Thursday, January 31, 2008

And a Child Will Lead Them

Aidan is not feeling very well. His eyes are redder than usual, which is saying something, since he has a deep-seated dislike for sleep of any kind. His nose is running at a slow, steady trickle--eyeballing it, with the expertise I've gained from pulling shots of espresso, I'd say about 1.8 milliliters every ten minutes. Nevertheless, he does not allow his weakened condition to interrupt his usual, self-appointed duties.

In my Leadership Issues class tomorrow, I have a quiz over a book that is not yet in my possession, so I pull on my coat and announce that I'm going to check the mail. (Leadership Issue # 37: You can't lead where you haven't read.) Aidan comes trotting up in his Jayhawk T-shirt (he's a loyalist), sweat pants and bare feet: "Goodbye, Mommy."

He knows that I rely on him to help me carry in the mail, which is frequently SO HEAVY that I cannot possibly lift it all myself, depending on Aidan to carry his share, while I carry us both up the stairs... Now he assumes, of course, that his services will still be needed. They are, enhanced by about twelve more layers of clothing. And Aidan's golden touch carries the day, because Overcoming the Dark Side of Leadership (Dark side 124: Being unequipped for your assignment) is waiting downstairs.

All this to say, Aidan is a tough cookie. Or a tough graham cracker, since you are what you eat.

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Three to One Odds

Aidan considers himself a bear-wrastler.

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Good Coffee Triumphs in Kansas City

My favorite local coffee shop, the Broadway Cafe, got some love from the New York Times this week. I guess that's what happens when Starbucks moves in next door, intending to take over the world, and then ends up closing its doors. How does this happen?

“We are not doing anything revolutionary here,” Ms. Honan [co-owner of the Broadway Cafe] said. “Coffee, and food that goes well with coffee.”

Very modest and unassuming--and the cafe has the same vibe. But apparently good coffee is revolutionary--part art, part science--because not many places are serving it. It requires baristi who know the ins and outs of roasting coffee beans, grinding them, tamping them, pulling shots, and frothing milk--in short, it requires more than push-button competency.

Personally, I'm happy that the Westport Starbucks is gone, because now people can't ask me to meet them there anymore, while the Broadway Cafe sits about twenty feet south of us, tantalizing me.

Photo is property of the NY Times. That's me in the back of the line. Not really, but it could have been.

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If I Wasn't Dying, I Would Revive My Hoops Game

I took a break from fatherhood the other day, and went over to our local community center to revive my comatose hoops game. Aidan was securely locked in his bedroom with seven stuffed animals, a stack of candy bars and too many balls to count, so I knew I'd bought myself at least an hour of time. At the gym, I shot around a little, said hi to some high school kids who recognized me from subbing as "Mr. V" (not exactly a scintillating handle) and prepared for battle.

First up: I played some pickup two on two, and nearly died, my lungs begging for mercy every time I accelerated or changed direction suddenly. Several games of three on three were slightly better--I could hardly breathe, but due to that third player cluttering up the court, my life wasn't directly threatened. Apparently climbing eight flights of stairs once or twice a day wasn't enough to get me in game shape. [Stepping outside the narrative briefly: With the benefit of hindsight, I now realize that there was a cold/flu bug in the equation. And good thing, too.]

Strangely enough, I still got my points. Despite my legs impersonating a rubber chicken, I hit three or four treys and a bunch of mid-range jumpers. My defense was really what suffered, as I had hard time keeping my dusty shoes under me while I ran around gasping, trying to stop quick, slashing guards from getting easy layups on me. I guess that makes me a North Carolinian shoot-first, defend-second guard (only a foot shorter and without dunking ability). Bill Self would not be happy. Usually, I take pride in stopping my man cold. But usually I am not trying to avoid impending cardiac arrest.

After my team lost, I got picked up to play with the incoming challengers but had to let the opportunity pass, explaining that I was being conservative so as to avoid sudden death. I went and hunched over the water fountain, breathing deeply and taking therapeutic little sips. Less espresso before games, stickier shoes, and more aerobic exercise are the keys here. I'll be back.

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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

LOST Season Four - Are You Ready?

You knew that the fourth season of LOST kicks off tomorrow night, didn't you? The two-hour season premiere on ABC? And you were planning on tuning in to the best show on network television?

Lindsay and I polished off the third season a couple weeks ago, and have engaged in some minor conspiracy theorizing, so we're good to go.

For fans of LOST, or those just getting up to speed, here are a couple articles to speed you on your way. Remember, if you've missed the show up until now, you can grab a super-quick summary for free off iTunes. Why would you want to jump in now? I can think of a few reasons:

LOST is an expertly plotted, cleverly written, well acted suspense-adventure story with so many interesting hooks that it's a conversation starter at multiple levels. The questions raised are ethical, philosophical, spiritual, and eventually personal--in the sense that the characters take hold and make you care. The creators of LOST are well-versed in philosophy and classic (and pulp) literature, and it shows. The series is influential and memorable for a reason. Alright then...

LOST: Your Preseason Cheat Sheet
Entertainment Weekly's Doc Jensen highlights some crucial characters and plot points to keep in mind this season. Since LOST is a sprawling, multi-tiered epic without a clearly-defined trajectory or unifying theme (yet), this kind of Hey, remember that important clue? summary is pretty helpful.

Flashback to the Future
This one is by Patrol Magazine's Timothy Zila (see his recent guest post on this blog), who attempts to pick up some of LOST's loose ends and predict where the show is a big picture sense, of course. Smart analysis all round.

I know there are lots of great LOST sites out there--what are some of your favorites?

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Kansas Basketball Powerhouses To Clash

"Kansas Basketball" is now a national entity!

For all most of my life, the KU/K-State basketball "rivalry" has been more a beatdown than a contest. The Jayhawks show up, put in a good licking, and head to the locker room. I'm sure the Wildcats are tired of this routine, but let's be honest: handing out this kind of punishment, year after year, gets kind of stale for the aggressors too.

