Monthly Archives: March 2012

On behalf of Palmyra, and other depressed towns

Yesterday I got some of the saddest news I’d received in my 9 years living in Palmyra. Citing “family reasons,” our school super-intendant resigned. He’ll stay on to the end of the year, and attempt to create a momentum which will carry the district forward, but I can’t deny the news was a blow. I also cannot fault him, as he has over an hour commute and has four small children who really need their dad. It’s still awful news. Mr. Lindenmuth has pushed the district ahead more in one year than the previous super-intendant did during his entire tenure – he believes that Palmyra school district can thrive, and I could see how grieved he was to leave before his work was accomplished.

My first reaction to the new was, “This ship is sinking, it’s doomed, we can’t stay here and drown.” School districts, after all, are a lot like churches – they need someone at the rudder to help get the ship going the right direction. We will soon be on our third super-intendant since my children entered the school (not counting interims). As with churches experience depression when they suffer quick pastor churn, the morale in the district feels low. The “concerned dad” in me felt that desire to bolt (it doesn’t help that my allergies are magnitudes worse here in South Jersey).

First reactions, in all but multiple choice tests, are quite often wrong.

So, instead, I’d like to offer an invitation to any spiritual entrepreneurs who might be reading this post. If you are looking for a town to start a business, settle down, or otherwise live for Christ in – come to Palmyra. If you are looking to form an intentional faith community – come to Palmyra. Come to Palmyra, or any of the slew of other towns caught between the echoes of the past and the precipice of the future. Come ready to learn the culture, love the people, and be a witness of hope. Come and worship, come and serve, come and be a good neighbor to someone who is in desperate need of one. There are brothers and sisters here who have much love to give and wisdom to teach, but they need the energy of people who come from outside their perspective.

These towns need your ideas, passion, love, and energy. There are storefronts waiting to be filled, ready for some energetic people to create a third space of hospitality. There are people who have no family, but could use neighbors. There are children who need to witness what it means to be both learned and wise. Come and be the new perspective people need to experience.

Come, and follow Jesus here with us – maybe we can see the Kingdom together.

For the folks living in Palmrya, and other towns striving to move forward – don’t give up. Find ways to re-energize people for serivce. Take some time to instill in people a healthy pride for their home town. Show people (especially, sadly, our rudderless youth) what it means to respect your neighbor, and the power of kindness belligerance. There is hope.

Harry Potter and the future of eBooks

When I first tracked down some rumors that JK Rowling was pursuing options to offer eBook versions of Harry Potter, I was ecstatic. I love the books, as do my wife and daughter. I wanted my son to be able to enjoy them as well, but without an eBook option it wasn’t in the realm of possibility. We did eventually find a book library for the blind and visually impaired called Book Share, but the reading experience there is… lacking. So I waited, and hoped.

Then over the summer JK Rowling announced that eBooks were definitely coming, but would be sold only through a site she would create called “Pottermore.” There people would be able to purchase the books for use in various readers, and use the site to read them interactively with others. I was skeptical about the nature of the endeavor because I wasn’t sure how book purchases would be handled, or if I was going to be forced to jump through some painful hoops just to load the books on whatever device I wanted to use. I have a problem with DRM in general, but at least the ease of going through Amazon and Barnes and Noble is numbingly simple. Having to download a file and jump through hoops to use it wasn’t my idea of a good time.

As the rumored date for the opening of Pottermore (Halloween) came and went without so much as a peep from the site, I began to get worried. When I read an announcement in the site’s blog in January that the site was being re-done I thought I may never get my Nook app around these books. Then last week I stopped by and read a new blog post which detailed the problems their beta test had uncovered, their joy at having made the site better, and an announcement that the site would open in early April!

Today a friend of mine told me, “Go to Barnes and Noble’s web page” – and there I was greeted by the announcement that Harry Potter eBooks were now on sale! The entire series can be had for just under $59, a great price for seven books. I immediately followed the link to the Pottermore store, wondering how the downloads of the books would be handled, and what I found was the future of eBook sales.

One of the things which makes people leery of purchasing eBooks is the idea of “vendor lock-in.” If you purchase a book from Amazon, you can read it in Kindle branded ways. Yes, they have apps everywhere, and even an html5 web-reader, but you’re still stuck with Kindle. It’s similar for the Nook. Once you purchase a Nook book, it will always be a Nook book. We encountered a problem with vendor lock-in when Barnes and Noble first came out with a Nook-branded e-reader for the iPad. Their previous reader had fantastic font options which were perfect for my son, but the Nook app had a bug which make the large fonts tiny – a bug which went unresolved for months. When I asked fir a refund after going nowhere with tech support (who wouldnt even acknowledge the problem), I was told Nook book sales were final and non-returnable. We had Nook books which were unusable, but Nook books they would always remain. This is one problem vendor lock-in can lead to.

