Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Review: Teaching A Stone To Talk by Annie Dillard

I first discovered Annie Dillard while taking a graduate seminar on Ecocriticism at West Virginia University. Dillard was not part of the assigned reading, but rather an author who my professor and multiple classmates thought I would enjoy as I contemplated writings that considered both the Christian faith tradition and how various American writers of faith had observed nature as a teacher with regard to spiritual truths during this country’s short history.  For the class, I had read her Pulitzer Prize winning book PilgrimAt Tinker Creek, and that book gave me a desire to read more of her works. To be clear, I don't believe that Dillard would call herself a "Christian author" in the sense of one who writes specifically for faith audiences, but I found myself deeply appreciative of her authenticity in writing about her faith and life.

It has been some time since I first read the book, but I remember with some degree of clarity sitting in a Chipotle in or near Worthington, OH as I made my way through some portion of the book while drinking some kind of bottled juice and enjoying a large burrito filled with rice, beans, chicken and lots of flavor.

Teaching A Stone To Talk, originally written in 1982, is a wonderful series of essays about faith, life, and a variety of observations about both that are rooted and grounded in the reality of the author’s experiences of living a life of faith in 20th century America. To be clear, it isn’t so much a book about faith or about daily life as it is a book about obserations taken in during the rhythms of weeks, months, and years. The essays are grounded and rooted in place and in what feels like actual experiences.

As I read her essays, there were times that I laughed, sympathized, and wept as I considered some of the experiences very akin to some I had also been through. The world needs writers like Dillard that encourage us to think deeply about the every day in light of eternity, and to not take ourselves too seriously. Looking for a good book of essays that has stood the test of time? Grab this book and giving at read, and looking through Dillard’s lens of daily life’s expeditions and encounters.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Review: Developing Intimacy With God by Alex Aronis

As I have been attempting to write more reviews of books, one thing has come into crystalline focus. I have failed to review many of the books that have had the most profound effect on my life and personal views on a variety of subjects. One of those books is DevelopingIntimacy With God by Alex Aronis. I have mentioned this book in multiple posts, but have not shared much detail on the book itself.

It was initially recommended to me during the late spring of 2008 by my good friend JR Woodward. JR has been a long time friend and mentor of sorts for me, and in that frame, I was talking with him about a potential change of career I was considering. Two of my good friends had invited me to consider leaving vocational ministry to pursue a path toward fighting what I had come to believe is the greatest humanitarian crisis/challenge of our generation, global extreme poverty. It was against this backdrop that my friend JR recommended Aronis’ book as a devotional guide that could help me as I wrestled through this decision. The book helped me to make my decision, but it has done so much more.

Aronis’ book is the best book I have found for cultivating a deep and abiding relationship with Christ. It is my belief that for as much as Christians talk about having a “personal relationship with Jesus” this relationship seems more transactional than one of intimacy and depth. It’s not that people lack in intentionality (although that is sometimes the case), it is more that people don’t have good direction for cultivating this relationship beyond practices of a ‘quiet time’ or some form of prayer. And often this prayer time consists of little more than petitions and intercessions rather than dynamic conversation. It isn’t that petition and intercession are bad things, it is more that if any other relationship consists of only making requests and reading about an individual, we wouldn’t consider that a very healthy relationship.

In the book, Aronis observes that many people read scriptures looking for what they can ‘do’ for God without taking the time to be with Him and to become like him as precursors to this activity. He contrasts this with actual experience of the disciples. They spent roughly three years with Jesus, so that they could become more like Jesus in their character, and so that they could live for Jesus. In the introduction to the book, he mentions the late Bill Bright and Billy Graham as two examples of individuals who have realized amid their productivity, that if they had an opportunity to start over, they would have spent more time cultivating their own relationship with Jesus.

Beyond this observation, Aronis offers eight weeks of devotional exercises based on The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius as a means for individuals to grow in their ability to spend time with Christ without rushing ahead to do things for Christ (although he gets there too!).  This book was incredibly helpful for me as I was working to discern the best path forward in a variety of areas in my life. I have gone back to it as a near annual tradition since my friend JR introduced me to it, and I have recommended it to any and every person I have met who is looking to deepen their own relationship with Jesus and who is willing to take the time to walk through the book. Currently, I am walking through the book with a group of friends in the US as part of my Lenten commitment, and I just recently heard from a friend in the Netherlands who told me that the book was extremely formative for her and her friends, and that her fiancĂ© is so impressed with it that he has written the publisher to see if it might be published in Dutch in the future.

I could write at length about the book (and perhaps that is why I haven’t written a review before now), but I will end this post simply by stating that if you are a Christian and you are looking for a book that can help you by offering a “how to” in terms of growing in your intimacy with Christ, than I highly recommend this book. Unfortunately, I have never seen a copy in any bookstore (even in Christian specialty stores), but I have been able to grab copies from Amazon. If you read it, I would love to hear the outcome of your eight week journey. 

Thursday, February 14, 2013

What percentage of the US budget gets spent on foreign aid?

