Monthly Archives: July 2010

Book: “Brimstone,” by Robert Parker

082108_appaloosa_400X400.jpg“Brimstone” is Robert Parker’s third Western involving Everett Hitch and Virgil Cole. The books are told first-person by Everett Hitch, a West Point graduate and former Army officer who happily plays sidekick to Virgil Cole, a renowned gunfighter. The duo, together for 20 years, bounce from town to town as mercenary lawmen. If your town needs cleaning up, they can get it done.

The first book, “Appaloosa,” was made into a movie in 2008 starring Ed Harris as Cole and Viggo Mortenson as Hitch, with his ever-present double-barrel eight-gage. The casting was perfect. Every piece of dialogue in the three books I can see coming from the mouths of those actors (just as I can see Tom Selleck saying every line of dialogue in Robert Parker’s “Jesse Stone” books).

For me, the centerpiece of the book is the relationship, and dialogue, between Cole and Hitch. They’re a compelling duo, who understand each other deeply, can be blunt with each other, and never need to say much. Like Spenser and Hawk in Parker’s premier series (yet not like them at all), Cole and Hitch are a unique, fascinating pair. 

“Brimstone” begins with Cole and Hitch searching for Cole’s love interest from “Appaloosa,” Allie French. The find her working as a prostitute (as they expected). Will Cole keep her? Can she be redeemed? That is one thread of the book.

brimstone.jpgCole and Hitch, with Allie in tow, hire on as town marshal and deputy in the fast-growing town of Brimstone. In these westerns, there is no mystery to be unraveled, as in the modern-day Parker books. Rather, everything leads to a showdown. The players are identified early, and you realize they will inevitably clash with deadly consequences.

In “Brimstone,” the opposing force is Pike, a rich saloon owner with an outlaw past. Throw in a charismatic preacher with a God-complex, and an Indian killing people for no discernible reason (the only real mystery), and you’ve got quite a bit packed into 290 pages.

The book includes an excerpt from a fourth Cole-Hitch book, “Blue-Eyed Devil.” I’m delighted. Robert Parker died last year, so I feared that Brimstone might be his last Western (though I had read that he had one additional book in each of his four series ready to go). Now, if they’d just get busy making “Resolution” and “Brimstone” into movies.

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Book: Run For Your Life (James Patterson)

run-for-your-life.jpg“Run for Your Life” is the second installment in the Michael Bennett series, which James Patterson launched in 2007. Michael Ledwidge, one of the many writers under the James Patterson brand,  wrote “Step on a Crack” in 2007, getting the series off to a thrilling start. But “Run for Your Life,” which arrived in paperback this spring, fell flat.

Michael Bennett is an NYPD homicide detective with ten adopted kids. Yes, that’s an unusual premise. After adopting all those kids, who represent several different races, Bennett’s wife died. So he’s left to raise them on his own, with some help.

In “Run for Your Life,” Bennett goes after a serial killer who calls himself the Teacher. The targets are rich, pretentious people. I didn’t find him to be a particularly interesting villain, and the killings didn’t strike me as realistic in a place like New York City.

Of course, we can’t ignore those ten kids. Flu was running rampant through the Bennett household, so every few chapters we would check back into the disease zone, seeing who was getting sick, who was getting better, etc., etc. It was very boring. I found myself skipping over those chapters. The flu drama just didn’t interest me.

Then Ledwidge resorted to exactly the gimmick I feared: the family in peril. The Teacher comes after the Bennett kids.

Bennett, of course, gets his man, the family is safe, yada yada. But the book was a chore to get through, which is something I’ll rarely say about a James Patterson book.

I’m not sure what Patterson/Ledwidge can do in the future with all those kids. In a mystery/thriller, they just get in the way. But they are central to Michael Bennett’s life, so they must be included…somehow.

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Book: The Winter of Frankie Machine

frankie-machine.jpg“The Winter of Frankie Machine,” by Don Winslow, is the best novel I’ve read this year. Better than “The Girl Who Played with Fire.”

The title character is Frank Machianno, a legendary mob hitman and enforcer on the West Coast. Frank has left the mob life, and now lives quietly as Frank the Bait Guy, with a bait shop at the end of a pier in San Diego. He runs several businesses, takes care of an ex-wife and a current girlfriend, has a daughter, and does a lot of community work for which he’s beloved.

