All posts in “Arts & Culture”

Mister Rogers and Daniel Tiger (puppet)

Why we long for Mister Rogers

A beautiful film speaks volumes to a broken culture

By Jim Killam

About halfway through A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, journalist Lloyd Vogel is interviewing Fred Rogers in a restaurant booth. It’s another in a series of conversations where, really, Mister Rogers has been interviewing Lloyd, uncovering deep pain from a torn relationship with his father.

“You love people like me,” Lloyd concedes.

“What are people like you?” Fred asks.

“Broken people.”


Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) and Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks) in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” Photo: TriStar Pictures

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is based on real-life journalist Tom Junod’s encounters with Mister Rogers for a 1998 Esquire magazine issue about heroes. The premise is cliché, but in this case true: a cynical journalist assigned to interview “the nicest man in the world.” And a throwaway, 400-word “fluff” assignment becomes a friendship that changes a man forever.

Junod wrote a wonderful essay for The Atlantic to coincide with the film’s opening. Lloyd Vogel’s storyline is fiction, which is why Junod asked that his and his relatives’ real names not be used. But his deep interactions with Fred Rogers were real and, he writes, reflected accurately:

“A long time ago, a man of resourceful and relentless kindness saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. He trusted me when I thought I was untrustworthy, and took an interest in me that went beyond my initial interest in him.”

That thought forms the movie’s story line, which is wonderfully framed as an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Getting there takes a few minutes, though. Tom Hanks’ singing entry made me laugh aloud. In the 1970s and ’80s, Mister Rogers might have been best known for the parodies by comedians like Eddie Murphy and Robin Williams. This seemed like another of those, for about 30 seconds. Then I forgot I was watching Hanks and was absorbed into a story that centers on the kindness of a man who seemed too good to be true.

• • •

IT’S HARD TO WATCH this film and not think about the gospels’ stories of broken people encountering Jesus. How he quickly moved past cultural differences and people’s own defenses. How he made the person to whom he was speaking feel like the most important person in the world. “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did,” the woman at the well told her friends.

Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers. Photo: TriStar Pictures

Fred Rogers was not a saint, as his wife, Joanne, reminds Lloyd in the movie. They resisted that moniker because it would imply a status that others could never attain. So what made him the way he was? Fred’s Christlike traits came certainly from the presence of the Holy Spirit, and also from practice: He read Scripture daily. He prayed for a long list of people, by name. He took time and gave people (especially children) his full attention. The story of Mister Rogers unmistakably whispers the fruit of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

The film’s reception and overwhelmingly positive reviews also made me wonder: In a culture where Christians are increasingly reviled — sometimes deservedly — and where people guard themselves against any religious message, how are this film and its main character finding their way to those same hardened hearts?

Simple, honest kindness. We long for it. In Fred Rogers, we see a man who deeply loved God, loved people and reflected the character of Jesus. In The Atlantic essay, Junod writes: “He could talk to anyone, believing that if you remembered what it was like to be a child, you would remember that you were a child of God.”

• • •

AS WE WALKED THROUGH the Showplace 16 lobby, I noticed the other movies playing there this week. Movies about crime, war, industry, a con artist, an insane clown, slavery, killer cyborgs, death, the supernatural and … ice princesses. Some of these are really good stories. Important stories. Some play to our worst appetites. Some are studio cash grabs.

Mister Rogers doesn’t fit this world. He never really did. He and his show were always a cultural oddity, but an oddity people felt unexplainably attracted to. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood moves slowly and quietly. At times, the theater walls couldn’t keep out the racket of a much louder movie playing next door.

Yet, the outside noise didn’t matter. There we all sat, transfixed by a story about a kids’ TV show aimed at 5-year-olds.

• • •

TOWARD THE END, the reality of our broken world busted in again. Four high-school aged kids bounded into the theater with their popcorn, giggling enough to be disruptive while they ran up the stairs toward the back rows. It looked like they had been at another movie and then decided to crash this one. It’s something kids do.

Still giggling, the kids found seats. A guy near the front, sitting with his date, stood and turned toward them.

“Get out. All of you. Get out now.”

The kids froze. Mr. Vigilante froze, and for a few seconds there was this tense, silent standoff. It didn’t help that the kids were black and the guy, who looked to be about 40, was white.

