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February 2009

January 2009

In Praise of Slow Film: A Review of Henry Poole is Here

Henry Poole

Henry Poole is sad. For some initially inexplicable reason, which becomes clearer as the story slowly unfolds, he leaves his job, breaks up with his girlfriend, and moves back to his childhood neighborhood. He moves into a small stucco house, with little furniture, and begins to drink and do little more than lay on the bed in his clothes or in a chaise lounge in the backyard. But Henry's planned decline goes awry. A deeply religious neighbor, a kind woman named Esmeralda, claims to see the face of God on the back wall of Henry's house. Although Henry wants to be left alone, she befriends him, as does the single Mom next door and her young daughter who hasn't spoken since her father left home, and the check out girl at the supermarket, and finally the priest who Esmeralda brings to examine the face on the wall.

Henry doesn't believe in the face and is upset by the crowds of people flocking to his backyard. He wants to be left alone. And yet as the story unfolds and Henry feels the love of those around him and witnesses the power of faith, he too begins to change.

This is low-budget but well-cast film with a great heart and not one ounce of cynicism. It is difficult to believe that such a film was well-received at the Sundance Film Festival where the weird and avant-garde reign. Luke Wilson plays a convincing role as Henry, but in reality I found every one of the actors credible, just like people you would expect to meet in the neighborhood.

It's a slow story, and deliberately so. The camera dwells on faces. There is time to get to know people. While Henry doesn't seem so likeable at the beginning, it's not because he's mean, just sad. In fact everyone has some measure of sadness --- Patience, the check out girl; Millie, the little girl who will not speak; Esmeralda, who lost her boyfriend --- and yet everyone comes to hope, experiences positive change by the end of the story. Though serious, there is humor throughout, comedy even in sadness.

This is a movie I still think about, even five days after watching it. It's that good.

The film is rated PG for some language, all from Henry, none of which is gratuitous, the most serious of which is the couple of occasions he takes God's name in vain, all because he is upset that the image has appeared on the side of his house. It is appropriate because, in the end, he is angry at God. There is no violence , nudity, or inappropriate sexual innuendo. Young kids would be bored. Some older kids may appreciate the story, but given that there is little action, I suspect the primary audience is adult.

I highly recommend Henry Poole is Here. It's a story that will stick with you.

Watch the trailer here:

An Unholy Trinity: Google, Facebook, and Twitter


"The kind of deep reading that a sequence of printed pages promotes is valuable not just for the knowledge we acquire from the author's words but for the intellectual vibrations those words set off within our own minds. In the quiet spaces opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading of a book, or by any other act of contemplation, for that matter, we make our own associations, draw our inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas. Deep reading. . . is indistinguishable from deep thinking." (Nicholas Carr, in "Is Google Making Us Stupid," The Atlantic Monthly, July/August 2008)

Like most Americans, I carry around a lot of information in my brain. I know all these details about current events, music trivia, and hot technology. I surf the internet, skim interesting blog posts, and try to keep up with friends on Facebook and Twitter. You might say I try to stay informed. Well, I repent of it all. I don't think I'm better off for any of this. Rather, I am distracted, facing an information compulsion, a nagging sense that if I don't know what everyone is doing, have some broad sense of what is going on, that I'm behind, not with it, not cool.

Actually, I've been thinking about this for some time, and Nicholas Carr's article, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?"(which due to my distraction I just got around to contemplating) was the nail in the coffin. In it, Carr ponders the question posed by the title, wondering how this pervasive technology is altering the way we think and act. Though Carr is not a Luddite, he leans toward an affirmative answer to the question, concluding that we are in danger of losing the ability to think deeply, in danger of what playwright Richard Foreman warned, that we risk turning into "'pancake people' --- spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button."

The fact is, as Carr notes, we are losing our ability to read a book or even article of any length. I'm reading a non-fiction book now of approximately 500 pages, and it can be taxing. I find myself wanting to skim, to get to the quotable essence of it, and yet I know that in doing so what I will be shortchanged --- like remembering a soundbyte (if in fact I remember) rather than a sustained analysis of an issue. I've been googled, people. Someone is messing with my brain! It's like having Attention Deficit Disorder, not being able to focus and drill down into something.

