Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Pippin - worth the wait?

The musical Pippin has always held a close place in my heart. From the time I was privileged to help with a production of it at Lee High School in the mid-80s I have loved the music, the script, and been fascinated by the themes of the show. So I was thrilled to learn that a revival was opening on Broadway, as I shared in a previous post.

And so I made arrangements to see it as soon as I could, and that time was this past Saturday night. I was so excited. I read everything I could about it. And I walked into the Music Box Theatre on 45th Street full of anticipation.

A buildup that nothing could live up to, right? Primed for disappointment, you say?


This was one of my most enjoyable theatre experiences ever. The cast was sharp and highly energized, playing off a highly enthusiastic audience, the pacing was crisp, the and I loved the choices made in this production (as discussed below). The best of those choices was the use of highly skilled circus acrobats for the ensemble. So entertaining! And so appropriate for the script. Check out this teaser, which shows only a fraction of the energy:

In Pippin, we're not ever sure what is real and what is in Pippin's head. The use of the circus performers enhanced this, as it created a fantastic journey where the Leading Player is leading our hero toward desperation in his quest to be extraordinary. Desperation that is designed to produce the grand finale promised to the audience. As Pippin progresses through glory, the flesh, revolution, politics, and the ordinary life, the wonderful acrobatics really works in portraying just how attractive - no, seductive - his dream is to him.

I so want to walk through the way the plot worked and why it did, but I'll refrain for two reasons: 1) to do it right it would make for a blog that is way too long, and 2) I could never do it justice. But here are a few random comments:

  • Matthew James Thomas created the role of Pippin exactly as I would have envisioned it.
  • I cannot describe how entertaining Andrea Martin was in the role of Pippin's grandmother Berthe. This 66 year old actress ended up on a trapeze before her song was finished, and received the only mid-show standing ovation I have ever seen. The audience sang along with joy.
  • Rachel Bay Jones as Catherine was awesome. When she performed I Guess I'll Miss the Man over the objections of the Leading Player, we almost believed that the show was starting to get out of control. (Btw, this song is omitted from the Playbill list because it is supposed to be an ad lib. She sold it.)
  • Finally, the ending. The only thing I never really liked about Pippin was the ending. The final line of "Trapped, but happy" always seemed forced to me. The ending in this production is completely different and it works. Right on point with the theme of the show.

What a wonderful Saturday night, one I will always remember. I did "come and waste an hour or two" - plus a weekend. And I'm so glad I did. Extraordinary.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

It's not easy

"You have heard that is was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?"
- Jesus (Matthew 5:43-47)

It not easy, living out this command. Is it? How in the world are we supposed to love those whose hate us? Those who live to destroy us? Those who have a total disregard for our safety? Those who oppose us at every turn? Surely we don't have to pray for them!

I've written about a similar topic a few times before, mainly about people who offend us or wrong us over and over. About how often we are expected to forgive them. Are there limits to forgiveness? That's the question addressed, for example, in this post.

But the question on my mind tonight goes deeper. How about those who despise us with a white hot hatred? Love them? Pray for them?

Herod, who killed children trying to eliminate the King of the Jews while he was still a baby. Joseph Stalin. Adolf Hitler. Osama bin Ladin.

And Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

Yes, in a Boston hospital lies a man who has done unspeakable harm to our innocent people. He is murderer and a terrorist. He has damaged our national psyche.

So how would you feel if he repented? If he were overcome with the love and mercy of Jesus and surrendered himself to the one true God? If, because of this, you met him in the coming Kingdom as your brother?

Could you handle that? It's not easy to think about. Unimaginable.

Let's go a step further: Can you actually pray for it to happen?

That's the kind of radical love and forgiveness that Jesus proposes in the above passage. The way we can know that we are his follower is that we can - through his power - love like he does. Anybody can love those who treat them well. Anybody! But only someone with the power of the resurrection living inside of them can love their enemies. That's the benchmark.

Jonah faced this dilemma. He was called by God to preach to the wicked town of Nineveh. He ran from it because he didn't want them to repent. Sound familiar? After a little incident with a huge fish, he finally obeyed God and preached to them. And his greatest fear was realized - they listened! And here's what he prayed to the LORD:
"Isn't this what I said, LORD, when I was still at home? This is what I was trying to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live." (Jonah 4:2-3)
 Wow! He is really ticked off that God forgave his enemies.

Again, I can identify. Because I don't have the power to love my enemies. But the Messiah's power inside me does. And that's why I have to lean on him.

It's not easy. And there's nothing wrong with wanting justice to run it's course. But that's not my job. My job is to love, forgive, and pray. Pray for my enemies. Pray for them to come to a knowledge of the truth. Jesus said so...and by his power we can do it.

