Monday, April 30, 2007

The Treasure (From "Tales of the Hasidim")

Rabbi Bunam used to tell young men who came to him for the first time the story of Rabbi Eisik, son of Rabbi Yekel in Cracow. After many years of great poverty which had never shaken his faith in God, he dreamed someone bade him look for a treasure in Prague, under the bridge which leads to the king's palace. When the dream recurred a third time, Rabbi Eisik prepared for the journey and set out for Prague. But the bridge was guarded day and night and he did not dare to start digging. Nevertheless he went to the bridge every morning and kept walking around it until evening.

Finally the captain of the guards, who had been watching him, asked in a kindly way whether he was looking for something or waiting for somebody. Rabbi Eisik told him of the dream which had brought him here from a faraway country. The captain laughed: "And so to please the dream, you poor fellow wore out your shoes to come here! As for having faith in dreams, if I had had it, I should have had to get going when a dream once told me to go to Cracow and dig for treasure under the stove in the room of a Jew - Eisik, son of Yekel, that was the name! Eisik, son of Yekel! I can just imagine what it would be like, how I should have to try every house over there, where one half of the Jews are named Eisik, and the other Yekel!" And he laughed again. Rabbi Eisik bowed, traveled home, dug up the treasure from under the stove, and built the House of Prayer which is called "Reb Eisik's Shul."

"Take this story to heart," Rabbi Bunam used to add, "and make what it says your own: There is something you cannot find anywhere in the world, not even at the zaddik's, and there is, nevertheless, a place where you can find it."


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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

More Weird Conversations

Within thirty minutes we spoke of ear infections, lice (I was scratching my head for most of it), throw-up, etc. That is what first graders will do to you! At lunch, no less. To top it off, one kid brought cupcakes for his birthday, which the kids promptly rubbed all over their faces and showed me what it looked like in their mouth. The only saving grace was that I handed them over to the PE coach right after lunch when the sugar high would be at its worst. Good kids, but if you ever want a challenge then try herding six year old kids around.

A while back ago I got to supervise a trip of this same age while in DC to the Smithsonian Museum of Art - I am not a violent guy, but wanted to monkey punch someone for that idea. We were chasing kids through the artwork, security guards had their hands on billy clubs, and you heard yells such as "Don't lick that artwork!" I had to rush the kids through the room full of nudes and say, "No questions!"

No wonder I started to turn grey the day I had kids...


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Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Artist Known As Hunter

Another great 4-year-old moment: as we were driving home from a state park this evening, my youngest son chose as his new song "Come Sail Away" by Styx. Imagine hearing the chorus "Come Saiw away, come saiw away, come saiw away with meeee!" over and over from a 4-year-old as his older brother and sister croon away with odd background vocals. The nick-named him "The Artist Known As Hunter". The artist part might be stretching it a bit, but boy were we laughing. His previous favorite he called "The Pants Song": Daydream Believer by the Monkees, referring to the chorus line "Sleepy Jean". He would sing that one just as loud.


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Friday, April 20, 2007

Review of "Who Needs God" by Harold Kushner

What I like about this book is that it is not apologetic in the most Evangelical sense of the word. There are no lectures on "hard" proofs or attempts to make you look foolish if you do not believe. It feels more like a conversation you struck up with someone while waiting for your favorite beverage from the barista. We tell stories of how we got to where we are, we laugh at the way laugh sometimes works out, and we ponder striking moments.

Why do we need God? Basically, because the totally independent human is a myth. We have weaknesses, we need support, and we need companionship from people and from God. So we discuss what it means to live, and to live well.

In keeping with the conversational tone of meeting someone new and interesting, Rabbi Kushner does not insist in being Jewish as the only way to learn to live but offers help and insight that he has learned from the Hebrew bible and those who have studied it.

How does religion help us?

