Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Intelligent life out there?

I mentioned in my last post that I hurt a friend's feelings recently. It was in our small group fellowship that meets on Sunday nights, and somehow we got to talking about extraterrestrial life.

When I commented that I was almost sure there was lots of intelligent life in the universe, he was completely floored and said that if that was true, he'd lose his faith. His reasoning was that humanity is God's special creation, made in His image, and if we're not alone then we're not special and we might as well throw out the bible.

I did not have a good poker face. My friend saw that I thought his stance was ridiculous, and it crushed him. It was not one of my better moments.

So as a heart/spirit issue, I blew it! All that blogging I do about having an open mind, and respecting the opinions of others, and then I openly show condescencion to the feelings of a brother. Shame on me.

But besides the heart issue, a few of you were curious about my intellectual approach, and why I would be so sure that there is other intelligent life out there. Let me start by confessing my bias.

I grew up as a total science fiction nerd. Books, movies, short stories... I devoured them all and regularly read tales of alien species. I loved it, so in a way I really really want ETs to be real. Which of course has no bearing on whether or not they actually exist.

So biases aside, my logic is very simple -- the universe is so unbelievably massive that the odds are overwhelmingly in favor of there being other intelligent life. Not just one or two civilizations, but millions.

In the 1960s the "Drake equation" was formulated in an attempt to calculate the # of alien civilizations that might exist just in our Milky Way galaxy. They included multiple factors (chance of a sun having a planet like Earth, the chance of that planet having life, the chance of that life becoming sentient, etc...) and put the probabilities really low, like 1% and under for each factor. The final calculation came out to over 10,000 intelligent civilizations just in our galaxy.

And our galaxy is barely a blip in the universe. There are billions of other galaxies out there. If our sun was a grain of sand, then all the grains of sand on all the beaches of our planet might equate to how many stars are in the universe. Think about that one for a moment until it gets too big to fathom.

See this previous post for another illustration on how huge our universe is.

I actually think the Drake equation is a bunch of bunk as a final calculation, because we just have no clue what those probabilities are. And when you completely guess at eight different factors, then multiply those guesses together... you get crap. Statistically speaking.

But even if you set the probabilities at .000000001% for each number, there are still many intelligent species all over the universe. Unfortunately it's so big out there, we'll almost surely never meet any of them.

Perhaps first we should continue the search for proof that we have intelligent life on this planet! That gets more difficult every time I watch television. :)

Friday, December 04, 2009

Breaking the silence

Does it seem that most people interpret silence in a negative way? Seems that way to me, but I've always been the opposite.

When I was in college and would drive back to school after a holiday break, I would tell my parents, "If you don't hear from me in the next couple of days, it means I'm doing great." I felt the same about others -- if they didn't contact me I assumed everything was fine.

I have to remember that most people don't seem to be like that. And here I've been silent on the blog for a few months, and you may be wondering if I'm ill, divorced, unemployed, a Democrat or an atheist. No need to worry!

Sure, I've been sick a couple of times this fall just like everybody else, but the swine flu hasn't hit me. Yet. I'm certainly still married to Jamie and we're having more fun that ever now that we're outnumbered by children in the house (baby Luke was born September 5).

Not only am I still employed, I just got my second big promotion of 2009. I'm now running two separate teams and have pretty huge responsibilities. Best of all I'm finding that I love the work, and I happen to be good at it too. It's the first time in years I've truly enjoyed what I do and my life's energy is going to efforts that will do some good.

Politically I'm still as apathetic as ever. Didn't vote in any local elections and the only time I follow what's happening in Washington is on the topic of economics, since it's an interest of mine and it affects my company.

My faith's evolution hasn't slowed down a bit, and I wish I could've been available here to write more about it over the past few months. Rest assured I'll be writing about it shortly, and that this post is merely the first step to building some momentum along those lines.

Just so you don't think all is rosy and I have a halo over my head, I promise that I'm still causing trouble:

-- I frustrated a friend when I told him I was 99% sure there is lots of other intelligent life in the universe. He said if that's true, the bible is meaningless to him because we are made in His image and are God's chosen creation. I was stumped, surprised, and didn't have a good poker face.

-- I went to a speech/reading by a Jewish agnostic gay playwright (his self-description) who has won a Tony, a Pulitzer, and got an Oscar nomination for a screenplay a few years ago. I was probably the only straight white married male in the auditorium, listening to a brilliant man speak on oppression and social justice in 21st Century America. And I liked it.

-- I infuriated our minister in bible class by asking the question, "Isn't it presumptuous for us to say we know why Jesus had to die, and that God had no other choice?" I'm in a place right now where apologetics don't do much for me, and I'd rather explore the biblical teachings that I can actually test out right now in this life. And there ain't no way I'm figuring out penal substitution doctrine in this life. The minister raised his voice and said, "God doesn't deal in lunacy. Of course Jesus had to die, or else God is a butcher." I had learned my lesson by that point and stayed quiet.

-- If I had spoken up again, it would have been to ask, "So God is not a butcher... He's merely incapable of forgiveness without killing himself? Do we really have to choose between a butcher and a God who's backed into a corner by sin?"

See what I mean? I had learned my lesson and kept my mouth shut.

Some silences shouldn't be broken, I guess.

Sunday, August 30, 2009


Yes, the title of this post is from one of the greatest pound-for-pound philosophers of our time. Yoda:

So if my last post noted that Christian Republicans, in general, have been stoking their fears for a while now, Yoda would say that the next step is anger.

Seen any angry Christian Republicans lately? I live in Texas and am surrounded by them.

The next step is hate. Seen any hateful Christian Republicans lately? I can only speak for myself, but yes, I can almost guarantee to hear hateful speech every Sunday at church if someone starts talking about politics. Simply hearing the name Obama made a woman's face turn into a sneer of derision in bible class last week.

Some of our local politicans have tried to hold open meetings lately to do Q&A sessions on the health care bill, but most have been a disaster due to screaming, belligerent protestors. And several men have shown up with guns, claiming that they're merely exercising their rights. Sure, and it's my legal right to walk into church with a sign saying "God hates you", but that doesn't mean it's smart or appropriate.

Yes, there are angry Democrats as well. And there are many peaceful Republicans. Politics don't really interest me all that much, but even I can see that in general there seems to be a heightened sense of fear and anger, and much of the noise is being made from the Republican side. That's fine with me. My concern is that the label "Christian" has become so tightly wound with the labels of these angry people.

I think Christians are making a huge mistake in picking this battle and fighting it with such transparent fear and anger. Even if it works to their favor in the short-term with different legislation, it sets a bad precedent for how Christians get involved in political processes. How can we be a people proclaiming love, grace and spiritual pursuits while yelling at public servants, propgating lies and comparing our elected President to Hitler? Disgraceful.

For me personally, I have two tactics that I use to self-examine my anger and see if it needs an adjustment:

Tactic #1 -- Righteous anger? Or just anger?

There are injustices in this world that I think it's okay to be angry about, especially if that anger inspires us to action. For some people in America right now, health care is that kind of issue. If I choose to get caught up in the anger over health care reform, then I'm going to ask myself the following questions:

-- How much time am I spending angry about politics?
-- How does that time compare to time spent on anger about oppression, poverty or genocide?
-- How much has my anger spurred me to useful activity? Or has it instead just festered and been fuel for my own complaining? See here for my thoughts on three types of anger and which ones are actually useful.

Tactic #2 -- What are my influences?

This one is understandable to anyone over the age of 5 (because parents grind it into us!), so I won't spend long on it. We know that we are heavily influenced by what "input" we receive from the world. The friends we have, the books we read, the TV shows we watch... all of it shapes us.