Sunday, April 21, 2013


It hit me like a ton of bricks. and I was not proud.

So this morning at church I was singing. It was one of my favorite hymns, and one of the classics of the faith. I was into it. We were created to worship our Creator and bring him glory, and singing songs of praise with other Christ-followers is one of my favorite ways to do that.Then a funny thing happened. We were singing the second verse, which is about how all of God's creation sings out in praise to him just by their very existence.

All thy works with joy surround thee,
Earth and heaven reflect they rays.
Stars and angels sing around thee,
Center of unbroken praise.......

Field and forest, vale and mountain,
Flowery meadow, flashing sea.
Chanting bird and flowing fountain
Call us to rejoice in thee.

That's right. As you might have guessed from the font colors, I started to fade. My mind started to drift. And by the end of the verse I wasn't worshiping at all. Heck, I wasn't even paying attention to what I was saying, much less the God I was singing to.

And I know exactly where my mind went. I began thinking about God's creation and how beautiful it was. And then the meadow. My mind wandered to an incredible meadow in Salisbury, England. So beautiful, one of the prettiest places I've ever been. So breathtaking. And how I would love to go back there. And before I knew it, we were halfway through the next verse and I had not been thinking about the Creator of all that beauty at all. Kinda missing the point.

And a passage of Scripture came to mind. A picture of why we so desperately need to be rescued, beginning with our distortion of God's revelation and ending with us not knowing the difference between good and evil. Romans 1:18-32. Read the whole link because context is always important, but it was this verse that shot through my mind like an arrow:
They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator - who is forever praised. Amen. (v. 25)
Worshiped created things rather than the Creator. Ouch. Like a meadow in Salisbury. Like the enjoyment I get from hanging with family and friends. Like the satisfaction of a job well done at work. Like the money I receive for that work, as if God didn't provide it all. Like the fun of watching my favorite sport. Like the way a good story resonates in my soul, whether from a movie, a TV show, or a book.

All good things. All awesome things! Why are they awesome? Because they are provided by an awesome God, designed to point us toward him so we can worship in gratitude and thanksgiving.

But nooooooooo. So often I let myself enjoy all the good things the Father provides for the sake of themselves, without acknowledging the glory of the One who gave them.

Worshiping and serving created things rather than the Creator.

It's easy to see where I went astray in church this morning. After all, church is supposed to be about God. And it was, until I made it about me and my enjoyment.

But wait - life is about God. Not just church. And the path to all the horrible things in Romans 1 is a slippery slope, one that starts when I worship and serve created things. God, rescue me from that thinking. The next time I'm enjoying a movie, may I think of the creativity of the God who gave us minds to write great stories. The next time I'm hanging with friends, may I think about and thank the One who created us for enjoyment.

And the next time I'm singing a worship song, Lord, help me to worship. "Center of unbroken praise" indeed. Amen.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Blog link: valuable viewing

Every now and then I come across a blog post that I wish I had written it myself. When that happens, I've just got to share. The link below is to such a post. Followers of Jesus need to have the gospel of the Kingdom permeate our minds to such a degree that it affects how we think about everything....including movies. But, enough from me. Enjoy:

In the Open Space; God and Culture (Carmen Andres) -- Valuable Viewing

Monday, April 15, 2013


December 7. April 19. September 11. And now April 15.

So many dates. So many events where most of us will remember exactly where we were when we "heard the news." And today was another one.

It is hard to put into words just how shocked and sickened we all are as we process what happened at the Boston Marathon today. It's hard to believe people can be this sick, this callous, this evil.

But I as process it, I keep coming back to two thoughts. Two things that I already knew but it's at times like this that I find out whether they are just platitudes or I really believe them.

  1. The good world that God created is full of brokenness.
  2. God is sovereign and working out his good and perfect will in everything that happens. Everything.
Does he care? Absolutely. He entered the world in the person of Jesus to experience death and suffering on our behalf, and the power to overcome by his resurrection.

Is he going to stop it? One day, yes. In his good time, when he has accomplished all his purposes.

It's hard to trust this at times, isn't it? When you see the devastation in Boston today. When you go to places ridden with incredible poverty, despair, hunger, and disease. When you realize that around the world incidents like this happen almost every day in places like Iraq and Somalia, killing innocent bystanders every day. Where is the love?

We Americans tend to believe the the ultimate good is safety, comfort, and freedom from suffering. Jesus said something quite different. The ultimate good comes from how we react to suffering, and the good things God does in us when we experience it. So when awful, awful things happen, that is when the Lord of the universe does his best work.

