Thursday, January 23, 2014

My Blog Has Moved!

I really don't look like a beagle
In October 2008 I started this blog, “While My Muse Gently Weeps.” I said at the time that I would use it as a place for theological and spiritual reflection, for thoughts on guitar-making, home life, dogs, and anything else that interested me.

Over the last couple of years, however, the blog slowly transitioned to being mostly a place for theological and spiritual reflection, the result being that neither the title nor the blog description quite fit anymore.

So I decided to launch a new blog at that will consist solely of my theological and spiritual writing. I will try to post articles at least twice a week. I hope you will follow me there.  Engage me and others in conversation in the comments section, and maybe even subscribe to my blog, especially if you are one of my current followers.  If you like something I write, share the link with someone.

I will still keep this blog going for those times I feel like writing on something else, but at this point I don’t know how often that will be.  A lot of my fellow guitar-builders find their way here to see how I bend guitar sides or rout the angle on a guitar neck, and those posts will always be available.  Happy building to my fellow luthiers!

Thanks to everyone who has encouraged my writing.  I am grateful for each of you who read me regularly.  In true introvert fashion it is honestly an source of endless wonder if not puzzlement that anyone is interested in anything I have to say.  It is very humbling to me that some of you find it helpful , and that is truly why I do this. 

My goal with the new blog is to bring as many people as possible to a solid understanding of Scripture, the Good News about the kingdom of God, and our Lord Jesus Christ.

Friday, January 17, 2014

No Throwaways

IMG_0024When I am building an acoustic guitar, I mess up all the time. This is always frustrating, though I am learning that it is also natural. Even the best, most experienced luthiers mess up. I don’t like to take pleasure in another person’s misfortune, but I am actually encouraged by this. It tells me that it’s a normal part of the process and not wholly a result of my incompetence.

We mess up because no two pieces of wood are the same. We mess up because a sharp chisel not only makes it easy to carve what you want but also what you don’t want. We mess up because power sanders can remove a lot of material very quickly, sometimes before you realize that you’ve gone too far.

We also mess up because each part of the process demands our complete attention, and sometimes we are distracted by phone calls, problems at work, or that argument we just had with our spouse or teenager.

When things do go wrong, I have to ask myself, “Do I scrap this and start all over, or can I fix it?

Guitar tops—the part with the hole in it—come too thick and have to be thinned or else they won’t vibrate enough to create sound. The wood needs a certain amount of floppiness to get that sound, but if it is too floppy it will not only lose some of its musicality but will be too weak to withstand the 150-175 pounds of pull that the strings exert on the top.

One of the guitars I am building right now has a cedar top, and it’s the first time I’ve built with cedar. Normally I use spruce, which is stronger than cedar and has to be thinner. With this first cedar top I wasn’t as careful as I needed to be and I thinned the it too much. It’s musical, but it’s too weak. After a few years the strings will pull up on the wood so much that a hump will form under the bridge; eventually the bridge will come off and probably take some of the wood with it.

There was nothing that I could do to fix this. I had to get another piece of cedar and start all over. The old top is essentially useless.

Throwing away a $60 guitar top is no fun.

On another guitar I was routing the ledge for the binding—the decorative piece of wood on the side edges of the guitar—when the router bearing came loose and fell off, the result being that the router gouged a quarter-moon about 3/8” into the back of the guitar. At first I thought that I would have to cut the back off the guitar and make a entirely new one. I was so frustrated that I had to turn off the lights and leave. The next morning, however, I realized that this could be fixed.

I had kept the off-cut from the back—the wood leftover after I cut the back out—so I retrieved it, found the section next to where the gouge was, and cut that section out. I then matched the grain as closely as possible, traced the shape of the gouge onto that section, and cut it out. Careful sanding and shaping left me with a patch that fit perfectly. After gluing it in, you couldn’t tell it’s there. I can find it, but nobody else can.  (Click here to see the fix.)

Redeeming that back was definitely better than discarding it.

