"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"

"Getting younger may be worse than getting older" could be the subtitle to this movie. Benjamin (Brad Pitt) was born with all the physical signs of old age in an infant-sized body. He grows, but analogous to the reverse-running clock that serves as the movie’s metaphor, he physically gets younger each day. Benjamin forms a lifelong bond with Daisy (Cate Blanchett) which becomes both beautiful and tragic.

Not everyone will want to watch a slow-paced, nearly three-hour movie with a somewhat predictable plot, but the individual performances and the script kept me engaged. Having only seen Pitt in movies such as “Ocean’s 11, 12, and 13” and “Mr. and Mr. Smith,” I was pleased to see how much range he has. I was previously impressed with Cate Blanchett in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, as well as in the latest “Indiana Jones” movie, and I found myself liking her even more in this film.

While this narrated epic tale has elicited comparisons to “Forrest Gump,” the similarity I found most obvious was in the mothers of the title characters. These two women were always proud of their sons and believed in them when others did not. And the episodic relationship of Benjamin and Daisy can’t help but make one think of Forrest and Jenny.

“Curious Case” helps us gain a new perspective on our culture’s craving to be and look younger. Benjamin's unstoppable march toward his youth becomes a curse rather than a blessing. It also magnifies Daisy's self-consciousness about aging. Given the plethora of age-defying products on the market, I'm sure many women can identify with Daisy's predicament. And so will many of us men.

The film’s portrayal of faith is worth commenting on. The sleazy faith-healer who commanded the young, but old-bodied Benjamin to rise up and walk (“like Lazarus from the grave”) clearly operated on the power of suggestion rather than the supernatural. The only act of God in this scene, as defined by Benjamin the narrator, was the faith-healer’s sudden death. In a world where life is not fair, this is seen as evidence of divine justice.

"Curious Case" deserves its PG-13 rating. There’s a scene of Benjamin visiting a brothel and more than one incident of adultery and unmarried sex, though not graphically portrayed. It shows the backside of a nude, senile, senior citizen raising the U.S. flag, and I remember one F-bomb.

While I enjoyed the movie, I asked myself if I’d like to watch it again soon. Probably not. I can’t imagine it becoming as popular as “Forrest Gump.” But it’s worth seeing at least once. Maybe twice.


Lord, I am listening

I would like to share with you as a gift this Christmas the lyrics to a song I wrote last year. It is written as a prayer. You may find it helpful to use it in your prayer time. Some of you heard it at our banquet in November 2007. -st


Lord, I am listening;
Holy Spirit, stir in me.
Lord, I am listening;
hushed, I wait for you to speak.

Verse 1:
Let me sense your whisper,
nudging, rustling in my soul.
Tune me to your prompting;
sift out any lesser goal.

Lord, I am listening;
Holy Spirit, stir in me.
Lord, I am listening;
hushed, I wait for you to speak.

Verse 2:
Plant your thoughts in my thoughts;
your will is my first desire.
Pour in me your passion
till your Word becomes a fire,
bursting from my heart.

Humbly, patiently,
Boldly, constantly,
Lord, I am listening to you.

Waiting hopefully,
Bravely, restlessly.
Lord, I need to hear from you.

Verse 3:
Silence my distractions;
show me an eternal view.
No more empty doing:
busy but not hearing you.

Final chorus:

Lord, I am listening.

Lord, I am listening.

Lord, I am listening.

Lord, I am listening.


A saint of a guy

In the 4th century when Christ-followers first began to celebrate Advent, the whole idea of gift-giving wasn’t a part of it, except in giving to those in need.

One young man during this period was a leader of the church in his area. He was raised by godly parents, but when he was young his parents died in an epidemic. His parents had been wealthy business people, and they left him a large inheritance. He used his entire fortune to help others: the needy and the sick and the suffering.

When I celebrate Advent and Christmas, I want to take some steps to be more like that guy. And if someday I’m needy or sick or suffering, I’ll be thankful there are Christ-followers like him still around.

This particular man lived in a town on the southern coast of Turkey. His parents gave him the name Nikolaus. And though the Catholic Church never officially canonized him as a saint, he was regarded as a saint in the hearts of people. It’s no surprise that his name is still associated with Christmas today.

And contrary to the commercials you see on TV, he’s not in his workshop putting the finishing touches on a 2009 Mercedes-Benz to park in some lucky person’s driveway. That’s not how Nikolaus used his wealth.