I see evidence of it already. The way people ran toward the explosions to help people rather than running away. The way some runners went directly to the hospital to give blood - even though they had to be almost dehydrated. People thinking of others rather than themselves - this is where we begin to see God working his will.

So I grieve. And pray. But I also wait anxiously to see what the Father is going to accomplish. Because it's going to be awesome.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013


The first part of this year was very interesting for me. And by "interesting" I mean hard. It wasn't totally unexpected but that didn't make it any easier.

A situation arose in February that was extremely difficult. I and many of my colleagues spent much of the next month under a lot of stress; we worked long hours and there were many conversations that were not necessarily pleasant. At times my stomach was tied in knots. It was so stressful.

But in all that God was teaching me something that I already knew in my head. You know how that is, right? You know that something is true but you go through something where you realize, "Wow! That really works!"

Well, the more stressed I got, the more I prayed. And it so happens I was reading a book that focused on how the Kingdom of God was ushered in through suffering. Much of the nation of Israel was expecting the King to come in power, but he chose to come in humility and conquer evil by suffering on our behalf. So God began to speak to me.

What was I learning? So many Scriptural principles that I found really did work - really did give me joy and peace in the midst of pain and stress:

  • God's power is made perfect in weakness so I should be glad I don't have it all together.
  • That for the Christ-follower, suffering is the normal state of affairs, because we are following in the footsteps of Jesus.
  • That when I am comfortable and happy, I should be thankful but not expect that this is how it should be.
  • That God wants to shape my character into the likeness of his Son, and that doesn't happen when I am untested.
  • That I should welcome the bad days because those are the ones where I need to depend on God; and I should beware of the easy ones because that is when I am tempted to think I can handle it all myself.

I am so a work in progress. I handle adversity so poorly at times. I run from it when possible. But with God's grace, I am learning that when things heat up, when my stomach is tied in knots, when I can't see the other side - that is when God is working on me. That is when I need to stop, pray and thank God for his mercy. That is when I need to look in the mirror and see whether Christ is being reflecting in how I handle it.

And that is when he is conforming me to the image of his Son, who suffered for me.

Thank God he doesn't give up on me when I blow it. And thank God for the fire that refines me. I need it. So much.

Monday, April 8, 2013


OK, I'm tired of something...and fortunately for me, I have a blog. So I can get it off my chest. Here goes...

I am tired of "change the subject" arguments when it comes to controversial debates about truth. You know what I mean. You make a statement about a controversial issue such as violence in media, abortion, or God's standards for sexual purity and you get this: "How can you waste your time worrying about that when there is oppression and poverty in the world? Get your priorities straight."

Here's a news flash: It's possible to care about BOTH! God created us human beings with a remarkable capacity of multitasking. And we can multitask obedience to God as well. I can work for social justice, rebuilding the lives of the poor, caring for widows and orphans AND proclaim God's standard for marriage, respect for life, the all-sufficiency of Jesus' death and resurrection and many other issues. All at the same time. Shocking, I know.

Really, this shouldn't surprise us. All through the Hebrew Scriptures (aka, the Old Testament) God told his people to care for the alien, the widow, the orphan, the poor, and the oppressed. And he also told them to tear down idols, worship him only, be sexually pure, tithe, and respect life. They were expected to do it all.

When Israel was taken into captivity, there was tremendous pressure on Daniel and his friends to conform to the new culture.  But just because there was a new government, God hadn't changed. They said in effect, like Martin Luther did centuries later, "Here I stand. I can do no other, so help me God."

Imagine if you came home and your wife asked whether you had picked up milk at the grocery store. "No, honey, but how can you care about that? There is oppression in the world - focus on that rather than me taking care of my family." Would that fly? I don't think so. And it doesn't with God either.

Listen to Jesus:
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices - mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the the law - justice, mercy, and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. (Matthew 23:23, NIV, emphasis mine)
Yes, those things are important. As Christ-followers we must invest our time, effort, and resources in reaching out to those who are downtrodden. It's the right thing to do. But we also must reverence the one true God and resist efforts to change our beliefs to fit our culture. The two positions are not mutually exclusive.

So say you disagree with me. Let's have a spirited debate. But let's not change the subject when we do. Justice, mercy, and faithfulness are critical. And so is a right view of God. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Smaller buildings, nets, and other bandaids

Near where I live there's viaduct
Where people jump when they're out of luck
Raining down on the cars and trucks below.
They've put a net there to catch their fall
Like that'll stop anyone at all
What they don't know is when nature calls, you go.
- War on Drugs, Steven Page/Ed Robertson, 2003

These forms form the heart of a very powerful song, one that moved me the first time I hear BNL perform it. It is a ballad packed with meaning, calling attention to the despair, hopelessness, and desperation of so many in our society. Feelings that we all experience from time to time, but seems to overwhelm some...even to the point of suicide. The song is, in my opinion, essentially dedicated to those people.