Part of the Original Sin that infects humanity is that we lack the ingenuity, will, and perseverance required to redeem situations and people. We are too quick to determine that certain types of sinners are without hope, that conflicts with other nations or groups can’t be resolved without someone having to die, that the greed of the rich and the hopelessness of the poor will never end, so what’s the point of even trying? And our theology reflects this; too many Christians believe that, in the end, God will just destroy this mess, and the lucky few who take the narrow road will by grace get to live out eternity in heaven.

Don’t believe it. That is not resurrection theology. The Good News is that the God who is able to bring back to life that which is dead is not powerless in the face of sin. He is a powerful God who is able, not merely to destroy what is evil and hopeless, but to redeem what is evil and hopeless.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Hanging with Sinners

Last March a 13-year-old girl wanted to bring a pear to school to eat at lunch. She has braces on her teeth, however, which apparently makes biting into a pear problematic. The solution is to cut the pear up, but you know how pear pieces turn brown when they are cut but not eaten right away. The solution? The girl packed a butter knife in her lunch.

Later when she was trying to cut the pear using the butter knife, a vice principal happened to walk by. He took her to the office and gave her a one-day suspension. Knives aren’t allowed at school, of any kind. Not butter knives, not plastic knives. The rules are clear, as is the punishment—suspension. It’s mandated. Zero Tolerance.

Most of us have heard stories like this before. It’s been going on for years. The problem is usually that laws and policies are written in such a way that leave no wriggle room, no room for an administrator to use their judgment. They cannot make a determination if a knife is truly dangerous, the child has intent to harm or even has a history of bad behavior. Rules are rules, policies are policies, laws are laws. The must be followed strictly, or the administrators can lose their jobs.

This is the problem with legalism. There is no room for interpretation, no allowance for context; but rules, laws, and policies are always written in a certain context, and when the context changes, the rules, laws, and policies have to be interpreted to apply to the new context.

The Pharisees that Jesus encountered weren’t necessarily bad people. Some undoubtedly were, using their knowledge of the Law to benefit themselves. But most were genuinely seeking to be obedient to the Law of Moses. If the Law said that something—or someone—was unclean, then you had to separate yourself from that person or else you would become unclean. It was very clear, very clean-cut. Zero tolerance.

But the context had changed. At the time that the Law was given, Israel needed to be separate from the nations so that they could learn a new way of living, a new way of relating, a new way of being human. The separateness was never intended to be permanent, however; it was always God’s intention that Israel, once they became the Renewed Humanity, would go back among the nations and be a light to them.

In Jesus, this time had come. Israel as a nation had failed to become the Renewed Humanity, but in Jesus God summed up the entire nation. Jesus was the Faithful Israelite, the firstborn of the Renewed Humanity. It was time to be among the sinners. But no, the Pharisees and the Temple leadership couldn’t handle it. “You’re breaking the rules!” they cried, and since Zero Tolerance was the policy, they delivered him over to the Romans to be crucified.

When I read and listen to people talk about God, I fear that far too many Christians believe that God himself has a Zero Tolerance policy when it comes to sinners. I remember repeatedly being told, “God cannot allow sin into his presence!” So someone has to die in order for sin to be forgiven. There is no wiggle room. It’s more than that God won’t forgive a sinner unless someone dies—that’s bad enough—but that God can’t forgive a sinner unless someone dies, as if God is beholden to some policy, some universal law that determines the people he can and cannot hang around with.

Jesus hung around with sinners all the time. He sought them out. He was in the presence of sin all his life. It was all around him. And if the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Trinity mean anything, then we can rightly say that in Jesus God hung around with sinners as well.

He still does. Zero Tolerance? I’d say he is wildly tolerant of sinners. He is exorbitant with grace, flinging it hither and yon into the rocky places, the weedy places, the devil-ridden places, and the fertile places.

We should follow his example. In fact, I think that is pretty much the point.

Monday, January 6, 2014

The Power of Small Things

Mom on piano, sometime in high school
When I was in the third grade my parents made me take piano lessons.  I didn’t ask to take them. I didn’t have a burning desire to play the piano.  I'm not sure I had any desire.  They just thought it was a good idea.

It was no surprise, though.  A couple of years before they signed up my older brother Mickey for piano lessons, and he was still taking them, so I knew my time was coming and that it wouldn’t be a one-year gig.  They also signed up my little brother Greg at the same time. Misery loves company, right?  Not really.