For this reason, I watch neither Keith Olbermann nor Glenn Beck. I listen to neither Daniel Dennett nor Rush Limbaugh. Each of those pairs are on opposite sides of the political spectrum, but their spirits and their messages have the same core ingredients -- outrage, yelling fear, anger, hate. I've chosen not to have those kinds of messages as my daily input.

So to sum up, I guess there are two main principles I try to follow when I see people around me getting angry about an issue:

1) Make sure I'm picking the right battle, and that it's something eternally important
2) Discern whether anger is the right path to actually fight the battle, or if there's a better way

As an example of this process, let me ask you this question -- which is more worthy of an angry response, health care reform or racial prejudice?

Here's how a black minister fought against the latter:

Let's pick the right battles. And then let's fight them with a spirit of love and understanding.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Christians and fear -- an unfortunate mix

If you are over 30 years old and grew up in a Protestant church, it's likely that you were exposed, at some point, to the "fire and brimstone" style of preaching. This style was meant to motivate repentance, baptism, conversion, etc... by filling people with the fear of hell. Responses to God would sometimes come in droves at a church service or revival meeting, fueled by images of a vengeful God ready to condemn sinners to an eternity of torment.

If you are over 50 years old and grew up in a Protestant church, it's likely that your experience with this style qualifies as more than "exposure". You very well may have heard this type of preaching on a regular basis.

While it's still heard in some churches, the fire and brimstone message has greatly decreased in most churches. Yet the legacy remains, and it carries over into the entire lives of those generations who lived through the messages of terror.

Lately I've been seeing a lot of this carryover in the political discussions of Christians. It seems like every week at church, I hear someone lamenting the current government and fearing that our country is becoming socialist. I've probably received 50 political emails in the past six weeks -- all from Christian/Republicans, and all laced with obvious notes of fear.

If you've read this blog before, you already know what I think about the use of fear to motivate religious activities. In short, I despise it.

But fear can be equally destructive when it's used to motivate political activism. I think this can be especially true for Christians, because the religious fear of their childhood combines with nationalistic/political fear and creates a behemoth of panic that brings terrible consequences. Which consequences, you might ask? Here's what I've observed over the past month:

1) Religious/Political fear masks the individual, and creates mob mentality

-- I've seen Christians lump all Democrats into a category of "them", with the word voiced in a tone of outright contempt. Not all Democrats are the same -- they have the same diversity as any other group. But if we're too scared to be open to this diversity, we'll never see a person, a soul. Instead we'll see only a group label.

2) Religious/Political fear distracts Christians from the more important issues in life

-- Jesus lived in a society of oppression, slavery, legal prostitution and unfair taxation. He apparently only spoke to one of these issues (taxes, which he said to pay unto Caesar). He focused on people, not politics. Why should his followers do any different?

-- When churches send missionaries to foreign countries with socialist/communist governments (China, Eastern Europe), are the missionaries sent with a political agenda? No, I've never seen that. They're sent to serve those in need. Why should the local missionaries (church members) do any different?

-- A common theme of the bible, especially the New Testament, is that once we know we are loved by God, there is no threat from man. Paul wrote of his contentment with life, and his security that came from God's grace. It's hard for Christians to realize and demonstrate this deep-seated security if they're constantly upset over things like taxes and health insurance.

3) Religious/Political fear separates us into nationalistic groups that aren't very Christian

-- Personal opinion: I don't think America is "God's nation", because I don't think there's any such thing. Think about it -- if people think that our century-long dominance of world affairs is evidence of God's blessing, do they confer the same special status on Ancient Egypt? How about 16th Century Spain? Superpowers come and go, and we've had a nice ride in America. But let's be careful about saying that our strength is divine blessing, if we won't say the same about previous world leaders. I believe that every nation is an equal-opportunity beloved of God.

4) Religious/Political fear leads to the demand to be heard at any cost, even if our arguments are inconsistent or flat-out untrue

-- Like I said earlier, I've gotten at least 50 political emails from Christian Republicans lately, both at home and at work. Every single one has had blatant lies in it. Shouldn't we do better than that? Honestly, I've got plenty of disagreements with the current agendas in Washington, but there's enough ammo there to critique the policies truthfully. Truth should outweigh our need to be heard.

-- I've heard several Christians lament government's role in healthcare, but not one has volunteered to give up Medicare. Several have complained about socialism, but not one of them mentioned a surrender of their social security check. Some of them practically worship at the altar of economist Milton Friedman and his capitalist teachings, but none of them embrace Friedman's case for the legalization of drugs. Just three examples of inconsistency, but we're blind to it because we're motivated by out biggest fears, instead of our highest aspirations.

If I was to rephrase those four observations in a positive way, it would be to encourage Christians to:

1) Cast aside group labels and look for the unique nature of each soul we meet
2) Focus on what we can control, and what really matters
3) Remember that there is no Jew nor Greek, no slave nor free -- we are all God's handiwork
4) Hold up the ideals of truth, honor and respect above our own need to be heard

In closing, I'll cite two of my references on fear from the world of entertainment. The first is from the epic science-fiction book Dune, where the main character often repeats the mantra "Fear is the mind killer". He's right. When we're scared, we don't think straight. That's not good a good place to live.

The second is a song called "Drive" by the band Incubus. Here are some lyrics, and then I've also posted the video.

Sometimes, I feel the fear of uncertainty stinging clear
And I can't help but ask myself how much I let the fear take the wheel and steer
It's driven me before and it seems to have a vague, haunting mass appeal
But lately I'm beginning to find that I should be the one behind the wheel

Whatever tomorrow brings, I'll be there, with open arms and open eyes yeah
Whatever tomorrow brings, I'll be there, I'll be there

So if I decide to waiver my chance to be one of the hive
Will I choose water over wine and hold my own and drive?
It's driven me before and it seems to be the way that everyone else gets around
But lately I'm beginning to find that when I drive myself my light is found

Sunday, July 19, 2009

This and that

Sermon stuff

My sermon from last Sunday has been posted online -- this link is here and then click on either the audio or video files for July 12 ("Perfect Strangers").

I haven't listened to it all yet but my memory of the experience was very positive. I threw myself into the message and am glad to have done it.

Catchup with family members from vacation (inside jokes and stuff)

Mom, did you read Romans 11 yet? What did you think?

Great, thank you for sharing with me about your near-death experience. It was powerful.

Lisa, seen any deer lately?

Matt, the funny Saturday Night Live video I mentioned (Marky Mark Talks to Animals) is here. It's my kids' favorite right now.

Bob, you have a very cool family. We love spending time with the four of you (plus whichever special guest get to come along) and wish it could be more than a week.

AJ, thank you for all the pictures you took. Because somehow we, like... didn't take any? So we're stealing yours.

Dad, now that Tom Watson almost won the Open today, I fully expect you to recover quickly from whatever swing ailment you had during vacation. You've still got a few years before peaking.

Nonny, Samantha protects her teacup with great vehemence.

Adam, your laugh sounds like Pee Wee Hermann and your ears smell like cauliflower.

Drew, your laugh is contagious and your voice sounds like... well, I'm not sure, because it's usually above my auditory range.

Bonus gifts

An old comedic ploy is to edit songs or movies and turn them into something far different than the original. These are two of my favorite examples:

Jurassic Park -- Hey!

The Darth Vader you never knew

Yes, that last video is nine minutes long, but it makes me laugh more times than most 90-minute comedy films!

Don't worry. My next post will be back to the usual deeper thoughts.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Manual labor, plus a dash of random philosophy

Manual Labor

My wife Jamie (a.k.a. RedWifey) has three rules that always get followed when she dives into a project:

1) At the last minute before the project/event begins, she will find an equally large, totally unrelated project to launch into. Thus ensuring the chaos of two simultaneous initiatives.

