Archive for the ‘books’ Category

Random bits

I’m tired, but the good kind of tired.  The kind of tired where you’ve been working hard outside and in the garden, haven’t showered in a few days, and have a killer farmer’s tan.  The last few gorgeous days, we’ve seen our little neighborhood block come to life — neighbors helping neigbors dig up ugly bushes (then introducing themselves), ordinary folks turning weedy, grown-over plots of land into gardens, and folks stopping by just to say hi.

Ahh, springtime in Boston. =)

And the weekend’s only half over!


A couple resources to point you toward:

  • Christine Sine of Mustard Seed Ministries in Seattle has just released (on lulu as an e-book) “Gardening With God,” which is a compilation of her reflections on gardening and Christian spirituality.
  • I recently ordered Vigen Guroian’s Inheriting Paradise: Meditations on Gardening, which promises to be a great read.  I love his stuff.
  • And on a slightly different note, Chrissy’s working through An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith by Barbara Brown Taylor, a book in which the former minister explores the spiritual nature of ordinary practices: waking up to God, paying attention, walking the Earth, encountering others, saying no, and pronouncing blessings, among others.  I’m pretty excited about reading it when Chrissy’s done.


Our good friends just got back to Boston from some time in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.  While in PA, they had the opportunity to stay for a few days with a Mennonite family in Amish country to get to know a little bit more about the rhythmic, simple way of being practiced in that part of the world.  They said they were blown away by the intense faith put into action that is practiced by the Amish (and Mennonites, for that matter), who believe wholeheartedly that a faith that doesn’t radically augment every part of your life (and your community’s life) is no faith at all.  They told us of a short video they watched in one of the museums where an Amish man is asked if he’s a Christian.  His response?  “Don’t ask me; I could tell you anything.  Ask my neighbor.”

A few days later, they happened to be in a small WV town on the “National Day of Prayer.”  The town held some sort of prayer service in the center of town where person after person got up and prayed forcefully for a different area of our national government.  As our friends listened to prayers being screamed into a mic for the U.S. military to remain “the mighty arm of God in the world,” they said they couldn’t help but think of the previous days they’d spent among the Amish, who quietly lead radical lives that put into practice the teachings of Jesus in ways many of us can only dream of.  They thought of the Amish community’s forgiveness of a killer who took 12 of their children from them in a tragic shooting.  Looking at these two experiences of Christianity side-by-side, they thought, “Are these two expressions even the same faith?”


Friday randomness

Not a lot of dialogue about the Advent Conspiracy stuff from the last post … thoughts?


My dad sent me a question he received from a friend via e-mail. The question is: “Where do you find Jesus discerning whether or not his blessing a person would be empowering” or “enabling” that person? What’s the basis for exercising such discernment today? (I’m familiar with the ‘pearls’ and ‘swine’ passage, if that’s even applicable.)”

Here’s my two cents:

I would say it’s become enabling when the other person comes requesting something and almost seems to expect you to say yes. Also, when debts go unpaid for weeks and weeks, that’s a problem.

There are times to flat-out bless someone with no re-payment expected, but most of the time, we work out some kind of re-payment system.

All that said, though, while we ought to keep these things in mind, I’m not sure Jesus does much discerning along these lines. He’s pretty indescriminant about how and who he blesses, because the blessings ultimately point people to him. We’re not going to get every “empowerment-enablement” decision right, and that’s not the point. The point is that we are identifying with the poor, and doing our part to demonstrate Jesus’ love to them and ease their lives just a bit.

One more thing: Context is everything. We don’t give change to panhandlers in Boston because we know Boston has EXCELLENT services for the homeless. (plenty of shelters, free wool blankets, meal trucks, church groups, low-income housing, etc…) In another context, we might come to a different conclusion. So paying attention to those factors are important.


For those of you who don’t know, I (Steve) now work 3 days a week at a wonderful little book shop in downtown Boston. It’s one of the oldest antiquarian/rare/used bookshops in the US. Anyway, we get a nice discount on the books there, so you can imagine that my hold shelf is getting fairly crowded. I was especially excited about the books I took home yesterday, though, from a lot containing quite a bit of good Christian mysticism and spirituality classics. Have you read any of them?

When the Powers Fall: Reconciliation in the Healing of Nations, Walter Wink

A Book of Hours, Thomas Merton

Zen and the Birds of Appetite, Thomas Merton

The Seven Storey Mountain: An Autobiography of Faith, Thomas Merton

The Wisdom of the Desert, Thomas Merton

Meister Eckhart, from Whom God Hid Nothing: Sermons, Writings & Sayings, Meister Eckhart

There are still several others I have on hold but haven’t pulled the trigger on … should I?

