juggling act

I had three different groups today during my Raise Your Hand Tennessee volunteer time at Learning Way.

Ms. Aymett had given me a basket of several different activities – but several of the little Ziploc bags, which she had described to me as containing rhyming words, did not rhyme. I looked at the pictures, and I looked at the teacher’s list of words, and there was not one rhyming combination in the first bag, and I don’t think there was one in the second bag either. (I think she just grabbed the wrong bags.)

So we moved on to one of the other games, where the kids are given are some words and asked to put them together into a sentence. The kids were surprisingly eager to do this.

The group dynamics of this were interesting, and I had to watch to make sure I was managing them as well as I could. In one particular group, there was a boy who was very pro-active (and right, a good part of the time). I wanted to reward him for being right, but I didn’t want him to take over the process or take too much time away from others.

I was well aware that other students (like the very quiet girl sitting right next to me) might or might not have the right answer, and that might be unrelated to whether or not they were willing to jump in. I had to be very deliberate – and I’m not sure I was successful – about trying to manage things so that everyone had a hand in the process.

I love this experience – but by the end of the hour, I’ve usually been keenly reminded what an amateur I am.

My third group was just two children, both girls, and with that one it was a lot easier. We breezed through the sentence game, and had time for the only other thing in the basket: some flash cards with words and letters on them. I thought this would be a hard sell, but they were happy to demonstrate their expertise.

In the on-deck circle

At this time next weekend, I’ll be noveling.

It’s been two or three years since I’ve made a serious stab at National Novel Writing Month, but – along with several of my recent “Daddy’s Dyin’” castmates – I’m going to do so this year.

National Novel Writing Month – “NaNoWriMo,” to participants – is an annual writing exercise, just for the fun of it. It’s not competitive (unless you make it so!), and anyone can participate, whether you normally consider yourself a writer or not. The idea is that you write a 50,000-word novel (which some would call a novella) entirely during the month of November. You can prepare in advance (plot outline, character biographies, etc.), but the normal interpretation is that you do not start any actual writing until Nov. 1.

If you get to 50,000 words by November 30, even if you haven’t finished the novel, you have “won” – although bragging rights and personal satisfaction are the only stakes.

The idea here is that 1,667 words per day is a very fast pace. It’s too fast for you to stop and do any editing, and it’s too fast for any long pondering about what to add. You have to make yourself sit down and write, period.

Some of what you write in that fast a pace is, almost by necessity, going to be horrible. The novel as a whole may turn out not to be anything at all good or marketable (which are not the same thing). But by forcing yourself to write every day, and hopefully turning off that little “no” voice in your head, you sometimes come up with little creative ideas and twists and turns that would never happen in a careful, more deliberate environment.

The official NaNoWriMo web site offers you a chance to connect with other participants, gives pep talks, and allows you an easy way of tracking your word count. You enter your word count and the site and you can see an easy-to-understand line graph showing whether you’re ahead of or behind pace. If you’ve missed a day (I doubt I’ll get much writing done on Election Day, for example), the site will show you what your pace needs to be to catch up and still get to 50,000 by month’s end.

In some areas, there are actually author meet-ups or “write-ins” at some quiet place like a library or coffee shop, where you can bring your laptop and do what’s normally a very solitary activity in the company of others. (“Anybody got a suggestion for a character name?”) I don’t have a laptop, and the closest location for the meetups is in Murfreesboro, but I’d love to go to one some day just to see what it’s like.

If you make it, there’s usually a little certificate you can download and print out, plus a little logo you can post to your web site or social media. It’s all on the honor system, though. Sometimes the Amazon-owned self-publisher Createspace offers you a free proof copy of your novel, which is how I came to publish my own Bad Self-Published Novel, which began its life as a NaNoWriMo project.

You can always go back later, after November has ended and you’ve taken a bit of a break, and see whether or not you think there’s enough there to make it worth trying to rewrite the novel, taking out the terrible stuff while leaving in those moments of inspiration.

There have actually been authors who have traditionally published novels which began during NaNoWriMo. Many others, of course, have self-published their NaNoWriMo novels. I still wonder what would have happened to “Soapstone” if I’d been a little bit more patient and gotten it professionally edited.

Anyone can participate in NaNoWriMo. It’s completely free, although they do sell merchandise and solicit donations to keep the web site up and running. The sense of accomplishment you feel when you get to 50,000 is amazing.

the disappearing child

I have been in kind of a funk the past few days, but I knew my weekly volunteer hour at Learning Way Elementary would get my mind off things.

This week, Regan had me with the same group of kids – three of them – for the whole hour. We played two different games and I read two different booklets to them.

