Of Dads and Christmas and Music and Evil and Good















“Gather round, ye children, come

Listen to the old, old story
Of the power of death undone
By an infant born of glory …”
I went to see Andrew Peterson’s Behold the Lamb of God show at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville with my dad this week (click the link to listen to the songs — the “true tall tale of the coming of Christ”). I’ve wanted to go for several years, and because my dad is a fan since I introduced him to the music, we finally took the plunge. 

Monday Night Football was also in town for the night and the city was humming. People everywhere, stadium lights glaring through the night sky, honky tonks on every corner, each with a live band with big dreams. We ate at a barbecue joint that was really good, and it was really nice to just spend some time with my dad, talking about whatever.
Live music in Nashville? The (true) Christmas story? My favorite artist? With my dad? Yes, please.
From the first chord that we could feel reverberating in our seats, the music was incredible. Great musicians were telling a greater story. The theme running under and through and in everything: it’s God’s story, his world, his Son and it’s not over yet, even though the day may seem incredibly dark. A few thoughts:
1. Live music is undeniably better. You could just feel it in the air around you, especially in a historic venue like The Ryman, with music and history and character oozing out of every brick and floorboard.
2. Professional musicians are really, really good, and it’s amazing to watch them at their craft. It was fun to see them enjoying each other’s music as well — they genuinely liked and respected each other and had a grand time together. Most of them could pick up just about any instrument on the stage and play it. Even special guest Steven Curtis Chapman, who has sold more records than all the rest of them put together, was just one of the guys.
4. Their heart for the hurting was evident. For the first half of the show, each member of the group (probably 8 or 10 different artists) got to each play a couple of their own songs while everyone else watched. Because Newtown is still very much on everyone’s mind, almost every one of them chose at least one song dealing with a theme of tragedy or heartache.
It was tremendous to be part of a group working through the hurt that everyone was experiencing at the thought of young kids being gunned down in cold blood. To listen as we thought about how God can bring good out of unimaginable evil and grief and sadness — whether that darkness is in Newtown, CT, or in ancient Israel, where, when God began to speak after 400 silent years, babies were slaughtered to try to silence him again — helped to begin to make some tiny sense of it all. As one of the songs said, “the story’s not over yet.”
5. The second half of the show was the Behold the Lamb of God section, the story of redemption sung straight through from the Old Testament to the New. If you’ve never heard it, here’s the link again. Listen to it and be captivated by a story that, if you didn’t know it were true, you would call unbelievable. This group has been doing this show for 13 years, so they’ve got it down perfectly. The words, the music, the story, the message, the musicians, the instruments, the lights — it all combined to lift our hearts in worship.
At the end, we all sang “O come all ye faithful” a capella (people in Nashville can sing) and then Andrew Peterson read from Colossians 1:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation … He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.

It was the perfect passage to close the night. Peace on earth through the blood of the lamb on the cross. Merry Christmas, indeed.

Newtown

You already know that a gunman killed 20 kids and six adults in a Connecticut school this week. You already know how the bottom of your heart fell out and how badly you wanted to hug your kids when you heard the news. You already know the rage you feel at the shooter. You already know how hard it is to think about your terror if it happened at your child’s school. You already know that sometimes you just have to change the channel, turn it off because it’s just too much to process, too much to imagine your own child not walking out of that elementary school door with all the others.

What you don’t know is why. Why does such horrific evil exist? Why did this happen? Why couldn’t someone have stopped it? 
I don’t have these answers. No one but God ultimately does. But here are a couple of perspectives that I found helpful the last couple of days:
Rachel Weeping for Her Children — Al Mohler. Takes you through pure evil, the remedy for it, the necessity of justice. Much wisdom:
A tragedy like this cannot be answered with superficial and sentimental Christian emotivism, nor with glib dismissals of the enormity and transience of this crime. Such a tragedy calls for the most Gospel-centered Christian thinking, for the substance of biblical theology, and the solace that only the full wealth of Christian conviction can provide.

He also made a persuasive point to support the idea that children go to heaven when they die that I haven’t heard before, from Deuteronomy 1:39.

The Loss of the Innocents — Ross Douthat of the NYT. Read this for the last few paragraphs relating the tragedy to Christmas:

That realism (about suffering) may be hard to see at Christmastime, when the sentimental side of faith owns the cultural stage. But the Christmas story isn’t just the manger and the shepherds and the baby Jesus, meek and mild.

The rage of Herod is there as well, and the slaughtered innocents of Bethlehem, and the myrrh that prepares bodies for the grave. The cross looms behind the stable — the shadow of violence, agony and death.

In the leafless hills of western Connecticut, this is the only Christmas spirit that could possibly matter now.

Psalm 10 — (HT to my brother for pointing folks to this). The Psalmist goes through all the normal human emotions in response to wickedness and tragedy. Why does God seem to hide himself in times of trouble? Why do the wicked prosper? We don’t always know, but there is this ultimate reminder:

The LORD is king forever and ever;

the nations perish from his land.

O LORD, you hear the desire of the afflicted;

you will strengthen their heart; you will incline your ear

to do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed,

so that man who is of the earth may strike terror no more.

(Psalm 10:16-18 ESV)

Why Aren’t They Like My Kids Yet?

So December has been especially crazy. Grisham’s book Skipping Christmas has more and more appeal, especially with two extra kids this year.

It’s not just Christmas that’s the problem, though – it’s really all the foster stuff that takes up the most time. The system is not easy, what with parental visits and medical appointments and paperwork and navigating the maze of bureaucracy. (Seriously, has the person who came up with the rule that the social worker has to give permission even for a minor medical procedure — say, a strep test — ever taken a kid to the doctor? And what’s the point of training your foster parents if you’re not going to trust them to make the right decisions for the kids? We can keep kids for months on end in our home, but we can’t approve a two-second test? Really?)