The first six chapters (40 pages) go into great detail about what his life involves–the “winter” of his life. Those pages follow Frank through a single day. It’s actually fascinating stuff and cements the character in our minds.

Then, at the end of that day, a couple guys from the old days show up, ask him to do something, set him up for an ambush….and Frankie Machine comes back to life. He’s on the run, trying to figure out what’s happening and why people are trying to kill him.

The narrative continually retraces Frank’s earlier years, so we see his spring, summer, and fall. We’ll resurface to the present, and then something happens that sparks a memory which may hold a clue, and back we go in time. In some writers’ hands, this can be tedious. But Winslow handles it masterfully, seamlessly. Every single flashback is absorbing. And mixed among all of those previous events, you realize, is the reason he’s now being hunted.

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a book so well crafted, so tightly written, so engaging. Frankie Machine makes for a fascinating protagonist. In retracing his early years, we see clearly that his legend is deserved.

Everything works out, with all the pieces falling into place, though you’re really not sure how it’s going to end.

This book was published in 2006 under the Black Lizard imprint. I read one other Winslow book, “The Life and Death of Bobby Z,” which didn’t impress me as much. But I’ve got two more Winslow books on my shelf, and I look forward to tackling them.

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Praise for the Pancreatitis Diet

Amidst all the diet crazes out there–Atkins, South Beach, Dr. Poon, ad nauseum–I would like to add one more: the Pancreatitis Diet.

In four weeks of walking and biking, plus moderation in eating, I lost 6 pounds. Not bad. Commendable, in fact. But in just 9 days on the Pancreatitis Diet, I’ve lost 11 pounds.

The first four days are the hardest–no eating or drinking whatsoever, culminating in the removal of your gall bladder. But the first week of anything is usually the hardest. After you get over that hump, it’s smooth sailing. Well, pretty much.

I have not had to eat from a strict list filled with foods I don’t like, such as broccoli and cauliflower, and according to a strict schedule. No cutting out of a food group, because it’s off-limits on Tuesdays. No embarrassingly peeling off the bun from a hamburger at McDonald’s or scraping off the pizza toppings at Pizza Hut.

In fact, I’ve been able to eat anything I want. The catch is that I’ve really not wanted to eat. I’ve mainly wanted to sit on the couch and marinate in my sweat. But hey, I’m losing weight.

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Three Bishops, Three Hospital Visits

three-bishops-268.jpgLast week, on consecutive days, I received hospital visits from three United Brethren bishops, all of whom have been or currently are my boss. They’ve each racked up hundreds of hospital visits, maybe thousands, during their ministerial careers. I imagine it’s always a bit of a trick to “read” the patient and know how long to stay. These three visits were just right, but all different.

First came Ron Ramsey, last Monday morning. He was my boss (as bishop) 2005-2009, and now works on staff at Emmanuel Community Church. He learned that I was in Lutheran Hospital, so while checking on another parishioner, he stopped in to see me.

I was really pleased to see Ron. I was feeling okay that day, and by then knew they’d be removing my gall bladder that afternoon. I was happy that things were finally moving.

We talked some about my condition and a few other things. Ron affirmed me in various ways, and then prayed for me. I doubt that the visit lasted more than 10 minutes.

Bishop Phil Whipple, my current boss, came the next day around 12:20. The operation was done, and I felt great–so much pain was gone. I was very talkative, and no doubt kept Phil much longer than he planned to stay. In fact, we talked for 45 minutes. In two days, Phil would begin a five-week trip to the West, so this would be my last chance to see him in a long while.

We talked about my condition, but also about various work-related issues (though that was my initiative; he was just coming for a brief hospital visit). He, too, prayed with me before leaving. I really, really enjoyed the visit.

The next day, Wednesday, was not a good day for me. I felt pain much of the day. Amidst that, Bishop C. Ray Miller, the senior bishop when I started at the national office in 1978, appeared at my bedside. It was great to see him, but I think he quickly read my discomfort.

We talked for just a little bit. Twice he said, “I’m not going to make you talk.” He affirmed me and my work, then put his hand on my arm and prayed for me. Then he left.

Sweaty and hurting, I lay back on that hospital bed and thought to myself, “That was the perfect hospital visit.”

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All Things Worked Together for Less-Bad

This morning, from the comfort of home, I was reviewing my past week in the hospital, my bout with pancreatitis and having my gall bladder removed. Was there some higher purpose, or did it just happen? Where might I find the intervening hand of God?