Steve's TOP 10 list of little-known but obvious facts

I can't say the list as any spiritually redeeming value, except that it was fun to think about. Here's my TOP 10 list of little-known but obvious facts.

10. Kids will call home when they need money.
9. A Saturday Husker football loss will cause a dip in Sunday church attendance.
8. Tiny drops of spaghetti sauce have been known to spontaneously leap more than 8 feet when there's a white shirt in the room.
7. Ninety percent of insomnia is caused by worry.
6. Ninety percent of insomnia can be cured by reading the Bible until morning.
5. Dogs are oblivious to Daylight Saving Time.
4. The term "World Wide Web" has one-third the syllables of its initials "www".
3. Lost items are always in the last place you look, because after you find them you stop looking.
2. When you yell at a toilet that's about to overflow, it never listens.
1. Ninety percent of global warming is indirectly caused by bean consumption.


For election day--and the days following

This morning I read Psalm 146 and found a message for us on this election day and the days following, especially verse 3 which says, "Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save."

Whoever we elect to be our next president will not be our savior. Unfortunately, Americans seem to want a president who will miraculously and painlessly cure everything for us.

The Psalm also tells us about God's agenda, which includes helping the oppressed, the hungry, the imprisoned, the blind, the bowed down, the righteous, the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow.

Fulfilling God's agenda is the work of the church, and as Jesus' followers, it's what we hope for America. Here is Psalm 146 in Today's New International Version.

"Praise the Lord. I will praise the Lord all my life; I will sing praise to my God as long as I live. Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save. When their spirit departs, they return to the ground; on that very day their plans come to nothing.

"Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God. He is the Maker of heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them-- he remains faithful forever. He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets prisoners free, the Lord gives sight to the blind, the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down, the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the foreigner and sustains the fatherless and the widow, but he frustrates the ways of the wicked. The Lord reigns forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations."


Healing for the soul

Tricia and I just came back from spending our economic stimulus check--thank you, President Bush and congress! Four couples spent nearly four days in South Carolina.

These people were dear friends of Tricia's in college, and I got to know them during seminary and occasional visits since then. Some of them we hadn't seen in more than 20 years. It was one of the most relaxing and healing experiences of my life.

There was no big agenda. The four guys did play 18 holes one day, and I proved once again that I can make even the worst of golfers feel better about their game. But playing amid the palmetto and pine trees was soothing, and finishing the last two holes adjacent to the shoreline was breathtaking.

Twice we walked along the ocean beach, something a Nebraska boy like me has done only a couple times before. Where we stayed, there were no cars, but we were given golf carts to drive around the little community. That was fun. Even though the setting was idyllic, I've been pondering about what made it so wonderful for all of us.

Because we have a history with this group, we were able to experience deep community very quickly. Christ-followers are called to bear one anothers' burdens, and we did some of that over the weekend. Everyone knew it was safe to be transparent.

And so much of our conversation was filled with laughter, remembering old stories, creating new ones. Our love for each other was evident.

The final night we prayed for each other, laying hands on each couple and praying for them and their kids (who were not with us). We shared holy communion well after midnight.

Even though all of them live far away from Lincoln, I know that any of one of them would come here to be with Tricia and me if we needed them. Community like that is healing for the soul.

I wish the same for you.


Semi-random thoughts on the Olympics

It seems that the most televised woman in the 2008 Olympics has not been Nastia, Shawn, Misty, Kerri, or Dara. It’s Debbie--aka Michael Phelps’s mother.

Phelps’s nickname in Beijing is Superfish. His powerful dolphin kick propelled by his size 14 feet and near-perfect technique have made him the world’s most decorated athlete. And he seems like he’d be a lot of fun to go out and eat pizza with.

A nation that would send out a cuter girl to lip-sync for the singer cannot be trusted. In our country we’d give her six months of plastic surgery and after the Olympics make her the host of a reality TV show called, “America’s Got Extreme Makeover Idol Talent—with the Stars.”

How could it be that “the fastest man alive” is a guy named Bolt? God must’ve had fun with that one.

I wondered if there were any athletes from Muslim nations competing in the 2008 Games, or if they declined to participate in order to protest Israel, the U.S. presence in Iraq, or the skimpy “uniforms” worn by the women’s beach volleyball teams. So I looked it up and learned that there are 204 nations competing in the Olympics, including Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Maybe I’m a bit old fashioned, but I believe it would bring proper decorum and dignity to the Olympics to have all butt cheeks covered in all sports. But I’m not going to get crotchety about it.