It all started off well enough – they did well with the first game. But as the hour went on, one boy became a little more animated. He tried to read aloud from his book even while I was trying to read to the group (and he was on a different page). A different boy became a little more withdrawn as the hour went on. Regan had apparently made him take off his hoodie earlier, and I, not knowing this, let him put it back on. (He said he was cold.) As the hour went on he kind of disappeared into it, pulling the hood down over his head and the torso up over his chin.

The two booklets were fairly standard little things, and very similar to each other – one was about how plums are grown, the other was about the life cycle of acorns becoming oak trees and then dropping new acorns. Regan had specifically told me to read each book twice aloud to the kids.

“This is stupid,” said one of the kids.

I tried to be patient and kind throughout but also to be firm and direct when I needed to keep things on track. I think by the end of the hour I was getting a little frustrated. (And I only do this for an hour a week.)

The third child, a girl, was fine. I had no problems with her whatsoever.

I so admire the professionals who do this day in and day out.

It’s all been done

I have not gotten the chance to watch the new TV series “Gotham,” although some of my friends have praised it on Facebook.

The show is set in Gotham City, but without Batman – it’s set at about the time that young Bruce Wayne’s parents are gunned down. It follows young police officer James Gordon as he tries to keep his integrity while rising through the city’s corrupt police force, as well as showing or hinting at the origins for various other Batman villains.

The pilot was supposed to have been spectacular, although some critics haven’t been as impressed with the subsequent episodes.

I probably ought to check the show out, but I’m suspicious of the premise. To me, prequels like this end up  being kind of forced, especially when you know for certain where the characters are eventually going to end up. I was never a regular viewer of “Smallville,” but I had to laugh at the episode descriptions – apparently, every major figure in the DC universe eventually had a flat tire while driving through the same little town in Kansas. What are the odds?

One thing almost no one has mentioned, and it surprises me, is that “Gotham” is not the first attempt at a Batman-free TV series set in Gotham City. That would be “Birds of Prey,” from 2002. I did see a few episodes of that (although it didn’t last very long).

“Birds of Prey,” based on a pre-existing DC comic book, takes place in a post-Batman Gotham City. Batman has had a final confrontation with the Joker, and it resulted in Selina Kyle (Catwoman) being killed by one of the Joker’s henchmen. Bruce Wayne, consumed by guilt and grief, disappears, and apparently the people of Gotham are too slow to notice that both Bruce and Batman disappeared from public view at about the same time.

“Birds of Prey” is about three women who try to protect the city in Batman’s absence, assisted by the always-loyal Alfred Pennyworth. Barbara Gordon, Commissioner Gordon’s daughter, is vaguely known in popular culture for being Batgirl, as in the 1960s TV series. But in the comics at the time, she was a little older, confined to a wheelchair, and using the superhero name Oracle. (Batgirl returned to the print comics just recently, as part of a company-wide reboot of DC storylines.) Huntress (Helena Kyle) is Catwoman’s teenage daughter, and finds out in the first episode of the show that her father was the now-absent Batman. She has mysterious mutant-like tracking abilities. Dinah, the third member of the team, is a psychic and telekinetic teenager.

Helena Kyle, distraught over the death of her mother and the departure of the father she never knew, has begun seeing a psychiatriist, Dr. Harleen Quinzel. Quinzel is actually Harlequin, who was Joker’s right hand and now runs a crime empire of her own. (The character of Harlequin as the Joker’s assistant was actually created for “Batman: The Animated Series,” but was quickly picked up by the print comics.) At the beginning of the series, neither the patient nor the psychiatrist knows about the other’s secret identity. Mia Sara’s portrayal of Harlequin was easily the best thing about the few episodes of the show I happened to see.

“Birds of Prey” wasn’t a great show, but it had some interesting ideas. I just find it amusing that every review of “Gotham” gushes over the idea of Gotham City-without-Batman, not realizing that it’s been done before.

‘I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore’

“Network” is on TCM right now.

I did not see, and would not have been old enough to appreciate, “Network” when it was still in the theaters. But I saw it on TV when it was still shocking. My younger friends have no way of appreciating this movie; if they watch it, it will come off completely different in their eyes.

When “Network” came out in 1976, there were three broadcast TV networks. Cable TV was a very minor business which primarily provided distant broadcast signals to rural areas too far away to receive them, as well as a few added bonuses like Ted Turner’s superstation (then still known as WTCG, later WTBS, now just TBS). Big cities didn’t even have cable TV.

The three broadcast networks were, make no doubt about it, profit-making businesses. But they at least wanted to maintain the illusion of public service, and the Federal Communications Commission required local TV stations to do that as well. The networks’ news operations weren’t necessarily loss leaders, but they were about prestige and respectability as well as profits.