I’ve never doubted God’s goodness.

I’ve never doubted that God is for real, that I’m his child, and that he loves me deeply.

I’ve never doubted that he sometimes injects himself into my life circumstances for my benefit.

And I’ve never doubted the promise, “All things work together for the good of those who love God” (Romans 8:28, KVJ). The NIV version gives the verse a slightly different meaning: “In all things, God works for the good of those who love him.” But though I read mostly from the NIV, I memorized that verse as a kid in the King James, so that’s usually how I think of it. Either way, it’s a good promise.

At the same time, I’m not one to find God’s hand in every change of the wind. Some people see God “working all things” no matter what they do–traveling, buying groceries, selecting a cable company– and are very quick to claim divine intervention. Not me. I believe we live in a fallen world where things happen for no other reason than, well, that’s just the way it happened. Hurricanes and tornadoes strike, car accidents happen, and people get pancreatitis. Sometimes bad people prosper, sometimes good people prosper, and that’s just the way it worked out. God had nothing to do with it.

And yet, I’ve never doubted that God does, indeed, inject himself into my world. Because I’m His Child, he pulls strings for my benefit. I’ve seen it way too much. If I tell you about it, it might sound like mere coincidence–as it would sound to me, if you told me the same story. I give much leeway for coincidence and circumstance in my life. But other times, I just know it goes beyond that.

This morning, as I reviewed the past week, God suddenly pointed out an area where, “Here’s something I did for you.”

I have Meniere’s Disease, which brings on vertigo, imbalance, occasional vomiting. But in April, I had an operation, a shunt placed behind my ear to relieve pressure. This procedure has a high success rate. By the end of May, I was experiencing practically no symptoms of Meniere’s. Not that it had gone away or been “cured.” It just minimized all affects. During the past month, I’ve felt as if Meniere’s had been vanquished from my life. That’s how effective the surgery was (though Meniere’s is tricky that way, and it’ll raise its ugly head down the road).

In the past, it didn’t take much to trigger Meniere’s. When I tried drinking that nasty stuff for a colonoscopy a while back, vertigo kicked in and laid me out for the next day; the procedure had to be cancelled (and I’ve never retried it). So I can only imagine what the trauma of the past week would have done.

And yet, throughout my stay in the hospital–the four-day IV-only diet, the meds, the inflammation, restarting my digestive system, everything else–I felt absolutely no symptoms of Meniere’s. No vertigo, no dizziness, no nausea. Nothing. Even when I drank some really nasty stuff prior to a test, Meniere’s stayed at bay.

That’s what God pointed out to me this morning.

“I knew this gall bladder problem was coming. Adding vertigo would have been a nightmare. So I got that out of the way.”

Back in January, when I was in Honduras, vertigo kicked in one morning and I slammed backward onto a hard tile floor, hitting my head terribly hard. I haven’t been able to find any reason God would let Meniere’s arise while I was out of the country on church work. But now, I view that as God getting my attention. I’d been putting off this surgery for a year, and would have kept putting it off. After hitting the floor in Honduras, I knew it was time to get the operation done.

In addition, I needed knee surgery to repair torn cartilage in my left knee. That was done in early May, and by mid-June, all the pain was gone and I was biking and walking again. I wouldn’t have liked facing both vertigo and knee pain, along with pancreatitis.

God knew all that. When pancreatitis hit, he intended to make it less-bad than it could have been. All things considered, my “best good” would have been to not experience any of this. But again, we live in a fallen world, and things break down, especially the body.

Now that I’ve explained it, you can easily dismiss it as a lot of coincidence and circumstance and reading of tea leaves. And I realize that, in the grand scheme of things, my ailments are puny. But I’ve lived way too long as God’s child not to recognize when he gets involved.

God knows the “all things” part of my life, including what lies ahead. Sometimes he works them together for my good. In this case, he worked them together for my less-bad. I appreciate it.

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My Past Week at Lutheran Hospital

Pam and I had been walking at least 30 minutes a night for 25 straight days. We entered the 4-mile-walk of the Fort4Fitness event in late September. You’re supposed to be able to walk the four miles in at least 80 minutes.

On Thursday night, July 15, we did walk four miles–our longest jaunt yet–and did it in 76 minutes.

