Monday, September 29, 2008

Timeout: Can't post from Disney

The marketing mouse wants $10 per day for internet access, so I'm opting to suspend my series about recently completed reading and enjoy our family vacation. I'll resume the series when I return to the magical world of free internet.

Friday, September 26, 2008

BOOK 8: I, Robot by Isac Asimov (audio)

I had never read any Asimov largely because science fiction isn't a favorite genre of mine, but the description sounded interesting. I have not seen the film, but highly enjoyed the book. Several discs into listening to it, I checked the copyright and was astounded that Asimov wrote this book over 50 years ago, before the PC, before many digital conveniences were a part of our lives. His vision of the future captured many specific elements of our life that have come to pass in the interim, but he also seemed to capture the psyche of westerners in the digital age in an uncanny way.

I, Robot makes a statement about the endgame of giving over too much control to a digital lifestyle. What begins as convenience becomes control and we are no longer in charge. I think his prediction or prophecy is coming to pass in some significant ways.

I highly recommend I, Robot even to the non-sci fi types like me.

BOOK 7: The Abstinence Teacher

Tom Perrotta is a Boston writer who shares the story of a high school health teacher and a born again stoner and rocker. The Abstinence Teacher challenges a lot of assumptions about sinners and saints. It may be set in a small town, but it just as easily could be set in any major metro's suburb. I think that's where Perrotta really succeeds in his writing--identifying the malaise so many people feel in the suburbs and bringing out just how ready people are for any kind of excitement--all the better if it's a controversy involving sex and spirituality. His characters are believable, not cartoons. The way the two main characters here stumble into a situation together seems completely plausible and the depth he brings to their responses to the scenarios they face ought to be a curriculum for any young writers attempting write real people. Who is sinful and who is saved? is a central theme to this book.

I suppose I should give a disclaimer as a Massachusetts resident who has been accused of being a liberal--I'm sure this book might offend some believers. The portrayals of Christians and attitudes toward Christians expressed in this book are not always positive. And, in case the title doesn't make it clear, the book deals with adult themes. I found Perrotta's understanding of evangelicalism spot on and a challenge to my walk of faith. Others might call him a heretic. Ok, just don't say I didn't warn ya.

BOOK 6: The Education of a Coach by David Halberstam (audio)

Bill Belichik is a puzzle to those of us who live in New England and breathe Patriots football. He is universally respected (now), I'm not sure I'd go so far as to say loved, but admired definitely. When he does press interviews on radio or television, he surrenders almost no information. All Patriots fans love what he has done for and with the team, but unlike personalities like Bill Parcells or Jimy Williams with the Sox, there is a feeling that no one knows who the man is behind the genius tag.

Halberstam did an admirable job at getting at a lot of the background information, particularly on Belichik's heritage growing up as the son of eastern european immigrants and the book chronicles Bill's dad's career as a major part of his education as a coach. Steve Belichick coached at several schools including, most famously, the Naval Academy and as a result, his son was engrossed in football from an early age.

This book gave away almost nothing personal about the coach himself, apart from his childhood. It did give significant insight into how Belichik developed his passion for and his approach to football. It shared who many of the key influences were that created this great football mind. It's also a great sort of American Dream story of the trajectory of this family from eastern europe to small Pennsylvania mining towns to Super Bowl glory.

Eric Conger did the narration. I can't find any evidence that he voiced any of the NFL Films stuff, but that's the style all the way. Hard hitting pronunciation and a gravelly tone that fit the Belichik heritage, but honestly grew tiresome after the third ofr foruth disc. Halberstam's clear and direct writing style made up for that, though and I liked the stories he chose to include in chronicling the coach.

I recommend it to any sports fan, except the Patriot haters. You'll probably hate this book. Too bad Halberstam's not around any longer to write the Education of a Cassel.

