Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Joy of Snow

Once again, there is snow on the ground.  This is the 2nd time in two weeks.  Classes were cancelled this evening at MSCC and we are awaiting a decision regarding tomorrow's sessions.  It appears that there are 2-3 inches on the ground here, but in many ways this week's snow is much more picturesque than the heavy accumulation of last week.  I fought the cold this afternoon for a few minutes and BRIEFLY took some snapshots from my front porch of neighboring homes.

What can I say?  Even though I despise cold temperatures, I simply love the look of winter snow.  I adore how what is dead and somewhat hopeless in nature is given a freshness by the purity of the snow.  I'm not going to get philosophical tonight about things.  I just want to enjoy the beauty that God blessed me with tonight....while I attempt to stay warm and toasty!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A Dream Yet to Be Realized

I have tried to sit down and write this post for a couple of days, but there are so many thoughts running through my head that I can't seem to wrap my mind around things.  I have finally determined that I simply have to get things on the screen and just see where things lead.

As part of my personal observance of yesterday's Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, I took the time to do some reading, meditating, and discussion with my parents.  Living in the greater Memphis area for most of my life, I have been keenly aware of the history of the Civil Rights movement -- or so I thought.  Yesterday I sat down to read Dr. King's famous "I Have a Dream Speech" as well as the letter from a Birmingham jail.  I am in the process of reading Melba Pattillo Beals' memoir of the integration of Central High School in Little Rock and have viewed a moving documentary on the music of the Civil Rights movement in America.  In light of all of this, I have one lingering question:  "How did we -- as a self-proclaimed Enlightened Christian nation -- ever allow such intolerance and discrimination to occur?"

The journey for me began when reading Beals' accounts of the horror of the American south in the 1950s.  I have read many historical accounts of the events at Central High School and its implications upon the movement, but I never have been so aware that those reports were slanted from a Caucasian perspective.  As I meditated on the events, I recalled hearing stories of my parents and older siblings living in Marianna, Arkansas in the midst of racial tensions in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  As I began to question my parents about their memories of this era, a few things became clear.

My parents have lived in Arkansas all of their life.  They both come from agricultural homes that were morally upstanding.  Both of their families employed African-American laborers in their fields as was the custom of the time.  As I listened to their stories, I was relieved to learn that what I suspected was true -- neither family was abusive to the African-Americans they employed.  The workers would receive food from the family table after working in the fields, but it was delivered to them at a separate location.  To have invited these men and women of color into their homes would have possibly endangered my family in an intolerant society.

When the discussion moved into the events of Little Rock in 1957, I was surprised to learn that neither parent really knew very much about the situation.  They remembered that there was some trouble, but didn't really remember much about the situation.  You can imagine my shock when I was asked why integration was so important.  "If the blacks had their own schools being taught by their own people, why were things so bad?"  I had to squelch my surprise a bit to explain that the segregation also reached into the upper echelons of higher education;  in other words, future teachers of color were not receiving the same quality education as their white counterparts.  The African-Americans understood that the claim of "separate but equal" was a total fallacy.  It appears that many in the white community did not.

The South has always been known for its unwavering commitment to the truths of Scripture.  I cannot imagine how Christian men and women witnessing (and participating in) the discrimination aligned such actions with the words of the apostle Peter:  "I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear Him and do what is right." (Acts 10:34-35, NIV)  I suppose the explanation is best expressed in Dr. King's words.  In his letter from a Birmingham jail, King states that "Lamentably, it is a historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.  Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr [an American theologian] has remind us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals."  King's words point out for us that individuals will very often put aside their personal moral codes in the face of a differing view of the general public. 

Martin Luther King, Jr's dream was that all men would have equal opportunities and protection under the law.  While his dream has been achieved in the letter of the law, our society still has a long way to go in the spirit of the dream.  During the past two days, I have heard comments that included questioning why God would bother to ever create a non-white race of people. I have heard racial epithets used in a derogatory manner and have witnessed condescension and hostility toward the celebration of Dr. King's birthday, simply because he was of African-American descent. 

