Archive for December, 2012

“Now life has killed the dream I dreamed.”

That line – the very last line of the song “I Dreamed a Dream” from the play/film Les Miserables – has always touched me deep inside.

There are people down through the centuries who could sing that line … in fact, that entire song … with just as much passion as Anne Hathaway’s Fantine character did in the just-released movie.

Like Fantine, they’ve experienced a taste of the best that life has to offer … but then circumstances have gone horribly wrong for them, and they find themselves just hoping to survive.

That’s one of the things that struck me most about the film version of Les Miserables.  The people in the movie were all doing their best just to cling to life for another day.

I read Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables in ninth grade – albeit an abridged version – and learned that it served as the inspiration for 1960’s The Fugitive TV show, starring David Janssen (real name: David Meyer).  I’ve also been privileged to see the musical twice, the last time in London’s West End, and our family has owned the music on cassette/CD for years.  (My daughter Sarah knows every word of the musical by heart.)

But I can’t stop the tears whenever I hear “I Dreamed a Dream” or “Bring Him Home.”  And that’s good.

Those songs are filled with such emotion … and passion … and authenticity.  They put into words how so many people feel about God … and pain … and life.

When we attended the movie on Christmas Day, the bald-headed guy in front of me was pushing back tears as well.

But my first thought when I left the theater was this one:

Where is this kind of emotion in our churches today?

I love the Lord.  I love His Word.  I love His people.

But I must confess … I am rarely moved emotionally in church anymore.

In fact, sometimes I think that Christian leaders have systematically tried to remove authentic emotion from worship services.

Just hear me for a moment.

My wife and I have visited more than 50 churches in the past 3 years.  90% of the churches use the same format.

There’s 15-20 minutes of worship music, followed by the pastor’s message, which lasts 30-60 minutes.

(Prayers, announcements, and taking the offering are placed in different slots, depending upon the church.)

Are believers moved emotionally during the worship time?  Sometimes, but if you look around during that time, you’ll see that many believers aren’t singing at all.

Are believers moved during the message?  Sometimes, but it usually depends upon whether or not the pastor himself seems moved … and many pastors aren’t.

Over the past 10 years, I have noticed that most churches have gradually eliminated 4 service elements that did produce authentic emotion: dramatic vignettes, presentation songs, personal testimonies, and illustrations during the pastor’s message.

*Dramatic vignettes – which originally came from Willow Creek Community Church – could be humorous, but they could also be deeply touching emotionally.  Over the past 3 years, I have seen zero dramas in churches.

*Presentation songs featured a soloist or a duet or an ensemble singing a song that the congregation couldn’t possibly sing.  The songs usually tied in to the theme of that morning’s service.  (Someone from Willow once sang “I Dreamed a Dream” during weekend services.)  Over the past 3 years, I can only remember seeing performance songs at two churches – both in Phoenix – and one of them was at our home church there, Christ’s Church of the Valley, which offers one or two performance songs every weekend.

(The first time I attended a Leaders’ Conference at Willow in 1990, I was more moved emotionally during a two-hour slot of dramas/performance songs than I had been in the previous 20 years of attending worship services combined.)

*Personal testimonies are presented either live or on video.  CCV offered at least two personal testimonies on video every month, and they were usually very touching, often shown in the middle of the pastor’s message.  (Rick Warren used to do this as well, although I don’t know if he does it anymore.)

*Illustrations during a pastor’s message used to be a given, but you would be surprised at (a) how many pastors don’t use even one story during their whole message, and (b) how many pastors use stories to stir people intellectually but fail to move them emotionally.

Please don’t misunderstand me.  I am not saying that our worship times should be full of emotion as opposed to truth.  We are to love God with our whole heart, soul, strength, and mind.  But I am sincerely wondering where the heart has gone.

While we need truth to pass through our heads so it stirs our hearts, I wonder if we’re really afraid of our own God-given emotions.

When Neil Diamond sang “I Dreamed a Dream” on his Hot August Night 2 album, he changed the last line to this one:

“But life can’t kill the dream I dreamed.”

(Here’s his version with lyrics attached: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JzwhgJnCQCQ)

Why did he do that?  Maybe he didn’t feel comfortable singing the real line because he wanted to end the song on a positive note … I really don’t know.  But in so doing, he negated Fantine’s true feelings as she ended the song.

Provided someone sang that song during a service at your church, would they be permitted to sing the line as written or would someone make them change it?

I’ve had a theory for years that people will flock to worship services where they feel free to laugh and to cry.

People certainly flock to films and concerts and plays where that’s the case.

Maybe the film Les Miserables – shot through with Christian themes and an explicit Christian ending – can teach us that again.

More next time.

Happy 2013!

