The Piano Guys

There is something so rich and beautiful about the cello and when combined with the versatility of the piano, you get some very incredible music.  But without any feeling for the music, it is simply squiggles on a page being transformed into sound.  Add passion and what comes from the fingertips is music – art coming alive.  It can convey the lightheartedness of a summer’s day, the longing for a loved one or the depth of religious devotion.

This is what I love about The Piano Guys – their passion for their art.  It’s more than just listening to their music, it’s watching them play.  Both Jon Schmidt (piano) and Steven Sharp Nelson (cello) get so wrapped up in their art that it almost feels like I am intruding on some private moment just watching them play.  I’ve tried to determine which is my favorite music video of theirs, but every time I think I have it narrowed down, another facet will appear in another video that makes me sure that THAT one is the best.

For example, as I watch Nearer My God to Thee, I’m struck by the beauty both of the music and the scenery around Nelson.  I am so thankful God has not only gifted individuals to create such beautiful music but that we in turn have been gifted with being able to enjoy it.  I feel the song drawing me nearer to God in an appreciation and love for Him and his glory.

Another beautifully done piece is Bring Him Home featuring both Schmidt and Nelson.  It’s very tender, soft and intimate, hinting at the longing to be with a loved one who cannot be there.  At times, the smile on Nelson’s face as he plays is almost like he is picturing this person and the good memories he has of them.

Then there’s a very fun video where they put on a concert for some older music lovers, playing music from Peanuts .  You can tell they had a blast making the video and everyone listening was enjoying themselves too.

The video that is currently on my “This-could-be-the-best” list is the live version of their Beethoven’s 5 Secrets.  To me, the song is about music itself, the art form, as the opening Beethoven quote speaks of.  It stirs up an appreciation for the beauty of the music, getting lost in the emotions that music draws out.  There are several things I love about this performance.  One is Nelson’s unashamed tears as he plays the song, immersing himself in the music.  The second is that they perform with a youth orchestra, showcasing the next generation of musicians.  To watch these young people play and to see them putting their skills on display is inspiring.

There are so many other videos that are well worth relaxing.  But for now, sit back and enjoy this video with me (well, I’ve already watched it about 4 times already, but who’s counting?)

Book Tour – Night of the Living Dead Christian

I usually don’t go for books about zombies, vampires and werewolves or any other “sci-fi/fantasy” book for that matter.  But having read Matt Mikalatos’ first book Imaginary Jesus and knowing how completely off the wall that one was, I knew I had to give Night of the Living Dead Christians a shot.  We join Mikalatos on his one-man Neighborhood Watch tour and are soon up to our eyeballs in wacky encounters with the undead of various shapes and sizes.  Chief among them are his one of neighbors, Luther Martin, who has the misfortune to be a werewolf.  Determined to help Martin find a cure for this malady, Mikalatos and a few other sidekicks try various methods, including attending a church that ends up being full of brainless zombies.  The journey is hilarious and, when you least expect it, thought-provoking.  Interspersed between the off-kilter narrative are more heady chapters written by “Martin” as he contemplates his life as a werewolf and his journey through the various methods of losing his werewolfishness.

Although the narration is very quirky and often downright weird, the meaning of the book is surprisingly clear and well thought out.  As the book’s subtitle indicates, Night of the Living Dead Christian is about being transformed or more clearly perhaps, what it doesn’t mean.  The zombie Christians we meet along the way show the absurdities of those who blindly follow some Christian leader’s teachings without a second thought (giving a whole new meaning to “Brains! Brains! We want your brains!”)  Then there are the vampires, those who “steal the life force of others to increase their own longevity…to increase their own quality of life.”  And then there is the guy relentlessly hunting down these monsters, who is eventually revealed to be the embodiment of the law.

Through these characters, Mikalatos shows many of the follies bound up in the heart of a man and where true freedom is found.  Perhaps the most poignant moment in the book comes toward the end.  (SPOILER ALERT) Martin eventually finds freedom from being a werewolf, but not everything ends up perfectly in his life.  One night, he is found out in the rain, with his old wolf skin tied on with string.  “He thought that everything would be wonderful when he was born again, but he was wrong.” (p.234)  There is pain and a recognition of the struggle against the old flesh.  But as Mikalatos so beautifully points out, “It’s not all wonderful. It’s worth it, but it’s not wonderful.” (p.234)

Night of the Living Dead Christian is a fast read, but one that is chock full of thought-provoking situations.  I would recommend it not so much because of the zombie genre, but for the insightful glance into a struggle for transformation that should be in every Christian. (5/5 stars)

(Thanks to Tyndale House for providing a review copy of this book.)

