Saturday, October 11, 2014

The Beauty of Croa...Creation

The honeymoon period was over long ago. I've lived in Croatia for seven years. My wife and I have settled down. We have a family, jobs and everyday responsibilities. Naturally, I don't experience the country I live in the same way I did when I first arrived.

But every now and then there are days like yesterday. Due to a meeting I had in Istra two days ago, I woke up in Poreč - the westernmost Croatian city. Not having been to the oldest structure in Croatia yet, I drove an hour with my friend to Pula: (red arrow on the left of the map).

The Arena in Pula, the only completely preserved of six remaining Roman arenas in the world, is 2,000 years old.

Two Thousand Years Old! 

I'm not sure that's even possible for an American to fathom. Anyway, the structure that has seen gladiators, martyrs, knights and Elton John is located right off the water where fishing boats were coming in from their overnight haul. Between the antiquity of the architecture and the openness of the sea, the thing that seemed most normal to me about the situation I found myself in was the language being spoken. In other words, everything was foreign to this American. Everything was exotic. Again.

Croatia's land mass is the size of West Virginia. But if you were to drive from East to West, then North to South it would take more than 20 hours - and that's even on some of the best roads Europe has to offer going upwards of 80 miles an hour (the speed "limit" on Croatian highways). Croatia is so wide and diverse that it has signs in Italian, Hungarian and the Cyrillic alphabet depending on where you are geographically. And when you start learning its history it's like trying to fit a gust of wind in your lungs.

We had to quickly move on. Picking up the highway in Pula and driving said 80 miles an hour we set off for Slavonija - the easternmost region where we live. We made a quick stop near Zagreb for lunch and finally arrived in Orahovica 6 hours after departure.

The jezero has become one of my favorite places to run, pray and take in the beauty of God's creation.

Its history is much shallower than Pula's but it has been home for some of the deepest spiritual moments of my life. Yesterday, I had just enough time to soak in the familiar sights helping me decompress from the all the driving.

Then it was time to go again. I had arranged to go to a piano concert in Osijek with some friends.

In Osijek, I found myself with a congregation of evangelical Christians in a synagogue listening to an American play selections written by German, French and Russian composers.
Photo Courtesy of Daniel Wurzberg
It's not easy to make a percussive instrument sound melodic, but Sam Rotman did just that while delighting the audience with a diverse pallete of musical colors. I can't imagine that even the composers of the pieces he played could have been any more enthusiastic about their music than he was. As he explained during a short talk, every concert he played was for Jesus.

I have to admit that a classical piano recital followed by a moving personal testimony is the sort of program I've never been a part of. But by the end of the concert it made complete sense. Rotman's conviction is that Christ is worth devoting his whole life to. Playing the piano with excellence for audiences around the world is his way of doing so.

It was a fitting end to a delightful day. Diverse visual and aural beauty from sunrise to sunset reminded me of the pulchritude Croatia has to offer. As has been the case in the past, Croatia's beauty pointed me to creation's beauty.

The heavens declare the glory of God
The skies proclaim the work of his hands

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

David's First Chestnuts

It's not until the aroma of roasting chestnuts fills streets and kitchens throughout Croatia that autumn has really arrived. This year, for the first time, we found a vender selling chestnuts in Orahovica. Although we hope to take a trip the woods to look for chestnuts ourselves we were excited to get our hands on them without the effort. Here's David's first taste of chestnuts. 

Friday, September 19, 2014

Bible Song

Heard a song that made some sense out of the world

There are a lot of things on U2's latest album I can relate to. (Hence the series of Songs of Innocence related posts). But the influence the Ramones had on Bono - as sung about on the first track of the album - is impossible for me to resonate with. Instead, I'll reflect on an early and constant influence on my life.

I was raised on the Bible.

My first memories of church are filled predominately with listening to Bible stories and memorizing Bible verses. Most evenings after dinner we read devotionals and memorized some more. Besides my family, there was nothing that influenced my childhood more than the Bible.