2) The project's scope will expand exponentially as it progresses.

3) Somehow, in spite of the two items above... everything will work out fine.

Last Friday was an office holiday so she planned it as a painting day at our house. The plan was to paint Jack's current room, which will soon become the "big kids" room when baby Luke arrives in a month or two.

Please understand, in our six years of living in this house we've painted exactly one wall of one room, that being the main wall of the den. That's it. Everything else is your basic eggshell drywall color, which over the years of hard living with kids and dogs has gained some new shades. Men would call it character. Women would call it filth.

Bottom line -- on Friday we would paint Jack's room a nice light blue color, versatile enough for the soon-to-be combined Jack/Samantha room. Let the rules begin:

1) She decides, after breakfast on Friday, to launch into an all-out assault on what she views as a messy kitchen. I like this choice -- it is less distracting and time-consuming than some of the other random projects she might've started. It's done in an hour and we head upstairs to get started on the real project.

2) Scope expansion. We started with the idea of painting Jack/Samantha's room.
-- Then, while we're at it, let's paint the baby's room too.
-- Well, how can you paint the rooms but not the closets? Add two closets to the tasklist.
-- This means we must empty every single item out of both bedrooms and both closets. It all goes to our master bedroom.
-- Those baseboards/trim/door are too dark with the eggshell color... she'd like them to be pure white. Add those to the list.
-- Oops, the white latex paint doesn't really work on the eggshell trim. Turns out that the current coat is oil-based paint, which means we have to sandpaper every square inch of baseboard/trim/door before it will take the latex paint. Add sanding to the list, plus another trip back to Home Depot to buy more supplies.
-- While the rooms are empty, might as well clean the carpets, right? Jamie leaves to rent a dry cleaning machine.

3) The project took almost three full days, but we did end up with two very nice bedrooms for our three kids to enjoy. And Jamie's parents worked tirelessly to assist us during much of the three-day weekend. Now that it's over, I have to admit I like the way things look. Although if you say the word "paint" in my presence, I may involutarily go kung fu on your skull.

Random Philosophy

I haven't written a word about the deaths of Michael Jackson, Farrah Fawcett or Billy Mays. Guess I was holding out for the passing of a real celebrity, such as one of our current-day gladiators. Enter Steve "Air" McNair, former NFL quarterback shot dead a few days ago while hanging out with his 20yo mistress.

The news seems full of shocked people exclaiming that Mr. McNair was such a standup guy, a real community leader, a great husband and loving father to four sons... and they couldn't believe he'd be hanging out with a pot-smoking girl half his age.

I'm shocked that people are shocked. Not because I'm some sort of cynicist about McNair or about athletes in general. But because I think I'm a realist about people. All of us. We're complicated creatures, with infinitely-interesting stories of how we've become who we are. And infinitely complicated stories of where we might be headed.

Everybody has a dark side. Everybody has secrets. Every boy scout leader, priest, teacher, preacher, volunteer, innocent-seeming teenager... none of us are 100% what we claim to be or what we show the world. Even me. So I'm not shocked when these types of things get discovered. Usually this type of news brings sympathy out of me, realizing that fame, fortune and extramarital sex are powerful forces that can lure anyone out of relationships that they may not value fully until it's too late.

Everybody also has a light side. Everybody has potential. Every gang member, death row inmate, dropout, slacker, hater, liar... none of us are 100% what we claim to be or what we show the world. Even me. So don't be shocked if one day you meet one of these people who surprises you with unexpected goodness. Usually this type of news brings sympathy out of me, realizing that the difference between me and a criminal has less to do with my character, and more to do with my circumstance.

I hope each of us has a safe place to be fully ourselves, both light and dark.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Carlin's first half of 2009

My daily desk calendar for the office this year is a George Carlin one. Every day I get to read a new quote/joke/rant of his. Here are some of my favorites after six months:

You keep hearing that society's greatest tasks are educating people and getting them jobs. That's great. Two things people hate to do: go to school and go to work.

How can it be a spy satellite if they announce on television that it's a spy satellite?

President Bush declared a National Day of Prayer for Peace. This was some time after he had carefully arranged and started the war.

Wouldn't it be interesting if the only way you could die was that suddenly your head blew up? If there were no other causes of death? Everyone died the same way? Sooner or later, without warning, your head simply exploded? You know what I think? I think people would get used to it.

Don't you get tired of celebrities who explain their charity work by saying they feel they have to "give something back". I don't feel that way. I didn't take nothin'. You can search my house; I didn't take a thing. Everything I got, I worked for, and it was given to me freely. I also paid taxes on it. Late! I paid late. But I paid.

No one, repeat, no one is interested in athletes who can sing or play musical instruments. We already have people to perform these tasks. They're called singers and musicians, and, at last count, it would seem we have quite enough of them. The fact that someone with an IQ triple his age has mastered a few simple chords is unimportant and of monumental disinterest. Play ball!

No matter how you care to define it, I do not identify with the local group. Planet, species, race, nation, state, religion, party, union, club, association, neighborhood improvement committee; I have no interest in any of it. I love and treasure individuals as I meet them, I loathe and despise the groups they identify with and belong to.

Talk about wrong priorities. We live in a country that has a National Spelling Bee. We actually give prizes for spelling! But when's the last time you heard about a thinking bee? Or a reasoning bee? Maybe an ethics bee? Never.

A deaf-mute carrying two large suitcases has rendered himself speechless.

They try to blame movies and TV for violence in this country. What a load of #$%#. Long before there were movies and television, Americans killed millions of Indians, enslaved millions of blacks, slaughtered 700,000 of each other in a family feud, and attained the highest murder rate in history. Don't blame Sylvester Stallone. We brought these horrifying genes with us from Europe, and then we gave them our own special twist. American know-how!

I grew up in New York City and lived there until I was thirty. At that time, I decided I'd had enough of life in a dynamic, sophisticated city, so I moved to Los Angeles. Actually, I moved there because of the time difference. I was behind in my work, and wanted to pick up the extra three hours. Technically, for the last thirty years I've been living in my own past.

If all our national holidays were observed on Wednesdays, we might conceivably wind up with nine-day weekends.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Church signs and an upcoming zipper-mouth moment

Church Signs

In the previous post I mentioned this church sign I saw while driving through Western Arkansas a few days ago:

"God does not lower his standards to accomodate man's sins"

There are at least two possible ways to interpret this, I guess. Instead of jumping to conclusions about what the church really meant with their sign, I'll explore both interpretations:

1) Maybe they meant that God's standard is perfection, and we all fall short. Therefore, we all need grace. Since this was a Baptist church, perhaps they were trying to spark thoughts of Jesus as the vehicle for us to be seen as perfect by God.

2) Maybe they meant that God is looking at "sinners" disapprovingly, knowing that they are surely lost because they aren't living up to His divine standards. To this possible message, I have some questions:

-- Didn't God create us as fallible? So didn't he know that everyone will constantly fall short of a perfect standard? Why then would he look so disapprovingly upon people for being exactly as imperfect as He made them?

-- Does Jesus project the image that God sits proudly on His perfect standards, with no accomodation? Or did Jesus draw near to everyone, especially those looked on as the least likely to live up to standards of righteousness (foreigners, unbelievers, prostitutes, etc...)? What might this behavior of Jesus teach us about how God sees us?

-- If I assume that even Jesus or even godly grace has its limits, and we still have to be pure... can anyone show me a single person who has lived up to this standard? I sure can't find anybody in the bible who pulled it off.

