Monday, December 31, 2007

New Years's resolutions

Although some consider New Year's resolutions to be unproductive, considering how often they are broken creating a sense of self-imposed exaggerated defeat, I find them helpful in that the coming of a new year is as good a time as any to set new goals. Oh sure, there have been numerous "New Year's resolutions" in the past that I've made, and kept for approximately 3.2 weeks. The act of goal setting though, even if many goals are not reached, is a positive enterprise that places one more in motion toward achieving those goals than one who does not set them at all.

My resolutions for this coming year include, but are not limited to:
  1. More "manly" stuff (like hunting, using power tools to construct things, collect hockey memorabilia, etc.).
  2. More romantic stuff (like taking Naomi out to nice places, writing her sappy cards, buying her gifts for no particular reason).
  3. More Dad stuff (like taking the kids to special events, camping with them, and getting consistent again with family worship).
These in addition to the academic and professional goals I have set make for a full year of living. But really, what I attempt through "New Year's resolutions" is to behold the goodness of God through a more in-depth living experience. At the heart of these "resolutions" is a desire to perceive God's grace and blessing more this year than I ever have before. I imagine that to be a goal he would like me to both set and achieve.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Christmas Day hockey

On Christmas Day we started a new tradition, though I'm uncertain how many years in a row an activity must occur to be validly considered a "family tradition." Nevertheless, we started this event with the intent to keep it going. The activity? Christmas Day hockey!

We gathered up our street hockey gear (skates, sticks, goal and puck) and headed over to the church to use its parking lot as our rink. What a blast! Naomi and I took turns as goal-keeper. It was a real kick. I suspect we'll do it more often that merely on Christmas, but the point was to have a fun family activity on Christmas - not just to save hockey for Christmas.

The resulting effect was that I realized we have done too little of this lately. Family activities such as this have been too sparse over this past year. Be it street hockey, walking the dogs, camping or any other activity, I have not sought such times like that to the extent would be healthier for such a busy family as ours. As we raced around the parking lot, chasing the red ball, trying to score, I resolved to make sure this coming year saw a greater frequency of family fun. We've had seasons of greater family attention before, but sometimes we get a little distracted. Christmas Day hockey awakened me to the fact that we had gotten distracted a little, and need to have a new season of a closer home.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas Eve

The day before Christmas is always special. It's the time when the last bits of anticipation can be developed into a full blown frenzy. The Christmas music is playing in the background, the decorations seem more colorful, the weather seems cozier and the cocoa tastes sweeter. It's the build up to that magical day when Christmas happens. But what are you anticipating? How are you getting in the mood for Christmas?

Is it the excitement about presents alone that fuel you? The presents will be torn into and over by 10am if the parents really drag it out; 7am if the kids have their way. How is your anticipation on Christmas Eve helping to make Christmas Day more meaningful?

May I submit a suggestion? Wait for a calm moment this evening, put on some Jewish sounding music (like John Williams composed for the film "Schindler's List"), sit at a table or in front of a warm fireplace and read the following:

A Christmas Thought

Imagine with me for a moment living in a different time and different place.

Imagine that the army isn’t in a far country fighting to keep you free. The army is instead in your town, in your neighborhood, on your street corner and in your marketplace. The army is not even yours. It belongs to a foreign power who has conquered your land and intends to maintain its grip. Because your region is considered unstable, the local garrison is frequently monitoring your places of worship or searching your homes in an ongoing attempt to quell resistance before it can grow into social unrest. The land your family has dwelt in; that you have grown up in, that you hope to grow your own family in, is not Iraq... It’s Judea.

