Ralph Walderson Emerson once said, “The earth laughs in flowers.” If that’s true, then my front yard is howling with delight right now. I’m so thrilled with how our red and yellow tulips have flourished this year. I had to take some snaps earlier today since they don’t last very long. Fortunately, new and different blooms will come after the tulips have had their day.
Off to celebrate my son’s birthday. And pretend I can sing. (There’s something magical about a karaoke microphone, right?)
1. Holy Week 2021 was a rich and meaningful time for our church family. In the midst of building a new church website, processing all the paperwork for a new corporation, assisting in a friend’s baptism and commissioning service, learning a new educational learning platform, and getting a helpful education on important legal matters, we held the full range of traditional Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday services and activities. I was blessed, challenged, and encouraged by getting to lead and participate in these incredible worship experiences. They always give me so much to “treasure” and “ponder” in my heart, as Mary did while watching her Son in action.
2. Somewhere in the middle of all that activity, I turned another year older, and my family and friends spoiled me. It was a week of visits, gifts, and feastings on top of an otherwise excellent year of health. I’ve been walking, swimming, eating right, and losing lots of pounds. If I can get back on track first thing tomorrow, and resume my disciplines without any more splurges, I may be able to see my abs by July. I know—that’s such a guy goal, right? But I haven’t been able to do that in decades, so I’m going for it. I usually collapse right about now in the journey, so we’ll see how it goes. Thanks in advance for cheering me on!
3. My daughter and I went to Hobby Lobby on Tuesday to get a bunch of knickknacks for the lighted bookshelves in our newly renovated living room. That project went a lot better and took a lot longer than we had originally thought, but nothing compares to the marathon bathroom renovation project that’s now in full swing. Our goal was to have it done by Christmas when the extended family gathered last December for the holidays, but only now is it finally getting close to being finished. The upside is that I wound up getting some cool recessed lighting in my home office as a side benefit. If all goes well, the bathroom will be done in three weeks, and then we can turn our attention to the basement library/podcast studio.
4. My 2013 Ford Edge SEL was on the verge of turning 100k miles, so I replaced it last Friday before it lost its trade-in value. It had a mineral gray exterior and a black interior with heated leather seats. It was a good car, and I enjoyed driving it for three and a half years. Last week I got a 2018 Ford Edge Titanium at a great price and less than 20k miles. (Hey, I like Edges!) It has a shiny white exterior, a cool moonroof, and a two-tone interior with heated leather seats. It’s loaded with features and handles well. I’m looking forward to connecting my devices, learning the display, and discovering all the features I’ve read about but haven’t gotten to try yet.
5. For years I’ve described myself as “an incurable Philadelphia Phillies fan,” but I may have just found the cure. I’m thoroughly disgusted by what the MLB pulled in re-locating the All-Star Game because of Georgia’s new voting law. What lunacy. I’m delighted that the Phils swept the Braves this weekend, but my interest in professional sports has taken a deep nosedive over the past decade. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I’m tired of politics in sports and will no longer support the industry. There are plenty of other things I can do with my time. For example, my son just got me a training session at the local gun range for my birthday, so we have that to look forward to—in between binging on episodes of the Sherlock series (Cumberbatch/Freeman). Then it’s on to the local Rod & Gun Club to improve my skills.
6. So as not to end on a down note, I’m finally re-energized to go “all-in” on the research and writing of my second dissertation. Those things are just painful to write, but I love my subject matter, and my upcoming schedule should allow for some serious progress. If I’m not on here a lot in the coming months, that’s the reason. But I’ll still read as many of your comments and posts as I possibly can.
Be blessed, one and all, in the risen Christ. You are at the heart of God’s heart.
Yesterday we unveiled the new website for Christ Community Church, which can be found here. The site is about 85 percent complete. Pages still in production include the age-based ministries in the Connect section, as well as the Sermon Archive page, but I thought it best to roll out what we have now since people sometimes look for churches during Holy Week.
This is a most marvelous time of year for believers, isn’t it? I could hardly get out my opening prayer this past Sunday—Palm Sunday. To ponder the death of Jesus is to ponder the loving heart of God. Indeed, it was Jesus himself who connected the two: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son” (John 3:16a). This divine giving encompassed the cross, which reduces us all before it raises us all. In fact, it’s that sense of unworthiness that drives us to grace, which we so desperately need from God.
During Holy Week, believers around the world give deep thought to the Passion (i.e., the sufferings) of Christ. Our purpose in doing so is not to be morbid, gruesome, or macabre but to increase our gratitude and enhance our devotion to God. It’s one of the ways we renew our minds (cf. Rom 12:1-2) and “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet 3:18). In short, it’s part of our discipleship. The Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthian church, “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2). The cross of Christ was never from Paul’s mind.
