Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Sing Off

I am not much of a TV watcher.  My choice to not watch TV initially was because it was so addictive to me and I do not want to spend hours sitting in front of it.   More recently it has also been because there is so little on that's worth watching.  For several years my regular TV watching was pretty much limited to NFL football.  About 3 years ago I started to watch NCIS and have enjoyed that on Tuesday evenings.  More recently Sue and I happened to watch the second episode of NBC's The Sing Off and have enjoyed that show as well.

The Sing Off is, I guess, a reality show similar to American Idol, but with one very dramatic difference.  The judges are always positive and affirming, even while critiquing a performance; there is no drama or negativity at all.  The contestants are all a cappella groups containing at least 5 members who, over the course of the 10 week competition have sung one or two songs a week of different genres with one or two groups eliminated each week.  The show started with 16 groups and the grand finale narrowed it down from the top three to the final winner.

I don't know about you, but generally when I think a cappella the first thing that comes to mind is that the piano player didn't show up and we have to sing our hymns without any accompaniment.  And some times that works out but other times it would have been better if we had just skipped the singing.  But these groups have truly amazed me with what can be done a cappella.  For many of these groups it is hard to realize that there are no instruments and that every sound is coming from someones vocal cords.  Complicated arrangements, choreography, a wide variety of genres, short time windows to prepare; nothing seems to slow them down.  While I have known few of the songs, and didn't really care for some of them, the performances were always entertaining and pretty amazing.

Take a listen to Pentatonix, pictured above, singing Born to Be Wild or the Dartmouth Aires singing Pinball Wizard to get a taste of what the competition has been like.  These have been my two favorite groups throughout the show and ultimately finished first and second in the competition.  For winning, Pentatonix received a cash prize and a recording contract so they should have a CD coming out in the future.  Planning on buying it at this point.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Seattle Half Marathon 2011

Race day dawned this morning (at least it would have dawned if not for the heavy cloud cover) warm, wet but no rain and with little wind, although the forecast was calling for heavy rain and wind during the race.  I was up early to eat some breakfast, slowly get dressed and gear up and then head to the start line.  By the 7:30 start time I was lined up with 6357 other crazy's, getting ready to run 13.1 miles, for no reason other than desire, or maybe insanity.

I was lined up to run with Phil in the middle of the pack when the gun went off; and we just stood there.  Eventually you could see the crowd ahead start to move and finally it was our turn to start the slow shuffle toward the start line.  About the time we crossed the line the crowd was finally starting to jog a bit and we slowly build up to cruising speed over the next half mile.  The predicted rain also started about the same time and would be with us for pretty much the whole race, along with an occasional heavy gust of wind.

The Seattle Half Marathon starts at the Seattle Center, runs south on 5th Ave, up onto I90, through the tunnel and then off the freeway and north along Lake Washington.  It eventually runs through a series of parks before coming back to the commercial section of Seattle and looping back to the Center.  The course is moderately hilly, with one substantial hill between miles 7 & 8, and is mostly fairly scenic, apart from the couple of miles spent on I90.  The course is also fairly crowded with runners.  I was never really in the clear, always surrounded by other runners and sometimes struggled to break through slow lines of traffic.

I felt good for the first third of the run and made fairly good time.  But by the midway point it became obvious that this was going to be a 'hang on to the end' kind of run.  Once I had crawled to the top of the big hill and recooperated a bit on the backside of the hill I started to get a second wind, or something, and was able to move along through the parks OK.  But by the time I was back into Seattle the legs were turning to rubber and there was no spring left; the 2 hour goal was looking to be in serious jeopardy.  But finally the final stretch came into sight followed soon by the finish line.  I managed to cross in 1 hour 59 minutes and 35 seconds, a personal best by over 3 minutes for this course.  I ended up finishing in 1847th place overall and 37th out of the 140 men in my division and that felt pretty good.  And even better was that no one over 71 years old beat me this year.  I still remember getting beat by an 80+ year old woman the first year.

By the time I finished my feet were sore and bloody; 13.1 miles in wet Five Fingers without socks is not a good combination.  The legs were sore and the tank was drained.  Ate at the recovery area, went back to the hotel and took a hot shower and ate some more.  Then headed for home, stopping along the way to eat some more.

All in all I had a blast and am already looking forward to next year.  Why don't cha plan on joining me next year?

By the way, Phil pulled away in the last 3 miles and finished 20 seconds ahead.  Way to go Phil.

