Monday, December 26, 2011

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

(a.k.a. Veni, Veni, Emmanuel)

Latin:


Latin and English:


Veni, veni, Emmanuel
Captivum solve Israel,
Qui gemit in exsilio,
Privatus Dei Filio.

Gaude! Gaude! Emmanuel,
Nascetur pro te Israel!


Many have sung this Latin chant over the centuries. Though it is somewhat unclear when it was written, it either comes from the 8th Century Gregorian chants, or from the 15th Century Franciscan order of nuns, according to Wikipedia. In any case, it is traditionally sung during the Advent season, the four weeks leading up to Christmas. It wasn't until the 19th century that John Mason Neale and Henry Sloane Coffin translated it into English. It is a plea for Emmanuel, "God with us," to come and save us from our our bondage. Prophets such as Isaiah foretold of a Messiah who would be called Emmanuel, who would save Israel. Through the years, Israel went through bondage to Babylon and Assyria, and then later to Rome. The Jews longed for their promised Messiah to come. (Many Jews still do today.)

The first verse pleads with Emmanuel to come and ransom Israel, who is groaning in exile. The second verse asks for wisdom. The third verse asks the Lord to come, and it remembers the Law that He presented to Moses on Mt. Sinai with "majestic glory" (literal translation of the Latin). The fourth verse, from what I can tell, appears to be an appeal to God to use the shepherd's staff of Jesse (David's father) to catch the enemy (Satan and sin) and hurl him into the cavernous pit of hell. The fifth verse asks the metaphorical Key of David (Jesus was prophesied to be a descendant of David) to unlock the way to heaven and lock the way to hell. The sixth verse asks for comfort, and to get rid of the darkness of death. The last verse appeals to the King of the Nations and Redeemer of all (God) to come and save the people on earth who are slaves to sin.

Due to the challenges of translating a song into English, some of the ideas in the verses were lost or adjusted. The English lyrics must still fit in the tune and rhyme, so it is much more difficult to get a literal translation than, say, translating a book. One line I find interesting was the line Noctis depelle nebulas, Dirasque mortis tenebras in the sixth verse. The official English translation is "Disperse the gloomy clouds of night And death's dark shadow put to flight." The last two words, mortis tenebras, mean "death's darkness." Accordingly, the notes in the tune go down on the staff in the same way the meaning of the words goes downwards to the depths of dark death. So it's interesting that the English moves those words to earlier in the sentence and, with the notes going downward on the staff, has the words "put to flight."

Some of the prophecies that it mentions were fulfilled when Jesus came, "God with us", was born, lived, and gave His life as a ransom for the bondage that we had to sin. Jesus conquered death when He rose from the dead. Many Orthodox Jews who don't believe that Jesus was the Messiah are still waiting for Messiah to come and do this. However, some of the prophecies have not yet been fulfilled, and both Christians and Jews cry out for Christ to come and save us from our bondage. One day Jesus will return and conquer death once and for all. His sacrifice on the cross about 2000 years ago freed us who believe from sin, but as humans, we still suffer temptation and death. Someday that will be no more. Someday, Satan will be flung into the pit of hell where he can't torment and tempt us any more.

So with the Jews of old, I cry out to God:

O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel


Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Little Drummer Boy

(a.k.a. Carol of the Drum)

Carol of the Drum by The Trapp Family Singers on Grooveshark
Carol of the Drum, sung by the Trapp Family Singers

The Little Drummer Boy has always been one of my favorite Christmas carols. It is the semi-fictional story of a poor boy who has nothing but a drum, who is invited to accompany the Wise Men to see the baby Jesus in the stable. The rich men are bringing the finest of their treasuries to present to the newborn King, and this poor boy has nothing to give. He seems disappointed at first that he has nothing fit for a King to give, until he realizes that he could give the gift of music. So with Mary's permission, he jams out on the drum, with the animals keeping time. What a rocking gift! It makes Jesus smile.

I call it semi-fictional because most of the characters in the story were real, but if there was a "little drummer boy", the Bible doesn't mention him. Also, by the time the Wise Men visited Him, Jesus was no longer in the stable.

However, if it had happened (which I suppose is possible to some extent...maybe one of the shepherds had a drum), I'm sure Jesus would have loved it. Also, Jesus was very clear that we need to care for the poor and not overlook them. We are to be generous, even if we don't have much to give. Based on what Jesus said about an old lady giving all she had, sometimes gifts from people who don't have anything material to give are more valuable than those given out of a fraction of someone's possessions, due to the sacrifice involved. Also, even if we don't have anything material to give, we can always give our talents. While the story of The Little Drummer Boy may not be entirely biblical, the lesson is.

Where does this song come from? I always thought it was an old Czech carol, but after a little research, I found out to my surprise that it was written by American composer Katherine Davis in 1941! She originally called it "Carol of the Drum", and the first recording of it was by the Trapp Family Singers (above). According to Wikipedia, Davis claimed to have based it on a Czech carol, but if it existed, that carol has not been found. It does have a similar style to the Czech "Rocking Carol."

Now for a different version, I leave you with the Kenyan Boys Choir and Neema Ntalel...


Friday, December 23, 2011

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer



Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer has been around since 1939, when Johnny Marks wrote it based on a story published by the Montgomery Ward company. It is a classic story of a bullied reindeer coming out on top and saving Christmas.

But who were "all of the other reindeer"? Santa Claus to the rescue!

Dasher, it turns out, was so named because he insisted on racing all the other reindeer every day, which seriously started to annoy them. His job is to clean and wax Santa's sleigh and to make sure that the directional radar is working right.

When Dancer was a faun, he just wanted to dance. Santa observed this and named him accordingly. Dancer even put on tap dancing shows, and Santa suggested that he go to Broadway...but he decided he would rather pull the sleigh. When he isn't pulling the sleigh, he's doing nightly shows for the elves.

Prancer is the activities coordinator of the reindeer. He especially enjoys organizing games of hide and seek, although they have to be careful hiding in the forest, due to hunting season. He also sponsors Friday night movies and makes popcorn and hot chocolate for everyone.

Vixen is in love with Cupid. She's a bit of a neat freak, and makes sure the reindeer are clean...much to the annoyance of everyone but Cupid. Imagine having one of your peers make you take a bath every night! Most of the reindeer generally avoid her as much as they can.

Comet, named after the comet Blorouis, is a straight-A student, and the pride and joy of his parents and Santa. He wants to be a teacher when he grows up. (If he was around in 1939, it must take a long time for reindeer to grow up!)

Not surprisingly, Cupid was born on Valentine's Day. Santa named him Cupid due to his annoying habit of trying to arrange dates between reindeer. To that end, he even published his own newspaper, The Cupid Times. Blitzen works in his office, and Rudolph delivers the papers, which cost 25 cents.

Donner (a.k.a. Donder) is the fitness expert. He drills the reindeer and makes sure they're in excellent shape for the annual flight around the world. Training starts November 8, when reindeer try out for spots on Santa's team.

Blitzen brought back memories for Santa, back when Santa was in high school football, and their team used to blitz their opponents. Whenever Santa's team runs into a blizzard on their annual flight, Blitzen takes the lead and pulls them through.

Rudolph was always the underdeer. The other reindeer always made fun of him, shunned him and bullied him due to his shiny nose. When he was young, he even tried to make it not shine, but nothing worked. On that fateful Christmas Eve, the fog at the North Pole was so thick that you couldn't even see your hand in front of your face. Santa very nearly canceled the trip due to the weather conditions, until he realized that it might be worth a shot to put Rudolph in the lead. The rest, as they say, is history.

But wait! Claus has a different tale to tell.

Dasher comes from Los Angeles and has his own movie studio. He spends most of his time making movies with Venison Studios and hanging out on the beach. He is notorious for flying to the North Pole on his own private jet with only minutes to spare before the annual flight with the other reindeer. If he weren't so good at the Santa gig, Santa would have fired him years ago for his chronic lateness.

Dancer and Prancer are twins. They had a great traveling act going many years ago, but their dream of stardom was brought to a tragic end by a hunter who fired on the stage. Out of work, they found an ad for a job at the North Pole, requesting anyone with talents useful at Christmas.

Both sites agree that Vixen is neat, and that she's in love with Cupid. She is known for her graceful flying skills. Vixen was leading a group of trainee reindeer when they got into a dangerous situation. Cupid came to the rescue, and ironically, Vixen was smitten with the other Cupid's arrow. Vixen and Cupid are happily married, and they still hold hooves.

Comet was leading the team through the fog one night, when tragedy struck and they had a serious accident. It evidently caused brain damage because he's been "spacey" ever since (thus the name). He thought he saw the lighthouse light at the tip of the North Pole, but unfortunately, it turned out to be a comet. He heroically saved the rest of the team by headbutting it out of the earth's atmosphere, but he has never been the same since.

