Friday, December 31, 2010

A Quiet New Year

As I sit at home in pajama pants on New Year's Eve morning, I notice, for the first time, the buzz about this day.  All of the morning talk shows are prepping folks for the nights festivities- from the best food to prepare to hang-over preventions for the morning.  Cities around the world are taking care of last minute details for their first night parties, some have already begun.  I'm trying my best to opt out.

I've had my share of New Year's parties.  Lots of them were fun, but largely unfulfilling.  I really appreciate the ones where I had a chance to really connect with a few good friends and family.  But I am really starting to appreciate the virtues of quietly ringing in the New Year and getting off to a well rested and healthy start on New Year's Day.

Prince sang "tonight we're gonna party like it's 1999" and I've often looked to the end of the New Year with a sense of finality.  The year is done, go out with a bang.  Many people recognize the holidays of many non-Christian religions begin at sundown; the day begins at sundown.  Think about what this means, in our ancient past, the beginning of the day began with rest.  I pray that no matter how you celebrate New Year's eve that it will provide you with the rest and energy to face 2011 as the best you that you can be.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

My Favorite Books of 2010

I've referred to several books from time to time on A Pot of Stew, but considering how much I enjoy reading I haven't really given too much space to the books I enjoy the most.  Here are the ten favorite books that I've read in 2010.  Some are old and some are new.  They aren't in any order other than the rough order in which I finished reading each one.

by Leonard Mlodinow

The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives (Vintage)The subtitle of this book says it all.  We attribute so much of what happens in our lives to talent and ability, but Mlodinow says that many of the success stories (and failures) of the world can be explained by simple principles of statistics.  I understood that we are all marked by success and failure experiences.  When those successes come early, we are much more likely to weather the storms later on than when the failures come early and we give up before we even start.  Just like flipping a coin.  Five tails in a row just isn't enough information to decide that your coin is more prone to tails than heads.  So don't give up so quickly.

Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior 
by Ori and Rom Brafman

Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational BehaviorWhat could possibly lead over 50% of a French game show t.v. audience to respond that the Sun revolves around the Earth?  It was the French version of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" and apparently the audience did not think the contestant worthy of the prize if he didn't know the moon revolved around the Earth, so they mislead him.  This book is full of stories such as this, backed up with explanations for these behaviors from the world of Social Psychology and Behavior Economics.  I read this book right after Predictibly Irrational and The Drunkard's Walk, and should have given it a little more space, but it was still an enjoyable and interesting read.

 by Timothy Keller

The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism After thinking I had read too many psych/social science books in a row, I turned to religion.  I am no fan of apologetics, but Keller's insight on the Christian faith appealed greatly to me.  I get the impression that he is a pretty conservative guy, but he manages to express the Gospel story in a novel and easy to understand way.  He explains why "Jesus is the only way" without alienating.  His answer to "why does a good God allow suffering" satisfies the intellect without insulting the soul.  My intent focus on the dual concept of Justice and Mercy came directly from this book.

by Will Self

The Book of Dave: A NovelThe tone of this book reminded me of "Trainspotting."  It was not an inspiring book and I found it a little on the dark side, but from time to time that can be a good thing.  The book can be hard to follow, bouncing back and forth from present day London to a post-modern (if not post-Apocalyptic) world and using language/dialect that can be sometimes hard to follow.  Reading the book is an experience as the pieces of the puzzle are revealed leading the reader further into understanding exactly what is happening.  Without giving too much away, the psychotic journaling of a London cabbie going through a painful divorce and custody process manages to have a profound impact on a dystopic (I don't really know what that word means, but it sounds right for this) world many years later.

by Francis Collins

The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for BeliefI first heard about Francis Collins when I read a blog post about how a number of individuals at a National Youth Ministry conference got a little worked up over his keynote address.  Francis Collins was a former head of the Human Genome Project.  He grew up across the mountain from my current home and spent some time at UVA.  He is a renown scientist and devout Christian and finds no conflict in the two.  In this book he explains how his faith has developed along side his growth as a scientist.  I greatly appreciate his point of view and draw comfort from his experience.  Anyone who finds that a literal reading of the Bible, especially regarding creation, leads them to struggle in their faith would benefit from this book.