Here's hoping that things will be different this season. K-State is actually ranked in the Top 25, with a lineup that features a couple NBA players in Bill Walker and Michael Beasley (a leading Player of the Year candidate). Unfortunately for the Wildcats, the Jayhawks have a lineup featuring, oh, about five NBA players. Nevertheless, this should be a good game and a needed road test for the Jayhawks.

Because of ESPN's East Coast/West Coast bias, this game won't be nationally televised. However, you can watch if for free on ESPN360. My call:

KU 73
KSU 61

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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

This Happens Maybe Once in a Lifetime

There is something about sleep that makes me painfully aware of the hair-trigger causality of the world. You know, a butterfly flaps its wings in Tokyo, a baby wakes up in North Kansas City, that sort of thing.

Sleep used to be something that happened at a certain time of the day--like breathing, but less frequent. There were soothing patterns of waking and sleeping called Circadian Rhythms, and I had rhythm. Waking and sleeping with percussive regularity, I danced through the week with energy. But no longer. The Rhythm has changed to Aidanian here--and it's not a dance, it's running full speed until you fall flat on your face. Sleep. I knew him once, Horatio.

This makes nap time a fragile, magical time. At these times, after long, uncertain intervals, the planets will align themselves, and beautiful, rare wonders will transpire. Today, I experienced something rarer than Haley's Comet. I don't expect to see it again in my lifetime. In fact, I feel privileged just to have been an observer--a participant, actually--in a Household-Wide Nap. Words can hardly do justice to this phenomenon. Scientists actually thought the Household-Wide Nap was extinct, until they found a small colony of them surviving in the deep jungles of equatorial Guinea.

These creatures are fragile, I knew that. So this morning, when I realized the shy, quiet Nap was present in our loft, I did everything I could to make it show itself. It was 10 a.m. Lindsay was asleep in our bed after a night punctuated by Aidan and Asher. I was lying on the futon under a blanket after a night punctuated by Aidan and Asher. Aidan was asleep in his bed after a night spent waking up and a morning spent rubbing his eyes. Asher was asleep in his favorite disc chair after a night spent eating and a morning spent eating. At this point, the Nap first showed its nose, and the delicate, infinite causality of the universe rushed in on me.

If Asher's pacifier fell out of his mouth, one wail would instantly wake Aidan, ruining everything. (I moved Asher's chair right next to my futon and kept a hand near his face to cover this very contingency.) If Aidan reached for Curly the Bear in his sleep, and did not feel that fuzzy teddy fur at his elbow, he would come instantly awake, complaining about the unfairness of a world where bears were somnambulists. Or if a butterfly flapped its wings... I shuddered, and hugged myself under my blanket.

It was at that moment that the Household-Wide Nap stepped into the open. It was ocean blue, I think, with graceful silver wings that fanned the room with soft spring breezes. Ask me another time, and I'll say the Nap was glowing vermilion, or mysterious teal--or maybe I'll just smile and admit that I don't remember exactly what the Nap looked like, only that it was beautiful, and that I'll never forget it, as long as I live.

The Nap stood in our loft, looking around timidly but happily, for perhaps thirty golden minutes, and then moved on.

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Monday, January 28, 2008

The One The Only Magnificent Me by Dan Haseltine (Book Review)

A guest post by Aidan

A package came in the mail. I said, "Yo pops, what is it?" My dad said, "Do you think it's a ball? Should we open it?" I said, "Yes!"

We did. And it was this book. The One The Only Magnificent Me.

Right away, I wanted to look at it, because of the fantastic pictures. The illustrator, Joel Schoon Tanis, clearly had two goals in mind: One, draw very imaginative, exciting pictures. Two, use every color easily reproduced on paper. And check, check, he nailed 'em both. These pictures are a lot of fun to look at.

The story reminds me of other great authors like Maurice Sendak and Dr. Seuss, which shows that Dan Haseltine has been reading in the right part of the library. Here are a few hints, without giving away the whole story: The boy gets to have wings and a horn and become a flying dragon--but only for a little while. Also, there is a mommy in the story, which is a really nice touch.

Overall, I like this book very much and I have started to memorize some of the best lines. For example, "I wish I had wings." Nice job, Dan Haseltine. I wasn't sure if I would be able to say it, but I can: you are a good writer and a good singer. Jars of Clay must be proud.

This means I can continue to respect you, listening to Good Monsters, your best work in my opinion, while I read The One The Only Magnificent Me. With the power vested in me by my daddy, I am awarding this book three stars in the "children's" category. Don't miss it. ***

[Aidan is a fiery 20-something (months) living in Kansas City with his parents and younger brother, with whom he shares an apartment. He can usually be found watching Jayhawk "paketball," car-watching from his eighth story window, throwing balls, or asking strangers for marshmallows.]

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Phat Books

We keep Aidan's picture Bibles on a shelf that he can't quite reach without help, which creates opportunities for him to say things like:

"Bibles! Bibles! Big fat Bibles!"
At this point, "fat" is a complimentary word in his vocabulary, denoting admiration and excitement.

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Jon Foreman: EPs, Sixpence None the Richer: Reunion

Promising music news. First, it sounds like Jon Foreman's (Switchfoot) new solo project, Fall and Winter, will be worth looking into. Review from Copious Notes:

Solo, Foreman's voice is at once familiar and brand new. Unlike many bandleader-gone-solo efforts, where it's hard to discern a difference, Fall and Winter are unmistakably singular efforts in the soundscapes and songwriting. These are albums Switchfoot probably wouldn't have made. The sound is mostly acoustic and spare, with a single guitar or piano often augmented by by strings or winds...Lyrically, he's much more first person than in Switchfoot, and touches on subjects such as sex, addiction and death that have never been favorites in the Christian pop market.

Second, Christianity Today reports that Sixpence None the Richer (Leigh Nash and Matt Slocum) will be getting back together this year.
According to a posting on Leigh Nash's MySpace blog, Sixpence None the Richer is set to reunite in 2008, with a planned tour and EP in the coming months. In the posting, Nash said that she and Sixpence guitarist Matt Slocum realized the duo "were missing each other" and that "the two of us were more powerful than one of us alone." More details are forthcoming, but Nash said that the tour will kick off in April and that a MySpace page for the band is in the works. Sixpence called it quits in 2004, after which, Word Records issued the band's final album, Kiss Me: The Best of Sixpence None the Richer.

