Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Please Update Your Bookmarks

Since Blogger has improved itself to the point of uselessness, I have transferred to Theobloggers and moved all my works to Tentpegs can be found at I may be adding a third blog about guitars and songs... but that is down the road. Remind me to link to you from my new page if I haven't already. I don't want to drop the ball during this move. See you at my new home!

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Remains of the Day

Excuse me for borrowing the title of a great old Anthony Hopkins movie, but I couldn't help but think of it as we carted boxes and paper and ribbons to the curb for today's garbage pickup. We spent a lot of time wrapping all that stuff. It was easy to tell which packages I wrapped (remember: white men can't wrap) as they looked like they'd been attacked by the Tasmanian Devil... if he was blind and had ADHD. Kami's packages were, as always, perfect. Regardless, all of that was over.

A day spent with my kids and wife (and son in law). We ate -- but not too much. We watched movies on TV. We gave each other presents. Most people would say we spent too much but I would disagree. I want to give it all away. Once, my wife took me through a museum in Europe that housed all the best works of a famous painter. The tour guide was really into his spiel and was ready for the dramatic ending when he said, "Yet, he died penniless." Not having much of a brake on my mouth, I said out loud, "Good timing!" He didn't seem to appreciate the sentiment.

There is no joy like giving. A lot of the season seems to be a waste. We burn up tons of kilowatts with Christmas lights (my house looks like the cover for "We Love Electricity" magazine), spend way too much on wrapping paper and bows that will be disgarded almost immediately, and worry over dinners that take four times as long to prepare as they do to eat.

Why? Because it's fun. It is a family thing, something we do together and for each other. Let other preachers be grinches and Scrooges. Let them rail against the materialism, against the waste, against the remnents of paganism...

By the way, on that last point: we had two trees up on our stage at Rochester Church. One man pointed at them and said, "You know, those things are pagan." I said, "No they're not. God made trees. Sure, the pagans misused them from time to time but we've redeemed these two. They're ours. They belong to God's kids now." I felt like the Soup Nazi from Seinfeld: "Pagan? No trees for you!"

As for me and my house, we will celebrate any chance we have to be with each other and to go overboard in giving to each other. We learned from God and His Son how to be generous, how to give away your life to find it. We will not allow the naysayers and nitwits of the age (or the pulpit) tell us that we must frown and disapprove. Because Jesus came, every day is a day of celebration and, on those special ocassions when the world joins in, we will rejoice and be lavish in His Name.

Joy to the World, indeed, people. Joy to the World.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The Gift of a Song

Mice brought us one of the greatest, most powerful hymns of all times. The year was 1818 when a band of roving actors came to Oberndorf, a small Alpine village near Salzburg, to present the Christmas story at the local church, a Catholic church named after St. Nicholas. The problem was that the organ wasn't working; mice had entered it and damaged it so that it couldn't be used and the repairman couldn't get there before Christmas.

The troup did its performance at a private home that was equipped with a small organ but this, plainly, was not going to be adequate for Christmas night, just two nights away. The assistant pastor, Joseph Mohr, took the long way home that night, contemplating the Christmas story, wondering what he could do to bring music to his flock on Christmas. As he looked over the snowclad village he recalled a poem he had written two years previously. If only there were music written for it, maybe a way could be found to present that as their carol for the church. The next day he spoke to the church organist, Franz Gruber, and asked if there was any way that music could be written for his poem; music that could be played by a simple guitar, without the organ or choir backing them up.

Guitars were not accepted by most churches. They were too common, reminiscient of the drunken bards or fools that played at traveling fairs. But Gruber stepped up and worked for hours -- for that was all the time he had -- and came up with a simple tune. They stepped up the next night and sang, for the first time, "Stille Nacht" or "Silent Night."

Weeks later the organ repairman came by and worked on the church's organ. He asked Gruber to play something to make sure he had repaired it adequately. Gruber played "Silent Night" and the repairman was so stunned by its beauty and simplicity that he asked for a copy. He took it to his own Alpine village the next week. At his home church, he played it where it was heard by two different families of traveling singers.

