Category Archives for Random Thoughts

Whatever Happened to Christmas

This post is inspired in part by the recent school shootings, in part by an article I read this past week, and partly by this Sunday’s sermon.

As I struggled to read through the news over the past couple of weeks, I have found myself thinking that the recent violence, and the subsequent bickering and politicizing, was so contrary to the spirit of Christmas, with its message of “peace on Earth and good will toward men.” Since I was a child we’ve sung “Silent Night,” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” and pictured serene scenes of snowy hillsides, etc. etc. Christmas is supposed to be a serene, joyful celebration, is it not?

In reality, Christmas is a very violent holiday. They say that depression and the suicide rate is up at Christmastime. This year, so were mass killings. Historically Israel has been a violent place, and it was no less violent under 1st century Roman rule. The Christmas story concerns a people in bondage, where we know that crucifixions were common by the Romans, and where adulterers were killed in the streets by the good, religious people. We read about Mary and Joseph’s travel to Bethlehem under duress, and that they were forced to deliver a baby under the most unsanitary, unpeaceful conditions. Add to that the fact that Jewish governor, Herod, ordered a mass execution of male children to try to wipe out Jesus.

Christmas is a story of how great joy (as the angels proclaimed to the shepherds) came in the midst of great turmoil, suffering and violence. So, it is perhaps not out of place that as we celebrate Christmas this year we have news of parents grieving over the loss of children and many more using this tragedy to lobby for their own causes.

It is ironic, I think, that the arguments on both sides of the 2nd Amendment only reveal that nothing has changed, that people are still under the same delusions that existed in the 1st century. Some still think that physical might changes things, and others still believe that laws will solve the problem. As the New Testament writings teach us, the reason that Jesus was born — and the reason he died — was because laws couldn’t solve anything. Much of Jesus’ message was trying to convince Israel that the Kingdom of God could not come by violence or physical might, but also could not come through keeping the law. As Paul says, the law was given so that sin would increase.

Ain’t that the truth.

If anything, Christmas should remind us that violence and suffering exist because of sin. And so Christmas itself exists because of sin, and because of suffering, and because of loneliness, and because of the darkness that surrounds us. It’s because of these things that we need to celebrate Christmas.

“the people dwelling in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death,
on them a light has dawned.” (Matthew 4:16 ESV)

The world can be a depressing, sad, evil, scary place. These days I hear people asking, “Where was God?”

The answer, of course, is retold every Christmas.

The Eternal Search for The Ideal Banjo

A little over a year ago, my wife and I were sitting in a restaurant in Seattle with some friends when I announced, “I think I’d like to buy a banjo.” My wife, not knowing what she was saying, said, “Go for it.”

So began my search for the perfect banjo, by no means a unique quest among banjoists. There are many who play the banjo, then there are those for whom the banjo and banjo lore has become a passion (some would even say obsession). It starts out with finding certain details about the banjo fascinating, and pretty soon you’ve got a living room filled with banjos and banjo parts. As Scott Avett of The Avett Brothers said, “You can never have enough banjos.” What I have come to realize is that this drive to collect banjos is more than just a compulsion to acquire a large number of instruments, it is a philosophical quest: It is the Eternal Search for The Ideal Banjo.

It’s all Plato’s fault

As he sat playing the banjo in a cave, the Greek philosopher Plato proposed that the things we see or touch are merely shadows of a perfect expression of reality. In this perfect reality, there exists the Ideal Banjo—a perfect Banjo Form, of which all physical banjos are mere shadows, imperfect representations at best.

My own quest began innocently enough, simply looking for a good first banjo—one that was affordable but also well-made and with a decent sound. I expected that this banjo is one I would own for a number of years. After all, most of my guitars had been around for some time, 25 years or more. So, I was somewhat taken aback by an article I read about buying a first banjo, which stated that regardless of what you buy, once you begin learning to play you will want another banjo soon. For the life of me, I couldn’t see why this would be true.