What JK Rowling has done with Pottermore is break vendor lock-in. When you purchase the books through the site you may link it to your Barnes and Noble or Amazon accounts and wireless receive your books as normal. You may also download the file and use Adobe digital editions to load the book on to any device compatible with that software. Finally, the file can be dropped into the books section of iTunes and synced with iBooks. You can download each book eight times (as far as I can tell, the Kindle and Nook links each count as one download). Additionally, the Pottermore store encourages parents to download the books and put them on any devices their children use for reading without purchasing another copy. They do state that they expect parents to get their children to purchase their own copies once they are 18 – but that’s it. They don’t use a draconian “age check” lock-down, they don’t tell you to choose your reading device wisely because you’ll always be tied to it, they don’t treat their customers like criminals waiting to pirate their books.

Pottermore will sell gobs of books. No question.

This is the future of book sales – where books aren’t tied to a vendor forever and ever and ever, and authors can use other technologies to change how their books are read. I’ve not used Pottermore yet, but the idea of being sorted into a house, and reading with others is sure to excite my daughter and son (and, honestly, I want to see what house I get in to). I don’t know how Amazon and Barnes and Noble get a portion of the sales of books which get linked to their respective accounts, but I’m sure they must (they wouldn’t advertise the books otherwise). JK Rowling, however, sets her price. She controls the content, and the publishing of it. In the world of Pottermore Amazon and Barnes and Noble return to being vendors in a world that isn’t permanently locked into one ecosystem. On the other hand, iBooks, tied as it it to the iTunes licensing scheme, won’t see anything from sales of Harry Potter eBooks – and it may be the first of many such books which Apple will never be able to sell unless they make some allowances (which they should, books are not apps).

Pottermore may also be the lifeline traditional publishers have been waiting for. For years the assumed narrative has been, “Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other eBook stores will eventually cut out the publishers from the book selling process.” JK Rowling has taken that narrative and shredded it to pieces. In it’s place is a world in which publishers can do their work, and once again add value to the works under their care by offering generous terms for reading and creating a space where conversations can form around each book. It’s a whole new world, again. Can we expect anything Iess in this age of rapid transition?


“Arrived” vs. “Arriving”

A Bradford Pear flower - looks beautiful, but it smells awful

Two Sundays ago a friend at church handed me a black cardboard envelope and said, “You remember what CD’s are, right?” The envelope was a nicely packaged copy of Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball album. I had given a listen to the first single from the album a few weeks earlier (based on my friend’s recommendation) and was struck by how brutally honest “We Take Care of Our Own” was. I’ve never been a huge Springsteen fan, actually I don’t listen to much music at all, but that single was enough to make me want to hear the rest of the album. When my friend handed me the disc, I was equally shocked and over-joyed.

As I mentioned, I don’t listen to much in the way of music. I enjoy music, but when I’m reading, writing, or even exercising I find music horribly distracting. It’s one the reasons I dislike speaking on the phone – sound places stress on my attention in a way that other stimuli do not, and music is the worst. I point this out because, while I ripped the CD into iTunes the very afternoon I received it, I didn’t get to listen to it much until last week when I did a terribly old-fashioned thing and put the CD into my car stereo.

As I drove my “coffice hours,” and then to lunch with a friend, I was struck with an album of fascinating musical breadth which expressed longing, hope, anger, and despair. Songs like “Rocky Ground,” and “We Are Alive” look forward to a new day – the latter even holding a sense of the resurrection being the doorway to hope. Songs like “We Take Care of Our Own,” “Shackled and Drawn,” and “Jack of All Trades” place hope and anger in the context of this world (specifically, this Country) – even going so far as to admit a longing to do violence to those who’ve created a system of oppression. As I listened to the album, I noticed something rather interesting. I felt buoyant, and ennobled, as both the reality of the current day and the hope of the new day had a light shown on them. By the time I arrived to lunch, I felt more compelled to live life well for the sake of the new day I hope for in Christ.

This left me wondering, however, why so little “Christian Music” has such an impact on me – particularly Christian music which is meant to be used in worship. What I finally concluded was this. When Bruce Springsteen sings of his hope for a new day he proclaims the hope of someone who knows he hasn’t arrived in it – nor do I get the impression that he’s certain he ever will because he can’t see a change without dehumanizing one group in order to lift another up, but he won’t stop hoping. When I listen to much of Christian music, particularly worship music, I catch very little of Springsteen’s longing honesty. What I encounter is, largely, an assumption that we’ve pretty much arrived and all we need to do is celebrate that. I come away from listening to Christian music as though I’ve eaten way to much candy. My taste buds feel great, but my stomach feels nauseous and the Kingdom seems far away.