The Strasser sisters took the carol all over northern Europe, eventually performing it for King Frederick William IV of Prussia who was so taken by the song that he ordered it sung every Christmas in his cathedral. The year was 1834 and the song wasn't done traveling. The other family, the Rainers, took the carol to the United States and sung it there, in German, in 1839. It wasn't until 1863 that the song was translated into English and broke out of the large German communities in the US (in Nebraska, Texas, Minnesota, New York, Pennsylvania, and Kansas) and into the consciousness of the entire nation.

But it wasn't done. Fast forward to 1914. The world is at war. It is trench warfare with millions of men mired in frozen mud, slowly dying in narrow trenches ringed with snipers, machine guns, and barbed wire. It is Christmas and all along the line, in a dozen places, something remarkable happened.

British soldiers informed their officers that the Germans were stringing colored lights and decorating trees. They could see this through a series of mirrors held up over their position on sticks. You never put so much as a hand over the parapet or it would be shot by a watchful German sniper but more and more men crowded around to look up at the mirrors and watch the lights twinkle on all along the German lines. The officers told them not to shoot... just observe and report back.

Then the sound of a song came over a German radio. An internationally known opera star was singing, with tears in her eyes and a catch in her voice, "Stille Nacht." She had one son in the British lines and one in the German. Her song was a way to touch her sons; a prayer for a night of peace and safety for her boys. When the song was over the British men sang out "Silent Night" in their own language... but still from behind their sandbags and timber reinforced trench walls. The Germans applauded so the British sang "The First Noel." The Germans responded with "O Tannenbaum" and so it went for hours, trading carols and songs back and forth until the British sang "O Come All Ye Faithful" and the Germans sang along in their own language. Two nations, two languages, joined together in one hymn.

And then... a lone German soldier stood up, exposing himself. He walked forward, a white scarf tied to a stick held almost casually in one hand. He stood there quietly, smoking a cigarette as the British wondered if this were some kind of trick. Some Scots stood up slowly and walked toward him. When they met, the Scots offered some (illegally obtained and possessed) whisky from their canteens, exchanged cigarettes, and others began to leave the trenches and join the group in the middle. Soon, hundreds were showing each other photos from home, trying to tell jokes regardless of the language barrier, and trading gifts and tokens of the season with their nominal enemies.

The lads from the Bedfordshire Regiment played the Germans in a flare lit soccer match. From time to time the teams would shuffle and there would be mixed teams playing mixed teams. The game went on for hours until the ball was punted against a barbed wire wall and was punctured.

The dead were gathered and buried in services conducted by chaplins from both sides, in two languages, with both armies standing quietly in reverence for each other.

It couldn't last... though the unofficial truce did last until New Years in some places. Eventually a shot rang out -- accidentally? -- and the men raced to their truces and the war was war once more.

But for one shining moment, something changed the horror of WWI into something holy and kind and human. And it all began with a heartsick mother singing into a radio microphone a song that wouldn't have existed at all if some mice hadn't gotten into the organ at Oberndorf. A carol that saved the day in 1818 brought a moment of peace and joy in 1914. John McCutcheon wrote a wonderful song about that night called "Christmas in the Trenches."Allow me to write those words below. I assume you already know Silent Night. Now, when you sing it, you can remember the story behind the song and the power of that simple message, then and now.

Christmas in the Trenches

My Name is Frances Tolliver, I come from Liverpool.
Two years ago the war was waiting for me after school.
To Belgium and to Flanders, Germany to here,
I fought for King and Country I love dear.

Twas Christmas in the trenches where the frost so bitter hung;
The frozen fields of France were still, no Christmas song was sung.
Our families back in England were toasting us that day,
Their brave and glorious lads so far away.