So Paddy Chayefsky’s script in 1976 about a network dropping all pretense of public service, putting a ranting and raving lunatic on the air and surrounding him with astrologers and found-footage terrorists seemed like outlandish black comedy when it came out, and even a few years later when I first saw it. Paddy Chayefsky, a leading light of the “golden age” of live television in the 1950s, was accused of biting the hand that had fed him with this ridiculously over-the-top satire.

Now, of course, we have Kardashians and raving pundits (at both ends of the political spectrum). Howard Beale seems pretty tame compared to the reality of television, and popular culture, in 2014.

John goes back to school

Since January of 2013, I’ve been a volunteer with the “Raise Your Hand Tennessee” program at Learning Way Elementary School, spending an hour a week on Monday mornings as a volunteer.
In that spring semester of 2013, I divided my hour between Regan Aymett and another teacher, but in the 2013-14 school year, and again this year, I’m with Regan’s class for the whole hour. It’s always one of the highlights of my week.
The program is designed to help reading skills. You can volunteer to work individually with a child, or with groups. I volunteered to work with groups. United Way will work around your schedule to put you in a school near you on a day and time that’s convenient for you. (The program also does a background check on each volunteer, so parents and educators can feel safe about them coming into the classroom.)
Back when I signed up for the program, I think I had something in mind similar to when I’d visit a local school on “Read Across America” day — sitting in a rocking chair reading to the kids. But that hasn’t been it at all. Usually, what happens is that when I arrive, Regan will pull out a small group of kids and I’ll sit with them at a table, playing some sort of word-based game, or helping them fill out a worksheet based on some little story book.
I really enjoy it, and miss it during breaks.
The program is organized by local United Way groups, and each fall my friend, United Way of Bedford County executive director Dawn Holley, waits until after the horse show break to start calling school principals and setting things up for the new school year. Last week, Dawn gave me the go-ahead to start my volunteering for the school year, and so I was in Regan’s class this morning.
Regan is a “looping” first and second grade teacher, meaning that she teaches a group of first graders, then stays with them the next year as their second grade teacher, then loops back to pick up a new crop of first graders. So I’d been with many of the same kids during that first school-year-and-a-half, but now she’s got a brand new class.
Today, I worked with getting the kids to sort cards into proper nouns and common nouns. I had one group for the first half hour, then a different group for the second half hour. It all seems pretty basic, but Regan — an NEA Master Teacher, who’s had some of her lessons captured on video to be used by other teachers around the country — said to me at the end of the hour today that she can accomplish a lot more just by having me take one small group and her take another. (A third group of kids was over near the computer stations with a teaching assistant.)
I make up for my missing hour by coming in to work a half hour earlier on Mondays and working an extra half hour at some other time during the week. I really find it personally rewarding, and I strongly recommend it. As I said, you can choose whether you want to work with an individual child or with groups, and they’ll work around your schedule. There’s tons of scientific evidence about the educational value of adults reading to children or listening to children read.
It’s not too late to sign up for the program. Here in Bedford County, you can call United Way at 931-684-6685. Elsewhere in Tennessee, check with your local United Way organization, or check with the school system to see what sorts of volunteer programs are available.

Just over the horizon

Lynchburg First UMC
Oct. 5, 2014

Philippians 3:4b-14 (CEB)

4 … If anyone else has reason to put their confidence in physical advantages, I have even more:
5 I was circumcised on the eighth day.
I am from the people of Israel and the tribe of Benjamin.
I am a Hebrew of the Hebrews.
With respect to observing the Law, I’m a Pharisee.
6 With respect to devotion to the faith, I harassed the church.
With respect to righteousness under the Law, I’m blameless.
7 These things were my assets, but I wrote them off as a loss for the sake of Christ. 8 But even beyond that, I consider everything a loss in comparison with the superior value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. I have lost everything for him, but what I lost I think of as sewer trash, so that I might gain Christ 9 and be found in him. In Christ I have a righteousness that is not my own and that does not come from the Law but rather from the faithfulness of Christ. It is the righteousness of God that is based on faith.
10 The righteousness that I have comes from knowing Christ, the power of his resurrection, and the participation in his sufferings. It includes being conformed to his death 11 so that I may perhaps reach the goal of the resurrection of the dead.
12 It’s not that I have already reached this goal or have already been perfected, but I pursue it, so that I may grab hold of it because Christ grabbed hold of me for just this purpose. 13 Brothers and sisters, I myself don’t think I’ve reached it, but I do this one thing: I forget about the things behind me and reach out for the things ahead of me. 14 The goal I pursue is the prize of God’s upward call in Christ Jesus.