When I see athletes from competing nations congratulating each other and comforting each other, it warms my heart and gives me hope.

I read where gymnast Jonathan Horton from Houston, TX said a prayer before he gave his all-or-nothing silver medal performance in the high bar. I wonder how much praying goes on during the Olympics.

And I wonder how many of the medals we’re seeing awarded will later be taken away because of performance enhancing drugs. And how many should be but will never be detected. Only God knows.

If 204 nations can come together for the games, what else can we accomplish? Human rights? Planet care? World peace? But lest we get lulled into thinking that the Olympics will usher in a new day of global utopia, remember that the 1936 Olympics were held in Berlin. Anti-semitic posters and “Jews not welcome here” signs were temporarily removed. And World War 2 was just around the corner.

Still, I love the Olympics, and it lets me know that most people of this world want more than anything to get along. Maybe if we all keep praying for that, someday . . . .


Dark Knight presses question on human nature

Saturday night Tricia and I went to the 5:30 matinee of “The Dark Knight.” In its second weekend, we got the last two seats together that weren’t in the front row. “Knight” passed the $300 million mark in ten days--six days sooner than the previous record holder, “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest.”

Guess that’s good sign for the economy.

It surprised me how little opportunity for acting we get from Christian Bale as Batman. Christopher Nolan’s film develops other characters to a much greater degree, particularly, Heath Ledger’s Joker, who is frighteningly deranged and diabolical.

It’s the kind of show that keeps you wondering, What’s going on now? And you have to trust that sooner or later you’ll pick up most of the pieces--if not the first time, then the second time you see it. That may be what’s driving some of the box office numbers.

Plus it’s just a good escapist thrill.

But rather than send us to a utopian world, it magnifies the terror of our world. The joker doesn’t want to win. He just wants everyone to lose. His violence is senseless. And he believes that his brand of chaos and anarchy is deep within each one of us and will soon prevail.

“The Dark Knight” prompts us to ask again if people are basically good or evil. And like Nolan’s film, it seems to me that the Bible doesn’t have a completely one-sided answer.

Our scripture says that God’s original design for humanity was utterly and completely good, but we are badly corrupted. Fortunately, God’s grace is a force at work which keeps goodness alive in this world. Therefore, the original goodness isn’t totally lost in us. It can still be found.

And yet we are still warped by our self-serving delusions--by the sin within. God hopes to lead us to receive and live in his grace, made perfect in Jesus. God’s plan is to restore us to the original design--in this life and fully in the age to come.


He was humble and hurting--and that's why I liked him

Sunday night Tricia and I attended the Steven Curtis Chapman concert in Fremont, Nebraska. I love his music, and some of his songs have been favorites at Horizons, including "Dive," "Live Out Loud," and "The Great Adventure."

We'd been planning to attend the concert for a few months, but when we learned in May that one of Chapman's daughters had just died in an accident, we wondered if it would be cancelled.

The Chapmans have five children: two teenage sons, and then three younger daughters adopted from China. The youngest, five-year-old Maria, had apparently wandered behind a vehicle while one of the sons was backing out of the driveway. The name of the son driving has never been released.

Throughout the concert, Chapman did not hide his grief. As matter of fact, he talked about Maria and their grief between almost every song. He shared that her death has made him ask if he can still sing these songs. What he found, through this test of faith, is that he has to sing them differently now. Interestingly, Chapman's two sons played in the band, one as a guitarist and one as the drummer.

I appreciated that Chapman was so transparent and humble. He knows there's a lot about life and God he doesn't understand, but he clings to the God he does know through Jesus Christ.

He grieves but with hope. And that's why he can still sing.

"Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest, who have no hope" (1 Thessalonians 4:13, TNIV).


The effect of a good father

In honor of Father's Day, I'm passing on this link from Fathers.com to some of their research on the importance of having an involved, caring father in a child's life. This doesn't mean that a kid is doomed without a dad (or a mom), but having a loving father can be huge in helping us grow up well. Check it out. I think you'll find it fascinated. I did.