I was lying with my mess mate on the cold and rocky ground
When across the lines of battle came a most peculiar sound.
Says I, "Now listen up me boys," each soldier strained to here
As one young German voice sang out so clear.
"He's singing bloody well y'know" my partner says to me.
Soon one by one each German voiced joined in in harmony.
The cannons rested silent, and the gas clouds rolled no more
As Christmas brought us respite from the war.

As soon as they were finished, and a reverent pause was spent,
"God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" struck up some lads from Kent.
Oh the next they sang was "Stille Nacht", 'tis "Silent Night" says I,
And in two tongues one song filled up that sky.
"There's someone coming towards us" the front line sentry cried.
All sights were fixed on one lone figure trudging from their side.
His truce flag like a Christmas star shone on that plain so bright
As he bravely strode unarmed into the night.

Then one by one on either side walked into no-man's land;
With neither gun nor bayonet we met there hand to hand.
We shared some secret brandy and we wished each other well,
And in a flare-lit soccer game we gave 'em hell.
We traded chocolates, cigarettes, and photographs from home.
These sons and fathers far away from families of their own.
Young Sanders played the squeezebox and they had a violin,
This curious and unlikely band of men.

Soon daylight stole upon us and France was France once more.
With sad farewells we each began to settle back to war.
But the question haunted every heart that lived that wondrous night:
"Whose family have I fixed within my sights?"
Twas Christmas in the trenches, where the frost so bitter hung,
The frozen fields of France were warmed as songs of peace were sung.
For the walls they kept between us to exact the work of war
Had been crumbled and were gone forever more.

My name is Frances Tolliver, in Liverpool I dwell.
Each Christmas comes since World War One, I've learned its lessons well.
For the ones who call the shots won't be among the dead and lame,
And on each end of the rifle, we're the same.

Merry Christmas....

Monday, December 18, 2006

Bread on the Water

One of the hardest decisions a Christian will ever make is "who do we help? Who is genuinely in need?" Deacons placed in charge of benevolence have a burnout rate approaching that of Education Deacon (who are burnout champions again for the hundred year -- since Sunday schools started). We get used to being spun hard luck stories and trying to find a clue in the complex tale -- is this legit or are they scamming us?

I remember one church I served that slaved over Christmas baskets. They went over the top on presents, clothes, and food for needy families. After getting a list of names, they got each willing member to deliver the goods to a couple of homes. I took Duncan, then aged 10, with me to a single wide trailer home nestled deep in a ravine. A few feet from the closed front door we could smell cigarette smoke and unwashed clothes. I was born in poverty and raised poor until my father could drag us into the lower middle class so I understand how people can be trapped in bad situations. I reminded myself to deliver these gifts from God's people in such a way as to honor our Lord and show His love.

It didn't work out that way. A man's voice yelled at me to open the door. I did. Smoke filled the trailer as did piles of clothes and unwashed dishes. The man and woman (husband and wife?) were sloppy and barely looked away from the telly as we told them why we were there. The man said, "I guess you can bring it in" and never moved as we carted in several huge boxes representing hundreds of dollars worth of toys, food, clothes, and gift cards. To make a long story short, no one helped us bring them in and no one thanked us for bringing them. We tried to visit with them but they wanted to watch the TV and, besides, they were busy yelling and cursing at their kids.

The next year, Duncan and I drew their name again. I said "no." There is a fine line between throwing bread on the water, wanting to do good in Jesus' Name, and, on the other hand, being a poor steward and encouraging the lazy or sinful. (this story is longer so don't write saying "maybe he had a back problem and maybe..." We checked them out thoroughly after my visit)

My parents are broken hearted. They have welcomed children into their home all of my life. Dad would adopt anyone who wanted a family. Sometimes it worked out well. Just as often, it didn't. Today, they learned that a young girl they have given their lives and money to for years has been lying to them, using them, and laughing at them behind their back. They think they have failed. Once again, I say "no." Mom and Dad are generous, kind, people. While their religion is strict and rigid, their hearts are warm and giving. They did no wrong in giving their money away (and they don't have much. Missionaries don't retire well) or in spending most of the last several years in helping this girl. It was bread on the water and, as Jesus promised, it will come back to them.