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This article ran two days before Christmas in 2011.  It’s so unique that I thought I’d run it again for those of you who haven’t seen it.  Merry Christmas!

Today’s guest blogger is my wife Kim, who discusses how the words “Christmas” and “Arabia” could once be used in the same sentence when she lived in the Middle East more than 40 years ago.  Ah, the magic and romance of the desert …

Kim in Arabia, May 2011

It seems so long ago.  The years were 1965-1970.  It was Christmas in Saudi Arabia, where my parents were missionaries to the Bedouin people in the desert.

Photo at Oasis Hospital with Kim’s father in back row, 3rd from left, 1967

We lived about 100 miles from the now beautiful, modern city of Dubai.

Dubai, May 2011

Dubai Today

46 years ago, we traveled by open land rover on non-existing roads surrounded by sand dunes.  It took about 10 hours to travel 100 miles.

19 months ago, I went back to visit where I lived.  I took a taxi to the hospital where we used to work and it only took 1 hour and 15 minutes.  What a difference!

Kim with Taxi in Arabia, May 2010

When the Arabs asked me why I was visiting, I told them, “I lived here 46 years ago.”  With amazement, they said, “There was nothing here.”  I said, “You are exactly right.”

Kim in Front of Oasis Hospital, May 2011

Every year at Christmas time, my brothers, sisters and I came home from boarding school, either in Pakistan or India.  It was only at Christmas time that I saw my parents each year.  I counted every day for months when it was time to go home.  Home was where we had no homework and no strict schedules for two months.

We would get together with friends on the compound.  We hiked, cooked, played games, played tricks on each other, and saw our pets (cats, dogs, gazelles, goats, a donkey, a fox, and a hedgehog).

Sometimes we slept outside up on high beds to keep snakes and scorpions away.  We would wake up in the morning hearing camels eating our dried palm leaf fence.

Life was simple.  We would run around without shoes, help in the hospital, read books, listen to good music, and sit around and just talk.  I loved the simplicity.

Saudi Arabian Desert

When it came to getting a Christmas tree, we were creative.  We chose a thorn bush and brought it home to decorate.  We had fun adorning the tree with popcorn.  We wanted more decorations so we took Kotex and tore it apart to make snow with cotton.  I wasn’t sure my mom was very happy with us.

We learned to make taffy, pulling and pulling until we had a sweet, sticky treat.

But my best memory was camping in the desert.  I remember always having a sinus infection but I was determined to go – so I bundled up and went camping.  Being in the desert at night under a clear sky, you could see every star.  You could see the campfire for miles.  You were surrounded by sand dunes and the sound of nothing.  It was peaceful and quiet.

It must have been how the shepherds, Joseph, and Mary felt when Jesus was born.

Our Christmas service was held outside at night.  The glowing of candles and far off lights made the desert romantic and magical.  I was asked to play the organ and everyone from the compound came and sang Christmas carols.  This was my gift to Jesus.

Oh, the simplicity of Christmas!

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Trip to Maine Oct. 1, 2012 170

New Hampshire is known as The Granite State.  Its motto – found on car license plates – is “Live Free or Die.”

My wife and I chose to “live free” while we were there, and we didn’t regret a single moment.

Here are five more reasons why I love New Hampshire:

Number 5: I love the beauty of the state.  The most famous part of New Hampshire is the White Mountains, and we had the privilege of driving through them one autumn day.  The White Mountains do not disappoint!

Trip to White Mountains Oct. 8, 2012 010

Trip to White Mountains Oct. 8, 2012 035

We wanted to drive up Mount Washington, but it was closed.  Then we wanted to take a train ride up the mountain, but it cost $62 a person, so we passed … but we did manage to snap a photo of a lost tourist …

Trip to White Mountains 2 Oct. 8, 2012 166

Number 4: I loved driving the back roads, even though I consistently got lost.  One day, Interstate 93 backed up on my way to church, and I decided to take the nearest exit and head south, figuring I’d hit the church eventually.  While I made virtually no progress and needed assistance to find my way, I loved the remoteness of so many of the houses and the feel of the woods.

Trip to Pelham Church Oct. 27-28, 2012 218

Jim's Conflict Workship 2 Pelham Nov. 10, 2012 074

Number 3: I loved learning about New Hampshire culture.  For example:

*The Boston Red Sox, New England Patriots, and Boston Celtics are not my favorite teams … especially the Celtics … but it was fascinating hearing how the teams were covered and listening to New Englanders rhapsodize about their favorite players.

Fenway Park 2 Sept. 13, 2012 048

Celtics-76ers Game Nov. 9, 2012 043

*The state does not have any sales tax or income tax.  This meant that when we went to Walmart, everything we purchased was tax-free!  Gotta love that … especially if you’re from California, where the sales tax rate is now 7.75% and climbing.