As a nation, we still have a long way to go in regards to race relations.  The philosophy in the south is that the lingering racism is an imperfection carried over from a previous generation that will disappear once they ultimately die out.  I hold that nothing is further from the truth.  The same precepts that propelled the injustice of segregation continue to be passed on to a new generation of Southerners.  Until the region begins to address what it is that unites us all as people created by God rather than the differences and prejudices that separate us on both sides, we will never begin to witness the annihilation of the monster lurking below the surface of the South that seeks to destroy us physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Revisiting a Childhood Favorite

In just a few weeks, I will begin rehearsing with the cast of Germantown High School's production of The Secret Garden.  I have mixed emotions about the musical for various reasons.  I have read the book that the show is based upon and have always loved it.  However, I always thought that it was a bit dark and could not imagine how effective it would be as a musical.  Additionally, only a few songs of the score ever grabbed my attention -- specifically "Lily's Eyes" and "How Could I Ever Know."

This will be the first musical I will be involved with since my undergraduate work in which I will simply be a rehearsal pianist.  Since that time, I have always had a leadership role and have normally served as the musical director.  This will be an interesting experience to play a show without having the responsibility of shaping the musical direction of the show.  Honestly, I'm looking forward to getting back to my roots at the keyboard without carrying such a heavy burden.

I picked up the score yesterday and have begun the process of learning the music before going to the rehearsals in two weeks.  The students are already learning the vocals and the choreography.  When I come in, I will be playing as they begin to put the disparate parts of the show together.  Since the only thing I know at this point is that we are working on Act I on the first night, I just have to learn all the notes of the show.  I must admit that I was rather surprised today as I realized how many of the pieces are rather difficult reductions for the piano.  I knew there would be a few passages here and there, but this show is simply tough to play!  I will have my hands full for the next few weeks, but I am looking forward to the challenge and the experience....and who can complain about the extra money and the prospect of future gigs with the high school.  Lots of fun days are ahead at the piano as I prepare for my first night with The Secret Garden.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Book Review: Called Out of Darkness

While visiting Branson last week, I found myself in need of a new book and I wanted to depart from the standard fictional fare.  At the bookstore, I stumbled on Anne Rice's Called Out of Darkness:  A Spiritual Confession and decided to see what Rice had to say about her conversion from atheism and her career in the aftermath.  Despite my initial expectations, I found myself challenged and encouraged by the memoir.

In case you have been living under a rock, Anne Rice has authored numerous novels that deal with occult topics;  her most famous novel is Interview with the Vampire.  In the memoir, Rice tells of her childhood in New Orleans and her early years as a devout Catholic.  Despite her childhood faith, during her college years she begins to take issue with certain Church stances and determines that there is no God.  Like other works that I had attempted to read by Rice, I found the text belabored and sometimes difficult to follow.  Since I was intrigued with where things were going, I pressed on.

In 1998, Rice finds that she has been searching for answers and peace that can only be found in a relationship with Jesus.  Her words describing her return to the faith of her childhood resonated with me.
In the moment of surrender, I let go of all the theological or social questions which had kept me from Him [Christ] for countless years.  I simply let them go.  There was the sense, profound and wordless, that if He knew everything I did not have to know everything, and that, in seeking to know everything, I'd been, all of my life, missing the entire point.  (Rice, 183)
A highly intelligent woman, Rice had spent much of her adult life studying history and social theories.  As one who was constantly aware of the plight of the poor, underprivileged, and misrepresented, her final realization of the justice of God was powerfully written.
I didn't have to know how He was going to save the unlettered and the unbaptized, or how He would redeem the conscientious heathen who had never spoken His name.  I didn't have to know how my gay friends would find their way to Redemption; or how my hardworking secular humanist friends could or would receive the power of His Saving Grace.  I didn't have to know why good people suffered agony or died in pain.  He knew.
And it was His knowing that overwhelmed me, His knowing that became completely real to me, His knowing that became the warp and woof of the Universe which He had made. (Rice, 185-186)
Now THAT is what I call someone truly placing total faith in God.  For an intellectual person to admit that I don't have to figure out how things are going to take place since the Creator and Lord of the Universe has placed all of this under His capable control is a miracle in and of itself!  How I long to find myself expressing such confidence in my Heavenly Father's omnipotence in all circumstances and situations.  He is all I need and is faithful to take care of whatever concerns me.