Believers are especially challenged when we realize that Jesus was tortured by religious people as well as irreligious people. Pious Jews and secular Gentiles both had a hand in his death. Believers and unbelievers alike totally missed the fact that “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor 5:19) during Jesus’ execution. Therefore, it is the Christian believer as much as anyone who needs to contemplate the cross and, in the process, relinquish any sense of self-righteousness (cf. Phil 3:3-11).
So, in addition to playing lawyer over the past two months for the legal filings of the church, I’ve been building a website (using Divi by Elegant Themes on a WordPress managed site). The learning curve was steep at first, but then I finally got the hang of it and started having a blast. That’s why I’ve been off the grid lately, which I don’t like doing. I always love to read what my thoughtful friends are writing, especially this time of year, but the pile has been high.
Next up are Facebook and Instagram pages. Right after Holy Week.
1. One of the benefits of living in Pennsylvania is getting to experience the delightful change of seasons throughout the year. The shifts here are significant enough to be noticeable but not extreme enough to be intolerable. Fall is my favorite—the look, the smell, the colors, the feel—but all of them have their benefits. This week it looks like we’ll emerge from the long, frigid winter, but with PA you never really know. Still, it’ll be nice to take a break from snow duty for a while, although I love snow. Of course, the approach of spring means lawn mowing is right around the corner, right?
2. I saw a great sign at the pool today: “Whatever you’re planning to do today, do it with the confidence of a 4-year-old in a Batman cape.” Yes! That was all the inspiration I needed to swim 2500 meters (100 laps). It probably wasn’t pretty, but I made it. So what if my shoulders feel like melted butter? “I am Batman.” Ha! Speaking of which, I didn’t plan it this way, but I have five different pairs of Speedo jammers—one for each day of the week. So, now I start out with black on Monday and get lighter as the week unfolds. Maybe I should end with dark blue instead of red if I’m going to be Batman.
3. Relatedly, research indicates that six-year-olds laugh an average of 300 times a day. By comparison, adults laugh 15-100 times a day. Be six again.
4. I’m having fun decorating the newly renovated living room, even as renovations begin on the bathroom. Just got a framed print called “Winter Mist,” which works perfectly in the room, along with a set of tiered candle holders and bookends with an oil-rubbed bronze look. Just a few more items to get and/or set out, and the project will be complete.
5. I recently saw a fun screen shot of somebody’s Network Preferences dialog box. Apparently, there’s a feud between two households sending messages to each other by how they name their wi-fi connections. Check out the last two listings. As a bonus, notice how the computer also commits a grammatical boo-boo. It should read, “None of your preferred networks is available.” (Not being snarky; we all make mistakes. I’m just surprised that this got past the editors and showed up on a computer.)
6. I got a kick out of this recent “Brevity” cartoon by Dan Thompson. I see Genghis Khan, Chaka Khan, and (I think) Star Trek Kahn. Nicely done, Dan. I guess we can call it your ComiKhan. (Sorry.)
7. A horse is a horse, of course, but there’s something majestic about this one. I’d love to learn how to ride better—though not while the horse is in this position.
8. Less majestic and far more pompous is the house cat. Mrs. Mosby, my daughter’s cat, is getting bigger and slightly more friendly, but she still cops an attitude on a fairly regular basis. This comic could have been drawn by her.
9. Speaking of animals, “Perhaps the butterfly is a proof that you can go through a great deal of darkness yet still become something beautiful” (B. Taplin).
When you spend 2 hours a day in the pool (high school) or 4.5 hours in the pool (college) for swim team practice, your hair tends to get kind of crunchy. Hairstylists could always tell that I was a swimmer because my hair would “snap” when they cut it. The picture below indicates a certain stiffness setting in even as my hair is drying. No such problems exist these days, except for a slight lightening of the color when I spend time in the chlorine and/or sun. This morning it was back to the Lebanon Y for another workout—this time 1,850 meters (74 laps) at something of a “cruise” pace. It went much better than the past couple days. But unlike the newspaper article, no records to report this time.