Over time, my identity was shaped by the stories and principles the Bible teaches. Of course the verses that summarize our beliefs most concisely (ie John 3:16) were the ones at the foundation of my memory base. But the Lord as a shepherd, Scripture as a lamp and righteousness as a breastplate were pictures that filled my imagination before cartoons ever did.

As I grew older my theology was developed subconsciously through continued memorization. Proverbs 16:9 and Ephesians 1 became go-to proofs of God's sovereignty. Psalm 19 drew me to creation when I was ever tempted to doubt. Paul's dedication to preaching the gospel in the midst of threats to his life were a model to imitate in endeavors to witness to my friends.

Now as an adult I consider the Bible as a source of truth, beauty and inspiration. Here are four reasons why I love the Christian Scriptures.

1. The Bible is Deep
I like to describe a Bible story as an onion. You can peel off the first layer, understand the basic story, and still have a long way to go before you get to the core. Take one of the most well known stories - "The Prodigal Son". Most are familiar with the youngest son and the eventual return to his father. But there's another son. Based on the context, the older son is of equal, if not greater significance to the point of the story. And that's just that story.

One could then also consider how the Prodigal Son fits into the Gospel of Luke, Jesus' ministry and the grand narrative of Scripture. Of course, that's just looking at it from a literary perspective. Imagine, if you will, that you find yourself in the story as one of the two sons. Consider that this story of lost and found, death and resurrection, could have strong spiritual significance. There is no lack of depth to the Bible. In fact, the more I read it, the deeper it is.

2. The Bible is Wide
Isn't it incredible that the book predicting, announcing and preaching God's plan of redemption also includes many other facets, all of which in some way revolve around the main theme? Right from the beginning we get a theological explanation of how the world, animals and humankind were created. But matters of hierarchy, authority, separation and goodness (just to name a few) are all explored in the opening chapters of Genesis. All these topics point to the New Testament, yet are full of meaning in their own right as they stand in the creation narrative.

Subjects like marriage, murder, building, family, slavery, history and redemption are all discussed through narrative - and we haven't even left the first book! Of course, interpreting the text is of absolute importance. But the main point here is that the fact that the Bible spans so many topics over countless generations and cultures is indicative of its complete relevancy to all of creation. The gospel it proclaims to the whole world is proof; Scripture matters to every person on the globe, whether they realize it or not.

3. The Bible is Rich
To describe the Bible with this term is to say that its depth and width overflow with valuable content. It's not an empty wordy space. Scripture is filled with stories, images, beauty and truth that speak to the person reading it. The suffering of Job, the despair of David and the dedication of Paul offer hope to people dealing with similar situations. Prophetic symbolism remind the reader of God's faithfulness and prompts them to respond with thanks, praise and genuine Christian faithfulness.

The Bible's greatest value is that it points to the ultimate treasure - Jesus Christ of Nazareth and the salvation that comes through him alone. Imagine you're an outcast, like the woman at the well (John 4) or Zacchaeus (Luke 19) and the person who was expected to change the world through military force decided to have a drink or meal with you. Chances are you'd take the content of the conversation seriously. In each case, Jesus offered more than expected. Though not the source, the Word of God offers the richest means of knowing the Author of salvation. Nothing is more valuable than that.

4. The Bible is Effective
The Bible claims many things about itself. Throughout my life I've found its claims to be true. For example:
For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
Throughout my life there has been no better mirror for my heart than Scripture. At times I've resonated with the hatred of Cain, the shame of David, the frustration of Ezekiel, the confusion of Peter and the passion of Paul. Yet more often than that, I'm just a regular guy reading the Bible. And even then, Jesus' teachings are incredibly challenging. His claims, while believable through faith, are difficult to live out.

