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Blog Archive/July 2006

July 29, 2006

Part II of SoMA’s "Summer Soul Series"

In our efforts to keep afloat on life’s rough waters, most of us are like the proverbial cork bobbing to and fro on the stormy sea. We are buffeted by the emotions, tossed about by circumstance. We’re cool one minute, miserable the next. As long as things are good and life behaves, we’re happy. But as soon as something goes amiss, the illusion of happiness vanishes. We are dependent, it seems, on external forces that we can’t control. As such, how could we possibly be tranquil beings?

We can’t—until we really understand what tranquility is.

Continue reading Mary Beth Crain’s Tranquility: The Storm Before the Calm.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

July 28, 2006

Hey, Laaady!

M. Night Shyamalan has been hailed as a brilliant filmmaker who grapples with lifeýs Big Questions: Why are we here?; Is there a God?; What happens after we die? Shyamalan, itýs been widely thought, is one deep guy. Many Christians, for instance, considered his 2002 film ýSignsý to be a moving meditation on the power of faith. Christianity Today called the flick an ýastonishing story of suffering, grief, and redemption,ý and described Graham Hess (Mel Gibsonýs doubting priest) as ýone of the most Christ-haunted figures in contemporary cinema.ý

I didnýt get it. True, itýs a story about how a priest regains the faith he lost after his wife dies in a tragic accident. But letýs recall how he regains his faith. During a space alien attack on his farmhouse, Gibsonýs character suddenly remembers his wifeýs dying instructions: to tell his brother Merrill, a former baseball hero, to ýswing away.ý This parting wisdom makes no sense to Gibson until he finds himself battling an extraterrestrial in his living room, and eyes a Louisville Slugger hanging on the wall. ýSwing away,ý he shouts to Merrill, who grabs the bat and beats the hell out of the alien.

His wifeýs wordsýa message from Godýrestore the ex-clergymanýs belief in the Almighty, and in the next scene heýs wearing his collar again. All very neat and tidyýin much the way real life is not.

Thatýs what bugs me about Shyamalanýs films: however grand his themes may be, he relies on twist endings and easy answers. Cosmic parlor tricks may be fun, but how spiritually deep can they really be? ýSigns,ý ýUnbreakable,ý ýThe Village,ý and even, to a certain extent, ýThe Sixth Sense,ý left me feeling more manipulated than enlightened.

Needless to say, I have not run out yet to see Shyamalanýs latest film, ýThe Lady in the Water.ý Instead, I sent someone else, my pal Billy Frolick, to the theater to review it for SoMA. Here, Iým doing readers a big favor, because, unlike me, Billy really knows movies. Heýs a screenwriter and a filmmaker, and heýs got a wicked wit. You folks with kids will know Billyýs work; he co-wrote last year's hit animated comedy, ýMadagascar,ý and fans of The New Yorker may recall his hilarious ýShouts & Murmursý piece, 1992 House. And if youýve read Billyýs book parodiesýýThe Philistine Prophecy,ý say, or ýThe Five People You Meet in Hellýýthen you know he loves to hate grandiosity and schmaltz. Who better, then, to dissect ýThe Lady in the Waterý?

Iým not just singing Billy's praises to embarrass him, or to give him an ego complex. Iým explaining who he is because Iým proud to announce that I'll be adding his name as a contributing editor to SoMAýs masthead soon.

Welcome aboard, Billy.  

Read Billy Frolickýs ýA Narf Is a Narf, Already!ý here.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

July 25, 2006

Happy Feast Day, St. James

As SoMA readers no doubt know, today is St. James’ feast day. Now, there are many ways to commemorate the life and death of the patron saint of hat makers and arthritis sufferers. You could make a hat or rub your joints, I suppose, or you could pay your respects at Josh Gosfield’s “Saint of the Month Club.” You could also check out some cool pictures of the pilgrimage route devoted to St. James here.

But if you’ve got frequent flyer miles and a month to blow, the absolute best way to fete the apostle is to hike across Spain, along the Camino de Santiago, soaking up the natural beauty and rich history of northern Espana, winding up in Santiago in time for the big festival in James’ honor, complete with food, music, and fireworks, on July 25.

As the father of three-year-old identical twin boys, I don’t get out much these days. Certainly not to backpack 500-plus miles across Spain. But not too long ago I did precisely that, and I wrote about my adventure, producing an essay I hope to use one day to convince my boys to accompany me back to Europe for another really long, unforgettable walk.

Read “Santiago!” here.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

July 21, 2006

Seminarians Who Love Too Much

In his latest SoMA piece, pastor Bill Whitehead recalls a few hard lessons he learned early in his ministry about setting limits on how much he could, or should, give of himself to others. It’s an old story, really—a young pastor, eager to help those in need, gets taken by someone who spots him as an easy mark.

And for me, it’s an all-too-familiar story. Though I’ve never been a pastor, I once was a Harvard Divinity School student whose heart ached, perhaps a bit too readily, for the less fortunate. In retrospect, the line between the “less fortunate” and a 23-year-old full-time grad student carrying a mountain of debt and barely getting by is arguably a lot thinner than I may have realized. But back then I thought I was supremely blessed (read: supremely obligated)—or enough so that I was all ears when a young guy who looked like a student approached me in Andover Hall, the heart of the Divinity School, with a sob story.

The guy explained that he’d just graduated Harvard College—this was in early June—and had closed his bank account and was having trouble cashing a check. He needed the money fast, so he could get his car out of the shop and rush home to see his sick mother. The idea was, we’d go to my bank, I’d deposit his check into my account, and I’d withdraw the same amount and give it to him. Then his check would clear in a few days—he swore on his life—and I’d be reimbursed.