Lindsay and I are pretty happy about this, because we were big fans of Sixpence. In fact, both of these items make me smile, because I was a fan of both Switchfoot (Foreman) and Sixpence before they earned their respective moments in the spotlight. We kind of go way back.

Jon Foreman has always been an outside-the-box-type songwriter, and Nash and Slocum have loads of musical talent and poeticism, which is abundantly displayed in their earlier albums. Our favorites are Sixpence None the Richer (self-titled) and Divine Discontent.

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Sunday, January 27, 2008

NetAudioAds--More Blog Revenue?

In an ongoing effort to pay for pizza night around here, I've looked into a few ways to make money blogging. Like its name might suggest, Google Adsense generates a few cents here and there, and I get the occasional $0.33 commission from Amazon Associates...not high living, but knowing that for every 1000 words I blog, I get a $.03 kickback is a nice adrenalin rush. Sort of.

Anyway, when I heard about another way to monetize--based on page views, not sales--I was dubious but interested. Maybe this could bump us up from microwave cheese to pepperoni & black olive from Papa John's? Wouldn't hurt to look into.

The concept is called NetAudioAds, and my first impression, based on the interest-grabbing page was less than great. However, the explanatory page had more credibility. And when the ad company got a blurb in the Wall Street Journal, I decided to take the plunge and give it a shot. The WSJ:

Starting Feb. 1, San Diego-based V2P Communications is offering five-to-eight-second audio ads, called NetAudioAds, that will automatically play when a visitor lands on a blog or Web site. Publishers sign up for the free service and V2P then lines up advertisers, who bid on rates they will pay to have their ads played on a given blog. Bids generally start around $14 per 1,000 plays. Blog publishers get a 25% cut of the ad revenue.

About 25,000 publishers have signed up so far, says Michael Knox, V2P's co-founder, and several large companies and 2008 presidential campaigns have expressed interest in becoming advertisers through the service. A site that gets 2,000 unique visitors per day with an advertiser paying $14 per 1,000 plays might earn $28 a day, or $196 a week.

So apparently the concept is sound. The pros and cons as I saw them...
Simple, cumulative blog revenue based on page loads, not sales commissions.
Install a piece of code, and you're done.
Reputable companies are involved.
Five seconds is not a very long ad.

It's an audio ad.

Audio seems more invasive to me than print advertising, but there is an obvious workaround: turn down the volume. All this to say, I'm going to give NetAudioAds a shot, and see how things go. The ads will start playing in February--feel free to send me a note with your impressions. If you think they're awful, let me know.

The alternative is that NetAudioAds may be a legitimate avenue for bloggers to make a little on the side. Personally, I'd like to be able to afford some decent pizza.

[If you'd like to give NetAudioAds a shot, you can find out more here--or just take the plunge and sign up here. Don't sweat it, though: Nothing will happen until you actually install a small piece of code on your site. Full disclosure: If you do sign up, I'll get a small finder's fee, but it won't come out of your earnings.]

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The Secret Life of Bill Self

From Joe Posnanski, one of my favorite sports writers ever, comes this fascinating article on Bill Self and his current Jayhawk team:

That’s Bill Self for you, the chameleon. Everyone talks about it, his almost magical ability to blend in anywhere, relate to anyone, recruit the inner city, work the suburbs, preach in churches, finesse the press, blend in with the rich and famous, maintain his regular-guy status and still make everyone in the room feel like he is their buddy.

There’s no doubt about it: He could be governor somewhere. Senator, even. Of course, he gets paid better. Anyway, he’s had the knack all his life.

There’s another side to that sort of chameleon gift, though. When the great Ray Charles first started singing, he could make his voice sound just like Nat King Cole or the Platters or just about any of the other great singers of the day — and he was making a name for himself mostly by singing like other people. Ray Charles would say that when they told him he had to find his own voice, he felt scared. He wasn’t sure anyone would like his real voice.

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Saturday, January 26, 2008

Ten Clever (and Slightly Badass) Ways to Make Better Coffee

This post has moved: How to Make Great Coffee.

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Friday, January 25, 2008

This photo was made possible by advanced motion-capture technology from Japan

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"That last milkshake...was probably uncalled for"

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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Bizarre Social Trend

The Onion has discovered one of those throwbacks to medieval times we occasionally see in the movies. Get this:

GREENWOOD, IN—Sitting in a quiet downtown diner, local hospital administrator Philip Meyer looks as normal and well-adjusted as can be. Yet, there's more to this 27-year-old than first meets the eye: Meyer has recently finished reading a book.

Yes, the whole thing.

"It was great," said the peculiar Indiana native, who, despite owning a television set and having an active social life, read every single page of To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

Hilarious. Not many people read books cover to cover these days, but I'm happy to say I know a few more such dinosaurs.

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$20,000 Coffee Just Tastes Better

Admittedly, I find this ridiculous. Now if the machine made espresso as well, maybe I could see it. However, if there was a $20,000 zen-powered coffee machine in my area, I would have to try a cup... From the New York Times:

WITH its brass-trimmed halogen heating elements, glass globes and bamboo paddles, the new contraption that is to begin making coffee this week at the Blue Bottle Café here looks like a machine from a Jules Verne novel, a 19th-century vision of the future.

Called a siphon bar, it was imported from Japan at a total cost of more than $20,000. The cafe has the only halogen-powered model in the United States, and getting it here required years of elliptical discussions with its importer, Jay Egami of the Ueshima Coffee Company.

“If you just want equipment you’re not ready,” Mr. Egami said in an interview. But, he added, James Freeman, the owner of the cafe, is different: “He’s invested time. He’s invested interest. He is ready.”

