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The Last Message — A Free Story For Covid Captivity Blues

Today I add my second story, and the overall sixth freebie we’ve offered. Last week I told you the completely true origins of the COVID-19 virus (click here to read it if you didn’t catch it). Today I zig a little.

Several years ago I wrote The Last Message as a short story available on Kindle. I want to personally thank the seven people who bought it. I have brushed that story off a bit and added some ‘futurist’ to it. I still think it is quite the tear jerker. A big thanks to Athanatos Publishing Group for permission to republish it here and to the Austin-American Statesman who ran an article about this topic seven years or so ago that started the creative juice. This one is a little longer, but only about a ten or fifteen minute read.

This is a free story — no hooks, gimmicks, or paywalls. Enjoy it. If you like it, consider buying a book or four over at Amazon or wherever you by books online. You can even buy, if you like, the original version of The Last Message, and become #8!


THE LAST MESSAGE

Jamie D Greening

Lois cradled the smartphone in her hand. 

She knew she shouldn’t. It was an indulgence, a weakness, a crutch she knew was not good. Her friends and husband had warned her to stop. “This leads to a bad place, Lois. You must move on,” is what the therapist said. Her pastor echoed almost the same thing, only she evoked God by adding, “Jesus will give you the strength to get beyond this, if only you will let him.” 

But she didn’t want to let Jesus do it. She didn’t want to move on. She wanted the phone in her hand. The phone was more comfort than Jesus was providing. If Jesus wanted to do anything he should go back in time and stop it. She knew that wouldn’t happen, so all she had was the phone. 

With her thumb she clicked the phone icon. Her finger’s muscle memory took over after that, bringing up the messages menu and then pushing the play message button. 

Hi Mama, we’re leaving the gym in about five minutes and then we’re gonna take Julia and Renee to their apartment. I’m gonna stop for dinner at the half-way point. I expect to be home around 9:30. Save me a slice of pie. Love you, bye.

The phone beeped, the message ended.

Tears poured from her large, dark eyes. Lois’ chest heaved and her mouth opened but sound would not come out. Having lived this moment hundreds of times in the past six months, Lois knew how to steady herself—deep breaths and then long slow exhales. She repeated the rhythm four times. The feedback loop reloaded and she pushed play again. 

Hi Mama, we’re leaving the gym in about five minutes and then we’re gonna take Julia and Renee to their apartment. I’m gonna stop for dinner at the half-way point. I expect to be home around 9:30. Save me a slice of pie. Love you, bye.

And again.

Hi Mama, we’re leaving the gym in about five minutes and then we’re gonna take Julia and Renee to their apartment. I’m gonna stop for dinner at the half-way point. I expect to be home around 9:30. Save me a slice of pie. Love you, bye.

And again.

Hi Mama, we’re leaving the gym in about five minutes and then we’re gonna take Julia and Renee to their apartment. I’m gonna stop for dinner at the half-way point. I expect to be home around 9:30. Save me a slice of pie. Love you, bye.

The tears continued their tributary path down her cheeks, over her jawline and then crashed on the floor. She leaned over from the couch, clutching the phone close to her breast. The shaking was coming on. The shaking would be followed with yelling and finally a physical collapse and numbness. Last week’s episode ended with Xanax and the rest of the day in bed.

“What are you doing?” Tina snapped the question at Lois.

Lois said, “Nothing,” and sucked up her sobbing and slipped the phone between the seat cushions of the couch. She knew she had been caught in the act, but the human instinct to hide the evidence was automatic.  

“Nothing, huh?” Tina tossed her purse and keys on the kitchen counter. She turned on the faucet and washed her hands then ripped her mask off. She opened the refrigerator. “Do you want a soda to sip while you do nothing?” 

“Sure.” Lois attempted to regain her composure and fend off her sister’s sarcasm.  

Tina grabbed two large glasses from the cupboard and filled them with ice. The ice crackled when the cold soda washed over. Tina put a green straw in her soda and a red straw into Lois’. She brought the glasses from the kitchen then placed them onto handmade coasters on the coffee table. She sat down directly across from Lois and took a sip.

“You were listening to her last message again, weren’t you?” Tina’s eyebrows raised and her head tilted to the right.

“What if I was. It is none of your business and it’s no big deal.” 

“It is a big deal, Sis. You know what the counselor says, that every time you play that message it is like you are dragging Stephanie’s body out of the grave and then you have to relive the whole thing all over again. You’ve got to quit picking at the scab if you ever want it to truly heal, but you won’t stop. Instead of healing, you make it bleed fresh and new all over again. Every single day. You are a drug addict with track marks; the drug is a memory and the marks are on your heart.”

Lois did not reply. 

Tina continued, “Do you think your daughter would want you to do that? Do you think Stephanie would want you to spend the rest of your life sitting in this living room crying? No, she would not. You must learn to live again if you really loved her.”

Lois, who’d buried her head in her hands during Tina’s lecture, looked up at her and mumbled, “I don’t want to live anymore.” 

Tina thought carefully about her next words. “Well, then the worthless piece of garbage who got all drunk and decided to go driving around that night in March didn’t just murder Steph. He killed you too.” Tina was not angry at her sister, but she was forceful and direct the way family can be.

“Hand me the phone, Lois.”

“No!” Lois stood up and stuck the phone into her front jean’s pocket. “No, I won’t let you. I know what you’re intending to do, and I won’t let you. It’s my phone! She was my daughter and it’s my message on my phone. You have no right to take it from me. It is all I have left.”

For a moment Tina considered physically taking the phone. It wouldn’t be the first time she’d taken something from her younger sibling, but she decided that was not the best course of action. Not this time. 

“Oh, sit down, Lois. Don’t make a big deal of it. If you don’t want to give it to me, fine. I will not take it from you, although we both know I could. We’re just talking, remember? I’m not the bad guy. I don’t know what it is like to lose a daughter, but we both lost Mom at the same time from the virus. So, I understand, at least, a little.”

The silence forced Tina to change the subject. She asked about Rick and when he would be home again from his business trip. It was the first business trip Rick had taken since the second round of coronavirus restrictions were lifted for air travel. Tina and Lois made their grocery lists while they finished their soda. Regardless of how badly they might feel, today was their ration window. If they missed it they wouldn’t be able to buy for another ten days. They donned their mask and gloves and tried to have a good time. 

 After provisions were bought, Tina was hesitant to go back to her home and leave Lois alone. She offered to let Lois come stay at her house. 

Lois refused. “I’m okay. I’ll be okay. I know you’re right and nothing I can do will ever bring her back. It’s just, hearing the voice on the message makes it feel like, even for a split second, that she is still alive and any moment she’ll come barreling through the door, talking a hundred miles an hour about her business class, a cute boy she met at the basketball game, some drama with her friends or whatever. In that moment I hear her voice and life feels normal. But the message ends. It always ends. I realize she is never coming home again, ever. Life will never be right. That is when it hurts the most and the only relief comes from going back to the moment when the message is playing. It feels like she is alive while the message is playing. You know, before she was forced to come home. Before the virus. Before the accident.”

            Sometime after midnight, a taxicab dropped Rick off at home. Exhausted from the flight from St. Louis, he left his bag at the door, plopped off his shoes and pulled off his trousers, sanitized his hands and face, then climbed into bed beside his sleeping wife; he was snoring within seconds.

Lois awoke well before her husband that morning. After she fed the cat and made coffee, she tried to read a book Tina gave her about healing her inner wounds. She kept reading the same paragraph over and over again. She closed the book and sneaked back into her bedroom and grabbed her phone from the nightstand. With ninja stealth she tip-toed out of the room and closed the door behind her. Rick would never know.

Just one more time, and then I’ll stop. I promise.

The familiar lie helped her mask her dependency.

Lois unlocked the phone and her thumb quickly hit the icon. She sat down in her old rocking chair, the one she got as a gift from her mother when Stephanie was born. The virus, in its way, had taken both of them from her. She used to rock Stephanie to sleep in that chair singing church hymns to her. 

Her finger found the messages tab and she pressed it lightly as she took a deep, controlled breath.

A death scream, then shouts of, “No. No, no, no, no, no. Not now, not now. Why? What happened? Why?” followed by pathetic heartsick weeping, erupted from Lois. 

Rick jumped out of bed, startled and uncertain. He ran into the living room and found his wife in the rocking chair.

“What’s wrong?”

“It’s gone. It’s not here.”

“What’s gone?”

“The only thing that matters, the last message, it’s gone. Just gone. She’s been erased.”

“What do you mean, gone?” He thought a moment and then took the phone from her. Scanning the display, he asked, “Did you erase it, I mean accidentally maybe?”

“Of course not.” Her face now red and shaking, snot bubbling from her nose.

Lois grabbed the phone back from him. She repeated the same motion, manically hitting the phone and message icons over and over, hoping each time that the message would reappear. It did not. 

She glared at her husband as a treacherous idea formulated in her mind. She violently launched the phone at him. It hit him in the chest then bounced down onto the soft blue carpet. She screamed, “You erased it! You came in last night and erased it. Tina called you, didn’t she? Tina called you and the two of you conspired against me. You erased it and took my baby away from me. Why? Why did you do it?” She charged at him and began swinging wildly. Rick caught her by the arms and pulled her in close and surrounded her with a giant, confining embrace.

“I did not erase anything, sweetheart. I would never do that.”

Lois surrendered to him and went limp. The fight left her.

“You didn’t talk to Tina?”

“No. What happened with Tina?”

Through choppy, sobbing words Lois told Rick about her conversation with Tina the day before. Rick affirmed that he had not spoken to Tina or anybody else, then he brought his own phone into the room and showed her the call log. That was when he noticed some of his messages from his boss and the office back in St. Louis were gone too. 

He held his wife’s hand and the two sat in silence. It was the kind of silence that, between two people who have loved each other for many years and have endured many ups and downs, can communicate more than is possible with words.

He poured himself a cup of coffee and called the cell phone company. After five minutes of navigating the laborious automated menu options he finally reached a living soul. 

“Yes, this morning my wife discovered that a very important phone message on her voicemail had been deleted, and I also see that some of my work voicemails have been deleted. There must be something wrong with the system and I was just wondering if you could tell me how I could get those messages back.”

“Thank you for calling, sir,” the cheerful woman said on the other end. “Yes, we are glad to announce that many of our operating systems for our phones have recently been updated to the newest software. This will add many features that weren’t there before, and it will allow for better reception in some areas as well as provide optimal service for voice data, video streaming, and text messaging. To avoid interrupting service as much as possible, most of these updates were done in the night, starting at 3:00 A.M. Eastern Time.”

“That is all well and good,” Rick said, “but what does that have to do with our missing messages?”

“Well, sir, when the new system came on-line, it automatically cleaned up your memory and your voice files to provide for greater storage in the future.”

Rick gulped. “You mean you deleted our messages?”

“That’s right, sir. The process automatically deleted any messages older than one month.”

Now Rick was angry, and Lois could see her husband’s eyes twitching. She had stopped crying and was now feeling badly for the hateful way she’d treated Rick. 

Rick yelled into the phone, “What gives you the right to do that? Did you ever stop to think that people might keep an old message for a reason?” His voice got louder and increasingly more intense as he spoke. “We wanted that message. We needed that message. How could you?”

“Sir, please lower your voice. There is no reason to get angry.”

“Don’t tell me what to do,” Rick was very angry. “I want to speak to your supervisor right now.”

“Gladly sir, please hold.” 

***

 “Did the phone company do anything?” Tina asked her brother-in-law. 

“No, of course they wouldn’t,” Rick ran one of his large hands through thinning hair. “I spoke to four different levels of supervisors until it became clear they were either unable or unwilling to give us our voicemails back. I really do hope it was a situation where they really weren’t able to. I mean, I work in the business world and I know that sometimes technology throws us for loops. When something is lost, sometimes it is lost for good. It happens. I get that. But at the same time, I get this unnerving feeling that they could if they wanted to, but they just don’t because if they ever did it once, then it would become an expected service.”

Tina shook her head in disbelief. “It just seems a bit malicious.”

“Well,” Rick said, “I was thinking about it a little later. I mean, if this were a court case, and a lawyer had phone records subpoenaed, you know they would be able to get that voicemail somehow. If this were a matter of government security or a crime had been committed, you can bet that law enforcement would have that voicemail. But honest citizens can’t. That is just the way the system works. That message is out there. We, however, will never be allowed to hear it again.”

Tina and Rick turned their heads toward the hallway to see Lois walk zombielike out of the master bedroom and down the hallway. Her face was puffy and eyes red. 

“When did you get here?” Lois asked her sister.

“About ten minutes ago,” she glanced at her watch, “After Rick told me, I came right over.”

 “That’s sweet, Sis, but you don’t have to. There is nothing you can do. Besides, at least you’ll get your way now. I won’t be listening to it anymore. Ever. Aga. . .” Before she could finish her words a fresh wave of grief crashed into her. 

Rick asked his wife, “Do you want another pill, Hon?”

“No.”

 The doorbell rang. Rick put his arm on Lois’ shoulder as he rose and whispered, “I called Pastor. I thought a prayer might help. Words of hope or comfort couldn’t hurt, right?”

Lois nodded. She didn’t have the energy to disagree.   

Pastor Mary stood in the doorway. She wore dark trousers and a summer top. Her hair pinned back. Over her face was a mask that had the classic Chi-Ro symbol on one side and the star-like logo for their church, Christ Redeemer. Black gloves covered her hands and forearm then tapered at the elbow. She gave Rick an air hug at the door to keep from touching but to try and communicate something of humanity. She walked through the room and knelt beside the chair Lois was sitting. She took Lois’ naked hand into her protected hands. “Rick told me what happened. I don’t know what to say, Lois, other than to affirm that our faith tells us together we will find a way.” Pastor Mary’s words somehow gave a glimmer of hope to Lois, Rick and Tina in an intangible way. Through the entire trauma of losing Stephanie, their pastor’s presence and ministry had been both stabilizing and encouraging. Somehow, just being there made things better.

Pastor Mary then lifted up and moved to the sofa. 

Lois said, “You didn’t have to come.  I know it is not really a big deal and it is probably bothering me more than it should. You are so kind to come over like this, especially with the person-to-person restrictions.” She wiped her eyes with a tissue, “It just feels like our child has died all over again. Of course, we have her on some videos and lots of pictures, but none of those were like that voicemail. It was spontaneous, you know, normal, and just a part of her everyday charm. Even her asking about the pie, saying how she was taking her friends home; the whole message was just a beautiful snapshot of who she was as a person—you know—the bubble in her voice and then the almost singsong way she said ‘Love you, bye’ at the end. And now we’ve lost that treasure forever.” Lois’ lip quivered. “I just wasn’t ready for it.” Lois balled up her fist and slammed it down. “I wasn’t ready for it. I’m so mad. I’m mad at the driver, I’m mad at Stephanie for not leaving earlier in the day. I am mad at the government for sending all the kids home when the coronavirus panic struck. I am mad at the whole world. And I am mad at God.”

“Well,” Pastor Mary said, “It is okay to be mad at God, for a little while. Children often get angry with their parents. But you know you’re not really angry at the Lord. You just hurt because of the loss.”

“That’s right,” Lois nodded.

“We’re never ready for loss. It jumps up and slaps us, and what we learn to do is move forward by honoring the memory of what and who we lost while at the same time remaining true to our commitment to life, and to Christ, and to the world. You have to find a way to let Stephanie rest in peace. Her work is done. You must continue on with the life God has given you. It might be hard right now, but one of my prayers for you is that at some time in the future you will learn to see this day when the last message was taken from you not as a curse but as a blessing. I pray some day you will finally let your daughter go and embraced life again.”

 Lois gave Pastor Mary a steely glare. That was not what she wanted to hear, but the wise and experienced minister didn’t flinch.  

“I also have another prayer for you Lois, and it starts with words of comfort from the ancient Hebrews.” Pastor Mary reached into her purse and pulled out a small Bible and read from Isaiah 40.  

He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength. Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.

“The Lord will give you strength you didn’t know you had, Lois.” 

Then she asked for Rick and Tina to lift their hands. “Back in the old days we would have joined hands, but now let’s just raise them with palms up.”

Lord, please bring peace to my friend, Lois. Cradle her and her blessed husband in the bosom of your goodness. The past six months have been very hard. First her mother and then her daughter. Today has been a chilling reminder of the tragedy which visited this home in the dark hours of the night that awful evening. Now my prayer for her is specific today and it is twofold. First, Lord, I ask that you turn today into a blessing and transform these ashes into beauty and mold these tears into laughter and strength. My second prayer, Lord, is somewhat harder, at least from our perspective. I ask that you do something supernatural, something amazing, something we could never expect that would ease dear Lois in her time of need. She has loved you, ministered to your people, and served your world for many years. Please remember your servant now in her time of need. We ask these things in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen. 

***

Rick gave Lois another pill before bed. The day had been too much to absorb. Lois offered to share with Rick, noting she had two more refills left on the prescription, but Rick declined. They turned off the lamps and rolled over in different directions to try to sleep. The first hour was fitful, but eventually they both nodded off.

At 3:45 Lois woke up to go to the bathroom. When she came back, she sat on the bed with her feet hanging off the side. Moonbeam shown through the gap in the curtains and illuminated her cell phone on the nightstand. There was a pull toward it, an unexplainable desire to pick it up and listen to the message. She knew the message wasn’t there, but the desire was. The phone beckoned her.

She knew it was fruitless, but she picked up the phone anyway and brought it to life. The screen glowed, illuminating the screenshot of her, Rick and Stephanie at the Lincoln Memorial from two summers ago. Before she went to college. Before the virus closed the Lincoln Memorial. Before the virus forced her baby girl onto the road to come home. Before the driver took his first drink. Before blue truck smashed into the green sedan. Before her world ended. Back before, that had been a very good day. Stephanie was so impressed with the landmarks of Washington D.C. and the tours of Congress that she’d decided to pursue politics in college. That dream didn’t last long as business caught her attention. 

If only she’d lived long enough to keep dreaming new dreams. 

Lois unlocked the phone then her muscle memory pushed the phone icon and then the messages icon before she could tell her hand to stop, before she could tell it there was no use trying, no message was there.

But a message was there. A new message from a number she’d never seen before. Afraid she had missed an important call, Lois left the bedroom and walked into the kitchen to listen to it.

   She pushed play.

Hi Mom, it’s me, Steph. I can’t explain it all to you, but because of some praying I was allowed to tell you that I’m okay. I know that it happened too soon, and I had plans for life, but I’m okay. In fact, I’m better than okay. I just want you to know that life doesn’t end at death and that someday we will be together. I love you and Daddy very much. Thank you for giving me a great life filled with love and adventure. I gotta go, but don’t cry anymore for me, OK, because where I am is wonderfully perfect. I’m saving a slice of pie for you. Love you, bye. 
 
 
Featured

Another Outstanding Free Story Just For You!

We (and by we I mean my co-conspirators Joe Shaw, Joseph Courtemanche, and Kathy Kexel) kick up our super duper offer of free stories to entertain and enlighten you during your COVID-19 Captivity. No paywalls. No newsletter signups. No gimmicks. All we ask is that if you like the freebies, you consider buying our books over at The Amazons. And yes, we’re not too proud to beg.

The first off this week is Joseph Courtemanche. Last week he had ABBA on his mind (click here to read it), and today he finds a fresh target in this . . . imaginative Lavinia Did It. Click on the Washington Monument to read the story.

Click the base of the monument to find out what is really going on

Tomorrow I am sharing a freebie that is rather long for a short story. Until then, Enjoy!

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What I’m Learning in COVID-19 Captivity

I Woke up this morning to the cold realization it was week two of the church in exile.

The feeling is so strange that it qualifies as as an out-of-body experience. My entire remembered life I have gone to church on Sunday with precious, very precious few exceptions. I have never missed a Sunday of preaching because I was sick. Even on vacation I go to church.

But here we are.

I thought it would help me this morning if I went ahead and acted as if I was going. I trimmed my beard a bit, cleaned up, and put on a white buttoned down instead of a t-shirt, and a nice wrist-watch rather than the Timex I’ve been wearing on quarantine.