1-2-3 book meme, a bit late

Jimmy Shaw tagged me almost a month ago for this book meme, but I was buying a house, so I completely forgot to do it.  Anyway, it seems pretty cool.  Here’s the drill:

1. Pickup the nearest book (with at least 123 pages)
2. Open to page 123.
3. Find the 5th sentence.
4. Post the next three sentences.
5. Tag five people.

Well, here goes:

But that has changed in the past few decades, as the economy nationalized and globalized. As we meet fewer of our neighbors in the course of the day, as we become ever more hyper-individualist in our economic lives, those bonds fell away. “Operating in a world of instant communication with minimal social tethers,” Whybrow observes, “America’s engines of commerce and desire became turbocharged.”

If you’re wondering (as I am, because I had not yet gotten to page 123 in the book) what, exactly, has changed, you’ll have to pick up Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, by Bill McKibben. Yeah, that little excerpt pretty much means nothing without the context of the rest of the book … or at least the 4th sentence on the page … so read it!

OK, who should I tag?  Who still reads this blog?

The Neaves, Miller, Justin, Brandy, and Taylor 


First off, random question for a story I’m working on: Have you ever attempted — successfully or unsuccessfully — to rent a car without a major credit card?  If so, I’d love to hear your story.  E-mail me at steve [at] thebostonwriter [dot] com.  Thanks so much for your help!  OK, back to your regularly scheduled blogramming …


Well, it’s about time. It’s finally published. An e-mail from my friend and mentor, Kent:

I want to invite you to join me in testing an exciting new tool I have developed with the help of some friends. It’s a short gift book called Centered, and it is designed to help people take a deeper look at what it really means to follow Jesus.

Last Sunday 250 Million people in the U.S.A. did not attend church. That’s five people out of every six—and their number is growing by about 10,000 per day.

Many of these people are very interested in spiritual reality, just not church. Chances are you know some of these people. If you’d like to take your conversation with them to a deeper level and help us learn from your experience, here’s what you can do:

  • Buy a copy of Centered at the website listed below, read through it and jot down your impressions, good and bad.
  • On reflection and prayer, give or lend the book to one of your friends who seems open to spiritual things with the offer to discuss what they think of it over a cup of coffee (or whatever!).
  • After that conversation, write out your impressions of what impact the experience has had on you and your friend and e-mail them to me. [I can put you in contact with Kent if you get to step 3]

That’s it. Early indications are that this tool will make a big difference for many people—and I will be delighted and grateful if you choose to be part of the team that helps us refine it even more. (But still love you if this isn’t a good time for such a venture!)

Here’s the website.

Blessings in this season. Looking forward to hearing from you!


I have read Centered, and I give it my glowing endorsement (for the little it’s worth…). Let me say one thing, however: This isn’t an oversized gospel tract. It isn’t intended to replace a conversation or a relationship. It is intended to be used as a tool alongside a conversation and a relationship. And its freshness, lack of “Christianese” language, truth, simplicity, and beauty will make it a delightful conversation partner indeed.

will d. campbell

So, I just discovered Will D. Campbell. I picked up one of his books — Soul Among Lions: Musings of a Bootleg Preacher — for $0.50 at the Salvation Army in Central Square yesterday, and I bought it after reading the following quote on the inside of the book jacket:

Why can there not be a one-sentence peace treaty: “It shall be a violation of international law for any nation to kill a child of another nation.” What nation would not sign the treaty? And how would war then be waged?

I read half the book on the train ride home, then I looked deeper into the life of the author. Campbell was a notable white supporter of civil rights in the ’60s, a Baptist preacher in Mississippi, a WWII veteran, the spiritual life director at Ole Miss for 2 years in the ’50s (before giving it up because of the heat he took for his support of civil rights), and a celebrated writer. He is now 83 years old and still writing and speaking, still active in calling out injustice in plain terms and prophetically bringing a new message (with refreshing simplicity and innocence).

Soul Among Lions is basically a book of short “blog posts,” written in 1999 before blogs were big. I’ve found myself nodding emphatically at nearly everything I’ve read of it so far, so you can expect some of it to reappear here on this blog, starting today. If you haven’t checked out Campbell’s stuff, it’s as relevant in 2007 as it was in 1999 (Soul Among Lions), 1978 (when he wrote Brother to a Dragonfly, a finalist for the National Book Award), or 1962 (when Race and the Renewal of the Church, Campbell’s first book, was published).

I’ll start with this piece, the 11th chapter in Soul. Keep in mind this was written in 1999. Enjoy.

Recently in Salt Lake City a passel of souls of my religious declension resolved that wives should submit graciously to their husbands. I don’t recall that being an issue of any gravity in our family. For example, I am totally irresponsible with money, so my wife handles that. She gives me pocket cash and I don’t complain. (I reckon I’m not a leader!) But she doesn’t know about farming, so in the little bovine cul-de-sac we inhabit I decide what variety of seeds to plant, when and where to plant — things like that. It’s worked pretty well for this first fifty-three years of marriage.