Rice is an avid reader in addition to her career as a novelist.  After her conversion, she began to write a series of historical novels based upon the life of Christ.  Always interested in historical accuracy, Rice returned to the gospels and found a beautiful story that she had not fully explored before.
. . .The Gospels, once I plunged into them and let them really talk to me, came across as distinct and fascinating original works. . .
Also something else has happened to me in the study of these documents.  I find them inexhaustible in a rather mysterious way.

I'm at a loss to explain the manner in which every new examination of the text produces some fresh insight, some new cascade of connections, some astonishing link to another part of the canon, or to the Old Testament backdrop which enfolds the whole.

The interplay of simplicity and complexity seems at times to be beyond human control.

Picking up the Gospel on any given morning is picking up a brand-new book.

There is something so explosive about this body of work that it not only dwarfs the fragile assumptions of the skeptics, it dissolves them into nothingness.

And at times I have the feeling that I will die, with my face down in one of these books, on the verge of some new and momentous question or insight.  In sum, there's no visible bottom to this well of meaning.  It's unlike my experience with any other written text. (Rice, 221-222)
This was especially encouraging to me as I continue to launch into my own re-entry into the Word of God.  I have read daily for most of my life, but I have never allowed myself to simply be swept up into the story.  I am so thankful that I am seeing the Scripture this year with new eyes of faith, guided by the Holy Spirit's leadership and direction.

As Ms. Rice reflected upon her departure from the Catholic Church, she came to the conclusion that it was not issues or lack of faith that caused her to flee.  What could have kept her connected to the church, and ultimately aid her in her walk with Jesus, was love.

The more I study this, the more I listen to people around me talk about their experience with Jesus Christ and with religion, the more I realize as well that what drives people away from Christ is the Christian who does not know how to love.  A string of cruel words from a Christian can destroy another Christian.

Over and over again people write to me to explain why they left a church in bitterness and hurt, because of the mercilessness of Christians who made them feel unwelcome, or even told them to go away.

I'm convinced that it takes immense courage to remain in a church where one is surrounded by hostile voices; and yet we must remain in our churches and we must answer hostility with meekness, with gentleness, or simply not answer it at all!  (Rice, 227)
Few things can be more destructive than the spoken word.  After reading this passage, I was struck by the number of times I have witnessed this villany among Christians in the congregations I have attended during my life.  My prayer in regards to this is simple:  "Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in Thy sight, O Lord, my Strength, and my Redeemer."  (Psalm 19:14, KJV)

Written from a Catholic point of view, Called Out of Darkness explores the mystery and ceremony of the Church in an inviting and interesting way for those not familiar with the tradition.  More importantly, Rice has written a beautiful chronicle of her personal journey from faith to doubt and the transformative return to the God of her childhood.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Come In From the Cold

I have lived in the South all my life with the exception of 7 1/2 glorious years in southern California.  I am used to winter in the Memphis area.  Things are considered cold when the temperature dips into the low 40's and we might see a dusting of snow annually.  My friends around the country laugh when I tell them that we shut down the entire world when there is 1 inch of snow on the ground!