Many centuries ago, men thought that if you sailed far enough in any direction, you’d fall off the edge of the earth. Some of us were taught that people still believed that in Columbus’ day, and that part of Columbus’ heroism was that he believed the Earth was round and proved the naysayers wrong.
Columbus had great courage and initiative as an explorer, but you can’t give him any credit for the idea that the world was round. The educated people of Columbus’ day were already agreed on that fact, and had been for centuries.
Columbus did have one view that was in opposition to the scholars of the day – he thought the Earth was much smaller in diameter. Columbus thought that Japan was only 2,400 miles west of Spain – it’s actually more than 10,000 miles. That’s why Columbus thought he could sail to Asia in only a couple of months.
But Columbus was wrong – and the scholars of the day, using a figure that dated as far back as the third century B.C., were right. The big round Earth was much larger than Columbus believed it was, and if it had not been for the unknown continents of North and South America standing in the way, Columbus and his men would probably have perished. They would never have made it all the way to Japan, much less India, with the provisions they had on board.

Even though educated people have known the earth was round since hunderds of years before Jesus was born, there have been other people in many eras and cultures who have believed the myth of a flat Earth.
There’s a wonderful, low-budget South African movie from the 1980s called “The Gods Must Be Crazy.” The movie actually has several different plots, all of which come together in the end, but the most famous plot of the movie tells the story of a remote tribe of bushmen, with no exposure to civilization or the outside world. This tribe encounters a strange and, to them, magical object which has been dropped into their village by a crop duster in an open cockpit biplane flying overhead. We recognize the object as an old-fashioned glass Coca-Cola bottle, but the bushmen have never seen anything like it, and assume it’s been dropped by the gods from heaven as some sort of gift.
At first, they’re amazed by this gift from the gods. It’s the hardest object they’ve ever touched, and they can use it to pulverize grain or vegetables. It does strange and interesting things to the light. It even makes a funny noise when you blow across the top of it.
But the trouble is, this special object is the only thing the village has ever had that there was only one of. They start fighting over it. The bottle causes them to experience greed, jealousy and violence, as the members of the tribe fight over this gift from the gods.
The tribal elders decide the bottle is evil and should be thrown off the edge of the Earth. So they send one of their tribesmen to do just that. After some misadventures over the course of the movie, he discovers a huge canyon, with the far side of the canyon hidden by mist and clouds. Our hero assumes the cliff on which he’s standing must be the edge of the earth, and so he throws the Coke bottle into the canyon – a happy ending for a very funny movie.
The Jewish leaders of Paul’s day thought that obedience to God’s law was a destination. And they thought, like the innocent bushman from “The Gods Must Be Crazy,” that they had arrived at that destination.
Paul had been one of those Jewish leaders, secure in his own piety and holiness. In this morning’s passage, he states his credentials.
Paul was a Jew by birth. That’s why he points out that he was circumcised on the eighth day. There were converts to the Jewish faith, who were circumcised at the time of their conversion. But the eighth day, as an infant, was when a natural-born Jew was circumcised.
Paul was not only a Jew, he was a Jew from the tribe of Benjamin. Now, if you think back to the story of Joseph and his brothers in the Old Testament, Joseph and Benjamin were special to their father Jacob because they were the sons of Rachel, the more favored of Jacob’s two wives. Jacob wanted to marry Rachel but was tricked into marrying Leah first. Jacob tended to favor Rachel and Rachel’s sons.
The tribe of Benjamin was the tribe that produced Saul, Israel’s first king. It’s possible that Saul of Tarsus’s parents named him in tribute to King Saul, who was respected even though his reign ended badly. So the tribe of Benjamin had a royal history.
David did not come from the tribe of Benjamin, but the tribe supported him as king, and was the only tribe other than Judah which remained faithful to David’s grandson Rehoboam when the land of Israel divided into northern and southern kingdoms. The tribes of Judah and Benjamin continued to worship at the temple in Jerusalem and thought of themselves as the true heirs of the Jewish faith, while the northern kingdom had to worship elsewhere.
Paul’s status as a member of the tribe of Benjamin connected him to Israelite history. The commentator William Barclay says that Paul boasting of being part of the tribe of Benjamin was a little like the people who boast that their family came over on the Mayflower, or the people who can trace their ancestors back to the time of the American Revolution.