Finally he sat back down. The kids quieted. The pit in my stomach disappeared. On the screen, Mister Rogers continued helping a family come to grips with deep pain, grace and forgiveness.

And I thought: There it is. The tension, the fear, the incivility of our culture, juxtaposed with … Jesus. A glimpse of the upside-down kingdom, where the meek really will inherit the earth and the peacemakers will be called children of God.

The best films stick in our heads for days afterward, making us think deeply about who we are, individually and collectively. I don’t think Fred Rogers would feel very at home today in our broken, unkind culture. But I think he would like knowing that he still speaks to us, softly.


Wrestling with a masterpiece

A writer crumples under the weight of Handel’s Messiah, until …

By Jessi Uran 

What on earth was I thinking? I can’t write this.

I stared at the computer screen for what seemed like the 50th time in three weeks. I’d scribbled research notes on three different pages and formed five different outlines, only to fill a garbage can with what I emphatically told my husband was “mediocre rubbish, not worthy of a garbage can.” (Dramatic much?)

Writer’s block is not uncommon for me. But this was different. It was less of a block and more of an unscalable, cement wall. The task was simple, really: Write about Handel’s Messiah. I could take it any direction I wanted and write in whatever form. There were no expectations, no criteria. Just a deadline.

Autographed composition draft of ‘Amen Chorus’ from British Library Treasures

Not only did my father used to play Handel’s Messiah every Christmas season on our family’s living room stereo, but I also had heard it performed live last year, in the annual concert by the Rockford Choral Union. Listening to the product of their countless hours of practice and dedication had left an indelible mark. To begin, there seemed no more festive way to usher in the season of Advent than in the reverent architecture of Emmanuel Lutheran Church. Experiencing history in this way, with people young and old, and hearing the scriptural account in such grandeur was awe-inspiring.

The concert left me with a conviction: In a somewhat disciplinary way, I need to carve time to sit, listen and behold the wonder of Immanuel. At Christmas, ironically, the act of sitting and listening often gets lost in all the things there are to do. Deep joy came from spending an afternoon doing nothing other than marveling corporately at the story of the Savior.

And then a moment of … what?! During a Part 2 tenor solo from Lamentations — “Behold, and see if there be any sorrow” — a woman up the aisle from me decided to clip all 10 fingernails. At the same instant, a man four rows up raised his hands in complete rapture. I judged Madame Fingernails immediately, but days later I began to wonder: How many awe-deserving things do I treat just as flippantly?

All of this musing swirled uncategorized for the past year, until at our writers meeting a few weeks ago we tossed around the idea of a Thanksgiving-week piece about George Frideric Handel’s Messiah. My reaction was the equivalent of a grade school, “Ooh, me! Ooh, pick me, pick me!”

When they did, I had already started formulating it.

“Fantastic! There are a couple of different directions I might go. I’m so excited!”

• • •

Weeks later, nothing. I walked away from the computer and put on another pot of coffee. As if caffeine will make the writing flow. If that were the case, I’d have written an entire issue of The New Yorker by now. I could still hear my writing mentor’s words over the phone when I expressed the nervousness taking over: “Don’t freak out about this. You don’t have to actually write Handel’s Messiah. You are just going to write about it. Don’t overthink it.”

Wise words. Deaf ears. Seven drafts and two weeks later, there I sat. Freaking out and overthinking were about the only things I was accomplishing. The more I tried to convey the glory of the piece … the more I tried to attain the level of sanctity or the loftiness of topics like art and beauty … the further paralyzed I became.

Handel wrote the entire oratorio in 24 days. 24 DAYS! You’ve been at one article longer than that! What is WRONG with you?!

I glanced at my notes, hoping maybe to catch a spark, anything that could produce the spectacle I had built in my mind. The top page of my research, in bold letters, expressed Handel’s description of his artistic process in 1741.

“I felt as though I saw all of heaven opened up before me.”

I threw my pen down.

Good for you, Handel. Good. For. You. Because I’ve shown up here every day and have done the work but all I see opened before me is a blank Word document with a blinking cursor and a pile of dishes in the sink.

• • • 

“Looks like you’re being too hard on yourself.”