Back at the house, I drank a Gatorade on the back screen-in porch and was watching Jordi in the yard. Around 10:00, I felt a tightening sensation start around my belly and begin working itself up. It reminded me exactly of what I experienced last September, when I woke in the middle of the night with a tightness around my chest, and assumed I was having a heart attack. The pain dissipated in about 15 minutes, but I was still taken to the ER and checked out. Everything about my heart was fine. It was probably just acid.

So this time, I figured the acid was returning. I writhed on the bed for a bit, then on the floor, but it wouldn’t go away. Nothing would stop the intense pain. Finally, Pam insisted she drive me to the Lutheran ER, and I was in no state to protest.

They put me in a room, did an EKG, took a blood sample, took my vitals…and left me there, writing in pain. Somebody would be along, they said.

The intense pain, the cramping, finally stopped after an hour. Things felt better for a bit. And then began what I can only describe as the worst-ever case of indigestion. I writhed in agony until about 3 a.m. “Someone will be along,” I kept hearing, then that person would disappear and nobody would come for an hour.

Finally, I just insisted, “I MUST get out of here. I’m dead serious!”

So finally, a doctor from the hospital showed up, said she was finally able to shake free (after only five hours, how nice). Suddenly, things started happening. Other people were around me, an IV was inserted, pain drugs were given, and I was wheeled to a room on the third floor. Relief had come at last.

My experience in the ER was terrible, just terrible. But in that third-floor ward, I have zero complaints. The nurses and staff were fabulous. They know how to take care of patients at Lutheran. I’ve heard that from many people who have been patients there.

I was diagnosed with acute pancreatitis. The best treatment: let the pancreas rest. No food, no liquids. So from Friday morning until Monday night, I was fed only an IV drip. There was also strong suspicion that my gall bladder might need to be removed. A scan and an ultrasound showed “sludge” (as opposed to gallstones) in the gall bladder. This could be pouring across the pancreas, causing inflammation.

On Monday morning, they were going to run one more test, but a surgeon showed up and said, basically, “This test won’t show us anything we don’t already know. We need to just remove the gall bladder, and I can do it this afternoon.” That sounded great to me.

Ever four hours, they would pump new painkillers into me. By Monday night, the painkillers (Zophan) wore off after three hours, and that last hour could be tough. Before the surgery, I went an extra 45 minutes beyond the four hours without any painkillers; that time in pre-op was reminiscent of the ER–writhing in agony. But finally they wheeled me into the OR, and I woke up without a gall bladder…and with a definite feeling that a center of pain was gone. I also had four holes in my abdomen. (The gall bladder was removed from a hole just below my belly button.) 

Tuesday morning they started me on a “clear liquid” diet, which meant I had three containers of Jello and a grape popsicle. I had a lot of gas. Wednesday they bumped me up to “full liquid,” which provided a few more options, including a vanilla milkshake which really hit the spot (twice). Today, Thursday, I was on the “transitional” diet, which allowed me to order scrambled eggs, oatmeal, and a slab of turkey for lunch. Plus another milkshake.

After lunch, I was released. Pam was already on her way to the hospital. I gathered up my stuff, and around 3 pm was home.

Right now, Pam is making some Spaghettios. That’s about all I can eat right now. Ironic, that this will be my anniversary meal for 2010. Pam and I were married 21 years ago. I couldn’t be happier to have her at my side.

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The Circle of Life, Scrap Edition

garbage-truck-475.jpg

The June 28 edition of BusinessWeek cited the major items China buys from the United States:

  1. Beverages and alcohol.
  2. Agriculture and livestock products.
  3. Waste and scrap.
  4. Iron, steel, copper, and aluminum.

The third item is the one that grabbed my attention, for three reasons.

One: We produce a whole lot of waste and scrap, if that’s our third-largest export to China.

Two: Why can’t WE use that waste and scrap to produce more consumer goods? You know–recycling. Is it because we don’t make stuff anymore? We’ve sent all of our manufacturing abroad?

Our fourth-largest export is instructive: raw materials that American industries should be using to produce stuff. The Chinese make stuff, they sell it to us, and when we’re done with it, we sell it back to them to make more stuff to sell us. The Circle of Life. Elton John wrote a song about that.

Three: We’re missing out on yet another Green industry. The Europeans are perfecting wind power. The Japanese, Chinese, and Europeans have the high-speed trains. The Japanese produce hybrid and electric cars, and lead in battery technology. The Israelis are assembling the infrastructure for electric cars. And the Chinese process the world’s junk and turn it into something useful.