I find it very sad that some people think God is so ashamed of them. I find it frustrating that some people think God is ashamed of everybody else except their group of the "in" club.

Zipper-Mouth Moment

This weekend members of our church are hosting a July 4th party, and they've set aside an hour for a "political discussion", where they will share their concerns about the direction of our nation, and some tips for how we can get involved in the political process.

I will most definitely have to keep my mouth shut, and keep from making too many assumptions about what they will say.

For now, here are a few nuggets bouncing around in my brain:

-- For a church that prides itself on being based solely on the New Testament text and the 1st Century church, I find it odd that the church is so politically passionate. This type of activism is almost completely absent from Jesus' teachings, his example, and the behavior of the early church.

-- I continue hearing from Christians how concerned they are that America will become "socialist". I find this odd as well, since theoretically socialism is probably more Christian than capitalism is. Welfare, social programs, redistribution of wealth... sounds like the 1st Century church. My guess is that Protestants today see the gospel as the epitome of individualization and free will -- in other words, we each take control of our own salvation and eternal destiny. This spiritual mentality of pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps fits in very well with the fiscal mentality of free markets.

It makes me wonder... would Jesus fight a trend to socialism?

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Shortest update ever

I've been on vacation for the past week and out of touch -- not that you'd notice from the blog, since my absence has been far longer than a week!

-- Work is still insane but good. I've never used this much of my life's energy in a job, but it's paying off. And it's helping others.

-- I'm preaching again on July 12th.

-- Our vacation was excellent -- the usual lake trip with extended family. One particular item of note that the readers here might enjoy (are you still here? really? your patience is not logical) is the church signs aplenty as we drive 15 hours through the bible belt.

Here are two of the signs:

1) "This bloods for you", with a picture of Jesus on the cross.

2) "God does not lower his standards to accomodate man's sins"

That last one probably deserves another blog post. No promises, though. Heh.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Conversations that start innocently...

Samantha is six years old and has one week of kindgarten left. It was my turn to put her to bed tonight, so we started to chat:

Samantha: Daddy, look, I cut my hand (she shows me a small scab).
Me: Sorry, sugar. How'd it happen?
Samantha: (Smiling) Well, Kenneth bet me I couldn't jump off the high part of the bench, so I did it. Then I kinda landed like THIS! (puts her hands on the ground)
Me: Did it hurt when you did it?
Samantha: A little, but I didn't cry. I never cry at school.
Me: Never?
Samantha: Nope. I'm brave at school.
Me: Okay. Is Kenneth a good friend?
Samantha: Yeah daddy he's a good friend, but sometimes I can't tell what he's saying.
Me: Why not?
Samantha: Because he's black.
Me: Huh?
Samantha: He has black skin. And sometimes I can't tell what black people are saying. We have black boys and girls in my class, and my teacher is black, and sometimes I don't understand them.
Me: What do you mean? Do they use different words?
Samantha: No, they use the same words as us. They just say 'em different.
Me: Interesting.
Samantha: And a lot times when they're talking, they'll go "YOU KNOW WHAT I'M SAYIN'!" (cocks her head at an angle as she says it).
Me: They all do that?
Samantha: Yep. And sometimes white people say it too. That makes me laugh.
Me: I think it's time for bed now.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Ultra-focus, gradually broadening

For Debby it was cancer that did the job. Illness has a way of doing that.

Lottery winners experience the same phenomenon. So even blessings can do that.

For T.K. Foster and Mike from "If's of Og", two former commenters on this blog... well, we don't know exactly what happened to them.

Diseases, blessings, mysteries -- what common power do they share? All of them can radically change the direction of, and the focus of, our lives.

For over six weeks I've been absent from my blog, and from commenting on the blogs of others, due to my own events that have required focus. It's nothing quite as big as disease or lotteries, though. Simply stated, my job demanded my full attention since late March.

-- In late March, all Directors of my company were brought together by the new company President and asked to develop new business plans. We were in financial crisis.

-- I wasn't actually a Director yet at that point. But I was asked to lead the team in the planning process. I saw it through, and in 30 days we completed a realignment project that would normally take at least 90 days.

-- I was promoted to Director, but at the same time, over one-third of the company was laid off. Including my best friend at the office (James W), who also frequently comments here at the blog.

-- Since the layoff, I've been building a new team and preparing to launch a couple of new company-wide programs. The first is scheduled to go live in one week.

-- In the past week alone, people on my team have experienced the psychotic breakdown of a spouse, a sibling's relapse into drug addiction, an outpatient surgery and the death of a parent. This obviously takes a lot from me as a manager to help them personally, and still somehow makes things work while the employees are absent and project deadlines keep coming closer.

I've never been particularly focused on my career. It's just been something to pay the bills while the majority of my energy -- mental, emotional, physical -- went to other pursuits. For almost two months now I've had to literally rearrange my life to be able to meet the new demands at work.

At first it was overwhelming and I messed up a lot of things. I missed some key family moments. My workouts stopped completely and I got sick (those two are always connected in my health history). I quit writing blogs, reading books, watching movies, playing piano or playing video games.

Now I'm gradually reintroducing those things, one at a time, and figuring out how to define "balance" for myself. It's different every day. It's an exercise of constant adjustment and monitoring.

I don't see any overall good/bad themes emerging from my experiences over the past six weeks -- it's just life. I've gotten a promotion and some of my friends lost their jobs, but who's to say if this is good or bad? Maybe in three months I'll be miserable and they'll land something great! Judging those things is like judging the NFL draft... you can only do it three to five years after it happens.

So in the absence of any ability to discern the master plan, I'm trying to do the things I need to do today, and have fun while doing it.

Because a smart dude once said "each day has enough trouble of its own", and frankly, I've got my hands full with this afternoon's troubles. Tomorrow's are going to have to wait.

Monday, March 23, 2009

I did it!

A few weeks ago the senior minister at our church told me that he'd be out of town on March 22nd, and he wanted me to preach that day. I said yes. So yesterday, I stood up in front of a few hundred people and delivered a message from my heart. Then after a break for bible class, I did it again (our church has two separate services, because we can't hold all 1,000 members in the auditorium at the same time).

Here's a link to the recording -- please note that some computers can't seem to handle the "audio" or "video" streaming links. But anybody can download the MP3 and listen to it that way.

I can also burn audio discs, or maybe even video DVDs, for anybody who has trouble with the files and would like a copy. I'll sell 'em cheap, I promise...

It sorta shocked me when I noticed that the sermon was almost 40 minutes long. But after further reflection, that's actually pretty efficient for the tale of my spiritual journey. After all, it took 32 years to write.

Grace and peace, dudes. I've been stressed and focused on this sermon above all else for a few weeks, and now that it's over I look forward to returning to our regular programming. Thank you to everyone who has been sharing with me on my journey so far. Any progress I've made, and any good that I've done, is largely due to your influence.

p.s. -- if you only listen to the audio, the two pictures I mention at the end are shown below.

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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

From the comments -- two new themes rising up

Thanks again for the continued discussions in the comments section. It looks to my untrained eye as if two particular topics keep popping up:

1) Old Testament vs. New Testament, Judaism vs. Christianity -- are they truly divergent? Are they the same? Is the old obsolete, or must we still follow the follow the law... etc...

2) Jesus' death -- was it required to make it possible for us to be saved, or was it a powerful example of the love and forgiveness that already existed between God and man?

Leave it to you guys to take on the simple stuff, huh? :)

Let's explore it together. Here are some more crazy Michael thoughts thrown out there to cause trouble:

#1 -- Old vs. New, Jew vs. Christian... who's got it right?

