June 27, 2012

Book of James (Part Two)

Today we learn how to get free stuff from God, who can't find fault with any of us!

James 1:5:
If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.
And that, kids, is why you never take verses out of context!

Instead, let's look at what James is talking about, and then look at several possible meanings and pick the ones that coincide with the rest of scripture.

In the preceding verses, James is telling us that trails can produce maturity and completeness in us, so that we move closer to "not lacking anything" (i.e., in the way of spiritual and mental tools, skills and habits used to glorify God in this life).  He follows that up with verse five.  I think this verse does not only apply to those who are going through trails, although that may be a moot point because all Christians will at some point.

The point is that if you recognize you lack wisdom enough to ask for it from God, you are already practicing humility and the beginnings of wisdom.  The passage does not specify how God will dole out this wisdom to you; I have seen a new believer pray for wisdom then go study the word and take pages of Holy Spirit driven notes on how to apply the words of the writer to our lives today, without compromise.  This promise is connected to the one on trials, though, so don't be surprised if the gift wisdom is wrapped in the paper of hardship.

Here's my take on the "without finding fault" phrase.  We can say right off the bat that this must be consistent with the rest of the Bible, so it doesn't mean that God doesn't find fault with anybody.  Additionally, that would taking it out of context, even out of the very sentence it's in.  God does not find fault in the act of asking for wisdom; instead his response is to give wisdom generously.

And we can't wrap up this section without the very convicting tag, James 1:6-8:
But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.  That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does.
 If you ask God for something that he has guaranteed in his Word that He will give and then you doubt that promise, you have just doubted that God is who He says He is.  You have told the one true God, omniscient and omnipotent, that you aren't completely sure He can deliver on a promise.  And because God is not obliged to you in any way, He won't deliver.  If this bothers you, ask yourself whom is here for whom; then read Psalm 19 and Job 38 through 42.  Actually, just read all of Job.

And if you read all that and still think that's harsh, keep reading the Bible, then read this book.  Long story short, we are here to glorify God and that turns out to be the best, most joyful and most satisfying thing we can do... because it is what we as humans were meant to do.

June 19, 2012

Book of James (Part One)

Earlier this year I started going through the book of James verse by verse, copying the verse down then taking notes on it and looking at cross-references to see the themes in the book across the whole Bible.  It took me several months to get through James; I've started on Matthew now.  Here are my thoughts on the book of James.

The first thing that happened with my note-taking in James is that I realized the power of cross-referencing topics across the Bible.  In the introduction James speaks to the "brethern dispersed abroad."  The cross-references lead me to several verses in the OT and a few in the Gospels illuminating the theme of the dispersion of the people of God and his standing promise to remember them.  While James was likely simply noting that those he was writing to were in various places across the known world, God has promised that no matter how spread out we are He will always bring us together when He deems it is time.

The next few verses are either baffling or deeply reassuring:
"Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.  Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything."
Experience shows, and the text allows, that it is possible not to let "perseverance finish its work."  Most of us have had extensive experience in complaining and pouting.  Breaking the verses down shows us just how to see blessing (and thus have joy) in tough times:

The testing of faith is the testing of your assurance of things hoped for and conviction of things unseen.  When that is tested and you hold onto that assurance and conviction against forces that would tell you otherwise (both circumstances like health issues and explicit things like vocal non-believing college professors) and you make it through, you have just gotten some quality practice at persevering.  The better you get at persevering and the more trials you get through by relying on God and the Word, the more mature and complete you are.

It is the most basic benefit to suffering: getting through it makes you better at living life for God.

Perfection is not reachable in this life, so we will always be able to fall back into sin; and remember, this whole thing has nothing to do with being better qualified for salvation or changing how much God loves you.  No matter how mature we get, we are still just broken sinners and humble saints whom God has chosen to do His work on Earth.

That being said, we can see now how it is possible to consider tough times "pure joy."  Keep revisiting James  chapter one until it sinks in.  In my experience, it sinks in once I can look back on a difficult time and really see the maturing that took place.  

June 18, 2012

Movie Review: Leap Year

I swear I won't only be reviewing chick flicks.

That being said, I enjoyed Leap Year.  I was suspicious during the first half of the movie that it would tell us it's OK to cheat on your fiance if you happen to find your a sexy Irish man who makes fun of you in a cute way.  But it didn't!  That being said, please please please take more than three days to decided you want to marry someone.  Let's continue.