Professionals have long been willing to pay prices in the five figures for the perfect espresso machine, but the siphon bar does not make espresso. It makes brewed coffee, as does another high-end coffee maker, the $11,000 Clover, which makes one cup at a time. Together, they signal the resurgence of brewing among the most obsessive coffee enthusiasts.

A large slice of the article actually talks about the Clover--at a mere $11,000, it's a real deal--and I hope to make a down payment on a home model next month. Just kidding. However, the Roasterie Cafe in Brookside, about 20 minutes from us, does have a Clover--which is a real treat, since Kansas City isn't quite the mecca of coffee and espresso fanaticism that New York is. Give it a few more years, though... I think it's pretty cool that "mere" brewed coffee is not being regarded as inferior to espresso:
Could this be the age of brewed coffee? “We’re right there at the threshold,” said George Howell of Terroir Coffee, a retailer of roasted and green beans. “Coffee has never been a noble beverage because the means to perfectly produce it haven’t existed,” said Mr. Howell...

“You get more of the delicate and floral flavors, the subtle sweetness, the notes of perfume and citrus,” said Duane Sorensen, the owner of Stumptown. “The delicate, pretty, sexy flavors show in a Clover.”

I love espresso, but I've maintained my loyalty to brewed coffee as well, so I'm happy to hear this point being made. If you're one of those people who thinks "the only reason to drink coffee is the caffeine"--stop buying Folgers and discover this thing called your palate. :) Finding a cafe with a Clover may be your ticket out of coffee hell.

HT: Six O'Clock Vintage
Photos property of NYT.

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You Are Never Close to Home, You Are Never Far From Home, by Levi Weaver (CD Review)

Levi Weaver
You Are Never Close to Home, You Are Never Far From Home

A guest post by Timothy Zila

There’s a seemingly endless array of emerging independent artists fighting for a mark of distinction - Levi Weaver is one of them. With his debut album You Are Never Close to Home, You are Never Far From Home, Weaver finds himself with a collection of songs well rooted in styles and sounds that are by now well established. It’s not that folk is necessarily out, but rather that the whole indie/folk/op resurgence is all but complete. In other words, there’s not necessarily any advantage to be gained by a movement which has now come full circle. Even the ability to weave an unnaturally good line into a song, or express a familiar sentiment in a slightly new way ought to be expected of you if you want to survive - to make no mention of making any kind of mark.

Weaver does do a few things, however, that - if not unique - at least help give his songs a distinct quality. “Of Bridges Burned” brims with an eerie echo of reggae and an unnatural ability to infuse soul into his choruses with perfectly articulated lines like “Don’t talk of the future in your hopeful tones.” (The same trick is pulled on the following “Family Feud,” the album’s would-be disaster if Weaver hadn’t worked things out meticulously, keeping the melody thumping below the song’s structure, and making everything work despite being grating and ill advised.)

The simplest tracks, however, prove to be the best. On “You are Home,” the simple combination of Weaver’s acoustic guitar, the quiet patter of background rhythm, and the fluid emotion of the violin create the album’s most immediately affecting track. Then there’s “Which Drink?” We know right from the beginning that Weaver is ready to rock out, and this time he’s not messing with any ill-advised southern narrative on violence. Moving between a dense section destined (although I’m not quite sure it ever does) to explode in a flurry of notes and variations, and the forced quietness of the verses. “And which night/Was the night when the kingdom/I thought I was king of fell at the walls of the waves of a broken dam (make me a broken man)” Weaver sings before letting the chorus out - its emotive catchiness taking over.

Then there’s the organic cover of Radiohead’s “Idioteque.” I have to admit that I actually haven’t heard the original, but my feeling is that Weaver’s version is exactly what any great Radiohead cover should be. Beginning with the chill inducing sound of Weaver playing his acoustic guitar with a violin bow the song (in the words of David Sessions) “achieves transcendence by replicating nearly every sound in the original without electronically-generated instruments.” It’s your typically lovely, paranoid Radiohead song, complete with some haunting references to an Ice Age (the eventual result of Global Warming, if you didn’t know) that I imagine are more potent than they were when Kid A was released.

A few hard to distinguish tracks make way for a somewhat quiet ending to a promising album which sees Weaver making solid music even when he gets lost amongst melodies and lyrics which are too familiar to really stay with you. (“Look at the stars/How pretty they are” sings like a hundred artists, but is particularly evocative of Josh Ritter minus some of the witty rapid-fire wordplay.) Everything here is pleasantly effective but one wonders, as one always should, just how long it’ll stick, how long it’ll leave it’s mark. And that’s where originality doesn’t mean a thing - good songwriting is good songwriting whether it’s progressive or not.

For more information, check out Weaver's MySpace page or purchase the album here.

[Timothy Zila is approaching his six month anniversary of writing for Patrol Magazine and the one week anniversary (or something, he’s not really sure) of his re-launched blog, Edge of the City, which he hopes he will one day reach readership levels expanding into the double digits. His greatest ambition is to grow a beard like Sam Beam, although he’s been warned repeatedly that he should not share this information with anyone.]

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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Jesus Christ Repeats Himself Again

In my better moments I am willing to restate something pithy and original that I have just said, something like "Can you turn down the volume on that song you are blaring for Aidan eight dozen times in a row?"

At these times I am careful to articulate and project, so Lindsay can get the gist of the vital communication, despite the crazy antics Aidan is performing in the background. Like I said, it is during my better moments that I am willing to repeat myself. Why? Because recapitulation is the leaky faucet that you repeatedly fix, the squeaky floorboard that regularly wakes up your one-year-old at 2 a.m., even though you have nailed it down and covered it with carpets. I don't like to repeat myself. The first time should have been enough. In fact, repeating myself is so exhausting and inefficient that I can hardly spare the brain cells and calories it takes to make my tongue form those words AGAIN...

Then there's Jesus. With his entire life, uninterrupted by snide commentary or remarkably expressive rolling of the eyes, he recapitulated an entire race. He was a divine editor, a reteller of the story of earth, an immortal-human artist, who took what had already been written, told, made--and did it over again.

