Monthly Archives: January 2011

JS Book Club: The Education of Little Tree

I’m not a crier. Every once in a while, I’ll watch a movie or read a book and get a little teary-eyed. Nothing serious.

Not so with The Education of Little Tree by Forrest Carter. As I finished the book it was a tears-dripping-down-both-cheeks, uncontrollable-quivering-lip, blow-my-nose-in-my-sleeve sort of cry. This book is for real.

The story begins with a four year old boy, “half-breed” Cherokee, losing both of his parents and moving in with his grandparents in a mystical mountain hollow. The love story is set in the midst of prohibition and the great depression and describes deeply the relationship between Little Tree and his grandparents, animals, and the surrounding landscape.

Everything in this book comes to life.  From the oak branches that “reach out” and grab Little Tree as he makes his way to the lowlands to the morning sun as it cascades over the mountain range. The reader is helpless but to actually believe that oak trees send messages and the wind tells a tale.

As I said, this is a love story and what stood out to me the most was the intimate depiction of the sacred sort of relationship between Little Tree and his Grandparents. In describing the Cherokee understanding of love, Carter writes:

And when they would be talking and Granma would say, “Do ye kin me, Wales?” and he would answer,  “I kin ye,” it meant, “I understand ye.” To them, love and understanding was the same thing. Granma said you couldn’t love something you didn’t understand; nor could you love people, nor God, if you didn’t understand the people and God.

Granpa and Granma had an understanding, and so they had a love. Granma said the understanding run deeper as the years went by, and she reckined it would get beyond anything mortal folks could think upon or explain. And so they called it “kin”. (38)

The Education of Little Tree is a striking tale, one that has caused me to revisit and reflect on my own relationship with Nature. The book is packed with life lessons and wisdom filled parables. It also gave me some fresh insight into the story of the Cherokee Nation and the beauty as well as marginalization of their people.

It’s definitely made it onto my personal top five, and may even be my new favorite.

And if you’re interested in some controversy surrounding the novel, go here.


Backyard Pilgrimage

It’s January in Minnesota which means that the lightweights are well into their annual southern pilgrimage. I myself was in Northern California earlier this month and enjoyed a lot of sunshine and balmy 50 degree weather. This is just how we cope way up nort’ here. Additionally, I’ve seen a lot of beautiful and warm looking pictures from friends who went south on Facebook recently, and it got me thinking.

I wonder if there is something to learn from Old Man Winter in Minnesota? I wonder if anything can be gained from staying here and toughing out the cold?

Holding these questions, I decided to go on a backyard pilgrimage this morning. I brought along my camera and went for a walk along the banks of the Mississippi on the north side of Minneapolis. As I walked through the snow, I was simply searching for those things that might usually be overlooked, especially in the dead of winter. My discoveries are in the photos that follow.

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JS Book Club: Brother to a Dragonfly

Will Campbell begins this memoir by telling the story of his upbringing as a poor white southerner. He discovers a gift for preaching during high school and with a stroke of luck receives critical funding for a liberal education. One thing leads to another and he finds himself a leader in the Civil Rights Movement, meeting with the likes of Bobby Kennedy and marching with Dr. King.

At a pivotal moment in the book however, Campbell is forced to face his past when his drug-addicted brother and a washed up Methodist preacher teach him his greatest life lesson: rednecks are people too. The redemption begins as Campbell realizes that while he had grown out of his racism towards the black man, he had merely diverted his prejudice towards the impoverished white “redneck”. Campbell begins to understand God’s love for humanity in a greater way and sees everyone as a fellow human being. During a meeting with the Ku Klux Klan, he goes so far as to say that he is “anti-Klan, but pro-Klansman” meaning that while the actions of the Klan were intolerable, horrible, and unacceptable, the Klansman had to be understood as someone who had himself been oppressed and subjected to a system of hatred, poverty, and bigotry.

As I read this section of the book I was absolutely blown away. A couple of questions came to mind which for me, brought the story to life: what part of my history do I need to be reconciled to? And, whom have I made into an irreconcilable enemy?

I wonder for example, how these words would be received, if we were talking about say, terrorists? Could you imagine the fallout if a preacher said, “I am anti-terrorism, but pro-terrorist”? And on a less dramatic and more personal level: the implications of Campbell’s epiphany has a lot to say about how we think about different religious groups, political parties, or maybe even family members. On Martin Luther King Day, and in the wake of the tragedy in Tucson, I can’t think of better material for personal reflection.

Brother to a Dragonfly is a lesson in grace and an incredibly inspiring story. The reader, however, must be willing to wade through a lot of anecdotes and side stories which have little if nothing to do with the central theme of the book. But the lyrical eloquence and quality of the narrative as a whole do more than enough to make this book worth reading.

And besides, it just might change your life.

Curiosity Vs. The Cynical Scandinavian

Just left the Monastery of St. John on Monday morning and said farewell to my brother who is living there (he’s a Postulate, thinking about becoming a monk). I sat at the San Francisco airport on my way home and purchased a copy of What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell. He begins in his introduction by discussing the concept of curiosity and how it always leads to a good story. That “interestingness” as he calls it, is always there if one can get past the habit of assuming that what is around the corner is already known.

I regret my lack of curiosity at the monastery. For five days I was surrounded by liturgy, icons, architecture and of course, monks. I think that I barely scratched the surface in learning the story of that enchanting place.

