Category Archives: books

The Truth About Islam

The heightened interest in the “truth of Islam” should not be a surprise with anniversary of the 9/11 attacks by Islamic Fundamentalists, the threats of Qur’an burning and of course the ongoing battle about whether or not a Mosque should be allowed near the ground zero site.  That it is part of the conversation does not bother me.  What bothers me are the presentations created for the sole purpose of stirring people up; a common technique used to motivate groups of people to action by touching sensitive triggers… especially fearful ones.

coexistBetween Facebook and the inevitable email forwards, I notice a definite trend towards more presentations of the “truth” about Islam.  These presentations are full of facts and often well produced.  The slick way they present the information is a hook to the reader/watcher/listener.  The web presentation I saw last night really drew me in.  It was compelling because of the way it “painted” words on the screen as they were spoken.  Very nicely done… and the information seemed accurate.  I have not read the Qur’an, so I cannot actually speak to its accuracy, but I was pleased that they encouraged people to read it for themselves for confirmation.

What I have read is Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson, which I highly recommend.  Mortenson has humbly served the people of Afghanistan for many years now.  He builds schools for them so they can learn.  Why?  Because it turns out most of them are illiterate.  Illiterate people in a country that is overrun with fear and extremism. It turns out, these Islamic Fundamentalists who hate us so much do not hate us because of the Qur’an tells them to hate us, they hate us because they are taught to hate us by people who were taught to hate us by people who were taught to hate us by… They cannot read the Qur’an and neither can their radical Islamic “teachers”!  What the Qur’an literally says is irrelevant when the people we are discussing cannot read it.

Back to the web presentation… one of it’s main points was how radical Muslims are more aligned with the words of the Qur’an than moderate Islam.  As if we should discount the moderate voices and let the extremists be the true representatives. In most any religion, the radicals are the ones quoting chapter and verse to support their teachings?  Fundamentalist fringe groups are always so stuck on “being right” that they

  1. Lose sight of the big picture.
  2. Decide what is more important than anything else
  3. Take a stand on whatever that is
  4. Draw a line to determine who is in and who is out
  5. Turn against or wage war on everyone on the other side of that line

As a Christian, I personally do not want to be defined by any of the Christian fringe groups.  In fact, as a person, the only way I want to be defined is that I am myself.  If someone wants to know what I believe, they should ask me.  Don’t put me in a box with someone else that calls themself a Christian.  There are many “Christian boxes” and so far as I can tell, I don’t fit in any of them perfectly.  (Note to self… practice what you preach).

Let’s characterize the greater Islamic community, not by what their ancient writings say, but by the way they translate it into actions.  How do we do that?  Observe.  Ask.  Listen.  The vast majority of Muslims are peaceable people.  Most of them reject the violence of the radicals. To lump them all together with the radical factions is to invite them to lump people like me in with the likes of Fred Phelps (no link provided… look him up if you are interested).  It is not a fair representation. As Emerson might have said (or not) What you do speaks so loud that I cannot hear what you your sacred text says.

Lastly, I abhor the use of fear as a motivator in any context.  I especially despise it with religion.  The present move to frighten people about Islam is gaining momentum and it will backfire.  Stirring up hatred is not a Christian concept. Did not Jesus say to “love your enemies”?  What would he do?

Improv Wisdom

shell-artI picked up, Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up by Patricia Madson in one of the many bookstores in Berkeley last month when we were visiting Erin and Justin.  The title stirred me and a cursory browse of the book showed promise.  I wasn’t mistaken.

Each day I understand better that our value is not tied to what we do or even what we can do.  We all have value because we are.  There’s value in just showing up and being present.  Planning and preparing are important, but they aren’t everything.  I am learning that, while being prepared is invaluable, being present is just as important if not more so.

The section I read today in the book was on rituals.  Being one who loves variety, I have always thought of rituals as ruts, but this book has given me a different perspective.  Rituals can help us get in the groove.  Madson was relating about the rituals she was introduced to in some classes she took.  She says,

At our desks in calligraphy class, we began with the ritual of grinding  the ink.  There is a correct way to hold the ink stick and to move it in small circles in a tiny pool of water on the stone that serves as an inkwell.  The action of making ink became both a physical and mental preparation for the work of learning how to paint Japanese characters and bamboo leaves.

