Tuesday, July 30, 2013

From the Archives: Love the Lord

4 Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. 5 Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. 6 These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. 7 Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 8 Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. 9 Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates. - Deuternomony 6:4-9

Recently, I ran across a song that was built around the familiar verse 5 in the passage above  As I have been meditating on this passage, there were several things that God was revealing to me about what it truly meant to love Him.

First, loving God means to obey His commands with every aspect of our being. Humans are created not just with physical bodies but with an intellect (our minds) and a spiritual being (our soul). As verse 5 commands us, we are to submit to God's will for our lives in all areas. Nothing is to be withheld from God who created us. This is what sanctification is all about: bringing every aspect of our lives into submission to His will.

Second, obedience should be modeled and taught to our children (verse 7). It is not just our own duty to obey God but to teach our children to obey him as well. God is concerned about multiple generations coming to know Him.

Third, instruction in the Lord is continuous (verse 7). Instruction should happen at all times and at every opportunity. Instruction in the Lord is not just about what happens on Sunday morning or during school hours. It's also not just what we say but what we do that will teach our children. We've not only got to teach God's commands to our children but we need to show His love to them as well.

Fourth, our obedience should be visible to others (verses 8-9). In Jewish tradition, phylacteries were tied to their heads and left arms. These small wooden boxes would contain the Old Testament law. They would also attach mezuzot (small wooden or metal containers in which passages of Scripture would be placed) to the doorframes of their houses. By these symbols they would be proclaiming their allegience to God.

Does this mean that we should be tying boxes to our heads? I don't think so. Indeed, Jesus criticized the Pharisees for this practice because they were focused on gaining attention through the symbols and not obeying God's commands. But the principle behind the practice is still clear: If we love the Lord, it should be visible even to those who do not know Him. Our displays of love are a testimony to His power.

This post originally appeared in 2006

Monday, July 29, 2013

Lessons Learned From Nearly a Decade of Blogging

When I started this blog almost ten years ago I had no idea what I was doing. I was reading quite a few blogs and thought I had an idea what blogging was all about. But it has taken me almost 10 years to learn a few lessons about blogging and what it takes to become a successful blogger.

1. Be yourself

This may seem a little obvious but the fact is that the most effective bloggers are those who are themselves. It makes no sense to try to be someone else. If you're blogging you need to find your own voice and be yourself. Granted, it's taken me nearly ten years to figure this out. Perhaps you'll learn this lesson a lot faster.

2. What's your focus? 

The best blogs are those that have a specific focus. They can cover a single topic or multiple topics. But it's easy to define its mission. That's what tends to draw people in is a specific mission usually spelled out in the header so that it's one of the first things we people see when they visit your site.

3. Read other blogs

This also seems a little obvious but the fact is that you become a better blogger by reading other blogs especially those that are not necessarily in your same niche. The same way you become a better writer by reading good writing you become a better blogger by reading other effective bloggers.

4. Write about what you know but write about things you don't know about too

There is an old adage that writers should write about what they know. But that's mostly bunk. With the advent of the internet research is much easier than it used to be. You can access almost any piece of information in a flash. Half the fun in blogging is often writing about thinks that peak your curiosity and then the joy of researching the subject. Allow your blog to be an outlet for your curiosity.

5. Forget about statistics

Let's face it, we can't all be super-popular bloggers like Instapundit. He draws insane amounts of traffic. Then again, he's built his audience over a number of years. He's also incredibly prolific. But trying to replicate his or any other top 100 blogger's traffic is a futile exercise. It's difficult to tell what will cause a particular post to go viral so it's best not to try to do it.

By the same token, don't get hung up on a lack of comments. While it's great to have feedback from readers you can't take a lack of comments as rejection of what you're saying. There is also no point in saying something controversial for the sake of increasing traffic or starting a fight online.