It should have been right in the first place, but he crossed out, erased, backspaced, and, laughing at Old Scratch, started from scratch. He didn't just embellish, he improved. He remade and fixed. He recapitulated the sorry, damned misspelling we had made of ourselves, and wrote his own name, perfectly legible, in its place. JESUS, SON OF MAN.

Now we saw how humans were supposed to live, and the earth breathed a sigh of relief, so happy that now there was a perfect man to rule it.


The Son became incarnate in order to bring completion to creation. For God intended his creation to be ruled by a perfect human being, and without such a ruler creation is incomplete, lacking, defective. The sinless Lord Jesus Christ is the ruler creation needs, for he is truly, authentically human in the way all human beings are supposed to be. This aspect of Jesus' work is sometimes called recapitulation, a term coined by Irenaeus of Lyons to denote the idea of going over something again to get it right. - Pierced for Our Transgressions by Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey, and Andrew Sach

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Hood by Stephen Lawhead (Book Review)

A guest post by Peter

When my older brother mentioned a Stephen Lawhead trilogy about Robin Hood, I showed a little interest, but didn’t really think about it much. If I had time, I mused, I would check it out from the library. However, Arie had plans for me/it. Given the opportunity/problem of reading and reviewing Hood for his blog, I decided I would undertake it and conquer. Three weeks later, I’m finally buckling down and getting it over with.

Reading the book was no problem. It’s well-written, typical of a Lawhead novel, with delightful descriptions of a 13th century Britain still populated by the remnants of the Cymry, the fierce Welshmen who were the main characters in many of Lawhead’s previous books. The Cymry are not free to live as they choose now, however; they have been forced to live under the thumb of a certain Red William, King of England.

The author paints a picture of beautiful valleys and dark forest, populated by mostly peaceful peasants and farmers. When Lawhead incorporates his new plot ideas, they work, for the most part making sense and not seeming implausible as an addition the familiar story of Robin that we all know. He subtly changes Hood’s background, making him a displaced prince who nurtures a hate for the English who have forced him into hiding in the forest, and nearly took his life. We also meet the last bard of Britain, and see Robin not dressed in green toting a bow and playfully bounding through the forest: Hood’s attacks are planned and executed flawlessly, incorporating fear of a phantom as well.

We also see Hood’s bitterness against God, not blindly accepting God’s plan that had ruined his home and people. Instead he almost blames it on God, taking out the resentment on the people that perpetrated the crime.

In short, Hood is an interesting blend of old-time Arthur stories and Robin Hood adventures. The Robin Hood we see in this new hybrid version is not playful and happy, but vindictive and calculating. It’s worth your time to peruse this new version of an old story. It’s become a novel that’s no longer a children’s story; instead it has been made into a tale of blood, revenge, and bitterness. Not only these characteristics make up Hood; we also see him pursuing Mérian (yes, she’s still part of the story) and loving his countrymen. However, he’s become a much more human hero.

Grade: ** I’ll give Hood two stars--well worth your time--and (am I licensed for this?) a spot on THE LIST. This book is interesting and intriguing. (Yes, that’s redundant, but "intriguing" is too good of a word to leave out.)

[Peter Vanderhorst is a rakish high school student living in Lenexa, Kansas. When he's not hanging with friends or making outrageous claims about his ping pong abilities, he can be found reading voraciously, downloading new music, or finding additional news sources for his Kansas basketball fix.]

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

"Top 30" Albums, Narnia Vs. Middle Earth, and the Post-Hipster Movement

Sometimes good links accumulate too fast for me to mention them one at a time, and I'm forced to pull the link-pressure release valve and let them all gush out in a single post. Here are three good ones.

1. Some people are content to post their "top ten" albums of the year list, but when you're a die-hard fan of indie music, that's way too limiting. Enter my friend Kevin Cawley, with his "Favorite 30 Albums of 2007." Wow. Great list--although I can't help thinking The Shins' new album deserved more than honorable mention! (Maybe I'll make my own list after all. ;)

2. Next up: In Middle Earth or Narnia?, Tim Challies compares J.R.R. Tolkien's mythical world to C.S. Lewis's, evaluates their relative merits, and explains why he prefers Middle Earth. Very interesting read, although I tend to think Lewis and Tolkien compliment each other as authors, each possessing different strengths that appear in their writing. For example, Narnia's simple history lends itself to a theological clarity that's lacking in Tolkien's more layered, sophisticated "mythic history of Britain." For me, it's a both/and proposition. Oh, and I also enjoyed Tolkien's Silmarillion, which I assume Challies is alluding to when he says that, "I haven’t ever bothered to read Tolkien’s long, dense and boring histories of his world, evolutions of the language, and so on." Well, nobody is perfect, and I'm willing to extend grace. ;)

3. Meanwhile, in San Francisco, Camille and co. are initiating a new movement, in defiance of the hipster scene--which is already becoming passe. This will be called the Post-er movement:

To be a Post-ster, a person should embrace post-postmodernism-- a return to actually believing in stuff. We aren't saying what the "stuff" should be. I could tell you what my stuff is, but that would be redundant, as this entire blog is devoted to my stuff.

I'm all about post-postmodernism, so sign me up.

Now, go hit the links.

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God's Rotten Little Children

I had the realization yesterday that the relationship I have with Aidan mirrors the one I have with God, which was more than a little disconcerting.

Quick snapshot: I make money to feed Aidan, and then I do feed him. I clean him up, pay for his designer urban clothes (the few he needs after his grandmothers are done), and put them on him. I read to him, teach him how to dribble a basketball and make great espresso, write stories about him, sing to him, dance with him, throw him in the air, wrestle him, talk about his favorite inanimate objects as if they had personalities, crack hilarious jokes in one-year-old terms...and, on occasion, spank his little rear, at great personal cost. Oh yeah, and I also made him. Or at the very least, half of him.

And after all this he still defies me, in a casual, hey-why-not? way, multiple times a day--says, "ROOM AWHILE!" and runs off to his bedroom, preferring solitary confinement to making things right with his daddy. Really, the parallels are staggering.