This one is obviously unsolvable, as most issues are in this blog, but I personally learn a lot from the process of studying these debates. If you'll allow me, I'll vastly oversimplify the issue just to give us something concrete to talk about:

Perhaps at its core, this debate is about who Jesus was. Non-messianic Jews mostly think he was a good teacher but that's all, and Christians mostly think he is the Messiah, and the one who changed everything and created a whole new path to relationsihp with God.

So let's look to the words of Jesus for guidance on the issue of Judaism vs. Christianity, and if the old law still prevails. I'd guess that there are three possible ways he could have resolved this:

1) By saying the old law is fullfilled and its time is past, or implying such by breaking it
2) By saying the old law should still be continued just as it was
3) By saying the old law still stands, but it needs to be taken even further in strictness

Would you believe he did all three simultaneously? He did:

1) In John 5:1-17, Jesus heals a paralyzed man and instructs him to take up his mat and walk. On the Sabbath. The healing and the mat-carrying were seen as "working", which would break the Mosaic law of Sabbath. Jesus didn't argue and said, "My father is at work to this very day and I, too, am working." So here Jesus admittedly breaks Old Testament law.

2) From Jesus' sermon on the mount: "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven." -- Matthew 5:17-19. So here Jesus says the old law still stands.

3) From the sermon of the mount again, immediately following the quote above: "For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.' But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment."..."You have heard that it was said, 'Do not commit adultery.' But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart."..."It has been said, 'Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.' But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery." ...and Jesus continues for a while with the "You have heard it was said" teachings, and each time he takes the OT law even farther. So here Jesus says the OT law was not strict/righteous enough!

He doesn't make it easy, does he? I don't believe he meant to. Every time I think I have him figured out... well, I haven't thought that for a while now. What do you think?

#2 -- Jesus' death. Required sacrifice or powerful illustration?

Alas, I have already written quite a bit so won't spend long on this one. I'll just ask a question in a way I've had agnostics phrase it to me in the past:

Which is more noble:

-- A God who has to kill himself so that his own perfect bloodshed will purify the sinful state of the free-will creatures he himself created, or...

-- A God who became like his creation of his own free will. Not out of obligation or to satisfy justice, but to show in the flesh how much he's loved us all along.

I know, this may not be exactly "fair", pinning human concepts of nobility on God. But in my experience, today's atheists, agnostics, seekers and general non-church-goers aren't interested in concepts that don't at least make some sense to their logical minds.

Would it be so bad to say that it's possible, just possible, that Jesus came and died voluntarily? And to admit that we can't really prove whether or not he was trying to uphold Judaism, tighten it or kill it?

I've read the words of Jesus hundreds of times. And what keeps driving through my brain is this:

Treat each other well. Live according to your highest principles. Trust each other and trust God. Listen to your heart.

I can get that, even when the theological debates excite and confuse me.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Fun questions -- two more OT themes that muddy the waters

Thank you to everyone who's participated in the comments section so far in this series of posts on atonement, grace and other biblical themes. The questions alone have given me enough material to study and write much more sometime. For now, here's a quick look at two more interesting themes that jump out as you read through the Old Testament:

1) The result of obeying God was to be blessed on earth (family wealth, national military strength, eras of peace, etc...). The afterlife is a concept completely absent from the Old Testament.
2) The relationship with God was a national thing, not a personal thing. The consequences of following or not following God (#1) brought consequences that affected everybody.

I purposely tried to phrase those things positively, but I could just as easily state them another way:

1) It wasn't about heaven
2) It wasn't about the individual

And yet in most churches today, what do we hear?

1) It's all about heaven
2) It's all about your personal relationship with Jesus/God

I'm not going to cite lots of scripture for this one, since it's almost impossible to choose. The entire OT is full of these two themes -- divine principles play out right here and now, and we all share in the results.

What do you think?

Thursday, February 19, 2009

For Debby

Short detour from my current series on biblical themes.

Debby, a frequent commenter and dear digital friend (a.k.a. one of the coolest ladies I've never met), had her last day of chemo today! She has been sharing all the ups and downs of cancer, chemo, unemployment, family, holidays... pretty much her life as an open book on the blog. It's been an honor to read it.

She will soon be headed to visit her son and her friends for some days and nights of family, jokes and laughing.

So in the spirit of family and comedy, here are some things from our household over the past couple of weeks:


Jack: Daddy, what are those white things on your chin?
Me: ...hairs, son...


Mid-morning on Monday (a holiday for me) Jack and I stopped by Samantha's school to drop something off. When we walked into her classroom, the teacher warmly welcomed us:

Teacher: Hello, Samantha's daddy! Hello, Jack! Everybody say hi to Jack!
Class: Helloooooo, Jack!
Jack: (Raises hands dramatically) DON'T LISTEN TO ME!!! I'M CRAZY!!!!


Last night I was getting the bath ready for the kids. They were playing in Jack's room and were supposed to be getting "naykee".

Samantha: Oh Jack, I'm so, so sorry.
Me: What happened? Is he hurt?
Samantha: No. I pooped on his floor.
Me: Huh?
Samantha: Don't worry (she got a kleenex, picked up the nugget, and took it to the bathroom.
Me: What just happened?
Samantha: That's what happens when you take your panties off and then laugh really, really hard.

Then Samantha dropped this one on me:

Samantha: Daddy, why do good people sometimes get killed for doing good things?
Me: Why do you ask, sugar? (In my head: "WHAT? ALREADY? I'M NOT READY FOR THIS CONVERSATION!")
Samantha: Because of Martin Luther King. He was good. But he got killed.
Me: Hmmm... you're right. And you know what? (SHE'S ONLY SIX!)
Samantha: What?
Me: When he got killed, it kinda woke people up to how wrong that was. He would talk about how we all need to love each other, no matter what color our skin is. But some people thought he was complaining too much, and it wasn't really a problem. When he got killed, though, everybody realized that the problem was real. It woke them up. And now today we treat each other better. (EXHALE)
Samantha: Even The Rock Obama has brown skin, and he's our President!
Me: Exactly!

So you see, even in the midst of toddler craziness and kingergarten humor, poignant moments of clarity and importance emerge from the chaos.

Life's funny like that.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Atonement -- not so simple

So last time I wrote about grace, and how it is actually a theme that is encountered (and countered with justice) all throughout the bible, both Old and New Testaments. Tonight I write about another theme, atonement, and once again it is one that is much more complicated than it might appear on the surface.

Let's start with the Old Testament. When I think of atonement in the Old Testament, I usually think of animal sacrifice. This practice begins immediately in the bible narrative, right after Adam and Eve's ejection from the Garden of Eden. It begins with their sons, Cain and Abel:

"Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock." (Genesis 4)

So right away animals are being presented as an offering to God. Noah did it right after the great flood (Genesis 8), Abraham is recorded often as building altars and providing "burnt offerings" on them to God, and Moses did the same. And once Moses inherits "the law", we see right away in the first chapter of Leviticus that God handed down specific instructions on burnt offerings, with specifics from the type of animal (male, without defect) to the style of preparation (skinning the animal, where to place the head on the altar, etc...). That chapter also details how to prepare birds or even grains as a burnt offering, instead of animals. Later, in Leviticus 16, God provides details of how to prepare and kill animals for sacrifices on the "Day of Atonement" a special worship and celebration outside of regular sacrifices. The bottom line is that these offerings, whether spontaneous or command-based, were an important part of their relationship with God.

This is the foundational practice of achieving/receiving atonement. Since I keep mentioning the word, and it's the title of this post, we might as well define it!