Both sites agree that Cupid is the matchmaker of the team. Once, he saw a group of reindeer trainees spinning out of control in a sudden updraft of wind and on a collision course with a nearby mountain. He dove in and grabbed the lead rein, guiding them back under control. A young doe named Vixen took note of that, and he has been her hero (and husband) ever since.

The two sites disagree about the gender of Donder. Weird. However, they agree that Donder keeps the reindeer fit. She has a friendly rivalry with Dasher, mainly because she thinks she should be Captain rather than him. She's also in charge of the reindeer games.

Blitzen was so named due to his proclivity to being struck by lightning. It's happened so much that he has an electrical charge now! He can get radio and TV signals on his antlers, and they even point north. He is Santa's compass, radio and lightning rod on the annual trip.

Sadly, Claus.com, like the other reindeer's initial reaction, discriminates against Rudolph and leaves him out. Such a sad commentary on reindeerkind. Hopefully they learn the error of their ways. They paint such heroic pictures of the bully reindeer that it makes me wonder if these stories are true. Perhaps all the heroics were actually done by Rudolph and everyone else is jealous.

---

I also find the side comments in the song interesting.

His nose was shiny "like a lightbulb." I hope so, if it's gonna get the reindeer through the fog.

One of the names the reindeer called him was Pinocchio. How mean can you get? Comparing him with a puppet who very nearly turned into a donkey and was known for lying. However, like Rudolph, Pinocchio came out on top, and he learned his lesson. The comparison breaks down, though, in that it is the other reindeer, rather than Rudolph, who learn their lesson.

It suggests that the reindeer enjoy playing Monopoly. Really? Very few games bore me, but Monopoly is quite possibly the most boring game I have ever played. The only time I enjoyed it was when we played it in class in high school once, and it had to be split into segments due to limited time.

Rudolph will go down in history, like Columbus. That is an apt comparison, as Columbus and Rudolph, one could say, were/are both famous explorers who dreamed of circumnavigating the globe. Columbus didn't succeed at that, but Rudolph does it every year! I hope that Rudolph's navigation skills are better than Columbus', though, and Rudolph doesn't land in Cuba thinking he's in China! That could lead to some embarrassing situations.

---

I also find it interesting that the reindeer are not that different from humans. They tend to shun, bully, and generally mistreat anyone who is different from them, whether or not they can help it. Then, only when it turns out there's something in it for them do they accept the person that is different. I think the lesson of this song is that we need to value each other's differences and realize that, as they say, "what makes us different makes us strong."

Thursday, December 22, 2011

(No Place Like) Home for the Holidays



Home for the Holidays is one of those songs that makes me happy, then leaves me wondering what planet the composer comes from. It was composed by Robert Allen, lyrics by Al Stillman, published in 1954. Perry Como recorded it shortly thereafter.

It tells about how amazing it is to come home for the holidays (I expect it meant Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year at the time). Personally, I have had a rather unusual life, and I have lived on both sides of the Pacific Ocean. Having spent large parts of my life in the US and the Philippines, it's hard to define "home" for me. When we lived in the Philippines, we were too far away to be able to afford to come back to the US for Christmas. In the US, it hasn't necessarily made sense to go to the Philippines for Christmas. Thus, I've never really been in a position to make a long trip "home" for the Christmas season. The biggest trip I've ever made at Christmas was in 2009, when I "met a man who lived in Tennessee" (as the song says), and surprised my "adopted" big sister Jill Brasfield (which involved a lot of plotting with her husband and my "adopted" big brother Andy). I left Seattle on December 26, wearing a Tennessee Vols sweatshirt. I was particularly amused that someone at SeaTac Airport asked me if I was returning to Tennessee. I said, "Sort of. I've never been there before." That confused him. :-) But never fear, my "adopted" family in Tennessee definitely made me feel right at home. I'm sure for many people who actually do go home every year, it's a refreshing time of getting caught up on family life and seeing the sights and people you knew growing up. I know I had a blast visiting "family" in Tennessee! I don't recall having pumpkin pie there...probably because I went to Tennessee and not Pennsylvania...but pumpkin pie is always one of the highlights of November and December for me. :-)

I love traveling (for the most part), and this song is definitely about that. People travel from Tennessee to Pennsylvania, from Pennsylvania to Dixie, and elsewhere. Interesting, no mention of western states (at least by name). They also fail to mention some Northwesterners (such as Justin Donnelson) who like to vacation in Hawaii in the winter. Maybe because Hawaii wasn't a state yet in 1954 when this was written (and I'm pretty sure Justin wasn't born yet, anyway).

But there's one line that baffles me: "From Atlantic to Pacific, the traffic is terrific." Traffic is WHAT?! The busiest season of the year, when everyone is out shopping for Christmas, traffic jams are backed way up, impatient drivers have taken leave of common sense...they call that terrific? Maybe it was terrific in 1954? Or maybe Al Stillman enjoyed sitting in traffic. I don't know what planet Stillman lived on, but if it was terrific then, times have changed. (Of course, in Manila where I come from, terrific traffic means it only takes an hour to get 10 miles.) :-)

Aside from the bizarre traffic comment, this is a wonderful, heartwarming song, and I'm sure it embodied the wonderful feelings the composers had in the Christmas season, and many folks have had since then traveling home for Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, and other winter holidays (or just vacation in general).

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

I Saw Three Ships



"I Saw Three Ships" has always slightly baffled me. What does the Christmas story have to do with ships? Why three? What were the Virgin Mary and Christ doing on a ship? The farthest the Bible tells about them going was when Joseph, Mary and Jesus fled to Egypt (probably via donkey or camel) to escape King Herod's murderous rage.

The singer claims to have seen three ships bearing the Virgin Mary and Christ come sailing into Bethlehem on Christmas morning (which is interesting, since, as Wikipedia points out, Bethlehem is about 20 miles from the Dead Sea, the nearest body of water). The singer goes on to tell how all the angels and "all the souls on earth" will sing. It then recommends that we all rejoice amain (which, according to Dictionary.com, means "with great strength, speed, or haste"...so in other words, we should rejoice at the top of our lungs).

I'm all for rejoicing at the arrival of the Savior, and it is definitely worth the angels and everyone on earth celebrating. But that still leaves us with the question... Ships?!

Apparently, the song is from the 17th Century, likely written in Derbyshire, England in 1666. According to The Hymns and Carols of Christmas, legend says that in the 12th Century, three ships carried the gold, frankincense and myrrh given by the Wise Men (one gift on each ship, I guess) to Koln, Germany. As the years went by, the legend replaced the Magi with the Holy Family (other versions of the song also mention Joseph).

That makes a bit more sense. I still think it's weird, though.

UPDATE: According to my friend Wendy Marcinkiewicz, camels were known as "the ship of the desert." That could be another explanation, which would make sense.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

A Christmas Nightmare

Christmas 1818 was rapidly approaching, and St. Nicholas Church in the Austrian village of Oberndorf bei Salzburg was facing a serious problem: their organ was broken, with no time to fix it before Christmas. The church leaders were scrambling to figure out what to do. It was Christmas Eve, and they were running out of options. Assistant priest Josef Mohr remembered a poem he had written two years earlier. He showed it to Franz Gruber, the church's organist and choirmaster, and asked if he could set to music. So it was that at Christmas Mass (the next day!), the two men sang the new song, with Mohr playing the guitar and the choir echoing the last two lines of each of the six verses. The first verse went like this:

Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!
Alles schläft; einsam wacht
Nur das traute hoch heilige Paar.
Holder Knab' im lockigen Haar,
Schlafe in himmlischer Ruh!
Schlafe in himmlischer Ruh!


The song looks back to that silent night when (verse 1) a young virgin brought a baby into the world. (Verse 2) The news was announced by angels to the astonished shepherds. With the amazing gift of that night, God sent His (verse 3) light, (4) grace and (5) peace, to (6) send His only Son to earth to free mankind of our plight and woes.

St. Nicholas Church had a rather major problem that Christmas in 1818, but it was nothing compared to the first Christmas in about 4 BC, when Mary, in an advanced stage of pregnancy, had to make a difficult journey by donkey to Joseph's ancestral home of Bethlehem for the Roman census. Not only did she have to go through a painful journey, but she had to endure rumors and gossip about the fact she was having a baby before getting married. Under normal circumstances, having a child out of wedlock was punishable by death in their culture. Joseph very nearly divorced her, and would have if it hadn't been for an angel appearing to him in a dream. If Mohr and Gruber had problems, Mary and Joseph had it much worse.