These rituals at the beginning of each session had the effect of creating order and harmony.  We knew what we had to do when we entered the sace.  Cleaning and grinding ink got us into the world of the art without the stress of creation.  There was a calming effect…

My best meetings have been the ones where I not only prepared for the content, but took time to prepare my self to clear out the clutter and be more present.  What a wonderful way to look at rituals as preparation for the art of being present.

Random News

Trip to the Mountains

Jeanie and I spent this past weekend in the Mtns of NC.  Our main purpose was just to get away and take a break from the pressure cooker that life has been lately.  This was our first time at a Bed and Breakfast and I think we chose well.  The Mast Farm Inn is an old house that has been restored as a B & B.  They treated us very well!  We used to live up there and still have lots of friends in the area, but we chose not to let anyone know we were coming.  We just didn’t know what the weekend would hold.  We did end up visiting with several good friends.  Other highlights:

  • cimg4742a.JPGcimg4736a.JPGI visited my trees.  Last year I wrote about my job planting trees.   There was one particular site that was near where we lived that I have visited many times.  They have gotten rather large!  I wonder if they will be harvested anytime soon for lumber. (click the photo to see it larger)
  • cimg4763a.JPGWe have wonderful memories of hiking at Price Lake, so we took a trip around “memory trail”, which was a muddy mess in one section.  It was cloudy and cool at first, but by the time we finished, the sun was out and it was a beautiful day.
  • Since the sun came out, we visited the Lynn Cove Viaduct.  I also worked on the construction of this bridge for several months, which I also wrote about last year.  It is very cool to visit something so much bigger than I am, but that I played a small role in building.
  • I started reading Reaching Out, by Henri Nouwen.  I wanted a book that would drive me to reflective thought and meditation.  Nouwen usually does that well.  This was no exception.  The timeliness of this message in the place I am in life is remarkable.  It feels like Nouwen is interpreting events, thoughts and stirings that I have had over recent months and years.

Finished “A Thousand Splendid Suns”

My sister-in-law recommended this to me (and loaned it to me too).  A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini reminds me a lot of his earlier work the Kite Runner.  The setting is Afghanistan as he follows the lives of two women from different backgrounds, but who’s lives come together.  Both stories have helped me to understand a little better about the history and ways of life in Afghanistan.  If nothing else, when I hear anything about the Taliban, I now have a vivid picture of some very evil men.  I recommend both of these books by Hosseini’s.  Thanks Cathryn.

Erin’s Latest Accomplishment

I am so very proud of all of my daughters.  They are each making their respective marks on the world in huge ways and I am proud of them all.  Every once in a while, one of them just takes things completely to the next level and I cannot ignore it.  I will not belabor the point and I’m getting too choked up to describe it anyway, please check it out for yourself here.  Can’t you see me in her?

John Brown

patriotic-treason-thumb.jpg I just finished reading Patriotic Treason, John Brown and the Soul of America .  Before reading it, all I knew about John Brown was that he was this guy who was an abolitionist around the beginning of the Civil War and that he was hanged for some violent acts that he commtted while working towards freeing the slaves, but that’s all I knew.  I didn’t know where he fit in history.  Was he a good guy or a bad guy?  He must have been a good guy because he was anti-slavery and yet he must have done something pretty bad to be tried and hanged.

I have written before here how much I am enjoying reading biographies these days.  I don’t know if it is an “old guy” thing or just a “biography phase”, but I find that I am enjoying history as I learn about a single historical figure.  It is as if I am living the history through their eyes.  Sometimes while I am reading, my mind will wander…  While I was reading this book, I was thinking about why I like biographies so much.  You wouldn’t think that I would like them because I love surprise endings.  With a biography, I know the ending before I even start the book.  and yet, somehow I enjoy them.  Learning where the subject comes from, what drives them, who loves them, what they care most about is fascinating.  Usually I pick a person who I admire to some degree.  With Brown,  I truly wasn’t sure.  So why John Brown?