6. On the other hand, you should promote your blog

Social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest didn't even exist when I started blogging. But all three can be used effectively to promote a blog. It's also a good idea to promote the blog across multiple platforms. Part of the reason is your circle of influence is probably not the same on each platform. For example, my followers on Twitter are not all the same as my Facebook friends. By promoting a post on both platforms I am widening the potential audience for the blog.

It also helps when you use a shortcut to do the promoting for you automatically. Here's how I do it: I use Twitterfeed to periodically scan the blog for new posts. When a new post goes online (and I schedule posts in advance - more on that below) Twitterfeed will automatically tweet the post to my Twitter followers. I have also enabled my Twitter feed to post my tweets to Facebook. It all works without my having to think about it and drives traffic effortlessly to the blog.

7. Post daily if possible

Folks are more willing to return to your blog if they can count on seeing fresh content every day (or at least every weekday). In looking back over my statistics I see I have more posts going up on the blog on a regular basis.

8. Plan ahead

Ever since I moved away from blogging about politics and current events it has become easier to write more posts and to schedule them in advance so that I always have fresh content on the blog. Nearly every host I know of will allow you to schedule posts to publish in advance. So it's best to take advantage of that option as it also helps you in promoting your blog if there is always fresh content (see #6 above). Part of the reason I do it is because of lack of leisure time to blog so it's often better for me to write several things in advance and then spread them out over the course of several days. Of course, I still have the flexibility to post something more current if there's an event in the news or something I have seen online that I feel that I should comment on.

9. Introverts make better bloggers

Since introverts tend to prefer communicating in writing rather than orally, they are naturally inclined to be better bloggers. The best blog posts are those that are well thought out and thoroughly researched. These are the kinds of things that introverts are more naturally inclined to enjoy doing. Blogging is actually a great outlet for those who tend to be introverted.

It takes time and patience to build a blog. But it's a whole lot of fun. If you haven't taken the plunge I highly recommend it.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Friday Tweet recap

It's Friday so it's time for a recap of some things of interest I found on Twitter this week for your weekend enjoyment:

This past week marked the 44th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Astronaut Buzz Aldrin did something unusual during the mission: he took communion on the moon.

More Apollo 11 from LIFE Magazine: Up Close with Apollo 11. These are some amazing photos (some of which weren't published in the magazine.

This is from one of my favorite sites: Fathering With Intentionality: The Importance of Creating a Family Culture.

From one of my favorite book-related blogs, 3 steps that will help you read more books during the summer.

Former President George H. W. Bush shaved his head to support the 2 year old son of a member of his Secret Service detail who is battling leukemia.

The best students don't go to public school.

For my bookish friends, 10 pieces of Jane Eyre swag.

Is reading worth the effort?

10 Insights to Help Us Better Relate to Others.

If you're travelling to London (or perhaps live there) be on the lookout for Books on the Underground. This is a neat idea.

A must-see interview with Eric Metaxas about religious freedom.

How you can make your life better by sending 5 simple e-mails.

Here's a sure sign that you're in the South.

How to cook a steak at home that will be better than anything you can get in a restaurant. I put this to the test and it worked perfectly.

So my team (the Cubs) are pretty much out of the pennant race for this season barring a miracle comeback. How about projecting which World Series matchups we'd like to see? 

Ever find yourself in need of a Disney quote? Here's the place to go.

"But God pursued me." How a liberal columnist came to know Christ.

8 Brilliant Scientific Screw-ups.

That's it. Have a great weekend.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Who to Follow on Twitter - Let's Eat!

I love to eat and so consequently I'm interested in posts about food. My wife and I love to search out new recipes to try so we try to accumulate some reliable sites where we can find fun things to try. The fact that we are now following a grain-free diet makes it a little more of a challenge but thankfully I've found some great folks to follow on Twitter to help.

Alton Brown (@altonbrown)

The Food Network star was reportedly reluctant to start tweeting but fans naturally flocked to his feed. They certainly haven't been disappointed. Perhaps the most interesting thing is that he doesn't tweet like other folks. He writes his answers out on Post-It notes and then tweets the photos. My favorite thing to see is when he answers fans' questions about food.