BOOK 5: Through Painted Deserts by Donald Miller

Donald Miller is my favorite Christian author because he doesn't write on spiritual topics from an overly churchese perspective. In Through Painted Deserts, he remixes his earlier version of the same work, Prayer and the Art of Volkswagen Maintenance. It's a road book about a trip Miller took as a young man with a friend of his named Paul. Miller was escaping Houston, TX, which ends up serving as a sort of every-megalopolis USA as the opposite of what real life is meant to be. I'm a sucker for a road book anyway, but this one is particularly good. The stories are funny, almost unbelievable. It's not as good as Blue Like Jazz, but that's hardly surprising as BLJ is a book for the ages.

There are several sections of the book that I noted on the inside back cover because I wanted to remember them, but really, this book is best taken as a whole, so I'm only sharing a few pages that epitomize the essence of the book.

THE MEANING OF LIFE (pp. 75 paragraph 1 thru 77)

"I tend to think life is about security, that when you have a full year's rent, you can rest. I worry about things too much. I worry about whether or not my ideas are right, I worry about whether or not people like me, I worry about whether or not I am going to get married, and then I worry about whether or not my girl will leave me if we get married. Lately, I found myself worrying about whether or not my car is fashionable, whether I sounded like an idiot when I spoke in public, whether or not my hair was going to fall out, and all of it, perhaps, because I bought into Houston, one thousand miles of concrete and strip malls and megachurches, none of it real. I mean it's there, it's made out of matter, but it's all hype. None of the messages are true or have anything to do with the fact we are spinning around on a planet in a galaxy set somewhere in a cosmos that doesn't have any edges to it. There doesn't seem to be any science saying any of this stuff matters at all. But it feels like it matters, whatever it is; it feels like we are supposed to be panicking about things. I remember driving down I-45 a few months ago and suddenly realizing the number of signs that were screaming at me, signs wanting me to buy waterbeds, signs wanting me to watch girls take off their clothes, signs wanting me to eat Mexican food, to eat barbeque, backlit, scrolling signs wanting me to come to church, to join this gym, to see this movie, to finance a car, even if I have no money. And it hit me that, amid the screaming noise, amid the messages that said buy this product and I will be made complete, I could hardly know the life that life was meant to be. Houston makes you feel that life is about the panic and the resolution of the panic, and nothing more. Nobody stops to question whether they actually need the house and the car and the better job. And because of this there doesn't seem to be any peace; there isn't any serenity. We can't see the stars in Houston anymore, we can't go to the beach without stepping on a Coke bottle, we can't hike in the woods because there aren't any more woods. We can only panic about the clothes we wear, panic about the car we drive, sit stuck in traffic and panic about whether or not the guy who cut us off respects us. We want to kill him for cryin g out loud, and all the while we feel a need for new furniture and a new television and a bigger house in the right neighborhood. We drive around in a trance, salivating for Starbucks while that great heaven sits above us, and that beautiful sunrise is happening in the desert, and all those mountains out West are collecting snow on the limbs of their pines, and all those leaves are changing colors out East. God, it is so beautiful, it is so quiet, it is so perfect. It makes you feel, maybe for a second, that Paul [his travel companion] gets it and we don't - that if you live in a van and get up to see the sunrise and cook your own food on a fire and stop caring about whether your car breaks down or whether you have fashionable clothes or whether or not people do or do not like you, that you have broken through, that you have shut your ear to the bombardment of lies that never, ever stop whispering in your ear. And maybe this is why he seems so different to me, because he has become a human who no longer believes the commercials are true, which, perhaps, is what a human was designed to be.

