Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Syncretism or Redemption?

I have a strong Christian friend who has reservations about celebrating Christmas and Easter because some of the traditions associated with these holidays have historical roots in pagan rituals. For him, the fact that they are now widely considered Christian holidays doesn’t matter. If the root is bad, he reasons, then the whole tree will wither.

But what he sees as syncretism, the dangerous blending of the profane and the sacred, some consider redemption, the metamorphosis of one to the other. Advocates on this side of the debate says that if God can turn sinners into saints and pagans into priests, it logically follows that he can take a days meant for ignoble purposes and use them for his glory.

He’s certainly done it before. The cross, an instrument of death comparable to the guillotine or the electric chair, is now seen as a symbol of hope, reminding us simultaneously of the wrath we deserve and the grace we’ve received.

I’ll concede if we take this premise to an extreme conclusion, we walk a perilous path that could lead is into a place where meaning becomes relative and good becomes indistinct from evil.

But I think we need to put faith in God’s ability to appreciate variant cultural contexts. When Peter exempted from the Gentiles from following the Law, he wasn’t condemning them to eternal unrighteousness. He was recognizing that God’s grace was going to reach them in a different cultural milieu, and that grace would have to be sufficient as God started to move in a new way.

With regard to this debate, I think we should take the Romans 14 approach and allow our individual consciences to decide. As with any activity we undertake, we should use this litmus test for holidays: In light of God’s word and my conscience as monitored by the Holy Spirit, is what I’m doing glorifying God? Anything is permissible as long as the answer to that question remains a firm “yes.”

Senator Challenges Pastors' Tax-Free Bling

A few weeks ago, Charles Grassley, a Republican senator from Iowa and the ranking member on the Senate Finance Committee, sent letters to six Christian ministries requesting information by Dec. 6 about allegedly excessive spending in their massive non-profit organizations.

While Sen. Grassley was clear that he didn't want to jump to any conclusions, the Associated Press reported that his relatively intrusive inquiry was in response to news reports and rumors about the lavish lifestyles of these famous prosperity pastors.

At issue is whether these clergymen (and women) are using tax-exempt donations for ministry purposes or simply to fatten their own already padded salaries.

Creflo Dollar, pastor World Changers Church International in College Park, Ga., quickly responded to Grassley's faxed letter by disclosing vague figures to the Atlanta Journal-Consitution that revealed that $69 million flowed into his ministry last year. He also quelled the rumor that his church bought him two Rolls-Royces. The only one he got was given as a surprise, and it's used mostly for special occasions.

While I initially would like to concede to Creflo that it's a slippery slope when Uncle Sam starts snooping around in churches' wallets, the flippant attitude he displays somehow makes me want to give Grassley a pat on the back and tell him to keep on probing.

Creflo and the five other ministries under investigation - including those of Benny Hinn, Kenneth Copeland, Paula White, Eddie Long and Joyce Meyer - represent all that's bad with the prosperity movement. They lure funds by promising wealth to church members who "sow a seed," and when the start livin' large off the harvest, they act as if they've done some actual work that entitles them to such luxury.

"Without a doubt, my life is not average,” Creflo said. “But I’d like to say, just because it is excessive doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wrong.”

But according to Grassley, and I think to the IRS, it is wrong - like, the "illegal" kind of wrong - if tax-exempt funds are not being used for tax-exempt purposes. Grassley is investigating Joyce Meyer's $23,000 toilet and $30,000 conference table, Benny Hinn's layover trips between crusades, Creflo's tax-free Rolls Royces, Paula White's Bentley and other rumored expenses that can hardly be classified as "ministry needs." Only in America can charitable organizations be manipulated into a get-rich-quick scheme, and I'm glad someone with power is doing something to rein in the excesses.

People, please don't give your money to these wolves in sheep's clothing. Jesus said that all his true disciples would be despised by the world. James said friendship with the world is enmity toward God. Paul, the man whose call to ministry was a call to suffering, said that persecution would follow all those who want to walk the path of Christ. We might not all be called to die for Him, but we certainly shouldn't expect our treasure to be found where moth and rust destroy, where thieves break in and steal. Unlike those under Grassley's microscope, store up your bling in heaven, for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Exporting the Gospel

After an extensive Internet search, I've only been able to find a few statistics on missions, but I found enough to reach some conclusions on how targets and effectiveness global outreach efforts are impacted by today's economic and political boundaries.

Take China, for example. Although it's a pretty well-known fact that Christians survived and began flourishing house church movements after the Cultural Revolution subsided in the early 1970s, I wonder if the American church's involvement in missions there has ridden on the coattails of the "reform and opening" policy initiated by Deng Xiaoping. On a macro scale, missionaries are able to take advantage of the increasingly open markets by claiming business as their purpose for remaining in country. More indirectly, foreign ideology, at least in some places, slips subtly through the cracks along with imported goods.

According to a recent article in the Asia Times, the U.S. still sends out more missionaries than any other country. South Korea is second, with 17,000 proselytizers abroad, most of them in China. One of the pastors in the article satirized the way that American and other nations see China as having little value other than as a giant market for products and pool of cheap labor.