My husband kissed my furrowed brow and carried our daughter upstairs to bed. He was right, of course. My 4-year-old never has thoughts that she isn’t hitting the mark. In fact, days before she had run to me with a drawing of a rainbow and flowers and proclaimed, “Look! It’s my masterpiece!”

I grabbed a fifth-grade level library book titled, The Life of Handel. I had checked it out with my daughter in a last-ditch effort for inspiration. As I turned each page and read about Handel’s childhood, his schooling, relationships and work, the realization hit me.

He was just a man.

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)

He was just a man! True, he was prolific and talented, but in my mind’s eye I had built him up as a saint, an artist who heard directly from the pipeline of heaven. My writing would need to emulate this, I thought. But in these pages of his everyday life? Not everything he touched turned to gold. So, if Handel didn’t put the Midas pressure on himself … why should I?

As this realization sunk deeper into my mind that night, pieces began to move. Words started to form. Light began to shine. So I typed the first thing I didn’t feel like throwing away all month. Just a few phrases, really, not nearly enough for an article. But it was a start.

Oh Lord. This I see.

Your Holiness desired to dwell amidst our sinfulness.

Perfect amidst the imperfect.

Whole amidst the broken.

We could not pave the way for you with any merit of our own. But nothing kept you at arm’s length, waiting until we attained something. You came down because you knew we could attain nothing.

This is what we celebrate and this why over all the world choirs sing.

Because on our own, we are just men and women.

But under the banner of risen Messiah …

We are pure as gold.

• • •

I closed the computer and went to bed. The next morning, my deadline still waited. But it seemed less weighty.

I know I am not alone in this battle of letting perfect be the enemy of good. It’s especially easy to succumb to worldly pressures at Christmas season: “Bring your best or bring it not at all!” But in the face of that, the true story of the redeemed is the opposite kind of cry. We hear the heart of our Savior call:

Bring me what you have and worry not about the rest.

So I did the work of editing and rewriting, but now with less self-loathing —entrusting the author and perfector of my faith to take what I had, and do with it what he wanted.

Handel said of Messiah, “I do not wish to entertain them, but to make them better.”

Two hundred seventy-eight years later, with dishes still in the sink, a writer wrestled with it all and was made better in a way she did not expect.

• • •

The Rockford Choral Union will perform Handel’s Messiah Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 30 and Dec. 1, at Emmanuel Lutheran Church. Six people from First Free are taking part. Here’s a closer look, and our interview with Conductor Michael Beert.

Featured image illustration by Nathan McDonald, based on painting by Philip Mercier.


Handel’s Messiah: ‘Our gift back to Rockford’

Choral Union’s performances date back 74 years

Rockford Choral Union has performed Handel’s Messiah every Christmas season since 1945. This year’s choir includes 112 people. It’s open to anyone who wants to participate and commit to the rehearsals. Singers live as far away as Rochelle to the south, Janesville to the north, and the western Chicago suburbs.

“The nice thing is that we have a lot of people who have been with the group for a number of years, and now we are starting to see more and more young people singing with the group,” says second-year conductor Michael Beert. “So it becomes more of a mentor-student situation.”

Cherice Ullrich (left) and her mom, Cindy Jensen, sing during a rehearsal last year. Photo courtesy of Rockford Choral Union.

Multiple churches and denominations are represented.

“It used to be just a Lutheran Choral Union and we found that we would have Catholic, we would have Missouri Synod, we would have Assembly of God, we would have pretty much any denomination joining us,” Beert says. “And so we thought, why are we calling ourselves the Lutheran Choral Union when there are fewer and fewer Lutherans? It’s great that it’s interdenominational.”

Seven people from First Free Rockford are part of this year’s choir: Lynne Berglund, Sandra Hogan, Cindy Jensen, Keith Johnson, Sasha Pogwizd, Cherice Ullrich and Art Upmann.

The choir and guest soloists are accompanied by a 15-piece chamber orchestra.

Here’s part of our conversation with Beert, who is a renowned cellist and a music professor at Rock Valley College. His wife, Rachel Handlin, is concertmistress (first-chair violinist and instrument-playing leader of the orchestra).


This is your second year as conductor. What was it like last year, stepping in?