I know I exaggerate. I know I can focus. But what irritates me is the compulsion in the opposite direction, the sense that if I take the time to focus on just one thing I'll miss out on a wealth of other things that are going on. This is silly, really, and I know it, but it's a sea change in culture that you have to swim against or be overcome by.

As to Facebook, let me be clear to those "friended": I do want to be your friend but did not find the immediacy of what you were doing or thinking helpful to that friendship. In 60 days of such "reading" of friends' statuses, all contained in 140 characters or less, only one moved me to contemplation, and that was because their comment came in the rich context of an existing personal face-to-face friendship. I'm sure there is some good in all this, like conveying bits of information to a group organized around a particular cause or activity. But mostly it seems to me a waste of time! In addition, it seems to feed an exaggerated sense of self-importance, as if what I am doing at every moment of the day is worth commenting on. "I'm at work." "I'm looking out the window at a tree." "Traffic's bad on I-40 today." Do I really need to know all this? Do I need to read it? Do you need to tell me?

I like what Scott McCracken said about our age in a recent Relevant Magazine article called "The Problem of Pride in Twitter:" "In times like these --- when it's easier and more alluring than ever to be or feel important --- Christians must remember that we're not called to be viral superstars, we're called to be living sacrifices. We're not instructed to make ourselves look as good as possible in front of the largest audience we can; no, we are instructed to deny ourselves and follow Christ."

Scripture is replete with admonitions to meditate on the Word and World, on God's revelation of himself written in words as well as in His acts in His World --- in the past and in the present. The World and Word are alive with meaning, but it will only give it up to us when we settle down and listen, ponder, and pray. For that hyper trinity --- Google, Facebook, and Twitter --- will in the end leave me empty, bloated with information but starved for meaning and deep communion. I need a better diet. How about you?

I Think I Can’t, I Think I Can’t

Huge.10.51083 So often we can, when we think we can’t, or we cannot, when we think we can.  We are so often poor at accurately assessing our own gifts and abilities.  More often, we fail to trust God, the one who gives us all we have.

Take Moses, for example.  Brought up in Pharaoh's court, he undoubtedly had access to education and all its benefits, including training in leadership and public speaking, and yet when God goes to him after he has fled to Midian, he thinks he cannot do what he is asked to do, but he can.  God says “I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the people of Israel, out of Egypt,” and he says “Who am I that I should go” and “They will not believe me or listen to my voice” and “I am not eloquent. . . I am slow of speech and of tongue.”  Excuses, excuses.  Even after God promises to be with him, promises to speak through him, he ultimately begs out, saying “Oh, my Lord, send someone else.”  God sends Aaron not to be with Moses because Moses needs him but because Aaron is the tangible sign of God’s presence, a concession to Moses’ lack of trust.  He thinks he can’t, but he really can.

Moses is not remembered as a weak, ineffectual, shrinking sort of man.  In Stephen’s speech to the Sanhedrin recounting the history of God’s people, he says that “Moses was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and he was mighty in words and deeds” (Acts 7:22).  Is this revisionist history?  Moses, mighty in words?  In Stephen’s account, faithful to the Genesis narrative in every way, he curiously omits any reference to Moses’ protestations before the burning bush, going from “I will send you to Egypt,” to “This man led them out, performing wonders and signs in Egypt. . .” (Acts 7:34, 36).  Moses is not remembered for his poor assessment of his abilities, for his fear and lack of trust in God, but for faithfully doing what God said.  God did it through him.

This is reassuring.  God gives us the ability to do anything He asks of us and even makes concession for our small faith, for our fear, but giving us tangible signs of his presence.  That might be an encouraging friend.  It might be the entire church community.  For that matter, it could be your dog.  It is, after all, God who is “with his mouth,” who “taught him what to say.”  As Peter said, “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness. . . “ (2 Peter 1:3), and Paul reminds us that it is Him “who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us” (Eph. 3:20).  With God, when we think we can’t, He can.