Paul also says that he is a “Hebrew of the Hebrews.” This is not the same thing as just saying that he’s a Jew. What Paul is saying is that he knows and can use the Hebrew language, and can therefore read the Hebrew scriptures, as his parents did before him.
As the Jews became dispersed, many of them adopted the language of wherever they ended up living and some lost their ability to read, write, or speak the Hebrew tongue. But in order to be considered truly pious, you still had to be able to read the scriptures. Even though Paul was from Tarsus, a Gentile city, he and his parents before him had been careful to keep up their use of the Hebrew tongue, which is how Paul was able to read and understand the scriptures.
Lastly, of course, Paul could claim to have been a Pharisee. Now, today we remember the Pharisees as the opponents of Jesus. But for Jews in Paul’s day, the Pharisees were respected, admired, paragons of the faith. The Pharisees not only obeyed the laws of Moses, they obeyed a very detailed set of intepretations of the laws of Moses, interpretations that – as Jesus pointed out several times – went farther than what God had originally intended when those laws were given to Moses. The Pharisees believed that they were doing everything God expected of them and more. They thought they had achieved piety by their strict and complete obedience to the law.
Paul, when he was Saul, believed himself to be blameless – and, before his conversion, he thought that his persecution of the Christian church was one more feather in his cap, just more proof of his holiness and obedience.
But this isn’t Saul of Tarsus speaking – it’s Paul the Apostle. And the things he once considered his greatest assets he’s now written off as losses – distractions and delusions which kept him from seeing the truth about who he really was and about who God really is.
This reminds me of the parable Jesus told in Luke 18:10-14 (CEB):

10 “Two people went up to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.
11 The Pharisee stood and prayed about himself with these words, ‘God, I thank you that I’m not like everyone else—crooks, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week. I give a tenth of everything I receive.’ 13 But the tax collector stood at a distance. He wouldn’t even lift his eyes to look toward heaven. Rather, he struck his chest and said, ‘God, show mercy to me, a sinner.’ 14 I tell you, this person went down to his home justified rather than the Pharisee. All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up.”

The good things the Pharisee did weren’t bad in and of themselves. Fasting can be a good thing. Tithing is certainly a good thing. The laws that God gave to Moses were good, designed to bring the people of Israel together and reinforce their identity as God’s chosen people. They were meant to be helpful. But for the Pharisee, those good things had become obstacles. The laws of Moses, and the many layers of rules and regulations which the Pharisees had built on top of the Mosaic law, had stopped being ways to please God and had become ways for the Pharisee to feel superior to others.
Paul – Saul – had been the same way. His assets as a pious Jew had become liabilities, because they prevented him from seeing his own sin. You can’t repent if you don’t think you have anything to repent of.
Paul had to become like the sinner in that parable – he had to realize that his assets were worth nothing in comparison to the debt he owed. On the road to Damascus, Paul got that realization. Now, years later, he tells the Philippians that he has lost everything – but he realizes the things he lost were worthless, and he describes them with the Greek word skubala – which the Common English Bible describes, somewhat cryptically, as “sewer trash.” Some translations simply use the word “garbage.” But Paul was using much stronger language, and it would have been heard that way by the people of Philippi. A better translation, according to some sources, would be “feces,” or maybe even a more shocking word that it would be inappropriate for me to use here.

When compared to the amazing grace offered by Jesus, when compared to a real relationship with the creator of the universe, the fake holiness that Paul had enjoyed as a Pharisee was as worthless as something you flush down the toilet.
Christianity requires that we realize our own sin, our own need for forgiveness. Christianity requires that we be broken, like that tax collector in Jesus’ parable, throwing ourselves on the mercy of God.
Paul says, “In Christ I have a righteousness that is not my own and that does not come from the Law but rather from the faithfulness of Christ.”
Paul recognizes that he would never be able to achieve righteousness through his own efforts. He must trust in the righteousness purchased for him through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.
But God does not want us to stop there.
Paul says “The righteousness that I have comes from knowing Christ, the power of his resurrection, and the participation in his sufferings.”
Christianity is a relationship. It is an ongoing process of knowing Christ and participating in Christ’s suffering and resurrection.
There was a heresy in Paul’s time which today’s scholars call antinomianism. It was the belief that, once you were saved through grace, that was the end of it; you could at that point willfully commit any sin you wanted and go forward doing anything and everything, and it would not matter, because you’d been forgiven.
But that’s not Paul’s understanding. He believes that his righteousness is part of a relationship, part of knowing Christ, and therefore it requires our ongoing participation.
“It’s not that I have already reached this goal,” writes Paul, “or have already been perfected, but I pursue it, so that I may grab hold of it because Christ grabbed hold of me for just this purpose. Brothers and sisters, I myself don’t think I’ve reached it, but I do this one thing: I forget about the things behind me and reach out for the things ahead of me. The goal I pursue is the prize of God’s upward call in Christ Jesus.”