290px-john_brown_painting.JPG When we went to Charlestown, WV a few weeks back for a family reunion, we visited Harpers Ferry, which is just a few miles away.   There, I became a little better acquainted with John Brown’s story.  Harpers Ferry is where he led an assault on a National armory, captured and held it for a short time for which he was tried and hanged.  When you enter the John Brown Museum,  at Harpers Ferry, you are greeted with a life size tapestry of John Brown as this wild-eyed man with a Bible in one hand and a rifle in the other.  That portrait more than any other one piece drove me to want to know more about this man.  I believe the message of Jesus to be a message of peace.  To see a man depicted as spreading violence in the name of God was very disturbing to me.

It is unfair for me to sit on my couch in the comfort of my home and criticize John Brown’s actions of 150 years ago based on 2008 mores.  While I still find much of his methodology to be disturbing, I enjoy life in a society where people with dark skin are allowed the same liberty that I enjoy; very different from John Brown’s world.  He recognized the gross injustice of slavery.  I don’t have to do anything to help free the slaves.  It has already been accomplished.  John Brown was a great catalyst towards the end of slavery.  He didn’t stop slavery, but the work that he did pushed people to get off the proverbial fence. Was his way the “right way”? Could there have been another way to end slavery than a war?  Who knows?  We don’t get to replay history and try different means.  We only get one shot at it and that’s the way it played out.

I still don’t quite know what to do with John Brown, but I understand a couple of things about him.  He was a man who took his relationship with God very seriously.   Until the very end, he was driven by the teachings of Jesus to do unto others as you would have them to do unto you, that God was not a “respecter of persons” and that whatever we do unto the least of these, we do unto Him.  For good or for ill, it seems to me that John Brown’s fatal flaw was that he answered to no one.  Ultimately, the buck stopped with him and that seems like a dangerous position for any of us.  I highly recommend this book to you.

A Clearing in the Distance

olmstead.gifLately I find myself enjoying more biographies.  I love experiencing other people’s stories. Seeing things from the perspective of other people helps me to see the world in new and different ways. I especially like biographies that are “real”; ones about well known people, but that show them as real people with their weaknesses and failures as well as their giftedness and strengths. I am about a third of the way through reading, A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmstead and America in the Nineteenth Century by Witold Rybczynski. (The title and the author’s name are enough words to consider them a blog entry alone!)

Olmstead is famous for his landscape designs including New York’s Central Park and the Biltmore Estate in Asheville , NC (just a couple of hours away from here). What strikes me about Olmstead is that, unlike so many famous people, he didn’t start a career and stick with it the rest of his life. In fact, a full third of the way into the book, the closest he has come to doing anything related to landscaping was his strategic planting of some trees on his farm. He dropped out of college, was a shop keeper, became a farmer and toured Europe looking for better farming methods. Wrote books on the farming and returned to continue farming. Eventually, his writing skills take him to a job as a writer for the N Y Times newspaper. I can relate to this guy. He does not know who he is. I still am not sure who I am.

Another thing I love about the book is his perspective on America in the 19th century. In the mid 1800’s, slavery was by far the biggest issue in America. Reading this book gives me the perspective of a regular guy (with whom I very much relate) on these kinds of issues. He is not a politician and has no ambition to try to solve the issue singlehandedly. But that does not mean that he doesn’t have an opinion. Olmstead is against slavery, but like many others, he wants to ignore it and let it die a slow death. He fears that to ban slavery would be the end of the Union of the states. An abolitionist friend tries to persuade him otherwise to no avail. In hopes that seeing the conditions of slavery for himself will change his mind, his friend convinces Olmstead to take a job with the Times. He becomes travels throughout the South, reporting on the conditions there and his perspective is fascinating. He makes great economic arguments against slavery, showing why it just does not make sense.

I could go on about the book, but this blog is not about Frederick Law Olmstead. It is about Jimazing Jim Anderson. I have often wondered what I would have done if I had lived during those times. I would like to think that I would have been an abolitionist… that I would think for myself and stand up for what is right. However, it is easy to cast stones from the safety of 2008. Unlike Olmstead, I was born in South Carolina, which was a slave state (not after I was born, thankfully). Slavery would have been a fact of life for me… whether I was for it or against it. What was it really like? Many who just stood up in arguments were killed. How many of those “unreported incidents” would I know about? Would I speak out in spite of the danger, or hold my tongue out of fear?