These thoughts bring me to what I’d like to share with you this morning, and that is namely what I am learning during the COVID Captivity of 2020. I don’t know how historians or sociologists will label this time period when they study it, but I do think a lot is going to change about how most of us live. I’m not certain we will ever be ‘normal’ again. That might be good because maybe what we called ‘normal’ was actually quite abnormal. These changes will flow from what we learned, and most of all what we learned about ourselves.

The first thing I have learned is from the malaise I woke to this morning. I have learned I really, really, really love church. I miss gathering with the people of God more than anything else about this. The church is in exile, pushed underground (necessarily so, but still underground so to speak), meeting in clandestine family units huddled around television screens and smart phones desperately trying to connect in some way with the body of Christ. I miss the hugging, the handshaking, the close talking, the hand-holding, the patting on the back, and the warmth of community. I miss it and I have learned that I am significantly less human without it. Next Sunday is Palm Sunday, and that is a very high holy day for us with ritual and Holy Communion. My soul longs to gather with the festal procession of my brothers and sisters, and I eagerly desire to eat that meal with them. I miss it, and the thought of missing it disturbs me.

I will never take Sunday morning for granted again.

Another thing I have learned is how much my family and their presence means to me. I can’t imagine going through this without Mrs. Greenbean and the sprouts. The youngest sprout was sent home from college and the oldest is still working through Zoom and digital presence, but she is able to be at the house quite a bit. Our family has always been close-knit, but now more than ever. Because those binds that tie are so tightly wound around the four us, we are not breaking in this. We are growing stronger.

I’ve learned how much I depend upon presence, touch, and personal interaction in pastoral ministry.

I’ve also learned what I can live without. I can live without the false gods of this world — sports, musicians, Hollywood movies, shopping, workplace esteem, and so many other 21st century deities which have been stripped of their power like the gods of Egypt before Moses and his staff. I don’t need these things to be happy and whole. I miss my church, but I don’t really miss watching the NCAA basketball tournament as much as I thought I would. I miss eating in a restaurant with family and friends but I don’t really miss the movie theater that much.

The flip side of what I’ve learned I can live without is what I can’t live without. I can’t really live without the grocery store being open and the truck drivers delivering goods. I can’t live without the clerks, stockers, and diesel mechanics who are literally keeping America fed and our coffee pots happy when everyone else is on lockdown. When this is all over we as a society need to radically rethink the pay scale disparity of athletes and grocery store workers. Who are really worth the big bucks? And while I’m on it, it doesn’t apply to me as my children are grown, but many of you are realizing the value of your child’s teacher, school, and daycare. Again, remember that when this is over.

I’ve learned doctors and nurses are heroes.

On the darker side of Greenbean, I have learned to be suspicious of people who don’t take this seriously. This may sound judgmental, and I apologize to a degree if it is, but whether it is someone in the media, politics, or a cranky neighbor, anyone who doesn’t take the advice of professionals, experts, and scientists is a fool who should not be trusted with anything or any decision making process. If you fail on this, in my opinion, you’re disqualified from making decisions in the future on anything. Put another way, I’ve learned to see people’s reactions to COVID-19 as a filter on their values.

Having gone dark for a paragraph, though, let’s brighten it up. I have learned that the Lord is still crafting, molding, and shaping me. He is good, and he is still blessing, even in the midst of societal upheaval. I give thanks that I am healthy, and I give thanks for those who are ministering to the sick. I give thanks I have plenty to eat and I was able to buy toilet paper. My family makes me smile and we played Scattergories and Mexican Train and watched old DVDs. Our church staff is amazing and they are working so hard to keep as much ministry going as possible. The needs of the world, Italy, Spain, China, Iran, and New York City drive me to my knees in intercessory prayer, and that is a good thing. I recognize our interwoven existence, and that each one of us depends upon the toil and wellbeing of everyone else. Remember that famous phrase, “No man is an island” — it was written by John Donne during the plague, and at a time when he himself thought he was dying from it.

Ultimately, I have learned that I am still learning. The Lord is still teaching. And life continues under his shepherding hand. All of these bring forth praise from my lips.

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History–A Free Short Story (I’m not crying, you’re crying)

On Tuesday Joseph Courtemanche made us laugh (click here) and yesterday Joe Shaw (click here) made us cringe with horror. And of course on Wednesday Greenbean told us (click here) the true origin of coronavirus. Today, we have a tear jerker to remind us we are not the first generation to suffer through pestilence. Enjoy the newcomer to our team, Kathy Kexel, and the only one of our conspirators who doesn’t have a J to start her name, although we are fond of referring to her as Jkathy.

Click on the picture to read an eloquent short story

Next week we return with more free stories for your COVID Captivity.

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BARK BARK BARK — BANG!

Read if you dare — the harrowing tale of a man driven mad, utterly mad. It is the third installment of our ‘Free Stories for Covid Captivity’ — Today is Joe Shaw’s turn, and you can read his tale by clicking on the dog’s picture and it will take you to Joe’s blog where the story lives.

Click on the dog’s nose if you are brave enough to discover her fate

Featured

Patient Zero — A Free Story

As we announced yesterday, my fellow co-conspirators Joseph Courtemanche and Joe Shaw are providing you with some free fiction during your COVID Captivity. Yesterday’s ABBA inspired story was delightful. Tomorrow Shaw picks up the slack. Today, it is me. I originally intended to update an older story for today’s submission, but yesterday I had an idea and in true flash fiction fashion I wrote it up last night and am sharing it with you today. Next week I will give you a much longer short story, but today is a ten minute read or less.

And remember, if you like what you read from me or the other Joe’s, we’d greatly appreciate it if you’d consider one of our books, but that is not a condition of reading this story. Patient Zero is absolutely free with no strings attached. Enjoy!

PATIENT ZERO

JAMIE D. GREENING

            It is hard for a man from Venus to look human. The higher gravity on the home planet makes them shorter than human beings while simultaneously causing their face to be distinctly more oblong.  The skin is also brighter because of the low oxygen levels and proximity to the sun. People from Venus who live on the southern hemisphere have a light orange color, almost the color of a tangerine while people from the northern hemisphere of Venus have a darker hue, closer to new leather, only more orange.

            Demosh Suffla was from the northern hemisphere, which made blending in among some human populations on Earth easier for him than his cousin who was from the southern hemisphere. His cousin, with his bright orange pigment could only visit places where it was cold. He had to wear clothing over his skin. Demosh could travel to warm climates, for his leather color was passable if he wore a hat and sunglasses.

            The sunglasses were vital, because Venutian eyes were red from the sulphur dioxide in their atmosphere.

            Demosh chose to spend his two weeks abroad on Earth. Most of his friend spent theirs in Alpha Centauri skiing the nitrogen slopes of Wentrali. Demosh wasn’t interested in skiing. He was interested in human culture. The first book he’d ever read as a young larva was The Earth Chronicles about explorers who colonize an apparently vacant earth but discover ghosts living in the ruins of ancient cities. He’d been hooked ever since. 

            His two weeks were almost over. He’d started in Italy and then toured the rest of Europe. He spent most of his time in Paris, and most of that with Parisian women. Now he was near the end, and he was about to cross the last thing off his list: Texas barbeque. 

            He researched this extensively, comparing the relative information about where the best barbeque was to be found. He opted for the rural, authentic setting of the Texas Hill Country rather than a posh urban eatery. Everyone who had been to Earth said the urban eateries were overrated. 

            He arrived in the small town an hour before sunset on his last day, which was the seventh day of September in the year 2019. The motion atomizer brought him out of phase in the town square near a large building with a clock on top. His travel guide labeled this a special kind of civic building called a courthouse where magistrates used laws no one understood to keep the population under control. Demosh recognized every culture on Earth had laws, but he didn’t quite understand how they worked. After having been here, he decided when he got home he would spend more time looking into this practice. The closest analogy he could find to his life on Venus was the Rule of Five which formed the basic organizing principle of society.

            He walked across the town square toward the object of his attention, the eatery called Smokin’ Bob’s Brisket. 

            The weather was warm, and the line formed outside. Demosh cued up. Soon he was standing in front of a large black drum filled with a variety of meats. It was hot. Smoke was in the air. The smell was intoxicating, unlike anything he’d ever experienced. His olfactory senses picked up each aroma; the wood, the flame, the fat from the animal, and the seasoning.

            “What’ll ya have?”

            Demosh hesitated, unsure. He mumbled “brisket.” 

            “How much?”

            Demosh raised his shoulders into a shrug, which was something he learned in Paris as a way to communicate he didn’t know what to do. Usually people decided for him when he did that. That is what the man holding the giant fork did. He cut a slab of meat and placed it on a tray, slathered it in sauce and pointed inside. Demosh knew enough to follow the directions, and he knew to pay. His research told him there would be something called ‘fixins’ inside. 

            After paying he helped himself to the fixins. He was disappointed that the fixins were only beans, onions, and something called a pepper. He’d never seen a pepper before, but he wasn’t excited about it. They looked like pickled slugs that grow under the rocks in Saturn’s rings. 

            The brisket melted in his mouth; and the tangy sauce electrified his senses like nothing else he’d ever tasted. He swore he’d come back to Earth again every year just to eat this meal. He was a fool for not spending the whole two weeks in Texas. He was not the first visiting Venutian to come to that conclusion, and he would not be the last. 

            His brisket came to an end too soon, and this saddened him. He decided to try the beans. He didn’t like them, which he didn’t think he would. The onions too, left a foul impression on him. The syrupy sweet tea helped him forget the awful flavor. It was then he noticed someone had sat beside him on his eating bench. 

            He was not surprised to see his father, who had arrived to take him home.

            “Time to go home, son.” His dad wore a cowboy hat. 

            “I know. But you really should try this thing called brisket before we go.” 

            “I don’t like human food, you know that. It does not agree with me. There is a kind of enzyme in it which blocks my effusion.” 

            Not wanting his trip to end, Demosh lingered. “Let me try this one more item, and then I’ll be ready.”

            “That is fair,” his father said.

            Demosh took one of the pepper slugs, which is how he thought of them in his mind, and wrapped it in a piece of white bread which was on the table. He pushed the whole thing into his mouth and started to chew. Within seconds the heat of the jalapeno burned his mouth and throat. He guzzled the sweet tea, but the fire continued to spread.

            “Poison,” Demosh gasped.

            His father laughed. He knew what had happened. “No, just a pepper. These people from this part of Earth like a little pain with their cuisine.”

            The pug nose on Demosh’s gourd of a face began to run, his red eyes became yellow as tears flowed down his cheeks. He coughed, and then he sneezed. 

            His dad stood up and said, “If you have had enough, it is time to go. We don’t want to miss the transit stream.” 

            He didn’t argue. The two travelers walked out of the barbeque joint and disappeared as the motion atomizer phased them from the black paved parking lot directly into their transport vehicle in high orbit above North America. 

            Back in the restaurant, a man named Simon ate his barbeque with his wife and in-laws. Unknown to him, a droplet of Venutian mucus had landed on his tray when Demosh sneezed. He ran his hand over that tray, and then two minutes later he wiped his own eyes as the pepper he ate caused it to water. Four days later Simon boarded a plane in Austin that would eventually lead him to Wuhan Province in China where he negotiated a deal for his company to purchase green and red plastic cups for various coffee companies back in the United States. 

            During the negotiations, he coughed a time or two and fought back the aches in his muscles which he was certain were from the long plane ride. But it wasn’t. It was from the common Venutian cold, which had never been loosed on Earth before. In time, it would be diagnosed as a novel strain of coronavirus.  

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FREE FREE FREE

Today two writer friends and I are launching something for your benefit. We are publishing some free stories — and we mean free — no paywalls, no newsletter sign-ups, no gimmicks. Some are short and some are longish. The one I am sharing later this week is longish. It is a brush up on an old short story that only people with the same last name as me read when I published it seven years ago. Today, though, we launch with Joe Courtemanche’s fun story about a particularly disturbed COVID-19 patient. Oh, and BTW — all of these stories are ‘COVID-19’ related because . . . well because.

Click the picture of Joe and his dog to read the under five minute story. Don’t be startled by the pistol on top of the Bible. Joe is a softy, he just doesn’t want you to know it.

Click on Joe’s Santa beard to read his great story

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Decide What To Do With The Time

This famous quote from Tolkien has been rattling around in my brain for the better part of a week. It squeezed out of my mouth in Sunday’s sermon, perhaps the last sermon for a while as we all hunker down for COVID-19 contingencies. It is one of the better sentiments on crisis one can internalize.

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

The Fellowship of the Ring, Book 1, Chapter 2

First an observation completely applicable to my thoughts. In the novel, this line comes very early as Gandalf is letting Frodo in on the history and darkness of the ring. The line helps set us up as the reader for the peril that is to come, and for Gandalf’s philosophy in how to handle it. By contrast, in the movie version, this conversation is moved deeper into the film, in the Mines of Moria.

I love the movies but one complaint I have is Hobbits should all be fatter

This matters a bit. The movie has these words when the trouble of the times is fully on them, after the Council of Elrond, after Weathertop, and after they are trapped inside the dark mine. We know the story will get darker yet, but from Frodo’s perspective, in the movie, he probably thinks it is already as horrible as it can get. Getting these words in the middle of it is one thing.

But Tolkien wrote them at the beginning. When Frodo is still in The Shire, around his fire, with clean clothes and a full belly. In the novel, Frodo’s words are about trying to avoid difficult times altogether, in which Gandalf basically says, ‘Hard times can’t be avoided’ In the movie, Frodo’s words are about ‘I wish I wasn’t in this horrible time.’ to which Gandalf essentially says, “we all do.”

The highlighted page from my copy of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy

Why am I thinking so much about this exchange? Because we are in the beginning of some very difficult times. Gandalf is telling us we can’t do a thing about the fact we live in these times, and pining away for the past–even if that past was only two months ago–doesn’t help. We have to choose, decide, how we’re going to react and behave right now. And to answer that, there are three options.

  1. We can live in denial. “There is no threat,” or “It is all hyped up and overreaction,” or perhaps, “I’m young so it will not bother me.”
  2. We can panic and live in fear. These are the emotions which are producing bare grocery store shelves and people talking about the end of the world.
  3. We can choose to be true to our calling in Christ and fulfill the great commandment.

As you might imagine, I encourage you to reject denial, misinformation, conspiracy theories, and all sorts of bad ideas. I also think we need to not feed the panic and fear. So how do we fulfilling our caring in Christ? How do we rise above it and decide the noble, highest use of the time we’ve been given?

It starts with perspective. The Lord put you on the planet to love people, which means to be a helper. You can help the entire world by practicing social distancing, follow the recommendations of health officials, and staying home.

But that is not the only help. I encourage you all to be proactive. Reach out to your neighbors and friends and make certain they are okay. You probably have vulnerable people near you — older people, those with chronic immune illnesses, COPD, and other respiratory issues — and these people shouldn’t be anywhere near a grocery store or in the population right now. So you can help. Make sure they know you’re available to go to the store for them, deliver meds from the pharmacy, or just to call and say hi.

It also helps everyone when you stay calm. Calmness comes from remembering two things. One, this is not the first crisis we’ve had. We are being asked to stay home and watch Netflix, our grandparents were asked to leave home and fight the Nazis. See the difference? The second thing it helps to remember is none of this was a surprise to God. He knew it was coming, and he has prepared you–indeed if I may — he has chosen you for this time. This is your time to shine; so do it. And do it well.

It will also help if you smile. Say encouraging words. Be playful. Give thanks. Worship the Lord. Love.

It is when times are tough that our true character emerges and our actual core values take center stage. I believe we are a noble people, and I believe the Lord is working right now to show us how to live better and behave better by loving each other.

But these aren’t my only thoughts. Time is subject here from Tolkien’s novel. Literally, not figuratively, literally many of us have been given time. Time at home. Make the most of it. Play games with your family. Work on a project you’ve been putting off. Paint the deck. Increase your exercise routine. How about read a book — I happen to know some great books by this Greening guy . . .

Get creative. Paint a picture. Write a poem.

Clean the house. Mop the floors. Call your mom/dad/brother and talk.

Read the Old Testament. Read the New Testament. Study the words of Jesus. Pray more. Pray different.

You and I can’t get out of the time we live in nor can we change it. What we can do, is our time well. This, right now, is the time we’ve been given. What are you going to do with yours?

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Super Tuesday Analysis

Last night was a pop the popcorn and make the red Kool-Aid night.

I thoroughly enjoyed Super Tuesday — that once every four years glorious exercise in democracy and chaos. The only thing that would have made last night better would have been contests in both parties like 2016. Oh man, that is so much fun. This year we only had the Democratic Party to have fun with, but that turned out to be enough. Here are my seven take-aways form the voting.

One: Sanders Caucuses better but primaries worse.

In 2016 Sanders did better in the caucuses than Hillary Clinton because caucuses support activism and energy. This year several states, like Minnesota, shifted from caucuses to primaries. I think that had a blunting effect on some of Bernie’s energy.

Two: It might really be about Hillary Clinton.

Oklahoma slipped away from Sanders. In 2016 he won it by ten percentage points. However, this year it went Biden by thirteen points. We must calculate the HC factor. Just as many people voted for President Trump in the general election because they couldn’t stomach Clinton, the same thing might have been happening in the primaries. Bernie perhaps never had as much real support as the 2016 campaign indicated.

Three: Jill Biden is the new James Bond.

Jill Biden’s literally having her husband’s back when some whack job stormed the stage to protest . . . milk, Dr. Jill Biden sprung into action, used proper footing and leverage, moved herself into a defensive posture, and handled the situation. Like. A. Pro.

Four: The Democratic Party is moderate/centrist.

In most of the states, if you total the Biden and Bloomberg vote and compare it with the totals of the Sanders and Warren vote, the Biden/Bloomberg coalition dominates. In fact, the demise of Elizabeth Warren, who came in THIRD in her home state is shocking. I always thought she missed her moment. She should have run in 2016 but she demurred to Clinton and it cost her. Sanders has a ceiling, and it is about twenty-eight. Even in very liberal Massachusetts, the Warren/Biden coalition only beat the Biden/Bloomberg group by three points.

Five: Barack Obama has long coattails.

Biden’s success is a borrowed success. People voted for him because of the Obama legacy of solid, stable, no drama-Obama governance. That is what people were voting for — rejecting the revolution and rejecting the message candidates in favor of familiar.

Six: We can do better than this.

Why on earth did anyone have to stand in line for more than fifteen minutes or so to vote? I do not understand places in Texas and California where people were lined up for more than two hours. FIX THIS!

Seven: Zingers!

I heard some great lines last night. Perhaps the best was Brian Williams: “Michael Bloomberg isn’t having the kind of night he thought he paid for.” That is just beautiful. Brit Hume had another great line — “If Biden wins and he debates Donald Trump, the loser will be the English language.” That is a special kind of snark right there which I appreciate very much. Of course, Brit Hume currently has his own bag of vinyl problems.

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A Reading Crisis

You can blame my friend John Duncan for this literary existential crisis. Recently he gifted me with a wonderful little book called The Reading Life. It is a compilation of some of C.S. Lewis’ written words about reading. The book is not very long. I started it Friday night and finished it this (Monday) morning all in the midst of a very hectic weekend. I recognized many of the passages from Surprised by Joy or any of the other numerous Lewis works in my library.

But there was a bit I’d never seen before, and it was titled “How To Know If You Are A True Reader”. Lewis lists four qualities of true readers.

  1. Loves to re-read books.
  2. Highly values reading as an activity (rather than as entertainment of last resort).
  3. Lists the reading of particular books as a life-changing experience.
  4. Continuously reflects and recalls what one has read.

I have always, since my earliest memories, loved to read. I love the feel of a book in my hand, the smell of pages — the older and moldier the better, and the discovery with each turn of the page. I would consider myself a true reader.

It breaks my heart into a million pieces that Lewis probably would not. Let me explain by working backward on his list. I recall very much what I have read, whether literature, novels, sci-fi, or dense theology. There are powerful life-changing books in my past, and hopefully in my future. Among these are novels, self-help books, professional development books, and short stories. I love to read and would rather do that than just about anything else.