I really love the efforts of groups like the ONE campaign to raise awareness and increase advocacy for our global neighbors who live in extreme poverty. ONE was started in 2004, and cofounded by Bono, lead singer of the band U2. Over the last few years, I have had the privilege of getting to know some of the staff at ONE and learn more about their efforts to increase awareness about global extreme poverty, and I have been thoroughly impressed. Back in 2004, approximately 2000 people attended their launch rally. Now they are a movement of over 2 million people. When a friend at ONE asked me to share one of their latest videos, I readily accepted. And I hope you might do the same.

As I travel the country sharing Nuru's story and inviting individuals and communities to join us in our efforts to end global extreme poverty, sometimes I hear objections similar to the ones reflected in this video. People wrongly assume that efforts to maintain or increase foreign aid is somehow hugely detrimental to our economy here. The fact is that an incredibly small percentage (less than 1%) of the US budget is dedicated to development efforts, and in many ways this budget allotment serves multiple good purposes. Not only does it help people globally in general, but it also decreases desperation and increases opportunities for our global neighbors. In many ways, everybody benefits when we help our neighbors who are suffering. Of course, looking out for others is also just the right thing to do.

In a time when in the US we are being compelled to take a hard look at where we are spending money and we are looking for places to cut, I personally believe that efforts to care for those living on less than the buying power of $1.25 a day should be among the last to be cut. In my limited travels internationally, I have personally witnessed that desperation that one in six people on our planet live in. And living here, it is hard to comprehend that anyone would live in the conditions that I have seen. Make no mistake, we need our leaders to make cuts in our budget. We need to learn to limit our spending. I am not going to make suggestions of what needs to be cut, but rather make one suggestion of an area I hope we do not cut until conditions change so that this small percentage of our budget is no longer needed.

Thanks for reading, and may we as individuals, and as a country, never yield in our commitment to serve the most vulnerable members of our world through life saving initiatives around the globe.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Ash Wednesday 2013

Today is Ash Wednesday. Last night was Fat Tuesday. This year marks the first year in the last several that I haven't attended or officiated a 7AM church service to launch into this season. Jamie had to be at work this morning at 530AM, so that did not afford us an opportunity to go together to begin this season of reflection.

Some people look at Ash Wednesday and Lent as a time when members of the Roman Catholic Church give up sweets, cursing, or something of the sort, but the season is meant to be so much more than a time of saying no to sugar. To be clear, Jamie and I are not members of the Roman Catholic Church, but Ash Wednesday and Lent are not just a part of that tradition, and personally, I believe that followers of Jesus of all church traditions can benefit greatly from observing the practices of this season.

So what are Ash Wednesday and Lent about? Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of a 40 day period (excluding Sundays) that leads up to Easter. That period is called Lent or the Lenten Season because it is also a time of year in which days are growing longer as well. So Ash Wednesday is meant to be a beginning of a period of self denial and reflection to help people grow in their intimacy with Jesus and deepen their faith. As ashes are placed upon the foreheads of the faithful, typically the officiant reminds the participant to "Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel."

The season of Lent has historically meant more than a time to get ashes on ones forehead and give up chocolate or caffeine for a season. The spirit of the season is to do something that few of us take time to do these days. It's an opportunity to take stock of our lives, and to take steps toward growing in our relationship with God. And it is a season to cultivate habits that will deepen that relationship, or let go of habits that are hindering us. The whole season ends in a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus (and Sundays along the way are mini-celebrations) of that great day.

But lent is more than just a time of reflection. The 40 day period is also significant. For the Christian, Lent marks a season of intentionality not only of personal reflection, but also an opportunity to in some small way identify with the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness fasting and cultivating his own relationship with the Father in preparation for His ministry and temptations that were coming ahead. And so, as millions engage in this season, they begin a period of self-reflection, of closer identification with Jesus, and of transformation that culminates in Resurrection Day celebration. Again, traditionally people both take away something that may be hindering their relationship with God, or they may add something to cultivate this relationship.

Personally, I strive to do a little bit of both. As I begin this period, I am joining with a few friends to walk through a devotional book called Developing Intimacy With God by Alex Aronis. I highly recommend the book if you are looking for a tool to cultivate your own relationship with God. At the same time, I have noticed myself watching more and more television over the last few months. It is not that television is evil (though some might say so), but I believe that sitting in front of a TV distracts me from cultivating conversation and caring for others, so among other things I am letting go of will be television.

What about you? Have you ever observed the Lenten tradition? Are you doing so this year? What will you add or take away from your daily regimen in order to grow in your love for God and your love for others?

May we each take time to take stock of our lives, and put practices in place that will help us cultivate our love for God and for our neighbors. The world could use a little more love, so maybe you and I can take this season and grow in our ability to love better.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Kid President Pep Talk and Back Story

A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine posted a link to the video above on his Facebook profile. With it, he included a statement about it being a long week, and that he hoped that if others had experienced a long week that this little “Pep Talk” might encourage folks to keep going.