Let me back up for a minute. We’ve had the girls (age 3 and 2) in our home for eight months. I’ll post more later on what that process has been like. But they’ve been here for a long time now, long enough that sometimes you think, “Well, they really should be just like my kids. They’ve been here for eight months — why aren’t they behaving better?”

Here’s why: the first two years of their lives were awful. They lived in a motel. They breathed secondhand smoke constantly. They saw guy after guy with their mom. They stayed in pack-n-plays. They were ignored. They watched their mom try to kill herself.

Here’s more of why: they have two sets of parents right now. They get taken away once a week to visit their dad for two hours and once to visit their mom for three hours. They call them mommy and daddy. Then they come home and hey, it’s another mommy and daddy. But this mom and dad have different rules. Now, the girls have to obey. They have to be respectful. They have to play well with other kids. They have to share.

When they come home, they’re physically and emotionally exhausted. You can see it all over their faces. Who can blame them? They don’t know if they’re coming or going. They don’t know what the rest of their life is going to be be like. They have eye doctor appointments out the wazoo and Storm is only 3, but she rides a school bus, and how can they really know what’s happening in their lives?

So yeah, teachers and speech therapists and doctors and people in Wal-Mart staring at us wondering if all those kids are really ours, the girls not going to be as well-behaved. They’re not going to be as stable. They’re not always going to know what to do or even what they should do.

We’re working on all of that. Maybe someday if we adopt them (another post for another time), things will even out for them. For now, we’ll just love them the best we can. For now, no matter what is  uncertain all around them, they know we’ll help them. For now, that’s enough.

One Farm

This is a tribute to my grandmother that I wrote a few weeks ago after her funeral. It’s about family and faith and life and how you get to be who you are:

—–

We buried my grandmother this week, on a raw, blustery 28-degree day in her beloved Wisconsin. The cemetery sits on the side of a hill, fir trees scattered throughout rows of weathered headstones, the atmosphere surprisingly majestic. It’s a small place, tucked behind an elementary school, but on Resurrection Day, it will be a glorious scene as the dead in Christ finally rise to meet him in the air.

My grandmother, given her druthers, would not ask for such fanfare. Born and raised in southwest Wisconsin, she lived all but the last few years of her life there. Ask anyone in the area who Irene Fritz was, and chances are she helped that person at one point or another. She was blessed with an uncommon generosity of time, common sense and compassion — she freely gave all these things and more to people desperately in need of such gifts.

She came from farming stock, and it was what she knew and what she and her husband did for decades on a picturesque farm in the rolling hills. A giant red barn, hay spilling down, a two-story white house with old-fashioned cellar doors on the side, a garage set in the side of a hill so the roof almost touched the ground, a long dirt driveway with a cattle guard at the end — these were elements of our childhood Christmases and summer vacations.

I go back now, after the funeral, to show my kids where their grandmother grew up, where their great-grandparents turned dirt and soil and grain and cattle and pigs into food and life and the American Dream. It’s beautiful, even on an iron gray day, clouds scudding overheard, my fingers going numb and raw as I take pictures to restore my memory of what I was too young to appreciate then. The wind is whipping and the temperature is dropping.

We drive the gravel roads, see countless other farms, corn stubble poking up through the dirt, the grass still green on the hills as the approaching winter turns everything else gray and brown. Red barns, steel silos, muddy trucks and trailers, cows, farmhouses. This is real. This is what life should be.

I see all these farms, this small, yet somehow vast corner of the American heartland, and wonder: how did I get picked to be part of this? This one particular farm sitting in the midst of all the others; my grandparents ran it, made it work, raised two daughters there. One of those daughters married a boy from Ohio that she met at college in South Carolina. They had two sons, one of whom married a girl from Indiana. We live in Kentucky and have three boys, who are now sitting in the backseat of a van, looking over a Wisconsin landscape that they may never see again, but are intimately connected to.

It’s earth and blood and history and family and life and death and love, all rolled up together. It’s people like my grandmother, who worked not just the land, but the hearts of those she knew — so much so that stories of how she changed peoples’ lives are legion. Dozens of folks counted her as one of their dearest friends but couldn’t count the times she told them, “Look, I’m not very smart, but it seems like this is what you should do …” before she dispensed the wisdom of experience. And then she would give them a cup of coffee before she answered the front doorbell, the back doorbell and the phone, all at once.

She helped start a church. She made a killer breakfast to order. She learned the newspaper business after she retired. She walked a mile with my kids at age 80. She cheated at cards (but would confess after the game). She fostered a boy who desperately needed it. She was a friend. She kept chocolate chip cookies in her freezer. She saved up cash to buy her family presents. She trusted Christ, not her good works, of which there were many. She was the perfect grandmother.

Now that she and my grandfather are both gone, I don’t know that I’ll ever be in Fennimore, Wisconsin, again. I hope I am. It’s a wonderful little town with people like my grandmother’s best friend, who would do anything for you, or my third cousin (I think) who with her El Savadoran husband and six kids runs a small motel just outside of town (and put us up during the funeral for free). There’ s a World of Variety store, where you can buy just about anything you need, a bowl-n-bar where we used to keep score by hand, a cheese factory with a giant mouse named Igor out front and the best cheese curds you’ll ever eat inside, a post office where they’ll put lost photos of grandkids on the wall next to the 10 Most Wanted (seriously — my picture has been there).

And on Main Street, there’s a house with a wide front porch where my grandparents moved when they retired from the farm. That house and that farm in the middle of everywhere and the middle of nowhere — they have my DNA embedded in them.

How cool is that?