It makes sense, if you think about it. I mean we stood out in the desert this morning, and the chemicals in my brain poured soothingly through the gray matter, as if to massage with fingers the most tender part of my mind, as if to say, this is what a human is supposed to feel. This is what we were made for, to come alive; like fairy dust, making trees and cacti and humans from the magic of its propulsion. It makes me wonder, now, how easily the brain can be tricked out of what it was supposed to feel, how easily the brain can be tricked by somebody who has a used car to sell, a new perfume, whatever. You will feel what you were made to feel if you buy this thing I am selling. But could the thing you and I were supposed to feel, the thing you and I were supposed to be, cost nothing? Paul seems to think so, or at least he acts as if this is true. He doesn't want to sit in a hotel room and catch up on the news. He doesn't want to rifle through the sports page and make sure the team he has associated his ego with is doing well. I don't think he is trying to win anything at all. I just think he is trying to feel what a human is supposed to feel when he stops believing lies. And maybe when a person doesn't buy the lies anymore, when a human stops long enough to realize the stuff people say to get us to part with our money often isn't true, we can finally see the sunrise, smell the wetness in a Gulf breeze, stand in awe at the downpour of a magnificent twenty thousand foot waterfall, ten square miles wide, wonder at the physics of a duck paddling itself across the surface of a pond, enjoy the reflection of the sun on the face of the moon, and know, This is what I was made to do. This is who I was made to be, that life is being given to me as a gift, and that God is doing these things to dazzle us."

BOOK 4: A Song Flung Up to Heaven by Maya Angelou (audio)

I stated up front that when I listen to audio books, I only listen to unabridged versions. I particularly like it when books are read by their authors and in the case of an autobiography, listening to Maya Angelou read A Song Flung Up to Heaven was a special privilege. In the interest of full disclosure, when I took this book out of the library, I had no idea that the singular Ms. Angelou had written multiple autobiographies. This one, though chronicled a lot of her early work with the NAACP, the civil rights movement and her friendship with and admiration for both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.

I have a sense that reading this book might be a very different experience as the poetic prose might be too much in print in some cases. The style works in this medium and is enhanced by Angelou's varied sometimes sing-s0ng modulation of her voice. Her sense of humor, experience with people of so many cultures and her descriptions of critical moments in the life of Harlem and our country kept this book always interesting.

I learned a lot about the important life of this complicated American and want to read more of her work. I recommend A Song Flung Up to Heaven. If you have the opportunity and the inclination, listen to it instead of reading this one.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

BOOK 3: A Generous Orthodoxy by Brian McLaren

If there was a single book that motivated this project, A Generous Othodoxy by Brian McLaren fits the bill. I had started this book before the goal was born, but I had not gotten deep into it and the book had been on my shelf for just about a year. I commited to reading it during my morning devotions and it was a very rich experience. McLaren combines on point thoughtfulness and thoroughness with an ability to communicate clearly, directly and in a winsome, inviting way. I think he may be the most important communicator of the gospel alive today (that ought to elicit some comments, I'm sure).

The full title of the book includes the following subtitle: Why I Am a Missional, Evangelical, Post/Protestant, Liberal/Conservative, Mystical/Poetic, Biblical, Charismatic/Contemplative, Fundamentalist/Calvinist, Anabaptist/Anglican, Methodist, Catholic, Green, Incarnational, Depressed-yet-Hopeful, Emergent, Unfinished CHRISTIAN. I enjoy the exhaustiveness of McLaren's approach in this book. He goes after the hard questions and successfully contemplates the duality of being in the world, but not of the world. Accessible stories accompany deep theological assertions. Practical, doable suggestions support heady concepts.

I have begun a new practice of recording page numbers with significant passages for me in the back cover of books I own. In that way, I have a personal index to return to later if I know I read something particularly good by an author or in a specific book. Rather than searching through pages of highlighted passages, I can turn to the back cover for reference. This will also allow friends who may borrow a book of mine to encounter the material in a fresh way without my highlights and scribbles to distract them.

Here are a few of my favorites. I've included Google books links in the headings if you want to read it as it appears in the book.

FORGIVENESS (p. 95 paragraph 3, sentence 3 thru top of p. 96)
“Forgiveness without conviction is not forgiveness: it is irresponsible toleration. It doesn't lead to reconciliation and peace; it leads to chaos. (Ask any third-grade teacher who tolerates her rowdy students but never convicts them by naming and addressing their misbehavior.) Conversely, judgment without mercy is not salvation, but condemnation. It doesn't lead to reconciliation and peace; it leads to alienation. The Good News of salvation is that Goid sent Jesus not to condemn but to save; to save by bringing justice with mercy, true judgment with true forgiveness. First by exposing our worng (judging) so we can face our wrong and turn from it...and then by forgiving our wrong, God intervenes and breaks the chain of cause and effect, of offence and alienation, so we're truly saved--liberated, recued--from teh vicious cycle (aka mess) we created.