*All kinds of wild animals roam free, including turkeys which loved to hang around the church.

Number 2: I loved the weather … so much.  While hot weather drains me, colder weather exhilirates me.  During our last few weeks in New Hampshire, the temperature was in the 40s and 30s, occasionally dipping down into the 20s … and I couldn’t get enough of it … especially when I saw that the temperature was in the 90s and 100s back home.

Trip to White Mountains Oct. 8, 2012 023

Some friends told me that the snow gets old real fast, and I believe them.  This is what the road looked like driving back to Manchester from Stowe, Vermont, one November day:

Trip to Stowe Nov. 24, 2012 348

Trip to Stowe Nov. 24, 2012 354

But I still loved the weather in New Hampshire!

Number 1: I loved the people of Crossroads Church in Pelham.  They were so genuine … and generous … and classy … and kind to my wife and me.

Crossroads Church Sept. 12, 2012 001

Pelham Church Nov. 4, 2012 005

I was invited to become a traditional interim pastor for the church while they sought a candidate to become senior pastor.  The first night that I preached, the church had a reception for us after the service, including a large gift basket filled with goodies.  People talked to us long into the night until I was advised to return to Manchester because a storm was coming.

Trip to New England Sept. 2012 480

Jim's Conflict Workship 2 Pelham Nov. 10, 2012 010

My time there was short-lived because the church selected a candidate during my third week there, but Kim and I were the recipients of so much love that it was easy to love the people in return.

*We were given tickets to a Red Sox-Yankees game and a Celtics-76ers game.

Fenway Park 2 Sept. 13, 2012 090

Celtics-76ers Game Nov. 9, 2012 114

*We were invited to attend a Chris Tomlin concert in Lowell, Massachusetts with people from the church.

Chris Tomlin Concert Oct. 26, 2012 020

*We were invited to lunches … and dinners … and after-church get-togethers … and even a meal on Thanksgiving.

*And Kim went on several excursions with women from the church, including this trip to Gloucester, Massachusetts:

Trip to Gloucester Oct. 24, 2012 320

Kim and I both agree: we spent three of the best months of our lives in New Hampshire.

So thank you, people of Crossroads Church, for making it all possible.

We will never, ever forget you and your fascinating state!

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My wife and I recently returned from a temporary job assignment in New Hampshire.

I didn’t know much about the state when I accepted the assignment.  I’d only been to New Hampshire once in my life, and that was to stop in Manchester for lunch many years ago on a trip with my son.

It’s hard to gauge a state when you’ve only spent a few hours there.  But if you’ve lived there a few months, you at least know it better than the average tourist would.

After living in New Hampshire, I must say … I love New Hampshire!

In fact, let me share with you ten things I loved about New Hampshire … and New England as well:

Number 10: I loved the relaxed feel.  New Hampshire has three main cities: Concord, Manchester, and Nashua.  I visited all of them, but never found the traffic to be oppressive … like it is here in Southern California … except for a shopping trip to Costco one Saturday in Nashua.

Here’s a photo of downtown Portsmouth … right on the border before entering Maine …

Trip to Portsmouth, NH Oct. 7, 2012 026

Number 9: I loved Dunkin’ Donuts.  One night, my wife and I were lost in Connecticut, and I looked at the map and saw I would have to drive toward New Haven on a single lane highway.  After many miles of traveling in the dark, my wife and I wanted something warm to drink, so I was hoping we’d come to a Dunkin’ Donuts.  When we saw light ahead, I told my wife, “I’ll bet there’s a Dunkin’ Donuts there” … and I was right.

In New England, where there’s light, there’s Dunkin’ Donuts.

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Number 8: I loved being surrounded by trees.  There were two Target stores in our area, and whenever we’d drive to either one, I’d get out of the car, turn around … and see trees everywhere!  For someone who tends toward depression due to the brownness of the desert, the perpetual green of New Hampshire continually lifted my spirits.

Trip to White Mountains 2 Oct. 8, 2012 007

Number 7: I loved visiting graveyards.  Before you conclude that I’m morbid and twisted, please understand that one of my small hobbies is visiting the graves of famous people.  In California, you can visit the graves of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan … but you have to pay to enter their presidential libraries.  But in New England, you can visit the graves of former presidents for free … and there’s nobody around when you do.