1. I turned on PBS last night thinking I’d be watching another episode of “Miss Scarlet & the Duke.” Instead, they aired a program called “Dolly Parton & Friends: 50 Years at the Opry.” I’m not a huge country music fan, but one can admire the career that Parton has had in a cut-throat business. She’s also had some good tunes over the years. “I Will Always Love You” is one of her best (although no one can sing it quite like Whitney). I also liked her duet with Kenny Rogers, “Islands in the Stream.” Her best line of the night, referring to her many surgeries, was, “It takes a lot of money to look this cheap.” Ha! What struck me is how much of the show was taken up by PBS asking for money, even though they get millions of dollars from the government. And people have the audacity to say, “All the church wants is your money.” I’ve never seen any of my colleagues in ministry haranguing people so frequently or intensely to fork it over as PBS did last night.
2. I got to fill in for a colleague last week at the Ephrata ICL. (I totally love being with that bunch—spiritually vibrant lovers of Jesus who want to go deeper in their understanding of Scripture and theology.) We reflected the whole time on the doctrine of the Trinity. I structured our material as follows:
Old Testament Seeds
New Testament Flowers
Early Church Petals
Church Wedding Bouquets
Missional Flowers Delivered
The Ultimate Rose Parade
The Holy Trinity is not a math puzzle to be solved (1 + 1 + 1 = 1); it’s a clue to the relational heart of the universe. That clue is precious to believers because the prime reality of existence is not matter. It’s not energy. It’s not quarks. It’s a divine relationship. Specifically, it’s an eternal reciprocating relationship of personal diversity and unbreakable unity. As the well-known hymn puts it, “God in three Persons, blessed Trinity.” Key to my presentation was the ancient rabbinic belief in “The Two Powers in Heaven” (cf. Alan Segal), easily demonstrated from the Hebrew Bible. That’s why the early Christians, who were true monotheists, found it both natural and noncontradictory to declare without reservation, “Jesus [not Caesar] is Lord and God and High Priest.” They regarded Christ as truly “Emmanuel,” the embodied “I AM” of the Old Testament.
3. I turn three years older at the end of this month. (That sentence may require some explanation, no?) Because of the confusion surrounding my delivery, legal abandonment, and conveyance to an orphanage on day one of my postpartum life, I actually came with three birth certificates, all of which had a different date. One had March 30, one had March 31, and one had April 1. So, I have three birthdays! My adoptive parents were given the authority to choose one of the three for the official record. They quickly eliminated April 1 to spare me the teasing that may have come with that one, and they eventually settled on the middle date, March 31. They figured that if they were wrong, they were only off by a day, not two days. But who knows—I may have been an April fool’s joke from the beginning! The procedure is quite different today, but back then—in some hospitals where there was a pending adoption or conveyance to a foster home (or orphanage)—the newborn was never given to the mother to hold. And that was the case in my case. I was never held by my birth mother. Seeds of rejection were thus planted early in my life, and it would take decades for me to overcome them. Being adopted twice helped—once by my earthly father and once by my heavenly Father.
5. Now that the virus numbers are dropping, I can get back in the pool. It will be good to move around again, though I’m sure I’ll be a bit grumpy from waking up the muscles I haven’t used for months. Praying I still remember how to swim.
6. They say that March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb. History is just the opposite. Jesus comes in like a lamb and goes out like a lion.
7. Finally, here’s a fun comic that may or may not hit too close to home:
My introduction to swimming pools began a long time ago in Reading, PA. My brother and sister and I grew up in a row home with a very small backyard, but it was big enough to accommodate an inflatable pool. My Nana, who lived just a few houses down the street from us, also had a blow-up pool. We eventually graduated to the real thing, as the East Reading Swimming Association featured an outdoor pool that was only a few blocks from our house. Neighborhood kids loved it, even though it was an odd size for racing (33-1/3 yards instead of 25 or 50 yards/meters). The faded color of these Kodak snaps shows how long ago they were taken.
Athletes know “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat,” as Jim McKay put it, and usually there’s more defeat than victory over the course of one’s career. So, here’s a page of thrill from my high school scrapbook. Manheim always gave us fits in the pool (as did Wilson, Governor Mifflin, and Hempfield), but I remember one special meet where we all came together and swam well as a team against the Blue Streaks.
What made this particular meet gratifying was that some of us swam events outside our speciality, which helped us patch together a surprise victory over our division rivals. Additional wins over the other contenders catapulted the Red Knights to a league championship that year, with many of us qualifying for states. It was a good season of hard work and personal bests.
In the “agony” department, I’ve already posted about breaking my arm at a the end of a 50-yard sprint in college. I could also post about various false starts, disqualifications, and losses over the years, along with that time I broke my toe during a swim meet at Lasalle, or got a black-and-blue eye during a water polo game at Lower Moreland. But we’ll just go with the thrill of victory today. This clipping from the Reading Eagle newspaper tells the story.
