Friday Fun: It’s Harder to Be the Straight Man

I would hate to be:

  • Harvey Korman playing opposite Tim Conway;
  • Bud Abbott playing opposite Lou Costello;
  • Dean Martin playing opposite Jerry Lewis;
  • Kelsey Grammer playing opposite David Hyde Pierce;
  • Jerry Seinfeld playing opposite Michael Richards;
  • Johnny Galecki playing opposite Jim Parsons; or
  • Anybody playing opposite Bob Newhart.

I would never be able to keep a straight face. Dean Martin gives it a whirl in this old skit from 1965, and he fails miserably. Bob Newhart is just too much for him. That’s part of the fun of it. I dare you to watch it and try not to laugh.

As another weekend approaches in this crazy year called 2020, try to enjoy the intoxicating beauty of fall. As George Eliot once said, “Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird, I would fly about the Earth seeking the successive autumns.”

Be blessed!

An Overlooked Dietary Restriction in the Old Testament

Old Testament scholars are hard pressed to find an underlying rationale for the myriad dietary restrictions in the Mosaic law. It’s a good and important question, but not one I’ve thought about too terribly much over the years. I’m just glad the highlighted Hebrew word below is pronounced, “NO KALE.”

Truly, that’s how it’s pronounced, though it has nothing to do with kale. (My apologies if you thought this was a serious post. I’m just having way too much fun today—which is a good thing since the vacation ends tomorrow.)

Random Thoughts from Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina

Spent a lovely day at Wrightsville Beach today, reading and relaxing one last time before the next dissertation “push” consumes my life. The crisp, gentle breeze and bright sunshine made for a lovely outing. Here are some random ruminations with no rhyme or reason—just some nuggets that wafted in and out, sort of like the waves at my feet.

1.  Walking on the sand always reminds me of God’s promise to Abraham, “So shall your descendants be.” That metaphor was all around me today. He is faithful as far as the eye could see—and then beyond. I may have to do some stargazing tonight and celebrate the same truth (cf. Gen 15:5, 22:17, 26:4, etc.). Apparently there are more stars in the universe than grains of sand (roughly 7.5 x 1018 vs. 1 x 1022). Either way, the message is clear: “The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it” (1 Thess 5:24).

2.  Scrunching my toes in the sand reminded me of those swimming training trips we used to take in college. Whether it was in Florida or St. Croix, our days consisted of triple sessions, with the middle block of agony featuring long runs on the beach. Running on the sand is a lot more difficult than running on hard surfaces. Those jaunts were grueling, and I don’t miss them. Then again, I do miss having chiseled calves.

3.  I also miss those days when the media were (mostly) honest and evenhanded. Indeed, there was a time when our national news outlets were content to be our eyes and ears on the events of the day. Now they try to be our brains, too, telling us what to think. No thank you. We can do that ourselves. Who do you think you are? You’ve done more to polarize our country than any politician. And now you’re playing censorship games to aid and abet certain candidates. This is a flagrant corruption of journalism. Knock it off.

4.  The undulating waves reminded me of Enya’s song, “The Humming,” a clever musical reflection on the cycles of the universe. The ending (“Then all of this begins again”) makes me think of the references to nature in Ecclesiastes chapter 1. There’s a rhythm to the cosmos. A pulse. And, more importantly, a story. “The heavens declare the glory of God,” said King David. As Max Lucado put it, “Nature is God’s first missionary.”

5.  I started re-reading Michael Heiser’s The Unseen Realm, which is a good and necessary corrective to those branches of the faith that have been so modernized as to be devoid of anything supernatural. Kudos to him for helping the church rediscover, as Hamlet put it, “There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” 

6.  I polished off a bag of Mint Milanos, my favorite non-homemade cookie. I mentioned that fact in class two weeks ago—just in passing—and this past week a bag magically appeared in my classroom. How kind of that particular student. (She’s an auditor, so there’s no possibility of grade inflation in this case!) And how kind of the Lord to give us taste buds, especially when flavors like chocolate and mint can swirl together inside a cookie. And then inside my mouth.