I've looked up the word "atonement" in many dictionaries and concordances, and just like with any other topic, there's no agreement. Welcome to biblical study, my friends. But the general tone is something like this:

Atonement: when something has happened so that God can forgive sin

Interesting. The basic picture here is that God is willing, even eager, to forgive, but it's not a unilateral move. He waits for a person to respond, then provides the forgiveness.

So I guess that's it, then. See you next time!

Okay, I'm kidding. Obviously it's not that simple. First let's work through some logic, then we'll look at a few more bible passages.

Logically, what is it about animal blood, bird carcasses or grains that opens up the doorway to forgiveness? Is it something physically present in the flesh or grain? I can't say for sure, but that seems doubtful. This appears more like something God simply chose, because it was an easily-available form of sacrifice for the people. Something that did come with a price, but not too much. He's looking for the gesture itself -- the details are irrelevant (although there sure are a lot of details in Leviticus).

In that case, then, let's look at the bible and see how this plays out. If offerings bring atonement, and enable God to forgive sin, then without offerings there may not be atonement, right? I mean, God laid out the rules pretty clearly. Now we return to Isaiah:

"Yet you have not called upon me, O Jacob, you have not wearied yourselves for me, O Israel. You have not brought me sheep for burnt offerings, nor honored me with your sacrifices. I have not burdened you with grain offerings nor wearied you with demands for incense. You have not bought any fragrant calamus for me, or lavished on me the fat of your sacrifices. But you have burdened me with your sins and wearied me with your offenses." (Isaiah 43:22-28)

Ouch. Surely this won't go well. But wait:

"But now listen, O Jacob, my servant, Israel, whom I have chosen. This is what the Lord says -- he who made you, who formed you in the womb, and who will help you: Do not be afraid, O Jacob, my servant, Jeshurun, whom I have chosen. For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour out my Spirit on your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants. They will spring up like grass in a meadow, like poplar trees by flowing streams." (Isaiah 44:1-5)

Whoa! So maybe sacrifices aren't the only way to atonement? You readers who are long-time church attendees are probably thinking of this passage by now:

"You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise." (Psalm 51)

There were whole years, even decades, when the Israelites were not able or not willing to follow specific divine commands. They skipped the Year of Jubilee more than they followed it, they intermarried with idolatrous cultures, they spared enemies they were supposed to kill and killed enemies they were supposed to spare. And they missed sacrifices. Sacrifices for atonement. For forgiveness. Yet God always forgave them anyway, which is powerfully apparent when reading books like Isaiah.

I guess that is the meaning of grace.

I'm running short on time again, and have so far still to go. So let's close with the most fun part -- the hard questions:

-- If God could forgive without sacrifice, then why ask for sacrifice in the first place? It's obviously not for God, or to "enable" God's forgiveness through atonement. He's God. He built the universe; he can forgive whom and when he wants. Is it possible that the demand for sacrifice was for the people? For them to put some skin in the game, come together as a culture, and spend time processing the big picture of what they'd done and how they would improve?

-- If God could forgive without sacrifice, does this put any possible holes in the view of Jesus' death as a necessary part of penal substitution (his perfect self killed so that we imperfect people could be saved)?

-- If "yes" to the above, what other reasons could there be for the life, and death, of Jesus?

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Grace in the OT?

A few weeks ago Jamie and I had a Friday date night and went to an exhibit at our local museum called "Birth of Christianity: A Jewish Story". It had some amazing pieces of pottery, tools, art and other items from the time Jesus was alive. They even had a piece of Jerusalem's temple, plus several sections of scrolls from early copies of what we now know as the bible. They had a section of Luke dated around 200 A.D., I believe. The text still stood out clearly on the parchment but it was all Greek to me.

Another section of text there was from the Old Testament book of Isaiah. I wish I could tell you if it was a Greek translation or if it was in the original Hebrew, but I don't remember, because I was fascinated by the English translation posted above the text. What we now know as chapters 43 and 44 of the book tell of the great disobedience of the Israelite people, and how far they've wandered from God. Then Isaiah writes this, as a prophet speaking for God:

"Remember these things, O Jacob, for you are my servant, O Israel. I have made you, you are my servant; O Israel, I will not forget you. I have swept away your offenses like a cloub, your sins like the morning mist. Return to me, for I have redeemed you.

Sing for joy, O heavens, for the Lord has done this; shout aloud, O earth beneath. Burst into song, you mountains, you forests and all your trees, for the Lord has redeemed Jacob, he displays his glory in Israel."

Many times Christians think of the Old Testament as portraying the judgment/ruler side of God, while the New Testatment emphasizes the grace/servant side of God. But things are never so simple. We see plenty of harshness, judgment and even anger from Jesus in the New Testatment. And sometimes pieces of pure grace pour from the pages of the Old Testament, just like this part of Isaiah.

The word for "redeem" in the bolded section above is almost surely not talking about heaven -- it's a reference to the restoration of the nation of Israel, and their freedom from bondage. When Isaiah was writing this (~700 B.C.), his nation was starting to weaken under Assyrian forces, and soon many of his people would be slaves. The book of Isaiah is full of warnings of this impending occupation, and links their military weakness to the preceding cultural, social and spiritual weakness. He basically sees his country falling apart from the inside-out.

Yet peppered throughout the book are frequent passages of amazing optimism and beauty, like the one cited above. And almost every one of them is bookended by long lists of the heinous acts the people have commited. The pattern is like this, as spoken by God:

1) You screwed up
2) Wow, you screwed up big time
3) I love you
4) I have saved you. You are mine.
5) Please come back. You will be so much better for it.
6) You're coming back!
7) Wait... there you go again...
8) Back to #1

Notice the order of #4 and #5, just like in the bolded text. First God saves, then he asks his people to come back to him. The people's strength as a nation is dependent on their strength of heart, because this is a natural consequence of cultures. You can't build a lasting superpower on a foundation of deceit and greed. That's still a good lesson for today, wouldn't you say?

But their status with God didn't depend on their obedience. God chose them anyway, and made them his people. Not because they were awesome. But because he's God, and he said so. The same reason that 7,000 Israelites didn't bow before idols during the time of Elijah (1 Kings 19) -- God reserved them. The original text doesn't give any indication that those 7,000 used their free will to stand strong. It appears God just decided they wouldn't bow to idols, so they didn't.

But like I said earlier, themes of the bible are never quite so simple. There are instances of God's confusing wrath and seeming injustice (Uzzah in 2 Samuel 6, anyone?) and instances of God's confusing grace and seeming softheartedness (criminal on the cross in Luke 23?).

But the confusing moments of grace certainly aren't confined to the New Testament. How odd that because of one man, Abraham, God decided to take millions under his wing, protecting them, building them up as a nation, and telling them they would always be his, no matter how far they strayed. All that forgiveness and blessing over thousands of years, just because God liked the guy who came before them.

That is a theme that surfaces again...

So I stood in the museum, seeing an exhibit linking Judaism and Christianity, being reminded once again that our story truly is the same. And if you read chapters 9 through 11 of Romans, you get an incredibly positive and uplifting picture of the future of the Jews. That's a future I'd be proud to share.

I'm not done yet, but I'm done for tonight. :)

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

10-year anniversary trip, part 2

So last Friday night, after spending the day at San Diego's Wild Animal Park, we drove up the coast to eat at The Brigantine in Del Mar. Our table overlooked part of the beach, the ocean and the side-by-side racetracks nearby (one for dogs and one for horses, I presume). The food was terrific, of course. I had sea bass and Jamie had an alfredo pasta dish with oysters, shrimp, scallops and goat cheese.

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Then on the way back to the hotel we stopped at the grocery store and bought some chocolates. They were on sale because they weren't in a fancy Valentine's box like the others on display, ha! So we ate an expensive dinner and finished up with cheap dessert, and thus everything was balanced.