Imagine my surprise when I encountered this outside my front door:

The photos were taken later in the morning since I had nothing on the agenda for today, but local reports state that my little burg received 4-5 inches of snow last night.  Those further south (around Oxford, Mississippi) are dealing with 10 inches!  It's beautiful and thankfully there is not a layer of ice hidden underneath.

Since the temperature struggled to rise above freezing today, I determined to sit in the house most of the day and have a fitting snow day!  That consisted of some practicing for an upcoming recital, lots of reading, and catching up on some television.  My single adventure of the day was stepping outside to take these photos before driving to Mom's office to bring her home for lunch.

Sadly, the snow didn't come while I was in school.  I don't report for classes until next Tuesday, so the white stuff didn't mean an extra day of vacation for me.....BOO HOO!  That just means I need to start doing the snow dance again in a few days to see if we can get another round of this later in the season.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Back to Reality

For the past 3 days, I have enjoyed a mini-vacation before things get cranked up again for the Spring semester.  I decided -- very intentionally -- to return to Branson, Missouri and must admit that it has been a wonderful (although slightly unusual) time of recuperation.

January in Branson is a down time.  All of the theaters are closed;  traffic is non-existent.  Once I arrived, interested people asked why I would choose to come to Branson in this season.  I don't know if I can fully explain it, but it has a lot to do with my psyche.  Since much of my life involves performance -- whether as a pianist, teacher, or church musician -- the sight of empty theaters subconsciously reminded me that there was nothing pressing that I needed to prepare immediately.  It was wonderful to not take in a show that might ignite my creativity.  When I went to the bookstore, I saw lots of recordings of pieces I am beginning to learn, but I determined not to purchase them since I wanted to insure that I had a few days away from the work.

What did I do, you ask?  ABSOLUTELY NOTHING!  I checked out a few shops and bookstores, but mostly I read, watched television, and cross-stitched.  I checked my email via my phone, but I didn't accept any phone calls -- that is until my mother decided to call.  I was gracious (I think), but also make it clear that I really was not interested in talking.  I guess I'll find out tomorrow when I get home exactly how that went over.

Food is normally at the center of my trips and this one was no exception.  I had lunch on Thursday at Lambert's just outside of Springfield.  It isn't a restaurant to which I would generally be drawn, but I decided to go just to say that I had.  The food wasn't bad; the atmosphere was nice.  Even though I was born in the South in a fairly rural area, I'm just not a country boy at heart.  In contrast, dinner this evening was A-MA-ZING!  The front desk of the hotel recommended Florentina's Italian Restaurant here in Branson.  Having just opened in the spring, not many people know about the place that is currently a treasure for the locals.  That will change in the very near future, I suspect!  The food was amazing and the service was impeccable.  Priced a little on the expensive side, but well worth the investment in my opinion.

Now I'm just going to enjoy the rest of my evening here in the hotel and pack my things in preparation for the drive home tomorrow.  I'm not really ready to return to reality, but I know that there are things that I must take care of next week.  Now that I've had a few days of uninterrupted rest, I feel that I'm ready to put my nose back to the plow for a few more weeks....and things are going to be VERY busy for me until late March.  I'll be telling you more about THAT next week as all the details are finalized.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

My Heart for Children's Ministry

Today has been a full day of meetings as things are slowly gearing up for a new semester of classes to begin in a few weeks.  While sitting in faculty orientation (again!) this afternoon, I began to think about my oldest niece, Jacquelyn.  I am certain that she will be sitting in a similar seminar in the near future as she receives final preparation to begin her student teaching in fulfillment of the requirements for her Bachelor's degree.

While pondering Jacquelyn's successes, my mind wandered back to the summer in the late 1990s when an 8-year-old girl and her daddy returned to Arkansas and moved back into our lives.  I had known Jacqs and seen her several times, but it was because of this relocation that she and I developed a very close personal relationship. If only I had known then that there would be three little girls who would capture my heart and teach me so much about joy, family, and love.