7.  Speaking of cookies, it’s probably time to mortify the flesh a bit. Chiseled calves don’t come easily. Likewise, I should probably finish my Alias binge this weekend, too. Dissertations don’t write themselves. The road ahead is long and lonely. I trust it will also be rewarding.

Enjoy the journey!

‘The Blessing’: God’s Gracious Character in Action

Once in a while a praise song will grip me so tightly or touch me so deeply, I find myself playing it over and over again. “Knowing You” (Graham Kendrick) was like that when it first came out. So was “No Higher Calling” (Jonathan Butler). It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, this INTJ can get very un-Spocklike, and I start to reach for the tissues.

Lately I find myself repeatedly going back to “The Blessing” as sung by Cody Carnes and Kari Jobe. It was the song of the week last week on This New Life. (I also like Jobe’s inspiring rendition of “Revelation Song” and “Forever.”) Cue the waterworks. 

“Blessing” is one of those words that believers use a lot, perhaps without a whole lot of thought. The Hebrew word for “bless” (bārak) has two general meanings. 

First, it can mean to express one’s gratitude and admiration or praise—normally to a superior, such as to God or a king. That’s the sense in Psalm 103:1a: “Bless the Lord, O my soul (= I would like to express to the Lord my gratitude and praise).”

Second, “bless” can mean to be benevolent to someone, to cause good things to happen to, or to give good gifts—normally to a subordinate. That’s the sense in Psalm 67:1: “May God be gracious to us and bless us (= be benevolent to us) and make his face to shine upon us.”

As Clair Davis writes, “While blessing can refer to human praise and worship to God in acknowledgement of his provision (Gen 24:48; Deut 8:10), a more specific emphasis is on the blessings themselves, the gracious character of God in giving them, and also on the identification of those who receive God’s favor.” 

The Aaronic blessing of Numbers 6:22-27 is one of the more famous blessings, often spoken as a benediction at the end of a worship service. The text reads:

The Lord said to Moses, “Tell Aaron and his sons, ‘This is how you are to bless the Israelites. Say to them: 

“The Lord bless you 
and keep you; 
the Lord make his face shine upon you 
and be gracious to you; 
the Lord turn his face toward you 
and give you peace.” ’ 

“So they will put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.”

Below is Carnes and Jobe in action with this particular text (and a few others). If the waterworks begin for you, too, enjoy the moment. Either way, may you be blessed as you listen.

Image Credit: pexels.com.

Awash in Wonder: What Artistic Beauty Tries to Teach Us

Do they not have bones? Does gravity not apply? Are they not even human? The Chinese State Circus performance of Swan Lake is beyond amazing. I have never seen such daunting ballet lifts on stage before. Check out this 4-minute video clip and stand in awe. Then ask why it is you might be standing in awe.

I am awash in wonder every time I see this routine. But why? The German poet Rilke once went to a museum and effused over an ancient statue of Apollo. He was so captivated by the sculpture that when he got home, he wrote in his diary, “I must change my life.”

I find it significant that he didn’t write, “Wow, that was a great aesthetic experience I just had,” though it was. He didn’t write, “I was awestruck by the artistry of that piece,” though he was. No, he wrote, “I must change my life.”

Christian author Tim Keller argues that what Rilke was really saying—and what he went on to write in a poem containing the same expression—was this:

“Anything that really moves you, any great insight you ever get, any experience of beauty that really gets you at your core—it always makes you aware of the fact that you’re just a shadow of what you should be. You’re just a fraction of what you know you ought to be.”

While Rilke may have overstated his point a bit, most of us realize—when we’re completely honest with ourselves—that our lives would benefit by a series of significant changes. In the presence of great art, that realization is highlighted anew. We get a sense that we’re a long way away from what we could be as human beings.