Because of the census that has been imposed on your people, so that Rome can collect even more taxes, you’ve had to take a long and dusty journey back to the hometown of your ancestors – a sleepy hamlet just a few miles southwest of Jerusalem. The inconvenience of it all makes the oppression just sting that much more. Rome seems to control everything. When you go to register in Bethlehem, you don’t complain because you don’t want any trouble...
But all you can think about is:
• When will Messiah come?
• When will Yahweh send His Chosen One to make right so much that is so wrong?
Evidence of the world’s brokenness is seen everywhere. You just witnessed a young man and his pregnant wife get turned away form the Inn. The words “No vacancy” were spoken so coldly to that poor young girl who looks like she’s about to deliver. You don’t step in to help but you do wonder to yourself,
If Messiah were here would he permit such an injustice?
You feel lucky though. At least you have a place to stay in town where you can get the latest news. It could be worse. You could be up in the hills with the shepherds where you’d never here what was going on.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

St. Nicholas of Myra

I recently have been mulling over how Santa Claus fits into Christmas. In every way the American version of Santa seems like a competing mythology with the birth of Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, after a little bit of research I discovered that Saint Nicholas of the early church is a good character to learn about, and one that "Santa Claus" can point to. He appeared as passionate about sharing the benevolence of Christ as he was about defending the truth of Christ.

This passion was expressed in how he saw that the needy in his community were cared for; however, it was also expressed in how he passionately contended for the truth. One legend holds that when Saint Nicholas was present at the council of Nicaea in in A.D. 325, he was so angered by the heresies of Arius that he dropped him with one punch in the council chambers. I picture this being not greatly dissimilar from the following video:

I'm not sure about "Santa Claus" as yet, but if Saint Nicholas had some "hockey" in him, I think I'm going to like him a lot. In fact, this linked site (www.stnicholascenter.org) is appearing very helpful in discovering this historical saint of the ancient church whereby some Christian substance can be reclaimed for the holiday, overcoming the blight of the present American icon of commercialism in the red suit. For now, it is enough that Santa Claus images can serve as a teaching tool for me to share about the real St. Nicholas - a life sold out to Christ whose legacy lives on.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Star Wars Christmas


Many of my friends and relatives know that I am a fan of the Star Wars mythology. Mostly I've enjoyed the novels that have been produced that advance the story. Nevertheless, the movies have been entertaining and enjoyable too. Knowing this, Naomi's sister, Tiffany Grant, thought of me and forwarded the above video produced by a friend of hers. Some may think it takes fandome a little far, but I got a kick out of it. Merry Christmas.

Friday, December 21, 2007

A video Christmas Card


I have not been very good at sending out Christmas cards in time for people to get them before Christmas. Naomi and I are working on getting better at it, but thus another year has come without us reaching out to friends and relatives in a timely manner. The remedy is often a Christmas themed email to people, but that can be quite impersonal. So our answer to that was a photo video for Christmas.

Please enjoy the above video as our Christmas greeting to you. It contains pictures taken of family activities throughout 2007, from our visit to Sacramento for my father's retirement party, to our day at Lake Tawakoni here in Texas; from Elijah's climbing to our activities with Genesis Community Church. We hope you have a very Merry Christmas!

Commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ in your hearts, celebrate his coming with friends and beloved relatives and anticipate his coming anew. God bless you.

By God's grace,

The Ott's

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Time with my Sister

The last time I saw Gaylene was last May, and the time before that was my graduation from Shasta Bible College in 2004. I hate that this general principle is often true: that when siblings grow up together in the same house each other's presence is unwanted, but when they are grown up and desirous of each others' company the distance and busy lifestyle barriers are difficult to overcome. Gaylene is five years older than me, so our younger years at home were not spent contemplating the joys of familial connection. I spent most of those early years attempting to annoy her, and she was indeed was annoyed.

Gaylene has a sense of humor that I truly enjoy. Ours is an "Ott" humor cultivated in a home that seldom took itself seriously. With the help of her husband, Jeff, my niece and nephew (Haley and William) will likely develop that sense of humor too. They live fairly close to my parents, so that portion of the family is able to gather regularly. For all the blessings I have encountered in Texas, I often regret not living closer to my family, whose company is always an uplifting joy.