But I don’t re-read books. Other than the Bible, which I have read continuously since I was seven years old, I have only read one other book more than once and that is Hamlet. I often read Hamlet during the Lenten season in preparation for Easter. But I’ve never re-read book just to re-read it. Mrs. Greenbean does — I believe she has read, for example, the Harry Potter series at least four times. Maybe more.

But not me. My philosophy has always been there are so many books I’ve never read before that I need to just move forward. In contrast, Lewis argues good books, great books, get better with subsequent readings as the mind picks up more. I see his point, because I have certainly re-watched movies and television shows over and over again, each time with fresh enjoyment. I’ve just never thought of books in the same way.

Maybe I need to evaluate this. As I think on it, were I to re-read — where would I start? I made a list of ten, but I cheat a little.

  1. The War of the Worlds — the first novel I ever read. Lewis talks about reading books you read as a child when you are an adult. This would be a great place to start. Speaking of that . . .
  2. Gentle Ben — I loved that book so much. As a boy it sent me into a legitimate frontier motif in my reading tastes.
  3. The Dark Tower series — Probably the best series ever compiled. I remember reading it and discovering how it changed the way I thought and spoke.
  4. The Lord of the Rings — Maybe the best written document in the English language other than the Authorized Bible and The Book of Common Prayer.
  5. Fathers and Sons — An somewhat obscure Russian novel by Ivan Turgenev. I read it in college and I remember it made me weep. I don’t really remember the plot, but I remember it made me weep. Russian literature does that.
  6. Quiet — This is one of my ‘life-changing’ books. I wish I’d read it when I was a kid. Now that I am full enmeshed in pastoral ministry again, maybe I need to revisit the wisdom about being an introvert in an extrovert world.
  7. The Bible Jesus Read — For my money this was the paradigm for writing a reflective book on the Jesus way of living.
  8. Assassination Vacation — I listened to this on audiobook once. I think I’d like to read it in print.
  9. A Canticle for Leibowitz — Texarkana. That is all that needs to be said.
  10. Celebration of Discipline — I remember how much this book altered me. Maybe reading it again would be a double-blessing.

I’m not saying I will re-read these books, but if I decided to engage in the practice, I would start with. these.

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The Las Vegas Democratic Debate

I don’t have a lot of time for detailed analysis — but here is my hot take. Keep in mind as you read, Greenbean has no dog in this hunt, no horse in the race, no lettuce in this salad. I don’t trust any politicians but I enjoy observing the process. This makes me perfectly impartial.

Let me take them in order as they come to mind.

Exactly how many nondisclosure agreements have you signed with
former employees, Mr Weinstein, I mean, Mayor Bloomberg?

Elizabeth Warren crushed it. Desperation seems to bring out the best in her. Her performance last night made me yearn to see her and President Trump on the same stage together. We could erase the national debt selling tickets to that event. I really liked how she called out Bloomberg right out of the gate. That was priceless, and her line about ‘substituting one arrogant billionaire for another’ was brilliant. Great rhetoric.

Why is Joe Biden screaming? He seems to have no middle tone. Uncle Joe is either down home folksy or angry yelling. I don’t think that is a strategy for long term endearment. He should go eat some ice cream and chill. I know his main asset is the association with President Obama, but he needs to stop talking about that. President Obama won the last election he’ll ever have. If Biden wants to be President, he needs to tell us about him.

Bloomberg was not prepared. Surely someone on his staff briefed him on how they would come at him? Surely? If not, Mayor Bloomberg, for a couple of billion of your dollars, I’ll help you get ready for the next one. If – you – make – it – that- far.

Bernie Sanders would get crushed by Donald Trump. The class envy which fuels his platform is only working for a third of Democrats, but the United States would choose mean tweets and Apprentice: White House (who will get fired this week?) over someone coming to take their hard earned livelihood. Capitalism is not perfect, but Bernie Sanders has a real disdain for it.

Amy Klobuchar didn’t have a strong night like she did in New Hampshire, but she recovered from the cheap shot Pete Buttigieg and had the best closing statement. Klobuchar needs to smile more — Like President Obama had, her smile is a powerful tool at her disposal. It would also behoove her to get specific. When the Univision Reporter scolded her for not knowing the President of Mexico’s name, she should have turned that around and said, “You’re right. It was a bad moment, I forgot his name, but what I will never ever forget is children in cages on the border, and here is the policy I will implement immediately . . .”

Pete Buttigieg had moments where he came across as human and reasonable. He also had moments where he was petulant and, I must say, cringeworthy. His attacks on Klobuchar were forced and unnatural in the context. I also think he missed the memo that Bloomberg and Bernie were the targets. But then, he kind of likes his billionaires. Also, and this is completely aesthetic, but it looked like Buttigieg forgot to pack his razor. I mean, if he is growing a beard that would be awesome, but the day old stubble didn’t look good at all.


Two more observations real fast before I get to work. First, the moderators for this event were not very good. I don’t know what their plan was, but they kept talking over the candidates, one another, and trying to orchestrate ‘gotcha’ moments. That is not what voters want from moderators. Ask policy or issue questions and them step back, please. Second, Anyone besides me notice foreign policy and the gun debate were missing from this debate? In other words, this debate was served up perfectly for Bernie Sanders.

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On Treasure and Pearls

For the past several weeks I’ve been preaching through the parables found in Matthew 13. The more I study them, the more fascinated I am by the choices Matthew makes in including these, how he stacks them, and exactly what it is that Jesus is getting at with each one individually but also cumulatively.

The last two Sunday’s I’ve spent on tiny parables. Two weeks ago it was the one about hidden treasure.

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

Matthew 13:44

It is pretty straightforward, and the next one after it I covered this past Sunday.

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.

Matthew 13:45&46

Most commentators group these two parables together because they argue it is the same teaching in each parable. Their argument is the duality of the parable reinforces the lesson. Craig Blomberg summarizes the mainstream view by affirming, “Each contains one character and teaches one point, namely, that the kingdom is so valuable that it is worth sacrificing anything to gain it.” (New American Commentary: Matthew Vol. 22)

I see where Blomberg and others are coming from. The parables, or similes really, are very similar. Something of value is discovered and all resources are leveraged to get it. The problem is, Jesus chose to give two different parables, and they are couched in enough differences that I think they should be preached separately and appropriated separately. There are more differences than there are similarities. The similarities are more about our mind trying to categorize everything. If we will stop and evaluate I think we can see there is a lot more going on.

  1. One man ‘found’ the treasure accidentally in the field. The other man was looking for it.
  2. One man hid the found treasure until he could procure the property. The other man quickly secured the cash and bought it there in the open market.
  3. One man’s treasure was something he could use to live off of. By contrast, the pearl can only be admired.
  4. One treasure had been abandoned while the other was actively being sold.
  5. The purchase of the field with buried treasure comes with two benefits — the land is an asset as well as the treasure, whereas the pearl is unique and singular.
  6. The buried treasure actually has many characters — the one who owned the field, the one who left the treasure, and the one who bought all his stuff. These are implied characters where as the pearl comparison only has two man characters, the buyer and the seller.

In preaching these texts I didn’t highlight all these differences, but I did try to allow a complex hermeneutic ooze out. For me the key difference is the buried treasure is about stumbling across the kingdom of heaven. This is how some of us come to the Lord; a flashing light from heaven or a sudden realization in the midst of our hectic lives. If kingdom of heaven means spiritual enlightenment in general and not salvation in specific, then it can refer to any of those long illuminations we experience in our lifetime.

There is a randomness to the buried treasure story we can’t overlook.

By contrast, the pearl is dramatically different in feel. The buyer, who is meant to symbolize us, is actively in the marketplace searching for the pearl of great price. There is nothing accidental here at all. He knows what he is looking for. His eye is trained to identify the real deal and dismiss the phony baloney. If we take the verb at face value, then the seeker looking for the kingdom of heaven must be ready to buy it when it is found. I am reminded of Hebrews which teaches us the Lord is a rewarder of those who earnestly seek him. The parable also encourages ongoing discovery, seeking the Lord afresh in the morning or investigating the deep things in the darkness of night.

Here is something that I didn’t allude to at all in my sermons, but an idea that has been wiggling around in my mind. These two parables are stacked atop one another. Perhaps there is a flow in the logic here which Jesus intended. The kingdom of heaven for us is like the apparent randomness of buried treasure. This is probably how all of us feel about our experience with the risen Christ. It feels like we found something buried and obscure, but in reality someone buried it there all along knowing we would find it. The burier of treasure is Jesus. The second parable perhaps is the same man later looking for something specific. This is us in our lives of discipleship looking for the beauty, the enlightenment, the scope and breadth of the kingdom of heaven. This is us with books, prayer, meditation, and learning, yearning for a kind of treasure that we can’t live off it, but which is beautiful and meaningful.

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2020 Best Picture Nominees

The pressure has been real this year. The Oscars are two weeks earlier than normal, which means I had two fewer weeks to watch them all. But I did it. I watched all the best picture nominees. Here is my rundown of the nominees and a brief review and then I’ll give you my picks for the major categories.

1917

This is great film, but not for the feint of heart. As a historian, I found it captured much of the idiocy of World War I. Troops fighting endless offensives and defensives to secure eighteen inches of territory all the while starving to death as their feet rot off. The only thing missing was nerve gas. It was a stupid war fought in a stupid way, and the movie captures that desperate senselessness. There are a lot of symbolic moments, but what will stay with you is the editing — the long uncut scenes — which give you a powerful sense of being in the middle of the action.

When I left the theater I wanted to drink a glass of milk and cry.

Ford v Ferrari

The sound of this movie is still in my ears. I’m not a car person, and car racing is even more of a foreign concept, but this movie made me want to buy a new fast car and then watch racing nonstop. The performances were spectacular, and the second greatest travesty of the Oscar season was Christian Bale did not get nominated for best actor.

Joker

I didn’t like this movie as much as most people. In its effort to be fresh and original, I think it muddied the waters on a familiar narrative. For example, If I’m seeing it right, The Joker is way older than Batman, which doesn’t make a lot of sense. There are other problems for me, including one that seems cliche but to mention it would be a great spoiler so I’ll leave it there.

As an aside, I think this movie does harm to the view of mental illness. Mentally ill people are not homicidal or violent. Yes, there are violent people in this world who do horrible, terrible things but this movie draws too thick of a line between violent rages and mental illness. The best thing this film does, however, is capture the icky feeling of the late 70s and early 80s.

Once Upon A Time in Hollywood

This movie should not have been nominated and it is not worthy of mentioning along with these other outstanding films. Is it funny? At times. Is it interesting? At times. Is the acting good? At times. The only reason, though, this film has any mentions is because Quentin Tarantino made it AND Leo and Brad are in it AND it is about Hollywood. Hollywood is completely infatuated with itself.

When I left the theater back in the summer when it came out, I was mumbling to myself, “You can do that once, QT, but you can’t do it again.”

Parasite

My baseline review of this movie: It starts out as Korean Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Finishes as Helter Skelter. The performances were outstanding and the story was well told. There are some editing issues and pacing problems, but the brilliance of the way the story uses issues like smell and social expectations make up for those problems.

This movie is social commentary through and through and by the end you will ask yourself who is the parasite and who is really violent. I also asked myself what was real in the movie. It is this year’s “Get Out”.

The Irishman

I hated this movie. It is three hours of self-indulgent cliche. It is a crime against storytelling this movie was nominated.

Little Women

The best scene in this movie is when the old rich neighbor (Chris Cooper) sits on the stairs and listens to Beth play the piano. That scene alone earns this movie a spot on the nominees list, and if it doesn’t melt your heart then you need to check and make sure you have one. The acting, with the exception of Emma Watson, is so very good. Saoirse Ronan is quite simply one of the finest actresses of all time.

Jojo Rabbit

I was not expecting to like this movie because the premise sounded absurd. However, I was wrong. This movie was at times delightful and laugh-out-loud funny and then it turns and kicks you in the gut. The plot is not really great, but it is a stunning character piece. And Sam Rockwell. Sam Rockwell is a national treasure.

Marriage Story

There are times when I loved this movie and times when I hated it. It does a great job of eliciting emotions, and the acting is impeccable. What I wish was something less formulaic and less done than a divorce and custody battle for Scarlett and Adam (notice how I feel like I know them so well I can just use their first names) to work with. Those two make the movie, and I don’t begrudge them their nominations in acting categories. However, overall I think the movie is uneven and, as I said, the theme is overdone. I liked this movie the first time I saw it when it as called Kramer vs Kramer.


Predictions

Best picture: The most likely winner is 1917. From start to finish it is the best movie with the highest overall quality. However, I think Ford v Ferrari has a punchers chance. The outside long shot is Jojo Rabbit.

Actor In A Leading Role: I would like for it to be Tom Hanks, but he wasn’t nominated. My second pick wold be Christian Bale, but he wasn’t nominated either. My third pick would be Jonathan Pryce because The Two Popes was soooooo gooooooood. However, the winner will be Joaquin Phoenix.

Actor In A Supporting Role: The winner is Tom Hanks. I would have liked for Chris Cooper to have gotten a nomination and maybe even Alan Alda but all the slots had to go to mobsters and Hollywood.

Actress In A Leading Role: Renee Zellwegger will win for her outstanding performance in Judy. However, we all know the wrong person won this last year so you never know. If Cynthia Erivo wins that will be fine with me. Harriet was a great movie.

Actress In A Supporting Role: This is a toss up for me. I have not seen Bombshell or Richard Jewell, and apparently neither have many other people, so my pick here is limited. I feel like Scarlett fatigue might keep her from winning, so I lean toward Laura Dern. Yeah, I’m picking Laura Dern. But the winner should be Ana de Armas from Knives Out. Her snubbing is a tragedy.

Animated Feature Film: I never pick the right one, but How To Train Your Dragon made me and Mrs. Greenbean both cry. So there.

Directing: Sam Mendes is a lock.

Original Score: I’ve listened to them all and . . no bias here . . . the best music is Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker. It should win.

Original Song: Stand Up from Harriet.

Original Screenplay: I’d like for Knives Out to win, but it will be Parasite.


Before I leave, a word about Mr. Rogers. Oscar must hate Mr. Rogers. Last year it snubbed the outstanding documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” and this year the film “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” should have been nominated for best picture and director (Marielle Heller) and Hanks should have gotten a best actor nod. But no. Oscar hates Mr. Rogers.

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I’ve Got Questions About the Impeachment

Question One: Does this count as a part-time job for Justice Roberts?

If so, how does he file this on his 2020 tax return next year?

Question Two: Do you think the Founding Fathers intended for us to have to watch all the proceedings?

I mean, that is a certain kind of torture, right? A correlating question is, “Am I a bad citizen if I don’t watch it all?” I mean, I do have a life, but at the same time I feel a certain level of civic duty to pay attention.

Question Three: Will there be a meet and greet for senators?

People keep talking about how the senators never actually come to the senate at the same time to hear debate and dialogue. I’m just wondering if they have actually ever met each other. If not, perhaps a little social after one of the hearings would be appropriate. Of course, attendance would have to be mandatory.

Question Four: Did we surrender dueling as a means of solving conflict too soon?

I’m not in favor of violence by any means, but again appealing to the Founding Fathers, sometimes they just stepped off fifteen paces and solved the issue quickly. Tell me this wouldn’t be simpler if Adam Schiff and Jay Sekulow just picked their weapon of choice . . .

Question Five: Are there impeachment swag bags?

The image on television kind of looks like a conference of sorts, so are there freebies on back tables? What would those freebies be? Leather bound Federalist papers? Wall posters of the constitution? A two week vacation in beautiful Kiev?

Question Six: Since it is being aired on television, wouldn’t it be great if we could get multiple angels and camera views, like for football games?

I’d like to have a separate camera on Justice Roberts at all times, an instant replay of a salient point, or perhaps statistics and graphs like, “Kiev has a population of 2.8 million people” and “Senator Patty Murray has consumed three bags of skittles in the last hour and a half.” A camera on the senators would be nice, too. I’d like to now if my senators are paying attention or are they asleep.

Question Seven: Would color commentary be a good addition?

“In the off season, Jerry Nadler enjoys ice fishing in the Arctic Circle.” Better yet, “Pam Bondi might be really smart, but she blew that opening. It’s doubtful they will let her back on the field anytime soon.”

Question Eight: What is happening with all the regular business the Senate and House are supposed to be doing?

Have we solved Flint’s drinking water? Are we good with a plan for immigration reform? Could somebody please do something about the ridiculous medical system in this country? It is the kind of thing that makes a reasonable person wonder if this is all a great big distraction to keep us from having to do the hard stuff.

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Predictions for 2020

Each New Year I engage in a futile effort to predict things for the coming year. I am averaging about 30% correct, which I take as pretty good. Last year’s predictions were a little off, especially my financial predictions, but I was correct in the general feel of the predictions — trade uncertainty, volatility in the markets, and Brexit being a major destabilizing factor.

So, what do I think 2020 has in store . . .


10. I am betting the field against Joe Biden. I do not think he will get the nomination for the Democratic Party. Neither will Bernie Sanders.

9. The Seahawks and Forty-Niners will meet again in the playoffs, and the Seahawks will win 35 to 21, Russell Wilson will throw four touchdown passes.

8. Tom Hanks will win best actor for his portrayal of Mr. Rogers.

7. The sugar-stick policy by the Fed of lowering interest rates will have to end eventually, and it will be this year. The result will be a reality-check in the markets and something that looks like, but not as severe as, the 2008 recession will occur. I suspect it will involve tech companies.

6. The political polarization in the nation will manifest itself in an electoral college tie in November.

5. Netflix will be bought or merged. I can really only see two possible candidates to buy it: Apple or AT&T. The Trump DOJ will fight AT&T and could stop it because they hate AT&T, so that might keep them out. Apple is flush with cash and just looking for a place to spend it. Plus, Apple TV has been and always will be a dud, so they will use buy one.

4. The Houston Astros will again win the American League pennant, and will again lose to a National League team and it feels like it is time for The San Francisco Giants to rise again.

3. The Senate will cast sixty-one votes to impeach President Trump, which is not enough to remove him from office but will expose a growing divide in the Republican Party.

2. Under growing pressure from a disaffected public, Iran will either collapse or it will create a diversion by turning the quiet war with Saudi Arabia into open warfare killing thousands, if not millions.

1. Julian Castro will be the Vice Presidential nominee for whoever wins the nomination. For a while I was thinking it would Kamala Harris, but I’ve got even money the nominee is Elizabeth Warren, and if the Dems go centrist, their candidate is Klobuchar (if she can stay in long enough). A woman at the top will seek to pick a man, and Castro is more feisty than Booker or Beto.

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James 5:7-10 Advent Three: A Meditation

The third week of Advent brings us to what might be the perfect Advent text. James 5:7-10 is a strong exhortation to get our act together because, “The Lord is coming.”  The first line in the Latin Bible even has the very word: patients igniter estate craters issue ad adventum Domini. 

Let’s continue in, English.


Be patient, therefore, brothers and sisters*, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and late rains.

My father was a farmer. He loved to watch things grow. However, patience is not a word that anyone would apply to him, and I think to most farmers. Farmers always are impatient. They can’t wait to break the dirt in the spring. They can’t wait to get the seed in the ground. The can’t wait for it sprout. They can’t wait for it to blossom. They can’t wait until the crop is ripe. They can’t wait until the harvest. They can’t wait until it is sold or stored away. And finally, they rarely can wait until they eat it. This is why you see farmers and growers of all types eating their tomatoes/peaches/grapes right off the vine.

Farmers are not patient by nature. They are also never happy with the weather. James points to the early and late rains in the growing season. Farmers always complain about rain. There is either not enough or there is too much or it comes at the wrong times.

Did James know any farmers?

I wager he did, and that might very well be the point. We wait like farmers do: patiently impatient knowing there is nothing we can do except anticipate the day when the crops are gathered and our work is done. Until then, we keep at it.

You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.