At the same time, we’re not so far away that we can’t recognize flashes of beauty when we see them, or even consider what those flashes of beauty might be trying to teach us. Abraham Kuyper, the Dutch theologian, put it like this:

“If you confess that the world once was beautiful, but by the curse has become undone, and by a final catastrophe is to pass to its full state of glory, excelling even the beautiful of paradise, then art has the mystical task of reminding us in its productions of the beautiful that was lost and of anticipating its perfect coming luster.”

Art’s task, says Kuyper, is to remind people where we came from and where we’re going. Our origin was the creative hand of God, and our destination is a complete and perfect restoration in him through Christ. In the meantime, all of us can enjoy the sheer beauty of a good performance, whatever our theological commitments may be.

With visions of those incredible Swan Lake dance moves in our minds, we can luxuriate in the grace of God that motivated King David to write:

“I will exalt you, O Lord, for you lifted me” (Psalm 30:1).

Surely God’s “lifts” are at least as good as those of the Chinese State Circus.

Purpose and Pleasure: Partners in Finding and Navigating Our Vocation in Life

Eric Liddell famously said to his sister in Chariots of Fire, “I believe that God made me for a purpose—for China. But he also made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure.” While the screenplay is likely embellished (or even apocryphal) at that point, the line is rich and insightful. There the “Flying Scotsman” articulates an elusive and hard-to-describe aspect of calling (or “vocation”). 

Liddell’s insight was this: Whenever people live out their divine purpose, they tend to sense God’s blessing and affirmation in the process, even if there are deep struggles along the way. As David wrote in Psalm 16:11, “You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence.” David, of course, was no stranger to trouble. On more than one occasion, the spears of King Saul whizzed past his ear, twanging into the wallboards of the place where he was hiding at the time.

It is significant that David connects being in God’s presence to being filled with joy, not groveling in the dust as a miserable sinner before an angry, implacable God. While epochal moments in redemptive history sometimes require dramatic theophanies for prophetic or revelatory reasons (cf. Exod 19:18-19, 40:34; Isa 6:1-5; Matt 17:5-6; Acts 2:1-4), God has a track record of delighting his people, not debilitating them. 

As such, I have slightly adjusted Liddell’s observation to make it my own: “When I learn, I feel his pleasure.” That’s one of the reasons it’s such a joy for me to be a teaching pastor and a seminary professor. It seems that God has made me for this. My calling can often be difficult, but it aligns well with how I’m wired. And if others can learn a few things along the way because I learned them earlier—whether in life or in libraries—so much the better. Such a venture has filled me with joy in the past, and it continues to do so today. 

Thare’s a caution, however, that’s never far from my thoughts in this regard: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1b). Our calling, then, must encompass the good of others, not just ourselves. That makes sense theologically because we’re relational beings, made in the image of God—the One who is true comm-unity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). But, oh, what a challenge to see our lives and calling in connection to others. I can be awfully selfish sometimes; how about you?

Our calling must encompass the good of others, not just ourselves. 

I’m not sure I could articluate an inviolable or unassailable personal mission statement, but I do know that God is inviting me to embody his beauty, truth, and goodness as a pastor-scholar in the 21st-century church of Jesus Christ so that others can discover their lofty status and calling as image bearers of God—reveling in the good news of his redeeming grace. 

This “reveling” by others can take myriad forms, but the common core is culture-making that leads to human flourishing in this life, whatever joys the next life may hold. Historian Will Durant once wrote, “Civilization is social order promoting cultural creation. Four elements constitute it: economic provision, political organization, moral traditions, and the pursuit of knowledge and the arts. It begins where chaos and insecurity end.” 

My own calling is part of the “social order” of which Durant speaks, centered mostly in the third element he cites (viz., “moral traditions”)—though grace must always be part of the equation, as moral ideals often collapse under the weight of our own fallenness. If God is not gracious, then all of us are toast in the end.

Indeed, my own particular “tradition,” as Durant uses the term, is one that is Trinitarian, evangelical, and gospel-centered. That is why I seek to help inspire others to overcome their own insecurities and become “fully human,” even as they come to know and enjoy their Creator—the Logos who became human for the sake of love and liberation. As Durant noted, “When fear is overcome, curiosity and constructiveness are free, and [hu]man[ity] passes by natural impulse towards the understanding and embellishment of life.”