When Mary and Joseph got to Bethlehem, all the inns were full and they had to improvise. When St. Nicholas Church's organ broke, Mohr and Gruber had to improvise. Never has a stable had so much in common with a guitar.

Silent night! Holy night!
All is calm, all is bright.
Round yon virgin, mother and child
Holy infant, so tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace.
Sleep in heavenly peace.



Josef Mohr, painting photographed by Wikipedia user Werner100359



Franz Gruber, painted by Sebastian Stief in 1846

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Happy Holiday



"Happy Holiday" was written in 1942 by Irving Berlin for the movie Holiday Inn. The main premise of the movie involves an inn that is only open for major holidays throughout the year. (If I remember right, that includes Presidents' Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year. As Martin Luther King was alive and well at the time, his holiday wasn't celebrated yet.) For each holiday, they put on a show appropriate to that celebration. Happy Holiday was the song performed for...get this...NEW YEAR'S EVE!

When it was written, it was a song expressing heartfelt wishes for a happy holiday season, which started with Thanksgiving, and encompassed Christmas and New Years. Like Sleigh Ride, it is not specifically a Christmas song, but it is most commonly associated with Christmas.

As the years have progressed and folks from more diverse backgrounds have joined our ranks as Americans, the list of holidays celebrated at this time of the year have grown, including Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Ramadan, Festivus and the Winter Solstice (I'm probably forgetting some). The way I see it, diversity is a beautiful thing, and we should celebrate our differences as well as our similarities. I'm not saying we have to celebrate the holidays from other religions and cultures, but we should respect their right to celebrate their holidays. Sadly, the phrase "Happy Holidays" has become a bit of a political statement, as some folks are offended by the fact that we celebrate Christmas and not their holiday of choice (or in the case of some Jehovah's Witnesses, any holidays at all). It seems a sad commentary of human nature that too many Christians are offended when they hear people who want to be inclusive wish them "Happy Holidays!" rather than "Merry Christmas!" Why do we as Christians expect non-Christians to behave like Christians? We don't expect cats to bark (usually). Recently, the American Family Association initiated a boycott of Walgreens because they said "Happy Holidays" with no mention of Christmas. After hearing from many angry Christians around the country, Walgreens pointed out that it wasn't Thanksgiving yet, and they were planning to say "Merry Christmas" as Christmas got closer. The boycott was called off. Just think how many headaches it would have saved if they had asked first before starting a full-scale boycott!

I decided to comment on this song this morning when I saw a comment from my friend Mike Gibson, which said:

With all due respect, saying "Happy Holidays" is not offensive to the cause of Christ. Being loving and respectful to others with different beliefs is not denying Him, either.


I completely agree. Christianity is about what we do believe, not what we don't believe. Being offended that non-Christians may or may not celebrate Christmas, and when they do, they may or may not mention Christ, is not a good witness. I have a feeling it is one of the major reasons we are stereotyped as being intolerant and hateful. I wonder how much hostility toward Christmas would be calmed if we would calm down ourselves. Jesus hung out with people the Pharisees saw as hopeless cases and who they felt we should have nothing to do with. If we don't reach out in love, not anger, to the people who need it the most, who will?

I'm all for keeping Christ in Christmas, but we need to respect the people who aren't. We need to show them love, not offense. Many of them aren't Christians, and we shouldn't expect them to act like it. As Gibson also pointed out, "He told us to remember his death, anyway. Not his birth."

If someone says "Happy Holidays" to me, I will probably respond with a smile and "Merry Christmas!" I celebrate Christmas, but I respect other people's right not to.

I leave you with Straight No Chaser's version of The 12 Days of Christmas, in which Hanukkah and Africa make cameo appearances. :-)

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Last Christmas

The song "Last Christmas" is one of my least favorite Christmas songs. It's truly a study in incorrigibility. The singer seems to want to improve his lot in life, but he just never learns.

"Last Christmas," he sings, "I gave you my heart, but the very next day you gave it away. This year, to save me from tears, I'll give it to someone special."

First of all, he needs to understand that a heart is a very precious thing to give, and he needs to learn not to give it lightly. He seems to be beginning to grasp that, but it just doesn't sink in completely. How do I know? Because the next year, I hear him singing it again. This tells me that every Christmas, he gives his heart to someone special, and the very next day, that someone special gives it away. Instead of saving himself from tears, he ends up collapsing in tears every stinking December 26 because the "someone special" turned out to be not so special after all. He must have a serious case of insecurity, and no wonder, as he is consistently dumped every Boxing Day!

I guess the moral of the story is that you need to be much more careful in giving your heart than this singer. There are better things to give as Christmas presents than your heart. Especially if you give the same thing every year.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

"Have you considered My servant Jerri?"

“Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.” - God, Job 1:8

The past year and a half, my friend and "adopted" big sister Jerri has gone through more pain than I can imagine, including the collapse of her marriage and sudden death of her husband, who I considered a big brother, in addition to losing her mother to cancer. I have watched her go through so much, raising their teen and pre-teen children by herself and suffering more grief than anyone should have to bear. I have seen her work through her pain, yet still cling to her faith in our amazing God.

During this time, I have come to understand that the number 11 and strings of 1s have special significance to her, and God has often used this to remind me of her. I often "happen" to look at the time at 11:11, and it always reminds me of her. Sometimes I feel moved to pray for her and her family when that happens. Yesterday, I "happened" to look at my watch at 1:11:11 (that exact second), and today I looked at my phone at 11:11. Today, shortly after that happened, a modified version of Job 1:8 came to mind, which I believe was from God: "Have you considered my servant Jerri? There is no one on earth like her; she is blameless and upright, a woman who fears God and shuns evil."

Job also lost so much when Satan put him to the test, but he came out a stronger man for it, and God blessed him more richly at the end of the ordeal than before it. He even replaced everyone that Job lost. May the same blessings be true for Jerri.

Update: On the way home, I saw this:


I rest my case.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Who Knew?

I shared my memories of September 11, 2001 back in May, and now I thought I'd post this poem I wrote shortly after the horrible events of that fateful day.

Who Knew?
by Steven Sauke
© September 2001

It began as a peaceful Tuesday morning
The sun shone, the birds chirped
Who knew what was about to happen?
Who knew the peace would be shattered?
That planes would crash into buildings?
That thousands of lives would suddenly be cut short?
That fireballs so huge could billow out of national landmarks?
Who foresaw bodies falling 110 stories to the ground?
The World Trade Center plummeting after them?
The Pentagon in flames?
Smoke billowing into the sky,
Blotting out the sun,
Turning the bright blue sky a dismal gray?
Dust blanketing a city in a velvety, macabre coat?
Who could have known on such a bright sunny day
That in a few minutes a nation would be in shock?
That a planet would be in grief?
That in 225 years the US had never seen such a disaster
As what was about to happen?

Who would have guessed that in one morning,
A sharply divided nation would come together
To donate blood, to pick up the pieces, to pray for our fellow Americans?

Who could have known that in one morning,
A nation, an earth, would forever be changed?

Who foresaw an outpouring of grief,
Of sorrow,
Of love,
Of flowers,
Of candles,
Of silence,
Across the nation,
Across the earth?
Who knew flags across the world
Would soon be placed at half-mast?

Only God knew
And He held up the towers for an hour
To let people escape

Only God knew
And He caused the planes to hit the towers high enough
That they collapsed straight down
Rather than falling over
And wiping out more of Manhattan

Only God knew
And He diverted a plane away from the White House
Into the only part of the Pentagon
That had been retrofitted
For terrorist attacks

Only God knew
And He stopped in mid-flight
Another plane headed for the White House
Sending it crashing
Into a field.

Praise be to God
For sparing us from something worse
Praise be to God!

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Driving Fear - Part 4


Close Calls

It was September or October of 2002. Thanks to the sun, that is one of the worst times of the year to drive, and I had a class in Everett, WA. I had just left school to head home, and the sun was setting. I had to drive up a hill, and the sun in all its brilliance was just over the ridge of the hill, straight ahead. There was no way to avoid looking into the sun, as I would have had to block off the windshield or shut my eyes, either of which would have been dangerous. I couldn't see ahead of me, and I quickly realized that it would be too dangerous to continue forward, as the sheer brilliance of the sun was blocking everything. But the alternative was almost as dangerous. I realized I had to turn around, but that meant turning left into a parking lot, crossing the oncoming lane. I couldn't see if there were any cars coming! Finally, I said a prayer and trusted that God would protect me when turning blindly. They were some of the most terrifying seconds I have ever experienced, but God protected me and no cars came while I was crossing. Needless to say, I went the other way and made it home safely. But I will never forget that day, when God taught me an important lesson about faith. Sometimes all you can do is pray and trust that He will protect you, then make the leap.