I think specifically of Gaylene though since this is yet another Christmas that I will not see her for. I can't recall the last one we shared. My parents visited for Thanksgiving, which was a wonderful time. However, Christmas will come and go again without the company of my one and only sibling just at a time when family relationships is becoming more important to me than ever. I miss you Gaylene. Hope you guys have a Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 17, 2007

Across the street to the fire

Today around 2:45 a local neighbors knocked on my front door while I was studying in my office to ask if I had already called 911. "What for?" I asked. "That!" he exclaimed pointing to the curtain of black smoke rising from the house across the street from me. He was already on the phone with emergency services so I didn't make a redundant call. Within moments of his phone call my pager went off alerting me that the Fate Fire Dept was being summoned to the scene. I donned my Fate Fire uniform and came out into the street to assist the Rockwall County Sherrif''s officer on scene however I could.

At first I felt helpless. I wanted to run immediately through the front door (the officer had broken it in to make sure no one was home) and rescue whatever I might find that needed to escape the heat and flames (people, pets, family heirlooms, prize possessions, etc), but at the same moment new that I had as yet received no training for such actions, and that any rash impulse at this time could very well complicate the process for my colleagues who were enroute. Having no authority, training or equipment to perform what your instincts call out to do is a frustration remedied only by performing all that you can do.

For this reason, I was pleased to be useful in helping children remain safely away from the fire-ground (sending kids coming home from school at that time, who live in the house to the right and the left of the involved home, to my house), comfort and counsel the home owner on his next steps for getting assistance, and help with stowing away hose on the apparatus when it was no longer needed. It was my first fire event wherein my role as a chaplain was executable. I'm so sorry for the family who lost their home just a week before Christmas. I hope the assistance of family and insurance services is helpful and soothing at this time. But having said that, I would be dishonest were I not to admit the euphoria that accompanies service of this type. It is a mystery, but in a strange way this destructive incident creates opportunities for the joys of service.

It's a shame that service opportunities are born of tragedy, but such is the nature of our world. Consider the beauty of redemption bought for us through the death of Christ. How horrible that his sacrifice was necessary, yet how wonderful is the redemption that followed. There's a distinct kind of beauty that is only extractable from the ugly. The beauty of a neighborhood gathering to help a family that most of them didn't know was born of the ugliness of a house fire. Could it be that this is a major glimpse of God's grace evident in life? When he is able to draw the beauty of community out of the ugliness of tragedy?

In this way it would seem quite legitimate to find blessing in this event. The blessing of observing a community's character, of experiencing the joys of service, and even in seeing all the family's beloved pets spared. The family who lost their house today faces many challenges ahead, needing the grace of God evident in very tangible ways over the coming days, weeks and months. In the meantime, I will suggest that the grace of God is already evident in how the firefighters served their community, in how the neighborhood responded and in how delighted I was to be a part of it all. Service brings joys that are uniquely acquired only in such intense times, and I thought I should be honest about it.

Action preceds emotion

I've expressed to some people lately that I was having a tough time getting into the Christmas mood. Circumstances around me were not as conducive to developing "holiday cheer" as they had been in previous years. It seemed that a little "humbug" might creep into the Christmas season. However, a principle was driven home for in this time that I've known for quite a while. That is, that action precedes emotion. Frequently, emotions are triggered through actions that are predetermined by the will. This is why when a son says to a father, "I don't feel like doing my chores," the father can insightfully respond, "I can change the way you feel." In the Bible, obedience is prized over feeling.

For this reason, it occurred to me to engage in some festive practices anyway, regardless of the feeling preceding it. In the NOCS code, we summarize this with the reminder "There is no feeling...There is truth." Practicing what is true cannot be subject to feelings. It's not that feelings are not acknowledged. It's that they are not recognized as the driving factor...truth is. As a result, I look to those practices that reflect the celebration and following of truth, believing that feeling will follow.