Book Review – Force of Nature

I have a love/hate relationship with Wal-Mart.  Seeing as I’m not made of money, Wal-Mart’s low prices, especially on groceries, are a great help to my family’s budget.  Additionally, it is a good example of how capitalism and the free market works.  Sam Walton started his business small and by offering consumers goods that they needed or wanted at a low price soon built this business into one of the largest companies on the planet.  However, its size has also been misused in a number of ways.   All this and more is covered in Edward Humes’ new book, Force of Nature: The Unlikely Story of Wal-Mart’s Green Revolution.

As the title suggests, Wal-Mart is not usually the first company that people think of when considering any kind of “green” revolution or anything that makes a positive impact on the environment.  In fact, it’s probably closer to the bottom of that list than the top.  In Force of Nature, Humes chronicles the Wal-Mart story, pointing out both the good and the bad aspects of the company, including its aversion to anything related to a “save the planet” mantra.  In the company leaders’ eyes, such concerns were relegated to the “social responsibility” category and were completely optional.  But this all changed – and quite dramatically – when  Jib Ellison, a corporate consultant entered the scene.

Ellison’s crowning achievement was to convince Wal-Mart executives – CEO Lee Scott foremost among them – that “making profits and saving the planet can—and must—go hand in hand.”  Humes takes the reader through the process that Ellison followed, showing how small changes here and there added up to huge savings AND reduced pollution in some form or fashion.  Wal-Mart began to use its formidable size and clout to push its suppliers to more energy-saving, trash-reducing measures.  The result is a reshaping of entire industries to be more conscientious of the environmental effects of their business and the effect this has on bottom lines.

Much of the book is a very fascinating read.  It was quite interesting to see how small changes added up and how Wal-Mart is aiming for the harder-to-attain changes.  Humes does a fair job of presenting Wal-Mart’s positive influences as well as the not-so-pretty side of the lawsuits and employment issues it has faced.  Even though certain undesirable aspects of Wal-Mart’s business operations are discussed, the book often comes across as a PR effort trying to get Wal-Mart into environmentalist’s good books.  And in some aspects, it worked.

Perhaps the slowest part of the book dealt with the measures and in-depth analysis of Wal-Mart’s big push in creating a sustainability index.  Even as an analyst who deals with numbers all day, I found this section to be tedious.

Ultimately, Force of Nature shows that when businesses, especially ones the size of Wal-Mart, get serious about green initiatives, the result can be industry shaping.  This is a quick and interesting read that certainly has me looking at Wal-Mart just a little bit differently.

(This book was received via the Amazon Vine Program. )

Book Review – The Barber Who Wanted to Pray

In The Barber Who Wanted to Pray, the story unfolds as we join a family gathered together for family worship.  One of the children asks her father how come he could pray so beautifully.  In answer, the father tells them the true story of how Herr Peter once asked his famous client, Martin Luther, a very similar question.  Luther replies by writing the simple, yet profound classic, A Simple Way to Pray. He emphasizes three things to focus on or pray through: the Lord’s Prayer, the 10 Commandments and the Apostles’ Creed.  In the end, the family clusters together again to practice this new and exciting way of learning to pray.

I love children’s books and love that my children love books.  We were given R.C. Sproul’s book, The Prince’s Poison Cup a few years ago and my children have asked me to read and reread it.  It is a beautiful illustration of how Jesus Christ died willingly, taking God’s punishment for sin on himself and how the “poison” turns to sweet water.

When I received The Barber Who Wanted to Pray, I was expecting the same caliber of storytelling.  Alas, this was not the case.  In The Barber Who Wanted to Pray, I felt like the storyline was too forced and dry.  Much detail is given to the barber’s preparation for Luther’s shave (including a somewhat graphic musing about the possibility of killing Luther by cutting his throat with the razor!).  The opening details of the dad’s family worship routine seem overdone and geared towards providing an illustration of how family worship time could look.  Although I certainly think that such illustrations can be valuable, it felt misplaced in a children’s story.  A true test of a book’s ability to capture a child’s attention is, well, to read it to them.  Unlike The Prince’s Poison Cup, my children had a very hard time sitting through this book.

While the intent of the book (teaching our children how to pray) is very important, the execution of it in this particular book felt rushed and lacking the wonder of many of Sproul’s other children’s books.  The message of the book, especially Luther’s method of praying, is worth learning.  I would recommend those looking for resources on family worship to turn to Luther’s book itself  or to Voddie Bauchum’s book, Family Driven Faith  (a book which has issues of its own, but the chapter on family worship is invaluable.) 2/5 stars

(Thanks to Crossway’s Homeschool Book Review program for providing a review copy of this book.)