I traded my Strat (which had sat in it’s case for about 10 years) for a Deering Goodtime and began taking lessons.  Sure enough, it wasn’t long before I started looking through Craigslist and hitting yard sales looking for used deals. From there I moved to the hard stuff: I began searching eBay. In the past year, I have acquired a total of 8 more banjos, but not necessarily to keep; I have also sold 3 that I have rehabilitated, at a fairly decent profit, and have 2 “project” banjos in pieces. Again, it’s not about acquisition, it’s about the quest.

It’s the question that drives us…

What is the banjo?

There is something about the banjo which is mysteriously compelling. I have altered all but one of my banjos apart and have come to understand their various design features, but I do not understand why I and countless others around the world have become so bewitched by these particular instruments.

Perhaps it is the fact that they are accessible;  you can’t dismantle a guitar or a violin, and if you could, you probably couldn’t get it back together. Banjos, however, invite you in—there is something about the nuts and hooks (not to mention the years of dirt and corrosion) that call out, “Deconstruct me!”

For me, the fascination is mostly the open-back “pot”—the rim, the hardware, the head…  I have nothing against necks and tuners, but to me, there is very little more beautiful than a well put-together banjo pot.

Blind Willie Johnson sang in Soul of a Man, “Won’t somebody tell me, answer if you can / Won’t somebody tell me, what is the soul of a man?” The same question goes for a banjo; you can take them apart, leave them together, and even play them, but the soul of a banjo is a mystery. That, I think, is what drives the quest.

Yes, I actually play them all.

I actually play all my banjos (at least the ones that are assembled), and like each of them in their own way.  If I had to choose only one, it would be my Vega Little Wonder (also made by Deering), a gift from my wife.  It is hand-made from violin-grade maple with great tone and for me, a perfect neck shape. I of course modified it some, putting on a Renaissance head, an old style “no-knot” tailpiece, and a curved “Moon” bridge. Somewhat mysteriously to me, it tends to sound different on different days.

I am, to a great extent, perfectly satisfied playing this banjo. I can play it for hours, and often do. But then, I’ll pick up a different banjo, and enjoy that just as much. And sometimes, I just find myself staring at them.

It’s not the journey, it’s the destination

I realize that I will never find the Ideal Banjo, and as far as banjos go, I think my Vega is as good as any I’ve played (although I did play a Bart Reiter Round Peak that was awfully nice…). However, if Plato was right and there is an Ideal Banjo out there, I think it is possibly a composite of every good “shadow” banjo. So, my theory is, the way to banjo nirvana is to simply experience as many banjos in my lifetime as possible.

Nothing but the dead and dying

I spent a few hours today in my yard with a leaf-blower, a rake, and a great many large green plastic bags. I appreciate my trees very much. In fact, I planted two of the trees—an ornamental cherry and a bloodgood Japanese maple— in our yard myself, not to mention a dozen or so evergreens.

I even like autumn leaves. I love to watch the chlorophyll-green give way to their default colors, and freshly-fallen leaves have been one of my favorite things to photograph. However, at some point they begin to decay. In Oregon, as it rains often this time of year, the fallen leaves mash together and start to rot, killing the grass underneath. Then, it means several weeks of raking, blowing, mowing and bagging.

Today as I was leaf-blowing and raking, I began to think about the leaf-cycle, and how autumn really is a season of death. The chorus of Paul Simon’s “My Little Town” started running through my brain, “Nothing but the dead and dying…” I’m not being morbid, I’m just acknowledging reality. Autumn shows us in very clear ways that the circle of life is not all about life. And in Oregon, while there’s still a lot of green going on, we don’t have the advantage of snow to cover up the signs of death that autumn brings. While we love the colors of autumn, we can’t escape the fact that in the end, death stinks, and it’s ugly. And, we have to deal with it.