Religion is not primarily a set of beliefs, a collection of prayers, or a series of rituals. Religion is first and foremost a way of seeing. It can't change the facts about the world we live in, but it can change the way we see those facts, and that in itself can often make a real difference. (p. 28)

This isn't a book describing a world in which getting everything you really want is what you really need and within your power (see previous review of "The Secret"), it is telling us that what we need to be human is already there if we can just see it.
Organized religion deals with our epidemic of loneliness not by telling us that if we pray properly, God will send us a lover, and not by giving us one more spare-time activity through which we can keep busy and make friends. Rather, it offers us a vision of a world where people no longer condemn themselves to loneliness by seeing all other people as rivals. It offers us a place to which we can bring our whole selves, not just that part of ourselves that we bring to our jobs and our hobbies, and to encounter the whole selves of our neighbors in a way we cannot meet them anywhere else. (p. 113)
As it turns out, and I hope this isn't a shock for you, we are rather limited in our ability to make sense of the "why did this happen" or "what is really going on" in this world. By viewing life through the stories of the scriptures, we can connect to not only the community of the past but with the stories and people we find ourselves in right now. How you fit into these stories will determine how you see your purpose in this world.

While there were times I would have liked to have delved deeper, or ask disturbing questions, those are more likely another conversation (see some of his other books) or use this as starter material and bring it up with your friends over your evening drink.

If you are like me, it doesn't sit well for someone who may not know you as well as they think try to force you into some mold. Rabbi Kushner weaves you into the stories and asks you to experience them for yourself.


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I drove to Dallas yesterday to pick up a friend out of prison after her nine month stint. Funny part of the conversation: I asked her if she was going to panhandle anymore, and she said, "No, the work is just too hard!"

She definitely does not want to go back to prison. One of her comments: there are a lot of angry people in there! Granted, she doesn't, uh, exactly have her whole act together but it was really sad listening to her talk about many of the very young women in prison who seem to be full of hatred and emotionally charged, a number of whom are in jail for battery and assault.

Why the anger? Where does it come from? How do we get so emotionally revved up that we take it out on other people? Maybe for many of us, we don't resort to physical violence, but verbal abuse and emotional daggers are pretty common.

My best guess is that we have wired into our heads some system of "fairness". The world is supposed to work in such a way that I and the people that I care about should get treated or have certain things and when that doesn't happen, my internal "no you di-uhnt" threshold is hit (my own version of pop-psychology).

For example, I believe that drivers should let other cars into a line if they make signals, such as a blinking light and wave, to make it clear that they need to be in your lane. When the other driver acts like she hasn't seen me, keeps her head straight, and then pulls up so tight to the car in front of her like she's stalking the other car, that anger thermometer in my head sets off alarms and hormones and all of a sudden I want to rip the cell phone out of hand and throw it on the highway. But that is just a for-instance.

Everyone that I know has this anger scale so that when it reaches that threshold weight, something breaks. We get angry with the source of that weight, or stress, whether it is people, a system, or even God.

Can I suggest something? Maybe our anger should start with God. The scriptures are filled with people upset with God, especially the Psalms, and He can take it. You aren't going to break Him, as you might someone else who may or may not deserve the brunt of the anger.

Once we've used up our emotional outpouring towards God, then we can think about the real source of our anger, how our sense of balance on our personal anger scale is set, and what we can constructively do about it.

Can this be done without a community? I doubt it. How often do we see people lose control in their lives because they have become isolated?

So fess up, ye quiet masses, on what you do about anger and how you adjust the scales.


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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Sacred Journey, Part 1

I am fascinated with the idea of how we view the sacredness of life and living. We live in a dualistic culture that separates the spiritual and the secular. Just having a word such as "spiritual" means that we then must have things that are not "spiritual." What if that is not the case? What if heaven, and God, are not way up in the sky, or looking over at us from another galaxy, but are in reality right here, right now?

I believe Gary Thomas in his book Sacred Marriage is on to something when he says (p. 13), "What if God designed marriage to make us holy more than to make us happy?"

I would like to explore different avenues of our lives that we often take for granted or run roughshod over rather than thinking through what it means in that moment. For example, what if you made cooking a sacred event? What if you made eating a meal with family or other people a sacred event?