Fast forward a few years, and I was going to a reunion for a former employer who had gone out of business. It was in the form of a picnic at Seattle's Carkeek Park. I got to the park and searched for our group. Nobody. I never did find the group, so I ate the food I had brought and left. I was involved in a play with UPAC Theatre Group at the time, and rehearsal was that evening. Carkeek Park is pretty close to the rehearsal and performance space, so I drove to rehearsal. The park is in a particularly hilly area of town, and as you are leaving, there is one corner that has a stop sign, and the hill on which you have to stop is somewhat steep. I hate waiting on hills as it is, since it's somewhat challenging to get enough traction to go forward rather than backward. In addition, that particular corner intersects a tree-lined street. Between the trees and the fence, it makes for a blind corner. So I inched forward as far as safely possible in order to have at least the front tires on a flat surface and so I could see around the trees. When it looked safe, I started forward again. Just then, a car that must have been going about twice the speed limit zoomed past, coming out of nowhere, and very nearly hitting me. If it had, I would have spun out of control and probably rolled down the hill. Thankfully, I had enough mental faculties left to get to rehearsal safely, but I was very shaken. I have not driven to or from Carkeek Park since. Again, God protected me.

I am incredibly thankful for God's protection. He has brought me through many close calls, and I have grown as a result. I would not want to repeat them, but I'm thankful that He's allowed me to experience them as He had a lesson for me each time.

Driving Fear - Part 3


The Garbage Truck

The year was 1986. My mom, my brother Tim and I were on our way to the airport to pick up my dad. I was sitting in the front passenger seat, and Tim was in the back. Nearly to the airport, we were stopped at a traffic light in what is now the city of SeaTac (so named because it's between Seattle and Tacoma), and there was a garbage truck ahead of us. The light turned green, and nothing happened. The car ahead of the garbage truck was not moving. (I forget if it was stalled or the driver had decided to get out while the light was red.) So it was that the garbage truck with its high rear bumper started to back up. My mom laid on the horn, but the driver continued to back up, not hearing. We couldn't back up because there were cars behind us. The truck was folding our hood, and my mom and I sat there terrified, praying desperately. My poor brother was sitting in the back seat with visions of being the only survivor. It wasn't until our windshield shattered that the truck driver finally heard and stopped...within a few inches of crushing us. He got out and came back, observing that it was "obviously my fault." Once he pulled forward again, we found that the car was (thankfully) still driveable. The two vehicles pulled into the parking lot of the nearby Red Lion Inn, where my mom and the truck driver spoke with the police. The officer dismissed the other driver, and he got out his ticket pad. He informed my mom that this was his least favorite part of his job, but that he was going to have to give her a ticket for speeding! Why he didn't bother to get the facts first, I may never know. She said, "But sir, I was sitting still!"

"You mean he backed into you?!" he said. When my mom answered in the affirmative, the officer managed to catch the truck driver, who came back and corroborated the story. When he looked at the other driver's license, he wished him a happy birthday. I'm guessing that was not the driver's favorite birthday ever.

After we were dismissed, we continued on to the airport and picked up my dad, and our next stop was the repair shop. We liked the rental car better than our normal car. :-)

Some things I learned from this experience were that God is there, He hears our prayers, and He is our protector. Any time we are in a scary situation, we can pray to Him, and He will hear. Even when the driver ahead of you can't hear your horn.

Also, we should never jump to conclusions. There are better places to jump.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Driving Fear - Part 2


The Scenic Route

It was my first day driving on my own, with nobody else in the car. I had been to work many times, of course, but I had always either gotten a ride, driven with someone in the car to help me get there, or taken the bus. Now I was on my own. It was a simple trip from Mountlake Terrace to Bothell, WA. Maybe 5 miles, tops. No sweat, right?

But then came the missed turn. I went straight when I should have turned right. Pretty soon I found myself in Maltby. This was a cause for concern, as I had never been to Maltby before, and I had no idea where Maltby was. It's a pretty city, and I might have enjoyed it, had I intended to go there. Pretty soon I found a sign pointing to Bothell and followed it. I didn't see any other signs, and before I knew it, I found myself in an abandoned yard for an old building that looked like it hadn't seen people working there in about 50 years or so. OK, turn around...now what?

I continued on my way in a direction that I figured was (hopefully) the way to Bothell, but pretty soon, I saw a Clearview Restaurant. Then a Clearview Gas Station. I was getting worried now because it looked like, judging from the common thread in the names of the businesses, Clearview was a city. I had never heard of Clearview, and that was quite concerning. I continued along a highway that seemed to go on and on, and I got the feeling I was getting farther and farther from my destination. Finally, I found an exit and turned around.

When I finally got to work, I was 2 hours late. Fortunately, once I explained the delay, we all had a good laugh. The drive should have taken about ten minutes.

(Click on the map to see it larger)

I thought that was the end of my adventures for the day, but my hopes were to be dashed shortly after I left work (2 hours later than I normally would have left). Not far from the parking lot, I was turning right onto the road that crossed the freeway. The light was red, but in the state of Washington, it is legal to turn right on a red light as long as it is safe. This being my first day driving on my own, I was somewhat less than confident, and so I turned right...way too slowly. A car that was already on the road I was turning onto came sailing through the light (his light was green, and he had the right of way), and he crashed into the rear driver's side light.

Needless to say, I was terribly shaken. The police officer had to console me before issuing the ticket. I called my dad, who came over right away, and was also a big help.

A $100 fine to the city of Bothell and over $400 of repairs later, I learned that sometimes going too slowly is a bad thing. Since then, every time I drive, I am very conscious of the dangers of driving. It instilled more of a fear than ever of making a stupid mistake, and I have become a better driver because of it. Since then, I have not gotten any more tickets, and I hope never to get one again.

That day, I also learned another important lesson: Knowing where you're going and how to get there ahead of time is very important. It may make for a funny story, but being late is very often not funny at all.

It should be the same with how we view God. We need to study His roadmap (the Bible) regularly, so that we are ready for whatever circumstances may come our way, and we know when we need to turn around...sooner rather than later. And we need to watch, be alert, and be careful to follow what He has taught us through His word and through life experiences.

Driving, and following the Lord, are incredibly liberating experiences, but if we don't balance our freedom with a healthy fear, we can forfeit (or at least impair) that freedom.



Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Driving Fear

"The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." -Proverbs 9:10a

This is the first of a short series of blog posts (inspired by my friend Andy Brasfield) about what I've learned over the years about the fear of the Lord, and driving in general.

When I was young, I kept hearing about how the Bible says we're supposed to fear God. Then other times angels told people not to be afraid. Other verses are very clear about how God loves us, and He wants to be our best friend. When we choose to follow God, we are free as never before. How are we supposed to be afraid of our best friend and liberator...and if He inspires fear, is He really a friend and liberator in the first place? This dichotomy has led, in my opinion, to a misunderstanding of God's nature, especially in American circles, where our culture frowns on fear and encourages friendship. We are taught that God is our friend, and we have nothing to fear. Then we see verses like 1 John 4:18, which says that "perfect love drives out fear." When we look at the verses about the fear of God, we get confused, and we often decide the word must be mistranslated. Maybe it means awe, or something else. It wasn't until I started taking driver's ed when something sunk in for me. I submit that fear means fear. Sheer, abject terror.

While learning to drive, my dad (who taught me) was very clear about the dangers of driving. He impressed upon me that a car can be a weapon, and it is vitally important to be careful, to drive defensively, to do everything possible to stay within the law and avoid getting in an accident. The point was further emphasized when he had me go to a day class taught by a professional instructor. After I got to the class, I found out that it was mainly for people who had been ordered by the courts to attend. The icebreaker for the class was for us to go around and answer the "Why are you here?" question. Everyone but me had broken the law, had DUIs, etc. I was the only one who hadn't yet obtained a license. The more I learned, the more the parallel dawned on me regarding the fear of the Lord.

Driving, and serving the Lord, are incredibly liberating. Once I got my driver's license, it was like a huge load was lifted off of me. I no longer had to depend on people giving me rides everywhere I needed to go.

Driving, and serving the Lord, are incredibly terrifying. I have been in enough accidents (more on that in a future post) to know that if I do anything out of line while driving (or someone else on the road does), I am taking my life, and the life of any passengers, in my hands.

In the same way, serving the Lord makes me free. On numerous occasions, He has given me an incredible sense of peace, and I would not trade this life for anything. I have seen Him do miracles in my life - not the least of which was how He miraculously healed my eyes from an incurable disease.