People once thought the edge of the Earth was a destination, someplace you could get to. In reality, of course, the edge of the Earth is just the horizon – and no matter how far you go, you can never, ever get to the horizon. In fact, when it comes to our relationship with God, the further we go, the more we understand our own shortcomings, and the more we realize how far we are from true perfection.
John Wesley used the word “perfection” to describe Christians, and this is sometimes misunderstood. Wesley knew better than to claim that he or any other Christian was without sin. He understood only too well this ongoing voyage, this never-ending trip toward the horizon. His use of “perfection” referred to a change in the Christian’s basic motivation. Wesley said that Christian perfection meant having a heart “habitually filled with the love of God and neighbor” and as “having the mind of Christ and walking as he walked.”
Our Christian walk is just that – a walk. It requires us to keep moving. There may be detours or delays, but if we’re truly in relationship with Christ that will keep us moving forward. Like Columbus, we may not wind up the exact place we thought was our destination. But like Columbus, we may find it’s someplace even better than our imagination.
We can’t boast about what we’ve accomplished, but we have to continue in our grateful response to the amazing gift God has given us.

Meltdown (At madam tussaud’s)

Yes, I know, I haven’t blogged much lately, what with the play and everything. I started to post this to Facebook but decided it was worthy of a blog post.

STEVE TAYLOR HAS NEW MUSIC OUT!!!!!!

You don’t know how happy this makes me.

Back in college, I was a huge fan of Steve’s, starting with his legendary EP, “I Want To Be A Clone.” I attended a Christian college, named for and headed by a Famous Televangelist, and Christians who had a sense of humor, or even a satiric edge, and indicated that it was permissible to think for yourself were like a lifeline to me in the middle of what could sometimes be a stuffy, conformist environment.

Of course, I’m a lifetime fan of Daniel Amos and of The Swirling Eddies, the overlapping bands led by Terry Scott Taylor (no relation to Steve). Steve, like DA, could make fun of idiocy both within and outside the church, and, like DA, sometimes caused controversy by doing so.

Later, after college, I loved Steve’s album “I Predict 1990” and then his participation in Chagall Guevara, a crossover band with a secular record deal. I remember going to a club in Nashville to hear Chagall Guevara, which I hardly ever did even in those days. But Chagall Guevara didn’t last long.

Steve moved on and became a producer and record executive. It was his record label that discovered and promoted Sixpence None The Richer, and he directed some of their videos.

That led to his recent work as a filmmaker. I actually went to Brentwood Baptist Church a decade ago to be in crowd scenes for “The Second Chance,” a movie he directed starring Michael W. Smith. More recently, he took “Blue Like Jazz” – a favorite book of mine, and one that you would not think would lend itself to the narrative of the motion picture format – and made it into a movie. I’ve never actually seen either film.

But now, he’s back where he belongs – making music. He’s put together a new band, The Perfect Foil, and has a new video, which sounds very much like the old Steve we all knew and loved:

It’s not a brag if you can back it up

Mt. Lebanon UMC
Cannon UMC
September 28, 2014

Philippians 2:1-13 (CEB)
2 Therefore, if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort in love, any sharing in the Spirit, any sympathy, 2 complete my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, being united, and agreeing with each other. 3 Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. 4 Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others. 5 Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus:

6 Though he was in the form of God,
he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.
7 But he emptied himself
by taking the form of a slave
and by becoming like human beings.
When he found himself in the form of a human,
8 he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death,
even death on a cross.

9 Therefore, God highly honored him
and gave him a name above all names,
10 so that at the name of Jesus everyone
in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow
11 and every tongue confess that
Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

12 Therefore, my loved ones, just as you always obey me, not just when I am present but now even more while I am away, carry out your own salvation with fear and trembling. 13 God is the one who enables you both to want and to actually live out his good purposes.

The Roman colony of Philippi was located right on the border between Europe and Asia, at a sort of strategic break in the hills which meant that it was the simplest and most natural route for travel. In its past, it had also been the home of gold and silver mines. Those mines had long since been exhausted by the time of the early Christian church, but the combination of the wealth from those mines and the strategic location made Philippi a powerful center for business and trade.
We read about Paul’s visit to Philippi in the 16th chapter of Acts. Paul and Silas baptized a woman named Lydia who became a strong supporter of Paul’s. They cast a demon out of a slave girl who was working for her masters as a fortune-teller, and the girl’s masters had Paul and Silas thrown into jail, where their chains were released by an earthquake, giving them the opportunity to preach to the jailer and his family.
Of all the churches that Paul started or preached in, Philippi was particularly near and dear to his heart. Paul had a policy of not taking support from the churches where he preached, but he accepted a gift of support from Philippi that the church there sent to him after he’d moved on.