Maybe you’re like me.  I have a list of things I cannot do, things that seem too daunting for me, that ultimately I avoid because, in the end, I am afraid I might fail.  And yet, if God wants me to do it (and that is key), I cannot ultimately fail, can I?  I think I can’t, but really I can.

Children of Eden

ChildrenOfEden-small Over the last few years I've been treated to a number of drama productions courtesy of my children.  Some were outstanding school or church productions; some, not so outstanding --- but of course I went.  They are my children!  However, their latest venture is something quite different.

NorthBend Productions’ Broadway Arts Conservatory in partnership with Wake Forest Baptist Church’s Virginia Tull Fine Arts Series is presenting a spectacular all youth production of Children of Eden. Directed by Broadway veteran George Merritt, the youth cast represents 34 different schools (public, private and homeschool students) and 25 different churches from across the Triangle.   The production is professional quality, family-friendly entertainment --- something you can't say about all such productions.
Children of Eden, from Stephen Schwartz (“Godspell” and “Pippin”) and John Caird of “Les Misérables”, is a joyous and inspirational musical about parents, children and faith... not to mention centuries of unresolved family business!  Based loosely on the story of Genesis, the story is a frank, heartfelt and often humorous examination of the age-old conflict between parents and children. Adam, Eve, Noah and the “Father” who created them deal with the headstrong, cataclysmic actions of their respective children. The show ultimately delivers a bittersweet but inspiring message that "the hardest part of love... is letting go."

This is really an outstanding production.  You can see it at Wake Forest Baptist Church on Sunday, January 18th at 3:00 (tickets $15 at the door), or you can see it next weekend at Fletcher Hall, a great 600 seat venue adjacent to Memorial Auditorium in downtown Raleigh.  For ticket information, visit the web page here.  I hope to see you there.

Chase the Buffalo: Pierce Pettis Presses On

14970f050c5f770.7408673811 One of the earliest singer-songwriter albums I bought during my "folk phase" was one by Pierce Pettis.  At the time, the musical wood were thick with guitar toting troubadours, and Windham Hill, a New Age music label, formed an imprint, High Street, just for singer-songwriters, one of which was Pierce.  My favorite release by Pierce was an album that has been out of circulation for at least 10 years.  Entitled Chase the Buffalo, it was produced by the late and legendary Mark Heard and was marked by some lyrically amazing songs.  He's only gotten better with age, and while singer-songwriters ultimately suffered at the hands of major labels eager to ride a wave of urban music in the Nineties, Pierce has endured and is on tour with his latest release, That Kind of Love.

But to appreciate Pierce, you need to see him live.  And now you can do that in the best way, in a small, intimate house setting in Raleigh, North Carolina on February 13th, as Pierce tours to promote his record.  A reservation is required, and we are filling fast.  So for more information about how to reserve a seat, as well as to check out video and audio of Pierce, see our Brookhaven House Concerts page here.

Odessa: A Bee Gees Pop Classic

Odessa My college years (1976-1980) were marred by the advent of disco, with its mirror balls, bumping dance, and mindless lyrics.  I listened to a lot of Jackson Browne and the (then) more novel and fresh sounds of what came to be known as contemporary Christian music.  Sad to say, my memory of the Bee Gees remains tainted by the memory of that sad musical era when, musically, I was just "staying alive." Ugh.

But, I forget, as do most, that Barry, Maurice, and Robin Gibb had a life before disco, crafting great pop songs laced with intricate harmonies and lush instrumentation.  Not only could they sing, but they were multi-talented instrumentalists who also wrote their own songs.  Their 1969 two-disc release, Odessa, was emblematic of that era --- 17 original songs that featured generally simple acoustic arrangements supplemented by symphonic backing, lyrically spanning the gamut from English mythology to love songs, with enough diversity in tempo and sound to keep it interesting all the way through.  But before considering the music, pause for a minute and consider the packaging.  It will remind us of what we have lost.