However, the Bible tells over and over about how, while God loves us deeply, our sins can drive Him to extreme measures to get our attention. Over and over in the Bible, God sent plagues, storms, diseases, opened the ground and swallowed people. Even today, He sometimes allows us to suffer the consequences of our sins to teach us to follow Him. He will allow us to get sick, sometimes even die, from choosing to abuse our bodies (by drugs, cigarettes, overeating [I'm guilty on that count], etc.). If we choose to speed, run a red light, fail to watch carefully while driving, we can get into a wreck that can cause serious repercussions.

On the other hand, we shouldn't be so terrified of driving, or of God, that we do nothing. If we go to that extreme, that can also have serious repercussions.

Yes, driving is incredibly freeing, and I love that...but I also balance it with a healthy fear of getting in an accident. That fear keeps me from making stupid mistakes while driving. It should be the same with God...and even more so. I love Him more than I can express, but I also fear Him. The problem is, I don't fear Him enough. If I love and fear driving more than I love and fear God, I need to get my priorities straight.

One thing that has stuck with me from a devotional I read years ago is the saying "If you fear God, you have nothing else to fear."

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Cost of Worry

My first quarter of worker retraining officially ended today.

I got to school a little before 9:00, and a few minutes later, I was in the library working on my final project for my graphic design class, which was due at 1:30. As the library has an earlier version of InDesign than the classroom, I could only do part of it in the library. Fortunately, the classroom had extra lab hours today, starting at 11:00. Unfortunately, I had a math final at 11:30. I went to the graphic design classroom at 11:00 to get at least something done with my project. The lab tech wasn't there and the room was locked. After waiting about 20 minutes, I finally had to go in order to get to my math final on time.

So with no progress made on the project since leaving the library, I took my math test. It was taking longer than I was hoping for it to take, and the longer it took, the more worried I got. Suddenly, Luke 12:25 popped into my head (I love how God does that!):

"Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life?"

The irony of it all! Here I was wanting more time to do my graphic design project, and worrying that my math final would take too long! I was constantly glancing at my watch (I finally had to take it off and put it on the table face-down), and the more I worried, the harder it was to think, and the more worried I got as a result. It's a vicious cycle. I wonder how long my math test would have taken if I hadn't been worried in the first place.

When I finally finished my test, I rushed back to the graphic design classroom, and (thankfully) the room was open by that point. I had about 20 minutes to finish my project and get it printed. I was getting to the panic stage. Needless to say, I got the project in, but it was not in color as it was supposed to be (no time to print it on the right printer). When I handed it to my teacher, I told him I had come at 11:00, and the lab tech wasn't there. He apologized for that, and he later told me that he would look at the color version on the computer (we also turned in a soft copy over the server). Knock on wood, thanks to the lab tech's mistake that was out of my control, I won't be docked for turning it in a few minutes late and in black and white. But I wonder if I would have been able to get it in sooner, had I let go of my worry and taken care of what I could control. It certainly did not add an hour, and my worry actually WASTED time.

Another lesson learned that had nothing (and everything) to do with math or graphic design.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Unload

1 Peter 5:7 has always been one of my favorite verses. Peter challenges the churches he is writing to to "cast all your anxieties upon Him, for He cares for you." I especially like the Phillips translation: "You can throw the whole weight of your anxiety on Him, for you are His personal concern." It amazes me that the Almighty God cares for me individually and would bend to take care of everything that worries me.

More recently, I have gotten to know the Louis Segond version (in French), which says, "...et déchargez-vous sur lui de tous vos soucis, car lui-même prend soin de vous." (literally "...and unload yourselves on Him of all your worries, for He Himself takes care of you.") When I first saw that translation, I took note of it because it's one of my favorite verses, but didn't think much of the differences in meaning between French and English. Then a few years later, I realized that the French verb décharger means "to unload", rather than "to cast" or "to throw" (although unloading does often involve a throwing action). I thought that was interesting. Then, later, I pointed that out to my friend Jerri, who shed new light on it. She commented that, coming from a farming background, the idea of unloading brought to her mind an image of driving a pickup with heavy machinery, then unloading it and being able to sail. I love that image. Then a couple weeks ago, I thought further about it, and it occurred to me that the word "unload" carries more connotations than I had realized. At least in English (not sure if this applies to French or not), the word "unload", when referring to worries, can also mean pouring your heart out to someone, telling them everything that's worrying you. In the past, I always interpreted the verse to mean that I should just pray to God and ask Him to take away my worries. I realized that it can also mean to unload my worries on Him, to pour out my heart. I know from experience that doing that with anyone that I know I can trust is a powerful thing.

Just now, I decided to look into the Greek version:

πασαν την μεριμναν υμων επιρριψαντες επ αυτον οτι αυτω μελει περι υμων.

Apparently, the word πιρίψαντες (epiripsantes) only appears twice in the New Testament. The other occurrence is in Luke 19:35, when Jesus’ disciples threw their clothes on the donkey’s back so He could sit on it in order to enter Jerusalem. The way it is conjugated, the word means “having thrown.” But in a way, even in the verse in Luke, they took their cloaks off of themselves to put them on the donkey for Jesus. That’s also, to an extent, unloading.

I’m not sure if Peter had the idea of unloading in his mind when he wrote it, but I love that image, and I think it is more powerful than just asking God to take away our worries. Don’t get me wrong, He is happy to do that if we ask Him, but unloading ourselves onto Him, pouring out our hearts to Him, can be a powerful tool. Even just talking out what we are worried about, and listening for His response, can go a long way to helping us through the pain of whatever we’re going through. Whether or not we have another human around to share with, God is always there, and He loves it when we share our worries and concerns with Him. He can help put things in perspective, help us to lean on Him, and take away a lot of the worry.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Jesus Washes His Disciples' Feet

Today's Sunday school lesson...a paraphrase of John 13:

It was Passover time in Jerusalem, and the city was crowded. The Jews celebrated it every year to remember how God led the children of Israel out of slavery so many centuries earlier. Sunday was an exciting day. Riding on a donkey, Jesus led His twelve disciples into the city, and the crowd went wild! They were so excited to see the One who had been promised ever since the time of Adam and Eve. A lot had happened since then, and Israel had lived as a Kingdom for a while, but then the nation went back into slavery. The first time, they were slaves in Egypt to the southwest. The second time, they were slaves in Babylon and Assyria to the east. God delivered them from that slavery as well, but they were never the same. Before they knew it, a new kingdom called Rome took over, and their Emperor Caesar was not the nicest guy to be around. Herod, the governor he had appointed, was also pretty bad. (Herod’s dad had actually tried to have Jesus killed when Jesus was a baby!) Not only that, but the Jewish Priests and teachers had looked at the Law that God gave Moses, and they had added a bunch of extra laws, which got harder and harder to keep.

For centuries, the prophets had told Israel that a Messiah would come and deliver them from their bondage once and for all. So now, Sunday was the first day of the week of Passover. Just as the prophets had said, Jesus had finally come, and the people could hardly contain their joy! They laid down coats and palm branches and shouted, “Hosanna! Save us! Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord!”Some of these people had seen Jesus raise His friend Lazarus from the dead a few days earlier, and they were pumped!

The next few days, Jesus taught the crowds and His disciples a lot, and He even did a bunch of miracles for them. When Thursday rolled around, the time had come for the annual Passover Feast. This was to remember the last meal the Israelites ate before leaving Egypt long ago. Jesus sent Peter and John to a certain house in Jerusalem to set up the upstairs room and prepare the food for the feast. But there was something important they didn’t do. There was nobody to wash their feet.

Back in Bible times, they had no cars, no minivans, not even paved roads. People got around by walking on the dirty, dusty roads, wearing only sandals. Some people had horses, camels and other animals that they used to carry things and to ride on. If you’ve ever walked behind a horse, you know you have to watch your step. Not only that, but when it rained, the dirt on the roads turned to goopy mud. No matter how hard they tried, they couldn’t keep their feet clean.

Washing people’s feet was very important when they came into a building…but it was a really dirty job, and nobody wanted to do it! So, the servants would wash people’s feet.

When the feast was all ready, Jesus and the rest of His disciples arrived at the house and got ready to eat. But there was an important thing that needed to happen first. Where was the servant that was supposed to wash their feet? Oops! None of them wanted to do such an awful dirty job right before eating!

So the disciples were gathered around the table, and Jesus stood up. He took off His outer robe and wrapped a towel around His waist. Then He picked up a basin full of water and knelt down in front of one of the disciples, and He started to wash his feet! The promised Messiah, who they knew was God in human form, their leader, friend and teacher, was doing the icky, smelly job that only the lowest of the low were supposed to do! These hands had created their feet in the first place! Once the first disciple’s feet were clean, Jesus dried them with the towel and went on to the next disciple. Peter watched as Jesus made His way around the table, washing the gunk off the disciples’ feet, and he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Finally, when Jesus got to Peter, he had had enough. He decided to put his foot down, and he blurted out, “Lord, are you really gonna wash my feet?”