Even so, I’m glad to see my Baptist brethren — yes, brethren — taking a solid, literal stand on biblical interpretation. Maybe next year they will do the same with the passages where Jesus and Isaiah said they had come to proclaim opening the doors of prisons and letting all the prisoners go free. That would rescue us from the prison-industrial complex that threatens to bankrupt us with ever more costly prison construction.

Or they could pass a resolution about Romans 12, where St. Paul tells us to feed our enemies. Since the president, vice president, and Senator Jesse Helms are all Southern Baptists, we’ll lift the sanctions on enemies like Cuba, Iraq, and Libya and send them food for their crying babies. We could even quit spending so much time trying to put prayer in the public schools, because Jesus unambiguously taught that when we pray we are to go to a secret place and pray in secret.

So I’m glad to see my brethren taking scripture seriously. I await even more resolutions.

N.T. Wright on “evil”

I just started N.T. Wright’s newest book, Evil and the Justice of God. In light of our continued presence in Iraq and the announcement of 20,000+ troops, plus hundreds of civilian organizations, being deployed, this passage reminded me of the backwardness of the thinking (and lack of theological thinking from the people of God) that got us there in the first place:

Lashing out at those you perceive to be “evil” in the hope of dealing with the problem &emdash; say, dropping copious bombs on Iraq or Afghanistan because of September 11 &emdash; is in fact the practical counterpart of those philosophical theories that purport to “solve” the problem of evil. Various writers have suggested, for instance, that God allows evil because it creates the special conditions in which virtue can flourish. But the thought that God decided to permit Auschwitz because some heroes would emerge is hardly a solution to the problem. In the same way, the thousands of innocent civilians who died in Iraq and Afghanistan bear mute testimony to the fact that often such “solutions” simply make the problem worse &emdash; and I don’t just mean because they harden and indeed generate opposition. Just as you cannot eliminate evil by acts of Congress or by a philosophical argument, so you cannot do so with high explosives.

Through Painted Deserts

Donald Miller ponders the big questions of life in Through Painted Deserts: Light, God, and Beauty on the Open Road:

Rarely do I question the mystery of it all. We are atoms connected to create big, awkward, intelligent animals, animals complex in construction, equipped with minds, hearts, and the like. Spinning secretly around us is an intricate system of interconnected physical laws, completely dependent upon one another for effectiveness. And we rae in the middle of it: actors on Shakespeare’s state, madmen on Nietzche’s streets, accidents in Sagan’s universe, children in God’s creation.

And I suppose part of my wanting to leave Houston is to attempt an understanding of this mystery. My life, this gift I have been given, has been wasted, thus far, attempting to answer the meaningless questions. Recently I have come to believe there are more important questions than the how questions: How do I get money, how do I get laid, how do I become happy, how do I have fun? On one of our trips to central Texas, I stood at the top of a desert hill and looked up into the endlessness of the heavens, deep into the inky blackness of the cosmos, those billion stars seeming to fall through the void from nowhere to nowhere. I stood there for twenty minutes, and as it had a few times that year, my mind fell across the question why?

The question terrified me at first. I had only recently begun questioning my faith in God, a kind of commercial, American version of spirituality. I had questions because of the silliness of its presuppositions. The rising question of why had been manifesting for some time, and had previously only been answered by Western Christianity’s propositions of behavior modification. What is beauty? I would ask. Here are the five keys to a successful marriage, I would be given as an answer. It was as if nobody was listening to the question being groaned by all of creation, groaned through the pinings of our sexual tensions, our broken biochemistry, the blending of light and smog to make our glorious sunsets. I began to believe the Christian faith was a religious system invented within the human story rather than a series of true ideas that explained the story. Christianity was a pawn for politicians, a moral system to control our broken natures. The religion did seem to stem from something beautiful, for sure, but it had been dumbed down and Westernized. If it was a religious system that explained the human story, its adherents had lost the grandness of its explanation in exchange for its validation of their how lifestyles, to such a degree that the why questions seemed to be drowning in the drool of Pavlov’s dogs. And it wasn’t just the church that was drowning; it was all of humanity or, at least, all of the West. Our skyscrapers and sports teams, our malls and our master-planned neighborhoods, our idiot politics, our sultry media promising ecstasy with every use of a specific dishwashing detergent. What does all of this mean? Are we animals nesting? Are we rats in one giant cage, none of us able to think outside our instinct? And does my faith live within these instincts, always getting me to my happiness, or is it larger, explaining the why of life, the how a shallow afterthought?