The movie takes just a step or two outside of realism and it benefits from that immensely.  There are doses of quality comedy doled out from small supporting roles, which is a tribute to the writer's skill and the director's ability to pull it off.  Amy Adam's and Matthew Goode's characters are funny because of how unaware of their flaws they are; the rest seem to be small teams of stand-up comics that follow them around and act as a foil to their melodrama.  All in all, the movie has a great comedic structure.  While there are some stock comedy bits (Amy Adams falls down in the mud in heels) and we've seen the "frustrated tension turns romantic love" bit before, there are enough original bits mixed in with the regular equation that the sharp edges of cliche are softened up a bit.  But just a little.

Amy Adam's character was a slight twist on the typical Type-A Female CEO character, in that she seemed vulnerable the whole time.  While I won't make a call to say it was completely intentional or she was a bit out of her range, what it did do was shorten the distance her character had to go to change.  It wasn't a very dynamic shift that she made by the end.  She was already desperate at the start of the movie; that's where we picked her up, instead of getting to see the shift to desperation as well.  Or maybe she's just a normal person who has always felt desperate in some way.  But that makes for less exciting movies, and movies don't exist without an audience that needs to be excited (or saddened or enlightened or whatever).

The realization scene where Amy Adams discovers her fiance is not the right guy is well done for being easier to spot than on oncoming train.  It contains some wonderful storytelling via the cinematography and there are very few words spoken; it only requires the audience to remember a brief but poignant conversation between the two lead characters twenty minutes earlier.

Overall, an entertaining movie that doesn't tell you to cheat on your significant other.  And it's clean save for a humorous moment detailing the differences between what Americans and Europeans consider "decent."

I'm a sap. Jesus died for your sins.  This movie won't tell you that though.

That's all.

June 17, 2012

Movie Review: Easy A

While unquestionably wittier and a good bit funnier than most other comedies these days, I still can't decided how I feel about the premise of Easy A.  I don't dislike movies just because they involved people being normal, sinning human beings, but when a moral message gets sent across the screen I either start dancing in the living room or the whole movie gets flushed down my mental toilet.

The premise is that the main character flippantly lies about what happened on a date just to get a friend off her case.  The lie spreads as a rumor and she perpetuates it.  Eventually, the lie becomes dangerous and destructive and manages to clear up the truth in front of everyone.

Halfway through the movie, she's calling herself a sort of "helper of the downtrodden" because she's lying for people who can't deal with being "uncool."  This immediately got me riled up; the use of lies and avoidance of truth for people's "benefit" is a theme that I have seen many places in TV and movies and it is so far from even being pragmatic, not to mention moral, that it really peeves me.

When the situation is resolved at the end of the film, there is no repenting of the lies.  There is only being really sad that it got so out of hand and, what do you know, there's a boy!

I will take this paragraph to say that the boy-subplot was so canned I nearly put this movie in the same category as Freak Friday.  The boy who has popped up oh-so-conveniently every 20 minutes just falls into her arms at the end of the movie, no questions asked about this huge lie she has been perpetuating by dressing in the sluttiest possible way while attending high school.  For weeks.

Don't worry, girls!  It's totally realistic.

The performances in this movie were really solid.  Ema Stone was great, and the actor who plays her favorite teacher needs to be in more movies.  He is a hilarious character actor, if one movie can be enough to make a call on it.  The performances by those who played her family were also great; some of the funniest lines came from the family scenes.

In summary: while it is a very funny movie, it is very entrenched in modern ideas about truth and makes a half-hearted effort to actually give the movie any helpful point to the whole ordeal.  And the boy thing is just not believable.  Sorry.  It's not.

That's all.  Oh, by the way, I think I'm going to review movies on the blog now, in addition to the other musings.  Carry on!

June 15, 2012

A Division of Eggs

I remember learning something in high school.  It concerned countries whose economy relied upon the exporting of one particular good; whomever the teacher was taught us how those governments need to have a plan B when their one big export doesn't work out for some reason, because they'll crumble without it.  It's the same concept as diversifying investments (I think; Chris Rowekamp, let me know if I'm wrong) and the same concept that inspired the phrase "don't put all your eggs in one basket."  This story is one of how God matures us for just such purposes.  It's also why I can juggle with my feet during a handstand: so that I can join the one traveling circus left in the U.S. if this whole "arts administration" thing stays aloft in Dreamland.

Today, a friend articulated something for me that I had not yet specifically articulated (this particular friend has a habit of this).  If you have ever met me in person, it was likely quite obvious that I am indeed an extrovert.  In fact, that may be too mild of a term.  I feed off of the presence of other people like a fish drinks water.  Those guys hardly come up for air.  What champs.  Worry not, that was not the revelation.  You may wipe the sweat from your brow and sigh.