Jesus answered, “You don’t understand what I’m doing yet, but you’ll understand it later.”

Peter said, “Are you kidding? You will never wash my feet!”

“If I don’t wash you,” Jesus said, “you have no part with me.”

“OK,” said Peter. “In that case, wash my hands and head too!”

Jesus then reminded Peter that he didn’t need a bath; he just needed his feet washed.

After Jesus finished washing 24 filthy feet, He sat back down and asked them if they had figured out why He did that. When nobody answered, He went on. “You say that I’m your teacher and your Master. You’re right. I’m your teacher and your Master, and I’ve just washed your feet. You need to do that for each other. I did it to set an example for what you need to do. The truth is that no servant is greater than his master, and the messenger isn’t greater than the person who sent him. Now you know. You will be blessed if you do it.”

Today, we don’t usually need to wash each other’s feet. But there are a bunch of other things we can do to serve others. Something that other people don’t want to do, but needs to be done. Can you think of anything?

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Ranger's Apprentice: The Ruins of Gorlan


A couple weeks ago, I was on Facebook and saw an ad that said that if I "Liked" the page for the Ranger's Apprentice series, I could download the first ten chapters of book one, The Ruins of Gorlan. Since I enjoy books of that sort, I decided to go for it. The free download, as was their intention, hooked me, and over $40 later, I am now a proud owner of the first six books. :-)

Book one begins with the preparations of Morgarath, the evil Lord of the Mountains of Rain and Night and former baron of the fief of Gorlan in the kingdom of Araluen. Fifteen years earlier, he was driven out of his fief in a sound defeat, and he has been lying in wait, preparing his army of Wargals, a sort of humanoid creature with features of dogs and bears, to attack and make another attempt at conquering the Kingdom. Also on his side are the Kalkara, huge hulking animals like bears with ape-like features.

Meanwhile, in the fief of Redmont, a group of orphans lives in the ward of the castle of Baron Arald. When they turn 15, they are eligible to apply for apprenticeship to varying Crafts, or occupations, that are each very important in their own way to the running of the fief and the kingdom. Young Will, the smallest of the eligible orphans for this year, has always dreamed of joining battleschool and becoming a brave Knight like his father, whom he never knew but pictures as a valiant knight who died gloriously in battle shortly before Will was born, and was instrumental in Morgarath's defeat. Unfortunately for Will, his small size is against him, and Battlemaster Sir Rodney turns him down. However, his agility and ability to hide, sneak and climb catch the attention of the mysterious Ranger Halt. The Rangers of Araluen play a vital role in the running of the kingdom. Each Ranger is assigned to a fief, and he must protect the fief, scout out threats, and remain unseen. The previous defeat of Morgarath was due in large part to a critical tip from a Ranger who went ahead of the army and alerted them to the location of the enemies. Due to the secretive nature of the job, the Rangers are a mysterious bunch.

Over the next few months, Halt begins to teach Will the skills he will need as a Ranger in the coming war with Morgarath, especially developing a keen sense of observation, as well as knife throwing and archery. Will Will be up to the task before him, which is more daunting than he realizes?

***

This book is masterfully written. Author John Flanagan does an amazing job of keeping the reader anxious for more, while crafting a true work of art. He brilliantly weaves danger, intrigue and humor. Will and his fellow wardmates each encounter unexpected challenges, and they learn the power of teamwork as well as developing their talents. Horace, another orphan of Will's age, encounters a trio of ruthless bullies in battleschool, and must deal with the constant torment that they cause him. Will shows great promise in his skill as a Ranger. Horace discovers his natural talent for swordplay. Both boys find they must work together at times to overcome incredible odds. As for humor, I love how Baron Arald loves to crack jokes that only he fully appreciates. The Ranger Gilan, who we meet later in the book, has a clearly mischievous side, though he is a masterful Ranger. Even Halt, who hardly ever smiles, proves to be hilarious at times, although his humor is often more subtle. Another thing I appreciate about this book is Will's honesty. When confronted with a past misdeed, he owns up to it and agrees that it was wrong. At another time, he is involved in a victory, and the stories of his part in the battle are blown way out of proportion among the villagers. This bothers him because he wasn't nearly as heroic as they make him out to be (although he did do a very courageous thing), and he is very concerned that the other people involved don't get much credit. Oh, and did I mention that Halt, Will and Gilan enjoy coffee? :-)

The only negative bit I saw was that some of the names seemed a bit cliché. With a name like Morgarath, how can he help but be the villain? His name reminded me of the land of Mordor in Lord of the Rings (not to mention that in those books, Frodo was stabbed with a morgul blade). It also very closely resembles Mulgarath, the archvillain in The Spiderwick Chronicles (which I haven't read, but I enjoyed the movie). The Wargals, which even have dog-like features, reminded me of the Wargs in Lord of the Rings. Come to think of it, their name is also similar to the Urgals of The Inheritance Cycle, who play a similar role. Also, the Rangers are similar to what Aragorn and his kinfolk do in Lord of the Rings, although Flanagan says that he based that element more on the Texas Rangers (not the baseball team). Interestingly, his publisher made him change the name of the Kingdom of Arathon because it sounded too much like Aragorn. (The series was originally called The Arathon Rangers.) So it became Araluen instead.

Oh, and there is a little bit of mild language.

Overall, The Ruins of Gorlan is an amazing book, and I can't wait to read book 2. I can tell I'm going to enjoy this series.

(I got the picture from the downloads page on the series' website.)

Update: I just watched some videos from the author, and realized that he puts the stress of Morgarath's name on the second syllable, rather than the first. That makes it sound much less cliché.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Mixed Feelings

Last night, I checked my e-mail "one last time" before going to bed and found some significant news. President Obama announced that a small group of Americans had found and killed Osama bin Laden, and they had positively identified his body via DNA tests.


It was 1993 the first time I remember hearing about Bin Laden. A bomb went off in the parking garage below the World Trade Center. Bin Laden took credit, and he was attempting to take the building down by destroying its base. Thankfully, that attempt failed, and the damage was repaired.

The next time I remember hearing of him was that fateful day in 2001. I woke up the morning of September 11, and I was headed toward the bathroom to start getting ready for work. My mom stopped me at the door of my room, and she was visibly shaken. She told me that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. Not being fully awake, my first thought was, "Who cares?" As it sank in, I started to realize that I cared. We hurried into the living room and watched in horror as the news reports showed a huge plume of fire and smoke billowing out of the World Trade Center. Further horror ensued as we watched a plane slam into the second building. At that point, I had to start getting ready for work, as I wanted to be sure to arrive on time. I took a small portable radio into the bathroom while I was getting ready, and I prayed desperately. It was then that I heard on the radio that a third plane had slammed into the Pentagon. I prayed even more desperately, and later heard that a fourth plane had crashed in a field in Pennsylvania, thanks to the heroic efforts of some passengers who had tackled the hijackers and prevented them from reaching their target. Walking to work, I glanced at the newsstands and saw a headline about whales...suddenly such a trivial subject. By lunch time, the papers had been replaced with special editions proclaiming, "ATTACKED!"

My job at the time was on the 9th floor of a Seattle highrise. At the time, nobody knew where the terrorists' next target would be, and early in the day, our managers told us we could go home if we wanted. I opted to stay, as the worst that could happen was that a plane would slam into our building, I would be killed, and then go to heaven, never to suffer again. That didn't seem to me such a bad option. Thankfully, there were no more attacks, but one thing I will never forget is the news reports of people dancing in the streets in the Middle East, celebrating the fact that America had been attacked and thousands had been killed. It hurt deeply to see their sick glee.

I never dreamed that nearly ten years later, the same celebrating over a death would be taking place in America. At long last, the perpetrator of these attacks has been caught and brought to eternal justice. Part of me is thankful that Bin Laden will no longer be inflicting his fierce hatred on America. I'm grateful to our brave troops for going in and doing the job that needed to be done, carefully avoiding the killing of innocent lives, and getting the bad guys. This is a great victory, and for that I'm glad. However, it saddens me to see Americans gleefully celebrating a man's death. I don't care who he was or what he did, celebrating any death is a sin. Proverbs 24:17-20 states:
Do not gloat when your enemy falls;
when they stumble, do not let your heart rejoice,
or the LORD will see and disapprove
and turn his wrath away from them.
Do not fret because of evildoers
or be envious of the wicked,
for the evildoer has no future hope,
and the lamp of the wicked will be snuffed out.
It makes me incredibly sad to think that a man who had so much potential could go so wrong. He was definitely an evildoer and an enemy, but Jesus gave His life for Osama bin Laden just as much as He did it for anyone else. Whatever evil Bin Laden did, it is truly a tragedy that he now has to pay with an eternity of fire and torment. It is without a doubt what he deserves, but that is a punishment I would not wish on my worst enemy, and it is what all of us deserve.