Therefore, instead of trusting in my feelings to conjure up the "Christmas spirit" all on their own, I dove into practices that exuded it anyway, such as a Christmas party, celebrating with people and reflecting on the coming commemoration of the birth of Christ. If the feelings are slow coming, practice something that may very well cause them to follow along.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

"Humbug" creeps in

Recently I heard a sermon in which it was asked which was my favorite holiday. I raised my hand when Christmas was mentioned partly because I knew where the sermon was going and didn't want to be the odd one out. In doing so I wasn't entirely honest. The truth is that I like Christmas very much, and the birth of Christ is certainly the most important event in history (along with Easter) that a Christian can celebrate. However, I think that Thanksgiving is actually my favorite holiday because it actually winds up being the time of rest and enjoyment that holidays should be.

Christmas, on the other hand, is not a time of rest, there does not appear to be much "peace on earth" (Lk 2:14), and its a lot of work to celebrate the birth of the Savior. Don't get me wrong. I'm not seeking to diminish the importance of the birth of Christ. If shepherds outside of Bethlehem can walk all the way into town to celebrate him stable-side, then the least I can do is hang a few strips of garland. But when you contrast the headache of preparation time with that of Thanksgiving, the turkey wins hands down. On Thanksgiving a meal is prepared (which my wifes masterfully performs) and guests are entertained; but then that's pretty much it. The rest of the time is spent relaxing and relating. Football may be on television and some wrestling may ensue between fathers and sons, but really it's a time of rest. This captures much more the biblical concept of "sabbath" (the idea that one sets aside their labor to enjoy the goodness, provision and person of God). I love Thanksgiving.

Why do I sound like a little "humbug" is creeping into my Christmas season? I'll tell you why! Christmas lights, clearly an invention of the devil, are both temperamental and unreliable. All of mine shorted out the other night, leaving the front of my house dark, covered in a web of non-illuminated wires. Who in history decided that celebrating Christmas required a degree in electrical engineering? In the future I'm taking a different approach to celebrating Christmas because this is ridiculous. As a celebration, Christmas is definitely worthy of our best festive efforts, but an approach must be possible that actually leaves some joy in the whole season instead of sucking it out through faulty electrical wires.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Joy of Work

As stress mounts near the end of another semester at DTS, I'm finding it all the more important to remain physically active. This can be accomplished through training kung fu, generic workouts, walking the dogs or hockey with the kids (rug hockey, street hockey, kitchen hockey, etc.). But one activity that remains faithful in keeping my head straight is working with my hands on a project requiring tools and precision. The project can be anything from making another set of shelves (we always need more shelving), to constructing benches for outside use, or my newest one: a new dog house that will house our "sled team" (four large dogs).

This morning, before I sequestered myself in my office again for hours of more typing and study, I went to the church and retrieved some of the boards left in its junk pile awaiting burning. Confirming beforehand that these boards had no other intended use, I pulled out the rusty nails and cut them to sizes that could fit into our Dodge Neon. What once had been discarded as junk wood now lies neatly stacked on the lumber pile in my garage awaiting use in my project. Some may say that these boards do not look as nice or as clean as the boards I bought from Lowe's. Yet, a little sanding here or trimming there and they will be perfectly suited for the project I will use them in.

I suspect our lives are not greatly dissimilar from the lumber. Some may feel discarded into a junk pile, awaiting destruction. However, when the Master "Craftsman" spots them in the heap, He envisions the usefulness they represent for His next project. As a result, He redeems them, takes them home, then sands and trims where necessary in order for them to be what He first saw while they were back in the pile. The "sanding and trimming" I undergo from the Spirit is not always pleasant. In fact, it's frequently unpleasant. Nevertheless, I would much rather that my Father the Craftsman do what is necessary to make me useful to him and his project on Earth, than the alternative of having been left in the "burn" pile.

These are the truths that manual labor gives me the opportunity to meditate on. During work that is physical, I am free to focus on Jesus the Craftsman, whose general contractor work in Galilee must have been important preparation for his earthly ministry. All that time spent working with his hands up until the time when they would touch people to heal them; all the nails he must have held up to the day when the nails would hold him to the cross. I find work of this kind to be a great joy wherein God reminds of many things about himself.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Christmas Parade

Our church has now participated in two local Christmas parades. What a blessing both of them were. The floats, the decorations, the bands, the lights (at night) and the people all contributed to a great experience. I can't be certain if it was more because of the Christmas season, or just the euphoria of being among all of those people. The events were a great opportunity for our church to be out in the community, shaking hands, passing out candy and wishing people "Merry Christmas."