The revelation is that living in the Middle of Nowhere (I mean that endearingly) and commuting to a job between Nowhere and Fairfax (The Plains, Virginia) for what has now become 9 or 10 months has been an invaluable experience.  Never would I have chosen this situation from among options.  I have felt quite alone and I have learned how to be alone.

I am specific in my use of the word "felt" in the last sentence.  I do not mean to be a drama king when I talk about being alone.  I am not a hermit;  I've been living with my dad, who is one of my closest companions and a brother in Christ who has been quite the conduit for God's transforming and maturing work in my life.  I have found a small but wonderful group of friends in the area whom I am dearly fond of.  You must, however, understand: even given this reality, I felt quite alone fairly often.  It was, at times, quite difficult.  I am energized by the presence of others, especially friends.  I lacked much of the contact I was used to and felt I needed.

It some time, but some vague time near the end of Winter (the beautiful season) some new modes of operations began to emerge in my heart and mind.  I learned how to be at home alone for the day and feel good and get things done.  I learned how to take trips to the park or the used bookstore and pray when I felt myself slipping into destructive moods connected with the loneliness.  Mentally, I became used to a lack of the social energy that often fuels me.  I still love it and thrive on it when I have it; but I have learned how to continue normally when I lack it.

I must be clear:  this post is not at all about a resignation to melancholy.  I am honestly joyful for this journey of growth because God has used it to free me a little bit more from bonds that have held me back.  Perhaps I worry about emphasizing this point too much.  Some of you will know exactly what I'm saying because it's how you operate innately, and your lesson has happen through putting yourself around groups of people and learning how to be with them.  I will phrase it thus: my dependency upon other people was to an unhealthy and severe degree.  I still retain the great joy of being around people, but am not saddened when alone.

My hike showed me that the only things that are truly important to me in this world are Christ and other people.  The time after my hike has showed me how to live with a minimum of other people and to fill the emotional void with Christ.

The time was tough, and if God has given me a choice there's no way I would have done it; but that's because there's no way I could have dreamed of the beauty of the result.  I, Zach Armstrong, to no credit of my own, am finally okay with being alone.

I type that last sentence with a smile on my face.  It is indeed a very good thing.

June 5, 2012

Real Life

It's been a while.  Let me tell you why.

After I left the Appalachian Trail, it took some mental adjustments to get on track with the reality that being a post-college adult brings.  In looking for full-time employment, I realized that there weren't any arts organization lined up outside my door with pen and paper in hand, ready to employ me.  In fact, nine months later there still haven't been any even as I show up at their doors.

I was working part-time at Faang Thai Restaurant in Warrenton and it wasn't looking like they were going to be giving me any more shifts, although I had been promoted to bartender.  I began looking for another serving job in Warrenton that would actually employ me full-time; that's when God sent one to me.  A waiter from another restaurant and his girlfriend were in my bar one day and admired my work ethic, which lead to an interview at Forlano's Market in The Plains, just north of Warrenton.  I was brought on as the lunch waiter after I told my new boss I would be on time every day.  After I showed basic math skills in conjunction with the ability to show up on time consistently, I was brought on as the Catering & Office Manager.  That particular job has been a challenge, but overall it has been rewarding and a very valuable professional experience.

All that to say: real life ain't college.  College, I have learned, was an elevated form of life for me as an 98% pure extrovert; I was constantly around other people, especially good friends who were either next door or a phone call and five minute walk away.  I thrived very easily in that.

Fast forward to real life.  I live in the middle of 10 acres, the smaller of several of the adjacent lots.  There are no windows on the side of the house that actually faces the closest neighbor.  It is a 20 minutes drive into my hometown that has approximately 8 other people my age.  I drive 28 minutes through farmland to get to a town of 285 people where I am 1 of 5 full time staff members in a small restaurant.

The point:  I have to work harder at real life.  That means it takes much more for me to blog or practice guitar or write songs or generally do the things that really enrich my life creatively.  I thank God that I've still been in the Word on a regular basis and that I've been actively reading books to widen and deepen my knowledge of the world and how the smart people of this age think, as well as helping out with the High Schoolers at my church twice a week.  It's only been in the past few months that I've begun to really recapture guitar; and only tonight that I've attempted to recapture blogging.

I've been maturing through paying my own bills, working anywhere between 35-50 hours a week, and dealing with difficult situations at work that are entirely my fault.  I think that it is difficult for anyone to actively pursue a creative passion; as least those who are built like me, where accountability is often a key motivator.  Without grades or people to report to, my practicing and writing can go by the wayside.  But these are things that I want to honor God with, and I would say that it is my duty to develop them and honor God with whatever abilities he's planted in me.  Otherwise I would be squandering his gifts.  And I don't want to do that.

More to come.  I've got a lot to tell you about.