Some people I know once found a snapping turtle crossing the road in New Jersey. Snapping turtles are normally ugly: gray, often sporting a slimy coating of green algae, trailing a long, serrated, gator-like tail and fronted by massive and sharp jaws that can damage if not sever a careless finger or two. This turtle was uglier than most: it was grossly deformed due to a plastic bottle top, a ring about an inch and a half in diameter that it had accidentally acquired as a hatchling when it, too, was about an inch and a half in diameter. The ring had fit around its midsection like a belt back then, but now, nearly a foot long, weighing about nine pounds, the animal was corseted by the ring so it looked like a figure eight.

My friends realized that if they left the turtle in its current state, it would die. The deformity was survivable at nine pounds, but a full-grown snapper can weigh 30. At that size the constriction would not be survivable. So, they snipped the ring. And nothing happened. Nothing.

Except for one thing: at that moment the turtle had a future. It was rescued. It was saved. It would take years for the animal to grow into more normal proportions, maybe decades. Perhaps even in old age it would still be somewhat guitar-shaped. But it would survive.

A ring of selfishness, greed, lust, injustice, fear, prejudice, arrogance, apathy, chauvinism, and ignorance has similarly deformed our species. When I say that Jesus is Saviour, I believe he snipped the ring by judging, forgiving, suffering, dying, rising and more. And he’s still working to restore us, to lead us, to heal us. Jesus is still in the process of saving us. Because I have confidence in Jesus as Savior, I’m seeking to be part of his ongoing saving work, sharing his saving love for our world.

A TRUTH GREATLY REDUCED from WALTER BRUEGGEMAN (bottom p. 145 thru top 146)
The gospel is a truth widely held, but a truth greatly reduced. It is a truth that has been flattened, trivialized, and rendered inane. Partly, the gospel is simply an old habit among us, neither valued nor questioned. But more than that, our technical way of thinking reduces mystery to problem, transforms assurance into certitude, revises quality into quantity, and takes the categories of biblical faith and represents them in manageable shapes….There is then no danger, no energy, no possibility, no opening for newness!...That means the gospel may have been twisted, pressed, tailored, and gerrymandered until it is comfortable with technological reason that leaves us unbothered, and with ideology that leaves us with uncriticized absolutes.

Though the last one is not original McLaren, it is indicative of the kind of quality scholarship that he includes and references throughout. I could go on with some others, but that's probably enough.

Without a doubt, I recommend this book to anyone whether you believe in Jesus as the Savior of the world or not. This book is that good and is the definitive statement of what Christianity could be today.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

BOOK 2 LA Confidential (audio)

I can't really say what compelled me to borrow LA Confidential by James Ellroy from the library. Maybe, I had fuzzy memories of the film with Danny DeVito, Kevin Spacey and Russell Crowe. I generally hate noir and in the end, this book holds to form in that way. It explores very dark portions of the human spirit. The Ed Exley character and Wendell "Bud" White, the role played by Russell Crowe in the film version, are compelling and complicated figures. I found myself disliking everyone in this book at one point or another.

I guess the trouble was that by the time I figured out that this book was unpleasant for me, it was too far into it. I had invested several hours of listening time and didn't want to turn back. Perhaps I should have. The overwhelming prevalence of sadness and emptiness in this narrative ultimately left me wishing I had never gone for it in the first place.

Probably bad form to do this on book #2 out of 40, but I can't recommend this book, too much heaviness and void and not enough to make it a book worth reading.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

50 Books in a year, or as it were, 40

Last year on my birthday, I set a goal to read 50 books before my next birthday. My father did it while I was growing up and looking around at the many books that had sat on shelves at home, I wanted to try to accomplish this. I also realized that I simply don't spend enough time reading, so I set out on my quest. I did not, in fact, reach the goal of 50, but completing 40 books this past year means I far outpaced anything I've done recently, probably ever.