These are the first parades that I can remember walking in. Over the past couple of years, when our family would attend the local Christmas and Independence Day parades, I often noticed the local businesses and church that participated and wondered if we might have a similar opportunity. Now, it's my responsibility at Genesis Community Church to make sure we participate. Funny how things that I've envisioned for the last few years would finally have a chance for expression.

I imagine this often occurs for the Christian. Flashes enter into the mind of service moments that be yet be future without any knowledge as to how they will come to fruition. Then, without any manipulation of your own, God brings about that which you saw long before. It's as though the moment you're experiencing has a deja vu' component to it. Such was the Rockwall and Royse City parades for me. I've seen myself, my family and my church already in such community events in my mind. Executing it didn't seem all that strange as a result.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Our Town



Last Thursday Naomi and I took a 24 hour vacation to Hot Springs National Park. Our motel was near Lake Hamilton, so the drive into downtown was beautiful. It's a pretty area, offering a fix for those of us from the northwest who go through occasional mountain withdrawals. What was really a blessing though was time spent walking along Central ave along bathhouse row. We wandered into various shops and talked with shop owners. We browsed the knickknacks that celebrated local culture, and even enjoyed ice cream in a small candy store. The highlight was setting inside a warm locally owned coffee shop, sipping our mochas, watching the Christmas parade go by. The bands were from local schools, the floats were decorated with Christmas lights and the whole community was out to enjoy it. It was refreshing. I was truly able to relax.

Nevertheless, there was a tragic component to it as well. I noticed that the economy down there was definitely not what it once was. Back in the first half of the twentieth century, the wealthy were attracted to this place for the luxurious spas wherein one was pampered with opulent service. Surrounding that attraction where nightclubs, theaters and fine dining that all benefited together. Now it struggles to draw tourist dollars. The small town remains, but the celebration of it appears relegated to those hardy souls that already live there. The Arlington Hotel still operates, but several other hotels along the main strip have closed down. It's still quaint and pleasing to walk around, but nothing compared to what it must have been in its heyday. Oh I realize that the attraction to the bath houses is not now what it used to be, but people still visit luxurious resorts. It's a shame that Hot Springs was not able to adapt well to the changing times. I can't help but wonder if the fact that Interstate 30 is 20+ miles away contributed at all. Certainly Hot Springs still gets recreational and tourist revenue, but something was lost whereby it's not the exciting place that its many remaining buildings make it seem like it ought to be. You walk around celebrating was remains, realizing what was lost.

My own hometown of Redding, CA experienced something of this. When I was very little I remember going to the with downtown Redding mall my mother for her shopping. I can still hear the Christmas music and decorations that filled it in times of crowded commerce. The stores surrounding the Downtown Mall were frequented as well, cashing in on its draw. The Cascade theater was where I first saw "The Jungle Book." It was a symbol of downtown activity. Long ago, the main highway running north and south through Redding ran also through downtown, drawing attention to its businesses and shops. After I-5 went in it probably was inevitable that the Mt. Shasta Mall would be built (which is much closer to I-5 and on the other side of it), nailing the lid on downtown's coffin. As time went on I observed my mother's shopping habits change from browsing through Dicker's in the downtown mall to JC Penney's in the Mt. Shasta mall. Downtown wasn't a place to go. It was a place to go through on the way to someplace else.

This appears to have happened hear in Rockwall as well. The old downtown Rockwall plaza appears to have been a neat place to walk around and shop, seeing local people at one point. Now, however, I-30 has created a string of chain store commercial centers that all but supplies the tumbleweeds that blow through old downtown Rockwall. It's a tragedy that is captured well in the above segment from "Cars." When and where I can, I'll try to celebrate the old downtown places. I hope they don't become completely extinct. We sure were blessed by Hot Springs. I hope Fate can keep the old alive as new attractions inevitably grow up.