Serious Eats (@seriouseats)

Another great feed to follow for those serious about food. A nice mix of recipes, cooking tips and dining suggestions.

Nom Nom Paleo (@nomnompaleo)

Going grain free is not as easy as it sounds. In fact, our diet is a cross between a paleo diet and a grain-free/starch-free diet. Learning how to modify recipes to make them fit those parameters means finding some good resources. Michelle Tam is one of the best paleo chefs on the web and her blog is a lot of fun. She frequently posts new recipes as well as links to other paleo chefs in her feed. She's definitely worth following if you're toying with the idea of going on a paleo diet. Her cookbook Nom Nom Paleo: Food for Humans will be published in December.

Cavegirl Cuisine (@CavegirlCuisine)

Another of my recommended paleo bloggers, she offers a variety of recipes and is also frequently delving into dairy-free options (another real plus for my diet). She also posts lots of pictures of dishes which is a real help in figuring out how these recipes should turn out.

Against All Grain (@againstallgrain)

Danielle Walker not only cooks paleo dishes but also deals with an autoimmune disorder which requires her to cook gluten free as well. This is another of my favorite recipe sites to go to for suggestions on what to cook. She has an extensive recipe index broken down by meal type which makes it easy to find what you are looking for. Her cookbook Against All Grain publishes on July 30.

Elana's Pantry (@elanaspantry)

When we first started researching the whole paleo and grain-free diet thing Elana Amsterdam was one of the first bloggers we found. It's because of her that we have found ways to have baked goods in our house that were still grain free. She was also the person that introduced us to the wonders of almond flour and the best place to find it. Her latest cookbook is Paleo Cooking from Elana's Pantry.

Food Riot (@FoodRiot)

Their Twitter tag line is "Play With Your Food". That sums up what this site is all about. It's the place to go for the latest in food news. They also feature links to fun recipes.

Cooking for Bros (@cookingforbros)

It's a bit of a misconception that guys can't cook. Plenty of them can. However, for some men cooking can be a little overwhelming at first. The concept behind Cooking for Bros is to provide easy, delicious recipes that anyone can prepare. Most recipes only involve five ingredients which makes preparation easy. They also offer great tips on how to do different things in the kitchen that any novice cook will find informative. Their cookbook is available both in paperback and as a PDF download.

Taste of the Town (@Taste_The_Town)

Todd Blackledge has a great job. He gets to highlight the best eats in college football towns across the country on ESPN. His feed is a great one to follow if you're looking for great places to eat when you're travelling. Plus fans are constantly offering new suggestions that are worth checking out. His book will be published on September 3rd.

Related: Who to Follow on Twitter - Don't Know Much About History 

Girls with Guns

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

A Modest Proposal to Reform Baseball

On the heels of Ryan's Braun's 65 game suspension in connection with the Biogenesis PED scandal, fans are calling for changes to be made to Major League Baseball's drug testing program. If other stars such as Alex Rodriguez are handed suspensions as is being widely reported it's reasonable to expect those calls for reform to get much, much louder.

First, to briefly recap: after an ugly period in baseball history where steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs were widely reported to be in use by major stars such as Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire, Major League Baseball took steps to toughen up its drug program. Under the current system, any player failing a drug test the first time is suspended for fifty games. A second offense draws a 100 game suspension and a third offense a lifetime ban from baseball.

Earlier this year, news broke that up to 20 current players were accused of obtaining performance enhancing drugs from the now-defunct clinic Biogenesis of America. After extensive negotiations with clinic owner Anthony Bosch, Major League Baseball was able to obtain extensive records from the clinic. Braun's suspension was the first sign that Major League Baseball had the goods on a number of players and would begin handling down suspensions.

Braun's case is made more difficult by the fact that in 2011 he failed a testosterone test and would have drawn a fifty game suspension. He successfully appealed and got the test thrown out on a technicality. Many fans believed then that he was doping, a suspicion that was confirmed by his agreement to accept the suspension this week even though he has not admitted taking any PEDs.