I felt for the guy, but had my doubts. I said the only way I’d help him was if the bank assured me I wouldn’t be liable for the amount ($300, almost my entire balance) if the check was phony or bounced. This was my out. I figured the bank would laugh and say, “Forget it,” and I could say to the guy, "Sorry, pal," thereby making the greedy institution the cold bastard, not me.

The guy followed me to the teller’s window, where I explained the situation and laid out my concerns. “What if the check isn’t legit?” I said. “I can’t afford to lose this money.” The guy leaned to the window and filled in the sorry details of his story, as the teller listened closely and, to my surprise, sympathetically. “Well,” she said, finally, turning to me. “Worse case, if the check is stolen, it would be the bank’s fault for processing it.”

I felt uneasy, unsure the teller’s thinking wasn’t prejudiced by the guy’s plight. But in the end, it didn’t much matter what she thought. Being the good Christian and dumb ass that I was, I wound up doing what I thought was the right thing: Helping someone who insisted they needed it.

Well, you know how the story ended. The guy took my money and vanished, and the check never cleared. It was stolen, of course, as I learned from the bank manager a few days later. My hope bottomed out before I even asked the manager what I needed to do to get reimbursed. He gave me a funny look. “Ah, we don’t reimburse people who use their account to cover stolen checks,” he said. “This guy was probably desperate for drug money,” he added helpfully.

“But the teller specifically said if you guys would be responsible if you processed a stolen check,” I insisted.

The manager excused himself and had a brief conversation with the teller. The woman denied ever telling me such a crazy thing. The manager said he wished he could help me, really, but there was nothing he could do. I should just chalk up the experience as a life lesson, he said. Indeed, and a crash course at the School of Hard Knocks isn’t cheap.

I blamed myself for getting conned, despite what the teller originally said. But I also realized that I was probably targeted because I was a div student. Somehow, I doubted that the con artist ever tried pulling his stunt across the river at the Business School.

If you think I was green, boy, be sure to read Bill Whitehead’s “Giving Till It Hurts” here.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

July 15, 2006

SoMA’s “Summer Soul Series”

Several weeks ago, contributing editor Mary Beth Crain sent me, out of the blue, a lengthy, in-depth exploration of what the spiritual disciplines from Taoism and Buddhism to Jewish mysticism and ancient Christian asceticism have to say about tranquility. This is just the kind of thing Mary Beth does: She wakes up in the morning with a question or an idea and, after she walks her dog and has a cup of coffee, she starts researching. Then by, say, three or four in the afternoon, she’s written 80 brilliant pages on the subject.

So she sent me the manuscript and asked what I thought. It turns out her meditation was just what I needed, as I’ve been searching for a little tranquility myself recently. My first reaction upon reading it was—and I’m not kidding—to go online, Google “Buddhist retreats,” and book me and my wife at a three-day Tibetan yoga workshop with Robert Thurman at the Kripalu Center in the Berkshires next weekend.

Then I called Mary Beth and said that her piece unearths a trove of timely wisdom and hope we could all use. I proposed we run it in three installments, as “SoMA’s Summer Soul Series.”   

Without further ado, here is Part I: Tranquility: Mystical State or Practical Tool?

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

July 13, 2006

Ken Lay and Jesus Christ—the Similarities Are Spooky

Remember the Gospel story in which Jesus heads a major corporation built on fraud and mismanagement? In this account, Jesus gets a little greedy and is convicted on 10 counts of conspiracy, fraud, and misusing personal bank loans in the biggest corporate scandal ever.

No? Come to think of it, I don’t remember that story either. Which means we must read a different Bible than the Reverend Dr. Bill Lawson, pastor emeritus of Houston's Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church.

At Ken Lay’s memorial service in Houston yesterday, Lawson compared the late ex-Enron chief with Martin Luther King Jr. and, yes, Jesus Christ. "The folks who don't like him have had their say,” Lawson said in his tribute. “I'd like to have mine ... (Like Jesus Christ) he was crucified by a government that mistreated him."

"Ken Lay was neither black nor poor, but I'm angry because Ken Lay was a victim of a lynching,” Lawson said.

Other family and friends remembered Lay as a devout Christian. "He did have a strong faith in God and I know he's in heaven,” said Lay’s stepson David Herrold, “and I'm glad he's not in a position anymore to be whipped by his enemy."

The Rev. Steve Wende, pastor at First Methodist Church of Houston which Lay attended, said Lay was "in many ways a great hero to me."

"At the height of his power and position,” Wende said, “he used the position to lift others up."

Among the power elites who attended the service were: former President George H.W. Bush and wife, Barbara; former Secretary of State James Baker; former Secretary of Commerce Robert Mosbacher Sr.; and several corporate heads such as Reliant Energy Inc.'s Joel Staff.

For more quotes from Lay’s memorial service, see this report at

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

July 11, 2006

My Amish Adventure

Lately I’ve been wondering if the Dutch Amish would let me join their “Old Order.” According to “20 Most Asked Questions about the Amish and Mennonites,” by Merle and Phyllis Good, the Amish do accept outsiders. The hitch is, the authors write, “most Americans (and many Mennonites) probably aren’t willing to submit themselves to the demands of the true Christian way.” This means I’d have to, among other things, trade my Lexus for a horse-drawn buggy, grow a long beard (sans mustache), dress “plain,” and bid auf wiedersehen to electricity and, needless to say, my computer.

I’d have to choose an occupation “close to the farm and home,” which wouldn’t be a problem, as I already work at home. On the other hand, the Amish “forbid higher education,” so I’d leave my college and grad school experience off the application. I imagine I could get away with that little fib; since the Amish have no truck with modern technology, they couldn’t possibly conduct very thorough background checks.

Oh, and no more weekend debauches at Chateau Marmont. Hmmm...

Continue reading my essay, “Going Dutch,” here.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

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