Christmastime is here

As I blew and raked and bagged the thousands of dead, rotting leaves, I was also aware of how Christmas—regardless of what time of year Jesus was actually born—breaks into the “dead zone” of the circle of life. For us upper Northern hemisphere folks, Christmas is perfectly timed to demonstrate the power of the incarnation in a very tangible way. To borrow from Paul (Rom. 5:6), at just the right time, while we were dead in our sins, Christ came.  The incarnation—what we celebrate as Christmas—breaks into the downswing of the circle of life bringing super-life into the “bleak midwinter.”  Christmas tells us, among other things, that after winter there is a spring, and that there will be an Easter.

While we were “nothing but the dead and dying,” God sent Jesus. “In him was life, and the life was the light of men” (Jn 1:4). Christmas… lights… gifts… it all fits. We sometimes miss it, in spite of everything. But that doesn’t stop God from breaking through; nothing can stop Christmas from coming.

Today, it’s nothing but the dead and dying. However, we deal with it knowing that in a few days, it will be Joy to the World.




Thanks, part 2: Keeping on the Sunny Side

We all know the analogy about the half-full glass—or is it half-empty?

It is a fact that two people can look at the same set of facts and come away with much different ideas. The facts didn’t change; the difference is how the people interpret the facts. One of my favorite songs has become the old Carter Family classic, Keep on the Sunny Side:

Well there’s a dark and a troubled side of life.
There’s a bright and a sunny side too.
But if you meet with the darkness and strife,
The sunny side we also may view.

Keep on the sunny side, always on the sunny side,
Keep on the sunny side of life.
It will help us every day, it will brighten all the way,
If we keep on the sunny side of life.

However, I think the difference between half-empty and half-full is more than simply keeping a positive attitude, or looking at the sunny side. I think it has to do with being thankful—or not.

We live in a culture which is increasingly focused on what we don’t have, and on the importance of equality as being defined as having what everyone else has.  The goal of advertising, politics, and even entertainment is to tell what what we don’t have, and to make us believe that we need something that only someone else can give us.

As the Colonel on MASH used to say, it’s horse-hockey.

The Bible tells us we have been given all things pertaining to life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3). We have enough, and that’s a lot to be thankful for. Of course, if you want something other than that, you’re on your own. Being thankful for what is in your glass—or even that you have a glass in the first place—is a choice. It requires adjusting your focus.

There is “a dark and troubled side to life,” and we shouldn’t pretend it doesn’t exist. However, there is also a sunny side. When you keep on the sunny side by focusing and being thankful for what you’ve been given, you can still see the dark side, but it never looks quite as bad.

Abba does not mean “daddy,” okay?

Justified cringing

Being raised in a formal, liturgical church, I’ve always been uncomfortable with the current fad of calling God “Daddy.” In fact, I cringe every time I hear it.

I used to think this was my own issue, but as it turns out, I have been right to cringe because “abba” does not mean “daddy!” I cringed because I always cringe when adults talk baby-talk.

The abba-daddy myth

As Steve Caruso explains, the abba-daddy myth began in the early 1900’s when one guy you’ve never heard of suggested the “daddy” meaning. He didn’t base his thinking on real scholarship, but based on a hunch about how children learn language (which was wrong, incidentally). He (Joachim Jeremias) also admitted that “abba” was an Aramaic term of respect for older, wise men.

Somehow, someone who thought this analysis fit their own privatized, experiential version of Christianity started spreading the myth around, and now it’s believed by millions of people who are led to believe they must share this gushy kind of sentimentality or be emotionally challenged.

It’s okay to refer to God as “Our Father.” As Paul wrote, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child…” (1 Cor 13:11).

I don’t know how long I can go on cringing—the next time I hear someone refer to God as “daddy,” I may scream.  Just so you know.


On de-stressing my life

I’ve dealt with stress for many years. I tried to avoid it for many years, but ended up in a high stress job, which became more and more stressful as the company got more and more screwed up. But, let’s not get into that.

Now, life is also very stressful. I need to find another job or career, and suddenly there are other worries and demands. But, let’s not go there, either.