"There are one billion customers in China; there are also one billion lost souls in China too," he said. Ironically, it seems, at least in my view, that the drive for customers is fueling export of missionaries as well.

But the extent to which market reforms open doors for the Gospel still isn't clear to me. One could argue that the U.S., which has the most missionaries abroad, probably has most of its personnel stationed in nations that allow open proclamations of faith. But you could use that same argument to saw that raw numbers alone would catapult Americans to the top of the statistical list even in closed countries.

What is obvious is that in closed countries, platforms are necessary, and the more open a country is, the more likely it is that missionaries will go there. I guess the real question is whether there's any correlation between the U.S.' top export destinations and its high-ranking missions sending destinations, or whether a country's government or economic policies have any empirical impact on how many missionaries we send to that country. If anyone has any information or resources on the subject, please let me know, because I might like to do a more extensive article on it.

One statistic I read, which saddened me most throughout all this research, is that of the missionaries on the field, almost 3/4 of them are among nominal Christian groups, while only 2 percent are ministering to unreached people groups. That means that we're placing 75 percent of our emphasis on people who have already had a chance to receive the Gospel, while those who have never heard are slowly perishing.

Another statistic that will make you sick: The cost in total ministry expenditures for every one convert baptized in America is a whopping $1.5 million, according to numbers released by the U.S. Center for World Mission in Pasadena, Calif. In Asia, the ministry cost per convert is about $61,000, and it's even lower in Africa. Makes you wonder if we should do a bit more outsourcing of the gospel.

Find out here about Gospel for Asia's native missionary approach. GFA trains pastors (mostly in India) to do church-planting within their own cultural framework, eliminating the high overhead cost of transplanting a worker across the world and the need for cross-cultural training. Also, all donations go directly to the field, not to administrative costs. Adopting a GFA missionary is a budget-friendly way to impact God's kingdom and to get your church (or yourself) out of the mindset that Americans are the only Christian soldiers moving onward for the cause of Christ.

Photo: 'Exporting' to Xinjiang province, China.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Chuck Norris Hearts Huckabee

It might be a bit too early for me to endorse a candidate, but as a Republican, right now I'm liking Mike Huckabee, a former Baptist pastor and Arkansas governor. He seems like a genuine social conservative, unlike many of the front-runners in the Republican field, and although inexperience in foreign policy may prove to be one of his weaknesses, he exudes humble confidence and likeability, two characteristics that are in very high demand in the coming presidential campaign.

Like other Republicans, I fear another, albeit estrogen-charged, Clinton administration, but I have a bit more faith in the democratic process than some conservatives. What I mean is that with Giuliani leading most Republican polls (and good ole Pat Robertson endorsing a pro-choice candidate), it seems that we're basing our decision on the candidate's likelihood of beating Hillary rather than their real stance on issues. For one, Hillary has not yet won the Dems' nomination, and also, I think that to cast a vote as a defensive measure is to misuse our freedoms and shortchange the dark horses in the upcoming primaries. It's obvious that a third-party will never win under the current system, but let's at least let non-celebrities compete if they have good ideas.

Huckabee, because he's a cellar-dweller with regard to fundraising, plays the underdog card well, and I think his recent success in the Iowa polls suggests that we really do live in a democracy and that it's not all about the Benjamins when it comes to politics. Campaign contributions drain money that could have been invested elsewhere, and if Huckabee had all the support in the world, he wouldn't have had to come up with the innovative Chuck Norris ad. With his shrewd use of currently limited resources, the pastor might earn trust in potential contributors and could eventually prove Jesus' words that he who is faithful with a little will be given more.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Three Weeks with My Brother - Review


It seems that the world has turned upside-down in the past few weeks. Two books were sitting on the coffee table, one authored by Nicholas Sparks, the famous fiction writer known for penning heart-jerking titles like The Notebook and The Wedding, the other book by C.S. Lewis. Anyone that knows Katy and I would walk into the apartment and bet money that I was taking in the Christian philosophy of Mr. Lewis while she was on the emotional roller coaster ride with Mr. Sparks. Sometimes things aren't as they seem.

If our visitor were to dig a little deeper, they wouldn't find it hard to justify our choices. Three Weeks with My Brother, the Nicholas Sparks book, was nonfiction, which is usually the only kind of book I'll lay my hands on. And the C.S. Lewis book was third the "Chronicles of Narnia" series. Fiction - just like Katy likes.

I recently discussed with a friend how the storytelling ability of fiction writers can be put to use in nonfiction works to make true stories take on the transient and entertaining aura of fiction. Peter Hessler, one of my favorite authors, does this in his writings about China, and I think Sparks employs the same technique in Three Weeks. As you could expect from his novels, the book was both depressing and poignant, but unlike his usual genre, this time Sparks was talking about his own life.