The late Sixties and early Seventies were still the of the LP, its very size providing artists with a larger palette for their creativity.  Not only could they write and sing their own songs, maybe even produce their own albums, their artistic control extended to packaging.  Jefferson Airplane puts Bark in a brown paper bag, Grand Funk Railroad's E Plurbius Funk is round instead of square, Traffic's Low Spark of High Heeled Boys is a parallelogram, the Raspberries's self-titled debut is a scratch and sniff cover, just to name a few --- and Odessa is released in a bi-fold, 2-disc red velour cover.  It's like a "touch and feel" children's book, or wallpaper from Elvis's bedroom.  Inside there is a drawing spanning the 2-page bi-fold of a capsized boat with a captain throwing a child to the waiting arms of those in a lifeboat (a shipwreck the subject of the album's theme song).  I remember holding that album.  Music was multi-sensory then.  Not only did you hear it, you felt it, saw it, had the tangible reminder (icon) of the album.  That has been lost.

But enough of that lament and on to the music.  What I did not realize before was the proficient instrumentalists the Gibbs brothers were.  For example, there is Maurice Gibb's flamenco guitar work on the title cut, "Odessa," or his bass, piano, or mellotron on other tracks.  Robin also contributed keyboards, and Barry, acoustic guitar.  With Colin Peterson on percussion, they truly were a band, not just singers fronting a band.  Three of the 17 tracks are instrumentals.  "Seven Seas Symphony," for example, was essentially performed live in the studio, with Maurice Gibb playing piano to a backing by choir and orchestra.  All in all, what stands out to me is the masterful songwriting.  These brothers knew how to craft a pop song and how to sustain interest in an album by having a diverse collection of tempos and instruments and topics.

The second disc in the collection is a mono recording of the entire album, released initially in mono.  It's interesting to compare stereo and mono and realize what a significant change it was at the time.  The third disc is filled with early demos or alternate takes of all the songs on Odessa, all good.  Combined with liner notes that discuss the differences with the released version, it's an interesting peek into the creative process, with some lyrics abandoned or changed, instruments modified, and, in one case (with "Pity"), the song never completed.  With the included poster and sticker, it makes for a great package, albeit more for collectors than typical music consumers.

Me, I'm just glad to have some music I can actually put my hands around.  And yes, I forgive them for disco.

Seeing in the Dark


"Antonio, I busted in there as mad as a hornet, but you can't stay mad when you start thinking things like that.  Once you begin noticing the lines a man's got round his eyes and mouth and think about the way his folks gave a hopeful name to him when he was first born into this world, you might as well give up."

"I said, 'Virgil, the night is dark, and we are far from home.'  How come it was the words of that old hymn popped into my mind just then to say?  I don't know, but it did.  I said, 'The night is dark, Virgil Roebuck, and home's a long way off for both of us.'"  

(Leo Bebb, to Virgil Roebuck, in The Book of Bebb, by Frederick Buechner)

I revisited an old friend, Leo Bebb, this past weekend.  Bebb is the former con man, flim-flam artist, and most profound reverend at the center of Frederick Buechner's quartet of novels, collectively known as The Book of Bebb.  Bebb is a provocative mixture of the sacred and profane, a man who has seen it all, sinned much, and yet is all the more full of grace. His encounter with Roebuck --- his non-believing, bitter nemesis --- is indicative of the charitable way he viewed the unlovely, perhaps because he knew that he was not so much different than them.

What Bebb is referring to here is a conversation he had with Roebuck. It's one of the most profound "sermons" I have ever read or heard, painful in its honesty and rich in grace, and yet because of the profanity I doubt it'll be preached from any pulpit, and I cannot reprint it here. But take my word for it: Bebb reaches Roebuck in that moment because he understands what is behind the crusty exterior of the man. He knows something of his pain, and Roebuck knows it, and because he knows it, for a moment Bebb has credibility. Roebuck really listens.