I think about Bin Laden's sympathizers dancing in the streets celebrating the attack on America, and I am ashamed to think that we would do the same thing when Bin Laden is killed. Yes, victory is a cause for celebration, but death is not.

On the other hand, just yesterday our pastor preached on King David's friends later in life. One of those friends was General Joab. David's reign was threatened by a bitter enemy named Absalom, who was determined to overthrow the King and take over. One catch: Absalom was David's son. David commanded Joab to crush the rebellion but to spare the life of his son. However, when Absalom's hair got caught in a tree and Joab was nearby, Joab took that opportunity to put an end to the threat to the King's life. When David heard the news that his son was dead, he was heartbroken. He mourned so deeply that his army slunk away as if they had suffered a defeat rather than a great victory. Joab then had to go to the King and remind him that the army had saved his life. While David didn't celebrate his son's death, he did realize the need to encourage the army and his subjects, and he returned to his duties.

Another thing that just came to mind was that after the Israelites crossed the Red Sea on dry land, and then the sea collapsed on the Egyptian army, the Israelites sang a song of praise to God for delivering them from the oppressive Pharaoh. They brought out their tambourines and danced in celebration.

All that to say, I have mixed feelings about Bin Laden's death. This is a great victory, and I think we should be thankful for God's protection and that He allowed us to get the bad guy. I believe that this action saved thousands of lives, and the soldiers who carried out the attack on his compound did a truly heroic thing. But the fact that he died without a Savior or a hope of salvation is a great tragedy.

Maybe the thing we should be celebrating is not his death, but the fact that the lives of who-knows-how-many people that would otherwise have been killed by his evil have been saved.

Finally, I will say something that may sound strange at first. I am thankful for Osama bin Laden. I know he was an evil man. He was a perpetrator of genocide, and he probably would have made Hitler proud. But he did what very few people have done in recent American history. His deed on September 11 united America. Democrats and Republicans and people of all religions came together in a way that I have only seen once to march behind a common purpose, and for once, we all agreed on something. It was a beautiful thing. For that, I thank Bin Laden. May we continue in that spirit of unity.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Annika


For eleven long years, I was the youngest of my cousins. As a child, this bothered me somewhat, as I looked up to everyone, and had nobody smaller or younger than me. So it was with some excitement that I learned in 1988 that I was going to have a new cousin. We lived in the Philippines at the time, and my aunt called us with the news . She also mentioned that they were coming to the other side of the world to visit us for Christmas. 1988 was a very exciting year.

So it was that my aunt and uncle came to visit us in December. By that time, the baby (I was hoping for a boy) was making his or her presence known, and I remember my aunt sitting on the couch and letting me feel her stomach to feel the baby kicking. While they were visiting, we took them around to the presidential palace and other touristy places, and we took them out to see the beaches and islands, riding bangkas (rowboats with wooden pontoons) and even doing some snorkeling. The Philippines has some amazing coral reefs, and snorkeling is an absolute must while visiting. That month was undoubtedly one of the highlights of my childhood.

But we had no way of knowing about the horrible year that was about to begin.

In March of 1989, our church had a retreat during Holy Week, a week full of traditions and superstition in the Philippines, in which people get their palm branches blessed and put them on their doors to ward off evil spirits. On Good Friday, many people beat themselves mercilessly with whips laced with shards of glass, and others are literally crucified, all in an effort to be forgiven for their sins (completely missing the point of Jesus' sacrifice). Most Philippine Catholics believe that Jesus is literally dead on Black Saturday, the next day, and they don't dare do anything for fear that if anything bad happens, Jesus won't be there to help them. It was that day that the church retreat ended and they carpooled back to church to return home. On the trip home, both tires on one side of one of the vehicles blew, causing it to roll. Most of the passengers were women and children, and it did not have seatbelts. Those who didn't hold on were thrown, and everyone was taken to the nearest hospital, which was on a skeleton crew already because some of the doctors and nurses didn't dare report to work because of Black Saturday. My parents, who had not attended the retreat, hurried to the hospital to be with them, and I went to a friend's house. It was a very anxious time waiting by the telephone to hear news. One of the passengers was pregnant, and she was the main priority at the hospital. I will never forget the pain I felt when our friend hung up the phone and told me, "Cynthia is with the Lord." Neither she nor the baby made it. I still get a lump in my throat thinking about it 22 years later. Fortunately, all the others in the accident recovered.

June 1 (May 31 in the US), we got word that my beloved paternal grandma had lost her battle with multiple myeloma. That was even harder to take. November 6, my maternal grandma, who I knew more and treasured deeply, lost her battle with breast cancer. We also lost another woman from our church that year, also from cancer. Another close friend from our church passed away the following year from a heart attack.

But through the deep pain, God sent two shafts of light at the perfect time, when we needed them most. Annika was born on April 20. Though we were far away, my new cousin - my first younger cousin ever - was truly a Godsend. We celebrated her arrival, and her picture was a bright spot in our house. The picture of my grandma, who was struggling with breast cancer, holding her brand new baby granddaughter was truly a treasure. December 13 brought another treasure in the form of my wonderful cousin Darcy. If it weren't for Annika and Darcy, and my dependence on God, I don't know how I would have coped with all the loss of 1989.


We returned to the US in 1991, just in time to visit my paternal grandpa for the last time before he passed away. Shortly after that visit in California, we continued on to Seattle, where we were greeted by my aunt, who was holding her young daughter Annika. So it was that I finally got to meet my beloved cousin at SeaTac Airport. Over the next week, I got my first taste of babysitting, and I got to know Annika better. She was somewhat strong-willed (my maternal grandpa predicted that she would be a general when she grew up), but she was, and remains, truly precious. I got to meet Darcy later that week, when their family visited, and an 18-month-old Darcy looked up at me like I was some weird stranger.


It has been fun watching Annika grow. One particularly memorable time, my great-aunt and great-uncle in Montana celebrated their 50th anniversary. We had a talent show, and at one point the younger kids sang a song. They all came up to the front in no particular order. As the emcee introduced them, those of us in the audience watched in amusement as Annika moved her cousins and second-cousins around. Pretty soon, everyone was arranged in order of height, much to the emcee's surprise.

In 1993, Andrèa joined the family, and she is another huge blessing. Since then, Annika has been a wonderful big sister as well (to Andrèa, that is). :-)

It seems hard to believe that the time has flown so fast, and today marks Annika's 22nd birthday. I have watched her graduate from high school, and later from Seattle Pacific University with a degree in nursing. I am incredibly proud of my cousin, now officially an RN. She came at a time when she was desperately needed, and she has blossomed into an amazing person that I truly admire.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Jesus Christ Superstar

Please note: At this point, I have only seen the 2000 movie adaptation. Any comments are based on that production, and other productions may be different.

For years, I have been hearing mixed reviews on Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical Jesus Christ Superstar - everything from amazing to blasphemous (most people weighing in on the latter). As I am not generally one to formulate an opinion on something based only on hearsay (After all, the Bible says to "test the spirits"), I have not had an opinion on the subject. After all, I had never seen or heard it, aside from a few of the songs.

What I had heard: The musical was told from Judas' perspective, it was blasphemous (or amazing, depending on who I asked), Mary Magdalene was an important character, it spanned Jesus' last week leading up to the crucifixion, and what I could get from the songs I had heard (mainly I Don't Know How to Love Him, Gethsemane and Superstar).

First of all, like it or not, Jesus Christ Superstar was very important in the history of musicals. It was wildly popular in its time (and is still somewhat popular), and it was thanks in large part to this musical that Andrew Lloyd Webber rose to popularity, 15 years before The Phantom of the Opera made him even more popular. It was also at the London premiere of Jesus Christ Superstar in 1971 that the Frenchman Alain Boublil got the idea of writing a rock opera, thus beginning his collaboration with Claude-Michel Schönberg. The result was La Révolution Française (1973) a major landmark in the birth of French musicals. They would later go on to write several more hit musicals, the most popular of which were Les Misérables (1980 in French, 1985 in English) and Miss Saigon (1989).

As for the songs I had heard, I had mixed feelings. Musically, they have catchy tunes, and they capture many emotions. Of course, hearing the songs out of context only gives you part of the impact of the song, and sometimes leads to misunderstandings.