Three months ago I went to the ER as I was experiencing what I thought was stress-related symptoms, and stayed for triple bypass surgery. Not directly stress-related, but still probably a big factor; it turns out that while I need to stick to a low-cholesterol, low-sodium, low-sugar diet, they told me that managing stress is probably the most important factor in keeping my heart going as long as possible.

Things I learned while replacing a garbage disposal

So, in trying to “manage” stress, here’s what I have discovered: Stress is a response. More accurately, a lot of what we experience as stress is our own programmed response to our circumstances. I’m not saying that stress isn’t out there—there’s a lot of it, and it’s out to get you. But, external stress doesn’t have to become internal stress.

Some of you may be going, “duh…,” but it’s new info for me. At least it’s new info that I have acknowledged. I am not always quick on the uptake.

I have discovered that I have choices as to how I respond, and that this affects my internal stress. At times, I have to choose to walk away from something. Or, instead of getting frustrated over things, I can look at them humorously, like how the “Cosby” characters always responded to each other. I never could relate to that kind of light-hearted approach (my humor tended to be more of the Hawkeye Pierce variety), but am finding that it works.

I’m not successful all of the time.  Okay, much of the time. But, I am looking for the humor in circumstances whenever possible.  If that doesn’t work, I can always go play my banjo.


Ten things you should do to [insert goal here]

I subscribe to a lot of blogs. Too many to read, actually. I usually just scroll down the list in Google Reader, looking at the titles to see if they look worth my time. A few I will actually take the time to skim. Fewer still will I actually read. And very few do I ever read all the way through. (However, I know you all will read this blog all the way through, because you not like those other people…)

I subscribe to some blogs merely for pleasure or to make me think about things. Many I  subscribe to for a specific purpose. Some of the blogs are geared toward getting hired, some are focused on business development, others on personal development, and others dedicated to philosophy or theology. I also subscribe to a number of blogs who claim to be able to improve my photography skills, or to make me a better writer/blogger.

Why I hate many of them, but keep reading them anyway

I have found that many of them simply want something from me. It’s like having a friend who’s been sucked in to a multi-level marketing scheme. Suddenly, you aren’t just a friend, you’re a prospect. The same thinking goes for many blogs. Whether you like it or not, if you stop to read the blog, you’re a prospect, and some kind of response from you is expected. How do I know? Because some of the blogs I read about being better bloggers tell me I should be doing this, too.

Another thing bloggers want us to do is to keep coming back. The trick is to give away just enough potentially valuable information to overcome people’s frustration. But, in order to to find any valuable information, you have to read through the day’s list of five, seven or even ten things you must do to improve what you’re doing.

Often, there’s nothing there of any substance.

5 reasons why you’re not succeeding

The worst offenders are the blogs who post negative lists, telling you why you are failing at whatever you are doing—and presumably, why you need to keep coming back to their blog.

The fallacy behind all of these lists—whether positive or negative—is the thinking that if you could follow the list to the letter, you would have results. A secondary fallacy is making the assumption they want you to make, which is that the goal they claim you should have is indeed the goal you should have.

Again, this is all a trick so you’ll keep coming back.

Finding freedom

I am “all about” freedom. You just have to read the front of my book to see that. (notice how I slipped that little plug in there with a link to Amazon?) To find freedom in the world of how-to blogs, you have to realize things like

  • There is no one right way to write a resume, and following this list or that list will not get you hired.
  • There are no five steps to financial freedom.
  • There are very, very few real secrets to anything.

Now, to be really free, you should be able to read somone’s list of things you should do, and pick out one or two that may be helpful while tossing the rest. You must be able to unsubscribe to a blog which you find is little more than a scam. You must know deep down in your heart that if there are really 5 steps to financial freedom, Joe Schmoe wouldn’t care about wasting time writing a blog.

Good blog

There are good blogs, and some really great blogs.   Typically they present ideas or information, allow for discussion, and give the reader freedom to respond or not respond. They cite personal experience, both good and bad. They occasionally challenge their readers. They allow the reader to fail, without feeling bad. They treat their audience with respect, as equals. They dare to break the “8 rules of good blogging.” (FYI, I’m breaking some right now!)