Jesus, I more than appreciate your patience, and more so every day.

[Sidenote: "Quiet times?" Extended prayer? Fasting? These things are all good, and I do them multiple times a day for about ten seconds at a time, but living with children may be the single greatest aid to holiness we have available to us. I encourage you to get some today. And yes, make sure you have a spouse first.]

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Monday, January 21, 2008

Book and Coffee Buzz

I've just received some really good news. Lindsay has agreed to extend her book-reviewing agreement with BitterSweetLife for at least another volume (you wouldn't believe her compensation demands, though!), and Aidan has consented to produce his first ever review. A children's book, appropriately enough. Also, I'll be introducing a very promising new reviewer in the next few days, for now known mysteriously as "Peter."

In related news, a serious post on coffee is in production. Serious as in, after you read it, you'll be able to make seriously better coffee. Just a heads up!

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Free Music from Great Lake Swimmers, Andy Zipf

Compiling my Top Ten Books of 2007 yesterday was hard work, requiring a carefully controlled environment. I pulled a decent shot of espresso and looked around for some interesting but not overpowering music to help the creative synapses fire.

Enter Andy Zipf and the Great Lake Swimmers.

Patrol Magazine currently has an exclusive, 5-song EP from Andy Zipf, an indie solo act from D.C. Catchy, interesting pop--and it's free. I played Zipf once, before I got stuck on the Great Lake Swimmers (below), but I like that he seems to be doing his own thing, not working hard to become a carbon copy of Coldplay, U2, etc.

Apparently good things come in pairs, because Patrol also offers a 5-track live recording from the Great Lake Swimmers--and it's free too. If you'll allow me a ridiculous comparison, I'd say the Great Lake Swimmers are kind of like Arcade Fire meets Innocence Mission with peacenik lyrics. Melodious, whispery folk...despite less-than-stellar songwriting, I liked what I heard.

I'm not sure how long these downloads will be up, so grab 'em now. They came in handy last night.

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Sunday, January 20, 2008

Top Ten Books of 2007

This was not easy.

At the end of last year, a slew of "Top Ten" book lists appeared, sometimes even "Top Twenty" (Is that cheating?). But not here. Not at this blog. Because I was still deliberating. Still picking the contenders.

As we reach mid-January, I'm finally prepared to name names and tag titles. But as we begin, I need to warn you: This list refuses to be artificially limited by publication date--in other words, I'm drawing from the great books I read in 2007, not merely the great books that were published in 2007. I came up with these results by placing the finalists on a list and moving each volume up or down as merited by its neighbors, until the random list sorted itself into a numbered one.

One more thing: Since this list contains both fiction and nonfiction, to get a better idea of a book's relative merit, compare it to the other books in its genre--fiction to fiction, non to non. Now, on to the countdown. Click the titles for full reviews.

10. Captivating by John and Stasi Eldredge
Captivating edged out Rob Bell's Sex God for the last slot. While neither book earned unreserved enthusiasm, both approached sex and gender issues in creative and helpful ways. Captivating was more directly applied, however, and a couple stellar chapters were worth the price of the book.

9. The Luminous Dusk by Dale Allison
Allison's essays on finding God in the midst of clamorous technology and shrinking silence are demanding to read, but they are also eloquent and sharp-edged--and they expose "hearing Jesus' voice" for the pitched battle it is, so we can get ready to fight for a real experience of "spirit and truth."

8. Communion with the Triune God by John Owen
Owen's way with words? Belabored. His insight into intimacy with God? Remarkable. Communion with the Triune God rewards the reader who is willing to wade through Puritan prose in ways that contemporary spirituality books rarely, if ever, do.

7. Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin
Sometimes his love affair with words makes him overly flowery, but Helprin showcases an epic imagination in this mythic urban tale, chock-full of memorable characters and lovely sentiments.

6. From Achilles to Christ by Louis Markos
And you thought Achilles was just a ticked, ripped guy who killed people. Markos examines the great Greek and Roman myths and reveals how God inserted sign posts for the coming of his son in the "pagan" stories. From Achilles to Christ is fascinating, highly readable, and awe-inspiring in the way it reflects God's compassion and foresight.

5. What I Think I Did by Larry Woiwode
In his autobiography, Woiwode weaves together the present, where he fights to stay alive, with the past, where he lives a Bohemian life, waiting to make it as a writer. His story is fascinating, his writing is poetic, and once the narrative really takes hold, What I Think I Did is hard to put down.

4. When the Game is Over it All Goes Back in the Box by John Ortberg
John Ortberg uses humor like a scalpel and his own life like a mirror. When you stop snickering, you realize that he has just diagnosed your problem as well as his, and pointed to the solution: abandon selfish ambitions and return to the things you thought you already knew, like loving Jesus. I stick to my appraisal of Ortberg as a happier, funnier Philip Yancey.

3. Ain't Too Proud to Beg by Telford Work
There are a lot of books on prayer, and many books on The Lord's Prayer, but I haven't encountered any that are as earnest and penetrating as Ain't Too Proud to Beg. Work wrestles with pointed questions of evil, sickness, unbelief and sovereignty, then purposefully turns to the Prayer, and lets it dictate his ultimate response. In a unique way, the movements of the Lord's Prayer are the heartbeat and hinge of each chapter, and Work's conclusions are articulate and stirring.

2. The Harry Potter Books by J.K. Rowling
As an antidote to the information-dumping of grad school, I read a lot of fiction--and the Harry Potter books were a treat. J.K. Rowling knows how to sell books, but she also knows how to write. Her stories are wonderfully imaginative, with trickily twisted plots, lovable (or truly awful) characters, and a sense of humor. Also, as I said in my full review, Rowling's stance is more Christian than Wiccan.