Grave of Franklin Pierce, 14th President of the US, in Concord, NH

Grave of Franklin Pierce, 14th President of the US, in Concord, NH

Here’s the famous Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Massachusetts:

Trip to Concord, MA September 23, 2012 040

And here’s Mount Auburn in Cambridge, Massachusetts … the first landscaped cemetery in the United States … which dates all the way back to 1831:

Trip to Cambridge, MA 2 Nov. 23, 2012 002

Number 6: I loved the fall foliage.  We arrived in Manchester in early September, so we were privileged to watch the trees turn colors over the next few weeks.  Driving to and from church – 27 miles each way – was fun because of all the colors we’d see along the roads.

Here are some trees in upstate New Hampshire:

Trip to White Mountains 2 Oct. 8, 2012 039

Trip to White Mountains 2 Oct. 8, 2012 053

I’ll finish this Top Ten List next time.  Watch for it!

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My wife and I drove 3,500 miles across America last week – from New Hampshire to Southern California – and the states we traveled through left some distinct impressions upon me.

We drove through all or parts of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California.

We were blessed to have good weather most of the way … an anomaly for the first part of December!

Here are some random thoughts on our trip:

*Best roads: New Hampshire (good road surfaces, wide lines, often light traffic)

Trip to Pelham Church Oct. 27-28, 2012 109

*Worst roads: Oklahoma (especially in Oklahoma City, where the lines on the interstate disappear unexpectedly)

*Best interstate: I-40 in New Mexico

Trip Across USA Nov. 26-Dec. 1, 2012 841

*Worst interstate: I-95 in Connecticut … hands down (I almost had to be committed)

*Best large city for driving: Cincinnati (has a large ring around the city)

*Worst city for driving: Hartford, CT (like riding on Space Mountain at times)

Trip Across USA 2 Nov. 26-Dec. 1, 2012 026

*Best road stops: Missouri (gas stations, stores, and places to eat everywhere)

*Worst road stops: Oklahoma (virtually nothing from Tulsa to Oklahoma City, a total of 106 miles … but there is this exit)

Trip Across USA Nov. 26-Dec. 1, 2012 836

*Best tourist spot: Gettysburg, PA (visiting the battlefields by car is free and totally absorbing)

Trip Across USA Nov. 26-Dec. 1, 2012 226

*Worst tourist spot: Ohio (there is nothing to see but farmland from West Virginia to Cincinnati)

Trip Across USA Nov. 26-Dec. 1, 2012 472

*Best driving: from Cincinnati to St. Louis (great roads, little traffic)

Trip Across USA Nov. 26-Dec. 1, 2012 522

*Scariest driving: following Highway 30 west from Chambersburg, PA toward Pittsburgh … went through four mountain passes in the Allegheny Mountains in total darkness … large trucks were advised not to take that route

A few other thoughts:

*Las Vegas award: Amarillo, Texas (lit up like a Christmas tree at night with steakhouses everywhere)

*Creepy award: Gallup, New Mexico (felt so uneasy there that after considering three places to eat, we left and ate in Arizona instead)

*Grand Prix award: Pittsburgh, PA (I wanted to stop and see the Pirates’ ballpark … would have died just trying to get off the freeway)

Trip Across USA Nov. 26-Dec. 1, 2012 408

*Maybe I could live there award: Cincinnati, OH (where my cousin and her family lives); Springfield, MO (30 miles from Branson)

*Waste of space award: Oklahoma (No sites, no facilities, no scenery … just Oral Roberts University in Tulsa)

Trip Across USA Nov. 26-Dec. 1, 2012 834

*Uh oh award: realizing our hotel reservation was in Breezewood, PA … just after we got on the Pennsylvania Turnpike (16 miles to the next town, then 16 miles back … and no way of turning around)

Trip Across USA Nov. 26-Dec. 1, 2012 348

*Best motel award: Days Inn in Tucumcari, NM (spacious, clean, well-equipped room)

*If I had one wish while driving: that I wouldn’t have to deal with any 16-wheelers!

*Best music along the route: Johnny Cash’s American Recordings albums

*Favorite place to eat: Cracker Barrel in Sullivan, MO (or anywhere else, for that matter)

*Coolest tunnel: through the Allegheny Mountains in Pennsylvania

Trip Across USA Nov. 26-Dec. 1, 2012 358

*Best view: from the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, MO

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Most moving sight: visiting the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, PA, at dusk … and stumbling upon the spot where Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address

Trip Across USA Nov. 26-Dec. 1, 2012 336

There were a lot of sights I wanted to see but didn’t … like the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, MA, and the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland … but I’m grateful that we were able to take the trip … and that our 1998 Honda Accord did great …. loaded with stuff … and with more than 250,000 miles on it.

Four days after returning home, it still feels like I’m on the road … and I can sing with Johnny Cash:

I’ve been everywhere, man

I’ve been everywhere, man

Across the deserts bare, man

I’ve breathed the mountain air, man

Of travel I’ve had my share, man

I’ve been everywhere

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