I’ll keep plugging away at the book and hopefully Olmstead’s life will continue to stir me. Who knows what I might find out about myself in the process.

Photoreading

reader.png I did something different tonight. I photo-read The World Café, a book about creating environments where we can encourage and explore conversations that matter. My friend, John recommended it. When John tells me he thinks I’ll like a book, he’s usually right on target.

I like the idea of creating “café” environments where we invite a diverse mix of people, ask important questions, encourage everyone to share freely, “cross polinate” ideas, observe and look for the emerging ideas in-between the spoken thoughts. It reminds me of another book I read about a year ago, The Wisdom of Crowds , in which the underlying message is that all of us are smarter than any one of us. It is an idea that intrigues me and stirs me.

I find that most of the conversations I am a part of are about unimportant things and I do not feel compelled to jump in with my ideas. Sometimes I have the courage to inject some of my thoughts and try to steer the conversation into a dialog about things that matter. That opens the door to ridicule, bewilderment or silence. Every once in a while, it leads to a bigger conversation. One statement stirs another person to say something that stirs someone else and before you know it, we are talking about things that matter.

I started this entry with the intention of talking about photoreading, not the World Café. Disclaimer: I am not recommending any “PhotoReading” course. I have never taken any course or studied it formally to make such a recommendation. I just want to tell you about what I did tonight 🙂

I first ran across the idea of PhotoReading on another blog where a course was being offered at a substantial discount. I have read enough articles on this blog to have some respect for his integrity. While I do not always agree with the author, I feel sure that if he says he uses the system and likes it, he does. It was enough to pique my curiosity, which lead me to search the web about it. Of course the comments I found ranged from its being a waste of money to a life saver. I learned enough to decide that I didn’t need to spend $100 to find out more. I learned enough to try it all by myself. Here’s what I did:

  1. Sat up straight at the kitchen table with good light
  2. Looked over the book to see how it felt, type size and style, length of chapters etc.
  3. Looked closely over the table of contents to see how the book was laid out and what it covered
  4. Closed my eyes and breathed deeply for about a minute to help clear my mind
  5. Read the book by scanning each page. Took about 2-3 seconds per page, not worrying about getting all of the content
  6. Three or four times, I stopped for a break to stretch or go to the… well to take a break.
  7. After about two hours, I had read the book completely!

Thoughts about the experience:

  • The layout of the pages changed between 2 or 3 styles. Some pages were printed all the way across, while others were a narrower column with a wide margin. Some pages had lots of graphics and a few were laid out completely differently to put a lot of organized info on a page. The differences slowed me down.
  • I found that on the wider pages, my eyes were following a figure eight motion on each paragraph. On the narrower pages, I could simply scan them in a single, linear motion.
  • A few times, I read a page or two and realized that my mind had completely wandered to something else and I went back to re-read them. While this was mostly frustrating, more than once, my wandering mind was imagining applications for the information. That was neat.
  • Normally, this book would have taken me about a month to read. I wonder if I got as much out of the book reading it in one sitting as I would have reading it “normally”. My guess is that I got more out of it this way. When I read slowly getting every word, I don’t remember everything I read. I don’t remember every word now either, but I don’t think that is that the point.
  • The thoughts I shared at the beginning of this blog entry were from memory.  I don’t know how well I captured the whole book, but I do remember some of it 🙂
  • I could not have done this if there had been any distractions.
  • I really wanted to read this book, so that was a big motivator.

I said this was something new. It is actually my second photoreading session. I recently photoread, The Papa Prayer and then immediately re-read it “normally”. The second time through, I got more of the details. I wasn’t sure if it would feel like a second reading. It did.

Will I do it again? Definitely! Will I read every book like this? Probably not. I can’t imagine reading a novel this way.

What do you think? Have you ever tried anything like this? Would you? If you do, let me know what it was like for you. If you buy the program, I’d be interested in hearing about that too.

Team of Rivals

teamofrivals.gifI just got through listening to a recorded book, Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. I started this tome early in August when I drove to St. Louis to visit Melody in Medical School at SLU and just finished it tonight. What a great story! The book chronicles the lives of Abraham Lincoln and the men who eventually became his presidential cabinet. The common characteristic of each of these men in his cabinet is that they were his rivals for the presidency in 1860!  They each brought a different perspective to Lincoln.  While their bickering and in fighting must have been a distraction, Lincoln’s steady temperament held them together.  I highly recommend this book.