“The first thing I told them was, I am not a choral person. I haven’t really sung since high school, and that was a while ago. I know the piece, but from the bass up. From the cello parts. I know how it goes, but there were a lot of words I was learning last year and I’m still learning this year.

“This is all new to me. There are so many things you have to do in a rehearsal such as working on diction, working on the duration of the notes, working on the dynamics. The three D’s as (now-retired conductor) Nat Bauer told me.”


Michael Beert. Photo courtesy of Rockford Choral Union.

As a cellist you know Handel’s Messiah very well. What is it then like to conduct it versus playing it?

“They’re both a challenge. Because the cello part is constant. You feel like you’re strapped into your chair and you don’t get up until 2 1/2 hours later. Conducting it has a whole different set of concerns. You are always thinking, what is the next piece? What is the next tempo?

“The easiest thing for me to do would just be to sing along with them. I found, much to my chagrin, that I get carried away with the message. I get carried away with the bass part. I need to not do that.”


What does the work mean to you personally? Getting to conduct Handel’s Messiah has to be really special.

“It is. What I learned from Nat Bauer, the previous director, is that not only is this a great piece of music, with all these wonderful fugues and recitatives and arias, but how Handel put this together beautifully with the text, going all the way from the Old Testament book of Isaiah to Revelation. And then on top of that you have a five- or six-minute “Amen” chorus at the very end.”


What does it mean to you, message-wise?

“I have found a greater appreciation for Isaiah and his prophecy. It runs the gamut. Handel composed this piece in just a matter of weeks and that in itself is amazing. But for him to think, ‘What is the perfect music for what Isaiah is talking about?’ The opening tenor recitative and aria is Isaiah’s message of comfort to Israel. They’re in Samaria, in exile. He’s talking about warfare, strife, all these valleys and mountains that must be overcome, and he just gives you calmness. At the same time he is trying to tell the people of Israel, ‘Your time will come. Peace will come to you.’ Even though there is great conflict.

First Free Rockford member Sasha Pogwizd sings in Handel’s Messiah. Photo courtesy of Rockford Choral Union.

“Handel does an old trick that goes back hundreds of years before, where you take a text, and you somehow try to shape that text musically. For example, ‘Every hill and mountain shall be made low.’ He has the tenor (soloist) go up and down to imitate the valleys, the hills, the mountains. He just word paints so beautifully. …

“Early on, it’s Isaiah in the prophecy. Then it’s the birth, then it’s the strife of the crucifixion, the passion. Even during that, Handel sets us up in Isaiah: Yea, even though all of this is going to happen, there is a greater promise there. And that’s there throughout the entire thing. The choruses at the passion are really strong. And then with the resurrection he gives you the Hallelujah Chorus. It’s just like the clouds have opened up.

“Following that, we get into the third section which is all from Revelation. And he gives us probably one of the most beautiful arias, I Know That My Redeemer Liveth. A great message of peace again.”


What does it mean for the community to have a chance to come and hear a work like this every year?

“The way the Choral Union looks at it is, this is our gift back to the Rockford community. They’ve always felt strongly about that. This is our 74th year. The first performance in Rockford was in 1945, really as a way to celebrate the end of the war.

From one of last year’s performances. Photo courtesy of Rockford Choral Union.

“The way I feel about it, it’s like if you had a jewel or a cello or something special. You’re only the caretaker of it and you’re going to pass it on. I don’t know how long I’m going to be there, but it’s my job, very much like the president of an organization, to make sure it continues. It’s important. This kind of tradition is not just something that ‘those old people’ do. No, it’s constantly being reborn.

“These people have devoted so much time, energy, and care. Some of them have it memorized, to perform it and to really try to minister not only to themselves and the people around them, but to the audience. We need to make sure that continues. It’s a beautiful thing.”

• • •

Performances are at 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 30 and Dec. 1, at Emmanuel Lutheran Church, 920 Third Ave. Admission is free; a free-will offering is taken during each performance.

» More information


vintage record player with snowflake pattern

Christmas music: candy canes and lumps of coal

Want to fill your house with great Christmas music, but maybe not the same old stuff you’ve listened to for decades? Or, do you want to know which timeless Christmas albums to avoid at all costs? Either way, we’ve got you covered.