The very first concert I ever attended was Billy Joel at the Spectrum in Philadelphia. I don’t remember the exact year, but it was probably somewhere between his albums The Stranger and Glass Houses. A bunch of us Reading High swimmers drove together in an old beater and had a blast. The Spectrum is no longer there, but Joel is still going strong—at least on the concert circuit. (He hasn’t produced a studio album in over 20 years.) I have trouble picking a favorite song because the repertoire is so vast.
Beautifulballads include “She’s Got a Way,” “This Is the Time,” and “C’était Toi (You Were the One),” which I adored, in part because I was learning French when it came out. “Just the Way You Are” was always popular, but it’s a bit too lounge-lizardy for my taste. “Honesty” is lovely, and “She’s Always a Woman to Me” is hauntingly tender, even if somewhat wretched in verbo. “She’s Right on Time,” on the other hand, is evocative and hopeful.
Up-tempofavorites include “Uptown Girl,” “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” and “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me.” There’s plenty of crudeness across his collection (e.g., “Only the Good Die Young,” “Captain Jack,” etc.), but there’s much raw talent, energy, and passion, too. In many ways, his work is the musical embodiment of the human story—broken, beautiful, and always looking for the right chord.
Joel is best known for his songs “Piano Man” and “The Entertainer,” which is fitting because that’s exactly what he is—a piano man and an entertainer. In fact, I’ve always found his piano instrumental “Root Beer Rag” to be one his most entertaining pieces, though it never received the accolades it should have.
Enjoy a few Billy Joel songs, which always throw me back to the soundtrack of my earlier life.
As members of the WVU swim team, we would sacrifice our Christmas vacation to go on a 2-week training trip someplace on the globe that was warm and sunny. During my years in college, that included St. Croix (U.S. Virgin Islands) and Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Those trips were like “boot camps for swimmers,” with every day featuring triple sessions. The first session was an early morning swim practice lasting two hours. The second involved weight training, calisthenics, plyometrics, and/or runs on the beach for about 90 minutes. The third was an evening swim practice lasting two more hours.
On Christmas Day they lightened up on us, mandating just one two-hour practice in the morning; then they gave us the rest of the day off. (Thanks for that.) I remember how dreadful and depressing it was to have to practice on Christmas morning!
Below are some snaps from the Fort Lauderdale Aquatic Center. Once a week all the teams who had gathered to train swarmed the pool for what they called “Fifty 50s.” It was only a 2500m parctice, but the lanes were crowded, and there wasn’t much time between sprints. Finding a place to dive safely was a challenge. The whole thing was exhausting and annoying, even for this sprinter.
Between sessions we hit the beach or went out on the town, and after the 14 days of agony, we enjoyed a trip to Disney World. The rest of the time we ate or slept.
My apologies for the fading, but these photos go all the way back. They are, in fact, the first pictures ever taken of me as a newly minted Valentino. I’m not aware of any photos that were taken prior to #1 and #2 below.
1. This picture is the first day in my new home. I was thirteen months old at the time, and fresh out of foster care. The blond curls have since given way to brown waves.
2. Jumping on the bed is a skill every little boy should master. Apparently I’m not too upset here that my new parents were acquiring photographic evidence of my crime. Maybe I’m accusing them of fake news.
3. Eight months later I had my first Christmas in the Valentino home. I adored my Nana (mom’s mom), who lived just four houses down the street from us. That allowed for many visits and lots of love shared between us.
4. I’m shown here with my older brother, Bob, who passed away far too young in 2004. Note the aluminum Christmas tree and color wheel in the background that I’ve written about recently on TNL. I seem more eager to open gifts than my brother.
Like many other people, I have a morning routine that includes coffee. Two cups at least. And most of the time, I drink Eight O’clock Dark Italian Roast with one cream and one Splenda. (Take my man card if you must, but that’s how I like it.) I drink other kinds from time to time, but the darker roasts and Columbian roasts are my favorites.
Often when I have my first cup, I think about and pray for the person who gave me the mug I’m using that morning. I have quite a collection, and as I drag myself to the place where I do my devotions, I pray God’s blessings over that person.
One of my all-time favorites is a light blue ceramic mug featuring a bleary-eyed Mickey Mouse on the front, and a printed message on the back, which says, “Some mornings are ROUGH!”
Mickey is right. Some mornings are rough, but coffee makes them tolerable. In any event, I treasure this mug because my son got it for me during his first-ever Christmas away from home. He was in college, and he did an internship at Disney World one year during the holiday break. That was emotionally challenging for us—not to have our son home for Christmas.