The most common tendency for me, especially in a religious environment, is to become the Cynical Scandinavian. This of course is a survival mechanism that I usually whip out whenever the Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses come-a-knock’n. It also helps in a heated argument. If I can find a fault, I don’t have to be vulnerable. I don’t have to change. I can have theological superiority. The Cynical Scandinavian takes a more powerful posture– the upper-hand. I acted as if I knew what was around the corner, even when I didn’t, so as not to give the impression that I had something to learn. Having something to learn would of course be a sign of weakness, which a Scandinavian has nothing to do with.

I’m such an idiot. The monastery was neither Mormon nor Jehovah’s Witness. None of the monks tried to convert me to Orthodoxy. Didn’t even hint at it. Furthermore, they were accepting and incredibly hospitable. My Evangelicalism was as safe as a kid on a school bus.

I wish I had asked more questions. I wish I had gotten over my insecurities and participated in the rite of forgiveness, the blessing for travel, and the blessing of the Eucharist. Instead I just sat there. Sure, it’s kinda weird when grown men are touching their hand to the ground and then kissing another’s shoulder while saying, “Forgive me”. But in the end, I’m kinda into that weird stuff. And it was really interesting, if not spiritually moving.

Well at least I think I learned something. I hope to again be a pilgrim at the Monastery of St. John.

Beyond the Banter: Group Spiritual Direction for Men in a Faith Community

I’ve never heard guys talk like this in church.

Sure, there are the occasional swearwords, but I’ve experienced that sort of thing, even in the foyer. What I’m referring to is the way the four men have opened up to each other in our spiritual direction group. After facilitating this group for the last few months, I really can’t imagine a better way to experience a real sense of belonging in the places where we worship. Furthermore, I’m convinced that this sort of practice is essential for the health of any faith community.

As we gather each month, each gentleman takes a turn sharing whatever may be on his mind. The rest of us listen intently and wonder together what the Holy Spirit might be doing in his life. We then ask thoughtful, non-judgmental questions while being careful not to advise or patch up a person’s wound; this is a place to where one can suffer with dignity. And suffer together they do– sharing deep secrets or tragic stories that would otherwise stay locked up, untouched, and unattended. Together we gently bring things into the open to be exposed under the light of God’s love and grace.

We celebrate together as well. One of the younger guys will become a father this spring. Another shares stories of his joy in being a grandpa. Silently we give thanks for such incredible blessing.



As I said, I haven’t heard men talk this way in the sanctuary. Usually when I go to church and see other men, there’s typically some banter about sports, a cordial inquiry about work, and then off everyone goes. Rarely are there authentic and substantial friendship encounters.

While some may say that church is not the place for this sort of thing, that spiritual direction is a place for complete anonymity for the purpose of maximum self-disclosure and freedom from bias, I would push back. This is an opportunity for a group to grow together into what it means to love oneself, exercise hospitality, and practice being present.

If the process of spiritual direction is followed carefully, and the agreement of confidentiality is held with the utmost care, the church is one of the most ideal places for spiritual direction. Consider the powerful possibilities as men see first hand what it means for someone to listen to their most intimate stories in the context of a loving church body. They may see each other on Sunday morning, at work, or even a community event. These connection points only enhance what group spiritual direction gives us—a reminder to listen carefully, watch closely, and that one is deeply loved. Faces at church change from ‘that guy whose a consultant’ or ‘Jim the lawyer’ to a sacred friend with an entrusted story. I think this was the original dream for the Body of Christ.

And this is why I think group spiritual direction is essential for men who attend church together. It is an opportunity to bring the truth of the worship event into our practical lives. Rather than just singing about God and listening to sermons, we are talking about how God is presently happening in each of our lives. For those in the communion of believers, there is nothing more exciting or fulfilling.

From Yard Signs to Candlelight: Why I Practice Spiritual Direction

I grew up obsessed with two things: politics and religion. There was only one way to be a good little Christian, and that was by being a good little Republican. I read my Bible and handed out yard signs. I really was convinced that this would make the world a better place.

The problem was that the politicians broke their promises, and reading Leviticus wasn’t really helping me grow in kindness or compassion. I tried changing political parties, reading different passages, and visiting new churches. The problem still remained the same.



About five years ago, I was offered a free session of Spiritual Direction with the director I still see today, Tom Allen. He lit a candle to begin our time together and I started to unload. As the next few years unfolded, I barfed up my doubts about God, frustrations with the church, and anger at politicians. As we delved deeper I found a safe place to talk about mistakes I had made, broken relationships, and subtle but bright hopes for the future. I had discovered a friend who would not judge, try to fix, or smother me with opinion. Tom sat with me in silence, listened to my story, and kept a prayerful and present watch.

It is difficult to overstate the sort of impact this experience has had on my life. In an article published in Weavings, Douglas Steere says, “To listen another’s soul into a condition of disclosure and discovery may be the greatest service that any human being ever performs for another.”* I really believe that this discipline is making me into a better husband, father, neighbor, and friend… that the powerful combination of reflection, self-disclosure, and openness to the Holy Spirit really are helping me grow in kindness and compassion.


Nowadays, I don’t put up too many yard signs and I’ve learned to approach my Bible in a different way. And by far the most important work I do (outside my family) is lighting candles. Candles that bring pause, quiet, reflection, and light for the soul.

Sure, I absolutely continue to engage with the political process and I’ve finally begun to settle into a church community. But the most exciting part of my life is when I get to sit with someone else and be the one to listen, watch, and pray. The sort of transformation that occurs is as slow as molasses in the middle of Minnesota at the beginning of January. But slow as it may be, change is really happening. I doubt you could say the same for reading through Leviticus, nor the last candidate for whom you voted.

But if you could, I’d be more than willing to listen.

*Gleanings: A Random Harvest, April/May 1994