Braun's case aside, there is still a question as to whether the current penalties in place are sufficient deterrents to doping. Although it's definitely a step in the right direction, I think it's time to make the penalties tougher. I have my doubts as to whether both the owners and players would ever agree to it but if they are all serious about cleaning up the game they need to consider changing the rules to prevent doping in the future.

First offense: One year suspension without pay.
50 games is not enough of a deterrent to prevent someone from doping. A year would be a sufficient penalty to keep a player from even consider doping.

Second offense: One year suspension without pay; club option to void contract at end of suspension; player also ineligible for All-Star Game or any awards for five years.

The key here is the club option to void the contract. If a player has cheated and been caught twice it seems only fair that the club should have the option at the end of the suspension to decide whether they want to keep that player on the roster. It's also natural that a player guilty of two offenses shouldn't be able to benefit in other ways such as participating in the All-Star game or receiving any awards or other recognition.

Third offense: Lifetime ban

This is the part of the current program that makes the most sense. Three strikes and you're out. This aspect would remain identical to the current program.

Granted, this is a more radical approach than what Major League Baseball has in place now. But owners and players should seize upon the opportunity that the Biogenesis scandal has provided to them: to rid the game of PEDs once and for all. If they don't then the game doesn't have a very bright future. PEDs are a scourge on the game that the guardians of baseball cannot afford to tolerate any longer.

Worship Thoughts: Special Music

I have a pet peeve when it comes to worship services. In just about every church that I have been a part of or visited in the past 25 years there is a tradition to have someone sing a solo during the service (usually called "special music" in church lingo). While I don't have anything against well-meaning believers who bravely stand up and sing in front of their congregations, I do have an issue with what appears to be a worldy practice that has creeped into our worship.

As a worship leader, I understand the challenges of leading a congregation in song. Congregational singing is an important part of worship. Music helps bring us together in worshiping the Lord. Music speaks to our hearts. It can be used to teach sound doctrine. Music is a critical part of our worship.

Worship leaders face a constant challenge to keep the focus of their congregations on the Lord rather than on them and the other singers and musicians that join them at the front of the church. One of the common pitfalls many worship leaders face is getting caught up in their own performance and losing sight of their true mission: focus on the Lord.

This is why I don't understand the practice of featuring a soloist. "Special Music" takes the congregation out of the equation by depriving them of the opportunity to participate in worship through song. It turns the focus of our attention away from God and to whomever is singing on the stage. In addition, the tradition of applauding once the performance has concluded seems to add to this sense that we've just witnessed a performance rather than worship.

Compounding the problem is the fact the person singing is not always capable of pulling off a solo. Although I consider myself a decent singer and musician I also know my limitations well enough to know that I couldn't handle a solo performance. It's a tough job for a singer to complete. When you have someone who can't handle the job it becomes a distraction rather than drawing the audience further into worship.

At the other extreme are those who sing well but get caught up in performing rather than worshiping. Sitting in the audience you almost feel like you're watching an American Idol audition rather than participating in worship. It's been a rare occasion when I have witnessed a special music performance that drew me further into worship.

Finally, if we're doing the same thing every week how can we then call it special? If the church is going to continue this practice perhaps it should be done less frequently?

As with anything else that we do as part of our worship service I think it's time we re-examine whether the practice of including special music is one that we need to continue. Given the choice, I would rather see the church spend more time in corporate worship in song rather than highlighting the talents of one or two individuals. We need to be sure that everything we do in the context of our worship service is truly focused on worship. We need to be willing to examine our traditions carefully and to discard those things that distract our focus from God. The church will be stronger and our worship will be more pure as a result.

UPDATE: After I finished writing this post I ran across this article by Bob Kauflin. After reading it I am convinced that there is a place for soloists in the church but that it perhaps is done too often and for the wrong reasons. Bob offers some good cautions to worship leaders who want to incorporate soloists into their services. I appreciate his wisdom and insight.