Saturday we checked out of the "Plan B" hotel and drove to San Diego to hit the Midway aircraft carrier, now turned into a museum. It was one of our favorite parts of the trip. It was built in the mid-1940s and was the biggest ship in the world for over a decade after its completion. It was activated in multiple conflicts, saved many refugees and was still our flagship for Desert Storm! It was finally decommissioned a few years ago and has been transitioned into a tourist attraction.

It's massive. We spent a few hours doing through all the levels and rooms. We talked to lots of people. Several former shipmates are now guides on the ship, so we got to hear about the galley/mess from a former Midway head cook (1973-74) and we learned about the steam engines from a former engineer on the ship (1960s). We learned that the ship had four engines, each with more than 52,000 horsepower. They served more than 13,000 meals every single day.
And it wasn't just statistics -- the pictures, stories and physical reality of the ship itself really transported us to another place and time. It was a stark reminder of war for a happy couple who has never experienced it firsthand.

In the hangar and on the flightdeck were more than 40 aircraft, all of which at some point actually flew from the Midway on active duty. Did I mention the ship was big?

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Then we checked into the Hotel Salomar right in the heart of San Diego, and our friend Roland (he often comments on the blog) drove down from L.A. to see us. Thus beginneth our #1 favorite part of the trip -- Torrey Pines with me, Jamie and Roland.

We started out on the beach and walked it for a while, then we went up into the hills and hiked the trails. Just sunshine and conversation. I like that we didn't just go to California and retreat into ourselves. We made some connections: Mrs. Nugent, Roland, a couple at the animal park from Osage Beach, MO, etc... A good reminder that "we" is bigger than just the two of us, and that everybody has a story worth hearing.

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After all that walking, the donger need food (movie reference) so we headed back to the hotel to park Roland's car and walk the area for a good restaurant. We settled on Mexican food, followed by dessert at Ghirardelli Chocolate. Yes, they have stores, and I'm lucky enough that this is the second one I've been to (the other was in Las Vegas). I later discovered that they have thirteen locations nationwide, and that eight of them are in California. What a state!

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We came home relaxed and refreshed, ready for another 10 years.

There's a lot going on right now, so I'm not sure what to blog next. I'm not promising that all of the following will ever get posted, but here are some ideas I'm throwing around:

-- Book reviews of "The Spontaneous Healing Power of Belief" and "13 Things That Don't Make Sense"
-- The sad and strangely humorous (in a dark way) story of when I had to put our neighbor's cat down for him recently. With a shovel.
-- How prejudice is actually overcome (hint: not through articles or debates)
-- Oh yeah, Jamie's pregnant. :)

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Our 10-year anniversary trip -- part 1

In January Jamie and I celebrated 10 years of marriage, and to mark the occasion we planned a 4-day, 3-night excursion to San Diego. Just the two of us. Neither of us had ever been to California before and we were ready to have an adventure!

My mom flew down from Kansas City to take care of the kids and did an amazing job. Seriously, our family schedules exhaust me all the time and at least I know the lay of the land around here -- where the restaurants, schools and parks are located, how to do the bedtime routines, reminding Jack to go potty, etc... She didn't have the benefit of knowing all our family rituals and household details, yet came down to our turf and managed everything beautifully. Big award to RoRo (her nickname)!

So with her taking care of things at home, Jamie and I flew out last Thursday morning. Our plan was to spend the first two nights at a cabin on Lake Henshaw, about 80 miles north of San Diego. It would be a quiet, nature-filled and private retreat for us. The place we were staying said it had a cabin "nestled in the hill" on the lake. We envisioned just that, complete with crisp mornings with birds singing, and clear nights of stargazing next to the fire we'd build.

More on that later. First, we needed to get to the lake. Our flight was smooth and we hopped in our rental car and headed north from San Diego. We stopped in a small community/suburb called Scripps and had lunch at an awesome family-owned seafood restaurant (AJ, the food references are especially in your honor). It was called Nugent's Fishgrille, and Mrs. Nugent herself was our hostess. Jamie got the cajun tuna sandwich (with what looked like a 14-oz. filet) and I had the sliders. Awesome. And Mrs. Nugent visited with us a while and mentioned that if we liked the hiking, we had to go to Torrey Pines and do it there. Later on we loved her for that.

And then we arrived, and this was the view out our cabin door:

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We were nestled in a hill, alright. A paved hill, right smack in the middle of a big parking lot that included a bar/grill and about five other cabins mere feet from our own. And we had to cross the parking lot, the highway, and some other property to get to the lake, which in Texas terms was a respectable puddle. No fire pits, either. The cabin walls were thin and there were no curtains on the windows, giving us as much privacy as a glass house, basically.

We're not usually very picky, and we certainly weren't looking for luxury. All we wanted was a private place out in nature, but once that wasn't working we turned in our key, got in the car and continued the adventure! First we stopped near the town of Julian for some of their famous apple pie. We had the dutch apple pie, hot, with cinnamon ice cream. Then back in the car on the beautiful California roads (amazing hill country, vineyards, fruit fields, ostrich farms, etc...) to figure out where we'd be spending the night.

We ended up at a hotel not more than 100 yards from the restaurant where we'd eaten lunch! But it was perfect. The staff upgraded us to a jacuzzi room with a king bed for dirt cheap, and we couldn't have been happier.

We woke up Friday morning and drove to the Wild Animal Park. It's like a zoo, but with a much more open setting. Here are some pics and captions, and then tomorrow I'll bring you part 2 to finish the recap of our trip:

Here's a look at how open the terrain is. Giraffes, antelope, rhinos... all together in a more natural habitat.
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It might be hard to see, but a baby is nursing under its mother here.Image Hosted by ImageShack.us

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These female gorillas were having a showdown. The one on the right didn't want her blankie stolen. They were quite entertaining.Image Hosted by ImageShack.us

Okay, maybe not a totally natural habitat, but Land Rovers sure are comfy.Image Hosted by ImageShack.us

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--The beach
--Hiking at Torrey Pines
--Touring the Midway aircraft carrier
--More food!
--Hotel Salomar and the gaslamp quarter of San Diego

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

My last list from 2008 (I think)

A while ago I posted my favorite daily calendar quotes from the first six months of 2008. These are from my office calendar made by Stephen Covey's company (The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People). Here are my faves from the last six months of the year. I won't be posting again until next week, as this weekend is my 10-year anniversary trip to California!

Note: I've updated the music playlist, so if you scroll allllll the way to the bottom of the page, you'll see an entire list of gravelly-sounding rock songs that you can play. Enjoy!

Is it logical that two people can disagree and that both can be right? It's not logical: it's psychological. And it's very real. And unless we value the differences in our perceptions, unless we value each other and give credence to the possibility that we're both right, that life is not always a dichotomous either/or, that there are almost always third alternatives, we will never be able to transcend the limits of conditioning.

It simply makes no difference how good the rhetoric is or even how good the intentions are; if there is little or no trust, there is no foundation for permanent success. Only basic goodness gives life to technique.

Communication is the most important skill in life. We spend most of our waking hours communicating. But consider this: you've spent years learning how to read and write, years learning how to speak. But what about listening? What training or education have you had that enables you to listen so that you really, deeply understand another human being from that individual's own frame of reference?

Habits can be learned and unlearned. But it isn't a quick fix. It involves a process and a tremendous commitment. Those of us who watched the first men walk on the moon were transfixed and superlatives such as "fantastic" and "incredible" were somehow inadequate. But to get there, those astronauts literally had to break out of the tremendous gravity pull of the earth. More energy was spent in the first few minutes of lift-off than was used to travel half a million miles.