The A side

Here are three newly released albums we think are worth your time.


Sing! An Irish Christmas – Live at the Grand Ole Opry House

Keith and Kristyn Getty

This live album’s 19 tracks radiate joy and worship. Most of the songs are familiar, but carry a fresh sound that’s part Celtic, part Nashville and part contemporary worship. (You have not heard Sleigh Ride until you’ve heard it played like a sea shanty on Celtic instruments, but also with banjos.)

The Gettys are a husband-and-wife hymn writing team who split their time between Nashville and their native Northern Ireland. This is their second live Christmas album, following 2015’s Joy — An Irish Christmas, which also became a PBS TV special.




Sandra McCracken

One of today’s best songwriters / hymn writers turns her contemplative lyrics and storytelling to her first Christmas album. Joyful standards like Go Tell It on the Mountain and Joy to the World are here, but this album is a lot more than background music during Christmas dinner. On original songs like The Space Between, McCracken confronts loneliness and longing that can accompany the holidays.

“I hope for my music to help stir people to ask the important questions, to bring comfort and hope, and to help people sing together,” she told CCM Magazine. “A Christmas album is all the more reason to do just that.”



Liturgical Folk

A retired Anglican priest and a church music director have written more than 50 hymns together since meeting in 2015. Now they turn their attention to Advent music with a collection of nine new hymns.

From their website:

“Music is vital to Christian worship. It’s no wonder, then, that music is near the heart of the worship wars. The generations divide along fault lines of stylistic preference. When music is commodified to serve the people, it becomes entertainment. Music is supposed to be a service of the people, not a service to the people. This paradigm shift will help us defer our own musical tastes in worship and to consider what makes others sing. It will take a willingness for mutual appreciation, but in time our hearts will blend into one. A church may even discover its own unique musical expression!”



The B Side

Christmas music runs the gamut. For every O Holy Night, there are dogs barking Jingle Bells. So, we listened to a few ill-advised efforts so you don’t have to. These albums make excellent white-elephant gifts, but that’s about all. The Bottom Five:


William Shatner: Shatner-Claus

Here’s Shatner’s dramatic reading of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer to a group of uncomfortable-looking kids. It soon gives way to a musical ending we can’t even begin to explain.

Roseanne Barr sings the Christmas Classics

Asking the musical question: Why?

Michael Bolton: This is the Time / The Christmas Album

Holiday stylings from the man who sings like he’s caught in a hydraulic press. We include this pick to represent every famous singer who slapped together a Christmas album to hear the ring-ting-tingling of the cash register.

Star Wars: Christmas in the Stars

Amid bizarre songs about Wookies, 18-year-old John Francis Bongiovi sings R2D2 We Wish You and Merry Christmas. The future Jon Bon Jovi was paid $180 … which was $179 too much.

Jingle Cats: Meowy Christmas

If you love cats, this should put a stop to it. Here’s not-so Silent Night.

Neighbor Songs: stirring stories of grace in community

I recently celebrated my 15th wedding anniversary with my wife, Jessica. We asked a friend who’s a chef to prepare a private meal for us. I also contributed by preparing a fantastic… mix tape. OK, OK. I’m not that cool. It was a Spotify playlist, and good thing it was. I had over 100 songs queued up to serenade us during the meal! But it was more than creating a mood to enhance our candle-lit evening. Each song marked a specific season or experience in our relationship, and stirred us to retell every story as they played.

Album cover for Neighbor Songs by The Porter's Gate

Album cover for Neighbor Songs

The Porter’s Gate worship project, founded by Isaac and Megan Wardell, seeks to do that for the church: write songs that connect with our life experiences and communities, and stir up our stories as God’s family. In 2017, they released a collaborative album titled Work Songs that focuses on worship and vocation. Last month, they released their second project titled Neighbor Songs—another collection of songs focused on loving our neighbor as ourselves.


Songs for a troubled world

When age-old questions like what does it means to love my neighbor? and who is my neighbor? have made frequent appearances in our sermons, studies and conversations, Neighbor Songs marks this important time and invites us back into the scriptures and teachings of Jesus on these matters.