Have you had any similar experiences? Do you agree or disagree with this post? I would love to hear from you. Please give me your feedback in comments below.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Set Your Mind on the Right Things

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.. - Philippians 4:4-8
So often the challenges we face are made more difficult by the fact that we haven't set our minds on dwelling on the right things. We allow ourselves to become overcome with anxiety and worry rather than focusing our attention on the things we need to be thinking about. This is what Paul refers to as being "transformed by the renewing of your mind" in Romans 12:2. As we look at his exhortation to the congregation at Philippi a little closer we see three key lessons that Paul is trying to teach us.

First, our lives should be characterized by rejoicing in all things and in all circumstances. Paul commands us to rejoice in the Lord always (verse 4). It's so important that he repeats the command. Our default position should be one of worship in everything we do. The natural consequence is that gentleness will be evident to all as noted in verse 5.

Second, Paul commands us to not be anxious about anything (verses 6-7). However, it's not a command to simply not worry. Like so many of his teachings, Paul is coupling giving up one thing (being anxious) with doing something else (prayer). It also comes with a promise that by following through on this instruction you will be blessed with the peace of God (verse 7) that will guard your heart and your mind in Jesus.

Just imagine for a moment how the Philippians probably reacted to reading that instruction. I can imagine more than one of them saying something like "What does Paul know about not being anxious? Doesn't he know what stresses I am facing? Doesn't he know what difficult situations I have to deal with?" No doubt there were a few of his readers that were probably put off by Paul's exhortation to not be anxious. That's my first reaction, too. But then Paul knew exactly what he was talking about. He had faced his own share of trials (see Acts 27:13-44, for example). He had faced numerous perilous situations throughout the course of his ministry. So he had experienced firsthand the peace of God as he had practically applied the advice he was now giving to the Philippians.

Finally, Paul concludes by encouraging the Philippians to set their minds on the right things (verse 8). It's our human nature to dwell on negative things rather than on the ways that we are blessed. Applying Philippians 4:8 requires a radical change in outlook and conditioning ourselves to respond in a Christlike manner to things that happen to us rather than out of our sinful nature. In other words, we need to not allow ourselves to be robbed of the joy of knowing Jesus. Don't focus on what you don't have or what you need. Focus instead on the blessings that God has given you.

By setting our mind on the right things, we can dramatically alter our outlook on life and increase our ability to be a blessing to others. By setting our hearts and minds on worship, we can become a shining light for Christ in a world lost in the darkness of sin.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Friday Tweet Recap

It's Friday and it means that it's time for another recap of items that I tweeted recently that caught my attention. Enjoy the links!

Have you ever wondered whether to accept a LinkedIn invitation from someone? Here's some good advice on deciding whether to accept or decline.

If you are like me and work online then e-mail can be your worst enemy. Here are some tips on how to manage your e-mail.

First he was a rock and roll musician. Then he became a hero.

My daughter (who is an aspiring writer) shared the four worst pieces of advice for young writers.

How baseball saved a relationship between a father and son.

The original outfield obstruction.

The Home Run Derby is a fixture at baseball's annual All Star Game festivities. But it was a television show first.

Here are nine traditions that have been lost from baseball.

You don't see this every day: a bunt double.

It's the dream of every blogger to have a post go viral. Here's how one blogger did it without even really trying.

Outfitted and equipped for working at a coffee shop.

Ten really cool lifehacks from 100 years ago.

39 Hidden Mickeys found in Disney animated movies.

This movie looks like it will be really good: Saving Mr. Banks.

10 fabulous pieces of Shakespeare swag.

Can't make it to Monticello? Now you can visit it via Google Street View.

Yesterday was Independence Day. Here are reflections on two great speeches from Abraham Lincoln and Lou Gehrig (yes, there is a connection). Bonus: here's a color photo of Gehrig from that speech.

Young George Washington's experience one July 4th went on to shape our quest for independence.

How to apply the craftsman's work ethic to our everyday lives.