I often watch people, but much less often do I regard them as does Bebb, "noticing the lines a man's got round his eyes and mouth," considering what particular struggles they have. I particularly have difficulty regarding those who are annoying or embittered in this way, people who are unpleasant to be around. Maybe even people who are not happy. We like happy people, you know. And yet these are just the people I need to take a better look at, because if I can have compassion for them then I should be able to have compassion for anyone.

It's said that if you pray for such people, you'll begin to have compassion for them. In other words, God will give you eyes to see what is behind their unpleasantness. But it's also true that if you write stories about them you will begin to know them as well. Indeed, the best stories are the ones that portray their characters as the complex people we all are. They help us see the hope in a name given by parents to a child, the promise and peril of being human.

There is a young woman I met in Africa named Fortunate. Can you imagine that? Her parents gave her a name that they hoped she might see fulfilled. Similarly with Grace and Faith, two other women I met. Names with promise.

Thanks to Bebb, I'm a little closer to seeing people for who they are and, maybe, a little more compassionate. I'm better seeing in the dark.

Moving, Again


In Haven Kimmel's novel, The Used World, there is a wonderful description of the effect of time and decay on an abandoned house, on the gradual process by which the house loses its quality as a home. One of the main characters visits her rural homeplace, walking through each room, noting how the memories of sounds, smells, and sights, while still faintly present, had faded. The home was well on its way to becoming a mere house.

I'm moving my office today. It doesn't really compare well to moving from a home, but still I will miss the place I have spent the last nine months. I packaged up all my pictures and various diplomas within two hours, and I'm sitting now with a few open files, my phone, and my laptop. It's already changing. Most of what I remember about this room is what I brought to it, and those being loaded on carts and moved, not much is left. In a few minutes I'll shut the computer down, take my coat off the coat rack, and walk down and around the hall to my new office, and that'll be it.

I'll miss the trees out my window and the morning sun which is a great comfort when you face a difficult day. "In His light we see light," says the Psalmist, and I'll miss the morning light. I'll miss the trees too, reminding me of how durable we are when we are firmly rooted in God's promises. I'll not forget morning prayers looking at an oak tree that is older than me (some things are), reminding me how temporal life is, how we are moving through in route to our real Home, our ultimate (and most fulfilling) work, our lasting and enduring eternal relationships. The squirrels moving through the branches of the trees and birds perched on a power line were also great companions, as this office, in a somewhat isolated area of our building, is alone. But I was never alone.

But enough of this sentimentalism. I have judgment to exercise! Once again, the tares of obsolete or superseded periodicals must be thrown out, the wheat of current, useful reference books saved. I may judge poorly. Ensconced in my new digs, months from now, I may wish I had kept this or that. I am fallible. And yet the process reminds me that my Mover is lovingly and perfectly judging me all the time, cutting away the dross of bad habits and saving and adding to what is good, conforming me to the image of Christ, steadily telling me to press on.

He, the One in Whom we live and move and have our being, says the Apostle Paul, is behind all our moving. As Jesus says, He is preparing a place for us, and we are being prepared for that place. Every habitation, whether office or home, is a dim reflection of the deep settledness we will know there. And I'm ready. Things change. God doesn't. Thank God, we do.

Before I save and power down, before I shut the door one last time, let me just make this disclaimer: I get attached to places. Can you tell?

Letting Go


Last week my hard drive crashed. I love it when that happens. Seriously, I do.

It's a liberating feeling to know that all those categorized emails, old documents, photos that you never got around to printing or using in any way, and even the checkbook register are gone, consigned to data oblivion on a hard drive that is so sick it won't give them up. At first I was upset, then sad (the loss!), and then as I began to think about it a great sense of relief came over me. I get to start over. Clean slate. Tabula erasa. Like declaring bankruptcy and being liberated from debt. Mostly, I do not even know what I lost, so I can't even really miss it until I need it which, in most cases, I won't! I move with ease. My four-year old Windows computer boots and loads programs quicker without the drag of all that data detritus, orphan files, and unused programs. I'm free!