The opening track, Blessed are the Merciful, sets the stage with portions of the Sermon on the Mount and the Lord’s Prayer that lifts into a soaring petition for God’s mercy on us and through us. Following is Nothing to Fear, a beautiful duet by Audrey Assad and Paul Zach that carries Jesus’ promise to never leave us nor forsake us as we seek to follow him and make him known in our troubled world.


An unexpected diversity

As the album plays on, you quickly notice the diversity of artists and musical styles. The writing and arrangements express a variety of genres: traditional folk, Americana, indie-pop and Gospel—as well as some unexpected styles like neoclassical and ranchera. The musicians range from established artists such as Leslie Jordan (All Sons & Daughters), Josh Garrels and Audrey Assad to emerging artists like Casey J and Diana Gameros, who sings two of the songs in Spanish.

This diversity goes even deeper. Neighbor Songs was the result of an ecumenical gathering of songwriters, theologians, pastors and music professionals. The same happened for their freshman project Work Songs. It speaks to The Porter’s Gate’s effort to bring diverse voices and perspectives to the same table centered around the good news of Jesus Christ.

When so much of modern worship music is driven by the pursuit of the next congregational hit, centered on one particular artist, worship style or megachurch brand, the community-driven approach of The Porter’s Gate is both refreshing and needed. It serves as a subversive model for our creative endeavors in the church to help cut through our tendency to get stuck in one narrative stream. It begins with a posture of listening, of learning.


Teach us your ways

Maybe this is part of how we answer the question about loving our neighbor: it is the result of practicing it among ourselves. We come to our Lord’s table as sisters and brothers to listen and to learn. The song that struck me the most from Neighbor Songs was the simplest on the album. Here’s the opening verse from Teach Us Your Ways, sung by Leslie Jordan:

Teach us Your ways, teach us Your ways
As we learn from one another
Learn to love each other
Teach us Your ways

These words and songs will serve our communities well as we learn to walk alongside each other in the way of Jesus, responding with our lives to the question what does it mean to love my neighbor? And just like my wife and I retold the stories connected to our playlist of songs, there will be a day when the eternal Song of Grace stirs up the stories of our lives and our neighbors’ lives at the banquet feast of our Lord.

Also: See our early Christmas music recommendations titled Christmas music: candy canes and lumps of coal.


Halloween Q&A with Pastor Luke Uran

First Free Rockford has shifted its approach over the past two years from a Trunk-or-Treat event in the church parking lot, and then at a school, to now encouraging our church family to spend Halloween evening in their own neighborhoods. We talked with Pastor Luke Uran about reasons for this change.


Why did First Free decide not to do Trunk-or-Treat any more?
Headshot of Lead Pastor Luke Uran

Luke Uran, Lead Pastor

We have been transitioning from a church that focused on come-and-see events to a church that is now saying let’s go, tell and show the love of God in the city of Rockford and around the world. In other words, rather than inviting people to come to the church, why don’t we just stay where we are and do it there? We aren’t telling people this is a must. But if I’m standing there with the porch light on, handing out candy and talking with parents and kids, it’s not only gospel intentionality, it’s loving the city. You know, we always pray for opportunities to evangelize, but people were coming to our doors and we weren’t home. The lights were turned off. 

Even if we don’t necessarily agree with the holiday itself, it’s a great opportunity for us to be light in darkness. It’s an opportunity for us to love the kids and families in our communities. 


Do you have some ideas for things people could do during trick-or-treat hours?

Be home. Hand out candy. For some, maybe they hand out cups of coffee or hot cocoa to parents walking by. I know some people who have grilled hot dogs and brats and handed them out to parents. You could even set up a game, throwing beanbags or something, and kids get candy that way. 

Or if people don’t want to do any of that at their house, they could be out on the driveway talking to people and just being present.


What if a Christian doesn’t want to observe Halloween at all?

As followers of Jesus, we can definitely rain on the devil’s parade. Light drives out darkness. And as we walk in the light and have the source of light, Jesus, in our lives, we will overcome darkness. The best way we can do that, of course, is by bringing people into relationship with Jesus Christ.

I don’t want to guilt anyone into doing things on Halloween they feel are wrong. At the very least, maybe you take time before dinner, or during trick-or-treat hours, and pray for the city, the kids, the families, the schools. Maybe you do that in your home and your porch light is turned off. But do something that night that is intentional.