I think there may be some biblical support for that, and I'd like to ask some questions about what it might look like. Is there a danger in overthinking this? Maybe, but we have so underthought the little things in our lives that we get to the end chasing the "big" dreams and learn nothing. Is there a danger in making every thing "sacred" so that nothing is sacred, or getting too deep into the details? Maybe. Let's find out.

Here is my bigger fear - I get to the end of a week and look back. Did I grow? Did I learn? Was I alive in the moments? Are my relationships with people, my environment, and my God more alive or more numb?

I hope this isn't like talking to myself as I walk along - I might look a little crazy. Join in...


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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Review of "The Secret" by Rhonda Byrne

If you have been having some negative thoughts, then you've hit the right place; at least, according to The Secret's Rhonda Byrne. Let me be up-front about this review - I did not finish the book. I'll explain later.

I wanted to check and see what all the hub-bub was about, so I looked for it at the public library and found out there was a wait. Not surprising, since I had heard that it was all the rage lately and that it had been featured on several shows. Well, I got a copy about a week ago and it was pretty much what I thought - health and wealth gospel in quasi-religious language, except that you are the god that is making it happen.

You want a great parking spot? Just concentrate on getting a great parking spot. You want a million dollars? Just think happy thoughts about getting a million dollars. It is apparently as easy as that. Now, if doesn't work, you must be thinking something wrong, like having subconscious negative thoughts or you just don't believe it strong enough.

How does this happen? In the health & wealth gospel, God wants you to be happy and if you just believe that, he will make it so. In this version, your thoughts manipulate the universe and "attract" (Byrne's word) whatever it is you are thinking, whether it is negative or positive.

This can include natural disasters and diseases. I had to put down the book when I read that. According to the book, the hurricane Katrina and its aftermath is the result of people along the coastline all thinking negative thoughts.

When people first hear this part of the Secret they recall events in history where masses of lives were lost, and they find it incomprehensible that so many people could have attracted themselves to the event. By the law of attraction, they had to be on the same frequency as the event. It doesn't necessarily mean they thought of that exact event, but the frequency of their thoughts matched the frequency of the event. If people believe they can be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and they have no control over outside circumstances, those thoughts of fear, separation, and powerlessness, if persistent, can attract them to being in the wrong place at the wrong time. (p. 28)
So, when a good friend lost a young child, it was his or the child's fault? All those people that suffered during these catastrophic events were just asking for it?

By the claims of this book, Yes. I had to put the book down at that point because it made me angry (more negative vibes). I just picked it up today, several days later, and decided to just read through the chapter summaries.

The book asks an important question:
You have a choice right now. Do you want to believe that it's just the luck of the draw and bad things can happen to you at any time? Do you want to believe that you can be in the wrong place at the wrong time? That you have no control over circumstances? (p. 28)
No, I don't want to believe that, but I do believe that sometimes we are at the wrong place at the wrong time. I believe that there are many things in this world that are beyond my control, that my thoughts can't control. Apparently I'm in trouble. At least I'm in good company - as far as I know, none of these proponents of the secret has lived forever.

The real question to me is, How will you respond to events and relationships that don't go your way? That is the real test of character and growth.

What also upsets me is that they characterize the New Testament as another source of this great secret. More quoting small portions of scripture that hopefully supports your position, if you just ignore the rest of it. Somehow, when they say that Jesus said "just ask and it shall be given," it did not compute to them that he was tortured and crucified in a painful death as a common criminal. This man who purportedly knew "the secret" must have had some major bad vibes at the end of his life.

Now I do believe in the power of the mind to help control emotions and thoughts, and thus behavior. I also believe that our imagination is largely untapped as a powerful part of our lives. We can focus on positive aspects and have amazing success as a result of that. There is a placebo affect as our body chemistry responds to our thoughts. But blaming Katrina on negative vibes? You might as well believe that this "life" and "reality" are just a big dream that you haven't woken up from.

At least I can feel good about knowing that if you did not like this review, it's your own fault.