As I look forward to Jacqs' future in the classroom and her upcoming nuptials this summer, I am filled with pride.  I am proud of her academic achievements, obviously, but I am also proud to see the Godly young woman that she has become.  I have the privilege of saying that I was a part of her spiritual development because of our family connection and because she was a student in the children's ministry that I continue to serve.

The responsibility for the spiritual formation of a child rests firmly with the parent according to Deuteronomy 6.  The church, however, plays an important role and is to serve as an aid to the parent.  Since I don't have children of my own, I feel especially blessed to have the opportunity to assist families in training their children in the ways of the Lord.  For me, there is no higher calling.  Why?  I was hoping you would ask that very question.

The Psalmist proclaimed that "children are a heritage from the Lord." (Psalm 127:3)  Many times, I think we fail to understand the full implications of this verse.  The World English Dictionary states that the word "heritage" suggests "something that is reserved for a particular person or group;  anything that has been transmitted from the past or handed down by tradition."  ( c.v. heritage)  Two points leap out at me in this definition.  Firstly, children were reserved for their parents -- they were paired up by God Himself with a specific purpose in mind.  That's simply amazing!  Secondly, children have been transmitted and handed down.  In other words, when children were given to parents, God was entrusting the physical, emotional, and spiritual care of these defenseless little ones to other created beings.  What incredible trust the Father shows parents!  What an overwhelming (and terrifying) responsibility!!!  What an amazing opportunity!!!!

I believe that children are also a heritage to the local church.  When you see a church that is blessed with children, you find a body of believers that is bubbling with energy, joy, laughter, and hope.  The walls may be scuffed up, ceiling tiles may often be out of place due to an errant kickball, and sermons may be punctuated by shouts and cries from children.  But there is also excitement.....there is authentic wonder at the God of Creation.....there is faith that God can do ANYTHING......and there is assurance that God has been faithful and will continue to be faithful in all situations and circumstances.  I am honored to be a part of a local body of believers that values children and I am so thankful that the children in my life have reaped (and continue to reap) the benefits of that commitment. 

Are my three beloved nieces perfect?  Certainly not.....not by a long shot!  (Sorry to break the news to you guys, but it had to be done!)  Do they make mistakes and fail?  Of course, they do.  Do they disappoint me from time to time?  I have high expectations for all three of the girls, but from time to time they have let me down.  But here's the most important question:  Do I have confidence that they are pursuing a relationship with a loving Heavenly Father?  Yes, most definitely!!!  Despite the occasional doubts and questions they face, I know that they have a sure foundation that is built upon the Truth of God's Word.  Much of the training they have received has come from the teaching of God-fearing children's ministries they have been involved with.  Now, as my nieces near the end of their time in children's ministry, I'm ready to begin giving that same foundation to a new generation of kids by continuing to be actively involved in ministry to children. 

Who wants to join me?  I can assure you that there will be moments when you feel you have nothing to offer.  Time ministering to children promises to be filled with lots of love, adventure, and skinned knees.......and the joy that comes from watching these young disciples develop into the mature, world-changing Christians that they were designed to be!

For the love of Kids!

Monday, January 3, 2011

Pests in the Attic

Like many homes in the region during the cold winter months, my home is currently plagued by two pests.  The first appears rather cute at first sight.  The small red flying ladybug is harmless and bothers very little.  Untreated, the bugs multiply and are constantly drawn to the light.  While they do not bite, they are a nuisance as they drop from the ceiling and fly directly toward the light bulbs, thrashing their hard outer shells against the protective globe in the center of the room.

Squirrels can be a bit more destructive.  Seeking warmth, wood, and food storage locations, these rodents are quick to set up camp in unprotected attics.  While there, they rob traps of food while damaging heating units and annoying the human residents in the house below.  (This is the voice of experience speaking.  While typing this entry, I am listening to the grating teeth of a squirrel gnawing away at the exposed wood in the attic.)