Also, much thanks to my lovely bride and support crew for her help and encouragement.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Giving Thanks

As Thanksgiving rolls around again I find it appropriate to take the time to remember what I have to be thankful for.  Included in this list is (are) ...
  • a God who created this universe and who has given me an opportunity to be a part of his kingdom, both now and through eternity.  I am thankful to God that I can know him in a personal way.  And I am thankful that he has a purpose even for one as insignificant as I.
  • the opportunity to serve God both within a local church and the Olympic Baptist Association.  Being able to be more actively involved in the OBA has been a joy to me over the past 3+ years and I look forward to what lies ahead.
  • a wife that loves me far more than I deserve.  She is a jewel beyond price and makes my life so much better than it would ever be without her.  Everything she touches is better for her having been there.
  • a son and daughter that have turned out 'not half bad'.  I am thankful for who they are and what they have taught me about love and responsibility.  I am thankful for their willingness to serve their country in the military, even if it was the Army and Air Force rather than the Navy.
  • my parents who, although long gone, still remain a shining beacon and model for me to follow.  My dad could seemingly do anything and was a leader of men.  And my mom loved us all passionately and would give all for her family.  I have learned much from their life and from their death.
  • friends that I can share my life with.  I am not a particularly social creature, and enjoy spending time alone.  But it is also good to have friends to share with; especially a few close ones that I can share my heart with.
  • a job that pays well, takes little time, and can be done in my pajamas.  Being downsized from my previous job has really worked out well for me.  I am comfortably retired, so the extra I make on the job now provides for extras and for ministry opportunities.
  • a home that is comfortable, paid for and is in fairly good condition.  I really like my home.  It's nothing fancy but it is a place I enjoy spending time.  I enjoy puttering around the house and the big yard.  And it hold lots of memories, 24 years worth.
  • a country that, in spite of many problems, remains a land of opportunity and freedom.  There are few places in the world I would rather live that in my corner of the US.
  • the opportunity and health to be able to run marathons and go on long hikes.  I enjoy the chance to be out and enjoy the creation.  And who would have ever guessed that a desk jockey like myself would be able to start running in his mid 50's and end up running marathons.
  • a successful encounter with Prostate Cancer.  I learned a lot about myself during this experience; having never before had any real health issues.  And I am thankful that the cancer is gone.  I am also thankful for the people who participated in its removal and my recovery.
  • the opportunity to share my thoughts and opinions with the handful of people who read my blog.  I have enjoyed putting thoughts into words and posting them for all the world to read, even if most of the world in not interested.
  • and I am just thankful.

Monday, November 21, 2011


'Faith', defined as firm persuasion, and 'believe', a related word defined as to be persuaded of, are frequently used in the New Testament to describe what we have to do to come into relationship with God. Faith ushers me into God's presence and faith allows his power to work in my life.  Apart from faith I can never know God or experience his presence.

Hebrews chapter 11 is all about faith, the faith of the Old Testament saints and its importance in their lives.  Verses 1 & 6 in particular very explicitly express the importance of faith.
"Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. ...  And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him." - Hebrews 11:1,6 NIV
Verse 1 of this passage defines faith while verse 6 attaches that definition to faith in God.  Faith is confidence in what we hope for which, as a believer, is that God rewards those who earnestly seek him.  Faith is also assurance about what we do not see which, as a believer, is that God exists.  For me as a believer, faith includes believing that God exists.  But that in itself is not really faith; it is just intellectual assent.  To have faith I must also believe that God rewards my earnest seeking of him.  The bulk of Hebrews 11 describes this earnest seeking of God, which involved a life of obedience.

Another significant passage is found in Romans 10:9-10 where Paul says:
"If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved.: - Romans 10:9-10 NIV
This passage also talks about two things that are involved in my salvation.  One of these is believing that God raised Jesus from the dead and the other is public profession that you are following him, that he is Lord.  This really follows the Hebrews 11:1 definition of faith; assurance of what I can't see - the resurrection of Jesus, and confidence in what is hoped for - exhibited by public profession.

Least anyone take me wrong, I am not saying that anything I can do will bring about my salvation or make it more secure.  But I am saying that intellectual assent that God exists and that Jesus died for sins and was raised to life will not bring about my salvation; that is not faith.  Faith includes earnestly seeking God and professing Jesus as Lord, both of which involve giving myself to him to do with as he desires.  Faith takes me off the throne and puts God on it.  Faith will hang an Under New Management sign around my neck.  If I am still in charge of my life, directing it as I see fit, then I do not have faith and thus cannot please God.