I never liked the subject of History, when I was a young man, but it is becoming more interesting to me now. I think that change is the result of a combination of at least three elements:

  1. I am older and I understand better how I am affected by history; both my own history and the history of those who came before me. I cannot separate myself from it. The lives that we have led and the decisions that we (and so many others) have made have brought us to where we are today. This is where we are and we must create our future from here. We cannot pick a different starting place.
  2. I think a new breed of historians are using their creative talents to find more compelling ways to communicate history. For instance, Ken Burns’ documentary, The War that is playing on PBS right now has my attention completely. The way he tells the stories makes me feel like a part of it myself.
  3. I am learning that the talents and leanings that God placed in me are largely centered around connecting with people, hearing their stories, encouraging them. When I read the biography of Benjamin Franklin a couple of years ago, I realized that the history around the man was more enjoyable to me.  As I asked myself why that might be, I realized that I was “seeing history through the life of the man” rather than “history by the events”. The history courses that I remember were centered on historical events first and people second; as if the people who were part of the events were less important than the events themselves. For me, connecting with historically significant people makes the history come alive as a secondary result of knowing the person.

My next recorded book is The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini. I will let you know what I learn about me from that book too. 🙂

Red Pill? Blue Pill?

…our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. (Eph 6:11)

The battle is real. The stakes are our lives and the lives of the ones we love. The good guys are not always the good guys and the bad guys are not always the bad guys. The tools we use to fight are not the ones we are used to… they are not the ones we have been given by the good guys either. It is time for us to wake up and see the reality that is around us.

red-pill-blue-pill.pngIn The Matrix, when Neo takes the red pill, it destroys the fantasy that he had been living all of his life. He finds out that the world is not at all what it appeared to be. All the pleasures that he had experienced were there simply to mollify him into complacency. The powers in control wanted him to be happy and not ask questions. All the while the “machine world” was literally sucking the life out of him. Here’s how I see it playing out in the present…

For some time, I have been going through a “crisis” in my faith. I have begun to question many of the beliefs that I always took for granted. I was raised in the church and the church was good for me. I have a foundation of understanding of the Bible that I could never have gotten if I had not found a relationship with God until I was an adult. There is something about the things we learn as children that make them stick. They become the foundation that our life is built on. That’s is not always a good thing, but I’m talking about good things. As an adult, I realize that the people who taught me those thing were flawed just like me. When I was a child, I thought the adults knew it all. I saw life in two stages, childhood and adulthood. Childhood is the learning stage where you are working your way into adulthood. Then it is over. As an adult, you have it all together. I was wrong! The ones who were adults when I was a child did not have all the answers. I thought they did, but now I know that they were full of questions and doubts just like me… Many of them, unlike me, didn’t ask the questions, or let their doubts see the light of day. Most of them, if offered, took the blue pill.

The Matrix

This story is about the Church. Just the word, “church” evokes emotion in me and probably anyone who knows the meaning of the word. When I hear the word, “church”, I think of buildings with steeples, store-front buildings, homes that people gather in, meetings on Sunday, meetings on Wednesday, meetings on Saturday night. I think of preachers giving messages, songs sung, acapella or with pianos, organs, drums, guitars, keyboards and let’s not forget the horns and violins. We talk about “going to church”, which (to people like me) means attending an event of some sort on Sunday morning. I have great memories of church and not so great memories of church. I cannot cover every thought I have about church, so what I want to focus on, in this blog entry is the Sunday morning event and how it is of such paramount importance. It was expected that “good christian people” go to church every Sunday. It was (and is) a duty that must be fulfilled.