Book Review – American Emperor

Mention Aaron Burr’s name and the first thing that comes to a person’s mind will most likely be his infamous duel with Alexander Hamilton.  What might not be so well known is the path Burr took after he fled New York or the fact that, even during his tenure as vice-president under Jefferson, he was plotting to build his own empire in the western half of the United States.  In American Emperor: Aaron Burr’s Challenge to Jefferson’s America, David O. Stewart masterfully sheds light on this lesser-known portion of Burr’s career.  While the Burr/Hamilton duel is touched on, it is only briefly and as a backdrop to the animosity many Americans felt towards him at the time.  The majority of the book is spent covering Burr’s machinations with General James Wilkinson and Harman Blennerhassett along his subsequent trial for treason.  Stewart also discusses the dislike Jefferson had for Burr and Jefferson’s dead-level best attempts at ensuring Burr was found guilty of treason.

While the book doesn’t portray Burr in the most favorable light, I was left with the impression that Stewart gave a fair account of Burr’s character as well as his attempts at empire building without necessarily labeling him an outright traitor.  Burr isn’t painted as a monstrous traitor but neither are the charges of treason completely whitewashed.  In the end, Stewart agrees with the “not guilty” verdict based on John Marshall’s interpretation of the Constitution and not on whether or not Burr actually schemed against the U.S., which Stewart notes as being completely plausible.  The book also includes a copy of the “cipher letter” and the indictment against Burr.

American Emperor is a well-researched, readable account of Aaron Burr’s controversial plans.  I would recommend this book to anyone wanting to know more about what happened after the duel.  (5/5 stars)

(Thanks to Simon and Schuster for providing an electronic copy of this book.)

Food for thought

“We spend so much energy wishing we were someone else.  Don’t waste your time on that.  Christ has completed the work for us.  We are his and he is ours, and in him we rest in triune love.  Why waste time thinking we are not sufficient and being jealous over those we think are sufficient?  We have already seen that no one is sufficient but Christ, and in him we are brought into union with the Father. That’s enough. What can you add to perfect love?

“The guy who slugs it out at work every day displays the kingdom when he is living for the love of the King.  He is faithful, loves his wife, leads his home, adores his kids and admits when he fails.  You and I will never hear about him, he will never be famous, and some of us would look at his job and think it is not a place you could live with passion.  But Jesus has become the object of his desire, and by the grace of Christ he displays the kingdom of peace, mercy, kindness, faithfulness, joy, and purity in every detail of his life.  He won’t preach a sermon on Sunday, but he will leave a legacy in his home and his workplace, where he did what God made him to do for the love of the King.”

(A Kingdom Called Desire: Confronted By the Love of a Risen King, by Rick McKinley, pp.124-125)

Book Review – Give Them Grace

Are you a parent who wants perfect kids?  Adjust your parenting style to any number of the hundreds of books on parenting currently in print and you’ll be the successful parent you’ve always wanted to be with the successful children you’ve always wanted!

Sadly, this is the message of many parenting books that draw the hopeful and discouraged to their pages with each new publication.  In Give Them Grace: Dazzling Your Kids with the Love of Jesus, mother and daughter team Elyse Fitzpatrick and Jessica Thompson want parents to be the best Christian parents they can be, raising Godly children.  So what makes this book any different?  The answer is found in the gospel and grace of Jesus Christ.  The path to successful parenting isn’t found in what parents do or even how children react to what parents do.  Such a method leads only to law and, as the book cover says, the law is “a set of standards that is not only unable to save our children, but also powerless to change them.”  Not only do they take aim at the path to successful parenting, but they offer a rethinking of what it means to be a successful parent.

Much of the book is focused, not on the behavior of the child, but rather the belief system of the parent.  You won’t find very much in the way of the “how-to’s” of child discipline, but rather solid principles intended to have parents examine their own attitudes and understanding of the concept of grace.  Further, this idea of grace is firmly grounded in what believers have been given through Christ’s finished work on the cross in paying God’s penalty for sin and obtaining our right standing before God.  Based on the parents’ understanding of gospel work in their own hearts, the authors then answer the question of successful parenting – that is pointing our children to God by modeling the grace of God in our lives.