Where the rubber meets the road

Now, if you really want to get control of your blog subscriptions, here are 10 things you all should be doing…

Martin Luther on the current state of over-sensitivity

“The ears of our generation have been made so delicate by the senseless multitude of flatterers that, as soon as we perceive that anything of ours is not approved of, we cry out that we are being bitterly assailed; and when we can repel the truth by no other pretense, we escape by attributing bitterness, impatience, and intemperance to our adversaries.” ~Martin Luther to Pope Leo X, 1520

So, it seems there really is nothing new under the sun.

Can I blame God for this blog?

I just finished reading a short blog post about worship by a guy who considers himself a theologian. It was an interesting post, but the guy doesn’t seem to understand worship at all—he seems to think that worship is about our attitude, and what we do and say. But, this is not why I wrote this post. In fact, the statement, “This is not why I wrote this post,” is precisely why I wrote this post. Let me explain…

I was reading the aforementioned blog post, the writer included a brief autobiography as it concerned his topic. What caught my attention and pretty much derailed my train of thought was when he began a paragraph with, “The Lord then led me to Dallas Theological Seminary.”

My first thought was something like, I doubt the Lord leads anyone to Dallas Theological Seminary (sorry, I couldn’t resist—I’ve never been a big DTS fan). The question that really did preempt any thinking about worship was “Did God really lead him to that school, or was it simply his decision?”

God told me… or did I just want to?

I’ve known hundreds of people over the years who routinely say, “God told me …” or “God led me …” It’s nearly become a figure of speech rather than the theological statement it is. And, when it’s apparent that it was a poor decision, they fall back on “God must have a reason.”

Did God really lead him to that school, or was he simply avoiding taking any personal responsibility for his decision?

Now, it could be that looking back, he can see how God blessed his time at DTS; perhaps he met his wife there, or had some other experience or opportunity that was unique to that place.  However, my question is still, “did God lead him to DTS, or did God simply bless his own decision?”

I’m not sure that there’s practical difference between the two.  I heard once that to the ancient Jewish worldview, there was no difference between “God caused” and “God allowed,” and that if something happened, it was presumed that God had allowed/caused it. I suspect it’s something of a combination. I doubt that God has determined everything or even has a “perfect will” about everything. On the other hand, I believe that some things are determined. Does it really matter which are which?

How to screw up your life

One way to really screw up your life is to adopt the belief that God has perfect plan for our lives that includes relatively minor details, but yet that God has given us free will to mess up his plan. Marriages, for example, can get really messed up if one partner thinks they may have missed God’s “perfect will” and married the wrong spouse. Some even use it to justify divorce. This kind of thinking is guaranteed to make us miserable, if not downright schizophrenic.

Don’t be afraid of making bad decisions

My own opinion is that “the one” doesn’t exist. I believe that God’s plan for us is big enough to cover all possible contingencies. Hence, Romans 8:32, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him…”

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to be wise; after all, God’s given us tons of wisdom in the Bible, and has offered to give us even more (James 1:5). What it does mean is that if we are stupid, God will work good in that, too.

If it helps, think of it this way: You couldn’t make a perfect decision if your life depended on it. There, now the pressure’s off. Just make the best and wisest decisions you can, and trust God to do his thing. God has already “given us all things pertaining to life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3), so have a little faith and go for it. Go to DTS, even.


Apparently I need more coffee …

Today Mark Stevens at Near Emmaus writes:

OK, so maybe I have a small problem. I need your help. Please be honest. Do I have a drinking problem? Today, I stopped for a coffee on the way to meeting someone for a coffee. Does this mean I have an addiction? Nah, I didn’t think so…

He then links to 5 health reasons to not quit coffee, an article by the editors of Living Well magazine, for which I will be eternally grateful.  I hate to think of how unhealthy I could be had I not been drinking copious amounts of coffee for the last 35 years.

Ooops, Gotta run… it’s coffee time.