The Red Pill

The struggles that I have been going through lately are very real and hard. I find that many of my friends from years past and present are going through similar struggles. Some of them have met me here on this blog in their comments. Others are blogging and sharing their struggles. Some have been at it for a while and others are only just beginning to allow themselves to ask the hard questions. While I want to encourage the examination of our hearts, I also want to add a word of caution. It may seem that those who constructed the churches are the enemy. They are not! They are us and we are them. More about that at the end…

The feelings we have are our own. Our feelings come from our values. When I find myself irritated “in church”, I ask myself why. Here’s what that conversation looks like… Not too long ago, I thought this was the most happening place around. What changed? It wasn’t them, it was me. So I ask myself why I am feeling irritated. If it is not about them, then what? What am I believing? What do I desire? Then ask myself if those beliefs are true and if the desires are good desires. I have learned that my irritation comes from a desire for the church to be about the people and not the event on Sunday morning. These are my feelings based on my beliefs and my desires. I own them.

The Church in the Bible is also known as the Body of Christ. It is the group of people who identify themselves with Christ. [Disclaimer: I am no expert in church history, I welcome corrections.] The early church in the book of Acts was a movement of people who were meeting together in their homes and having meals together. I get the feeling that they were friends. They lived in the same neighborhoods, their kids played ball together, they all shopped at the same Harris Teeter. I imagine their time together was talking about what they were experiencing in this new found faith as naturally as we talk about the latest movie with our friends. What I don’t see is an emphasis on meeting every Sunday morning to sing a few songs and listen to a preacher. I see an emphasis on the relationships between the people.

What I am not saying is that meeting for Church on Sunday morning is wrong. Please! Hear me. I am saying that meeting together in a building to worship together is frequently a good thing. Many people would say that the meeting itself is church. I disagree. The Church is not an event. I wish we had another name for the event. I think it would help separate the defensiveness that this topic frequently brings.

country-church.png In the book, The Present Future , by Reggie McNeal, the author tells of meeting with church leaders on Sunday morning at 11:00 in a restaurant. He asks them to look around at the people in the restaurant. While they are taking it all in, he asks, “Do these people look like they struggled with deciding to go to church this morning?” Of course they don’t. Most people today consider going to church to be an irrelevant waste of time. What reasons have we in the church given them to think otherwise?

The Blue Pill

We are missing the boat when we make Church all about a building and an event. I think of it as creating a box for us to fit in. The box is made up of our corporate beliefs and expectations of one another. When we are in the box, we feel safe because there are so many others just like us. Even worse we have also turned the Great Commission of Jesus to reach the world into “getting others into the box with us.” This irritates me because it seems to me to be so not what Jesus would do (read pharisaical). Who creates the box? Who maintains the box? We do, when we love the safety of our common belief systems more than we love God. That is hard, I know and it leads me to questions about myself that I am uncomfortable with. When do I create boxes? What boxes am I living inside today (very comfortably I might add)?

I belive that well meaning leaders throughout church history have created many boxes in order to give people a place of refuge, a sense of belonging and a common faith in God. These are noble motives and great, positive desires. Many if not most of the original leaders of these movements were sincere and hearing from God in their calling. But their followers over the next generations followed the leaders rather than the Lord. Over time, it became about defending their faith (the box) rather than seeking God.

There are many reasons for the boxes that we have created, but I want to stand up and shout. The boxes are not the point! Jesus said that the world would know us by our love for one another. To me that means breaking down the walls that divide us including denominational walls. Not that there are no differences, but because our love (Christ’s love) transends the differences. We love one another and honor our differences. What a concept!

Concerns

In closing, I want to share some of my sincere concerns for myself and for my brothers and sisters who are seeking God and seeking to understand their hearts.

  • I want to avoid passing judgement on others who do not believe as I do, or deliberately using my “liberty” in such a way that it causes someone who is not ready to hear it to stumble.

Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way. (Romans 14:13)

  • Creating division as in “us and them”. My desire is for unity, but not at the cost of being the person God created me to be. If the cost of unity in the body is everyone-being-an-eye, then I am not interested. Like my buddy, Curt says, Christ is calling us to unity in our diversity. I won’t say what body part I am, but I will say that it is necessary.
  • Beliving in nothing. I am becoming more and more aware of how easy it is to criticize what exists. It is easy to tear down. It is much harder to build up. I find myself disenchanted with the church as it exists today in 21st century North America. However, I want to be about helping to define what it should be rather than pointing out what it shouldn’t be. I love Jesus, but I do not identify with much of what is done in the name of Jesus today. I want to be known as one who is helping to reshape the church and redefine what it means to be a Christ follower or a Christian today.