by Jeph Loeb

Batman: The Long HalloweenIt's not a comic book, it's a graphic novel.  At least that's what I tell myself to feel better about reading SuperHero books.  It all started last year with The Watchmen.  Ever since, I've really started getting into comics.  After reading The Watchmen, I read several other Alan Moore works, and one of the Frank Miller Batman novels.  This was my first venture outside of Moore/Miller, and I really enjoyed it.  A killer strikes on Halloween and continues through the major holidays of the year.  The book is a real mystery, leaving the reader wondering just as much as the crime-fighter who the culprit will be.  The book reads like a journey throughout an entire year that changes the lives of all the characters involved.

by Seth Godin

Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?I read this book at the beginning of the school year and it really inspired me for a while.  The main idea of the book is alluded to in the title.  Rather than behaving like a cog-- an interchangeable, ultimately replaceable part-- we should strive to become Linchpins.  We do this by, among other things, creating art and sharing it with others.  The definition of art here is pretty loose, but essentially we all have the opportunity to go beyond what is expected to create something of true value that will make us stand out and those around us better.  The book even inspired me to write this piece titled "Teaching and Donuts" on a different blog.

by Michael Pollan

The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four MealsEarly in the year, I stumbled upon a free down download of the book Food Rules and loved its simple advice for eating.  For example, if your grandmother wouldn't recognize it as food, don't eat it; regarding cereal, if it turns your milk a different color, don't eat it.  This book was short and pithy, full of excellent advice for better health.  Later in the year, I watched the movie Food, Inc. with my son, and really started thinking about the food that I consume.  Michael Pollan was involved with both of these, and I had talked about Omnivore's Dilemma with a farmer friend of mine, so when I saw it displayed in our school library I decided to read it.  This book impacted me more than anything else that I've read this year.  As Pollan traces the origin of several meals, the true cost of the food we eat is revealed.  We should all consider the food that we eat more deeply-- this book doesn't propose to tell you how you should think about your food, but it definitely frames the ethical, moral, social, and health issues that every human should consider as they consume the food that will sustain their lives.

by Geoff Johns

Blackest NightThis is another graphic novel.  If The Long Halloween was a first venture outside of Moore/Miller, this was my first real superhero book outside of Batman.  This book features nearly all of the DC characters, some of whom I've heard of before (Flash, Green Lantern, etc.) but others of whom I haven't a clue.  I knew enough to know that I didn't know everything that I needed to know to fully "get" this book, but it was still great to sit as an adult and enjoy the action and adventure without getting caught up in the cerebral efforts of reading.  As terrible as this sounds, no matter what the book itself is like, the pictures and art alone are enough to make the book a worthwhile read.

by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Adventures of Sherlock HolmesThis was one of the first books downloaded on my Kindle.  Best of all it was free.  This volume  contains numerous short stories featuring Holmes and his sidekick, Dr. Watson.  I've been reading on this book all year between reads.  It is a great filler with stories that can be read in just a few sittings (or sometimes one).  I am nearing the end, but I've loved short stories ever since elementary school and I would love to find more collections like this one.

That's my list, I know that at least a few people are reading this blog, so step up and share a little back-- What were your favorite reads of 2010.  You don't even need to explain, just list if you want.  I've got 365 more days coming in 2011 and I'd love some reccomendations.  Click the comment link below if a comment box is not showing.  You may post anonymously or using an account, but let me know if you've encountered a "must read" this year, or if there are any "must reads" on your 2011 reading list.  Happy New Year.

Friday, December 24, 2010

All Is Well- Christ is Born

This Christmas Eve, I'm reminded of the same thought that came to me on Maundy Thursday this year.  It's going to be ok.  The paths have been set straight, the voices have cried out in the wilderness, the advent is fulfilled and the Christ is born.

The time of setting captives free, of restoring sight to the blind has come.  The last shall be first and the first shall be last.  It is time to bless those who curse you and seek first the kingdom of God.  Take up your cross daily.  This birthday has turned the world upside down, and it might seem strange at first, but this is only the beginning.

Merry Christmas 2010.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Deadliest Year?

Maybe it is just my current state of mine, but in the grand scheme of history, I haven't been to impressed with the "naught" decade-- 2001-2010.  We started with 9/11 and we end with the news that more people died from natural disaster in the year 2010 since the Ethiopian famine of 1983.  Over 1/4 million people this year have died from earthquakes, hurricanes, etc.  