The word here, establish, is usually a pretty good word, but may I suggest ‘strengthen’ or ‘firm up’ as a better rendering here. Just as a farmer strengthens her crop by tending it, protecting it, making certain it has good soil, so too should we strengthen our heart. This is not a passive, “let’s hope we have strong hearts” but is an encouragement to make active steps to strengthen our hearts.

Going back to my father, he used to put fertilizer in the soil to strengthen it. Virgin soil didn’t need this, but when you’ve been farming the same land over time, it needs help. Growing things saps the energy and vitality from the dirt.

Just as life drains the love out of our hearts. Hurts, pains, betrayals, lies, and disappointments weaken our hearts. But Jesus is coming, so we must take steps to strengthen our hearts. We strengthen our heart by exercising faith, practicing discipline, and feeding on the word of God.

Do not grumble against one another, brothers and sisters*, so that you may not be judged, behold the Judge is standing at the door.

By my count this the third time in a row James has warned us that Jesus is coming. This time it is as our Judge. What is he judging? Specifically here, how we speak about our church family and other Christ-followers. Grumbling is not a good idea.

What I like here is the sense of the judge at the door, but what he is doing is not coming in. Instead, he is standing there, eavesdropping. He is standing at the door listening to what is happening inside. Can you see in your mind the possible scenario James has built? The Lord Jesus, our judge, is standing outside the door listening to how we are talking about one another.

What does Jesus hear you saying about your brothers and sisters in Christ? He is there, standing at the door listening, and any minute he may walk in, he may come in (adventum in Latin, parousia in Greek (vv 7 & 8) and catch you red-handed spewing slander, gossip, and hatred toward your brother or sister in Christ. How embarrassing.

As an example of suffering and patience, brothers and sisters*, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.

The lectionary reading ends here; but James will go on to talk about Job. I wouldn’t think naturally about Job as a prophet, but that is the kind of suffering James has in mind. Job suffered in his body through ailment and disease. Job suffered through grief at the loss of his children. Job suffered economically as all his wealth was stripped away. Job suffered relationally as his wife was at odds with him. Job suffered socially from the accusations of wrongdoing by his ‘friends’. Job suffered spiritually because he never understood why God would do this to him.

To be human is to suffer. I have come to believe this is what defines us. James teaches us that Jesus is coming, and as we wait, we must wait in the context of our suffering the way the old timers did. What does this mean? It means we make Job’s confession about the coming of the Lord; a confession that ends, strangely enough, with an appeal to a weakening heart, which no doubt needs to be strengthened by faith in the midst of adversity.

Oh that my words were written! Oh that they were inscribed in a book! Oh that with an iron pen and lead they were engraved in the rock forever! For I know that my redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. My heart faints within me!”

Job 19:23-28
*I have annotated the ESV text with ‘brothers and sisters’ where it says ‘brothers’ because the Greek word here, adelphoi, is gender inclusive and is a better reading of the textual meaning rather than the exclusive term ‘brothers’. There are three instances here in this text of that usage.

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Psalm 72:1-8 Advent Two: A Meditation

The readings for the second week of advent (Year A, 2019) have a theme of the rule of the future Davidic king bringing peace and harmony to the world: Romans 15 speaks to the scope of this reign as over the Jews and Gentiles, Matthew 3 is the summary of John the Baptist’s preaching in preparation for the coming of this Davidic King, Isaiah 11 is more specific about the stump of Jesse which will arise and bring the new age.

The Psalm reading intrigues me. Psalm 72:1-8 is a series of petitions to the Lord, prayers, regarding the rule of an earthly Hebrew king for certain, but with an eye on the eventual one who would fulfill the hope of the ages as the eternal king. My instinct tells me Psalm 72 was probably read at the installation of kings, or composed for the installation of a specific king. One notes, however, the backhanded nature of these petitions: praying for the king to do the right sorts of things indicates perhaps the King, or his predecessor, had failed to live up to the obligations and expectations of a righteous leader.


Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to the royal son! May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice.

There is a lot of poetics in the opening lines. First the careful reader will notice justice and righteousness are first asked to be given to the king, then these same attributes are asked for the people through the work of the king. Did you notice the change in order? In verse 1 we have justice then righteousness and in verse 2 we have righteousness and then justice.

I wonder if there isn’t some kind of parallelism here with the judging. There certainly is in verse 1 where “king” aligns with “royal son” forming a chiasm with “righteousness” and “justice” as roughly synonymous. If this works In verse two as well, then there is no chiasm but “your people” would then be synonymous with “your poor” as the same basic group of people. Poor people are God’s people. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

On an interpretative level, these two verses are a plea for the leadership to be fair to all people and not just the wealthy who can bribe and buy justice. It makes a person think about the fact, not opinion, but fact, how much you can afford to pay a lawyer goes a long way in determining wether you go to jail or not in this country. We have to be careful that we don’t take this plea be able punishing the right or even complaining that the wealth get justice. This is not about envy; it is about asking for the poor to get a fair shake in justice.

Let the mountains bear prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness!

The third verse shifts subjects momentarily from the king to mountains. The request is that the mountains will prosper and provide economic provision for the people. Putting this in context with the surround text, our eyes can focus on what the person praying is really concerned for. It is not the wellbeing of the king or the wellbeing of the mountains. Rather, the concern for the prayer is the wellbeing of the people. He is praying that both the king and the mountains be good to the people.

This verse reminds us it is not improper to pray for prosperity and for blessings. As this year ends and a new one is on the horizon, it is proper and biblical to ask the Lord to let ‘the mountains’ or ‘the factory’ or ‘the stock market’ or ‘the sales numbers’ bear prosperity for you and your family. Always keep in mind, however, we are blessed that we may be a blessing.

May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the children of the needy, and crush the oppressor!

The subject goes back to the king, but we can still see who it is the petition is for — the poor people and their children. This is a prayer and is not necessarily what God is speaking, but is speech to God. In this speech we see the concern is with the oppressed and the needy. I wonder if people of faith too often make their prayers aimed at protecting the privileged and the powerful rather than the poor and the children of the poor.

There is a vitriol here as well. The prayer asks those who hurt the children and the needy be crushed. Not punished, but crushed. Before you move on, let that language settle in on your soul.

May they fear you while the sun endures, and as long as the moon, through all generations! May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass, like showers that water the earth! In his days may the righteous flourish, and peace abound, till the moon be no more.

It is a little confusing the way this starts — “may they fear you” — but this is not a valid reading. Likely the text should read “May he live” –thus asking the Lord for the king to live a long life in the idiom of ‘as long as the sun endures.’

The poetics continue as the work of the king is described as a blessed rain that falls on freshly cut grass watering the earth. If we put these together, we have an appeal for the king to be as faithful and stable as nature that allows for the a life filled with shalom. Can you smell the grass? Can you feel the warm rain on your skin? See the moon glowing in the night sky? See the sun’s last rays on a winter’s evening as the fire burns in the hearth? These are the feelings the pray invokes as it asks for good governance that creates the atmosphere of wellbeing for everyone.

May he have dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth!

Amen–May this kind of dominion rule from sea to shining sea and up and down all the mighty rivers.


This Hebrew prayer inspired me to put my own words to the same thoughts — which I think is a powerful way to understand the Psalms — ancient prayers to inform our daily prayers. I crafted it as a national prayer, but keep in mind the best hermeneutic of this would likely be a prayer crafted around the Kingdom of God rather than national entities. I chose national entities to keep it in the political context of the original writing; to help us, and by us I mean me, understand what the original implications might have been:

Help our government to value justice, O God, and our leaders to be righteousness.

May our judges be filled with righteousness, and may the poor find justice in every aspect of life.

May all of the economic engines of our nation be prosperous, let them be fair and just so that no one is left behind and no one is exploited, manipulated, or used.

May the President and those in charge of executing the laws have compassion on those who are needy, regardless of where they come from or what language they speak or who they pray to. Give him a vision and passion to be a protector of children.

May our nation, for as long as she is just and righteous, stand as long as the sun sits at the center of our solar system and the moon waxes and wanes above our heads; may our values of freedom and liberty be like refreshing rain showers upon a world that is thirsty for hope.

May we accept your dominion over us, Lord Jesus Christ, from the Harbors of the East Coast to the beautiful shorelines of the West Coast, from the bountiful Valley of Texas to the expansive Great Lakes of the Midwest. May we experience your shalom forever and ever. Amen.

 

 

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Frozen Ferrari Fred Whodunit

Other than the fact “Ferrari Fred” sounds like the name of a character in a bad Stephen King novel, what am I talking about with this crazy blog title? I WENT TO THE MOVIES, that is what I’m talking about.

Over the long Thanksgiving weekend we saw the four hot movies out right now, and they were all wonderful in their own way. No, they are not all for everyone, but they are all wonderful. I will take them in the order I saw them.

Ford v Ferrari

Everything about this movie was near perfection. The story was tight, the dialogue was crisp and memorable, the imagery was iconic, and the sound and sights of those beautiful cars was spectacular. Even if you don’t like cars, you’ll like the movie and if you like cars, you’ll love the movie. Christian Bale will get a best actor nomination and the movie will get a best picture nomination. It has some language in it, so you might want to keep the kiddos away, but there is no violence or pornographic material.

A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood

Movies usually entertain. Sometimes they inspire. Sometimes they mesmerize. This movie affirms humanity and the possibilities for making the world a better place. Shot in the same style as the old Mr. Rogers Neighborhood television show, it usher you into a different world from the very beginning. Yet this movie is not really about Mr. Rogers as much as it is the journalist covering him, but at the same time it really is. The main character, Lloyd, is changed by Mr. Rogers. Tom Hanks will get a nod for best actor and the movie should be a top contender for best picture.

As an aside, I also recommend you watch the outstanding documentary about Mr. Rogers. Click here to read what I wrote about that.

Frozen II

All four of us enjoyed it and so can your entire family. The music is very good, but the emotions are what steal the show. There is one particular moment when Anna is everyone of us — fighting to keep up hope in a lonely and dark world. I liked this movie more than the first one, probably because of the heavy Tolkien influence on the story. I’m serious. If Olaf is viewed as a happy shiny Gollum, Elsa as Gandalf, Anna as Frodo/Aragorn, Sven and Kristoff become hobbits then the journey parallels nicely.

Aside from this, it is easy to see the motif of the movie — a needed restoration and reconciliation between indigenous peoples and those who exploited and took from them. It’s a good message.

Knives Out

This one surprised me. I didn’t expect to like it so much, but man was it fun. Nothing will be nominated from this movie, and there will be no awards for it but it is fun. Here was my take away on this movie: Knives Out is the Thanksgiving movie America needed but didn’t know it needed. Besides, it’s got Captain America, James Bond, half of Miami Vice, and Captain Von Trapp, and Halloween! There is a lot of star power here, but Ana de Armas steals the show as Marta.

There is a lot of language and one particular violent moment, but no nudie bits. Perfect for adults who want to slurp soda and enjoy themselves.

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Isaiah 2:1-5 Advent One: An Interpretation

Yesterday (Sunday, December 1, 2019) began the Advent journey — IMG_1096the four Sundays
of reflections and readings which lead up to Christmas Day. The key Old Testament reading from the lectionary was Isaiah 2:1-5, which we read in our worship service.


The word that Isaiah the son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.

My favorite part of the opening is that Isaiah “saw” the word of the Lord. It is probably an idiom for a vision — the vision he saw about the mountain. In my mind, though, I wonder if it was not some written document he saw. Did he spy God’s book with his eyes and then record in human language what he had seen? That is probably not the way it happened, but in my imagination it is, and what Isaiah gives us is insight into God’s secret plans about the future.

It is a secret The Lord freely shares, though. It is an open secret.

Two other fascinating tidbits here before we move on. Seeing the word of God is the same thing the first century apostle saw. The word became flesh and dwelt among us. They beheld the living word with their own eyes.

The second fascination here is the challenge this verse presents to our vision; that we might see the word or God all around us. Natural revelation comes to mind here with seeing God in the stars and moon as well as waterfalls. We should also learn, train, and work at seeing the word of God in children on the playground, lovers holding hands, and the truth being spoken to power. Can you see the word of God, the words of God, right in front of you?

It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it,

It is not that there aren’t other mountains, it is that the mountain of the house of the Lord is higher than the rest. Just like there are other gods, there are to be no other gods above the One True God.

I don’t know if this is literal. Part of me wants it to be literal, describing a future when the Temple Mount literally grows taller and higher than Everest as a beacon over the whole earth. But I’m not certain that is what this is teaching. Highest here should be taken as meaning the most important or significant. The Temple Mount will be more important than Mt. Olympus, the seven hills of Rome, or the artificial ziggurats which dot the ancient landscape. It is taller than the artificial mountains of skyscrapers and satellites. It is higher than mankind can reach.

The Bible here doesn’t say people will flow (flow uphill, I might add) but that nations will. Nations — not only Hebrews — but nations. The movement of nations echoes throughout the biblical witness until the cacophony cannot be drowned out any longer and the crescendo comes in Revelation when every, all the tribes and peoples, and every language cries out before the throne of God and the Lamb.

and many peoples shall come, and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.

Is this wishful thinking? Maybe. Maybe Isaiah is just as cynical about his world as I am sometimes about mine. The Nations do not want to know the ways of God. The Nations want the ways of power, strength, greed, and exploitation. The Nations pollute the air and water without regard for our children or the animals. The Nations destroy families by trafficking our young to war and slavery. The Nations value control and manipulation in order to protect the privileged. The Nations use religion as a mask for abominations.

But Isaiah says it will happen. Some day in the future The Nations will be changed; their heart will turn. God’s law will move among them — the law of grace and of healing — and bring repentance to the earth.

He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, either shall they learn war anymore.

There can be no peace without justice. There can be no forgiveness without the struggle and pain to name the wrongdoing. The Lord will usher in a peaceful time without war or conflict by first judging the nations and then acting as arbiter of the great disputes. Eventually, finally, Palestinians and Israelis will have their dispute settled, as will the Muslims and Jews. Likewise, peace will come when the Lord arbitrates the grievance of Native Americans and those of African descent against Anglo-Europeans. Finally the Korean Penninsula will be at peace when God mediates. Likewise Sunni and Shia, Indian and Pakistani, as well as the Tutsi and Hutus will have all aggression and violence purged in their relationships. The wrongs of history will be settled. The future will no longer be on the horizon. It will be upon us.

And war will be no more. Never again will another dime be spent on nuclear weapons or bullets; it will instead be spent on feeding the children and building homes.

O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.

Amen. Let us walk in the light, as he is in the light. Marana Tha.

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Book Review : Ronan Farrow’s Catch and Kill

Some books you read because you need to.

Ronan Farrow’s Catch And Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators was for me, one of those books you just need to read. It is a very adult book with lots of foul words and graphic language wrapped around disturbing material. Farrow includes a warning that it might trigger some people who have been hurt. The warning is justified. I have never been sexually abused or harassed yet there were times I had to put it down and walk away for a day or two.

I’d like to address the book in two different aspects rather than one of my more usual formats (good, bad, and ugly or what I liked and what I didn’t like). The first aspect I’d like to take is the topic at hand. The second is the book as a written endeavor.

As to the topic, Catch And Kill is an important work because it highlights the criminal activities of powerful people who use their wealth and power to intimidate or silence their victims. What I found particularly disturbing was the complicit nature of law enforcement, particularly prosecutors. I was not aware the law was that bendable — that money and attorneys could essentially shut down a viable investigation into rape or assault by simply lawyering up or using the media to start a smear campaign, victim shaming, job insecurity, and various other power trips including blackmail. It is disgusting.

Farrow’s book also teaches us an important lesson: Power is not political. If you think only Republicans are guilty of sexual crimes or only Democrats cover things up, then you fail to realize the extent of the issue. This is not a political issue, this is an abuse issue. Farrow makes certain that we know Harvey Weinstein, the central figure for most of this book, was a huge supporter of Democratic causes and especially of the Clintons and he spells out how Weinstein used his leverage with Hillary Clinton to try to silence him. But he also reminds us the same media group that helped Weinstein cover-up stories and buy people off did the same work for Donald Trump. And Republican governors and Democratic media personalities all used the same processes.

This is true in the media, as Farrow points out, and in politics.

It is also true in your hometown.

It may be true in your family, as it was for Farrow.

It might also be true in your church, as many of us have seen first hand.

It could be true in your school.

It also happens in many workplaces.

Until we refuse to be silent about it any longer it will continue. Today as I write this blog post, Epstein and Prince Andrew are in the news. Epstein’s death feels very suspicious to me (after reading Farrow’s book, it makes you think anything might have happened) and Prince Andrew is demonstrating typical behavior of these kinds of abusers. And next week there will be more, and that is a tragedy because for every famous situation we hear about, there are untold numbers of victims forced into silent submission by those who have leverage and power.

This issue has always been near to me because of all the women whom I love that have been hurt, abused, raped, molested, and harassed by men who have never been brought to justice. I will not mention their names nor attempt to tell their stories. Their stories belong to them.

It is also personal to me because of the situation I found myself in, which I wrote about in the epilogue to my first novel, when a trusted colleague in ministry was arrested and clearly guilty of one of the most vile things I can possibly fathom. It is so vile I don’t even want to discuss it here.

So this issue is personal, and because of that I am thankful for this book for any attention it might call our collective society to give no tolerance to abusers or those who protect them.

So that is the first thing I wanted to talk about — the topic.

The second part of this is about the book. It is uneven in its narrative. Farrow seems to jump around quite a bit, which perhaps would be okay but then he throws in a large number of names that were hard for me to remember. At times I wished he’d had a Dramatis Personae at the beginning for quick reference. I’m certain these people are all clear in his mind, but to me it at times turned into a book in which the characters were Weinstein, Farrow, Lawyer in this chapter, NBC executive in this chapter, inept private investigator in this chapter, and someone dancing in the ballet studio across from his apartment.

What he did a good job on was highlighting the victims, both the famous ones we’ve all heard of like Rose McGowan and those we’ve never heard about like Brooke Nevils. There is a part of me that wishes the book would have been more a canvasing of the victims and their own individual stories. However, that is not the book we got. What we got instead was a book about Ronan Farrow. Make no mistake, he is the star of the book. At times he portrays himself as a hard working investigative journalist. Other times, the victim of such dangerous espionage he has to move into a safe house. Then he is also the martyr for the cause, the little guy going up against the machine. He also wants us to feel sorry for his beleaguered bi-coastal love life AND the physical toll it took on his body.

But its hard to read his words and not think of him at times as a whiney snob who can’t believe the bad guys didn’t just roll over and give up. Just when you begin to think of him as a work-a-day guy like the rest of us he so casually tells us he’s getting advice from Tom Brokaw, hanging out with Gwen Stefani, or was singing songs with Rose McGowan and talking about music. And then BOOM! he tells us about the time Rachel Maddow made him cry.

It’s kinda of surreal and I think Farrow believes this helps the book, particularly his own pain. It is impossible to untangle the story of Weinstein, Lauer, and other perps without an awareness of Woody Allen and Farrow’s sister Dylan. In the outside chance you wanted to, Farrow won’t let you. He keeps dragging himself back to the center of the narrative. For me this is not helpful, and this is not to minimize his own pain or Dylans — heavens no — and I hope there is justice and healing there someday for them all. It is that in this book, as a work on its own, it was a distraction.

In the book there are winners and losers. Farrow is a winner, and he is the hero. So too is The New Yorker Magazine and David Remnick, who published the original and subsequent articles. Oddly, the spies are winners too, because they ‘came to their senses’ and turned it around.

The losers are easy to spot–Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Tom Brokaw, and NBC News in general. I mean, the big loser seems to be NBC. What a horrible, horrible culture.

If there is a hope in the book, it is the truth eventually comes out. We can certainly pray that way.

 

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This Is Not Okay — Thoughts On The World Series

I was able to catch Game 6 of the World Series. It was the only post-season baseball game I watched this year. My life is just too busy and, the truth be known, the games last too long and go too far into the night. I turn into a pumpkin at 9:30, so a game that lasts until after 11PM is really out of the question. [Hot take: baseball needs a pitch clock like the minor leagues.]

