Thursday, December 20, 2012

Favorite Books From The Past Year: Personal Growth

Posted by Michael

On a whim one afternoon at a local Barnes and Noble I picked up a small book on creativity that I passed on a shelf-end display. A lot of my impulse buys don’t work out, but “Steal Like An Artist” was different. Austin Kleon is a clever writer, humble and honest about his efforts at creative growth.  His simple premise is to immerse yourself in the writers, musicians, and artists that inspire you. For most, mimicking the voice of the those we admire is how we begin to find our own voice. Creative at it's core is about bringing the thoughts and visions that are uniquely yours to the world, and Kleon does an amazing job of inspiring discipline to that end.  “Steal Like An Artist” is a relatively short book, and can be read in one sitting, but it is well worth revisiting often though, and you seek to amp up your creative energy.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Favorite Books From the Past Year: Fiction

Posted by Michael.

Tony and I are scheduled to review our 10 best movies from this year in January, but I thought I would get an early jump on the best books I’ve read in the past year. Same rules apply as with the movies in that the book can be from any year, but I had to read it this year. I try to read across a couple of broad categories, and will review my favorite book from each. I would love to know what you have read this year that stands out. I’m always looking for a good book to add to my “to be read” stack!

My favorite work of fiction from the past year was actually a collection of short stories. Short stories can feel a bit odd if you are used to consuming novels, or if you need tidy resolution at the end of all that you read. If however,  you are up for a bit of a change, Simon Von Booy’s “Love Begins In Winter” is well worth your time. Von Booy is able to tap into the depths of human emotion and experience in concise, clean prose. His words flow smoothly and expertly through your brain as you read. Many times I read books as if they are a sprint, racing to get to the end and the pay off. Von Booy’s work begs to be read slowly and savored. It  is more like a leisurely walk simply for sake of walking. Taking time to see the sights, and hear the sounds. “Love Begins In Winter” touches on the depths of loneliness and trauma, while affirming the power of relational connection, and it does so well enough to deserve a spot in your reading rotation.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Darkness and Light: Thoughts on Christmas

Posted by Michael

“If my strength is not my own, if my righteousness is Christ’s, my darkness only makes his light more lovely. Satan might as well be accusing the shadows in a Rembrandt of ruining the masterpiece. God bends even our sin to the service of his glory.”
      -Andrew Peterson (from his introduction to Russ Ramsey's Behold the Lamb of God)

Christmas is a time of hope. It captures us all. The smell of evergreen trees, the bright red ribbon around candy canes, the sound of familiar carols, all stir emotions inside of us. December finds us in a variety of states. Some have just pocketed Christmas bonuses while others pray for employment. There are homes packed with children and relatives that have traveled in from far away. There are homes filled with silence and loneliness.  Ornaments are purchased for a child’s first Christmas, while just down the street a widowed wife is unable to unpack the tree for her first Christmas without her husband. However it finds us, Christmas dares us to hope that things can be better, that somehow whatever immediate darkness we may be encountering will give way to brighter days.

The first ever Christmas also combined intense measures of joy and pain. Added to the joy of a newborn son was the knowledge that Mary and Joseph shared:  this child would be like no other! God was visiting His people just as He had promised. At the same time, it must have saddened the couple to birth their child so far from the comfort of home and family. On top of that, the prattling whispers of Mary’s premarital pregnancy that awaited them when they returned to their home added to their weariness and stress. They huddled together among the livestock in the last hours of daylight, cold and conflicted, honored and humbled.  Little did they know that as their new family spent its first night together, miles and miles above their head, a new light was piercing through the darkness.  A never before seen star’s light had reached the earth and the attention of scholars from the East. In spite of the darkness of that night or of their circumstances, God’s light was unwrapping a plan to rescue humanity.

Although a bit less extraordinary in some of the details, our lives mirror the experience of Mary and Joseph. Joy and anticipation mingles with loss and confusion. Sometimes it seems the darkness will suffocate the light completely. Mercifully, the light of God’s love for us will never be extinguished. Not only that, but the light is all the more brilliant in the midst of the dark world that surrounds us. God’s unending love for me is overwhelming, especially when I consider how poorly I love others and even myself. My prayer this Christmas season is that we will glimpse again the light of the irresistible love that God has for us, breaking through the dark.  

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Film Review: Beasts of the Southern Wild

Posted by Michael.