There were two chapters that I appreciated the most: one (“The One Good Story) offers wise principles for pointing our children to the grace and love of God in various situations.  For example, the question often comes up (at least it does in my family) of which movies to allow children to watch.  Instead of giving a bulleted list of do’s and don’ts, the authors offer several questions to ask about how that movie (or other entertainment medium) will either point to or prevent them from seeing gospel truths.  In their own words, “Our hope is that if we have taught them how to discern the one good story and judge every other story by it, they’ll be better equipped to answer the wicked Imposter’s lies when they hear them.” (p.120) They also touch on the subject of modesty and, instead of going straight to the obvious question of “is it revealing?” they suggest principles that will get to the heart of the child and not simply outward appearances.

The second chapter I appreciated the most was Chapter 9 (“Weak Parents and Their Strong Savior”) in which the authors gently point out that sometimes, even after all our best efforts and trusting in God, our children may not live as believers.  This chapter dealt with seeming failure as parents.  But even here, the authors point us to the fact that God is honored and glorified in everything.  In what was perhaps the most poignant statement of the chapter, they write “What if he has called us to Jeremiah’s ministry rather than to Daniel’s? Is there room in your parenting paradigm for weakness and failure if weakness and failure glorify God?” (p.149)

Perhaps the one negative aspect of the book is the examples of conversations between parent and child.  The table in Appendix 2 (“Common Problems and the Gospel”) is helpful in keeping our focus on Christ and the gospel in various situations, but the examples of conversations given seem too overblown and forced.  While I certainly want to teach my children the beauty of the gospel and of Christ, it seems more than a little forced to relate losing a baseball game to the suffering of Christ.  There are times when we as parents simply need to be there for our children, encouraging them when they fail/lose and helping them to do better next time.  Does this mean that we are ignoring the gospel and only promoting selfish little bootstrap hoisters?  Absolutely not!  However, the adage “too heavenly minded to be of any earthly good” seems to apply here.

Give Them Grace gives us a much needed reminder as parents that changing our children’s hearts and the outcome of our parenting is not dependent on us.  Oh yes, God uses this tool for this change but ultimately it is God who does the changing.  I was encouraged to continually point my children to the love, beauty and grace of God that is ours because of Jesus.  (4/5 stars)

(Thanks to Crossway’s Homeschool Book Review program for providing a review of this book.)

Scared fish

(I was going through some old notes and came across this entry I had written in May 2006, just four months after we brought Carlos and Jeremiah home.  Enjoy!)

I am finding out that 4-year olds can and most often will interpret what you say QUITE literally. We were shopping a few days ago and while Sarah did the grocery shopping, I wheeled Carlos and Jeremiah around the store to keep them entertained. Carlos was talking away and suddenly he got excited because he saw some fish tanks nearby with fish in them. So off we went to see the fish.  Big fish.  Small fish.  There were even a couple of little tubs with fish in them ready to be taken home. After a few minutes, Carlos wanted to tap on the glass. I tried to explain to him that this would scare the fish, by saying, “Carlos, if you tap the glass, the fish will be scared, like ‘AAGGHH!!'” (Usually this is exactly what he says when he is scared or thinks he might be scared and is trying to convey the scariness of whatever situation he is thinking of.)  After a minute of thinking about this, he looks at me with a puzzled expression and says, “Fish no say ‘AAGGHH!’ – they’re in water!” Yup, definitely can’t pull one over on Carlos! I finally had to demonstrate by tapping on the tank and sure enough, the fish scattered.  BUT they didn’t say “AAGGHH!”

Board Games

I love playing board games and have for as long as I can remember.   When we weren’t playing Legos, my brother, sister & I used to spend hours playing board games in our younger years, sometimes making up our own rules but mostly playing by the original rules.  In addition to the usual ones such as Risk, Clue and Monopoly, there were a few unique ones that were really quite fun.  It’s a little disconcerting that many of these games are now considered VINTAGE!  Here are a few of my favorites in no particular order.

Wildlife (by Spears) 

In this game endorsed by the World Wildlife Fund, players race around the world trying to find specific kinds of animals to fill their zoos.  It was a fun game that subtly taught players different facts about animals including where each type was found in the world.  For example, you could only find the giant panda in China.  Alligators could be picked up in Florida.  You could pick up animals that weren’t specific to your zoo and use them to trade other players for animals that you needed.

London Game

The London Game is what helped me to understand and figure out the London Underground train system long before I ever went to London.  The board is a fairly accurate map of the London subway system, complete with varying colored lines weaving throughout London.  Each player has a certain number of destinations to visit in London and has to figure out the best way to get there.  Destinations include the Tower Bridge, London Zoo, St. Paul’s Cathedral and The War Museum.  The first player to visit all his destinations and return to their starting station wins.  When Sarah and I visited London shortly after we were married, I felt like I already knew where everything was and which station/line to take from years of playing this game.  I was very happy to purchase this one again a few years ago.

