Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Ode to Joy

Do you ever have those moments? You're singing something you sang all your life, and suddenly it expoldes with meaning. Well, a couple of weeks ago at church, it happened. We were sing the second verse of Joyful Joyful We Adore Thee - aka Ode to Joy since it was set to the Beethoven musical piece by that title.

So we were on the second verse, and....
All Thy works with joy surround Thee
Earth and heaven reflect Thy rays.
Stars and angels sing around Thee
Center of unbroken praise.
Field and forest, vale and mountain,
Flowery meadow, flashing sea
Singing bird and fountain, 
Call us to rejoice in Thee.

Yes! They all call us to rejoice in him. And I was overwhelmed by that thought.

It hit me at that moment what I was signing about. The verse is a list attributes - attributes of God's creation. Things in which we can find joy if we just slow down and pay attention. Stars. Fields. Forests. Mountains. Meadows. Seas. Birds singing. Streams flowing.

All beautiful. All wonderful creations. And - most importantly - all pointing to their Creator. All of them exist for one bring glory and honor to God. This is the purpose of every good gift.

Every good gift. As the verse starts: All thy works with joy surround thee. All.

And the list could go on. Music, Art. Color. Language. Sports. Technology. On and on.

Where we mess up is when we start to take these good gifts for granted. When we start to forget the One who gave them to us. When we allow them to become the focus of our lives instead of something God provided to point to himself. There's a word for that...idolatry. And it's the essence of sin.

But they are good. And they call us to rejoice in him. If only for a few moments when we were singing this song, I got that.

Lord, let me never forget it. May I always allow Your gifts to point to You.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Music Man

The Music Man is considered one of the classics in the history of musical theatre. It was a beloved musical when it hit the stage of Broadway in 1958 (yes, before I was born), and the film produced in 1962 solidified its position.

So when I heard a few months ago that a friend had landed a major role in her school production of the show, that settled it. I had to travel to Pennsylvania for the weekend and see it. After all, it was the perfect combination - a perfect storm if you will. First, I got to visit the Swank family, some of my favorite people on earth. Second, I was able to support Rachel as she performed the key role of Mrs. Paroo. And finally, I got to watch a show that I've love for most of my life.

So it was a wonderful weekend all around, and I wrote about that in my last blog post. Here is the whole gang at lunch Sunday, before I went to watch the first act for the second time, before leaving to catch my flight. Yes, it was so good I cut it very close just to watch as much as could for a second time.

Scott, me, Sarah, Rachel, Emily, and Lori

So anyway, back to the show. Which is what this post was supposed to be about, right?

For those who don't know, The Music Man is set in 1912 and is about a conniving traveling salesman (Harold Hill) who rolls into an Iowa town and uses the illusion of a crisis (a new pool table!) to manufacture the need for a boys' band to keep kids out of trouble. He uses this illusion to sell musical instruments and band uniforms even though he "don't know one note from another." A part of his plan  is to romance the local piano teacher (Marian Paroo), both to keep her off balance and, well, because he's a man. Since the show is 57 years old, I'm not going to worry about spoilers: At the end, he gets caught but the people he's befriended - especially Marian - stand up for him because of the joy he brought to the town over the summer.

(Again, it was done extremely well and was very enjoyable. I would have been happy I saw it even if I had not known one of the actors. And by the way, playing Marian's mother Mrs. Paroo, Rachel was awesome.)

So is this a story about just getting away with something? That is what had troubled the director of this production, Jill Panyard, for a long time. In her director's notes, she wrote about how she had resisted this play for years:
It has challenges, like every musical, but my problem was with redemption. With every production I saw, I never believed that Harold would actually stay in River City...How does a director direct Harold to portray true redemption? I think I found the spot. As I read the script several times over, I saw the scene where it can happen. With eyes damp with hope, I thought, 'We can do this. And Harold will be redeemed!' I hope you see it too.
Ah! A challenge!

And I watched with that challenge looming before me. If any of my friends in PA happen to point Ms. Panyard toward this post, maybe she will see whether I got it.