I remember the Ethiopian famine.  Along with the Mexico City earthquake of 1985, it was one of the first events that gave me a real sense of suffering in the world.  When I think about events that have shaped who I am, I have only recently begun to understand how important these "news" items were in shaping who I am.

I don't know why at eleven years old I cared so much, but the media hype from the formation of "Band-Aid" in 1984 and the release of "Do They Know it's Christmas" caught me.  I was taking a journalism class through an enrichment program our school system offered at the time and wrote an article about the effort and spent much of my time in the winter of 1984-85 following the song as it charted around the world raising money for famine relief.  American musicians followed suite in 1985, releasing "We Are The World" and in July I was glued to the sofa watching the spectacle of "Live Aid." 

This was the event that introduced me to U2, and the idea of a social conscience.  I had saved ten dollars that summer and when the Mexico city earthquake struck that fall, our church took a special collection for the tragedy and I didn't hesitate to give all ten dollars to the cause. 

Over 200,000 of the deaths this year were a result of the Haiti earthquake in January.  On January 3, our church packaged over 30,000 meals for world hunger relief and days later, tragedy struck Haiti and every one of those meals were sent.  As much as I hate tragedy, it seems to bring out the good in people.  We respond when others are hurting, but too often we find it easy to ignore the suffering in humanity.  Marx said that "religion is the opiate of the masses" but he was wrong.  Comfort is the opiate of the masses.  In 1985, Bono sang a cutting, ironic line in the song-- "but tonight thank God it's them instead of you." 

Christmas, 2010- enjoy your family and friends and presents, but don't ignore the reason that Christmas is so important.  Our world is broken and can only be fixed through the advent of Christ.  Enjoy peace, joy, hope and love, but in seeking these be mindful of how these can be pursued and shared together; a humanity bound in suffering but able to overcome.  I pray that this "deadliest year" will impress upon some eleven year old in the way it impressed upon me in the 80s.  Merry Christmas.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

An Advent Prayer of Love

Dear God,

Thank you for hearing us.  We open our mouths and hearts in prayer not always knowing what to say, but knowing that we need you.  When times are hard, and our brokenness is clear, we are grateful for your presence.  Sometimes I wonder if we need you even more in the good times.  When all is well, it is easy to say Praise to You with our lips, but in times of trouble our hearts cry out.  Keep us mindful of your presence and your providence always in our lives.  We lift our prayers to you God, we simply present you with our needs trusting that you will know the answer, that you will take care of us.

Two months ago we noticed decorations in stores and even Christmas music here and there—some of us thought it was too soon.  And now it is the Sunday before Christmas.  Where has the time gone?   

We are hopeful in the ability of your Advent to redeem the time.  When we look back on all of our efforts and striving we hope that it will come to good, when we stop to consider our present, we hope for relief, and when we look to our future we hope for salvation. 

We find peace in the knowledge of your advent.  Somehow we know that whatever may come our way; all of our hardship and suffering, grief and loss, it’s going to be ok.  Jesus birth has set things right once again. 

Your advent brings us joy—rarely does the birth of a child, the creation of new life disappoint.  When we consider the Advent, and the birth of our savior we recognize that on Christmas day, not only was a new life created, but New Life was created for humanity.  

We may never fully understand the Love that was shown by your gift given to the world on Christmas, but we give thanks that we can receive it with open hearts.  Hear our voices around the world, a thankful chorus of humanity—in every children’s pageant, in every carol sung, every bell that chimes, with every Merry Christmas wished, we celebrate the day you were born unto us. 


Sunday, December 12, 2010

It Happens Every Year

It's the children's play at church.  That is what it seems to take every year to bring me to the place of recognizing the weight of Christmas.  Ironic that a simple children's musical with catchy songs and a few subtle jokes could have such an impact.  The title of this year's play-- "Arrest These Merry Gentlemen"-- if you don't get the pun in text, try singing the line to the tune of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" and you'll begin to get it.  My son played the role of the sidekick to the town sheriff.  He was the "rookie cop" named... you guessed it, Rookie.

But my favorite set of roles were the Shepherds.  My daughter was a shepherd, her name was Vince.  A shepherd named Vince you ask, well, she stood in the middle of Frank and Merv.  Frank and Vince and Merv-- I don't want to insult your intelligence, but just in case you missed it, Frankincense and Myrrh.  Amidst the joyful noise of children's voices and clever puns that many of the actors are too young to get, God speaks.

