What might that look like, if I did that? If I became more familiar with the life of another that did not look like or turn out like mine has, at least so far? Spending time with a person who would be last on my list of people to hang with. What if I gave of myself, rather than enjoying my warm and comfy place of annoyance at the behavior of others? What might it be like if I became more like Jesus? For George.

I wondered.

George grew ill, and stopped coming to church. I never got to find out about my questions of getting to know George better.

I still feel the shame.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Some Things Speak for Themselves

This is what beautiful sounds like.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Everything Must Change - Book Review

Brian McClaren has a new book, which I have just finished reading. I have been interested in the things Mr. McClaren has had to offer over the last several years. While I am aware he has a number of both critics and admirers, I really wanted to see what was on his mind in this book, particularly after hearing a compelling interview here.

After reading this book, I have several conflicting thoughts. Please remember, this is from the mind of a 49-year old white guy from the suburbs who has not voted Democrat since Jimmy Carter. What do I know?

Helpful Critique of The Church
Mr. McClaren offers a very insightful and helpful critique of the modern church, and the surreal way in which Christian-think has become mixed up in conservative politics. This whole thing bothers me a great deal, as the older I get the less I think that any of us who follow Christ can shrink wrap him into our way of looking at the world as Democrat or Republican. Given this, what is said in the opening chapters of this book is very helpful. We all need more of this constructive criticism.

Of particular value is McClaren's thoughts on the way that we have misunderstood the message of who Jesus is. Suffice it to say there is much to think about how we might "reframe" our view of Jesus here. Change here is needed; we believing folk should make this a priority. The decline of the Western church is evidence that our old model is not working. I am totally in with this form of thinking.

A Mass of Criticism
After the early chapters, Mr. McClaren ventures into the deep water of politics, economics, international affairs, and the military history of the United States.

I find myself often wondering during these chapters if the author is in over his head. While his ideas are good, and also faithful to Scripture in many ways, they seem, at the end, to be idealistic, and frankly detached from reality. I shudder to think what would have happened with Mr. McClaren at the helm of US foreign policy over the past decade, most particularly in the face of 9/11. Be very careful when mixing theology and politics, this is very choppy water indeed.

I will admit that much is and has been wrong with the way the US has acted in relation to other countries, and our sense of imperialism over the past century.

However, after several chapters of predictable screeds against our country's behavior, I wonder again, what would Mr. McClaren have done with the brutally oppressive Taliban in the aftermath of the attacks on the US? See: The Kite Runner. Should we have sent over diplomats to talk about our feelings; how we had been deeply hurt by the "damage" brought upon our country? About how, perhaps, these attacks had really been our fault, because of our oppressive behavior? I wonder. While I struggle with much of the military posturing of our country, the world is still menanced by bad people, and no amount of happy thinking seems to be able to change this.

Mr. McClaren reminds me of utopian urban planners, with whom I have to deal often in my work. They love the idea of "mixed use" projects with residential and commercial uses placed neatly together. However, guess what? Many times these mixtures are financial disasters; they simply do not work in the real world. I can prove it to you numerically. I think the same ideology applies to other things in life. Urban planners need to spend some time with those who actually need to show their developments must make money. Shocking, I know. Not all militarists are evil, some like their kids and care about others.

That offered, I think McClaren has much to offer about the way we view money. Our consumer culture needs healing, and there is much good thinking here!

Nowhere to Go - Vague Suggestions
The final portion of this book is long on hints and short on practical response. I felt as if I was offered a book thick with complaints, and short on suggestions and solutions. How shall I then live, please?!

If the dominant world view is so messed up, where do I, as a believer who wants to make a difference turn? Where are the centers of hope in the world, where are the opportunities to make a change? Please, Mr. McClaren, tell me stories of transformation and of hope, of renewal and rebirth. I want to hear them.

I am not just a shallow white guy who wants to stay comfortable. I would like to think about this sort of thing more. Or do I need to wait for your next book? If that is the case, I call foul.

Ok, so that is what my tiny mind thinks. But there is far more in the blogsphere to look at and think about. Much smarter people than me. If you struggle like I do with this sort of thing, go look!

Friday, February 01, 2008

George Will - One of My Favorites

Since what is in George Will's mind is far more interesting than what is typically inside my head, I will give you some highlights from a recent speech by Mr. Will:

I write about politics to support my baseball habit.
If the Democrats can’t win the presidency this year, they have to get out of politics.
2008 is the first year when profits of Fortune 500 companies will be less than their healthcare outlays.
The thing that worries me is the entitlement mentality produced by a welfare state. 40% of the American public changes jobs every year.
Economic illiteracy leads to economic hypochondria.
We know how to manage our economy — keep inflation out of it and stand back.
The economy is doing rather well but its not acceptable to say that.
Americans feel entitled to uninterrupted prosperity.
Evian water is $180 a barrel.
Economic illiteracy will kill us.
People feel entitled to incompatible things
A recession is often a correct thing to happen.
Every American feels entitled to sue someone even if it’s the result of his or her own imbecilic choice.
Envy is the only one of the seven deadly sins that doesn’t give someone even temporary pleasure.
Today the great source of wealth is the mind — human capital.
Anyone willing to do what you have to do to be president should be disqualified.
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