I talked about God's grace in an earlier blog.  Faith and grace are very complimentary.  Grace defines God's activity toward me, while faith defines my appropriate response to God.  God's grace is available to all who will respond to him in faith.  If you are not currently experiencing God's grace in your life, it may well be that you are not living a life of faith, one of surrender to Jesus as Lord.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

How to Train for a Marathon

I am preparing to run a half marathon next weekend, my ninth in the past 4 years along with 2 full marathons.  I guess that makes me somewhat of an expert on the topic so I though I would share some of my vast knowledge with those who might be looking to follow in my footsteps, becoming part of a growing movement of people of all ages, sizes and shapes who lace on a pair of shoes and stagger around a 13.1 or 26.2 mile course, just so they can eat a Cinnabon without feelings of guilt.

Now the most obvious training tip I can give to you is to just get out and run.  And then run some more.  And after that run even more.  I generally run about 800 miles a year.  That's the equivalent of running from the Pacific Ocean all the way across Washington to the Idaho border and then back plus another 80 miles or so.  Of course you can't jump off the couch and instantly be able to run all the way across Washington.  I would recommend starting with a mile or so for the first few days and then gradually increase your mileage to longer and longer runs.  I currently run about 4 times a week with three days in the 3-5 miles range and the fourth day being longer, generally something approaching the distance of the race I am preparing for.

Set yourself some goals.  While I am not obsessively goal driven, I do find that if I have a goal in mind for my running it helps keep me focused.  There are two things I use for goals.  The most obvious is in preparing for a race.  Signing up for a marathon commits me to either prepare for it so I don't look bad, or lose the registration fee.  So far that has worked well for me.  The other is to track my own progress, both in miles and in time.  I have several routes of various lengths and I time each one and log it after the run.  I am constantly trying to improve on my best time.  Your goals may be different.  You may choose to log calories expended that can be offset by a Cinnabon or a piece of chocolate, pounds lost, admiring (or sympathetic) looks from other runners or drivers, etc.

Almost as important as running is having the right equipment.  Some folks will tell you that all you need is a pair of running shoes and you're ready to go.  Well don't believe them.  Shoes are indeed an important ingredient, but there is much more needed than that.  If you're wanting to make a good impression on the folks who see you race by them you need to be dressed in real running clothes.  You will need to get a hold of lots of light weight clothes that will wick the sweat away from your body, keep you cool in the heat, warm in the cold and dry in the rain, be colorful enough to serve as a target for motorists and advertise your past races or favorite running product.  The required ensemble for a runner includes shoes, lots of synthetic socks, shorts, tights, sleeveless, short sleeve and long sleeve shirts, a wind shirt, a rain coat, a warm coat, gloves, ear protection and a hat.  Obviously you won't wear all of that at the same time but having it all allows you to run in style regardless of the weather.

There are a few other pieces of equipment that will greatly aid your running.  Among these is a watch.  Now your run of the mill Timex will tell you how long you have been running, so long as you are able to remember your start time and do the math to calculate how long you have been out.  Finding a watch with a stop watch function will simplify that process though and allow you to concentrate on not falling into a hole rather than doing higher math as you run (which, by the way, is rather hard to do when you are gasping for air).  I would recommend though that you get a runners watch.  Many of these come with a strap you wrap around your chest so that the watch can tell you how fast your heart is beating.  You can't imagine what a thrill it is to realize that your heart is racing away at 180 beats per minute.  I would advise turning off the high threshold alarm though.  It can be unsettling to your running partner if they think you are getting ready to have a heart attack.  The ultimate in runners watches have a GPS built into them.  Now you can tell, not only how long you have run and how hard your heart is working, but you can also tell how fast you are running and how far you have come.  Additionally, assuming you eventually find your way back home, you can upload the watch data into your computer and see a map of where you went, how fast each mile was and what your heart was doing the whole time.  Good stuff and highly recommended.

The last piece of gear I would recommend in a headlamp, a little flashlight that straps to your head so you can see where you are going in the dark.  Night time running takes a bit to get used to, but I have found that I prefer it, at least early in the morning.  For one, there is much less traffic out, meaning fewer cars to dodge. And it is also harder for other people to see you stagger down the road and wonder if they need to be calling an ambulance.