As I saw it, the director had Harold carry a card around the entire play - the ace of spades. (Yes, I had a very good seat.) Every now and then during the long con, when he was laying it on thick, he would pull the card out and look at it. It was symbolic of the fact that he was only there to trick people, to take their money and be on his way. No matter how sincere he might appear, that card was always there.

Then as the play nears its conclusion, he meets Marian at the footbridge. He is there, just like always, to use her and then discard her - taking his "reward" before leaving town. But a funny thing happens. For those who don't know, she is carrying a page with evidence that he is a fraud. When they meet, she gives it to him and discloses that she has know for weeks. But she didn't turn him in.

Grace. Total, unadulterated grace. Despite all his shenanigans, his rotten-to-the-core deceitfulness, she forgives him and hands him the page. "With my whole heart," she says.

And then - in this production - he puts it in his pocket and drops the card in the water, never to be seen again. He drops his sinfulness in the water, replacing it with the grace of the page Marian handed him. And for the rest of the show, he pulls the page out like he had the card, reminding himself of who is is now.

And, no doubt, he stays in River City.

Wow! Well done!

It reminds me what grace is for me. God forgives and loves me despite knowing what a fraud I am. And when he gives me that grace, if I will just let go of the old life, he will change me forever.

Yes, it was a marvelous show. And a marvelous time with friends. Rachel posed with her family right after the performance...

...and then I got a picture with the star. I may need to print one of these and get an autograph one day:

And I will never watch this show, on stage or screen, the same way again. Every Harold Hill I see will be walking around with an unseen ace of spades.

As I was. Thank you, Lord, for replacing it with your grace.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Weekends like this

God made us for relationships. For relationship with him, and relationships with each other. Love God and love others.

That is one of the wonderful things about the short-term mission trips I have been blessed to be a part of. Not only have I seen the Lord do wonderful things in the lives of people all over the world, but every time I go I make the best friends. God has put some amazing people in my life.

Some of those people live in the Harrisburg, PA area. I never would have met any of them without going to Ethiopia. But I'm so glad I did. Last weekend, I visited one such family after a long absence from seeing them. The Swanks of Lebanon, PA.

It was so much fun hanging out with Scott, Lori, Sarah, and Rachel. And another friend from past trips, Sarah's friend Emily. I wish Jesse had been there too. The focus of the weekend was Rachel's performance in The Music Man as Mrs. Paroo. She did an outstanding job in the role, and I was very proud of her. But we also had a blast with great dinners, a monstrous breakfast, and a very cool coal mine tour.

However, the weekend did not get off to a great start.

I landed a little before 5:00 on Friday afternoon, ahead of schedule. When I landed Scott texted me and we decided I should just get my rental car and drive to their house before we decided what to do for dinner. Well, I got to the rental car and was putting my bags in the trunk when I thought, Hmmm. Is my Kindle in this bag?

It wasn't.

Of course it wasn't. It was in a seat pocket on the plane where I had left it. That's me - always forgetting things. I'd forget my head if it weren't attached to me. So I drove back around, parked, and went to the Delta counter. Yep, they found it. Unfortunately, everyone was about an hour late going to dinner because they had to wait on my boneheaded mistake.

And that's not all. I drove to dinner because, hey, I have a rental car. Well, we got to the restaurant... Wait - gotta point this out: It was the first restaurant we tried. It had a one-hour wait so we gave up on it. If I hadn't forgotten the Kindle.......

So anyway, I parked there and opened my door to get out of the car. It beeped. And beeped. And beeped. Beep beep-beep-beep-beep........


Well, there was the little matter of the fact that I had opened the car door and started to get out while it was still in drive!

Why did I do this? Here is the only explanation I have:

This picture is the gearshift panel on my car. MY car. There is no stick, only a bunch of buttons. And if I open the car door, it automatically shifts back to Park. So I guess I have gotten so used to this feature that I stopped shifting to Park myself.