Dumb criminal alert: robber fails to get money from convenience store clerk and the wanders off to the Mug Shot Saloon for a drink (you can't make this stuff up).

One of the most overlooked amendments to the Constitution is the Third which prohibits the quartering of soldiers in citizens' homes during peacetime. This was a common problem in Colonial America especially in Boston. So it doesn't normally come up in the normal course of litigation. However, one homeowner decided to assert his Third Amendment rights against the police who wanted to use his home for a stakeout. It will be interesting to see whether the court agrees with the homeowner's argument.

Whatever you might think of his policies or his time as President you would have to agree that George W. Bush is a decent person. One of his big priorities while he was president was helping the people of Africa. It still is as can be seen from these photos of his recent trip there to do relief work. More photos here.

The cheeseburger is certainly an All American dish but who knew that each state had it's own unique burger?

Speaking of food, I'm all for trying to get a free meal but this is insane (and somehow incredibly cute at the same time).

That's it for this week. Have a great weekend!

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Who To Follow On Twitter: Don't Know Much About History

Of all social media platforms I consider Twitter to be my favorite in part because it's a useful way to find out things that are of interest to me on the web. But it can be a little overwhelming to know exactly who to follow. In this series, I'll share some of the feeds that have become my favorite feeds to follow. The following is a list of authors with a bent towards history as well as a couple of historical feeds that are worth a follow:

1. Eric Metaxas (@EricMetaxas)

The New York Times Bestselling author probably wouldn't consider himself a historian or biographer but he has shown himself adept at both roles. His books include Bonhoeffer, Amazing Grace, and most recently 7 Men. He is also host of Socrates in the City in New York. He is also the host of Breakpoint Radio. In addition, he's an incredibly funny guy and definitely worth a follow.

2. Amity Shlaes (@AmityShlaes)

She is the author of the excellent biography Coolidge as well as the previous bestseller The Forgotten Man about the Great Depression. She frequently shares links of a historical nature particularly connected with her books. Both books should be on your must read list. My interview with her about The Forgotten Man is here.

3. Stephen Mansfield (@MansfieldWrites)

Most recently the author of Killing Jesus as well as faith biographies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, he is another author to definitely follow on Twitter. His tweets are often about a variety of different subjects with links to articles of note. Among books of his I would recommend are Ten Tortured Words about the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment and More Than Dates and Dead People which deals with restoring a Christian view to history.

4. Jane Hampton Cook (@janehamptoncook)

Formerly a webmistress during her time in the Bush White House, Cook has always had an interest in history. She is a frequent contributor on cable news as well as a prolific author. Her latest book is American Phoenix, a biography of John Quincy and Louisa Adams.

5. Joel C. Rosenberg (@JoelCRosenberg)

Few people understand biblical prophecy and Middle East politics as well as Joel Rosenberg. He blogs about events in the Middle East at his Flash Traffic blog. He is also the author of numerous political thrillers, all of which I would heartily recommend. His latest book is Damascus Countdown.

6. Michael Beschloss (@BeschlossDC)

He's best known as a presidential historian and author of a number of books. But he's also proprietor of one of the coolest Twitter feeds out there. Don't take my word for it: read this Washington Post profile. His accidental entry into Twitter has been one of the best feeds to come along in a while. The reason? He tweets nothing but photos many of which had never before been published. I have no idea where he finds them but they are always worth checking out.

7. Life (@LIFE)

In its heydey, LIFE Magazine was the penultimate historical photo album. If it happened, LIFE photographed it. Now the vast archives of photos is being posted on the internet. Many of them weren't even published originally in the magazine. They tweet out whenever they post a new album on their site. You could easily spend hours and hours looking through their pictures.

8. World War II Tweets (@RealTimeWWII)

Imagine what it would be like to have Twitter cover a major geopolitical event like World War II and you have what this feed is all about. Started a couple of years ago, this project documents events as they happen on a particular date. As I am writing this, they are tweeting through 1941 and intend to continue all the way through the end of the war. They also frequently post photographs that are absolutely amazing.