1. The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis
It was hardly fair to the other books on this list that I re-read and reviewed one of Lewis' masterpieces this semester. But fair's fair, and sixty-two years after its publication (1945), The Great Divorce more than holds its own. With metaphorical brilliance and his usual deft touch, Lewis describes a bus trip from Hell to Heaven, casting light on the nature of the afterlife: "heavier," and more vivid, joyous and robust than anything we have ever imagined--or precisely the opposite--a bleak expanse of selfish, wispy, isolated ghosts. Do yourself a favor and consider this book required reading.

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Saturday, January 19, 2008

More Proof That Words Have Power

Aidan doesn't like chicken, but he does like food. So tonight, when the boys were home alone, we had "yummy food" for dinner. And chicken. At the same time.

Yet more proof of what preachers, politicians, and writers already know.

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Cloverfield: The New Monster Film

Patrol Magazine has a nice review of Cloverfield, the cleverly-marketed Manhattan monster film that just hit theaters. Musings about the evolving role of digitized special effects in sci-fi movies, with implications for LOST (another brainchild of Cloverfield producer J.J. Abrams), are thrown in for free.

Steve McCoy of Reformissionary also has a first-person Cloverfield take, having sacrificially taken in an early showing... Steve liked what he saw, and thought all the internet teasers set the tone well.

Neither review contains spoilers, although Patrol Magazine gives away a little about the monster(s). Cloverfield sounds worth seeing.

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Will Jayhawks Claim #1?!

Woot! Woot! In a big upset, previously undefeated, #1-ranked North Carolina just lost to Maryland at Chapel Hill (82-20)! It's really too bad that Roy Williams had to experience that.

Secondarily, #4 UCLA was just upset by USC (a team KU beat handily a few weeks ago).

Thirdly, after the Jayhawks beat Missouri in Columbia tonight, their claim on the #1 spot in the nation is going to be hard to contest. Especially since the Big 12 may just be emerging as the nation's toughest conference, while Conference USA, where #2 Memphis hangs out, is a cakewalk. An hour ago, K-State beat #10 Texas A&M by 21--which means that the Jayhawks will be facing plenty of top-caliber opponents in their own conference.

Hoops forecast in Kansas City: Bright and sunny with increasing temperatures.

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Friday, January 18, 2008

Nap-Time Gang

From left to right: Pooh, Snowball, Aidan, Curly. Together, they achieve what no one of them could accomplish alone: a nap.

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Rose-Colored Sunset

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Thursday, January 17, 2008

Great "Christian" Fiction Authors

In the comments on an earlier post about a very average book, the topic of great Christian authors came up. Which got me thinking...great open thread topic. I'd love to hear your nominations in this category. A few rules:
1. Keep the authors fairly recent. Not necessarily living, but mid-late 20th century if possible.
2. Avoid pulpy thrillers or romances...unless you really think they transcended their genre. :)
3. Think "Christian" in the worldview sense, not necessarily in the explicit, have-conversations-about-Jesus sense.

Anyone coming to mind yet? Here are a few of my favorites to kick things off. Consider it a given that each of these authors deal with sin and redemption--but in eloquent and compelling ways.

Walker Percy: A phenomenal writer--expect gritty, often-graphic modern novels that wrestle with human depravity (not for the faint of heart).

Frederick Buechner: Poetic and riveting, with a knack for transforming "historical fiction" in beautifully mythic epics. Godric is one of my favorite books ever.

Bret Lott: An any-genre author (murder/suspense: The Hunt Club, prose novel: A Song I Knew By Heart...) with a great knack for setting and characters.

Others: Marilynne Robinson, Graham Greene, Robert Morgan, Leif Enger. And don't forget P.D. James, my favorite mystery writer. Just thinking about these books makes me want to go read for a week... [Note: I've reviewed books by some of the above authors, so if you want to learn more, you could do a quick blogsearch.]

So which great "Christian" fiction authors would you mention?

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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Top 20 Albums of 2007

Here at BitterSweetLife we're still developing our music-reviewing chutzpah. I thought about posting a "best of" music post for 2007, but decided to defer for the time being, although I'd like to add more frequent music reviews in the future. In the meantime, go take a look at Brad Andrews' list of 2007's best albums.

Brad's list features some uncontested favorites (The Shins, Arcade Fire, Wilco, Radiohead, Derek Webb) as well as a bunch of bands I'd never heard of before--some of which I've already started looking for (The Fields, Dan Wilson, Andrew Bird). If I were to create a 2007 list, I'd definitely pilfer Brad's post for some of my entries.

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The Best iPod Earbuds Ever*

Last summer I put my original iPod earbuds through an unbelievable testing regimen, subjecting them to constant sweat, frequent splattering by dirt and vegetable matter, and occasional thunderstorms. They did pretty well on the durability count, but by the end of the year, the wear was showing.

It was time to find replacements--and upgrade at the same time. I wanted my new earbuds to do a better job blocking external sound. I also wanted them to not fall out of my ears whenever I cocked my head to one side or made a sudden dance movement. Also, I thought it would be cool to add some additional style to my iPod with earbuds that weren't white...and if I could improve on the vocal range of Apple's original earbuds, that would be great as well.

In short, my demands were high. And when I found a model that fit all of my criteria, I was immediately suspicious. Enter the V-MODA bass freq earbuds. Were they for real? I ran across a pair on eBay, liked the design, and clicked off to read some consumer reviews. I learned that the V-MODA earbuds...
  1. Had won awards (CNET and MacWorld).
  2. Did a good, battery-free job with noise cancellation.
  3. Had adjustable fit.
  4. Were applauded for their bass kick and crisp high notes.
  5. Came in designer colors (red, orange, green, blue, black, silver, pink).
  6. And fell inside my fairly narrow price range.
With considerable excitement, I grabbed a pair of V-MODA bass freq earbuds in "tambarine orange"--not because I am a hippy, but because I could. And now, after three weeks of critical listening with my iPod, I am impressed enough to share my discovery. As promised, the bass rocks--but the middle and high notes come through very nicely. For better or worse, the "tambarine orange" color furthers the illusion that I have a unique sense of style, and the earbuds fit comfortably and don't fall out constantly. The price tag, you ask?

*All this for under $30. Highly recommended.