If you find yourself in a mood for something new and off the beaten path with regards to a movie, something less story driven, but still powerful,  I recommend Beasts of the Southern Wild. Beasts of the Southern Wild does not come equipped with readily identified good guys and bad guys. There is no clear mountain to climb or challenge to face that leads to redemption and renewed hope. Instead, Director Benh Zeitlin gives you a powerful emotive experience.  He doesn’t stop, however, with just a push to your emotions, he engages your brain as well. You will have several threads of meaning to puzzle over after you leave if you so choose.  Questions about life and death, family, and cultural mainstreaming can all be puzzled over and examined after the credits roll. Quvenzhane Willis who plays “Hushpuppy” draws you in from the opening scene and keeps your focus all the way through to the closing credits, with a screen presence that could only be considered a rare gift. The story is tied around a father and daughter’s (Willis) fight for survival and independence in a condemned flood zone called “The Bathtub”.  This film is earthy yet artistic, stark yet endearing. The sort of filmmaking that Zeitlin pulls off is breathtaking and refreshing, and well worth an evening when you are in a contemplative mood.  

Monday, July 30, 2012

Efficiency Without Enjoyment

Posted by Michael.

When Thomas Merton was asked what he thought the leading spiritual disease of our time was, he thought for a moment, and then answered, “Efficiency”. Most of us are juggling 527 things to accomplish each and every day, and being as efficient as possible is the nirvana we seek. So, we carefully plan trips to the grocery store, so that I will also have time to fuel up the car, drop off a movie, and then meet a friend for dinner by 7. Every event on our calendar is a challenge to link as many other events together as possible, so as to be “efficient” and knock out even more things on our list. The problem comes when we realize that efficiency doesn’t always equate to pleasure.  I can get pick up the prescription, swing by the farmer’s market, make small group in time, and not enjoy a single one of them.  God did not create me for efficiency. He just does not need me to get it all done. I truly believe that it is about process with God. He wants me to engage life, but with Him instead of for Him. He wants me to feel the pleasure of tackling things on my list, not not strain  compulsively as I grasp for the next three things after that. Efficiency without enjoyment is not life’s purpose.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Drive to Perform

My drive to define myself by my performance seems insatiable. I know that this isn’t the way I was created to operate. I know that I am more than what I do. I know that it’s dangerous to place something as important as my self-worth in something as fragile and unpredictable as performance. I know that if I were perfect today, parented perfectly, counseled clients perfectly, related to friends perfectly, drove perfectly, and set a new personal best on my run, that I would feel great tonight, but would wake up tomorrow morning with the burden of perfection smothering me all over again. It never stops. It’s never enough. Maybe you can relate. My big question is this: if I know all of this, then why do I so compulsively perform at times? Why do failures cause me to doubt myself at such deep levels? My only chance to break the addictive pull of performing for worth is to deliberately, intentionally not perform, and then face the discomfort that it brings. To be completely clear: the only way for me or you to break out of our performance trap is to deliberately choose to not perform. To put it another way, I have to choose at times to fail, to leave things undone. I have to fail, and then fight to embrace the truth that I’m not a failure. I have to leave things undone, and know that I’m not lazy. The failing may come through choosing things to engage in that I don’t have much experience in or that I’m not particularly good at, but have always wanted to try. It may come from attempting the near impossible, whatever that might be.  Knowledge in my head does not lead to change, experiences lived out in the minutes of my days will. It’s not enough to know truth, it has to hit me in the face, and then somehow become my friend.  Any thoughts…….

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Essentials: Westerns (Part 2)

The Searchers (1956)

This movie isn’t just a classic western, it’s one of my selections for the top 10 greatest movies of all time.  The story is great, but try to notice the cinematography that is employed along the way. Watch for the way John Ford frames his shots, and the emotional intensity that it creates. A core component of all westerns is the sense of isolation that the main character typically feels and his unflinching, uncompromising adherence to his moral code (whatever that code may be). The final scene of the movie is one of my all-time favorites, and is the perfect picture of heroic isolationism. This movie touches on revenge and forgiveness, relentless pursuit, and the meaning of love, family and belonging, and is worth seeing again and again.

Once Upon A Time In The West (1968)

If Stagecoach created the archetype for the early Western in cinema, Once Upon A Time In The West turned those archtypes on their heads. Director Sergio Leone (the father of the “spaghetti western”) has created a masterpiece of depth, style, and pacing. He brilliantly cast Henry Fonda against type as the sadistic killer Frank, one of the first Westerns to have the lead actor portray the villain. Pay particular attention to the terrific musical score and Leone’s use of close-ups. Leone borrowed freely from High Noon, The Searchers, and Shane but still created a unique vision of the old west and helped change the tone of the Western for a new generation of movie-goers. 