9. Smithsonian National Museum of American History (@amhistorymuseum)

The largest repository of historical artifacts, the American History museum is a must-see for any history buff. They also frequently blog about their collection and send out tweets about new posts. If you want to know more about American history it's definitely a feed to follow.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Five Favorite Audiobooks

Author's note: I'm on the road this week with my family and so blogging will be light. The following is a post that I originally wrote in 2008. Looking back over it I would have to say these are still our favorite audiobooks.

One of the ways we pass the time on our long roadtrips (besides the XM radio) is listening to audiobooks. These are our favorites:

Framed by Frank Cottrell Boyce
A quirky and charming story inspired by a newspaper clipping the author ran across in a scrapbook. During World War II, paintings from Britain's National Gallery were stored in a slate mine for safekeeping. Boyce imagines what the impact that art would have on the citizens of a small town with absolutely hilarious results. This is one we never get tired of listening to and many of our own family's inside jokes have come from this book. It's a winner.

Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling
Kipling's stories are timeless in and of themselves. But their even better when read aloud. Although several editions exist, our favorite is performed by famed British actor Geoffrey Palmer. He brings a perfect performance to these wonderful stories.

Peter and the StarcatchersPeter and the Shadow ThievesPeter and the Secret of Rundoon by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson
The first three installments of the "prequels" to Peter Pan are sheer fun and adventure. Both Pearson and Barry show themselves fully capable of handling the task of writing adventure novels that are geared towards kids. All three are performed by the wonderful Jim Dale who uses a variety of different voices to bring the characters to life. These are especially well-suited for longer road trips.

The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis
These are wonderful books to read aloud as a family. Like many other classic tales, numerous versions of the Chronicles have been made with different narrators. However, the Focus on the Family Radio Theater production (linked above) is by far the best. This is an unabridged dramatization of all seven books and the production is absolutely top-notch. Each installment is also introduced by Lewis' stepson Douglas Gresham who provides some wonderful insights into the writing of each of the volumes. Each time we listen to the books we discover something new and wonderful about the land of Narnia.

A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket
This thirteen-volume saga of the Bauderlaire children has something for both kids and parents alike. The books are both tragic and comic at the same time and like many other good audiobooks remain entertaining over repeated listening. Almost all of the books are narrated by Tim Curry (except for the third, fourth and fifth books which are narrated by the author). Curry's performance is absolutely wonderful and like other great audiobook performers knows how to create unique characters with his voice. Just to hear him bring the oft-coughing Mr. Poe to life is worth the listen.

Monday, July 08, 2013

Time with Dad

I used to think that spending time with my kids meant doing soemthing elaborate or special with them. I’d take each of my daughters on “dates” which were special evenings out that we would go and do something they liked. While thse were good times (and I still occassionally try to have those dates with my duaghters), I was reminded this past week that sometimes that time with my kids doesn’t have to be anything elaborate at all.

Take my oldest daughter, for example. If I’m running errands (such as going to the grocery store) she willl invariably want to tag along not because she finds what I am doing so exciting but because she just wants to hang out with me. In fact, I asked her on one of these recent excursions why she wanted to go with me and she said that she just enjoyed hanging out with Dad. I also have discovered that these are her opportunities to ask tough questions of me. She likes to use these times together to ask me about things that she has been thinking about. It’s in these moments that I get glimpses into what’s going on in her world.

Although my youngest daughter prefers to hang out at home, she will also desire that one-on-one time with me. Like my older daugther, she’ll use the opportunities when we are together to talk to me about difficult things that she may not want to share in front of anyone else.

We have so little time to make an impact on our kids as fathers. By being intentional about simply spending time with them we are allowing for those teachable moments to be created and the door opened to the hearts of our children. For me, spending time with my kids is no longer just about doing something special. It’s about just doing something with them.

Note: This post originally appeared in 2006.