Grace must always be part of the equation, as moral ideals often collapse under the weight of our own fallenness.

That sounds to me like purpose and pleasure go together—even if the former leads the latter in priority. Both gravity and gladness can play together nicely in the sandbox of life. Indeed, they must play together nicely, or it’s not even rightly called “life.”

When is it that you most feel God’s pleasure?

Image Credits: 123rf.com; chrysaliscoaching.co.uk; runnersworld.com.

25 of the Most Majestic Libraries in the World

“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”
– Jorge Luis Borges

The seminary where I teach just converted its entire library to a digital access collection. That’s a wise move for us since so many of our students these days are from out of town, out of state, or even out of the country. Online education has made such diversity possible. Still, I miss the tactile nature of real books, so there’s something to lament here as well as to celebrate.

And what of the real structures that house the real books? Virtual shelves lack a certain je ne sais quoi, do they not? While they’re losing ground to the modern e-book and audio book industries, libraries once were the central hubs of human intellectual progress and achievement. Indeed, there’s something about them that still attracts people today.

Whether it’s their magnificent architecture, the distinct smell of old books, or the charm of intimate spaces that no other kind of building can command, scholars and dreamers alike still enjoy scanning the best of our literary heritage inside traditional libraries.

Because of their cultural importance, libraries often were built to be beautiful and to last. The folks over at boredpanda.com have assembled an impressive gallery for your viewing pleasure. You can check it out here.

Not too long ago I visited the George Peabody Library in Baltimore, Maryland. The atmosphere was mesmerizing, but I inadvertently broke a rule while on site. I started perusing a rather old francophone book on the French Revolution, only to discover several chapters later that it was part of the not-to-be-touched collection. Thankfully, I avoided the guillotine. 

In the end, pixels, I suppose, have a longer shelf life than paper, so book fragility may become a thing of the past. That’s an upside to the digital age. Moreover I have a Kindle, and I like it, so I’m quite comfortable in this new world. The only snafu comes when I lick my finger to turn the page. Apparently my screen is averse to human saliva.


Image Credits: boredpanda.com.

‘The Man in the Arena’: Theodore Roosevelt’s Inspiration to Persevere

Theodore Roosevelt was a soldier, explorer, naturalist, and statesman who served as the 26th President of the United States from 1901 to 1909. Born a sickly child with debilitating asthma, he eventually overcame his health challenges by embracing a rigorous lifestyle.

Following William McKinley’s assassination in September 1901, Roosevelt became president at age 42, the youngest person ever to hold the office. One of his more famous quotations was shared in a speech the year after he left office. It is commonly known at the “The Man in the Arena” quotation, from an address titled, “Citizenship in a Republic.”

Regardless of how many times you may have stumbled or failed, be inspired by Roosevelt’s words to persevere:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Theodore Roosevelt

“Citizenship in a Republic”
Speech at the Sorbonne Paris, France
April 23, 1910

C. S. Lewis: A Willingness to Be Enchanted

From Alan Jacobs, The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis (New York: HarperOne, 2005), xxi.

“Lewis’s mind was above all characterized by a willingness to be enchanted. . . . It was this openness to enchantment that held together the various strands of his life–his delight in laughter, his willingness to accept a world made by a good and loving God, and (in some ways above all) his willingness to submit to the charms of a wonderful story, whether written by an Italian poet of the sixteenth century, by Beatrix Potter, or by himself.

“What is ‘secretly present in what he said about anything’ is an openness to delight, to the sense that there’s more to the world than meets the jaundiced eye, to the possibility that anything could happen to someone who is ready to meet that anything. For someone with eyes to see and the courage to explore, even an old wardrobe full of musty coats could be the doorway into another world.”

narnia-wardrobe
Image Credits: National Portrait Gallery, London; Wiki Narnia.