I thought of the song, and this verse in particular, as I was reading again today from When Helping Hurts, a book on poverty alleviation by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. I already had been struck by the importance of motives, and just a couple of days later this book cut me to the quick again. In this case, it was through a story:

There was an incident in the housing projects of Chicago where two boys about 10 years old killed a five-year-old by dropping him out of a 14th floor window. Apparently the kid has refused to steal candy for them. There are all sorts of influences that led to this tragedy, all borne of the brokenness of our world since The Fall. Distorted worldviews, shame, hopelessness - broken people and broken systems. But the thing that struck me - and reminded me of the song - were the comments of a pair of teenagers from that neighborhood: 
Now they're talking about tearing down all the high-rises and putting everyone in low-rise buildings as the solution [to children dropping other children out of high-rise windows]. True, it's a start. But "Tyrone" and "Johnny" could have thrown Eric out of a vacant apartment in the low-rises and he could have fallen and broken his neck. So what are you going to do - make the low-rise homes lower? It's more than just the buildings. You don't know how it is to take a life until you value life itself. Those boys didn't value life. Those boys didn't have too much reason to value life. Now they killed someone and part of them is dead too. (LeAlan Jones and Lloyd Newman with David Isay, Our America: Life and Death on the South Side of Chicago)
See why I thought of the song? It's the same mentality. Let's stop all these suicides by building a net to catch their fall.  In the meantime, the lyrics cry out about the brokenness that make the size of buildings or the height of viaducts irrelevant. Listen to the whole song:

We are all so broken. Poverty - material, emotional, and spiritual - is the manifestation of that brokenness. Page and Robertson write of how it will be "dull" when we rid ourselves of those demons. But those words radiate longing and an almost sarcastic use of the word "dull." Dull, sure - but in a marvelous way. A world where despair is a thing of the past.

This - whether they realize it or not - is what the kingdom of God is all about. We are to work every day to rid ourselves and our neighbors of " all these demons haunting us," driving them away with love  and a mutual effort to make our relationships right. And then one day, the longed-for dullness will be complete, when Jesus comes again to make everything right.

What a marvelously "dull" day that will be! But in the meantime, let's not be about building smaller buildings and nets to stop people from jumping. Let's be about healing, restoration and reconciliation. Not because some of us have all the answers, but because all of us need each other and need the creative power of the resurrection.

"Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me."

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Deep down

"What really motivates you to help materially poor people?"

This was one of the discussion questions from the book When Helping Hurts.

I am reading it in preparation for my trip back to Ethiopia this summer.I am only about a third of the way through it, but already I have learned so much. For example, how important it is to realize that poverty runs much deeper than material possessions, and why that's important in how we all relate to each other.

But this question hit me like a ton of bricks. Because it is not an easy thing to look deep inside your own heart. After all, "The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure." (Jeremiah 17:9) But this question forced me to.

On one level, I thought I had a pretty good answer. God commands us to. His heart is for the poor and the oppressed. Doing good for "the least of these" is ministering to Jesus himself (Matthew 25). If I help the materially poor, I am being obedient.

But then I thought, why? Why do I want to be obedient? And I have to admit that way too often, it's because I want to be worthy of God's favor. I want him to be happy with me. And yes, I want to make sure I am on the reward side of these Scriptures instead of the curse side.

And there it is - selfishness. Right in the middle of my obedience, I am confronted with a motivation that has to do with what's good for me. No wonder the Bible says that all our righteousness is like filthy rags. If I am being obedient for the reward, that's not a heart for the poor. It's a heart for me.

And so I have to fall back on God's grace. His infinite, wonderful, indescribable grace. I have to pray and pray a lot. I have to ask him to fill me with his Holy Spirit, so that he will place his heart inside me. To know the mystery of his resurrection power that allows me to love like he does, not because it's good for me, but because it brings him glory.

And so, please pray for me. Pray for me as I prepare to lead another team back to Ethiopia. Pray for me as I live my life, as I go to work tomorrow. Pray that God will fill me with his love, so that deep down my heart will be his. I don't want to be the guy who obeys because God will bless me. Because if I do, my efforts to help will just radiate self sufficiency and continue the cycle of poverty.

Lord, deliver me from that. Make it all about you, and not at all about me. Please.