A couple of points about how I calculated books I've "read:"

1. I had started reading a few of the books before my last birthday. I counted any books that I had finished. This was helpful as it motivated me to finish some books I hadn't previously been able to get through.

2. I counted audio books that I listened to primarily on my commute. I know the purists may not like this approach, but for what it's worth, I only borrow unabridged audio books from the library and this is a vastly better way to spend my commute than the other available options. As I note them here, they will be listed with (audio).

3. I tried to read a variety of books, but did not lay out a plan of so many biographies, so many novels, so many non-fiction books. I just kind of felt my way along as I was finishing one or two books (I read more than one at a time, another trick from dear old Dad), I'd figure out what to pick up next.

4. I'll also be adding my thoughts on the books to my facebook virtual bookshelf. Same thoughts here as there, but if you'd rather check it out on facebook, well, there you go.

5. This is not the last time I'll do this. On January 1, 2009, I'll restart the year with the goal of 50 books and perhaps, more of a plan.

In theory, my next 40 blog posts will be thoughts and perhaps some favorite quotations from the books. Also, in theory, this will take place over the next 40 days. Where possible, I'll link the title to the Amazon or Google Books page (whichever has more info) where you can preview the book for yourself. What will Google do next?

So here goes, BOOK #1 Mystic River by Dennis Lehane (audio)

I had seen the movie and jarring as the story was, it was compelling and I thought Sean Penn, Kevin Bacon and Tim Robbins did an amazing job. As movies go these days, the character development was deep, the story pulled me in and kept me throughout the two hours plus. No surprise given that Clint Eastwood directed it, I guess. I had heard the book was better.

So, as I was reading it, I was picturing Sean Penn as Jimmy Marcus, Bacon as Sean Devine and Robbins as Dave Boyle. Lehane's East Buckingham is a blend of several Boston neighborhoods, but he does a great job of capturing the ethos of poor and working class families in Boston. The character development goes even deepr as it's never 100% clear who the good guys and bad guys are.

The book tackles questions like whether people ever change, ever evolve and the question of our childhood shaping the rest of our lives. The book has an air of inevitability about it, that as a person of faith, I don't know if I buy entirely, like every tragic event that transpires was set in motion years before. I like to look at it more in the context of "there but for the grace of God, go I." I think this is especially true in that my dad's upbringing was not far off from the Marcus family in East Buckingham. My grandfather was a fruit peddler in Somerville and other Boston neighborhoods, the Marcus family had a convenience store. Other similarities exist, but my father bears no resemblance to Jimmy Marcus, but for the grace of God.

I recommend this book and will read other Lehane books as a result of reading this.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Working Weekends?

I don't exactly know where it started, but I've always had an aversion to working on weekends. In college, I observed a practically religious No Work on Weekends policy. Notice it was practically religious and not actually religious. It's an important distinction because, generally and during that time of my life, this cessation of work has nothing to do with the observation of any Sabbath. However, I would put my devotion to "rest" on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays up against the most devout monks and rabbis. On Friday afternoon I would attend my last class of the week and literally would not have any plans to do anything academically productive until (rather late) Sunday evening. This might have been an admirable quality if I had been half the student my brother and sister-in-law, Jeff and Paige, were during the week. I wasn't, enough said. One disastrous semester, I had all of my classes on Tuesdays and Wednesdays save one Child Psychology lecture class on Fridays (translation: show up and be counted, but have no fear of a discussion arising to expose just how far behind you are in the reading.) I would put the books away on Wednesday at dinner time and literally not pull them out until dinner on Monday night to cram for Tuesday. Every week, at least early in the semester, I would promise myself that I'd even out the workload, but I never managed to do so. Incidentally, I don't recommend the two-day week, five-day weekend model. As free as I might have felt on a Thursday afternoon, I felt twice as terrible during manic Monday through Wednesday nights.