But I did watch Game 6. My sleep patterns haven’t recovered yet. I checked this morning to learn the Washington Nationals won Game 7 last night, and congrats to them. They are a fantastic baseball team and I am happy for them and their fan base. It is also a historical oddity all the games were won by the visiting team. Weird.

But that is not my main thought today. During Game 6 a controversial call was made involving a baserunner. The call went against the Washington Nationals, and the manager for the Nationals, David Martinez, lost his mind. Seriously.

Lost.

His.

Mind.

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He had to be restrained by other coaches from attacking an umpire.

 

I know sports culture is unique, but this is not okay. You can’t act this way AT WORK! We need to keep in mind this is a work place for the manager, the players, and the umpires. I can’t think of very many workplaces where this type of behavior by one employee to another would be tolerated. Imagine if a coworker came at you, restrained by his subordinates on the managerial chart, like Martinez does here at the umpire over say, a bad sales call you made or because the data in your spreadsheet was disproportionate. Or you made a judgment call that was part of your job description to do.

He was ejected, that is good. But he needs help, or he needs to find another career option. If someone came at me like this in my workplace, I think I might call 911, I don’t care how good they were at their job.

Major League Baseball should suspend him for multiple games or a season, and he should be forced to complete anger management classes/counseling before returning to work, at the very least.

Our nation is filled with rage and violence, and people are constantly ready to explode over the littlest of things. It is nurtured by our politicians and fueld by social media. We have a gigantic anger problem. Perhaps, in the past we could wink and nod at the showmanship and entertainment value at the antics of Billy Martins or Lou Pinellas but this kind of behavior needs to be swept away into the dust bin of history. We must become better than this.

This anger, focused at a human being who is just doing his job, is unacceptable, and ejecting him, the equivalence of saying ‘clock out and go home and take the rest of the day of’ is not enough.

Our kids are watching.

Do better, baseball. Do better.

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Burger Talk

A hamburger is always a good idea, but what do you do if you are avoiding meat? Do you skip the hamburger altogether?

A rise in the number of vegetarians, vegans, and people (like me) who are cutting back on meat has prompted the marketplace to develop meatless burgers. Recently I mentioned the outstanding offering at the Hard Rock Cafe in an unrelated blog post. About two weeks ago I tried a local burger joint’s vegetarian burger and it was awful. Just awful. It had the texture of Playdough and the flavor of boiled turnips. It fell apart into crumbling bits I scooped up with fried pickles. In short, I hated it.

My youngest sprout, who is a vegetarian (I am not–instead I follow a diet where I avoid meat on Monday and consciously skip it when there are other viable options) wanted me to try the Impossible Whopper from Burger King.

Well, today is Monday, so that means I’m meatless. After reading to kindergartner children I dropped by BK on my way back to my study. The verdict: from the first bite onward it seemed like just another hamburger to me. In other words, it was good. I don’t think I could have identified it as being plant based at all, and if I were alternating bites with a regular Whopper they would seem indistinguishable. Well done Burger King, well done.

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If you’re wanting to make burgers at home (which is always better) I highly recommend MorningStar Farms Grillers Veggie burger. However, be careful, as there is another veggie burger they make in almost identical packaging that is gag inducing vomit worthy.

I leave you with these five tips for the perfect hamburger experience — whether your burger is vegan or beef.

  1. Thick sliced sharp cheddar, placed on the patty when it is either on the grill/pan is best.
  2. Put the bottom of the bun on the meat patty when it has about a minute left. Flip it over with your spatula on the plate to build the burger.
  3. Serve the burger with a thin layer of mustard on the bun and a drizzle of ketchup over the meat. Remember, mustard is for the bread, the ketchup is for the meat. The picture above almost gets it right, but it has mayonnaise on the top rather than mustard.
  4. More mustard and ketchup instructions: serve a generous amount of both on the side for dipping the hamburger that you have cut into quarters.
  5. Drink a cherry Coke with your burger. It will make the burger perfect.
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A Quick Poll: Tank or Pond

I grew up in East Texas where we call small bodies of water a pond, which I believe is common for most of the English speaking world. However, in West Texas they tend to call them tanks, as they are used primarily for watering livestock. Some people will get passionate about the differences between the two words, but my experience is people tend to use them synonymously.

Here is my situation: Where I live now, in Central Texas, I hear both tank and pond used. It all depends on the origin of the speaker. I am working on a novel set in Central Texas, and I need to use either the word pond or tank. Tank gives the setting some ambiance, but not all readers might understand the usage. I can see pros and cons for both words.

Help me decide! VOTE NOW! Remember to click the vote button to record your choice.

 

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What Makes You Thirsty?

At about 7:45AM yesterday (6 October 2019) I realized the sermon about John 7:37-39 was out of control.

On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, ‘If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’ ” Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.

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I’ve preached this passage before, usually with mixed results. This time I tried to weave a little light exegesis with a constant hammering of metaphor — what it was like to be dehydrated. In fact, I used eight different metaphors–everything from mummies to Mars. I was having a hard time putting in all of the different things I wanted to say along with a baseline exegesis of the text, which is important as well.

Something had to go for me to regain control. What I cut was a wandering speculation about when do we get thirsty? I came up with five, and I intended to draw out the spiritual implications.

  1. When I first wake up
  2. After I eat something dry
  3. After exercise
  4. If I am sick, I am thirsty
  5. When traveling

It would be a safe jump to move “when I first wake up” into a “when I first become a Christ-follower”. I have found this to be inherently true of people who turn on their spiritual lives — they have a near insatiable appetite for the anything about Jesus — worship, church, Bible study, reading the Bible, and serving. Often they can’t stop talking about Jesus. It is because they are thirsty.

Eating something dry is a harder parallel, but not impossible. It could be likened to whenever I am around stale people, crusty ideas, or hardened hearts. Too much time in these environments will make me thirsty for Jesus all the more. Being thirsty after exercise is the opposite, in many ways to eating something dry. Exercise is when we are spiritually serving — for me this is when my teaching schedule is heavy, lots of appointments with people, people in the hospital — and I have exerted myself spiritually so much that I’ve ‘sweated out’ all my liquid. That is when I need to rehydrate and spend some extra time alone with the Lord and drink in his presence.

Antibiotics always make me thirsty. Medicine, in general, does. I like to think of this concept as running alongside the way I can become spiritually confused or even displaced. A good example is when a contemporary issue seems to be running right into the teaching of Scripture. This is a certain kind of dissonance that makes me need to spend more time with the Lord to gather discernment. I need a drink, so to speak, before I know what the healthy path is.

If I am in an airplane I am always thirsty. The same is true when I am in car. I think most people are this way and it is because of the dry recycled air. Recycled air is the key here. One of the problems in my life is I get comfortable recycling and repeating same the same things over and over again, neglecting the Spirits call to sing a new song, start a new thing, or travel in a new direction. When the air is dry and recycled, it is time to spend time drinking in the Lord.

So there you have it, the bonus material that had to be cut from yesterday’s completely out of control sermon.

 

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Our Ugandan Orphans Need Your Help

Mrs. Greenbean and I received an urgent request from Tender Love Orphan Care, the orphanage we support in Jinja, Uganda. It is a little involved, so allow me a moment to explain.

A teen student committed suicide. The reason? She was ashamed because she didn’t have feminine products during her period. She bled through her school uniform every month. Her solution was to die.

Rachel, one of the leaders of the orphanage, asked if we could provide $300 as her birthday present to buy pads and other feminine products for these young girls. Help us provide what these girls need, so they can grow up in a healthy environment and thrive. Help us save lives, and make lives better.

Every. Dollar. Matters.

The easiest way to give is through the GoFundMe I set up.  Click on the picture below to send help.

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Learning To Write: ACFW 2019

Greenbean has been taking notes this weekend at the American Christian Fiction Writers annual conference in San Antonio because he wants to be a better writer.

I’ve published four books, and each one makes me a better writer. I still have a lot to learn. The last two days have highlighted how much I have yet to learn. But before I touch on that, here are some hot takes from the ACFW:

  1. The people who run this thing are wonderful, kind, hard working and inspiring. I really do appreciate how much they do to help all of us neurotic paranoids.
  2. Being around people who are like me is wonderful. Seriously, writers are a different breed of human and we all get each other without explanation. People who see me all the time in the real world don’t realize just how much I work to ‘hide’ that weirdness.
  3. The most unused public room at ACFW is the men’s room. It is not an exaggeration to say there are nine women to every man. If you’d like proof, here is a picture of last nights dinner table.

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Guess which one is me?

 

The keynote speaker this year is Frank Peretti — who many of you will recognize as the rockstar Christian author of This Present Darkness and The Oath. My favorite book of his is The Wounded Spirit. I’ve never seen him in person before and was very surprise by how much he reminded me of Doc Brown from Back To The Future. For reals. If he’d said “Great Scott” just once I’d would have lost it.

Peretti is speaking to us as the ‘wise old man’ and here is what he shared today.

  1. Keep a long term perspective.
  2. Always be honest.
  3. Be a real man. (Greenbean’s note: he didn’t make application for women, but I assume he could find a “be an authentic person” motif here with a little work.)
  4. Trust God.
  5. Failure is better than regret.
  6. Do not build your life around dreams and goals, because those will change.

He said a lot more, but this was the gist. I really appreciated it because he was right. So many of us have great big ambitions, but what it boils down to is faithfully answering the call of God in our lives to be people of faith. And most of us are not called to be rockstar writers or even signed and contracted authors. Most of us will simply continue to tell the stories which inhabit our soul whether anyone is reading them or not.

I’ve attended four workshops and two panel discussions. The workshops have been very helpful. Here is the ‘plot-skeleton’ I drew today in a session with super-duper successful writer Angela Hunt. In my hands, the plot skeleton looks like a plot-monster.

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Last night there were panels. Those were less encouraging. The basic message I got from each one is that my kind of fiction is not what anyone is looking like. The hot topics now are World War I and Vietnam Era historical fiction, contemporary fiction, women’s fiction, and suspense/romance. To a person, every time speculative fiction/fantasy/science fiction are mention the door is slammed. That doesn’t bode well for poor Pastor Butch Gregory or my WIP about St. Carl of Mars. IMG_0793.jpgI have two appointments tomorrow with literary agents, but my expectations are guarded. As Peretti said, I am trusting The Lord with a long perspective and will keep writing.

BONUS INFO: The hotel is on the Riverwalk and I had supper at the Hard Rock Cafe. If anyone is interested, their plant-based “Impossible Burger” was delicious. The fries were too salty and the Arnold Palmer I drank was not properly mixed but still refreshing.

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The Church Is Unique And What It Doesn’t Do Proves It

There is nothing quite like the church. It is a unique institution with all of its quirky grace and troublesome love mixed with beautiful ashes and horrible freedom. Imagining what it would be like if the church were just another business or organization helps us process some of the greatness of the Body of Christ.

Because if it were a business, this might be something you’d see:


Platinum Level

Platinum members enjoy full, unfettered access to all fifty-two Sunday worship services, forty eight small groups, all midweek activities, Christmas, Good Friday, Easter Sunrise, Easter, and VBS. Also included is individualized, one-on-one access to all of our pastoral staff, unlimited hospital visits, as well as regular emails, weekly updates, and bonus on-line and social media content. Each year of Platinum membership earns one funeral AND one wedding.

Individual Price — $18,000
Family Plan — $25,000


Gold Level

Gold members have access to most of what our church provides. Fifty-two worship services, forty small groups, Fall/Spring midweek activities, Christmas, Good Friday, Easter and VBS. Gold member includes three meetings with pastoral staff with unlimited access to the youth minister, and up to five hospital visits. Gold level includes a weekly email. With each year of membership members earn one funeral OR one wedding.

Individual Price — $15,000
Family Plan — $18,000


Silver Plan

Platinum members get thirty Sunday worship services, twenty-two small groups, Christmas, Easter, and VBS. Also included is one pastoral staff interaction, three meetings with the youth minister along with an informative weekly email. Platinum members get one hospital visit and may choose one funeral or one wedding for each year of membership with a maximum of three total.

Individual Price — $8,000
Family Plan — $10,000


Bronze Plan

The very popular Bronze Plan includes fifteen Sunday worship services, Christmas and Easter. This plan also provides a monthly email. Bronze members get a fifty percent discount on either a funeral or wedding.

Individual Price $5,000
Family Plan $6,000


Basic Plan

The Basic Member plan, often called the Chr-Easter (Christmas and Easter) includes ten worship services and your pick of either Easter or Christmas Eve.

Individual Price – $2,500
Family Plan – $3,200

 

All prices yearly, monthly installments due on the 15th of each month. Ten percent (10%) discount for membership fees paid in advance by January 10. 

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Camp, Texas, and Hiking: The Last Forty Days

The last forty days of summer have been a blur — but oh so much fun. Let’s start with the beginning of August. At the hottest and driest part of the Central Texas summer, we went to children’s camp. I have included both videos I made. One is the typical camp style video with the theme song for camp, “Aint That Funky Now” playing over it.

The one below it, well, those are my bonus reel. So, it is what it is. You will notice a lot of shoe tying and bunkhouse shenanigans. We spend a lot of time tying shoes at children’s camp. Tons. Of. Time.

 

 


I also read Texas.

For reals. I read the entire 1200 or so page tome by Michener. I bought it a while back at a great bookstore in Kerrville. It has been on my TBR for man years, though. Quick Review: The first seven hundred pages were nice, entertaining, and fun. Then it fell apart into stereotypes and tropes. He spent almost two-hundred pages on high school football. I could understand fifty, but . . . for crying out loud.

I can’t say I recommend the book, but it is one of those required reading kind of things for people who love writing, reading, and Texas history. It reminded me of a phrase I learned in college: mega kakon esti mega biblion. It is Ancient Greek and translated it says, “a big book is a big bad thing.”  I tend to agree. Michener could have used a brutal editor.


The last two weeks I’ve been on vacation, and Mrs. Greenbean and I hit three of the state parks nearby: Enchanted Rock, Colorado Bend, and Pedernales Falls. We love to go on hikes, and these were refreshing for my soul and for my heart. Pedernales Falls is an easier hike, but the trails are not as well marked. We may or may not have gotten lost. Colorado Bend was rugged and the most difficult hike we’ve done here. However, the trip down to Gorman Falls was worth it. The last video is me imitating my good friend John Duncan, who among his many talents is being able to give a weather forecast from anywhere at the drop of a hat. This my weather forecast from Enchanted Rock’s summit.

 

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Yesterday: A Thought Experiment or MAKE A MUSICIAN DISAPPEAR

As I mentioned on the social medias over the past week, Mrs. Greenbean and I went with one of the sprouts and saw the movie Yesterday. We absolutely loved it. It was refreshing to watch something that wasn’t a Disney rehash or Superhero in spandex. Yesterday is quality speculative fiction. I think there could even get an Oscar nod or two. Seriously.

But that is not what this blog is about. The premise of Yesterday is something goes haywire with the world and The Beatles never existed. Except the Main Character–Jack, who remembers them. A world without The Beatles is a very sad world, indeed. Play with me though. If you could erase a musical group/artist from the existence of the world, which one would it be?

This is not to erase them as a person or as people, just their musical experience and influence. Once I entertained this thought, it was not hard for me to pick mine. I would eliminate Pink Floyd. If I never heard another Pink Floyd song again, that would be okay. In fact, if I’d never heard a Pink Floyd song it make me wish you were here until all the money was comfortably numb, especially if mother asked for another brick in the wall.

There were other groups that came close. A world without Madonna would be a better world. I think the same is true of Journey. Maroon 5 could go, too.

I limited myself to one–and that was Pink Floyd, but as I sit at my keyboard imagining what could be, a world without Pink Floyd, Madonna, Journey, and Maroon 5 sounds like a very, very sweet place to live. I’m sure you have your one–one musician/musical group you’d like to disappear.

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Fourth of July Movie

Here is the setup. It is Independence Day, but raining outside. You decide to watch a movie until the rain stops. You want to watch a classic Fourth of July movie, and these are the movies you have to choose from.

 

Remember to click the VOTE button to register your choice.

 

Thanks for playing! Happy Fourth of July.

 

 

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A SPOILER Filled Review of Toy Story 4

I’m serious. I decided to shove spoilers all over this review post, so if you haven’t seen it yet and want to not know things, then you better click to another blog post like maybe this post about my new book or this post about Bernie Sanders or this random post about books I like

I warned you.

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What I Really Liked

There are three things I loved about this movie. The first is the humor. Toy Story 4 is not the best in the franchise (that would be Toy Story 2) but TS4 might well be the funniest. I laughed out loud, which is rare for me, several times during the movie. The sight gags are amazing. Another thing I loved was the visual look of Forky. He has a certain Claymation appearance that tickled my nostalgia bone. The last thing I really loved was Bonnie’s poor dad. I felt for him, because his troubles, though exaggerated for effect, are all too real.

What I Liked

I liked they brought Bo Peep back.

I liked the idea of a road trip.

I liked the mannequins. I really loved the mannequins in the antique shop. Seriously, Toy Story 4 at times is a horror movie. I liked that.

I liked that at the end Woody, for the first time in his existence perhaps, was able to be himself and not be responsible for anyone else. He is the leader who steps down to be with his family. The pastor who retires. The parent when the kids all finally grow up and leave home. He can relax with the little shepherd girl who has his heart.

I liked the emotions the film evoked. These are real emotions of love, purpose, abandonment, friendship, and loyalty. Take tissues with you.

What I Didn’t Like

I didn’t like the over-arching plot. It was paper thin, predictable, and to be honest boring. The plot held zero tension for me.

Though it was good to see Bo Peep, I didn’t like that they turned her into Rey from Star Wars. Seriously. She is a scavenger with a staff who is a great fighter and clever schemer. Mind you, I’m not upset that she is a strong woman–I like that part. What I don’t like is how much she reminded me of Rey. I think Bo Peep could have been more interesting as Ridley from Aliens 2 or perhaps Sarah Connor. Or Captain Janeway.

I didn’t like there was no short film in front of this movie. It made the running time of the movie seem brief.

What I Really Didn’t Like

There are two things I very much did not like about this movie. Keep in mind, it doesn’t mean I hate the movie, I just hate these two aspects of it.

The first thing I hated was the goodbye at the end. Buzz Lightyear and Woody are life-long friends. The movies occur in real time with us, which means they’ve been friends since 1995. For almost twenty-five years they’ve known each other. Their goodbye was terribly anticlimactic and far too brief. Yes, it was the emotional moment in the movie and many people will weep as they pull out a tissue, but let’s be honest that is because we the audience are providing the emotion here. The film cuts it short. This should have been even more of a gut punch. I can even see a montage of their greatest moments running. How awesome would something like that have been. Put that together with the way in which all the other toys — toys we are led to assume Woody has led and nurtured from the beginning because Woody was Andy’s original toy and they barely even say by-by. This bothered me.

The second, and from a story-tellers perspective the most bothersome, was the minimizing of the other characters. Buzz Lightyear not only has almost no presence in the film, he actually somehow becomes dumber. Buzz in TS 2 and TS 3 was bright, alert, and very aware of his place in the universe. This Buzz seems to not know what the young Buzz knew.

But Jessie? Poor Jessie. I think she has a total of two lines in the whole movie. All of the other characters are likewise moved aside.

The moviemakers dedicate this film solely to Woody. Even Bo Peep exist only as the fulfillment of Woody’s transition. Gabby Gabby and Forky make meaningful transitions, but both of these are viewed as Woody’s accomplishment, not their own discovery.

Overall

Overall, this is a great movie. My ranking of the franchise is 2, 3, 1, and 4. However, the nihilistic Forky is worth the price of admission and the mannequins are worth the popcorn and soda. You will love the movie. However, it could have been better. I think it could have been a lot better. It is safe for your whole crew, although Forky’s fatalism might cause some discussions later when you’re eating supper at Pizza Planet.