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Transforming into a Geek

The sad thing is, I know a number of people who would totally do this. Brent, if you are out there, send a video!


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Sunday, April 15, 2007


So I haven't been real faithful to my posting lately, but hopefully that will change soon. We've had lots of stuff going on. But never fear, faithful participants in the exciting world of reading-stuff-on-the-internet, in the meantime I have lots of ideas sitting as drafts. Right now I'm trying to decide if I just post them all in one day or string them out. I have:

Reviews of more books, including The Secret, Who Needs God, and several others

The Ecosystem of Me

An old hymn that scares the bejeebers out of me

In the meantime, I'd love to hear from you on what you collect. I've been thinking about what it is that I think enough of to collect and it is pretty easy to figure out once you see our house. I have books everywhere - next to the bed, in bookcases in the my bedroom, in bookcases in the living room, in my car, in boxes in the garage, in boxes in the attic, etc.

So what is it you collect?


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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Mission Statements

Have I mentioned lately that I am down on mission statements? It's nothing personal if you do happen to have one. It's not that they can't be useful, at least to a few.

I have to agree with Guy Kawasaki, a venture capitalist, that they are just overrated and generally cost too much time and money to generate. Instead, he suggests something else that may be more profound for the organization.

Now I do believe in understanding what you are trying to accomplish. But is it really that difficult? If you are a business, you are striving to provide a great product or serve the customer while keeping expenses lower than cost. If you are a church, you are striving to develop committed disciples of Jesus.

Oh, you may get fancy on how you say it. It may take a long weekend, or maybe even six months of weekends, to create a fancy paragraph saying basically the same thing. May I suggest another avenue? Dilbert's Mission Statement Generator can do all that for you within a couple of seconds. Here is the one that it generated for me:

We exist to seamlessly supply low-risk high-yield meta-services and collaboratively maintain resource-leveling catalysts for change.
It works as well as many that I've seen. The What and How are the real issue, and they should be examined often since it can and should change.

Here is what Guy Kawasaki says that is even better than a mission statement: a Mantra. Why? Easy to remember, gives a picture of what we are about. A good example? FedEx = "Peace of Mind". What are some great Mantras that you have seen or heard that give a wonderful picture of what the organization is striving for?

In reality, the tough questions are: 1) Are people commiteed to our mission; 2) What are we doing well right now to accomplish our mission; and 3) What are the opportunities available to us in the near future. Those are the six months worth of weekends.

As for number 1, people have to know what the mission is in order to be committed to it, so you do have to make it readily apparent. You would think this would be a no-brainer in the business world, but it really isn't. People get the notions that the business exists to give them a job, to provide office supplies for their home, to provide a forum for idle chatter about how you hope Sanjaya wins American Idol, etc.

This is why it is important to build a wonderful work culture and a great organization. When I worked for a renown management consulting firm, I didn't have to worry about begging other employees to work harder or remind them that they were getting a pay check for actual work done; if they weren't motivated, there were a hundred people lined up ready to take their job.

I want to work and volunteer with people who are as excited about what they are doing as I am. This isn't always the case, but it should be what we are striving for.

As for number 2, your strengths are what are going to help you accomplish your tasks, so take them seriously. Do them even better next year. And drop everything else (which is really the tough part). If you are not excited about it, why are you doing it? What are the last five parts of the organization that you talk about to people, if you talk about them at all? This should be a group exercise, since one person shouldn't do this alone (I might not be as excited about something, but a majority of others in leadership may be). Northpoint Community Church has a wonderful podcast series called "Practically Speaking" that speaks well to these organizational issues.

As for number 3, I'm amazed at how easy it is to get in a rut and just do what is comfortable. Even for me, and I am one of the few that gets antzy if life looks normal for too long. We need people who can speak into our lives and ask questions, annoying questions that you want to squash like that fly that lingers around and you wonder where it has been cleaning itself off. You need, I need it, we all need it, and then thank the person with the annoying questions. Some people prefer paying people occasionally to ask those questions; I'd suggest just finding someone who likes what you are trying to do and can prod with some skill.