If you're like me, you horde data, sometimes from fear (the IRS will audit me!) and sometimes from the sense of power it gives us, of mastery over our lives. We save the emails, and we even back up our data (my backup failed). And yet much of what we save doesn't really help us, is not even needed. I think I had over 400 emails carefully filed away in subfolders, but frankly, most were never accessed again after being filed. I have to believe that this crash was providential, God's way of helping me let go, His provision of a new start for 2009.

It's not that there aren't things I won't miss. Like emails about what a great person I am (I read those when I'm discouraged). Or a photo here and there (most of mine were saved to DVR, or I would not be so happy). The financial data? I can reconstruct the expenses I need to tell the IRS about. Why would I want to be reminded about what I shouldn't have spent money on last year?

Spiritually, this is the best thing that's happened to me in 2009. It reminds me that I live in the present, in the eternal now, that I need to press on, as the Apostle Paul says, forgetting what lies behind. I'm reminded of the fresh start I get every moment from a God whose "tender mercies are new every morning" (Lam. 3:22-23), who is always forgetting my sin and looking on me as a new creation.

I think I'll get a Mac.

My Lack + Jesus in 2009

Like many of the stories of Jesus in the Gospels, the feeding of the crowds with a few loaves and a few  fishes, recounted in all four Gospels, is one we can grow indifferent too because of its familiarity.   And yet as I was reflecting on the various “lacks” I felt in 2007 (while trying to remember to be thankful for the gifts),  God opened my eyes to the purpose of our various poverties --- all our senses of what we lack.

Personally, I lack discipline to maintain regular times of prayer, Bible reading and study, and day by day obedient living.  And that’s just for starters as to what I lack.  I lack discipline in general, in terms of writing, in terms of consistent parenting, and physical exercise.  I don’t seem to have what I need to get the job done.  I’m struggling with a writing project, and have been all year, and I don’t know how to begin.  It seems overwhelming.  It’s easy to begin focusing on what I “can’t do.”  But I’ll stop.  The encouraging part is coming.

We are in a desolate place.  The disciples asked Jesus “How can we feed these people with bread here in this desolate place?”  That’s really our state.  We are a people that are not who we were meant to be in a place that is not our home with a great lack in our lives, like the Israelites exiled to Babylon.  So part of what I have to do is recognize my lack of all that I really need to get anything done.

We are not without Jesus.  They may have had little, but the disciples had Jesus, and that was enough.  That’s who they went to with their lack.  That’s who they asked their questions to.  So many times I can sit around in my lack and do not really carry it to Jesus, carry to Him even the question of “how do I begin” or “what can I do?”  I’m ignoring the One who, as in the story’s desolate place, I can be sure will have a compassionate and able response.

We have something to give.  Jesus said “How many loaves do you have?”  And so He says to us, “What do you have?”  That’s where we begin.  We take what we have, and as pitiful as it may seem, we offer it up to God.  Jesus does that in Matthew’s account, giving thanks for the few loaves and few fish, and then offering it to the people.

With Jesus, what we have is more than enough.  Given to God, with thanks, the little that the disciples had was more than enough to meet the need.  In fact, there were seven baskets of food left over after the multitude (over 5000) had had all they could eat.  That should say to me that the little that I have is more than enough for any need set before me --- more than enough, that is, plus Jesus.

Another year is over, and as Paul says, the one thing we do is “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead” (Phil. 3:14).  The promise of the story is that if we admit our lack, if we offer up what we have, then with Jesus it will be more than enough.  What He did through one small boy can also be done through us.  Can you believe that?

[As you begin another year, this could be a year when you read the Bible.  I lack the ability to do it.  But my lack plus Jesus will suffice.  The schedule provided here gives four daily readings. I’ve not used this approach before, but it is flexible and has forgiving aspects (like only giving readings for 25 days each month).  Will you attempt it too?]