Sometimes bread comes back right in front of our eyes. After the death of Professor Jack, I wrote that we would take goods and food back down to Cass Park in his memory. Yesterday was that day. Read my daughter's blog at (linked on this page) for the details. It was a glorious time of love and giving. We help people every time we go there but the bread is already coming back in the form of changed lives in our own congregation. Our people come back from Cass Park with changed attitudes, more open hearts, and a giving spirit. (full disclosure -- this ministry is run by Josh and Kara. I didn't go with them yesterday)

Maybe giving away money and goods won't change the recipient very often, but it certainly changes the giver. So, with few exceptions including the one I noted above, my family will continue to give. Will people take advantage of us? Yes. Will we be hurt financially or emotionally? Probably. Then why do we continue? Because giving is an act of grace that blesses the giver more than the receiver. We don't give so that we will feel better. We give because that's what our family does -- our earthly family and our Christian one.

It is bread on the water. It is a cup of cool water given in His Name. That means that every gift is eternal. God will remember it.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

A New Toy

I finally found a replacement for one of the two guitars stolen from my office a couple of months ago. After spending a lot of time in nearly 20 guitar shops in two states, I came upon this Tacoma concert style dreadnought in Limelight Music less than three miles from my office. I played perhaps a hundred guitars with costs up to $3900 as I went from place to place, but the warm sound of this guitar won me over.

I have always eschewed guitars with mahogany sides and backs as inferior to those with rosewood. Rosewood always produced such sweet highs and haunting lows... but this guitar matched the best rosewood backed guitars I could find... and for a tenth of the cost of the high end guitars. I had to check the price a few times before I believed it.

Tacoma doesn't build these anymore. The people at the shop were glad to get rid of it and I was glad to find it. It needed a home. This guitar was made back when all Tacoma guitars were handmade in a shop in the US. Handcrafted and set up by masters, they couldn't compete with cheaper guitars so Fender bought them out. The Tacoma name is still being put on guitars, but they are semi-hollow body guitars and not the same as this old masterpiece.

I brought it home last night and played it until my fingers hurt. It's been a long time since a guitar made me want to do that!

Tomorrow or the next day... a report on the birthday celebrations and a wonderful outreach planned tomorrow in memory of Professor Jack down in Detroit.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Hang in there -- blogger problem

Many have tried to comment on the last post but can't. Beta Blogger doesn't seem like a good idea right now. I might have to try another service since this one keeps breaking. They claimed they had it fixed two days ago but the message boards are full of frustrated bloggers saying they are experiencing the same problem right now.

Suggestions? You'll probably have to email them....

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Guns, Cookies, and Walsh

A few photos since some asked privately, via email. Duncan tested for his next rank in Kenpo Karate last Saturday. He won his first black stripe on his brown belt. Kenpo has three black stripes before you test for black belt. It usually takes as long to go from brown to black as it does from white to brown... but his teacher is convinced Duncan will get it done in time for shipping out to Parris Island in late April, early May. Here is a photo of Dunk and the only other student to make that rank and also -- just for That Girl -- a photo of his arm. I wanted her to know that Joey's arms on that dancing show might not make the cut in Dunk's platoon!

Tis the season for cookie making. My daughter, Kara Graves, has been over a few days making cookies with my wife, Kami. They have made the house beautiful with their presence and laughter and they've made it SMELL TERRIFIC with the umpteen varieties of cookies. Now... if they'd only tell me where they hid them...

Some asked if there were any photos of Navy Corpsman Chris Walsh who I blogged about yesterday. Here is the only photo I can find of this American hero. Also, there are photos of his mother holding baby Mariam and Mariam after surgery with a couple of the medics who helped transport her to Boston from Iraq.

I have some guitar news but it can wait a couple of days. It would be unseemly to talk about that right after looking at these photos. Remember the Walsh family in your prayers along with Baby Mariam and her family in Fallujah.