Nicodemus had a hard time understanding what Jesus meant by being "born again."(John 3)  Jesus said "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 13:3)  When I watch the children creatively tell the story of Jesus' birth every year, all of the mental exercises that I labor over all year long wash away and I simply know-- Jesus was born on Christmas Day.  Simple as that, on Christmas, God became flesh and entered humanity.  It is a story simple enough for a child to tell and rich enough to ponder for a lifetime.

I spend so much of my life intellectualizing my faith, thinking deeply about the meaning of Jesus, but when I hear these children proclaim the Good News-- my intellect takes a back seat and I know that all is well; Jesus was born on Christmas Day-- Salvation is Here!

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Christ in Us

 Now we ask you, brothers and sisters, to acknowledge those who work hard among you, who care for you in the Lord and who admonish you.  Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other.  And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone.  Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else.  Rejoice always,  pray continually,  give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.  Do not quench the Spirit.  Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil.  May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.  The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.  Brothers and sisters, pray for us.  Greet all God’s people with a holy kiss.  I charge you before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers and sisters.  The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.   (1 Thess. 5:12-28)
Often when reading the New Testament epistles I find myself amazed at the language these letter writers used to explain their understanding of Jesus.  They deliver their exhortations to love one another and live in submission with the passion that only one who had experienced Christ first hand could do. 

It is easy to just “read” the Bible without remembering where some of these words come from.  The same Paul who sought out Christians for persecution, who made it his job to payback what he saw as wrong made a complete turn after a direct experience with God, and he encourages us to do the same in this passage.  Paul tells us to rejoice always, pray continually, and give thanks in all circumstances.  This would be easy for us to say, but Paul lived it; he was jailed, beaten, and persecuted but showed thankfulness and joy through it all.

Could words like this come from anyone who had not experienced the glory and the grace of God first hand the way Paul did?   I don’t think so.

This is why advent is so important.  By taking a yearly journey of anticipating the coming of the Christ we reflect on why we need a savior.  By reflecting on the reasons for the birth of Christ our minds turn as well to the Second Coming.  We gain a new appreciation for what Jesus means for us individuals and the world. 

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Authority OR "What Does Wikileaks Have to do With Advent"

1 One day as Jesus was teaching the people in the temple courts and proclaiming the good news, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, together with the elders, came up to him. 2 “Tell us by what authority you are doing these things,” they said. “Who gave you this authority?” (Luke 20)
In our world, authority only comes two ways: a) someone takes it or b) people agree to give it.  Every generation struggles with the question of legitimate authority.   Even today, we are in the midst of an “authority crisis.”  Have you ever used “Wikipedia” online?  Imagine the ability to search every encyclopedia in the public library for a topic and getting results in seconds. 

Some teachers discourage the use of Wikipedia because it does not carry the “authority” of Websters, World Book, Groliers, etc.  The authority of Wikipedia comes from the millions of users who not only search for entries, but contribute to the knowledge base through both addition and deletion of content.  Authority is no longer isolated and concentrated, or protected. 

Even in the news lately, we are troubled by the news about "WikiLeaks," essentially a “wiki” site for information leaks around the world.  Leadership can no longer operate behind a wall of separation between themselves and the people.  Authority is no longer isolated and concentrated, or protected.  We began a movement toward democracy over 200 years ago, but we are still moving closer toward it today.

It can be scary to live in a time of uncertainty and questionable authority.  We value autonomy, but we also search for guidance and wisdom in "authority."  The same was true in Jesus' day.  On Christmas, this humble baby was born that would shake the idea of authority in his world.  The Roman political leaders and Jewish religious establishment had cornered the market on authority, but this authority was far from legitimate, especially when they tried to dismiss the wisdom of Jesus.

Authority today increasingly resides in the hands of the masses, the populace of the world.  From rise of democracy in the governments of the world to free-flowing information on the internet, the sources of authority are moving from the few to the many.  But the question of whether authority belongs in the hands of the institution or the individual is irrelevant and misses the point.   The masses are just as prone as the elite to abuse of power, freedom, and authority.  Whether human authority is in the hands of the many or of the few, we still face the danger of dismissing the Son of God. 

We are in a new age of change and uncertainty, once again searching for authority in our world.  In this age of diffused authority may we remember that hope for humanity was born on Christmas day.