One of those nights

Before I went to bed last night I was working on the series that will start July 6 based on Nehemiah, and I got really excited about it. So much so that when Tricia and I turned out the lights, ideas were still popping into my head. It took only a few minutes in bed to realize that any attempt to sleep at that moment would be futile.

So I got up and let the ideas flow until they were exhausted. It was quite late when I finally went back to bed, but just after I had fallen asleep the thunderstorm passed through Lincoln. And if the rumble of the thunder wasn't enough, there's a rain gutter and downspout just outside our bedroom window, and when trash from our cotton wood tree plugs it up, the water backs up, spills over and pours down on top of the piece of aluminum tubing meant to carry the water out into the yard. And it is loud!

And it made me mad! I had just recently cleaned out that gutter and downspout! It shouldn't be plugged up. The water should be flowing freely. And I should be sleeping, but I'm not--which made me more upset. I could tell that I wasn't going to sleep for a while now.

I ended up moving down to the couch in the family room to spend what little of the night was left and eventually fell asleep.

It's funny being human, isn't it? A mixture of inspiration and frustration, insomnia and sleep. May God bless and keep us through it all.


The squirrel and the bird

Yesterday, I saw a squirrel scurry up a tree in our backyard, and then I noticed a blackbird land on the same tree. The squirrel quickly made its way back down the trunk and froze a couple feet from the ground. I didn’t know why the squirrel stopped, but it seemed to be alert to danger.

After a minute the squirrel darted through the yard, and the blackbird flew after it, repeatedly swooping down upon it like a dive bomber. The squirrel turned and dashed toward the back fence, and as it climbed to the top, the blackbird made another flying lunge. Then the two disappeared over the fence.

It surprised me to see these two species relating to each other for any reason. I wondered, Had the squirrel disrupted the blackbird’s nest? Did this blackbird get its kicks from bullying bushytailed rodents? Were they playing a game of tag? Or was there some simple misunderstanding between them? I had no idea.

But it made me think of something else that happened earlier that day as I was leaving a lunch appointment. I got “flipped off” by another driver. I hadn’t gotten “the finger” in a long time. Here’s what happened. (Really, officer.)

The light was green, and I was pulling into the intersection to make a left turn. A car coming from the opposite direction was in the right lane with its right turn signal on. I figured the other car was in a position to turn before I could, and I would follow, each of us turning into our respective lanes.

I started to make my turn, but the other driver didn’t turn. Instead, she sped straight ahead through the intersection. I was never close to hitting her, but I did stop short, and she reacted with a slight swerve. That’s when she looked directly at me and gave me the not-so-subtle gesture. I read the same message from her lips. I felt like the squirrel, hit by the bird.

Apparently she had been signaling a lane change instead of a turn. And then she accelerated to beat the yellow light. When she offered me the sign, I have to say it kinda made me laugh. Then I thought, How sad that this is her immediate response. Of course, in her mind I was a total jerk and deserved it.

I could have returned the gesture, or laid on my horn. I could have been steamed about it the rest of the day, but I refuse to give her that kind of power in my life.

How much better to laugh about it and follow this advice: “Don’t repay evil for evil. Don’t retaliate when people say unkind things about you. Instead, pay them back with a blessing. That is what God wants you to do, and he will bless you for it” (1 Peter 3:9, New Living Translation).

I’m not sure how I could have returned a blessing to her. Maybe we need a “bless you” finger.


Who's your hero? That depends

Our values determine our heroes. What we believe determines who we look up to. If you value savvy investing, then Warren Buffet might be your hero. If getting wasted on tequila ranks high on your list of values, then Jimmy Buffet might be your hero.

About 50 years ago a couple of missionaries, Don and Carol Richardson, went to live with the Sawi tribe in Western New Guinea, Indonesia. The Sawis were cannibalistic headhunters, so it was a dangerous situation, not to mention the malaria, dysentery and hepatitis. The Sawi language was extremely complex, but over time and with much study, they learned to speak and understand it.

Then Don Richardson began to tell them about Jesus. But the Sawi people viewed Judas, who betrayed Jesus, as the hero of the story. Jesus was the poor guy who got duped. The Sawi put a high value on deceit and treachery, and so it was perfectly natural for them to see Judas as their champion.

Fortunately that’s not the end of the story. After a while, the Richardsons encountered the Sawi custom of the peace child, where in order to stop warfare between rival villages, they would exchange a young child between villages, literally giving their son to an enemy. That was just what Richardson needed. Jesus, he explained to them, was God’s peace child. A number of the Sawi became believers in Jesus.