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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin (Book Review)

I don't know much about Mark Helprin, other then that I love his writing. And I don't intend to write a full-scale review of his book Winter's Tale, other than to explain why, appropriately enough, it was a magnificent read over my winter break.

At 673 pages, the story is a sprawling epic, filled with characters who seem to have eloquent epiphanies at every change of scenery. One of Helprin's earlier books, the story could have been pared down here and there (like his exquisite short stories), but the gigantic tapestry of a story is memorable, ambitious, and sometimes magical.

The scenes and characters are centered around a mythic rendering of New York as a kind of "golden city," and span a couple centuries. Read this book if you wonder how anyone could ever be "in love" with a city or have a fondness for the urban jungle.

Make no mistake, though--Winter's Tale is not historical fiction, it's fantasy in historical clothing. Helprin's imagination is profuse (and sometimes verbose) but I often found myself slowing to reread particular pages that captured beauty, warmth, love, and a bittersweet picture of triumph or loss. Here are some favorite quotes:

The shelf was filled with books that were hard to read, that could devastate and remake one’s soul, and that, when they were finished, had a kick like a mule.

No one ever said that you would live to see the repercussions of everything you do, or that you have guarantees, or that you are not obliged to wander in the dark, or that everything will be proved to you and neatly verified like something in science. Nothing is: at least nothing that is worthwhile. I didn’t bring you up only to move across sure ground. I didn’t teach you to think that everything must be within our control or understanding.

You can’t expect anyone to trust revelation if he hasn’t experienced it himself. Those who haven’t, know only reason. And since revelation is a thing apart, and cannot be accounted for reasonably, they will never believe you. This is the great division of the world, and always has been. When reason and revelation run together, why, then you have something, a great age. But, in the city, now, reason is predominant.

Nothing is random, nor will anything ever be, whether a long string of perfectly blue days that begin and end in golden dimness, the most seemingly chaotic political acts, the rise of a great city, the crystalline structure of a gem that has never seen the light, the distributions of fortune, what time the milkman gets up, the position of the electron, or the occurrence of one astonishingly frigid winter after another. Even electrons, supposedly the paragons of unpredictability, are tame and obsequious little creatures that rush around at the speed of light, going precisely where they are supposed to go.

I'd recommend Winter's Tale if you're a patient reader who really enjoys--savors, appreciates--well-used words. Also, an unrestrained imagination and a cold-weather holiday would help.

** According to my new three-star grading system, this book gets two stars--well worth your time--although it might deserve two and a half. If I were rating it on a bell curve, with my favorite books of all time scoring a 10 at the top (C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton...) Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale would get a 7 or 8.

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Big 12 Has Big Tournament Upside

During KU’s trouncing of Oklahoma last night, Fran Franschilla made the comment that due to the Big 12’s performance against top 25 opponents (more wins than any other conference) and the wins the “mid-level” teams have already pulled out over upper-tier programs (MU over Texas, K-State over Oklahoma), “The Big 12 could have an unlimited number of teams in the NCAA Tournament.” Like I said, Fran… ;)

In other breaking news, DIME Mag (highly recommended) lists the Jayhawks at #1 in their weekly poll. Texas A&M (10) and Texas (19) round out the Big 12's best teams. But there are any number of middler teams who could show up in the tourney with some solid wins.

[Cross-posted on Ecumeniball.]

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Hacks for the One-Year-Old Vocabulary

Every so often I have this spontaneous impulse to make helpful modifications to Aidan's vocabulary. Little tweaks that will make life easier and more interesting for everyone concerned.

For example, he has a hard time saying "spoon." I think it's the "s" and "p" combination. This is apparently very tricky for a 22 month-year-old, and the word usually comes out "poon," unless he takes special care to get it right, in which case he says "SSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS-poon,"and everyone applauds. In light of this, I told him he could say "harpoon," if that would be easier.

Ten, twenty years down the road, is this going to be a problem?

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Monday, January 14, 2008

God Speaks In Baby Talk

When I look Asher in the eyes and listen carefully, I'm often struck by what he says.

Me: "Hey little guy, what's going on?"
Asher: "Gwah!"

And he puts such feeling into that one syllable. The temptation to respond in a similar vein is very strong, and to be honest, I have to admit that I've spent considerable time talking to Asher in his own language. But at the same time, I'm aware that children learn to talk more quickly when people speak to them with real words and real sentences, and without disgustingly sappy enunciation. So I suppose the way of wisdom is to talk to kids as if they are intelligent beings, using real words (at least some of the time)--but the simplest words possible.
Luther said, "When God speaks to humanity, God always speaks in baby talk." And I think he almost got it right.

So instead of saying, "If you don't put down that pizza cutter and step away from the dishwasher right now, which you have cleverly unlatched through a combination of brains and sheer defiance, I will hang you upside-down by your big toes until you expire," I say, "Aidan, put that down now!"

It seems to work OK most of the time.

This whole topic got me thinking about the way that God communicates with us. Luther said, "When God speaks to humanity, God always speaks in baby talk." And I think he's partly right. What I have to conclude is that God's revelation via the Bible is mid-level baby talk.

If it were pleasant nonsense of the kootchie-kootchie-koo variety, we'd come away from the scriptures smiling and comforted but with no new understanding, no moral impulses, no kicks in the rear. Baby talk makes no attempt to change the child in question, immersing him instead in a warm pool of love and affirmation. God's revelation does this too. Sometimes. But at other times God's word kicks like a mule.

That's what makes me think that God, in his infinite mercy, has taken path of revelatory tension, which is also the path of greatest grace. God doesn't speak happy gibberish to us (like some liberals), affirming our self-hood and assuring us that all is well. And he doesn't detail the mysterious depths of heaven's workings, which are completely beyond us in this world. Instead, he tells us what we need to know in simple language we children can understand.

He is teaching us what the eternal world is really like, with immense patience training us to speak. Someday we'll be more fully grown, and understand that what he has told us, as well as what he has not told us, make him our wisest and most loving Father.

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Culture. Photos. Life's nagging questions. - BitterSweetLife