 

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What Would Free College Be Worth?–Meditations on Bernie Sanders’ Plan

Yesterday (24 June 2019) Senator Bernie Sanders upped the discussion among those candidates hopeful of winning the Democratic nomination. If I understand his plan, there are two parts to it.ap_738914881801-smaller_slide-c38afbf1af02da96e2f3e6688d883493538cf8cd-s800-c85

Part One: Offer free tuition at public universities and trade schools to everyone.

Part Two: Cancel all existing student loan debt.

ABC news reported it this way on their website:

Sen. Bernie Sanders introduced his most sweeping plan yet to tackle the increasing cost of a higher education, introducing a bill Monday that would make public colleges and trade schools tuition free and cancel outstanding student loan debt for everyone full article here

I completely understand why some people want these changes. It starts with the pernicious problem of history majors from Princeton with $150,000 in student loan debt only qualified to teach history for $45,000 a year. I feel for these situations, I really do. I was able to attend the college of my choice because of financial aid, but still had to borrow some money to finish. A four-year university is expensive and the most expensive schools and degrees do not always offer promising jobs in the future, especially if all you have is an undergraduate degree.

Yet there are problems with the Sanders’ plan. If you make something free, the value plummets. By excusing debt, those who have already paid their loans back and those who chose to go to local schools, work through, and leave debt free are punished.

I have five big concerns that make me opposed to Sanders’ (and Warren’s) plan. I want you to know, though, I could be talked otherwise, as these are where I start from not where I may finish. A solid argument could persuade me. I just haven’t heard the solid argument yet.

Objection 1: If tuition at public institutions, like my alma mater, the University of Texas, is free then it will only be a matter of time before a university education at a public school is downgraded to essentially be a biggie sized high school diploma.

Objection 2: When public institutions are so constrained, the dividing line between public and private will only increase (a distinction that is currently neglible) with no public school able to get into the top tier. This will further divide the haves and the have nots.

Objection 3: Many private schools are religious institutions. By excusing debt accumulated, say, at BYU or Notre Dame, the government is funding religious education. As a Baptist, I have a hard time accepting this.

Objection 4: Canceling that much debt at one time, with no obligation or payment of any kind from those who amassed the debt, creates two immediate problems. The first problem is artificially tilting the free market economy.  The second problem is the expectation of a whole generation of mostly young people that they can have someone else pay their debt. It undermines responsibility, which is something college is supposed to teach.

Objection 5: Going forward, what do we do? If you cancel the debt now, in five years there will be students with loans needing to be paid back. Is this a perpetual promise, because that would get expensive fast. Free tuition doesn’t cover the most expensive part of college–room and board, thus guaranteeing there will always be college loans and college loan debt problems.

I am cynical of Sanders’ plan, because the Democratic candidates are falling all over themselves to give away more and more free stuff in an effort to get elected. I have a counter proposal. It is three parts. Part one, increase both need based and merit based federal aid while putting tougher limits on how much money can be borrowed. Part two, instead of free college, spend money on healthcare and create a universal care system. That would take a big spending burden off the entire public. Part three, expand and make for easier application the methods of having individual student loans forgiven. Some methods already exist, but these could be increased to include things like volunteering at your child’s school or a local food bank, jury duty, or donating blood or plasma.

 

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First Ten Pages of My New Novel

Below you will find the front matter and the first ten pages of my new novel, absolutely free. Enjoy!

 

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A DREAM WITHIN

A Pastor Butch Gregory Novel

 Jamie D. Greening

 

Acknowledgements

Thanks, is not enough, but alas, it will have to suffice.

I begin my gratitude with you—dear reader. There are so many other things you could be reading today, but you chose my novel and for that I am thankful. You will never know how much I appreciate that act of trust.

I also deeply appreciate Athanatos Publishing, specifically Anthony Horvath. His belief in Butch Gregory, from the very first short story in 2009 all the way to this volume, has been an encouragement that feeds my soul. I also owe a debt to the other writers in the Athanatos ‘stable’—specifically Joseph Courtemanche, Joe Shaw, Robert Cely, and Derek Elkins. After you buy two or three more copies of this book to give as gifts, you should immediately go buy their books. The same can be said of my little writer’s group: Patrick Shaub, Iris Macek, and Amber Jones continually remind me to shorten my overcomplicated, comma infused, compound, run-on, and pretentious sentences; avoid the echo of word echoes, as well as to not swing for the fences on fourth and goal by mixing my metaphors. My writing would be exponentially better if I listened to them more often.

Many people have read through this work at various stages, and I deeply appreciate their labor. My writing and grammar are always in need of improvement. This is particularly true of plane old homophones. I am convinced this was a section of grammar in grade school covered by my teacher when I had my tonsillectomy. If you find one or more in this book, it is no one’s fault by mine. These eagle-eyed people include Joe Courtemanche, Pastor Barbara Agnew, Sheila Cochran, and Elisha Pile. Another thanks to Pastor, writer, and theologian smart guy John Duncan for his assistance with tricky Greek transliteration.

A Dream Withinis the most pastoral book I have ever written, and as it pertains to that I wish to express my deep appreciation for Joe Chambers and David Caddell, both of whom share in the very difficult work of shepherding my soul even if they don’t know it. Related to this, the three churches I have been blessed to pastor—Walnut Springs Baptist Church, First Baptist Church of Port Orchard, and now Fellowship Baptist Church, have helped me more than I have ever helped them. I owe these three congregations so much, and I am thankful the awful things that happened to poor Butch at Sydney Community have never been my own experiences. Although, there was that one time . . .

I am a crazy, insecure, neurotic writer, yet somehow my wife and daughters love me anyway. I can’t even imagine life without them. Thanks, FamSquad. I love you.

Jamie Greening

Texas Hill Country

 

 

 

 

 

This is a work of fiction. None of the characters or characterizations correlate to actual people living or dead. Nevertheless, this story is filled with truth. Let the reader understand.

 

 

For my father, Jack Greening.

The field is plowed, the corn laid by,

and the peas are picked.

Rest in peace.


 While I weep—while I weep!

O God! can I not grasp

Them with a tighter clasp?

O God! can I not save

Onefrom the pitiless wave?

Is allthat we see or seem

But a dream within a dream?

                      From “A Dream Within a Dream”

Edgar Allan Poe

 

PART ONE

The crucible is for silver

The furnace is for gold, and

The Lord tests the heart.

 Proverbs 17:3

I

            Pastor Butch Gregory felt as dark and blue as the necktie he kept tugging.

The tie wasn’t tight. Tightness squeezed his throat from the inside out. It had been a long time since he’d felt this uncomfortable. It was warm, temperatures in the upper seventies. The sky was clear and blue. The sun felt good on his black suit.

The weather was not the reason for his discomfort.

Something wasn’t right.

Of course, things weren’t right. He was standing at the graveside service for a sixteen-year-old boy. A boy who had everything going for him. It was not just any boy, either. He was the boyfriend of his daughter’s best friend. The boy had been in his house.He had eaten at his table. He had watched countless movies in his living room. He had driven his daughter around town.

He was a boy who was almost a man.

And now he was dead.

What part did Butch expect to be alright, anyway?

He grunted as he tugged. The necktie loosened; the tightening increased.

Funerals are always tough, but he wasn’t the officiant at this graveside. Here, he was a mourner.

Butch’s wife, Lucy, stood with one arm around their daughter, Sarah.

What pain Sarah must be going through. Why hadn’t he spoken with her about it?

Sarah was between Butch and Lucy. Paul, their son and youngest child, stood on Butch’s other side. It was their normal family seating order at public events: parent, child, parent, child. Sarah always between her mom and dad, and Paul to the right of his old man. It was how they sat at movies, concerts, football games, airplanes, and now funerals.

The chapel service had been scriptural and uplifting, and his colleague from First United Methodist Church had done a good job dealing with the difficulties and trauma involved. Butch knew she would. Here, at the graveside the minister was reading a sobering and reflective text from Ecclesiastes. He listened, looking for hope. He’d always found hope in the Scriptures. Not necessarily the hope he wanted, but always hope. He listened with his aching heart, hoping to hear something positive. Anything to help.

He worked hard to not conjure the passage from memory, but instead to listen with fresh ears as each word was released into the air.

To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die;

A time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;

A time to kill, and a time to heal;

A time to break down, and a time to build up;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh;

A time to mourn, and a time to dance;

A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;

A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

A time to get, and a time to lose.

 

The familiar text from Ecclesiastes should’ve comforted him. He could remember times when it had. It was the exact same set of verses he’d read at his own grandmother’s funeral. That was in the past. Today, though, the Bible agitated him. It mocked him. He felt as if he was always losing. When was it his time to win? His turn to get? When was his family allowed to dance? Why was their laughter always tempered with the weeping? And pain? Was the Gregory family ever allowed to heal?

God felt a million miles away.

He tugged at his necktie.

Sniffles and sobs filled his ears. Butch felt like the entire high school student body was at the funeral. He knew some, most he didn’t. He’d baptized a few of them. His heart ached for them and the world they lived in. This was not the time in the lives of these children when they should be weeping. They should be laughing, dancing, studying, exploring, dating, learning, and living. They should be asking big questions about their place in the universe, thinking about love and God and eternity and politics and philosophy, and what college to go to. It wasn’t fair. The young man would never experience these again, and Sarah would have to face life’s bitterness far too soon.

His heart hurt for the boy in the coffin. A coffin which would soon have pall bearer boutonnieres placed upon it. Then dirt. And then not a small number of tears.

Butch looked at the sky through his sunglasses and imagined how he might be more comfortable if Roberto had died in a car crash. Or kidney failure. Or a sudden aneurysm. None of those would have eased the grief, but any one of those horrible things would have at least made some sense. People die. It was part of life. Accidents happen. Illness steals away years. Medicine fails everyone, eventually. Even kids. It was the human condition.

But Roberto didn’t die in a car crash. He didn’t have kidney failure. His brain was fine—there was no aneurysm. The limitations of medicine or science had nothing to do with why Roberto would not be in class Monday morning.

Roberto had opened the veins on his wrists with a razor blade. He bled to death on the floor of his bedroom. His mom found him when he didn’t come down for dinner.

What a horrible experience it must have been for her.

Butch tugged at the necktie.

The more he stared upward into the sky, the more bothered he became. He’d been bothered since it had happened, but he’d blocked the whole unpleasantness from his thoughts. The ability to compartmentalize came in handy for pastoral ministry, and he’d successfully used this skill to shelter himself from thinking about Roberto. Instead, he thought about work, the landscaping of his backyard, and the book he was reading. He diagnosed himself with classic denial.

He’d not even taken the time to sit with Sarah and talk to her about her friend’s death. How could he have neglected her spiritual needs? Was it a mental block? Defense mechanism? Professional distance? Why had he ignored her? Had she been anyone else’s daughter, he’d have made an appointment to specifically speak to her as she went through this. Yet under his own roof was a teenage girl with enormous pain, and he hadn’t even talked to her. That this girl was his daughter made his heart even sicker. His shoulders slumped. His left knee buckled. Failing his family had always been his fear, and now he saw he’d done the exact thing he’d never wanted to do.

Butch drew his left hand from his pocket; he draped his arm around Sarah’s shoulder.

He moved to pull her close to him, but Sarah stepped to the side, pulling away. Without ever looking up at him, she clutched her mother’s arm instead. Only two feet separated him from her, but it was an emotional Grand Canyon.

Butch’s arm fell empty to his side He looked at her; she never looked at him. He felt as though he gazed at a stranger.

He clutched at his necktie, but this time he didn’t tug at it. He tightened it.

After the minister had declared the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life and the funeral director gave brief instructions, Sarah and Lucy stepped up to the casket. Sarah took a necklace from around her neck and placed it atop the silver casket. Lucy held her daughter tight. Butch stood helpless beside Paul. He didn’t know they’d planned that. When had they talked about it? He tried to remember if they’d talked about it, but he couldn’t focus.

The car ride home was quiet. Butch held Lucy’s hand, but neither spoke. Sarah and Paul doubled down on their parents’ silence.

The weather outside was warm for a spring day, but the atmosphere inside Butch Gregory’s home was cold.

 

II

 

Tommy Bothers brought the meeting to order.“As you know, this is a special board meeting called to discuss the sorry state of our church.”

“Come on, Tommy!” Dr. Gerald Land said. “You’ve not made a fair characterization at all of what our situation is. Your pejorative term is not appreciated.”

“Appreciated or not,” another voice chimed, “Tommy’s words are spot on. Things ain’t good.”

Tommy enjoyed this moment. He’d anticipated it, or something like it, for years, for as long as he could remember. It was his destiny. Tommy carried a mood about the whole arrangement. Last year he was elected board chairperson. His father and mother had politicked hard for him to earn the position, and their work paid off. He had endured the troublesome Butch Gregory long enough. Tommy knew how church should work. He knew what Sydney Community Church needed. He knew the solutions to their problems, and the solution started with removing the old preacher and finding a new one.

A younger one.

A smarter one.

A professional one.

A sensible one.

A compliant one.

But he had to be careful. There were difficult waters yet to navigate. Tommy knew he needed to be cautious. It couldn’t look as if he was working solely to get Butch fired. He had to make a logical case for a change in direction. It must look as if he was doing the hard things and saying the hard things for the church’s sake. Most people in the church loved Butch more than words could express, and the old guy had allies on the board. But the preacher’s power had waned

 

[to keep reading, you can purchase the novel for Kindle ($3.99) or paperback ($14.95) by clicking here]

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Bella and Whoopi and Privacy

I don’t really know who Bella Thorne is, but I know she is a celebrity.

I know exactly who Whoopi Goldberg is; she is Guinan. She singlehandedly guides Captain Picard through some of his darkest times with her wisdom and insight.

Bella Thorne should listen to Whoopi.

She should also listen to Whoopi because Whoopi knows a thing or two about computer hacking, because her greatest work was in a film where she foils international computer hacking thieves and spies with a giant toothbrush. True story. The movie is called Jumping’ Jack Flash. No doubt her finest hour. Unknown

Here are the facts as I understand them:

  1. Bella Thorne had topless pictures of herself on her phone/cloud.
  2. Someone hacked these pictures from her and attempted to extort money.
  3. As a preventative measure, Bella Thorne released the pictures herself on Twitter.
  4. On the television show The View, Whoopi Goldberg gave advice that basically says “You shouldn’t take naked pictures of yourself because someone will hack you.”
  5. Bella Thorne lashed out at Whoopi on her Instagram saying “Shame on you” (although she insisted upon using the letter U instead of the word you.)

The basic accusation Bella leveled at Whoopi was victim shaming, likening the situation to someone who went out dancing and had a drink or two, then was raped and blaming the victim for asking for it.

I think Bella misses the point, and that puts me in the very uncomfortable position of agreeing with Whoopi Goldberg.

Let’s use Bella’s analogy instead of the facts. A woman who is raped after a good time of dancing and drinking a little too much is a victim. The rapist should be punished to the furthest extent of the law and for what it is worth, I think the laws should be tougher. However, a good mother or grandmother, or any parental figure, will try and teach their children to always be on the lookout for dangerous situations and take extra precautions BECAUSE WE DON’T WANT THE PEOPLE WE LOVE TO BE VICTIMIZED.

Whoopi, as I hear her words, was not as much shaming Bella as she was giving advice. There are evil people out there–rapists, hackers, extorters–and they intend harm. Their victims are usually innocent people just trying to have a good time.

Whoopi doesn’t want to shame you Bella, Whoopi wants to protect the next victim by giving some common sense wisdom. I know that it is hard to understand, but us old folks (okay, Whoopi is thirteen years my senior, but I’m feeling older every day) know a thing or two because we’ve been hurt before. We’ve danced too long, drank too much, and trusted people we shouldn’t have. We don’t want it to happen to you.

Sometimes we come off as grumpy when we do this, but I encourage you, Bella, to listen with open ears to the wisdom of your elders rather than becoming defensive and attacking.

I feel for Bella, I really do. She has been wronged in a personal and intimate way, and she thought she had taken steps to circumvent the wrong. Her mental state, as I observe it in the Instagram video, is fragile. I hope someone close to her will encourage her to go silent for a while, heal, get some rest, and spend time with people who really care about her wellbeing. That is hard for celebrities because of ego and their own sense of self importance. Nevertheless, that is what she needs to do.

Related to this whole squabble is the pernicious problem of privacy, and I think that is what made Bella really angry. She heaped upon Whoopi the emotion she really feels toward the one who hacked her images. She had assumed her pictures were private and would never be seen by someone without her consent. In a perfect world, I wish that were true. Privacy and free speech are eroding in our culture at a rapid rate. Every. Single. Day. It seems impossible to make a secure network that can’t be broken into; and keeping people’s data private is only a pipe dream. It reminds me of my home: no matter how secure it is, an evil person with bad intent will find a way in. There are days I wonder if the internet, as much fun as it is, has not proven itself to be a failed experiment that should be abandoned immediately by all free socieites.

The only real solution to the privacy issue is to make the punishment for hacking so severe–lifetime in prison perhaps–confiscation of all financial resources–no one would ever dream of doing it. The punishment should extend to anyone who knowingly uses or consumes this information, including publication. This should be true of individuals and also of nation states like China, North Korea, and Russia who hack everything from corporations, to media giants, to elections.

Until we can stop this, though, listen to Whoopi. Don’t take naked pictures of yourself. They will get out. This is true for Bella Thorne, but it is also true of the sixteen year old whose boyfriend bullies and pressures her into taking the picture and sending it him. There is good chance when they break up everyone in their peer group will see that picture. This is true of pictures, emails, and all kinds of data and content.

Listen to Whoopi and us old folks. We might not know as much about social media as you do, but we do know about life and human nature and we don’t want to see you hurt.

 

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The Number One Burger in Austin?

Taste is subjective, but that doesn’t keep us from talking about what food is best. We do it with desserts, bread, pizza, and here in Texas we are always comparing barbecue.

What about burgers?

I read not too long ago (okay, it was three years ago in Texas Monthly) that the second best burger in the state, and the best burger in Austin was at  Second Bar + Kitchen downtown. It is called the Congress Burger. Mrs. Greenbean and I met some friends from our college days and enjoyed a warm June day and tasted for ourselves.

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The meat was very juicy and tender in the extreme. The flavor was dazzling–combing the subtlety of hamburger with the complex sharpness of brisket. The tenderness caused the hamburger to break apart easily, which is fine by me because I like to dip the burger bits into kitchen and mustard, alternately. The ketchup wasn’t as spicy as I’d have liked. I found myself wishing I had some of that nice Whataburger spicy ketchup to dip the burger in. The mustard was fantastic. I think they make it homemade and I wish I could have bought a bottle to take home.

I added pork belly–because fancy bacon is always a good idea.

The bread was disappointing. First, it was insufficient to hold the juiciness of the burger, which toward the end made the experience soggy. Second, the bread was too small and didn’t really cover the bottom or the top well. I know it is nice to have some stuff hanging out and falling all over the place, but halfway through the burger was left with mostly meat, lettuce, and tomato. Third, the bread was bland, bringing no noticeable flavor to the party.

The other disappointment were the potato chips. These were homemade on site, but way too salty to enjoy. How salty were they? Lot’s wife is probably missing an arm.

A delightful treat were the fried pickles we ordered as an appetizer. These were not chips, but spears served with a nice gorgonzola dip. Delish.

I paired my burger with a cherry Coke because cherry Coke is the best beverage to have with a burger of any kind. It was served in a fancy glass with tiny crushed ice.

The service was excellent. The ambiance was okay but the music was too loud for me. The playlist was fine, but the loudness made pleasant conversation just a little difficult. The bathroom was clean, or as clean as I could tell because it was very dark.

The location was nice, but we paid to park in a lot right behind the building so factor that into the cost of eating there. After the meal we walked across the Congress Avenue bridge and did a little shopping, all the while trying not to get run over by people on Segways and scooters.

It made for a pleasant day, but I’m not certain our favorite little burger joint here in town isn’t comparable, and a lot more accessible.

 

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The Pastor Draft

What if churches chose pastors coming out of seminary the way the NFL draft works?


Announcer Guy: First Church from Somewhereville, California is on the clock now with their first round pick.