Mickey Mouse only real when shared

Life in community is important.
By Jim Killam | Illustration by Nathan McDonald

As a newspaper reporter, I once attended a media event at Walt Disney World. We journalists would attend morning press conferences about new rides and attractions, and then the rest of the day was our own.

For three days, I was treated like a Disney princess. I could ride any ride, see any show, eat at any restaurant … all on Mickey Mouse’s dime.

The catch was, I was by myself.

A statue of Walt and the mouse demonstrating life in community.

Even Walt had a mouse to pal around with here.

There is a definite place in life for solitude. That place is a long way from Walt Disney World. As I watched Indiana Jones blow up an airplane, rode Space Mountain in the dark or got dropped from the Tower of Terror, I’d never felt more uncomfortably isolated. I’d get off the rides with hundreds of people and there would be no one to talk with, laugh with … even barf with.

I’d just had exactly the same experience as all of those happy, laughing people around me, but all I felt was alone and self-conscious — and that I definitely shouldn’t walk anywhere near small kids. I know solo travel has become a big thing, and maybe it works for some. No rules, no compromises, no agenda but your own. For me, the experience was just … empty. I couldn’t wait to go home, and to come back later with people I love. 

Leaving it all behind

In the true 1996 book and 2007 movie, Into the Wild, Christopher McCandless graduates from college, disillusioned with materialistic society. He leaves home without telling anyone where he’s going, gives away everything he has and embarks on a solo quest to find meaning and purpose. That leads to random stops around the country, all with an eventual goal: Alaska. The ultimate wilderness.

Image of man walking in snow from Into the Wild.

Paramount Pictures

Before embarking on the last leg of his journey north, Chris tells his friend, Ron Franz: “You are wrong if you think that the joy of life comes principally from the joy of human relationships. God’s place is all around us. It is in everything and in anything we can experience. People just need to change the way they look at things.”

Near the end of the film, Chris’ opinion has changed. His rejection of family, church and society has left him dangerously alone. To find himself, by himself, has been no answer. Facing starvation in the Alaskan wilderness, he writes in the margin of the book, Doctor Zhivago: “Happiness only real when shared.”

Church and elder brothers

During a time of family struggle a few years ago, we stepped away from church and small groups for a few months. We felt defeated, disillusioned and let down. A holy discontent, we reasoned. Church felt less like a close community of believers and more like one continuous argument over worship and preaching styles.

So we just stopped going. I never came close to abandoning my faith, but church felt empty. For the time being, the thought of just God, me, a Bible and a journal sounded pretty attractive.

Chris McCandless’ story haunted me those months away from church. What did my faith mean apart from the messiness of community? Did this all really just begin and end in my own head? What’s the end game in loving God but not the church?

Around that time I also read Timothy Keller’s book, The Prodigal God, in which he drew on Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son. Churches can be so unpleasant, he wrote, because we can see them as being filled with elder brothers — self-righteous, jealous, graceless jerks. Yet when I stayed away because of that, I had to come to grips with my own self-righteous jerkiness.

Keller also said this:

“There is no way you will be able to grow spiritually apart from a deep involvement in a community of other believers. You can’t find the Christian life without a band of Christian friends, without a family of believers in which you find a place.”

Long story short: We didn’t stay away for long. In fact, not long after we came back to the church, we felt God’s call to missions. Loving God but not the church had left me with an incomplete faith, and fewer people to share it with. Holy discontent didn’t stay holy for very long.

Life in Community

This month, First Free Rockford is engaging with a sermon series called Life in Community. Whether we’re married, single or widowed, it does us all good to realize community is where we thrive. God placed us in community to worship, grow and serve together — not to ride life’s roller coasters alone.

Views expressed on this blog are those of the writer alone. References to films, music or other works should not be considered an endorsement by First Free Rockford.


Church music for a new century

By Jim Killam | Illustration by Nathan McDonald

This summer’s “1 Hit Wonders” sermon series got me thinking about the term’s origin. It refers to any singer or band that produced a single popular song, then was forgotten. Think: The Macarena. Think: Who Let the Dogs Out?