As for number 4, what is it that you think should be THE most important questions that organizations should ask themselves?


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Friday, April 06, 2007

Song Stuck In My Head

Thanks, Wade Hodges, now I'm stuck with it (although I can't complain, it is a great U2 song). Might as well pass it along to you...


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Wednesday, April 04, 2007

You Who Are

You who are over us, You who are one of us, You who are also within us, May all see you in me also, May I prepare the way for you, May I thank you for all that shall fall to my lot, May I also not forget the needs of others... Give me a pure heart - that I may see you, A humble heart - that I may hear you, A heart of love - that I may serve you, A heart of faith - that I may abide in you.

--Dag Hammarskjold, 1905-1961
From The Doubleday Prayer Collection, compiled by Mary Batchelor ( New York: Doubleday, 1996, p. 13)


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Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Dr. Seuss

Some days I just really like Dr. Seuss. My youngest son and I were reading a new (for us) Dr. Seuss book together. The last two pages go like this:

UP! UP! UP! Great day for UP! Wake every person, pig and pup, till EVERYONE on Earth is up! Except for me. Please go away. No up. I'm sleeping in today.

Sometimes that man is a genius.


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Monday, April 02, 2007

Review of "Then We Came To The End" by Joshua Ferris

One of my favorite novels is Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. Heller is incredibly funny and poignant at the same time in what I thought was a completely original and unreproducible style - until now. If someone had told me that Joshua Ferris had written in Heller's style, I would not have picked up the book. But he catches that hilarious and yet dark spirit and does so with the same quest into the human condition but in a completely different battlezone - cubicle land.

The story follows some wonderful (I'm just gushing with adjectives today) characters in an ad agency through its good times and bad times, all of it a struggle. If you have ever worked in an office, you will be caught up in the descriptions of office chatter and politics, the thoughts and emotions of people spending the heart of their lives together and wondering why.

The following paragraphs from the story give a flavor of the asides that are so Heller-like in their description and yet very true:

We told him to get on with it. We liked wasting time, but almost nothing was more annoying than having our wasted time wasted on something not worth wasting it on.
- - - - -
"I don't know," said Joe.

But he did know. He knew just as we knew that she was in surgery that day and would be in recovery when the concepts were due - the difference being that he probably got his information straight from Lynn [the boss], whereas we had to get ours from other sources. We never disliked Joe more than when he had information that we had, too, which he then refused to tell us.

The stories in the book are our stories, and we wonder where our lives are going as we follow the characters to the end. Sometimes our stories are funny, sometimes they are filled with sadness or questions, and they are always filled with tension and struggle.

This book is one of my favorites from the last five years, along with Life of Pi. I'll leave you with one last quote from the book that gives you another picture of the heart of the book:

Just before stepping out of the car, right as she should have been kissing Carl good-bye, Marilynn's cell phone rang. She was an oncologist and always felt obligated to answer the phone in case of emergency. "Hello?" she said. "Go ahead, Susan, I can hear you just fine."

Carl was immediately annoyed. Benny told us that Carl hated the way his wife always reassured people that she could hear them just fine. He hated how she plugged her finger in the opposite ear, effectively shutting out all other noise. And he hated that her other obligations always preempted him. They were just about to say good-bye, for chrissake. Didn't it matter, wasn't it important, their kiss good-bye? The thing he really hated, which he would never admit to her, was how he felt the lesser of the two of them for having no obligation that could compare with hers, which he might use to preempt
her. She had people calling about patients who were dying. Let's face it, there was zero chance one of us would call Carl with a question of mortal urgency. Whatever question we might have for Carl, it could wait until we ran into him in the hall the next day. That made Carl feel that his wife's job was more meaningful than his own; and, because of his particular way of thinking at the time, that she was therefore more meaningful. Carl's thoughts were dark, man. It didn't make for an easy marriage. If only you heard the fragments of phone conversations we sometimes overheard when passing Carl's office.


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