Wide World of Travel 

This game, perhaps the oldest one of the lot, was another one that snuck in the educational element. The board was a map of the world with various destinations dotting the globe.  Each player moved his 1950s-style jet airplane/spaceship across the map trying to visit each destination and collecting product cards before the other players reached theirs.  Players learned where Moscow, Peru, Cairo, Turkey and Alaska were.  A transparent weather guide that was placed on over the board in various places could cause lots of havoc since you never knew when it was going to move.

What board games do you like to play?  Do you have any childhood favorites that you’ve rediscovered? Any new ones that you enjoy?

Book Review – The Unlikely Disciple

What would happen if you took a student from Brown University,  a decidedly liberal college, and sent him for one semester to one of the bastions of conservative education, Liberty University (LU)?  While this sounds like the makings of yet another “reality” TV show, it is exactly the situation Kevin Roose placed himself in during his sophomore year at Brown.  Instead of embarking on a European cultural experience, he decided to experience an American culture, yet one decidedly foreign to him.  In his own words, he states, “Here, right in my time zone, was a culture more foreign to me than any European capital, and these foreigners vote in my election! So why not do a domestic study abroad?” (p.10)

The result of this “domestic study abroad” is his book, The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University.  In it, he documents his experience of being completely immersed into the world of evangelical Christianity.  Surprisingly (or maybe not so surprisingly?), Roose is able to pass himself off as part of the evangelical crowd, so much so that at the end of the book when he reveals his true purpose for being at LU, most if not all of his friends are completely shocked.  He gets involved in everything he can in an attempt to learn the culture.  He joins the church choir, takes Bible classes, works hard to curb his swearing habit, and even goes on a weeklong missions trip for some street evangelizing.  Along the way, he discovers that while some of his previous held beliefs of the stereotypical evangelical are true, many other beliefs about them are unfounded.

Roose’s writing style flows very well, making this book feel like a relatively quick read.  What gives this book an edge though is the evenhandedness with which Roose gives his encounters.  He is just as quick to praise the good he finds at LU as he is to point out the flaws.  For example, it doesn’t take him long to realize that many of the students and faculty at LU are sincere in their love for God and their desire to let others about God.  At one point, Roose states “I’m still adjusting my mind to all the earnest God talk I’m hearing at Liberty….But one thing has become clear: these Liberty students have no ulterior motive.  They simply can’t contain their love for God.  They’re happy to be believers, and they’re telling the world.” (p.64)  He also tells of his encounter with a pastor who, while firmly believing homosexuality is a sin, doesn’t involve himself or encourage the “gay-bashing” that Roose does come across in the dorms.  The pastor wanted to help those who struggle with “same-sex attraction” by befriending them, not berating them.  Although it is evident that Roose disagrees with the underlying belief that homosexuality is sinful, he can’t help but respect the pastor for his approach.

On the flip side, we observe with Roose the disconnect between the students’ theological beliefs and how it affects their lives on the practical level.  Many of the guys in Roose’s dorm engage in frank and often crass discussions about women.  At first it seemed like Roose was unfairly painting all LU men with the same brush; however in the end I think he focused more on these types of encounters because he wasn’t expecting this and also because he admittedly liked to hang out with the “wrong crowd” as it were – those more prone to indulge in such behavior.  While he admires those students willing to be ridiculed and rejected while street preaching, he makes a fair point in asking whether or not this is truly effective.  He has a difficult time in some of the classes where his professors draw a distinct line between accepting what science says vs. accepting what the Bible says.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am more in the evangelical category than not.  My graduate degree is from LU and my undergraduate degree is from the even more conservative Pensacola Christian College (a college that Roose mentions briefly in an effort to find a stricter environment than the one at LU- believe me, LU has nothing on PCC!)  That being said, I don’t think LU could get a more evenhanded, balance perspective from someone who is not only unfamiliar with the evangelical culture, but is in many areas diametrically opposed to the LU belief system.  If I were an administrator at LU, I would take great encouragement from the fact that the students’ zeal for God was readily evident.  I would be encouraged by the stance taken by such individuals as the pastor who reached out in love and grace to those struggling with same-sex attraction.  On the flip side, I would be concerned about the disconnect between the students’ faith and the application of that faith in the everyday areas of life.

In the end, I would not recommend this book so much to people outside the evangelical circle so much as I would recommend it to those INSIDE evangelicalism.  To get a true grasp of how effective a culture or belief system is, you have to have an outside perspective and Kevin Roose gives us exactly that. (5/5 stars)