I knew "I Don't Know How to Love Him" was sung by Mary, and I didn't entirely know what to make of it. Mary seems to love Jesus, but is confused somehow (obviously, from the title of the song). I don't know that I really spent much time thinking about it before seeing the play, but it was an easily recognizable song.

"Gethsemane" bothered me a bit. It is obviously based on Jesus' prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, and it captures His pain and inner turmoil as He wrestled with the notion of dying, and not wanting to. What bothered me was that it ended with the resolution "All right, I'll die. Just watch me die. See how I die." It sounds to me like a belligerent child deciding to obey his parents just to show them how wrong they are, all the while planning to tell them, "I told you so!" after it's all over. While the real Jesus didn't want to die, there was no belligerence involved, and He went willingly to save mankind, not because He had something to prove.

"Superstar" really bothered me. It seems to mock Jesus for coming 2000 years ago when there was "no mass-communication." I did not appreciate the question repeated throughout the song: "Jesus Christ Superstar, do You think You're who they say You are?" That tells me that the singers didn't believe that He was truly the Messiah.

On a recommendation from a friend who loves the 2000 version especially, I watched it this past Sunday. I have mixed feelings about it, and they may change somewhat as I ponder it further, but these are my thoughts 2 days later.

In the 2000 movie, Judas was played by Jérôme Pradon, one of my favorite singers/actors. Some of my favorite songs from musicals have been from his characters in Boublil & Schönberg's Martin Guerre (in which he played Guillaume) and Värttinä & A.R. Rahman's Lord of the Rings (Aragorn). I was surprised, however, with his performance as Judas. His acting and facial expressions were great, but the powerful, loud singing required of the character seemed to be a bit much for him at times. This is the first time I have been unimpressed with his singing, as he seemed to be straining his voice for most of the show.

It's interesting how, in some ways, the musical seems to turn the biblical story of Jesus' last week on its head. If this musical is to be believed, Judas betrayed Christ because he didn't believe that Jesus was the promised Messiah, which basically implies that Judas didn't believe much of what Jesus taught. He considered Him a misguided friend, who he felt the necessity to advise on repeated occasions. (I'm pretty sure the real Judas knew and understood that Jesus was truly the Messiah.) The musical shows Judas' arrogance in that he seems to see himself as the teacher, not the disciple. Up until the Last Supper, Jesus seems to tolerate Judas' constant nagging, aside from defending Mary several times when Judas criticizes Jesus' friendship with her, including the time she pours oil on Him.

As for Mary, she is a confused person in this musical. She has found Jesus, and turned from her past ways, but finds herself attracted to Him. I think this is a large part of where the charges of blasphemy come from, as she sees Jesus as more than a friend. She is confused because, as a former prostitute, she seems to understand that it's wrong to lie with Him, but that's the way she's known to express her love in the past. She expresses her confused feelings in the song "I Don't Know How to Love Him," which she sings (sometimes belting) while Jesus is sleeping and she's in the same room. In context, the song made more sense to me. One thing that surprised me somewhat was Judas' sudden appearance at the end of the song, when Mary is sitting next to a sleeping Jesus. Judas seems to misunderstand what he sees, takes Jesus for a hypocrite and adulterer, and that seems to be the final straw that leads him to go to the authorities and betray Jesus. I can see where this scene in particular could be open to interpretation and taken in more blasphemous directions than the 2000 movie does.

As the story builds, Judas becomes more and more conflicted, as he is increasingly disillusioned with Jesus, yet reluctant to turn in a friend to the authorities. The conflict seems to explode at the Last Supper when Jesus announces that Peter will deny Him and Judas will betray Him. This scene particularly bothered me, as it practically turns into a brawl, Jesus angrily shouting at Peter for the sin he will commit, and then Jesus and Judas going into a shouting match in which neither is very mature and Jesus seems to be resigned to committing suicide by angrily convincing Judas to go to the authorities. (In the Bible, Jesus only showed sadness at this point, not anger. While He did tell Judas to go do what he had to, He didn't have to spend five minutes trying to convince Judas to go.)

In context, the song "Gethsemane" bothered me just as much as it did out of context. It does a good job of capturing Jesus' pain and inner turmoil, but seems to end on a belligerent and childish note that is not present in the biblical account.

As in the biblical account, Judas feels remorse for betraying Jesus, and he tries to return the money the authorities gave him for his betrayal. Then, in despair, he hangs himself. Unlike in the biblical account, Judas' remorse is not because he realizes that he's sinned; it's because he realizes that Jesus' death will be pinned on him for all time and people won't understand that he did it with the best intentions.

Possibly the most accurately-portrayed character is Pilate (played brilliantly by Fred Johanson). You can tell he is conflicted and confused. He thinks Jesus is crazy, but he can't see any reason to have Him crucified. In an effort to satisfy the angry crowds, he has Jesus whipped 39 times. He sends Him to Herod, who, frustrated that Jesus won't talk, tells Jesus to "get out." Finally, when the crowd pressures Pilate to have Jesus crucified (or he'll incite a riot and be demoted), Pilate washes his hands of the whole affair and gives into the crowd's demands.

As Jesus is carrying the cross up the hill, Judas reappears (I thought he died?) and sings "Superstar." In context, the song makes much more sense, but left me somewhat bewildered. The style of the song is very upbeat, almost celebratory. (It is a rock opera, after all.) Somewhat odd, considering that Jesus is walking to His death. The lyrics seem to mock Jesus because, well, that's what was happening at the time. But to have Judas, who is dead at this point, leading the mockery seems especially strange. What I found even more disturbing was the angels joining in and openly mocking Jesus, agreeing with Judas that Jesus just might not be the Messiah, as the crowds suggested. While the Bible doesn't mention the angels at this point, it only ever talks about them glorifying God, not mocking Him. Perhaps these are supposed to be demons, who were originally angels? After all, the Bible states that Lucifer/Satan was known as the angel of light, and he often masquerades as such.

The musical ends with Jesus dead, His followers devastated and mourning. No mention of the Resurrection. I read somewhere that the musical is more about Jesus' humanity rather than His divinity, and I can see that.

Overall, Jesus Christ Superstar was not as blasphemous as I was expecting, based on comments I had heard from others, but it did have a lot of areas that were hardly respectful to the living Lord and Savior of mankind. It seems to convey that He was a great teacher, but he may have been somewhat misguided. He changed lives for the better, but he may or may not have been the Messiah. It doesn't seem to give a definitive answer to that question.

Glenn Carter did a great job as Jesus, although he seemed angrier than I would have liked (which seems to be written into the script, so I don't think that's his fault), and I could have done without hearing him go into falsetto several times. Renée Castle was an excellent choice for Mary, as her singing and acting conveyed well the conflicted woman, who became increasingly more sure of herself as the story progressed (even rebuking Peter for denying Christ toward the end). Fred Johanson was also great as Pilate. Frederick B. Owens was particularly memorable as Caiaphas. Not very many musicals include a strong bass, and his performance was brilliant. As I mentioned before, I was surprised to be disappointed with Jérôme Pradon's performance as Judas, as he has never disappointed me before, but his acting was great.

As I knew them best, "Gethsemane" and "I Don't Know How to Love Him" stood out as memorable songs, for good and bad. Another song that stood out for me was "Hosanna." I had heard that song a couple times before watching the movie, but didn't know it as well. However, it has a very catchy tune. Those three songs in particular show Andrew Lloyd Webber's brilliance in musical composition, and deserve their place in the classic songs that he wrote. I may not entirely agree with the message conveyed in all of them, but they have enjoyable and memorable tunes, and they capture well the emotions that the characters are feeling.

Due to the disrespectful nature of parts of the show, I can't recommend it for its message and fidelity to the source material, but it was better than I expected. The musicality of the whole thing is excellent, and for that, I do recommend it. However, to anyone watching it, I recommend taking it with a grain of salt and studying the Biblical account to find out what actually happened. In some ways, Jesus Christ Superstar is a semi-fictional story based on actual events, told from an unusual perspective.

One thing I would love to see someday is a hit musical based on the life of Christ that builds up, not to the crucifixion, but to the resurrection. So far, Andrew Lloyd Webber has brought us Jesus Christ Superstar, and Stephen Schwartz has brought us the much-more-respectful (usually) Godspell. Both are somewhat open to interpretation by the director (Godspell more than Jesus Christ Superstar), but neither necessarily includes the resurrection. Both end with Jesus dead (although some productions of Godspell have been able to add the resurrection quite effectively). While there is sometimes value to ending the story with Jesus' death - which highlights the enormity of the tragedy - it's like ending the story halfway through the climactic battle, before the turn of the tide that leads to the final triumphant victory.