Monday, July 01, 2013

Facing Trials

"Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing." (James 1:2-4)
The book of James is one of my favorite books of the Bible because it is so immensely practical. The passage I cited above is one that God seems to be bringing me back to over and over again either (a) because I need to hear it or (b) I haven't learned how to properly apply it yet.

As I was studying this passage for my sermon this past Sunday at my church, God brought out three observations from this passage.

Observation #1: Trials are inevitable.

Notice in verse 2 that James uses the word "whenever" instead of “if”. It is a given that we will face trials of many kinds.

We live in a fallen world that hates us, attempts to marginalize us, and does not hold the same values that we do. We are criticized for who we are and what we profess. Sometimes that criticism will even come from within the body of Christ when we commit ourselves to applying God's word to every aspect of our lives.

Consider Jesus' encouraging words to his disciples:

"Blessed are you when men hate you, and ostracize you, and insult you, and scorn your name as evil, for the sake of the Son of Man. Be glad in that day and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven. For in the same way their fathers used to treat the prophets." (Luke 6:22-23)

Jesus tells the disciples that trials are inevitable. As long as we profess to be followers of Christ we will face criticism for His sake. I believe that one way to tell whether we are doing what God wants us to do is by seeing whether we are being criticized for what we are doing.

Observation #2: Trials are necessary to developing faith.

Look at James 1:3 – “knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.”

God uses trials to develop faith and character in Christ. One of my favorite examples is Joseph. When we first meet him in Genesis 37, God had just revealed to him in a dream a glimpse of what God had in store for him. Although the Bible doesn't specifically say it, I've often thought that Joseph might have been bragging a little to his brothers about God speaking to him in his dream. I think that might have contributed to the anger that Joseph's brothers felt towards him.
Although God had a specific purpose for Joseph, he first had to endure a series of trials in order to be fully prepared that purpose. He was sold into slavery, wrongfully accused of a crime by Potiphar’s wife, and thrown into prison. God used all of these trials in Joseph’s life to shape his character and prepare him for his ultimate purpose.

God also allowed the nation of Israel to wander for 40 years in the wilderness in order to shape their character as a nation:

"You shall remember all the way which the LORD your God has led you in the wilderness these forty years, that He might humble you, testing you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not."
(Deutornomy 8:2)

And of course, Jesus suffered many trials for our sakes.

"Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people through His own blood, suffered outside the gate." (Hebrews 13:12)

I once heard someone compare faith to muscle. If a muscle is not used it will atrophy, wither away and become useless. However, if you exercise a muscle it will grow stronger. The same applies to our faith.

When I was in high school, I tried out for our basketball team. Although I was the tallest player on the team, I didn't succeed because I couldn't make it through preseason conditioning that was necessary to get us in top physical shape. Conditioning was hard work. I didn't have what it took to perservere. As a result, I failed to develop as an athlete.

Right after I graduated from high school, I went to Europe for three weeks. One of my stops was in Venice which is known for hand blown glass. We went to a factory where the work was being done. In order for the glass to be ready to be shaped it first has to be subjected to great heat so that it can be pliable enough that when the glassblower starts to make the piece by blowing into the tube the glass will be easily formed into the desired shape. The trials we face are like that fire. They are necessary for God to be able to shape us into the person in Christ that He wants us to be.

Observation #3: Our response should be to rejoice and trust in the Lord.

Our response to trials should be to rejoice as God is using the trials to strengthen and shape us.

"And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us." (Romans 5:3-5)

The apostle Paul knew something about trials. He encountered numerous physical, emotional, and physical trials during his ministry.

Jesus had this to say during the Sermon on the Mount:

"Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way
they persecuted the prophets who were before you." (
Matthew 5:10-12)

We will all face trials during the course of our walk. Jesus himself told us to expect trials. God will use trials in our life to strengthen our faith and deepen our walk with him. Rather than become discouraged, we should rejoice in the middle of our difficulties knowing that God is with us.

There are great rewards for those who persevere:

"Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him." (James 1:12)

Note: This post originally appeared in 2005.