Habits, too, have tremendous gravity pull. And breaking them involves more than a little willpower and a few minor changes in our lives. But once we break out of the gravity pull, our freedom takes on a whole new dimension.


We are not our feelings. We are not our moods. We are not even our thoughts. The very fact that we can think about these things separates us from them and from the animal world. Self-awareness enables us to stand apart and examine even the way we "see" ourselves. It affects not only our attitudes and behaviors, but also how we see other people. It becomes our map of the basic nature of mankind.


Empathic listening is a tremendous deposit in the Emotional Bank Account. It's deeply therapeutic and healing because it gives a person "psychological air". If all the air were suddenly sucked out of the room you're in right now, what would happen to your interest in [reading this blog]? You wouldn't care about anything except getting air. Survival would be your only motivation. But now that you have air, it doesn't motivate you. This is one of the greatest insights in the field of human motivation: Satisfied needs do not motivate.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Favorite DVDs I watched in 2008

As promised, here is a list of my favorite DVD viewings from 2008. Note that these are my "favorite viewings" from the year. So this doesn't mean that all those movies came out in 2008. And it doesn't even mean I think they're the "best". Here we go!

The Lives of Others -- A state agent in 1980s East Germany is ordered to do 24/7 surveillance on a man suspected of treason. As the agent watches and learns more about the suspect's life, he realizes that he has doubts of his own about the system he works for. I got hooked by the characters and moved by the story of grace and of doing the right thing, even when it's small, and even when it's dwarfed by an environment of wrong things.

After Innocence -- A documentary about the American legal/justice/prison system, and how many death row inmates have since been proven innocent through DNA evidence that wasn't available at the time of the original trial. This story was haunting, frustrating and at times beautiful. But after watching it I'm now far less sure about capital punishment, and that's saying something since I live in Texas.

Stardust -- A simple and timeless love story/fantasy tale. Something about it just worked for me. And Robert DeNiro absolutely cracked me up in a way he's never done in his great career, and in a way he'll almost certainly never attempt again!

49 Up -- The latest episode in a running documentary following about a dozen British citizens. It started in the sixties when they were 7 years old, and every 7 years they go back on camera to provide an update about their lives and their dreams. I'm a people-watcher, and this was a mega-dose of it. I could identify with every person in at least some small way, and appreciated their openness in sharing their first five decades with the public.

3:10 to Yuma -- Fairly simple Western film, but I loved the way Russell Crowe and Christian Bale played it. The good guys aren't always good, and the bad guys aren't always bad. Bale had one of the gut-wrenching lines of the year, talking to his wife about their two sons, and why he's risking his life to play the hero:

"I'm tired of the way they look at me. And I'm tired of the way you don't."

Dead Man's Shoes -- On the surface this is just a revenge tale, but the intensity and rawness of the story and cinematography stayed with me for weeks. It may not quite follow the Hollywood formula for endings (and why would it, it wasn't made in the US), but it worked for me. Be aware that this film is quite violent and full of tough language.

God Grew Tired of Us -- A documentary following refugees from Darfur (a.k.a. The Lost Boys) who get the chance to be part of a relocation and job program in America. The story of their childhood and lives in a UN refugee camp is tragic, shocking and enlightening. The story of their new lives in the US is honest, complex and sheds new light on the things our culture cites as vital to the American dream. Nothing can shock us out of our ruts like an outside perspective, and these brave men are about as "outside" as human beings can be.

Other notables: What Would Jesus Buy; No Country for Old Men; Lars and the Real Girl; Mr. Brooks; Black Snake Moan

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

My favorite gravelly-voiced rock vocalists

I'm betting that no other blog post in internet history has the same title as this post. Rock on -- I'm original!

My uncle mentioned that he and my dad have been into Nickelback lately and both really like Chad Kroeger's marble-throated singing. He then asked what other similar-sounding guys are out there, and if I'd do a post on it.

You betcha.

I'm breaking this list down into two categories:

1) Pure gravel sound.
2) Smooth, melodic voices when singing softly, but with an ability to sing-scream with scratchy goodness. There are quite a few of these vocalists out there, so I've noted a few of my favorites.

Category 1 -- Pure Gravel

1) Wes Scantlin of Puddle of Mudd -- the band is from Kansas City so I'm already biased in their favor, but Wes has a great voice. Here's one of their hits from 2008 (for listening only; ignore the visual part of the video as the record label doesn't allow me to post the actual music video here on the blog).

2) Jakob Dylan of Wallflowers and solo work -- yep, it's Bob Dylan's son. He's a great songwriter and singer in his own right. Here's a live performance from when he was still with the Wallflowers:

3) Rob Zombie of White Zombie -- this dude and his band have a lot heavier sound than some of you may appreciate. But his voice is undeniably gravelly. Here's another audio-only clip for you (the images are from some unrelated movie, and that's good, because you don't want to see what Rob Zombie actually looks like):

Category 2 -- Smooth/Gravel contrast, all in one voice

1) Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters -- what an amazing talent this guy is. Formerly the drummer for Nirvana, and for all we knew he was just a drummer. Then after Kurt Cobain's death, Dave went into the studio and started writing and recording great songs, playing all the instruments himself. And yes, he sings too. Not bad for a drummer. Here's their latest hit -- the first two minutes are pure smoothness and then the intensity begins:

2) Chris Cornell of Soundgarden, Audioslave and solo work -- probably my favorite rock voice of all time. He can sing with a sweet, beautiful tenor when he wants to. And he can wail like a banshee when he wants to. He often does both in the same song. Here's a live studio performance of one of his old Soundgarden songs:

3) Adam Gontier of Three Days Grace -- not quite as gutteral and strong as most the other guys I've posted here, but his voice has a kinda breathy and smoky quality that is fun for me to listen to. Here's another audio-only clip for you. Seriously. I don't know what the heck the visual part is about, but this is what we get when record labels protect their real music videos so closely.

Hope you enjoyed! And if not, just hang around as my next list is my favorite DVD viewings from 2008.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Whew! Hello 2009.

The day after Christmas we took off for Arkansas to visit family for five days (half of it spent driving, but it was worth it). Then we got home and everybody promptly got sick.

Samantha got a stomach bug. Then Jack. Then Jamie. I never got that but I lost my voice and had a sinus thing going on. I think we're just about well now!

The main purpose of the trip was to visit my grandparents as they were having a double-celebration -- their 60th anniversary (!) and his 80th birthday (!).

All four of my grandparents are still alive and healthy, which is a huge blessing. And of course, we have nicknames for all four. Birthday boy is known humbly as "Great" since he's one of the great-grandfathers.

He is the one I get my sense of humor from, which was mentioned here when I wrote short profiles of all four grandparents. His wit was on display again this summer during our summer vacation. Here was one of our short conversations on the deck of the lakehouse:

Great: Well Buck (his nickname for me), you've got two kids, are you stopping there? Can't you have more?
Me: We can, sure... but we're just not there yet.
Great: Hmm...
Me: We haven't closed the door on it or anything, at least not biologically. So we'll just see.
Great: Your grandmother and I are the same. We haven't ruled it out yet for us either.

Hey, he was only 79 at the time. It could've happened.

We also visited with my parents, my aunt and uncle and cousins, and even got to spend two days with my brother's family before coming home. The link has pics from that trip, including my shredding session on Guitar Hero with my brother. We could play that for hours!

My uncle specifically asked me to blog something lighter and funnier once in a while, so I'm gonna post some lists later this week:

1) My favorite gravelly-voiced rockers (broken down into two sub-categories... I'm white and nerdy like that)
2) My favorite DVD viewings from 2008

See ya!