That gift had been sent by way of a Philippian named Epaphroditus, and the messenger stayed on to travel with Paul and help him with his work.
But now Epaphroditus was having some health problems, and Paul used him as a messenger once more, sending him home with thanks for services well-rendered. It was Epaphroditus who delivered Paul’s letter to the Philippians.
Paul has little in the way of direct criticism for the Philippians, and the letter is more about warnings of what to avoid than it is about criticism. In today’s passage, Paul warns the Philippians against disunity.
The great Bible commentator William Barclay, to whom I turn just about every time I write a sermon, points out that disunity is actually a danger for almost every healthy church. After all, in a healthy church, people care about what’s going on. People are passionate. In a dying church, people just sort of coast along, but in a healthy church, people have ideas and initiative and people want to make sure everything is right. And that sometimes leads to differences of opinion. That leads to people getting on each other’s nerves.
I’ve been in a play the past two weekends. A play is an enterprise where you have to have a lot of trust, a lot of cooperation. One of the first things my drama teacher, Miss Jan Hall, taught us when I was a freshman in high school was the importance of trusting your fellow actors. We did trust exercises, the type of thing where you close your eyes and fall backward and trust the person behind you to catch you.
But actors sometimes have difference of opinion, with the director or with each other. One person thinks a scene should be played bigger and louder, and another person thinks it should be softer and more emotional. It’s all a part of the process.
Our country was built by men who disagreed passionately with each other. If you know anything about our constitutional convention, you know that there were some men, and some states, who wanted a strong central government, and others who wanted states’ rights. There were some who wanted to copy the British system of government, and some who wanted something completely new.

Each of these men cared very deeply, and each had the best interests of the country in mind, but they had very different ideas about what the problems were, and very different ideas about how to solve them.
In the days of the early church, there were a lot of passionate, new converts. This was still the first generation of the Christian faith, and as such there was a lot of potential for disagreement and disunity. Now, disagreement isn’t a bad thing, but disunity is. The early church had debates over all sorts of things – about the nature of the trinity, for example, or about what was expected of gentile converts to the faith as compared to the original Christians from the Jewish tradition.
But Paul wanted to make sure that his friends in Philippi didn’t let disagreement turn into disunity. It was critically important, especially in an age when Christians were persecuted and sometimes had to fear for their lives, that the church remain united.
So Paul advises them to avoid the types of attitudes that can drive a church apart. “Don’t do anything for selfish purposes,” he writes, “but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others.”
Boy, that’s hard to do sometimes. Nowadays, we know we’re supposed to help others, or at least give lip service to helping others, and to higher purposes, but at a deeper level so many of our actions and attitudes are driven by selfishness. We want what we want. We cling to the things we have, we covet the things we don’t have, we want attention or we want to be left alone, and we find some way to justify what we want by making it seem like it’s in some higher good.
There are different kinds of selfish purposes. There’s greed, of course, the desire for money or possessions. We’re a more materialistic society now than ever before. Everyone wants the fanciest car or the latest electronic gadget. If only I could win the Powerball, everything would be great. I could quit my job and buy a nice house and go to all those places in Europe I’ve always wanted to see.

Apple recently introduced a new smartwatch that ties in with your iPhone and does all sorts of fun and useful things. The watch starts at $349, but it will come in several editions, including an 18-karat gold edition with a sapphire watch face that will cost $5,000. And there are people who will pay that, just to have the gold Apple Watch.
But greed isn’t the only kind of selfishness. There’s also a lust for power. Some people could care less whether they have money as long as they’re in charge. In fact, they’ll gladly exchange money for power. And that’s a kind of selfishness that surely popped up in some of those early churches, and continues to pop up in churches today. At some churches, you have the person who puts the biggest check in the offering plate each week and who believes that entitles them to make all the decisions. You have churches where the preacher is fighting the church council, or where one committee is fighting another, just to see who can get control and call the shots.
There’s also a selfishness for what Barclay calls “personal prestige.” Some people may not want money or power but they want to recognized, acknowledged, paid respect to. I’ve been guilty of all three of these kinds of selfishness, but I think this may sometimes be my weak spot. I get annoyed in situations where I think I deserve a little respect and I don’t get it. And that’s just as un-Christian an attitude as wanting money or power.
Paul knew that selfishness could drive the church at Philippi apart, and so he wants to warn them against it. He calls for them to “with humility think of others as better than yourselves.” And then he points out the ultimate example of humility.
Depending on what translation of the Bible you’re reading, you may notice that, starting with verse 6, the layout looks a little different. The first few verses are written as prose, but the passage starting with verse 6 is written in the form of a poem or a hymn. Scholars can tell such things by looking at the way the passage reads in its original language. This was both a hymn of praise to Jesus, and a word of example to the Philippians:
“Though he was in the form of God,
he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.
“But he emptied himself
by taking the form of a slave
and by becoming like human beings.
“When he found himself in the form of a human,
he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death,
even death on a cross.”