Unforgiven (1992)

The film that single-handedly brought the Western back into cinematic prominence. Directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, the movie is a brilliant treatise on the myth of the heroic gunslinger, the consequences of violence, and aging. The movie strips away any glamour present in the four earlier films on this list. This old west is a dirty, brutal place of moral ambiguity. Most characters are neither heroes nor villains and many continue to change in mind and soul as the movie progresses. The act of killing someone (and the consequences of that act) has rarely been treated with such thought and care in any previous Westerns. 

The Essentials: Westerns (Part 1)

Posted by Tony and Michael

Ok, I know that the Western genre seems an odd place to start, but it's the place that Tony and I agreed on quickly and rather easily, also it's a personal favorite of back-off!!!!!

Here are the movies that we feel are essential to any lover of cinema who wants to fully understand the genre of Western movies. Michael reviewed the first three movies, and Tony reviewed the last two.

Stagecoach (1939)
This movie is not only essential to all Westerns, it’s archetypal. Everything you’ve ever seen in a western got it’s start in this movie. John Wayne plays the classic rough around the edges outlaw with the deeper moral code that is bigger than the law. Claire Trevor plays the woman with the questionable history with the heart of gold. There are villains, cowards, and prejudiced people, and director John Ford ties it all together simply and superbly. Ford is hands down the greatest director of westerns of all time, and he is on the short list of the greatest directors of all time in any genre. It’s fitting that this movie came out in 1939, the single greatest year of movies in history. Stagecoach is a must watch for anyone wanting to understand and enjoy the Western genre.

High Noon (1953) 

Director: Fred Zinneman.  If The Searchers is the perfect example of heroic isolationism, the High Noon is the perfect example of a strict adherence to a moral code. The concept of right vs. wrong is played out beautifully by Zinneman as the duty bound retiring Sheriff (played by Gary Cooper) clashes with his young, brash, soon to be replacement (played by Lloyd Bridges). The theme is layered in several other places as well, including the juxtaposition of the Sheriff’s new bride, a Quaker, delicately dressed in white (played by Grace Kelly) versus the Sheriff’s old love interest who seems to have a checkered past, dressed most often in darker colors. There’s the forboding evil of Frank Miller and his gang arriving into to town on the noon train and the cowardice of the townfolk that the Sheriff has served for years. On top of all that the sequence is played out in real time, with frequent shots of clocks to remind you of the climax coming at high noon! 

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Essentials

Posted by Michael

Tony and I love movies. Ok, to be honest we are probably a bit obsessive. Between the two of us we have seen a terrifying amount of movies, including a majority of the American Film Institute’s top 100 movies of all time. What we have come to realize is that there are way more quality movies out there than we will ever have the time to see. That got us thinking (always a dangerous idea) and we have decided to compile a list of “essentials”. We are working together to come up with 5 movies from every major movie genre that encapsulate the essence of that genre. If you could only see 5 movies in a genre, these would be the movies to see. After seeing the essentials you will have a firm grasp of that slice of movie history. Over the next few weeks we will roll them out genre by genre. So, if you are looking to broaden your cinematic experience this is the place to start. Also, we would love any feedback you have on movies that you think we snubbed and should absolutely be a part of an essentials list. (Anyone ever listing any movie from the Twilight series will be banned from feedback eternally)

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Getting There

Posted by Michael

I guess I’ve always lived with a “getting there” mentality. I’ve worked hard with the thought that this is sure going to pay off when I “get there”. I’m not sure when this started or for that matter where or what exactly, “there” is. In some ways, “there” exists in my mind as a set of external circumstances. There would be a cast of characters. Family members who are always content with my efforts, as I seamlessly meet all of their needs before they were even able to say them out loud. I would have friends to go on adventures with. We would spend months hopping trains in the pacific northwest. Off course, there  be a love interest, who had only always loved me, and who made only the most crispy and delicious waffles. In truth, I’m not sure how much thought I had given to what those circumstances would really be like, only that I would know it when I got there. As silly as it sounds the simple thought finally occurred to me: I’m there now. Everything doesn’t work smoothly. There are heartbreaks, discouragement, and more broken pieces lying around than I care to count, but I’m surrounded by great people (whether I relate to them well or not). I’m not changing the world or hopping trains. (For some inexplicable reason the latter dream is harder to let go of). For better or worse, with whatever I have or lack, this is there. I habitually allow my yesterdays and my tomorrows steal my today. If I’m not careful, wallowing in that regret even now steals precious moments of life. So, in my continuing quest to grow more sane, my goals for today are as follows:

                     -walk more slowly
                     -actually taste my food
                     -stop and listen to what the world sounds like without music, tv, 
                          or podcasts blaring
                     -take a couple of deep breaths now and then just to remind
                          myself that I am here

Any feedback from those of you relinquishing the dream of train hopping would be greatly appreciated….