We got to Skype with him that year, and for that we were grateful, but it wasn’t the same as having him here with us. (One cannot hug pixels on an iPad.) When he returned from Florida, the Mickey mug was one of the gifts he gave me for Christmas. So, it’s special to me because it’s connected to a precious memory—an expression of a son’s love for his father.
Unfortunately, the handle broke off a few years ago. No one knows exactly how or why it happened, and it was quite upsetting when it did. “Not the Mickey mug!” I still have it today, and it looks like this:
My special mug without its handle. It’s now defective—less than what it had been when I first received it. But I still treasure it. It’s still special to me and always will be. The mug is broken but loved.
What an apt metaphor for people made in the image of God. After all, how much more valuable is a person than a mug! We’re spiritually broken but still loved by God.
I won’t ever get rid of my Mickey mug, even though it’s defective. Likewise, God won’t get rid of us—even if we’re broken in some way. We’re the reason Christmas happened in the first place.
So, drink up. And thank God for his caffeinated grace.
Thank you, Lord, for your steadfast, committed love toward us, even though we’re flawed and fallen human beings. You don’t get rid of us even when we’re broken. Help me to be patient and gracious toward others who are likewise broken. Amen.
“Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God!” (1 John 3:1, KJV)
After the birth of my son, Andrew, I understood a little better why God wanted to be a Father. The same thought washed over me after the birth of my daughter two years later. (Her first act on the planet was to pee on the doctor. After I got his bill, I was glad she did.) I embarrassed both my kids last week with some incriminating kiddie pics. They took it well.
Tonight is movie night with Andrew. Last night was daddy-daughter date night with Bethany. We had a blast together, and we were texting today about what a wonderful time we had. I love lavishing them both with affection, encouragement, and good times. They even let me theologize once in a while. They’re the ones God gave me to care for, and it’s a joy for me to do so, not a burden.
Yes, there were a few rough spots during the teen years, but I can honestly say today, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth” (3 John 1:4). My kids’ interests, personalities, and love languages couldn’t be more different, but the delight they bring me is the same.
Additionally, my son-in-law Micah is no less a son to me than Andrew. He’s an incredible young man, too, and an answer to prayer. He’s been grafted into our hearts as well as into our family. When the kids have a joy, I have a joy. When the kids have a hurt, I have a hurt.
That’s why I’ve been grieving from a distance the death of Tim Challies’ son, Nick. Tim is an uber-blogger whom I read regularly, and I’ve shed some tears for the tragedy that has recently befallen his family. His young son passed away unexpectedly while attending my alma matter, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
I’ve never met Tim, but he serves the church well with his daily aggregations and reflections. I’m grateful to the Lord for him and his ministry. He has recently born witness to the power of God’s sustaining grace during this time, but oh what hard road for him to walk as a father. His persevering faith testifies to the reality of God. Many others have walked a similar path, but every step is agonizing. God the Father walked this path, too.
Born to raise the sons of earth. Born to give them second birth.
Next December, Lord willing, I’ll write about how my mother passed away in the hospital while we were singing her favorite Christmas carol, “O Holy Night.” All her equipment flatlined just as we were singing, “O hear the angel voices.” And then she did—she heard the angel voices in her new heavenly home.
But we’ve had enough heaviness this year, so I’ll save that story for some other time. For now, let’s just settle into the reality of the Father’s love for us—fully revealed in Jesus Christ, the one who was:
Born that man no more may die.
The Father loves us a whole lot more than I love my own kids. And that’s a lot.
I once told a student that most high schools don’t offer water polo as a sport because it’s too hard to get the horses out of the pool. When she said, “Really?” I replied, “Yes, and did you know the word ‘gullible’ isn’t in the dictionary?” She wasn’t too happy with me.
Her confusion was understandable, though, as water polo is largely unknown, despite the fact that it’s an Olympic sport. I can tell you firsthand, it’s exhausting. Players are constantly in motion, and you’re not allowed to touch the bottom of the pool, even if it’s shallow enough to do so. Fatigue sets in quickly. That’s why substitutions are made throughout the game, much like the line changes in hockey.
It’s a brutal sport, too. A lot happens under the water that the refs never see. That’s why you’re required to wear two swim suits and trim your nails for inspection before every match. It can get rough out there. I once took a shot during a co-ed league game and broke a girl’s nose doing it.
That’s not happening in the picture below. I’m only in 7th grade there and hadn’t hit my growth spurt yet. I wasn’t able to break anything with those arms, let alone somebody’s nose! Water polo was a great run-up to the swim season, so it helped keep us in shape.