I have had to work on a Saturday or Sunday with different levels of consistency during my professional life. When I taught, I would invariably have papers to grade or lessons. Even then, I did as much of that work before leaving school on Friday or late on Sunday as possible so as to leave the largest manageable amount of free time in the middle of the weekend. When I was in campus ministry, our biggest gathering and one of my major responsibilities was a monthly praise meeting on Sunday evenings. When we were at Central Citadel, Sunday was the command performance of the week, preaching and teaching in the morning and ministering and counseling from lunch often through 3 or 4pm.

My work now doesn't so much necessitate working on weekends, but even so, I often leave on a Friday afternoon with plans (or at least thoughts and intentions) to pull out the laptop at some point in the weekend and work for two to three hours on something--a budget task, new content for the website, some portion of a writing task our team is working on. I bring the laptop home every night regardless of whether or not I plan to do work. I guess it's a security blanket for the modern era. I rarely find I can bring myself to actually pull the laptop out. I don't have a lot of guilt around this as my weekends are now dedicated to three children--bike riding (Riley's really got the two-wheeler down now), creative play, reading to one or all of them, etc.--the stuff of life, stuff I wouldn't trade for anything. There are also the obligations of birthday parties, laundry, mowing the lawn, etc. Somehow, though, I allow guilt to creap in on Monday mornings because I didn't work on that task for at least a little bit of time. So I come in very early on Mondays and try to "catch up" on work I didn't do over the weekend.

I guess I'm trying to figure out if I'm the only one. Do you do discretionary (I don't have to, but I should) kind of work on weekends, or do you leave it for Monday? Do you have to work on weekends because that's when your shift is or because you're a pastor? When do you find your weekends if this is the case? How do I check the guilt? Is pulling out the laptop late on Saturday after everyone goes to bed the only way? Is that healthy? Where is the sabbath in all of this?

Thursday, September 04, 2008


Who needs sleep?
Well you're never gonna get it.
Who needs sleep?
Tell me whats that for.
Who needs sleep?
Be happy with what you're getting,
there's a guy who's been awake
since the second world war

--Barenaked Ladies

So, after 7 months (the last 3 of which were at camp), Luke is finally sleeping through the night. We might have been able to accomplish this feat a lot earlier--he is our third child after all, but it was especially difficult with him sharing our bedroom and sleeping twelve inches from the foot of our bed in the staff cabin. We went for the quick fix and whatever would comfort him, rather than making the sacrifice of 90 minutes of sleep one night for the sake of more rest thoughout the summer. But now that we're back at home, he's in his own room in a crib, not a pack and play and it has really been going well.

It's amazing how not sleeping changes one's quality of life. It is also incredibly freeing to know that (more or less) when your head hits the pillow, you will be able to sleep uninterrupted until the alarm clock goes off and you hit the snooze bar. I wake up (and go to bed) with a totally different outlook. And it's only been two days of this fantastic phenomenon.

I really just intended to write this post to celebrate Luke sleeping through the night, but it's hard not to notice the significance of going for the quick fix rather than making the necessary and effective sacrifice. Maybe it's because I'm reading Olivia and Stephen's Uprising right now, but I couldn't miss that connection. Why do we do that? Why do we so often choose the easiest, fastest fix instead of putting the work into doing things right the first time? Perhaps, I should not say "we" in those questions. Maybe I'm the only one who feels this way. I'm pretty sure I'm not, though, as someone in my family once remarked while telling a story about some kind of recent blunder a sentiment like this, "Of course I'm a Forster, so I tried to fix the situation in the most convoluted hardest way possible instead of taking the most direct and effective action." I'm wondering though, maybe it's not a Forster trait, but rather a human trait, a fallen characteristic? Paul said "I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway."

When we know what is right and do not follow that path, it is called sin and it leads to pain (and death). In my case, it lead to more and more sleepless or at least sleep deprived nights. The gift of salvation is free to us and yet, so often we leave it unopened under the tree. Or worse, we try to accomplish our salvation on our own. More questions than answers here, but when I wake up refreshed tomorrow morning, I will remember the sacrifice that brought about that feeling and endeavor to honor the sacrifice of my Savior that allows relief, release, reprieve and refreshment.