Over the next day and a half while you’re trying to get those songs out of your head (sorry), think about Christian worship music, why we sing the songs we do in church and how many of those songs will be remembered years from now. Differences of opinion about church music might seem like a purely modern discussion. Hardly. 


Pastor Luke Teaching about Church Music in the One Hit Wonders Series

Pastor Luke teaching in the “1 Hit Wonders” series

Rediscovering a timeless perspective

Recently, I happened upon a box of old books. One red-covered volume particularly caught my eye: How to Promote and Conduct a Successful Revival, edited by R.A. Torrey and published in 1901. Torrey was a ministry partner of Dwight L. Moody and a key figure in the early days of Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute.

Thumbing through this brittle, old book, I stopped on the chapter called Music in a Revival, by Daniel B. Towner. Towner wrote Trust and Obey and dozens of other hymns. He was music director for several churches and finally at Moody from 1893 to 1919.

Here’s what Towner recommended as the 20th century dawned.  It’s a 381-word paragraph, which would have gotten me kicked out of journalism school. But stick with it. Let his thoughts simmer. I’ve bolded a couple of key sentences.


Towner’s recommendation

“While great care should be exercised in the selection of music for revival meetings, yet one must not be hypercritical about new songs. About twenty years ago a committee of literary men and musicians were compiling a denominational hymnbook, and certain hymns and tunes were rejected as not being of a high enough order. But to-day those same hymns and tunes are being used in all denominational books as they are revised and compiled, and have proven by their vitality that they belong among the classics. If a tune is well-written, no matter how simple, don’t be afraid to try it. If a hymn does not teach error, direct or implied, don’t be afraid to give it a trial; but if it does, no matter what its literary merit may be, let it alone. Let it be distinctly understood that we are not opposed to the use of old hymns, not by any means, for quite the contrary is the case. We believe that the good old hymns are the heritage of the church, and should be regarded as such, and that they should be sacredly kept and perpetuated, and that each successive generation should be taught to sing them well, but to hold on to these to the exclusion of the new ones would be a calamity. As new men come on the scene, they embody the truth into new hymns, and it gives a freshness just the same as is the case with a new sermon, and new tunes awaken new interest in these themes, such as the old ones do not. As we become familiar with a tune, it gradually loses its power with us, even though we never become tired of it. But the new tune arrests the attention, and gives the truth it carries a chance to enter the heart. Some people seem to outlive their usefulness, while others never do. It is just so with songs. There are those that should be in every selection, and there are others that seem to have been embalmed, as it were, and laid away in the denominational books which are never used. We do not object, they have served well no doubt, now let them rest in peace, while others come on and do service in their turn.”

What a great, balanced viewpoint. We honor and sing the old hymns as “the heritage of the church,” while also realizing that new songs and styles may strike us with biblical truth from a slightly different and fresher angle.

Book Cover for How to Promote and Conduct a Successful Revival
Book Cover for "How to Promote and Conduct a Successful Revival"

As new men come on the scene, they embody the truth into new hymns, and it gives a freshness just the same as is the case with a new sermon, and new tunes awaken new interest in these themes, such as the old ones do not.

“Heretical Flapdoodle” or “We’ll be singing this in heaven”?

There’s a lot to sift through. If you google “worship songs with bad theology” or “hymns with bad theology,” grab a Snickers bar (or an artisanal kale cupcake if you prefer) because you’re not going anywhere for a while. The same hymn or worship song can evoke a wide range of opinion, from “heretical flapdoodle” to “we’ll be singing this in heaven.”



Church music is for every generation.

Every generation produces a vast catalog of songs that are quickly forgotten, and a few that live on. That’s how music works, from Mozart to the Macarena or from Charles Wesley to Hillsong United. A hymnal or worship songbook amounts to a Greatest Hits collection, and even from those, we sing only a tiny fraction. We’ll find some of today’s worship music in tomorrow’s songbooks. Most — even some pretty good songs — will wind up on the flapdoodle pile, alongside most of the hymns written generations ago. Some might even be rediscovered and rescued.


Audience Participation

Which leads to our audience-participation question: Of the worship songs and hymns composed in the past two decades, which ones will people still be singing 100 years from now? And why? Send us your comments. No flapdoodle, please.