How embarrassing. Fortunately, however, I stopped the car before we hit anything.

Notwithstanding this wonderful start, we had a great time. Weekends like this are what life is made of.

And I did see Rachel's show. One and half times. That's right...but that's a story for another time.

Finally, the director's take on a show I've known for a long time was very interesting. So much so that it deserves its own post. So next time, let's talk about that.

Okay....shifting into Park......and DONE.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Powerful foolishness

But Jesus was saying, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing."
- Luke 23:34, NASB

Paul refers to the cross of the Messiah as the foolishness of God, which is wiser than the wisdom of men (1 Corinthians 1:25). And no wonder. Because it does not make sense to us that we can conquer evil by suffering. By submission. By forgiveness. And yet there he is, on his way to his death, and he proclaims forgiveness for the ones pursuing his death. And by that act, he has conquered evil forever.

Many of these same themes were interwoven into last week's episode of The Walking Dead. Yeah, I know...

Wait, what?!?


If you are one of the 16 million people who watched last Sunday, you know the background well. Our band of survivors in this zombie apocalypse have been on their own for at least a couple of years and have beaten the odds on all sorts of perils. But now they are face-to-face with a different challenge - a naive community (Alexandria) of people that have no idea of the danger outside their walls. How will they fit in? Will the things they have learned help them protect their new community? Or will it get them kicked out?

(For more, read a synopsis here.)

Well, the path to getting control of the situation was surprising.
  • Glenn, who was there when his friend Noah was killed through the negligence and cowardice of Alexandria native Nicolas, confronts Nicolas out in the woods. Nicolas shoots Glenn in the shoulder, attacks him, and leaves him for dead as "walkers" pounce. Somehow, Glenn turns the tables and has Nicolas on the ground with a gun to his head. He has the power of revenge and maybe even justice right in his hands. But he lets Nicolas go. Forgiveness? Well, at least the first step.
  • Sasha is still struggling with the deaths of her brother and her boyfriend, and is not handing it well. She comes face-to-face with Father Gabriel in the chapel, and two lost souls come face-to-face.
  • Maggie recently overheard Gabriel condemn the entire group in a private conversation with Deanna, the leader of Alexandria. Somehow, she sees through his hypocritical actions and sees a lost and hurting man in desperate need of forgiveness. Reaching back to the faith her father taught her (and which she seemed to have lost for a while), she reaches out her hand - literally - and pulls Gabriel up. The three of them end up praying together:

  • Then there's Morgan, whose connection with our group is a past connection with Rick Grimes. He helped Rick get his feet under him shortly after the world changed. When we last saw him, he seemed lost after facing the death of his son. But now, he has come to the conclusion that all life is precious. He rescued Daryl and Aaron from certain death, and seems to be on a mission to show you can survive and keep your humanity.

The name of the episode was "Conquer." That seems like a very strange name; there was no conquest in sight. Not in the traditional since. But.....

Glenn conquered his bitterness over Noah's death as he let Nicolas off the hook.

Sasha is at least on her way to conquering the deep hurt over the death's of Bob and Tyreese.

Maggie has conquered the hopelessness she felt after the deaths of her father and sister.

Maybe Gabriel is on the verge of conquering his shame. We'll see about that one.

And, as the people of Alexandria witness selfless sacrifice by these flawed characters, including Rick - who was out protecting them from intruding walkers when he could have been trying to save his own skin - our group seems to be conquering. Conquering fear, conquering mistrust, conquering the disconnect with their new community. Rick thought they would have to do it by force.

Not so much.

Forgiveness. Suffering. Sacrifice. Nor conquering by force, but conquering with love. Does that work? 

Is it foolishness to think so?

Which brings us back to Jesus. Love, self-sacrificing love, forgiving love, is the only thing that can conquer evil. And that's exactly what happened on the cross, when the King of the universe was crowned with thorns, bore our sins, and destroyed the works of the devil.

And then rose from the dead to claim that victory.

This is the foolishness of God, wiser than all our wisdom. Amen.