Tuesday, May 1, 2012

A couple of weeks ago I ran across a collection of essays that included a couple of important pieces on the importance and value of reading.  While these kinds of essays may be a dime a dozen these two stood out for me as being of particular importance.  The main reason for this is the identity and life experience of the writers. 

The first essay is simply entitled "Learning How to Read and Write" and was written by Frederick Douglass.  In this paper Douglass focuses on the importance of learning how to read and the dangers he faced when making the effort to grow into a new life beyond slavery.  The second piece is simply entitled "Learning How to Read" and was by written by the controversial Malcolm X.  It dealt with the process he used in order to learn how to read. 

Both writers were African Americans struggling with imprisonment.  Douglass was imprisoned by the blinkered thinking and violence of his masters and slavery in general while X was doing time in an actual jail cell. 

For both individuals reading opened up the world in a way that helped them build new lives and contribute to the building of a new and renewed community. 

For whatever reason, it seems as if we're living in an age that doesn't value reading in the same way our ancestors omce did.  Perhaps it's because we take it for granted and can't understand how it can inspire and challenge us to new ways and opportunities.  Perhaps it's because we live in a world of relative safety where we can read without the fear of death or injury. 

For both Douglass and Malcolm X reading saved their lives and helped them save others.  Perhaps this is one of the reasons why we have to encourage students and the general public itself to continue making the effort to read and think and find out more about the world around them.  Douglass and X both rose above poverty and slavery to build a new future with the people around them.  These are important reminders for those of us living in a time where we value everything that is safe, instant and easy. 


Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Some Thoughts on Some Practical Reading

This past week I had the chance to read yet another book I feel should be added to a top ten or twenty list for clergy and lay people helping out in their congregations. This Pulitzer prize winning work contributes to that pool of knowledge from which we draw each and every day of our Christian and professional lives. This book I'm talking about is Siddhartha Mukherjee's The Emperor of all Maladies: A Biography of Cancer (Scribner's, 2010).

Emperor of All Maladies is exactly what it claims to be. It's the life story of an all too familiar disease that has been known by many names throughout the centuries. It's been described by the ancient Greeks and Egyptians. It's puzzled scientists and medical types for the past 500 years. Only recently have we begun to really understand the process where "normal" cell growth erupts into something terrifying, chaotic, and potentially lethal.

Mukherjee goes beyond the survey of facts and statistics we can find in other places and resources. He tries to get into the "mind" of the disease. He tries to figure out what makes it tick and how it will ultimately find its end. To accomplish this he combines research, personal stories, and case histories from his medical practice. He delves into the historic and scientific literature that has been generated in so many different times and places. He works with and listens to those living with and desperately fighting the cancer that has affected their lives.

It's not always a happy or pleasant read. Making our way through Emperor of All Maladies can be an extremely intense and emotional experience. Perhaps the best reason to pick it up, however, is because it does cover all the bases we need to help, serve and understand people in our lives who are diagnosed with cancer. When friends, family and parishioners tell us what is happening in our lives we can lisen with an informed ear and use this information when caring for them throughout their experience.

The Emperor of All Maladies is an important book and a must read. Given what's happening in each and every one of our lives it's something that should be on every bookshelf and in every office.

Read wisely and fearlessly,
Mike Jones

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Kindling a Spark for Electronic Readers

A couple of weeks ago I had the chance to fly home and visit my family back in New Brunswick. While I was traveling I noticed a number of people using electronic readers*. In recent weeks and months friends and family have been asking I'm going to purchase one.

I'm of two minds when it comes to electronic readers. I really don't know if I'm going to purchase one of these new contraptions. Perhaps the biggest roadblock I'm facing is my love of real books. I love everything about real books. I love holding them when I read. I love the smell and feel of real books. I love watching real books pile up on my shelves. I also love the idea of marking up real books as I read them.

In saying this, however, I also have to admit that I like the idea of having something small and light to carry around while I spend time in airports and on airplanes. I'm also becoming aware of the sheer convenience of being able to download books that are either out of print or extremely difficult to find.