But thankfully there's salvation for people like me. This sword that penetrates my heart, showing its greatest weaknesses, also fills it with hope and joy. The beautiful expressions of God's grace throughout both Testaments prompt me to try to live the sort of life Jesus did. Fortunately, I'm not alone in this endeavor. The Bible offers instruction and directs me to the Spirit through whom Scripture was ultimately written. In this way, the Bible is effective in communicating who God is, who I am and how I should live. I am witness to that.

Believe it or not, this post isn't meant as an apology. My intent isn't to argue for the validity of Scripture. I simply hope to communicate why I have fallen so in love with the Holy Scriptures. They point to the source of life. And my life has been eternally affected by them.

To quote Bono, I "heard a song that made sense of the world." That song is the Bible. 

Thursday, September 18, 2014

A Few of Our Favorite Things (2014 Edition)

Last year, I asked our kids to pick out a few of their favorite things; 1 book, 1 movie and 1 toy they really like. I recorded them telling about their choices. You can watch it here. As it turns out, watching themselves talk about their favorite things is one of their favorite things to do. So, we decided to do it again. Here's an updated version of their favorite things:

Enoh's Favorite Things

Ian's Favorite Things

Emily's Favorite Things

David's Favorite Things (According to his siblings)

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Song for Emily

You've got a face not spoiled by beauty

Your eyes, blue heat
Fueled by pure joy
Melt the iciest of emotions

Your jagged smile underlining
And curling around 
Up to the top with giggles

Flanked on both sides 
The flames are untamed
Sparks too bright for sight

If there is a light you can't always see
And there is a world we can't always be
If there is a dark that we shouldn't doubt
And there is a light don't let it go out

Excitement personified
Comes from a mysterious source
Still unknown to the mediator

And though obliviously
You are leading the believer
To the way away from doubt

You let me into a conversation
A conversation only we could make
You break and enter my imagination
Whatever's in there it's yours to take

Like a child
Words spill teasingly
stylized imperfection

Thoughts bound only by innocence
Spoken freely yet expecting
Confirmation, redemption

If there is a light you can't always see
And there is a world we can't always be
If there is a dark within and without
And there is a light don't let it go out

You have it all
No need to add material
For fear of losing soul

And I'm a long long way from your hill of Calvary
And I'm a long way from where I was and where I need to be

Threats already disposed of
Like expired extinguishers
And chalky blackened wicks

Will tempt to intimidate
But have no influence
As long as the core is aglow

There is a light don't let it go out

Happy 3rd Birthday, Emily!

(Note: Italicized lines from the 4th track of U2's Songs of Innocence.)

Sea Song

Every Breaking Wave

(Best if read while listening to the 2nd track on U2's Songs of Innocence - still free on iTunes)

Levin had been married for three months. He was happy, but not at all in the way he had expected.
Every breaking wave on the shore
Tells the next one there'll be one more
At every step he felt like a man who, after having admired a little boat going smoothly and happily on a lake, then got into this boat. He saw that it was not enough to sit straight without rocking; he also had to keep in mind, not forgetting for a minute, where he was going, that there was water underneath, that he had to row and his unaccustomed hands hurt, that it was easy only to look at, but doing it, while very joyful, was also very difficult.
If you go your way and I go mine
Are we so helpless against the tide?
Baby, every dog on the street
Knows that we're in love with defeat
Are we ready to be swept off our feet
And stop chasing every breaking wave?
As a bachelor, seeing the married life of others, their trifling, cares, quarrels, jealousy, he used only to smile scornfully to himself. In his own future married life, he was convinced, there not only could be nothing like that, but even all its external forms, it seemed to him were bound to be in every way completely unlike other people's lives.
Every sailor knows that the sea
Is a friend made enemy
Every shipwrecked soul knows what it is
To live without intimacy
And suddenly...his life with his wife did not form itself in any special way, but was, on the contrary, formed entirely of those insignificant trifles he had scorned so much before, but which now, against his will acquired an extraordinary and irrefutable significance.
I thought I heard the captain's voice
But it's hard to listen while you preach
Levin never imagined  that there could be any other relations between himself and his wife than tender, respectful, loving ones, and suddenly, in the first days, they quarrelled, and she told him he did not love her, loved only himself, wept and waved her hands.
If you go your way and I go mine
Are we so helpless against the tide?
Baby, every dog on the street
Knows that we're in love with defeat
Are we ready to be swept off our feet
And stop chasing every breaking wave?
He understood clearly for the first time what he had not understood when he had led her out of the church after the wedding. He understood not only that she was close to him, but that he no longer knew where she ended and he began.
You know where my heart is
The same place that yours has been
We know that we fear to win
And so we end before we begin