While both pests are currently in our home, the ladybug is the least offensive.  She (and her many relatives) were not invited inside and the exterminator reports that there is little that could have been done to prevent the infestation;  many homes in our small town are doing battle with the insects this year.  The squirrel, on the other hand, took up residence here because of a lack of preventative measures.  A small hole next to the air conditioning unit's entry hose has been present for some time.  While aware of it, my family did not take the necessary steps to plug the hole - always promising to take care of it "tomorrow."  "Tomorrow" never came and now we have a little visitor trapped in the attic.  (Since the squirrel arrived in the attic, Dad took the initiative to plug the hole.  There's another story hidden there somewhere, but that one is for another time!)

Sounds a bit like our lives, doesn't it?  Each of us face pests of one sort or another.  These troubles may have just appeared without warning or invitation;  others arrived through unprotected openings of which we were aware but failed to take the necessary steps to repair.  Our attempts to rid ourselves of these pests often become quite elaborate; despite all our wisdom, our best efforts still result in failure. 

Once our life's pests are identified and the source of entry is found, we attempt to stop future troubles from entering in the same way.  Sadly, like the trapped squirrel in my attic, our efforts address future circumstances only without dealing with the internal problem that continues to reek unseen destruction.  Soon the squirrel in the attic will run out of food and begin to resort to other methods of nourishment.  Ultimately, the rodent will die and his decaying body will emit an offensive odor that will be unmistakable and unhideable.  The tragedy is that this stink is entirely preventable -- if I am willing to take the necessary steps to crawl deep into the dark corners of the attic and deal with the problem.  The endeavor may be frightening and painful, but it is necessary. 

Do you see the parallel for us?  As we launch into a new year, many of us have examined our lives and recognized areas where pests -- the very enemies of our soul -- have gained admission into our world and have taken steps to close up that entry port.  This is a noble endeavor that can often be exhausting, but so worth the effort.  However, it is equally important -- if not more important -- that we look within and face the darkness we find and deal with the remains of the pests that have plagued our past.  Unless we root them out and allow our Exterminator and Savior, Jesus Christ, to deal with them thoroughly, the decay and destruction will continue and ultimately spread until our entire being is consumed by it. 

As you identify your personal pests, put in an emergency call to the perfect Exterminator, seeking His advice, wisdom and direction in order to clear your heart of the trouble.  In the end, you'll be much happier for it.

Wishing you a blessed Monday,

Saturday, January 1, 2011

The New Year is Off and Running

Things have gotten off to quite a start in 2011.  Like most holidays, New Year's Day meant that my family gathered in Crawfordsville for food, conversation, and laughter.  We have never been terribly fond of the whole cabbage and hog jowl menu, so we don't participate in that tradition.  On Christmas day, we decided it would be fun to have a menu of new recipes that we haven't tried before.  So that's what we did.  Some were successes;  others need some revisions.

Our holiday table featured jambalaya, butter schnitzel with mushroom sauce, roasted potatoes, black-eyed peas, HUGE dinner rolls and creme brulee.  Schnitzel was a huge hit;  I don't think it would be considered "authentic" though since it was dredged pork.  It was the Cajun dish, though, that had tears rolling down our faces -- not from sadness, but from heat.  The flavor was great.  Our tongues (and stomachs) are still burning from the fire.  We're still trying to decide whether it was the hot sauce, red pepper flakes, or the Cajun seasoning that is the culprit.  Regardless, the Freeman family is breathing easy going into 2011 as our sinuses have all been cleared by the fiery jambalaya!

Resolutions are being made as well.  There is much as a family that we would like to accomplish and I am making my own list as well.  I am opting to make my resolutions over the course of this first week, however.  I feel the need to be thoughtful and prayerful about the goals and dreams I set for this year.  I have no fear going into the New Year, though, because I already know that the Author of my Salvation is already there and that He has good plans for me.  I'm just anxious to see exactly what it is He has in store for my life.