If I do buy one there is one thing for certain: I will not be taking it into the bathtub with me. A friend of mine does that and I'm waiting for the day when we receive word that something has happened to his reader while he was bathing and that he is now literally sleeping with the fishies.

I've heard arguments on both sides of the question of whether or not to purchase an electronic reader. I'm still torn and maybe I always will be. If I do take the plunge I'm sure there will be more than a little buyer's remorse. I'll probably wind up buying one of the foolish things, however. There's a book on process theology I want to borrow from a library in Singapore.

*That's probably not the correct technical term for the things but I'm a little wonky when it comes to all things technology so it will have to do for now.

Friday, July 8, 2011

A New Perspective on Grief

For decades professionals such as clergy have relied on Elizabeth Kubler-Ross' five stages when dealing with grieving people. We've learned and talked about the need for people experiencing loss to move through denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. These stages are so widely known most of us can probably recite them in our sleep.

In recent years these stages have come under close examination and reconsideration. Perhaps the book that best addresses this reconsideration is Ruth Davis Konigsberg's recent book entitled The Truth About Grief (Simon and Schuster, 2011). While this is not a religious book I have found it extremely helpful in my work with bereaved and grieving families. I have found it critical in my work of helping people respond to and recover from the loss of a loved one.

A couple of important things that Konisberg addresses are the human ability to cope with loss and the time needed for this grieving to happen. All too often grieving people are confronted by people bringing unrealistic expectations to conversations and encounters that wind up being less than helpful. How many times have people questioned decisions around renewed and new relationships? How many grieving people have been told to "Get over it" and move on with their lives?

One of Konisberg's main points is that we all grieve differently. It's almost impossible to identify one particular process we all go through when experiencing loss. It's impossible to develop a timeline for when certain things are supposed to happen as we grieve. What we can do is be aware of certain needs we may have and recognize times when emotions spike and threaten to overwhelm us.

Konigsberg's realistic approach and critique is refreshing, comprehensive, and thought provoking. Reconsidering the five stages of grief is long overdue and it's critical religious professionals join in the process so that we can serve our parishioners in a more humane and sensible way.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Some Thoughts on Rob Bell's "Love Wins"

I've just finished reading Rob Bell's most recent book Love Wins. While I'm not going to actually review the book here (There are plenty of decent, balanced reviews out there) I would like to offer a few thoughts on reading in general and Bell's book in particular. I think it's safe to say that Bell's book has stirred up a bit of a hornets nest in certain parts of the Christian world. I've scanned some reviews and discussion forums addressing the content of Love Wins and have to the following conclusion: Too many of us are afraid of what we read. Or to be more specific, we are afraid of reading anything that challenges our current thinking and belief system. We're afraid of reading anything that takes us out of our comfort zones.

This fear of what we read may explain some of the extreme response to Bell's book and this is really unfortunate. Without going into too much detail I found Love Wins quite interesting and engaging. As a United Church of Canada minister I disagree with some of the things he says but I find his overall approach decent and healthy. His questions and insights are challenging and thought provoking. He comes across as an extremely intelligent person who doesn't seem to be afraid of butchering some sacred cows. He may offer some strong opinions on more traditional beliefs but I don't think he crosses any lines in doing so.

Through the years I've promised myself that I would never be afraid of what I've read and I've been able to keep that promise for the most part. It's because of this promise that I have been able to read some strong and scary things. But in reading those books and articles I've always reserved the right to agree and disagree with the content. I've also reserved the right to either incorporate an idea into my current thinking and beliefs or let it go so that I can move on to something else.

I've read entire books and tossed them aside because I couldn't find anything that would help me grow or learn. I've read a lot I couldn't agree with. But even in these situations I have been thankful for the opportunity read the book and make up my own mind accordingly. We have a responsibility to read the works of people we do not always agree with. We also have a responsibility to think about what they have to say. This is how we learn and grow. This is how we mature as both Christians and thinking citizens living in a democracy.