So I watched it. I laughed. And I was reminded that the road less traveled hurts. I was reminded “'Don’t Stop Believin’ Unless Your Dream Is Stupid”~Journey as quoted by Kid President. I was reminded that there is something wonderful about stopping to dance amid what can feel like overwhelming circumstances.

I was tempted to write a post around the inspiration I found in watching Kid President’s Pep Talk, and then, when he and his brother-in-law released this video telling his back story, it inspired me further.

Rather than writing a long post, I simply pray that we may find the discipline and the courage to keep pushing, keep dancing, and keep bringing awesomeness into the world. Boring is easy. Let’s not be boring, but let’s change the world together!

Thursday, February 07, 2013

It Is Written On The Tea Bag, The Yogi Tea Bag

Over the last couple of years, Jamie and I have become fans of drinking tea, and in late 2011, made the discovery (thanks to an incredible deal at Kroger) of Yogi Tea. This company has fun and inspirational sayings on its tea bags, and the teas that we have tried have been pretty delicious as well.

The photo above, was taken of the note on a bag of tea I opened last spring. I took a photo of it because I felt like it was one of the best quotes I had seen written on the bag, and addressed much of how I believe we should strive to live.

Travel Light--This has multiple meanings for me. Being on the road a good bit in recent years, I've learned to travel without ever checking bags (even during a two week trip to Kenya and the Nederlands). Separately, we regularly go through clothes and other items we have amassed and redistribute it. And often, we work to slow the accrual of things by choosing not to buy. Traveling light, helps keep our life a little more simple, and simplicity is something I believe we could all use more of today.

Live Light--To me, this one is just an encouragement to let go of anything that could weigh me down. Life is too short to carry baggage from the past through it. I guess this is sort of like traveling light, but I think of it more as not allowing ourselves to be weighed down and encumbered. In the words of Jesus, "Come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest." Living light for us involves taking Jesus easy yoke and light burden.

Spread The Light--Again, multiple meanings for this one. I think about this as doing things like serving others, sharing in joy, laughter, and love, and even mourning together with others. As often as we can make a practice of loving God and neighbor well, we spread the light. Also, the organization I work for, Nuru, is a kiswahili word that means light. I love to share Nuru's story with others and thus "spread nuru," and I love seeing others do the same.

Be The Light--Going back to the word Nuru, we encourage our supporters to "Be Nuru" by getting involved with our work and helping to fight extreme poverty. I also think this phrase has something to do with making the choice to care for others, influence others positively, and working to be a light spot in the days and lives of all who we encounter as we journey through life.

What about you? Do you have any words of inspiration that help encourage you to be the best version of yourself you can be? May we all strive to travel light, live light, spread the light, and be the light.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

My 2013 Goals

Over the last few years, I’ve tried to carve out a little time in December/January to reflect on the past year, and to set goals for the year ahead. Some are justifiably cynical when it comes to things like New Year’s Resolutions, but personally, I believe that the beginning of a new year offers a perfect occasion for reflection and for goal setting.  When I think about my own goals, it is my hope that the end of each year I will have become a better version of myself than I was at the beginning. That means engaging in activities that will help me improve myself with regard to my mind, my body, my heart, and my spirit.

So here are my top ten goals for 2013.

Carve Out Time For Reflection—Whether it is for engaging in spiritual disciplines like Sabbath, Solitude, Silence, and Fasting, or it is merely taking time to breathe deeply and reflect on the day’s accomplishments, I want to take more time for reflection in 2013. Specifically I’d like to carve out five minutes of my day as a minimum to reflect.

Blog More Consistently—For the last two years I have set blogging goals and failed at them each year. Last year I had the meager goal of 105 posts, and barely got past 75 posts. This year, I want to strive toward 105 posts again. I feel like this is a realistic goal, but it will require a degree of discipline.

Exercise—Why not? Over the last two years I’ve been able to cultivate a consistent habit of fitness. In 2013, I hope to continue the trend.

Lose weight—As I start 2013, I have weighed in at 190 lbs. During 2013 I’d like to lose at least 10 additional pounds, and maintain the weight over the course of the year.

Parkersburg Half-Marathon—This goal has eluded me for my entire life, but I hope that 2013 will have a different outcome. I also hope to run the Marine Corps Marathon for Nuru International this fall!

Steward Our Resources More Wisely—In 2012, Jamie and I continued our trend toward lowering our footprint, shrinking our spending, and being more earth friendly. We hope to continue the trend in 2013. 

Get Outdoors—In 2012, I was able to spend at least 30 minutes outside almost every day of the year. I really believe that getting outside does wonders for the constitution, and I hope to continue this trend in 2013.

Connect—Jamie and I have been blessed with an amazing group of friends, and we hope to continue to stay connected with our friends both near and far as we venture out in 2013.

Plant A Garden—Every year we set this as a goal, and it is our hope to grow even more of our own food in 2013.

Leave Margins—I’m terrible about leaving space in my schedule. In 2013, I hope that I can leave more time for unplanned spontaneity and epic adventures.

What are your 2013 goals? Are you hitting them so far?