There’s an old saying that’s been attributed, in several different forms, to several different speakers over the years. Walt Whitman said, “If you done it, it ain’t bragging.”
Dizzy Dean said “It ain’t bragging if you can do it.”
Muhammad Ali said “It’s not bragging if you can back it up.”
But the example here is of God the son, the all-knowing, all-powerful, infinite and eternal lord of the Universe, making himself humble, taking on the form of a human being.
There’s a lot of interesting commentary about the Greek words used in this original passage. The Greek language, of course, is quite a rich one, and there are cases where the Greek language has several different words to express different nuances of something that has to get by with only one word in English. We’ve all heard the example of the three different Greek words that get translated as “love” in English – philos, eros and agape. Each one describes a different type of love.
Well, there are several different Greek words for “to be” and several different Greek words for “form,” and the Bible scholars tell us that the Greek words in this passage stress that Jesus had the very essence of God. At this time, the early church was still struggling to understand the concept of the Trinity, but Paul clearly states that Jesus is of the form and essence of God. And yet, Jesus, a person of the holy Trinity, was willing to give up that nature, to empty himself and take on the form of a human being, even of a helpless infant.
That’s a hard thing to wrap your mind around, but it’s important for us to understand, and it’s a powerful lesson for all of us in humility.
Paul writes that Jesus “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
One of my heroes is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great 20th Century pastor and theologian, who was part of a resistance movement in Germany and who was eventually put to death for being connected to a plot against Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. It’s a fascinating and dramatic story of a man who had both a deep understanding of Christianity and the courage and opportunity to put it into practice. I highly recommend the book “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy,” by Eric Metaxas.
The day that Bonhoeffer was executed, a physician at the prison, H. Fisher-Huellstrung, had no idea at the time who Bonhoeffer was or what he’d been accused of. But he was amazed at Bonhoeffer’s attitude in the face of death. Here’s what the doctor wrote about it, some years later:
“On the morning of that day between five and six o’clock the prisoners were taken from their cells and the verdicts of the court martial read out to them. Through the half-open door in one room of the huts I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer, before taking off his prison garb, kneeling on the floor, praying fervently to his God. I was most deeply moved by the way this unusually lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”
It’s remarkable to hear stories like that of humble men and women, but of course Jesus’ humility in the face of death is of an entirely different nature, something it’s different for us to even imagine.
Jesus triumphed over adversity, and his triumph has made it possible for us to triumph as well. That hymn, or poem, that Paul is writing ends this way:

“Therefore, God highly honored him
and gave him a name above all names,
so that at the name of Jesus everyone
in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow
and every tongue confess that
Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Jesus Christ is Lord. That is the foundational statement of the Christian faith. No matter what our disagreements or differences, no matter what our denomination or style of worship, no matter whether we gather in fear in someone’s basement or whether we gather in style in a grand cathedral, the one thing that we all have in common is that simple acknowledgement: “Jesus is Lord.”
That acknoweldgement, of course, requires the very humility about which we’ve been talking. When Jesus is lifted up, we are put in our proper places. When our focus is on Jesus, we human beings are all equals, brothers and sisters in Christ.
So Paul, after his hymn about Jesus’s sacrifice and glory, returns to giving advice and encouragement to the Philippians:
“Therefore, my loved ones, just as you always obey me, not just when I am present but now even more while I am away, carry out your own salvation with fear and trembling. God is the one who enables you both to want and to actually live out his good purposes.”
God enables us to want God’s purposes, and God enables us to live out those purposes. We can’t do it on our own, and that keeps us humble. We have to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling. We are bold in our faith but humble in our knowledge of our own weakness and selfishness.

And that humility keeps our focus on Jesus and helps to preserve unity in the church, whether “the church” means a local congregation or the worldwide community of Christians. We may meet in different places, we may have different understandings of what the Bible says, but we are united in the proclamation that “Jesus is Lord.”

Pickup rehearsal

Our original plan was to have two full rehearsals, but without costumes or perishable food props, one tonight and one tomorrow night.

But when we got ready to rehearsal tonight, we realized a reason why we needed to wear costumes tomorrow night. And so we decided that tomorrow night would be another dress rehearsal, and tonight we’d just do a table read, running our lines but not our “blocking” (stage movements).

It went pretty well. I’d listened to my lines a couple of times since last weekend, but I can’t say that I was very intense about it, and so it was nice to know that I didn’t lose all my lines over the past few days. Everyone else did well too.

Everyone reports getting good feedback about our opening weekend, and ticket sales are going well so far for our second and final weekend. If you don’t have your tickets yet, call 684-8359.