In Love Wins Rob Bell has written an interesting and eye opening book. He's thrown his ideas into the public forum for our consideration and debate. While we can come to our own conclusions about what he writes we cannot be afraid of any of it. There's no need to be afraid of anything we read.

Read wisely. Mike Jones

Thursday, February 17, 2011

When Do We Pull the Plug?

In the time I've been living here in Calgary several United Church congregations have either closed completely or amalgamated with other congregations. What's interesting about these closures is that they've happened during an extremely intense boom time. In recent years Calgary has grown to roughly one million people. During this same period of time, the church shrank. For me, this points to a rather troubling reality: the United Church of Canada is dying and it's dying a sad, tragic, unnecessary, and completely self-inflicted death.

In Reginald Bibby's new book, entitled Beyond the Gods and Back (Project Canada Books, 2011), two important numbers make an important statement about the past and present predicament of the United Church. In the mid 1960's membership peaked at just over one million (p. 11). Bibby also states that during this same period of time the United Church built roughly 1500 new church buildings and halls. This was a time of incredible growth.

In recent decades everything has changed and we live in a new reality. For me one simple figure says it all about where the United Church stands in our present day and it also hints at what things will look like in the near future. According to Bibby's numbers, 1% of today's Canadian teens identify themselves as being somehow connected with the United Church (p. 32). In comparison, up to 32% of Canadian teens claim to have no religious connections at all.

Things don't look good at all.

So why is the United Church dying? For me, one of the main reasons is a profound loss of faith among many of the denomination's clergy and lay leaders. In the recent February issue of the United Church Observer Sarah Boesveld introduces readers to something called "Post Theistic Worship" currently being offered in many United Church congregations. These are services where the Bible is barely seen or read from and prayers are no longer addressed to God. In one congregation, Christmas Eve service was cancelled and replaced by a Longest Night - type service on December 21st. This theological drift, if you will, is one of those things that has set the United Church apart from other traditions.

Bibby predicts that if the current trends continue, the United Church will be "on life support" in a matter of years (p. 4). While I think this prediction is a little generous I agree with the overall sentiment of his prediction. At some point leaders and parishioners are going to have to make the heart breaking decision to pull the plug. If the denomination's decline continues at the current pace this may happen sooner rather than later.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Judging Books by Their Covers

The saying "You can't judge a book by its cover" is definitely true of a recently released book entitled Jesus Beyond Christianity: The Classic Texts (Oxford University Press, 2010). Edited by Gregory Barker and Stephen Gregg, Jesus Beyond Christianity is a collection of literary works from different world religions that mention something about the person, life, and work of Jesus Christ.

The subtitle claims that the book deals with "The Classic Texts". While we can busy ourselves splitting hairs about precise definitions, the word "classic" often deals with anything pertaining to the ancient Greek or Roman world. Perhaps "ancient" is the key word here. Or to be generous we can settle on the word "old".

When a writer or editor claims to be dealing with "classic texts" I, at the very least, expect to find documents dating back to the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans. I want to read old things. When I opened Jesus Beyond Christianity what I found was a mix of new and old literature. Among the new documents were selections from 20th century writers such as Muslim scholar Ghulam Ahmad Parwez and the current Dalai Lama. Selections by Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist scholars were written some time within the past two hundred years.

If the editors of Jesus Beyond Christianity really want to consult classic texts they could have focused on ancient writers such as Tacitus and Suetonius. They could have consulted the Babylonian Talmud. There are scores of possibilities they could have used.

Barker and Gregg have edited a very interesting book but it doesn't hold its focus on the so-called classic texts. If they were true to the content of their collection they could have used a phrase like "Historic Texts" in the book's subtitle.

So we have to be careful when purchasing or borrowing a book. There is sometimes a difference between what's written on the cover and what's found inside. The difference between the two can be significant.

Read wisely,
Mike Jones