I was supposed to practice for 30 minutes a day. I'm sure Mom wanted to make us practice for an hour a day but she figured that 30 minutes was all she could get out of us. Of course, 30 minutes isn’t very long for an adult, but for a kid it’s a lifetime.  Sentence.

That’s what it felt like, a lifetime sentence, thirty minutes of hell after I had already spent the day in school and was ready to watch TV or play.  Banging my head against the wall for 30 minutes a day would have been better than practicing piano.  Less painful.

After five years they let me quit.  So I started speaking to them again.

As a freshman in college I became good friends with a guy who was a really good guitar player.  When hanging out with him in his dorm room it was natural to pick up one of his guitars and mess around with it.

Two years later I bought my own guitar, and was good enough to lead singing for a church youth group.
The more I played, the more I enjoyed it, but after college Pam and I were married and entered seminary.

Wife, work, and studies left little time for playing, much less practicing.  Then came children, full-time pastoring and there was even less time.

It was frustrating.  I was finally mature enough and disciplined enough to practice 30 minutes a day, even an hour a day, but life didn’t afford me the time I wanted.  I found myself wishing that I had taken up guitar when I was young and had the time to practice for hours a day.

As I later discovered, however, it turns out you don't need hours a day to improve. You don’t even need 30 minutes. You know the optimal amount of time needed to improve?

Fifteen minutes.  That’s right.  I found that when I practiced an exercise on the guitar, after about 15 minutes I would actually get worse.  It would frustrate me so much that I would have to put the guitar down and walk away.

But then a funny thing would happen. I’d come back about 30 minutes later and nail it.  It’s like my brain and fingers needed time to process this new thing I was trying to do.

Then I read an article which validated my experience.  The writer said that, even if you are practicing an hour a day, it’s better to do it in four concentrated 15-minute periods, and do something else in between.  Fold laundry.  Read a magazine.  Then come back and practice something else for 15 minutes.

They real key is consistency. 15 minutes of daily practice leads to greater performance than an hour of practice every few days. Over time, those 15 minutes add up.

This is true as well in the Christian life; it’s the daily practices that have the biggest impact.  Among the significant things about Lord’s Prayer is its brevity.  It can be prayed every day, several times a day.  In the space in between we give the Holy Spirit room to work the prayer out in us.

While most of us can probably point to a few milestone events that significantly impacted our followship of Jesus, most of the work of transformation is accomplished in us little by little over the course of a lifetime.  As Eugene Peterson states it in the title to his wonderful book on discipleship, the Christian life is A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.

In the end, what we become is the result of little things applied consistently over a long time.  In a world that trumpets big and flashy, it’s the power of small things that matters most.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Corporal Austin Eubanks, USMC

Today was Austin’s last day of active duty in the Marines.  When he leaves the Indian Head, MD post on Saturday, it’ll be for the last time.

Parris Island or bust!
It’s hard to believe it’s been almost four years since he left for Parris Island, SC, for basic training.  (He’s getting out a few weeks before the fourth anniversary due to unused leave.)  He had been talking about going into the Marines for a few years, but something always seemed to get in the way.  He had had a rough few years in high school and for a year or so afterward, but he finally got his act together and fulfilled all the necessary requirements to get in.

Even then he had a ship-out date postponed because of a blizzard.  So when if finally happened, it was hard to believe.  When he got on the bus and pulled out, Pam and his girlfriend at the time, Ariella, were in tears, but I was excited for him.  I couldn’t believe that it was finally happening.

The next three months were filled with prayers, excitement, and anxiety.  Each day that passed without a call telling us he was coming home meant that he was making it.  No news was good news.  We had a schedule that roughly told us what he was doing each day, but it was mostly “radio silence.” 

There was a certain point about 2/3 of the way in when we knew that he was going to make it.  Even with The Crucible (a 54-hour test of endurance, a physically and emotionally challenging event in which, under conditions of sleep and food deprivation, recruits must work as a team to overcome various obstacles) facing him at the end, we knew he was toughing it out.  When the time came for the Crucible to be over, we knew he had done it.  He was no longer a recruit—he was a Marine.