1st Analyst Guy: Somewhereville has two big needs in the off season. Easter really exposed some of those holes, too. They need a solid Bible exposition preacher, that is their obvious need but up from they are weak so the best pick would be a great discipleship pastor who can develop some solid formations.

2nd Analyst Guy: Thats Right. Everybody thinks they will go for a preacher, but I expect them to take Stan Standard from Asbury as a spiritual formations leader. He’s a solid three tool guy–Firm handling of curriculum, excellent people skills, and that degree plan of his includes Biblical languages, so he is no slouch in the study.

1st Analyst Guy: The problem with Stanley is Somewhereville needs to come in under their salary cap, and Stanley will have a big price tag. There is some speculation they may trade down.

Announcer Guy: The Deacon is coming to the podium.

Deacon: First Church Somewhereville has traded their pick to Mosaic Missionary of Downtown Elsewhere for two picks in the second round.

1st Analyst Guy: That is a great decision. Now they can get both of their holes filled, but for a cheaper price tag. Looks like they will talk Tommy Talks-A Lot out of Truett Seminary in Waco for their Bible peaching needs. He has two great tools–evangelism is one, but his secret weapon is the funeral service. No one does a funeral like Tommy. With the savings under the salary cap they can probably get someone like Sandy Small Group out of Fuller. Her Methodist background will really come in handy for all the relational small talk she’ll need to make.

2nd Analyst Guy: Doesn’t Sandy also have a certificate in baking from the Paul Dean School of Sugar Overload?

Announcer Guy: Sandy graduated first in class at the Paula Dean Academy. It was one of her summer pick up annexes last year. A lot of people advised her it was a waste of time, but she knew she’d need to up her stock to make it to the big leagues.

2nd Analyst Guy: She’s gonna nail the potluck and coffee klatch at First Somewhereville. This is such great pick for them. Give it a couple of years, and they will be in contention for solid mega-church numbers during Christmas and Easter.

1st Analyst Guy: You can bet there is a building campaign in that church’s future.


 

Of course, this system would be okay with me if there were a nice signing bonus and guaranteed contracts.

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Endgame–Five Things I Didn’t Like (Spoilers)

Be warned–This post has spoilers. Not many, and Greenbean isn’t trying to spoil things for anyone, but the movie made $1.2 billion, so chances are good you’ve already seen it.

Before I start, let me say I enjoyed the movie and found it satisfying for the most part. Big franchises are hard to wrap up, so I appreciate the struggle they had. Nevertheless, there are five things (at least) that irritated me, and I’m not including the bloated runtime, either. Good editing could have shaved 30 minutes off of the movie, and we’d had a better movie.

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  1. I didn’t like the earth-as-wasteland motif after five years. I don’t want to be too literal about a comic book movie, but there are about 7.5 to 8 billion people on the planet right now. When Thanos snapped his fingers, as I understand it, half of them turned to dust. That would leave somewhere between 3.5-4 billion people behind, which is almost exactly how many people were on earth WHEN I WAS BORN in 1971. Plenty of people would be left to fill the apparently vacated neighborhoods of San Francisco or to keep the derelict boats from running aground in New York City. Don’t get me wrong, it would be sad and it would be bad, but the earth would still feel pretty well inhabited.
  2. I didn’t like what they did to Thanos. In Infinity War we had the perfect design of a bad guy–one who is really evil but who thinks he is doing right. In this film, though, he is just the bad guy, reduced to petty bad-guyness and petty bad guy idioms. Something was lost in the writing for his character. I get it, I know why it was hard but watching the movie you could tell the writers didn’t know what to do with Thanos after the snap, and they really never did decide anything other than he’d have to fight a final battle and lose.
  3. I didn’t like the cursing. More than any other Avengers-era film this movie not only had harsher curse words, but more of them and used them as plot devices. Captain America doesn’t say these kinds of things, and I don’t think it’s funny when children say dirty words. You’re better than this Disney Marvel. Don’t be X-Men.
  4. Captain Marvel displayed the problem with Captain Marvel. She is too powerful, and they used her twice as a deus-ex-machina to solve an unsolvable problem. She is the only one in the franchise now to carry the banner, and it seems like they missed an opportunity for some development. Imagine her working with The Black Widow to do something—how cool would that have been, or maybe a great argument between her and Tony Stark. They missed an opportunity.
  5. The last thing I didn’t like was the absence of any bone–not a single good feeling or acknowledgment–to those of us who watched every episode of Marvels Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.  All those characters from the movies found a way in, but would it have killed Marvel to show a cameo of Agent Melinda May or Skye (or Daisy, Or Quake, Or whatever her name is today)? A reference to Fitz working on the time travel aspects in the Avengers would have been so appropriate. But nooooo!

This was my list. I talked to another expert on the Avengers, my youngest sprout. She wasn’t happy about Thor’s final situation–he’s lost everything, his girlfriend, his home, his parents, his brothers, and his body! She also felt the production felt rushed and that some of the costuming/hair choices weren’t brilliant.

Keep in mind, though, this film made $1.2 billion in the opening weekend alone, so, they probably know what they are doing. Although, if they need ideas going forward, Disney should feel free to hit me up.

 

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Tacos and Jesus

I don’t know whether I should file this one under food, preaching, or Bible? Probably it is a little of all.

Let’s start with tacos. There are few things in this world better than a taco. When I say taco most people think about the crunchy things you get at Taco Bell. That hardly qualifies, but it does indeed qualify. I prefer soft tacos–flour for most of mine but if it is a fish taco I prefer a corn tortilla. I also love breakfast tacos made with sausage, bacon, chorizo, or egg and potato. It’s all delicious.

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Most food can be described as a taco. This is really true of what we label as Mexican food. An enchilada is a soggy taco. A chalupa is a flat taco. Quesadillas are panini tacos. Nachos are de-constructed tacos. Chimichangas are deep fried tacos.

And for the record, there is no such things as a burrito. A burrito is just a pretentious taco.

But so many other foods are really tacos too. A sandwich is a taco with puffy bread. Think about it, Subway sells things called ‘wraps’ to substitute the fluffy bread, and a wrap is just a taco with different filler. The same is true of a burger–just a taco without the spices, but still a taco.

A hot dog is really a taco, too.

A gyro is a Greek taco.

A calzone is an Italian taco.

An egg roll is an Asian taco.

A kolache is a Czech taco.

I mean, if you get right down to it, a Twinkie is a Mid-Century American taco.

Eventually this gets me to Jesus. Jesus made seven of the apostles fish tacos for breakfast after his resurrection.

When they got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire in place, with fish laid out on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “bring some of the fish that you have caught . . . Come and have breakfast.” John 21:9-10, 12a

Tacos are resurrection food! I wonder if Thomas brought along some guacamole or queso? I doubt it.

Tacos are the universal food. One way or another people from just about every culture can relate to a piece of bread wrapped around something. Jesus offers this universal food to his apostles as he leads them to consider the universal neediness we all have to dine with him.

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The Highwaymen: A Review

Mrs. Greenbean was gone this weekend, so I was left home unsupervised and in complete control of the remote control.

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I watched the new Netflix movie The Highwaymen starring Kevin Costner, Woody Harrelson, and Kathy Bates. The movie was enjoyable for me on so many levels. Let’s start with viewpoint. This is the first I’ve ever seen, and perhaps only film about Bonnie and Clyde that is told from the law’s perspective. It tells it the way it was, cold blooded criminals who were as violent and mean as any terrorist today. I appreciated that view of things.

A second enjoyable part was the view of Texas in the 1930s. My home state has changed a lot, and this was a look at the Texas my father grew up in. I don’t know where they actually filmed the movie, but the drive to Lubbock from Austin looked pretty realistic to me, as did The North Texas plains.

The third enjoyable aspect was the acting of Costner and Harrelson. I was suspicious going in, but they were perfect. There were a couple of shots of Costner that reminded me of what my father looked like when he was in his 60s–a rugged and strong man who has gained a few pounds but refuses to buy a larger shirt, and thinks he can do what he used to. In fact, the best scene is where he tries to shoot bottles flung into the air, and this is when he realizes he is an old man. Harrelson has the best lines, though. Of particular interest is his reaction to wiretap and how he doesn’t really know what it is, but he uses it several times, and each time not quite in the correct way. Reminded me of George Bush saying interwebs. Bates was good as Ma Ferguson, but I think this is one area where the screenplay may have taken liberties. My reading of history (and I could be wrong here) is she was a proxy for her husband, Jim.

There are some drawbacks in the film. The language can be a little harsh, and I doubt that was historically accurate. The movie also dragged on a bit. Solid editing could have trimmed ten or fifteen minutes. There is some gore, but, in the opinion of this historian, the gore is important here, for what we are dealing with are murderers and the Texas Rangers who caught and killed them. One more flaw, and it goes back to wiretaps. Portraying Texas Rangers as technology averse or ignorant is not accurate. In fact, my understanding is the Rangers were always ready to employ new technology to get the job done.

And now for analysis. One of the themes of the movie is the historically accurate perspective that the masses of people loved Bonnie and Clyde. This is true. A careful viewer will pick up on why–America was in the midst of terrible economic problems, and the bankers and lawmen who protect them were viewed as the enemy. Make no mistake, Bonnie and Clyde were awful human beings. However, to people living in migrant squatter camps, living from day to day, and starving to death bank robbers and cop killers can look like heroes. It also shows us that tension between under-represented communities and police officers is not a new phenomenon.

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You May Have Heard of This Mueller Report Thing

Let me take a moment and quote myself — from December of 2017. That’s right friends, December of 2017:

Robert Mueller’s investigation into the 2016 election will not produce any incriminating evidence against President Trump, and then POTUS will pardon everyone who received indictments, particularly Michael Flynn.

The verdict is still out on the pardons, but some will be coming. You can click here for the link to the original blog post.

WARNING: COMMENTARY BELOW–ANYONE WHO DOESN’T WANT TO READ SOMETHING HE OR SHE COULD POSSIBLY DISAGREE WITH, PLEASE STOP READING NOW

So, let me just put in a few thoughts out there on where I’ve been pretty much all along.

  1. Collusion is hard to prove, and even if he did it, it would be nearly impossible to prove it unless they had something like an email from POTUS to Vlad begging for help.
  2. This is not Trump’s first rodeo. He knows how to stay ‘clean’ so they were never going to catch him. He always has fall guys.
  3. I am so glad they didn’t, because an impeachment process would be horrible for the country, one I don’t know if we could come back from.
  4. There may yet be other indictments and legal proceedings, particularly when the President leaves office, but this was always a hard one.
  5. I am so glad it is over. Please be over (although, no spoilers, but skip to the bottom and watch the President from this morning and you get a feel this might just be the beginning).

Now, having said these things, let’s think about going forward.

  1. I am not a big fan of the President, and I’m still trying to figure out how a habitual womanizer, adulterer, billionaire, casino owning, greedy, arrogant, foul-mouthed New Yorker on his third marriage became the darling of the evangelical right. I can’t tell if this fact (and these are all facts) is a paradox or irony–but back to my point, I am not a big fan of the President, but I don’t believe in removing him with subterfuge. If the Dems want him out, they need to do it the right way, at the ballot box. THEY PUT UP HILLARY CLINTON AGAINST HIM TO BEGIN WITH, and that was a huge mistake.
  2. President Trump owes Robert Mueller an apology. He will never give it, but he owes it. The things he said about Mueller and Tweeted are just horrible and unbelievable from a President about someone just doing the job he was asked to do.
  3. President Trump made this mess to begin with, by being coy about the Russian interference with the election. His schmoozing of Vlad (Helsinki still makes me sick)  and insistence that Russia didn’t meddle made him look guilty, even if he wasn’t.
  4. Oversight needs to continue, because I don’t think everything in the Trump Administration is on the up-and-up. But . . . the Dems better be careful. If they think the public has an appetite for two more years of this, they are wrong. There are plenty of things–from immigration, health care, the environment, and trade to debate.
  5. On the flip side, The GOP needs to make certain they don’t swell up too much with satisfactory smugness on this Mueller report. Pretty much everyone in the country knows that Trump is a dirty man who does dirty things, whether they voted for him or not. In fact, many people voted for him for that very reason–they wanted him to do whatever it took to stick it in the eye of the establishment. But, if the GOP begins painting Trump as a virtuous victim (as the President has already begun saying), then they may have a ‘jump-the-shark’ moment when they lose what credibility they have left.
  6. I don’t like at all the tone of revenge and denouncing as ‘illegal’ the investigation. Take a listen for yourself. It sounds to me like Trump is preparing to go to war, and that wouldn’t be good either.
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Bible Questions: A Short List

Sunday I began the sermon from John 19 and the trials of Jesus with an idea that some of the juiciest places in the Bible are the questions. These lines that end in those crooked little scribbles called question marks are the places we can often fold ourselves into the easiest, with almost instant and always profound application. Here is a list of some of the highlights. I count them down from ten to one, but really, no order is necessary and there are far more than are included here.

10. Who has bewitched you, O foolish Galatians? (Galatians 3:1) Paul’s questioning of the Christians in the region of Galatia regarding false teaching. It is still a legit question for a religiously confused age.

9. What is man (human beings), that you are mindful of him (them)? (Psalm 8:1) A great existential question that leads to a doctrine of humanity, plus the Messianic implications of the New Testament usage.

8. Who touched me? (Luke 8:45) Jesus asked the question he already knew the answer to.

7. Shall I crucify your king? (John 19:15) Nothing makes me come face to face with my own sin like this question. Pilate thinks he is being clever. He is not. He is being theological.

6. Who do you say that I am? (Matthew 16:15) It is the question we all, I think, must answer.

5. Who is my neighbor? (Luke 10:29) The answer is a story, and the story’s point is that anyone who needs our help is our neighbor. ANYONE.

4. How shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? (Hebrews 2:3) The rhetorical question centers the book of Hebrews. The writer’s obvious point: there is no escape.

3. Where are you? (Genesis 3:9) To loosely quote Michael Stipe of R.E.M., that’s me in the corner, hiding from God behind the fig trees.

2. What should we do? (Acts 2:37) The essential question from Acts. The answer: repent!

1. Have you considered my servant, Job? (Job 1:8) The question we never want asked about us in the heavenly ream.

The more I think about this list, I ponder this would be a great sermon series. The series title could be something like, “The Question!” or maybe “Query” or perhaps I’ll just use a giant question mark–maybe in parenthesis (?) or perhaps in backslashes in a cool hip and with it way– // ? //  or maybe like this // ? \\ or perhaps \\ ? //

Yeah, except bigger and with color.

I’ll have to remember to preach this in 2020 or 2021 because this year is already full.

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In Which I Argue With A Book

Argue is the right word. I argued with this book–or, to be more specific, the author of this book.

The author in question is Yuval Noah Harari and the book is 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. I picked it up at a bookstore during Christmastime. It is one of those books I buy from time to time to keep my wits sharp. I knew the worldview would be different from mine, and that is what I was looking for. The book has 323 pages of actual text, plus a large appendix of notes and an index. Although the material is weighty, it is an easy read written in a dialogue style. He has previously written two other bestsellers titled Sapiens and Homo Deus which I have not read. Unknown

At times it was enjoyable, funny, profound. At other times it was infuriating, depressing, and nonsensical.

What I Really Liked

There are two things I really liked about the book. The first is the opening 150 pages. If I narrowed it down even further, it would be the first 84 pages in which the author analyzes the technological challenges the future holds for human beings. I found this section riveting and spellbinding. Harari opened up ideas and thoughts, particularly about the role of AI in the human experience, I had never previously pondered, and for this I am thankful. In my opinion, the entire book is worth the buy and the read for just this part of the book.

The second thing I really liked about this book is that he devoted an entire chapter to science fiction. That’s right, Harari believes science fiction has a vital role to play in understanding and appropriating our human future. As an author who has a science fiction book he wants to release (Deep Cove Anthology) later this year and whose current WIP is a science fiction novel, this is good news. Now, I do think the author puts too much pressure on science fiction to perform a social good. Literature can only go so far, man. He does have a very interesting take on the movie Inside Out that any Pixar fan should take a look at.

What I Liked

I liked the way this book evoked in me a desire to think and argue with the author. I read it with a pencil nearby, and constantly wrote on the pages. Sometimes I agreed and wrote that, other times I wrote impromptu refutations. I must have sharpened my pencil twenty times. This is why I bought the book, but it far exceeded my expectations. Harari is an intellectual provocateur who takes things to an extreme situation in order to force us to ponder the logics of it. For people like me, this is fun.

What I Didn’t Like

I didn’t like being called a fool. In several places in the book the author portrays anyone who believes in God–whether it is the God of the Bible, Allah, or Thor–as a fool. Harari portrays himself as a strict realist who only looks at the facts, but he deludes himself by shuffling the deck of facts in favor of himself and his worldview. This did not become fully apparent until the last chapter of the book, and it was then that I realized what as going on.

What Surprised Me

There were two surprises. One, Harari holds an odd position in that he is what I would call an Atheist Calvinist. He absolutely does not believe in free-will or choices. For him, everything is determined. His is not just biological determinism that tell us genes determine heart disease and lifespan. It goes much further. He perceives all our choices are made for us by culture, biases, religion, politics, and advertising. You didn’t have a taco for lunch today because you wanted it and you chose to. You and the taco for lunch today because your brain is preconditioned by pressures and stimuli you can’t possibly act against, so therefore, it was predetermined you would eat the taco.

The second surprise was the ending, and I have already alluded to it. Throughout the whole book Harari trashes any kind of spirituality or religious experiences, then in one of the boldest bait and switch moments he finishes by trying to convince the humble reader the key to it all is meditation and getting into contact with your mind as opposed to your brain.

I was very disappointed, and suddenly his anti-God stance made more sense. He is an evangelist for a new kind of faith–a faith not in God, not in self, and not in humanity. Harari peddles a faith in awareness and experience. This is why many of his thoughts are fatalistic.

Final Evaluation

Read this book if you want to be challenged, argue with the author, and think about things from a different perspective. Do not read this book if you are easily offended by other worldviews.

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#Oscar Predictions 2019

I used to be much better at predicting these, but then Birdman and The Shape of Water happened and now my confidence is shaken. Will I let that stop me from making predictions. No way!

Here are my picks. Keep in mind, I don’t pick all the categories, just the ones I’m interested in. For example, costume design and sound mixing are irrelevant to me.

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Best Picture–I predict Green Book. It is the best ‘total package’ movie. It is not a great movie, like Spotlight, The Artist, Or 12 Years A Slave, but it is probably the best this year. I would not be surprised if BlacKkKlansman or Roma won, but I don’t think so. If The Favourite wins, I’ll be mad for a year or two. For more thoughts on best picture, click here.

Actress In a Supporting Role–Regina King. There is a chance Marina de Tavira might pluck this as an early upset, and if she did, I wouldn’t be mad. My actual choice for this was snubbed for nominations–and that is Awkwafina from Crazy Rich Asians.

Actor In a Supporting Role–Sam Elliot. I called this one the day I walked out of the theater, and I’m sticking to it.

Foreign Language FilmRoma

Documentary FeatureMinding the Gap. The biggest travesty of the Oscars is Mr. Rogers Won’t You Be My Neighbor was snubbed. If RBG wins it is a political choice, because in terms of documentary skillset, it wasn’t that great.

Original Song–Shallow

Animated FilmIncredibles 2

Actor In a Leading Role–Christian Bale. By the end of Vice, I thought it was Dick Cheney on the screen.

Actress In a Leading Role–Glenn Close. Hands down. no contest.

Director–This is a tough one. It is a two person race between Cuaron and Spike Lee. I’m picking Spike Lee on body of work.

 

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State of the Union 2019: What I Saw and Heard

I’m gonna keep this quick because it is Wednesday and I have lots of work to do. Nevertheless, I always like to follow-up the State of the Union address with a blog post, because the two or three people out there who read this might want to know what I was thinking.

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Doesn’t it look like Speaker Pelosi is checking President Trump’s Work?