What I think much Christian music lacks is something Springsteen knows intimately – the sense of “desert.” The more I pastor, read Scripture, and proclaim the Gospel the more I realize there is no hope without a sense of wandering. I’ve also noticed the ironic twist that those who are most aware of their wandering status are the ones who tend see the presence of Jesus’ Kingdom clearest. Those who think they’ve arrived tend to be unsettled and discontented with the way their families, churches, jobs, etc. have turned out.

I think I prefer being ennobled to long and hope for a new day over being fed candy while complaining about obesity.


Weird Ministry

Weird ministry comic

Yesterday I was at ABCNJ’s annual COAL event. It was a great time, and I was able to connect with many people from around the region. I did not, however go to any of the sessions I had signed up for – I had work to do.

A video was scheduled to play during the lunch sessions which posed two problems. First, there person who had the movie didn’t have their adapter to connect the MacBook to the projector (they did have it on DVD, but I don’t trust removable media). Second, the hall would be filled with about 200 people and the only speakers we had were those in the projector. There was a sound system present, but It wasn’t hooked up. After digging around the equipment, I found a 200 watt speaker with stereo RCA jack inputs – but having left my laptop at home I didn’t have my full compliment of cables with me! So, off to target we went – to get an SD card to transfer the video and a 3.5mm to stereo RCA media cable. I never got the SD card to work for the transfer (we ended up using Dropbox, thank goodness it was installed), but the media cable worked wonders.

This is the oddness of my particular ministry. I don’t often get to participate in events because I’m running around hacking together solutions to unforeseen problems. On the other hand, by bopping around I get to meet some interesting people.


Continuous Education

Continuous Education

Many professions encourage a practice knowing as “continuing education.”  I have a problem with the designation, as it tends to create several problems:

First, it tends to imply that most educational work was done prior to getting credentials for a profession (be it pastor, teacher, doctor, nurse, lawyer, or Dr. Seuss scholar).  What’s needed, then, is to simply add some brushing up as the field changes – but no major education is going on as it was already completed.  We might be required to dust off our brains every now and again to keep our credentials, but still ends up being little more than a re-touch.

Second, it creates the illusion that “education” is blocked off into the official classes we might take.  The rest of the time we “just do the job” – exploration beyond that is frowned upon.  Worse, it gets mistaken for laziness as people chalk up person explorations of new topics/skills/tools as “wasted productivity.”

Third, because it’s viewed as a “dusting off” of the brain or a “retouching” of past education, continuing education offerings have a tendency to be low-stress refresher courses, rather than challenging journeys along new paths.  Nothing, or little, is actually learned.

I’d like to propose a different way of looking at education, it’s continuous.  We begin learning the moment we take our first breath, and I see little reason why it should stop with a graduation ceremony or credentialing process.  There is always more to discover, learn, and enjoy in this world – and new stories to be part of.  We don’t need “continuing education.  We need lives of “continuous education.”

Good Fiction

I just finished reading the Silmarillion. It’s only the second time I’ve read through it, but I think I’ll add this to my “annual reads” list – along with the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. After reading this narrative again I’m more firmly convinced modern students of the Old Testament (especially in the Industrialized West) should read the Silmarillion. Not because I think there are parallels between the Old Testament and the world of Tolkien, but because the Silmarillion can act as a bridge between modern reading expectations and the texts of the Bible.

The Silmarillion is a myth, and following the narrative requires gaining the ability to spot links between characters, foreshadowing refrains, and the ability to recognize cycilcal patterns in the plot. It does this in a dense format which is difficult for many modern readers to digest, but not so frustrating as to be inaccessible for an earnest reader.

The Old Testament is a complex narrative — filled with important links between characters, foreshadowing refrains, and cyclical patterns in the plot which highlight important points. It’s complexity, compounded by the “verse here – verse there” method of Scripture reading so prevelant in many churches, is a immense barrier of entry for many would-be readers. If readers learn to appreciate the shorter and more accessible narrative of the Silmarillion, however, the skills developed can help pry open the doors of the Old Testament. Such skills would allow readers to make the necessary links between characters, and hightlight the important refrains, which are essential to reading it’s pages. There will still be important interpretive work to be done, the world of the Ancient Near East is as alien to us as Middle Earth, but with the enhanced reading skills which are gained by reading works like the Silmarillion students of the Old Testament may be aided in knowing which questions to ask when they hit an interpretive wall.

As an added benefit, reading the Silmarillion enriches reading both the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. If nothing else it reveals just how severe was Galadriel’s temptation to take up the One Ring – and how much strength she showed in rejecting Frodo’s offer.