Teary mother and sister reunion
The couple of days we were in Parris Island for his May graduation were among the best days of our lives.  When we saw him for the first time since February, it was as if we were seeing him for the first time.  You could tell he was our son, yet he was different.  All of us, Angela included, were very proud of him and very excited for him.
Still are. 

I didn't say he was fully matured.
These four years have matured him and given him a focus.  He and Angela are good friends—is there anything that can make parents any happier?—and we all enjoy hanging out with each other.

And so Austin steps into the next phase of his life.  In a few weeks he will be a full-time student at Frederick Community College, living in Frederick with Rich Cook.  He’s in a great relationship with a sweet girl, Allie Stone, who grew up across the street.

It’s been a great ride, and things look promising.  We are told that there is no such thing as a former Marine.  You are a Marine for life.Way to go, Son.  We are very proud of you.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Unlikely Family

A good friend of mine, Lee Adams, just published her third book and second novel, Unlikely Family, available in paperback and on KindleCan’t wait to start reading it! 

If it’s as good as her first novel, Strawberry Wine, you’ll be in for a treat.  Check them both out!

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Family Food

Did anyone eat anything new at Christmas dinner? Maybe a new side dish or dessert, perhaps, but in the main, probably not.

There are certain foods I want to have on Christmas Day. Pam’s mother (Mema) makes a carrot cake that has no equal, and she makes it every December for Christmas. When we are there on Christmas, I have to have a piece, probably two. It can be 9 a.m., and I'm eating carrot cake.

That’s what my Christmas breakfast generally consists of: Mema’s carrot cake.

Hey, it’s one day out of the year. I can eat eggs or yogurt for breakfast the other 364 days.
My mom can serve whatever she wants for Christmas dinner—ham, turkey, kielbasa, I don’t care—but her potato salad better be there. Nobody’s potato salad is like Mom’s. She doesn’t think it’s anything special, but my kids and I disagree. It has its own distinctive flavor and appearance, and she always serves it in the same Tupperware bowl that she’s been using since I was a kid. It has to be there.

You may not think it’s anything special, but she’s been serving it for years, and it better be there. And it will. We don’t have to tell her, “It better be there.” It just always is.

Can’t have Christmas without Mom’s potato salad. If, like this year, we’re having Christmas dinner with Pam’s family, I'll still eat some of Mom’s potato salad when I go back over there later in the day.

The other day Pam and Angela got together to make Mema’s carrot cake. I did a taste test, and, yes, the tradition will be carried on for many, many years. They nailed it.

I’ve also given Angela strict instructions to learn how to make Mom’s potato salad. When I am an old man I want to still be eating Mema’s carrot cake and Mom’s potato salad on Christmas Day.

I'm not against trying new foods, nor am I opposed to improving old dishes. But sometimes old is better. Sometimes things don’t need improving. Sometimes you want to eat something that you’ve eaten all your life because it reminds you of every other Christmas you’ve ever had. All the joy. All the laughter. All the comfort. All the family.

And at some point, when the people who made it for you all your life are no longer there, seeing it there in the same bowl, tasting just like it always did, somehow brings them into the celebration.

Nobody could make chicken and dumplings like my Grandmother Eubanks. Nobody. I only got to have them once a year at the annual Eubanks reunion in Lucedale, Mississippi at Easter, but, man, were they good. And we’d eat them all day long.

Of course, Grandmother Eubanks didn’t use a recipe. She’d been making chicken and dumplings all her life and just knew how to do it. So her dumplings were not reproducible.

As a consequence I haven’t tasted really, really good chicken and dumplings since it became too much for her to cook for all of us, sometime when I was in high school.

When I pastored in Georgia there were a couple of women in my church who came pretty close, and I would get excited whenever they invited me over for chicken and dumplings. They were good. But they weren’t my Grandmother Eubanks’ chicken and dumplings.

I don’t know if, in the age to come, we are still cooking and eating and doing a lot of the things we are doing now; I rather think so. And if that is the case, Grandmother Eubanks may be a little surprised if one of the first things I say to her after our reunion is, “Can you make some chicken and dumplings?”

Or maybe she won’t be surprised at all.