Finally, if you live in western Washington like I do, you need to be prepared to run in all kinds of weather, except for extreme heat.  Warm, cool, cold, wet, dry, windy and frozen.  I personally don't run when it is frozen but do in everything else.  The combination of cold, wet and windy is the worst.  And there are, in my opinion, only two ways to handle it; be crazy or bundle up and force yourself out the door regardless.  I'll leave it up to your imagination as to which gets me out the door at 5:30 in the morning when it is hovering around freezing, raining and the wind is blowing at 20 MPH.

Once you have run a few hundred miles and have all the right gear, go sign up for a half marathon and enjoy the company of several thousand other colorful crazies rambling down the streets of your local city.  Do it enough times and you can write your own guide to marathon preparation.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Occupy Wall Street

If you're like me you probably have not given a whole lot of thought to this whole Occupy movement.  I have known from the beginning of this movement that the 99% were protesting the 1%, the numbers referred to your economic standing, and that the movement was spreading across the country and the world.  But exactly what they were trying to accomplish somehow escaped my cursory review of the news surrounding them.

Because I am not a protester (it's just not in my nature) and most of the news seemed to focus on confrontation and problems occurring around the occupied sites, I found myself not being overly sympathetic to what they were doing.  And if I thought about them at all, it was mostly along the lines of "Don't we have enough problems without your protests adding to them?"

Now I have no problems with someone working hard, making a lot of money and experiencing a life style that is more luxurious than mine.  It is not something I crave, but I don't begrudge it to others.  But I do take exception to making and maintaining that standard of living at the expense of others.  And so, at heart, I guess I really am in sympathy to at least some of the goals of the Occupy movement which seem to center around jobs, bank reform and the reduction of corporate influence in politics.

Protesting has been used throughout the life of our nation to effect change, starting with the Boston Tea Party and including Woman's Suffrage and the Civil Rights movement of my youth.  And recently, in the wider world, we have seen the results of relatively peaceful protests upend the governments of Egypt and Tunisia and lead to the civil war that overturned Gaddafi in Libya.  It seems that at times the only way to effect change is for the common  folk to raise their voices loud enough to be heard.

So, all in all, I guess I have become at least sympathetic to the Occupy movement, so long as the movement remains peaceful and does not over-strain the limited resources of the occupied cities.  It is their right as American citizens to make their voices heard, seeking to bring about change.  Who knows, something good may come of it.

But one thing I would like from them.  It is one thing to say they want jobs, bank reform and reduction of corporate influence in D.C.  I suspect most politicians running for office this coming term are going to express those same 'goals'.   I think it would be more effective for them to more clearly describe how they feel their goals might be met and maybe even work to elect those with a similar vision.  Otherwise they come across more as just complainers, a nuisance to others living and working around them, than folks who have a positive vision for change.

UPDATE 11/17/11
I have just read an article that indicates the general assembly of OWS is struggling to reach a consensus on their demands.  The concern among some is that once they have specified their demands that it will narrow the appeal of the movement and attract fewer groups to the movement.  I must say that I find this disturbing. If they are intentionally trying to keep their complaint vague and focused on expressing discontent rather than  dealing with specific issues then I don't know what hope they have for success.  Unless success is defined as making the problems worse, causing even greater division within the country.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Amazing Grace

Grace.  More specifically God's grace.  As believers we talk about it a lot, frequently defining it as God's unmerited favor towards us.  And indeed it is.  It is by God's grace that we are saved, and not by anything we can do (Ephesians 2:8).  God's grace has dealt with our sin and we now have a future with him.  It is unfortunate however that we often leave it there.

If you break out your concordance and look up the word grace you will find it used in some interesting ways.  
  • In Acts 4:33 God's grace was working powerfully among the Apostles.  His favor went beyond salvation and was involved in the service they rendered to God.  His grace enabled them to grow the church in spite of any opposition they faced.
  • In Romans 12:6, Ephesians 4:7-13 and 1 Peter 4:10 God's grace is given to each of us in the form of gifts, or the abilities to act in ways that would build up the body of Christ.  Here grace also extends beyond salvation and into our life of service to him.  Grace includes being equipped for service and being an active part of the body of Christ.
  • In 2 Corinthians 12:9 God's grace is sufficient for Paul's weaknesses.  Grace channels God's power into the life of the one who is open to it.  God's grace saved me, equips me and also empowers me for service.
  • In 2 Timothy 1:9 we see that God's grace not only was the instrument of our salvation, it is also a call to a holy life.  A holy life is one that is set apart from the world and devoted to God.  I cannot be holy and continue as a part of the world.  God's grace calls me to leave the world behind.