So who’s the hero of the gospel, Judas or Jesus? It depends on what you value.


Baby steps to the Bible

Horizons held its first ever Cross-Generation Celebration on March 30, focusing on how the Bible is our light. But maybe for you, when it comes to reading the Bible, the lights are on but nobody's home. If that's the case, let me share some baby steps to get started.

An easy way for adults to get their toes wet in the Word is to join a HOME group at Horizons. A HOME group isn't really a Bible study, but the discussion focuses on how we can apply a certain passage or topic from scripture to our daily lives. This is how a lot of people at Horizons have started getting acquainted with the Bible for the first time in their lives.

Another way to get into a regular routine of reading some scripture is to go to the Upper Room daily devotional. At the top of the page is a link to the scripture for the day. You can also subscribe to have the devotional emailed to you, or you can have booklets sent in the mail bi-monthly.

There are several Bible reading plans available online. If you're not reading the Bible regularly right now, here's one that's not too intimidating. It's from Discipleship Journal called the 5 x 5 x 5 Bible Reading Plan, which means reading five minutes a day, five days a week, and it takes you through the New Testament in a year. I especially like the five simple ways to go deeper.

If you're a little more ambitious, here's a link to a one-year Bible reading plan . It gives you four short passages to look up and read each day, 25 days a month. By not scheduling every day, it provides some days off or days for catching up.

Hit the comment button and let us know if you're thinking about trying one of these options. We'd love to hear from you.


Listening to the song above me

This morning I arrived at the church campus at 6:30 to set up the Maundy Thursday silent come-and-go communion that would start at 7 a.m. It was still dark, and the moon was hanging low and yellowish above the western horizon.

At 7 a.m. I was still the only one in the building, and I began praying the prayers and reading the scriptures in the communion service. Just as I did, I heard a meadowlark singing a serenade above me. Perched at the peak of the roof above the worship center, its call was loud, clear and bold.

Many of you know that I've adopted the song of the meadowlark as a sign of God's presence and affirmation. To me it's a little way God encourages me, saying, "I'm with you. I haven't left. We're still in this together."

So as I prayed and read and meditated, the song kept repeating this reassuring message. I am reluctant to admit that today the meadowlark's message was more powerful to me than the sacrament of communion. Or maybe I could say that the two melded together to bring me into the presence of Christ.

My message for Easter Sunday has been inspired partially by Flora Slosson Wuellner's book, Feed My Shepherds, and in it she says, "Our growing closeness with God was never intended to be a burden or one more task added to all the other tasks. Personal relationship with God was meant to remove the sense of burden and to infuse all tasks with new vitality."

That's just what the meadowlark said.


Was it unfair of God to harden Pharaoh's heart?

We've been going through the first 15 chapters of Exodus on Sunday mornings at Horizons, and in the section on the plagues, sometimes it says that Pharaoh hardened his heart, and other times that the LORD hardened Pharaoh's heart. Apparently both of them had a hand in adding to Pharaoh's obstinate attitude, but for God to do it smacks against the whole idea of human free-will.

Pharaoh promised to release the Israelites a few times during the plagues, but once the immediate crisis was over, his moral arteries calcified again. Pharaoh couldn't stand to be pushed into making a decision; it undercut his authority. So while the plagues engendered faith among the Israelites , they brought out stubbornness in Pharaoh.

It reminds me of a saying I heard once. "The same sun that softens butter also hardens clay." The sun is the same. But what the sun causes depends on the thing it shines on.

God’s miracles in Egypt softened some hearts and hardened others.


New twist on presidential debate

Last week one night I was fighting a fever and the flu, so I turned on the TV and caught the tail end of the Republican presidential debate. It was pretty much over except the closing statements. So I flipped the channels and found a new show, “Moment of Truth,” where contestants have to answer very personal, potentially incriminating questions hooked up to a lie detector. And then a computerized voice gives the verdict, “That answer is . . . true.” Or false.

I felt bad for the young woman on the show. But she kept winning money.

And then I thought, “Why couldn’t they combine the two programs, the presidential debate and “Moment of Truth”? Hook the candidates up to lie detectors and ask them political questions. Too much spin about your opponent’s position and you get “That answer is . . . false.”

I dunno. I know it’ll never happen. It just sounded like a good idea at the time.