 

  1. President Trump broke protocol by starting his speech before Speaker Pelosi had a chance to formally introduce him. I don’t know I this was intentional–to minimize her screen time, or if it was unintentional. If he meant to do that, it is one more move in the chess game these two are playing. If it wasn’t, then the President showed lack of focus on the big stage.
  2. I adore World War II veterans, but I never figured out exactly why there was so much World War II in the speech.
  3. Meeting with North Korea in Vietnam is curious. I mean, it is a big globe, but to connect the two anti-communist wars in this way is a bold choice. North Korea, in Vietnam: What could go wrong?
  4. The President is right when he talks up the criminal justice reforms he and congress have made. Those were a long time coming. I’d like him to build on that and move the same bipartisanship to infrastructure.
  5. POTUS made no move toward a compromise on southern border. Everyone should prepare for another government shutdown.
  6. Speaker Pelosi was something special to watch. I think I saw her four times ‘shush’ her side of the chamber with her extended hand. More than once she was reading the incredibly large pieces of paper while POTUS was speaking. More than one she ‘forgot’ to sit back down. Again, I wonder if this was intentional or a lapse in focus. Then there was her clap–that odd clap where she pointed her fingers at the President while she clapped.
  7. Vice President Pence has histories biggest man-crush on POTUS. Just look at how he gazes at the Commander-in-Chief.
  8. President Trump threatened “war” on congress if they “investigate” him.
  9. The President exploited the truth–and rightly so–the Democratic Party has zero tolerance for pro-life views. I’ve said it before and it is still true: you can’t be pro-life and be a Democrat. The result is the GOP has many, many voters by default.
  10. I think I heard the President say Hillary Clinton would have started a war with North Korea had she won the election.
  11. Teleprompter Trump is not as fluid as Rally Trump, and there was a bizarro moment when he read two lines that didn’t go together in the same tone. “all children — born and unborn– are made in the holy image of God. The final part of my agenda is to protect America’s National Security.” I lifted the actual line from the transcript, which yes, has National and Security both capitalized. He read both of those lines like they were connected–one idea and you could tell on his face he realized it but couldn’t do anything about it.
  12. There were four awesome moments: Congress singing Happy Birthday to a survivor of the Jewish synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, Buzz Aldrin’s amazing necktie, times when both sides of the aisle chanted USA! USA! USA! and when the women all in white celebrated their huge numbers and historic gains in the House of Representatives. Regardless of political persuasion, these were “American” moments.
  13. The speech was Rated PG-13. At times it was graphic and the language was rather provocative. I wouldn’t have wanted to have an eight year old watching it, that is for sure.

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Hero wearing a Hero Necktie! 

 

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2019 Oscar Best Picture Nominees Rundown (NO SPOILERS)

Last night Kim and I saw the last of the eight best picture nominees. This is the earliest we’ve ever completed the task, and, it is also the first time we’ve been able to see them all without traveling into the big city. Nifty, huh?

Here are some preliminaries. First, there are NO SPOILERS here. These are my thoughts on the quality of these films. Second, I will have a second post on the Oscars later which predicts winners. Third, none of these films are great, but as a group (with an exception) this is a pretty solid class of movies–definitely something for everyone. Fourth, after I’ve given brief reviews for each film, stay tuned for the next section where I discuss trends and themes. Each year has its own themes, and this year is no different.

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Let’s take them in alphabetical order.

A Star Is Born

A Star Is Born is so wonderfully directed and shot that I am in shock, and a little confused, as to why Bradley Cooper was not nominated for best director. It is a beautiful movie. The acting is solid, although I think Lady Gaga’s performance is a little overrated, but her music is not. This movie easily has the best soundtrack of the Oscars in a long time. Watch Sam Elliot, and watch Andrew Dice Clay in a role he seems to have been born to play.

Chances? This is a remake, of a remake, of a remake. Three earlier versions of this movie exist, and the gold standard will always be Barbara Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. I think there is no chance this wins best picture, although it may earn a lot of other awards.

Black Panther

I am so happy this movie is nominated. It is the one family film (the only family film) on the best picture list. You can watch this with your children and have great conversations about overcoming adversity, failure, friendship, trust, and so many other noble virtues. It is a superhero movie, so it has that against it, but it stands alone as a very good movie.

I think it has very slim odds of winning, but for Black Panther, the nomination is the prize. For the record, I’m still steamed that Coco and Inside Out were both snubbed in previous years. If Black Panther were to win, it would signal a paradigm shift for Oscar. Movies that make as much money as Black Panther and are as universally loved never, ever, win.

BlacKkKlansman

I expected to not like this movie. I don’t know why, but I went into it with a bad attitude. That didn’t last long. This is a wonderful film, superbly directed and the acting was outstanding. Watch out, though, because the language is very strong, and there are times when the hatred and evil things being said are so uncomfortable it made me cringe, but the way in which Lee unfolds the story is captivating.

BlacKkKlansman has a punchers chance of winning best picture.

Bohemian Rhapsody

Rami Malek nails the egotistical capricious maniac that was Freddie Mercury. The film is worth seeing for his performance alone. The best lines go to the boys in the band, though. Their involvement in the story keeps this from being a one-man show. The music is outstanding, the costumes are flamboyant (of course) but the storytelling is choppy and at times it feels like an extended cut MTV special.

Bohemian Rhapsody has zero chance of winning best picture. If I could give it less than zero, I would.

The Favourite

I hate this movie. It is filthy, crude, and everyone vomits at least once. I’m not kidding. I think vomit and rabbits are the only identifiable themes, except for deception, violence, and seduction. There was not a single character in this movie I liked. If that was the point I was supposed to get, then it succeeded.

Okay, let me back down a bit. The first hour of the movie was okay–I could see where things were heading and it had potential for some nice ‘gotcha’ drama or even a little absurdist humor. There are nuggets of a great story here, but the director bores us to death with tedious attempts to show us how clever and smart he is.

Having said that, and realizing this is exactly the way I felt about The Shape of Water and Birdman, both of which won best picture, it is altogether likely this will win. It is a puffy and pretentious film, therefore Hollywood will love it. I give it a likely chance of winning.

Green Book

Of all the films in the list, this is the one that has the most gripping narrative, all around best acting, and cultural pop. I like this movie. Viggo is terrific, but Mahershala Ali is fantastic. The only flaw in this film, as I can find it, is the lack of significance from secondary characters, specifically Tony’s wife (played by Linda Cardellini), who is one dimensional and cliche. The film has been attacked variously on several fronts, not the least of which is historical, which may be legitimate, but this is a story. Movies might be based in history, but they are not historical education. BlacKkKlansman is based on a historical case as well, but I am not bothered if they don’t get all the details about the Colorado Springs police department right. If I only take the movie at face value, then Green Book is the best picture.

I think this has a very likely chance of winning.

Roma

The first hour and a half of this movie will leave you asking, “Will it ever end?” You may find yourself thinking it is some kind of French existential experiment. However, hang in there. The last half hour is devastating. In typical Cuaron fashion, this thing is building up to a crescendo. Now, before you watch, you need to know it is in black and white and Spanish with English subtitles. I warned you. But you won’t really need the subtitles. You will follow along perfectly just watching the action and the acting.

There are some light moments in Roma, but for the most part it is an intense movie that makes you focus. It also wins the weirdest moment at the movies–the naked shower rod karate. And that is all I will say about it.

Roma has an outsiders chance. If it won, I’d be a little surprised, but I can easily see Oscar thinking this Netflix production is worthy of the honor.

Vice

Heads up. Vice is a political movie with a political agenda. This some-what of a biography of Dick Cheney starts with him in Wyoming and finishes with him in the present day. I don’t agree with all the political angles in the movie, but it is a very well done story that is quirky at times, like breaking into Shakespearean tragedy, or the POV of the narrator. The acting is incredible. By the end of the film I thought Christian Bale was Dick Cheney. Seriously. Ultimately, though, the storytelling is uneven and large gaps in character development were left unfilled.

This has a marginal, very marginal chance of winning.


Now that I’ve given a baseline review for the eight films, let’s look at the themes. I’ll cover these briefly, but keep in mind this is always what fascinates me most. The reason is the Oscars reflect culture, and as a student of culture, it helps me see where things are going. I identify at least three themes.

Theme 1: The 1970s. Oh yeah, shag carpet and everything. Roma is set in 1970-1, BlacKkKlansman is in the 70s, most of Vice is in the 70s as is Bohemian Rhapsody. Black Panther serves almost as a corrective to the Black exploitation films of the 70s, and … and A Star Is Born, though contemporary, has the 70s version with Streisand and Kristofferson always in mind. This year’s Oscar movies are a love letter to the 1970s. The reason for this might be two-fold. One, it was a time of great decadence and pervasion which creates great fodder for storytelling. Two, it was simpler, so you can write a story without Google or cell phones. For example, the entire story of BlacKkKlansman couldn’t happen today if people had smart phones.

Theme 2: Remember a couple of years ago when #Oscarssowhite trended and became a real issue because there was so little representation of people of color? Literally, not figuratively, but literally two of the movies nominated this year have “Black” in the title, and half the films feature people of color and two of the movies have racism as the major plot device. Is this an overreaction or a necessary corrective? I think it is a corrective. However, I think Black Panther and Roma are the most hopeful here. Here is what I mean–and my view is limited because I am white man, and I admit my limitations for I will never know the particular troubles a person of color goes through in our society–but what I mean is I look forward to movies that feature minority groups just living their lives and being who they are and not defined by the racism launched at them. We are not there yet, because racism is a problem and seems to be getting worse instead of better, but someday we will.

Theme 3: Without giving away any spoilers, homosexuality is a major theme in this years Oscars. Half the movies, which is the same as for people of color, feature sexuality as a major or minor plot device. I will not spell out which, because in some of them it tries to sneak up on you. And that is what I find most interesting. Hollywood is still using homosexuality as a shocking plot device, but no one is shocked. In this, I think, the movies are a bit behind the times and behind where most families are on the issue. There is more to say on this–and I’ve deleted about four paragraphs of text already on this theme, but for now let’s leave it at what an interesting development this is.

Theme 4: Music makes a huge splash in these movies. Green Book, Bohemian Rhapsody, and A Star Is Born are all about musicians. This is a melding of the icon celebrity culture where movies are no longer about everyday people with everyday lives, but instead we not only worship the celebrity singer, we want to watch movies about them turning their music into drama. The more I think on it, Roma is the only nominated film that doesn’t have either a celebrity, a person of privilege, or a cultural touchstone (like David Duke in BlacKkKlansman) in the narrative. Hollywood might have lost its ability to tell a story about an average person, because it doesn’t value real people.

 

 

 

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The Brexit Hero

I have a new hero.

It is this guy–Parliament speaker John Bercow. I have no idea what his politics are or what kind of person he is, but him trying to keep things in good ‘order’ during the recent topsy turvy times in jolly ole England is inspiring to me. Also, I think he could probably be a good teacher of preschoolers. Or lead a Baptist business meeting. Just sayin’.

Here is a video from Twitter. You can skip the CBC commentary at the end, but don’t stop until he clears the lobby. You’re welcome.

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A Book Review: Santa Claus Goes To Haiti

Not exactly Santa Claus, but close enough.

Joseph Courtemanche has recently released a beautiful book that combines so many themes that are near and dear to me. It is titled Nicholas of Haiti and is available at Amazon in paperback and kindle. There is also an audiobook featuring the author’s own voice.


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What I Love About Nicholas of Haiti

There are three specific things I love about this book.

  1. A major plot theme is human trafficking. My first novel, The Little Girl Waits, is set against the problem of child sex-trafficking, and as such it shares a kinship with Nicholas of Haiti. Slavery still exists in the world, and this book wants you to do something about it.
  2. I enjoyed the action scenes. This is not a spy novel or a thriller per se, but it definitely has one or two Ethan Hunt moments. Those are some of my favorite moments.
  3. The setting of Haiti intrigued me. I have never been there, but the book is so immediate that I FEEL like I have walked through Cite Soleil or talked to the orphans at Titanyen. Specifically, I liked the behind-the-velvet-curtain feel of the missionary work in Haiti.

There is lots more good stuff. Courtemanche obviously enjoys the simile comparison, and some are real howlers. I noted the one found on page 70, “Nick dove down into the narrow space between the door and the bank, the violent flow of water battering him against the wreckage like an angry bully interrupted while mugging an old woman.” I am not sure what an interrupted angry bully is like, but man, that is some kind of sentence. In the context of the whole scene, it is extraordinary. I also liked the discussion questions at the end of the book, which could be useful in a book club. I liked the building of secondary characters and even tertiary characters. There is one particularly delightful scene that, at first read, doesn’t further the story, but that is a wrong impression. The scene involves an elegant French restaurant in the middle of a shanty town. Those characters, and that scene, give the story depth and life beyond the rat-a-tat of action and adventure which makes a book about amazing and unreal things feel actual.

What You Will Love About Nicholas of Haiti

I think you will love at least two aspects of this book.

  1. You will love the transformational nature of the main character. Nicholas Bacon changes dramatically from start to finish.
  2. You will love the little girl, Violene. She will stay with you after you’ve forgotten about Nicholas.

Who Will Not Love Nicholas of Haiti

Some people will not love this book, and the is okay. Everything is not for everyone. I don’t think you will like this book if :

  1. You don’t like supernatural stories. Nicholas of Haiti has supernatural elements and things which are ‘impossible’ in the strict sense of the word. If that kind of action bothers you, then, perhaps, you should read something else.
  2. If you like Amish love stories, don’t even think about reading this book.
  3. People who get annoyed when church people or Christian people don’t behave in the ‘stereotypical way’ might not appreciate certain parts of this book.
  4. People who have an anti-catholic bias might not like this book, either.

Those things aside, I recommend Nicholas of Haiti–if for no other reason it offers a different kind of Santa Claus.

 

 

 

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2019 Predictions

I am wrong more often than I am right, but every now and again, I am actually right. I seem to average two to three right(ish) predictions every year. I wonder which one will be right for 2019?

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10. The stock market hasn’t found bottom yet. It will fall below 20,000 at some point this year.

9. England will have a ‘no deal’ divorce from the EU, resulting in a major economic crisis that will ripple around the world and tilt an already nervous global market into recession.

8. Oil will climb to at or near $90 a barrel before July 4th.

7. There will be no impeachment of President Trump, but there will be legislation restricting his powers.

6. Amazon will buy either Wal-Mart, Fed-Ex, or Alibaba.

5. A major Protestant denomination in the United States will dissolve, or maybe file bankruptcy. They may call it a reorganization, but it will be a dissolution.

4. North Korea and South Korea will enter into a significant peace treaty bringing the two Korea’s closer together than expected. They will do so without Beijing or Washington, making both capitals nervous.

3. Russia will invade a weak nation. Mostly likely it will be a further attack on Ukraine but it could be against one of the Baltic states.

2. It is grotesque and troubling, and I hope I am wrong, but somehow Harvey Weinstein will avoid all legal consequences of his crimes. He will pay out sums in civil trials, but he will never be convicted of sexual assault.

1. Bill Belichick will retire from coaching.

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Bird Box: A Brief Review

I can’t tell if this review has spoilers or not. I don’t think it does. The reason I can’t tell is because I’m not sure it is possible to spoil a movie that is so predictable a blind person could see it coming. And yes, I meant that. On purpose.

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One of the sprouts cojoled Mrs. Greenbean and I into watching Bird Box Friday afternoon. It is streaming on Netflix. The language is rough and there is considerable violence and gore. Not appropriate for children or people who are sensitive to violence.

Here is your Bird Box recipe.


1 cup A Quiet Place

1 cup M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening

1/2 cup Stephen King’s The Stand

1/2 cup This Is The End (The James Franco/Jonah Hill/Seth Rogen farce)

2 tablespoons The Last Man on Earth with Vincent Price (or if you prefer modern, Will Smith’s I Am Legend)

1 teaspoon The Book Of Eli starring Denzel Washington


I am only partly kidding. There is a lot of internet chatter over the similarities between this and A Quiet Place. The truth is, as best I can get at it, the novel basis for Bird Box is earlier than A Quiet Place, but they both are variations on the the other ingredients listed above. To my mind the most obvious similarity was with The Happening, although the middle part of the film could have been This Is The End in a Star Trek type mirror universe.

The cinematoraphy of the film was nicely done, and the editing was pretty good too. The acting was mostly mailed in. I never believed Sandra Bullock, and she was never believable as a late 20’s single mom with an introverted artistic touch. John Malkovich was playing the evil brother to his character in the Red movies (which I love) and most of the other characters were throw-aways. Trevante Rhodes was really the only character I could identify with, and he did a great job being human. The others were just cliches. But then, this whole movie is a cliche.

Motherhood

Societal Decay

Nature

Apocalypse

Demons

Water–don’t ever miss Hollywood’s complete fascination with water motifs.

So many metaphysical themes to this film. Pick your blindfold.birdbox-2-1-572x381

Having written all this, it actually wasn’t horrible. It is a popcorn and soda kind of movie which doesn’t require you to think. It poses some fun ‘what about’ discussion and even could pose theological debate–which is my fave. It is a full two hours, but you probably won’t hate yourself for watching it.

 

 

 

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Advent 4, Year C–Luke 1:39-56

Mary.

The woman who stands at the crossroads of divinity and humanity is the focus of my last Advent blog for 2018 because Luke 1:39-56 it is the last reading. As you might expect, I have worked this particular text over a time or two previously here at the Greenbean blog. Below is my own translation from the Greek New Testament which I published here about eight years ago.


Mary rose up in those days and traveled with haste to a Judean city in the hill country.  She went into Zechariah’s house and greeted Elizabeth.

Then what happened is that as Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant jumped in her womb and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. She screamed a loud shout and said, “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And how is it that the mother of my Lord might come to visit me? For it happened at the sound of your greeting in my ear the infant jumped with gladness in my womb. Blessed is the one who believes that it will be completed what has been spoken to her by the Lord.”

And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit is gladdened by God my savior because he looked upon the humility of his servant. For behold, all generations will say [There is no verb here in the Greek for “say” or “call” so something has to be added to smooth it over. The lack of a verb is not an omission or a sign of chopped speech, but instead reflects careful poetic search for word choice. The verb is assumed.] I am blessed from now on because of the great things The Almighty did for me. His name is holy. His mercy to those fearing him is from generation to generation. He strengthened his arms and scattered those with arrogant thoughts in their hearts. He deposed the powerful from thrones and exalted the humble.  He filled those who were hungry with good food and he sent away the wealthy empty handed. He took care of Israel his child, remembering mercy. Just as he said to our fathers, to Abraham and his offspring forever.” [In translating the Magnificat, two things are apparent.  One, Luke did not compose this.  The language, style, and vocabulary are not from his hand.]

She remained with her three months and returned to her own home.


We could do a lot of complicated salvation history theology on this passage, but I’ll leave that to the scholars. Here is where I am going today.

  1. Mary, did you know? It is a popular song that seems to be quite front and center this year. The answer is, yes. According to scripture, Mary knew a lot of what was going down. Whether she understood it all, or whether I even understand it all remains to be seen. However, she was not ignorant of the supernatural things taking place in her time and in her life–indeed, in her own body.
  2. Elizabeth is mentioned by name, and is John the Baptist’s mom. The father of John the Baptist and husband of Elizabeth is a priest name Zechariah (Luke 1:5). Both Elizabeth and Zechariah are named as descendants of Aaron–the priestly tribe. Elizabeth and Mary are cousins. Mary is from the priestly tribe. Jesus one true human link is through Levi–the priestly tribe. He is Judahite through his ‘stepfather’ Joseph. Jesus is king and priest.
  3. Some have argued a teenage Jewish girl couldn’t have written this complicated piece of literature. I find that argument sexist and elitist. Luke didn’t write it, the language is too different. He is copying it from a source, and that source might well have originated with Mary.
  4. I think Luke is very brave to include this story. A male writing about two pregnant women filled with the Holy Spirit and doing theology is not a common template–but here we are! Luke charges right in and tells what was happening and quite honestly, it is very believable because he had a good source for the actual event–babies leaping in the womb, women crying out, and then supernatural speech. Good stuff.