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

If You Were In Charleston...

Michael here...

If you were in Charleston, then I would remind you of one of your most important jobs upon entering any city, finding a good bakery and coffee shop. You can tell a lot about a town by how seriously they take their coffee and pastries. Charleston is no different, and although there are several good options for bakery goodness in town, I recommend stopping in at Whisk. It’s a small shop with just a couple of tables to relax at. There were a couple of people busy at work kneading and preparing bread to bake just a few feet behind the counter where you place your order, which is how the universe was meant to operate. You really can’t go wrong at Whisk, but I would go for the freshly made coconut macaroons. Equal parts gooey and crispy, with the southern half dipped in chocolate. Crushed pistachios are neatly crumbled on top to give just enough salty flavor to balance things out well.

Tony and I would love any feedback anyone may have about great places to eat in any of the towns we mention, so feel free to comment at will……

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Aggravation of Love

God loves you. Probably the most used phrase in all of Christian history, and for good reason. You could say that that tiny phrase is one of the irreducible cores of all of Scripture. God loves you. But like most phrases, when it’s been used enough, it begins to lose it’s meaning. If God loves me means that God has sentimental feelings of affection for me, then that’s super. But doesn’t He have that for everybody? Does this mean anything for my daily life? But what if the love God has for us isn’t just sentimental feelings of affection? I believe that God’s love for me isn’t a fact that I should know in my head. It’s an active, aggressive process that He wants to engage me in, one that will provoke me throughout the entirety of my life. His love seems to push and pull, beckon and seduce, challenge, and at times even appears to ignore. I can never take His love for granted because I never know how it will manifest itself at any given moment. His love makes my life an unpredictable adventure. Just when I thought I had this whole thing figured out, God sits me next to most chatty person in history at the coffee shop, and seems to whisper into my heart that His love has something to do with what’s about to happen. Because the experience of His love is constantly changing, my response is constantly changing as well. Sometimes I love God by singing to Him, sometimes by reading, sometimes by talking to a stranger, sometimes by simply trusting, and other times by being angry. The song I was taught to sing when I was young wasn’t joking when it taught that God’s love is like “a fountain flowing deep and wide”. Being loved by God is a lot like being carried down stream. It’s deep so my feet can’t reach the ground and control it. It’s wide, so I can’t reach to the side and escape it. It bruises me, frustrates me, cleans me, and calms me. It’s constantly changing and at the end, I will be in a very different place because of it. 

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Seeing is Believing

Tony here:
I was driving by a church recently and the sign out front had the quote from John 20:8…”he saw and believed.” It started me thinking about the image that we, as Christians, project to a world that desperately needs to believe. Benjamin Franklin is quoted as saying “Believe none of what you hear and half of what you see.” If those around us take that advice, they are basically ignoring what we say and are forming an opinion of us based at least partially on their observations of what we do. What are we, as Christians, doing to influence those around us? What do people think of us as individuals and as Christians? I did a little internet research on the perception that our society has towards Christians in general. I found a blog ( entry about a 2007 book by David Kinnamon called UnChristian: What A New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity. Kinnamon discussed 6 negative perceptions that non-Christians have toward Christians:
Christians are hypocrits
Christians are too focused on getting converts
Christians are anti-homosexual
Christians are out of touch with reality
Christians are too political
Christians are judgemental
The Great Commision says:Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Yet, how can we successfully make disciples or teach people to obey God’s commands when the world has such a negative opinion of us?
Ultimately, to me, the real question is, what can I do to make people see the love of Jesus Christ and the positive aspects of Christianity in my daily life? Because, no matter what I say, I know they will not believe unless they see.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

If You Were In Charlotte....

If you were in Charlotte, I would tell you to go to Price's Chicken Coop and order the fried chicken. Price's is a great "hole-in-the-wall" place in downtown Charlotte. There's no seating at Price's, you just grab your box of chicken and go. In my opinion it's not easy to excel at fried chicken, but they have managed to do it. Anything deep fried can be a shot to the system, so you might want to prepare yourself by eating spoonfuls of Crisco in bed before you go to sleep at night. I promise the chicken will be well worth your prep time and possible resulting coronary issues. Enjoy!