Notice that these, and other passages as well, all refer to grace as something other than just God choosing to save us.  Grace impacts everything that God is doing toward us; it is like a secret weapon that God has aimed at us, although for our good rather than harm.  God chose to save us for a life of holiness and service.  Grace calls for me to be a disciple, serving and giving myself to the master.  Look back at the passage in Ephesians that we started with.
"For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God - not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do." - Ephesians 2:8-10 NIV
We are saved by grace - that's the part we like.  But we are also created in Christ Jesus (saved) to accomplish the work that God has prepared for us to do - and that part is kind of scary.  We are saved by grace to be disciples.  And not disciples in name only, but disciples who rely on God's grace to follow their Lord wherever he leads and are faithful to the task that he has given us.  Disciples don't give the master advice on the best use of themselves, nor do they only follow when it is convenient.  

When Jesus called the twelve to be his first disciples they were not called to follow one day a week or in their spare time.  They were called to leave their nets and tax booth behind and follow him.  Could it be that his grace calls us to do the same?  Our call may not involve physically leaving our jobs and homes behind, but it does call for us to be full time disciples, serving him on the job, at home and in the world around us.  Oh, at the end of this life, to hear the master say, "Well done, good and faithful servant".

Thursday, November 10, 2011

But What If I Don't Like the President?

Some of our Presidents I have liked and thought they did a reasonable job (meaning I agreed with their positions).  And others were considerably less desirable in my mind.  I am really glad I live in a country where we have some choice in who fills the leadership positions at the federal, state and local level.  Unfortunately not everyone agrees with me as to what would make a good leader and what their priorities should be.  And so it is not uncommon that I find our leadership, apparently with the backing of a majority of voters, leading us in a direction other than what I think is right.

And I suspect that I am not alone in this.  Everywhere I turn I hear people complaining about elected officials, especially presidents, seemingly convinced that if only we could replace this person, or that party, all would be well with our nation again.  And if that replacement does not occur soon there will be nothing left to salvage.  I know people on Facebook for whom a significant number of their posts are calls for us to dump Obama because he is the devil incarnate, or nearly so.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Building a Shed

This was the year we finally decided to put up a shed big enough to hold all of the garden and lawn tools needed to care for half an acre as well as store the lawn furniture during the winter.  We had been making do with a couple of little sheds and leaving the furniture out all year, where it aged quickly.  The initial thought was to buy a kit and build it myself, but since I was still working at the time I offered the job to my son.  After looking at sheds for a while we decided, with his construction background, to build one from scratch instead, one that ended up being larger and nicer than initially planned.

From ground clearing to final caulking (painting has been delayed now until the spring) the task took about two months and a countless number of trips to Lowes and Home Depot.  During that time we watched the neighbors buy a kit shed and have it installed in about 5 hours.  It was very much a learning experience, especially for me, and there are a number of things we would do differently if there ever was a next time (not currently on the agenda), but it all worked out and produced a very nice and functional shed.  All the lawn furniture is stored away and the lawn and garden tools are out of the little sheds and the garage.

In particular I enjoyed the opportunity to work with my son during the part of the process where I helped, playing gofer and second pair of hands while putting up the walls and roof.  I believe it was the most time we had ever invested together in a single project and that alone made this effort a highlight for me.  We worked through some of the design and construction issues together and competed to see who could shed the most blood (I think I won hands down although some might think that smacking myself in the face with a hammer should be a disqualifying event).

All in all it's been a good experience.  Thanks Mike.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

How to Read the Bible

The Bible is many things to many people.  For those of us who are Christ followers, it is a special book, or should I say collection of writings.  We believe it is inspired by God and given to enable us to know God and to be able to effectively serve him.  The Bible is considered to be something else altogether by those who are not followers of Jesus, but that is not a concern for this post.

Given that the Bible is our "owner's manual", how should we as believers read and understand it?  Some consider it to be inerrant, or without any error in its original form, while others will take exception to the correctness of some parts.  Some believe it should be taken literally, others figuratively, others symbolically or allegorically, while others will see some of two or three of these in its pages.  I do believe there are some general guidelines we can follow in making that determination, but it is not always real cut and dried.