Notes: Book quotations taken from Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. Italicized quotes from U2's Every Breaking Wave. 

Saturday, September 13, 2014

U2 Can Recreate

The thing about music is that you can always describe it to someone, but they can never listen to it through your ears. Sure, we have ways of comparing bands, singers, styles, genres, tones, textures, and to some extent they help a listener know what to expect. Yet it will always be possible for two people to hear the exact same song/piece and come away with two completely different reactions.

That's one of the characteristics of music I treasure most. You cannot tell me whether a song will stir something inside me or not. I won't know until I listen to it.

A few days ago, U2 released their new album, Songs of Innocence, without a buildup preceding it. The price for 11 songs and a booklet was a few minutes of my time. Yet I valued it because reviewers hadn't gotten their hands on it yet. They hadn't had time to judge whether the melodies were ready for pop radio or if the lyrics measured up to whatever standards they defined. Bono's vocals and The Edge's guitar riffs and hooks floating from my car speakers were fresh, untapped and therefore all the more pure.

That was more than enough for me to be excited about listening to a new CD from a band I've found to be more thought provoking than most other musicians I've listened to. When it comes to U2 the music takes a backseat to the lyrics. Sure, I get the fact that they've got a long history and a vocalist with a very distinctive voice and outspoken political views. But as far as I'm concerned if there isn't some profundity or beauty in the lyrics, regardless of how popular the band is, the music's hardly ever going to do it for me.

See there's something magical about the combination of music and lyric. When it's done right it just goes together. When I say the words "It's a beautiful day" to someone on the street the melody will automatically accompany the words in my head. Likely, it'll do the same to the passerby. You don't need a scientist to tell you it's easier to memorize something if it's part of a melody.

But then there's the combination of words into musical phrases you've never heard before. I'm naturally predisposed to these sort of lyrics. I want phrases that are going to challenge my thinking, cause me to ask questions, or produce a new thought in my head. That's exactly what happened when I listened to Songs of Innocence for the first time. The following lyrics grabbed my attention:
You've got a face not spoiled by beauty...
 "Wait, what? Can beauty spoil something? Let me listen to that again."

And an image came into my head. It was an image I didn't consciously put there. Once it was there though, it instantly gave deeper meaning to the song. It was like there was a conversation between the song and my consciousness, both influencing the other.

Of course there's no way Bono would know what image his lyrics would evoke in my mind. In my opinion, that fact alone points directly to a Creator more creative than the Irish singer. My guess is Bono would agree.

One of the most beautiful gifts we've been given is the ability to create. It's shown in Mozart's music, Tolstoy's masterpieces and yes, even in some rock music these days. In turn, art of all kinds allows the listener, observer and consumer to participate in creation. We get the chance to recreate through interacting with art.

U2's latest isn't the only collection of songs that has provoked me to think deeply about family, faith or culture. But it's the latest. And because I consciously interacted with at least four of the songs on Innocence, I've decided to use this space to convey how the music has affected me.

I'm not sure exactly what that's going to look like. But I'm excited to get started. Perhaps you'd like to do the same sort of thing with the same or a different album or artist. If so, mention it in the comments. Let's recreate!