Lots of Green jobs are being created around the world, while we sit back and gulp our beloved oil and insist that the sky isn’t falling.

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God, Country, and Idolatry

Greg Boyd, a pastor in St. Paul, Minn., wrote an excellent piece in the online Relevant Magazine about Christians and patriotism. The article is called “For (Too Much) Love of Country.”

I love my country, but my country’s agenda is not God’s agenda. As Boyd points out, our eternal citizenship is in the Kingdom of God, and we are ambassadors of that Kingdom. When I try to look at the world through God’s eyes, what I see is different from what I see when I merely look at the world through the eyes of an American.

I’ve read a lot of Boyd’s writings regarding patriotism, and find that he cuts right through a whole lot of my deeply-ingrained cultural baggage. Here are some excerpts from Boyd’s article in Relevant Magazine.

I see no problem with an American Christian being patriotic. At the same time, followers of Jesus need to be very careful. History shows us how easy it is for Christians to forget that the Kingdom Jesus came to establish is “not of this world.” And it’s to His Kingdom we are to pledge our sole allegiance.

Throughout history we find Christians buying the age-old pagan lie that God uniquely favors their country, and their national enemies are God’s enemies. Believing that lie, patriotic Christians have tragically followed the orders of earthly rulers and marched into battle “for God and country,” rather than following the example of Jesus–who gave His life for the people who persecuted Him….

Ironically, in some cases the “enemies” Christians have slaughtered have been other patriotic Christians who happened to be born in other countries, or other parts of the same country. Few things have done more to discredit Christianity than the patriotic zeal with which Christians have participated in violence….

If we become too invested in our nation, we can forget our real citizenship is in heaven and our job is to live as ambassadors of Christ. Rather than manifesting the distinctive values of the Kingdom of God, we can begin to assume the ideals of our culture are Kingdom values.

I appreciate that America recognizes my rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” but there is nothing distinctly Kingdom about these rights. They’re nowhere to be found in the Bible. To the contrary, as a follower of Jesus I’m called to surrender my rights to life, liberty and happiness, and instead submit to the will of God. These rights are noble on a political level, but they can get in the way of my call to seek first the Kingdom.

I’m grateful America extends these rights to people, for most countries throughout history have not. But my sole allegiance is to the heavenly Kingdom that calls me to surrender my rights. If I get too concerned with an earthly country that frees me to pursue my rights, my healthy patriotism becomes idolatrous. I’ve put my country’s ideals before God.

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LeBron James, and Olympics-Style Fun

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As a big NBA fan, I was fascinated by this year’s free agency dealings. I made sure we got home by 9:00 last Thursday, after worship team practice, so I could watch The Decision, when LeBron James announced where he was going.

First, it was way too much hype. I wish he’d done it a different way. But that’s just a process issue. The result is that the best players on three different teams will now play together on the Miami Heat.

LeBron is taking a lot of criticism. One criticism is that a Real Superstar would have stayed in Cleveland and won a championship on his own. He would have wanted to compete head-to-head with D-Wade and Chris Bosh, rather than team up with them.

But my mind goes back to the 2008 Olympics. As I watched James then, I remember thinking that he seemed to truly be having fun. He didn’t need to carry the team. He just had to do his part. In the pre- and post-game interviews, he seemed energized being part of a collective purpose.

I sort of see that now. He’ll be part of a team, not THE team, the perpetual go-to guy, the one who gets the blame if the team falls short. He’s been playing that role all his life, including, from what I’ve heard, carrying his family on his shoulders while growing up.

I suspect that the Olympics opened his eyes to something he enjoyed far more than being Top Dog. He was part of a team. He belonged. He was appreciated for what he brought to the mix. He could sit on the bench and wildly cheer his teammates. Nobody depended on him alone. It was a whole different type of exhilaration.

Yes, he could have proven a macho point by winning a championship in Cleveland. But was he having fun? I don’t think so.

Some personalities are suited to being the supreme leader. Michael Jordan was certainly that way. So is Kobe.

I’m not sure that comes naturally to James. By joining an all-star roster, he may give up the chance to be the Greatest of All Time. But does that motivate him? I suspect not. I think he’d rather have fun. And in Miami, with Wade and Bosh, James will have fun. And so will I, watching them play.

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