The original draw of the book for me was the premise implied by its title, that Sparks and his brother would be embarking on a whirlwind tour around the world, experiencing and processing new adventures with a level of understanding only available around family. While the trip narrative was not totally abandoned, it was somewhat underdeveloped, providing more skeleton than meat for the book. I was disappointed to find only a few pages in each chapter on Ayers Rock in Australia, the Taj Mahal in India, the statues on Easter Island and the killing fields of Cambodia, among the other places the guys visited. As someone who likes to think of himself as a traveler - at heart if not in reality - at first I wanted more allegory and less literalism and flashback. I wanted these places to speak to Sparks on a more profoundly personal level as they related to his current situation. Don't get me wrong; both Nicholas and Micah Sparks were portrayed as mesmerized by what they saw on the trip, but I wanted it to form the basis of more of the material.

If Sparks lacks drama in the story's foreground, he compensates for it with harrowing true-life narratives, and I found myself utterly engaged by the gritty and harsh reality of his family history. Using the trip experiences with his brother as springboards that had his family neurons firing, Sparks reaches back into childhood to develop the characters and events that profoundly shaped his life. As it flows, the book takes place on two levels: On the surface, Sparks slowly flees the busyness and workoholism that plagues his life in the present. Just below, he weaves a contemplative framework of the events that bring him to this point of the journey.

Tragedy after tragedy ensues, to the point that I wondered whether Sparks has forgotten that he's writing nonfiction. By the end, the book has morphed from travelogue into a sibling-focused autobiography that reminds us of our dire need for community and shows that hardship, when endured together with other human beings, forges bonds that would not have been possible in times of peace and contentment. Because of their struggle together, Nicholas and Micah have a relationship that transcends the normal sibling banter and rivalry. Their brotherly love can teach the Church a lesson: To stand firm together, walking in the faith that something better is on the horizon, brings peace in chaos and allows exuberant hope to supplant apprehension. Sparks' past may be dim, but his future, at least in his mind, is bright.

Guys need not emasculate themselves, as one of my friend's suggested, to enjoy a Nicholas Sparks book. In fact, if we take Three Weeks seriously, we may find a deeper level of masculinity within its pages, the kind that admits faults and cries on the shoulder of a brother. Call it sissy, softy or whatever, but we need that kind of humility among brothers in the Church. Sometimes, like Sparks, our brothers are all we have.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Another Sonny Day in Georgia

Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue's decision to hold a prayer service outside the state Capitol yesterday petitioning to God for relief from the state's record drought was met with mixed reviews.

Although Sonny followed the politically correct protocol by inviting members of the Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Hindu faiths to participate, his attempt at inclusiveness still wasn't good enough for some of Georgia's self-proclaimed "non-theistic" citizens.

Members of the ironically named Atlanta Free Thought Society believe that Sonny overstepped his Constitutional bounds as an elected official by endorsing religion in his official capacity.

Various organizations protested at the Capitol, carrying sarcastic signs that read, "Is it raining yet?" and "All hail Sonny Perdue!" press reports indicated.

I must admit that I probably wouldn't be too excited if Sonny organized some kind of animistic sacrifice on the Capitol steps, but what these Free Thoughters forget is that governors are citizens too, and that elected officials are not legally required to check their faith at the door to the gold-domed Capitol.

For those who haven't had civics class in awhile, here's the text of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. See if you can find here a reason to prohibit a state governor for practicing his faith in public:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
Now, I realize that there is a very long and complex history of Supreme Court decisions that have brought legal interpretations to where they are today, but I can't help looking back at my free speech in wartime class from last year and second-guessing the Supreme Court's competency in handling complicated matters relating to free speech. (It's interesting how the same people that preach Supreme Court historical precedent on issues like Roe v. Wade would condemn the actions of the very same court during wartime repression of dissenting voices). And I also can't help but think that anti-religious zealots simply use events like this just to further their own antagonistic agendas.

The truth is, those who claim agnosticism hold to a worldview that brings its own premises of faith to the table. Every belief, whether scientific or not, is only as true as the epistemological source it comes from. Some get their beliefs from science textbooks, some from holy books. Some believe what their preacher says, others their professor, therapist or guru. I'm not preaching some postmodern mumbo-jumbo that everyone's truth is equally valid. Far from it. I'm saying that everyone's perception of the truth is influenced by some facts that are not empirically verifiable, meaning that everyone carries some degree of faith, whether it be in God or in their own logic.

So free-thoughters, lighten up. No one's interrupting your enlightened little thinking parties, and the same Bill of Rights that gives you the ability to stand on the steps with your inconsiderate signs gives Sonny the right to ask the One who gives rain to send it a-pourin'.

Note: I'm not debating the efficacy of prayer in this context, only trying to give credence to Sonny's right do it. Why God has allowed this drought to go on is unclear, but the faithful will certainly pray, and they will also certainly accept God's decision to bring rain or let us run dry.
---

On a more personal note, I had to defend ole Sonny today in two different contexts.

At a conference on solar energy, a guy told me that he thought it was a bit ridiculous that the only thing the governor is doing about the drought is organizing a prayer vigil. For one, I said, that's not the only thing he's doing. Well, I wish he would've done something nine months ago, came the response.

But in the context of prayer, Sonny humbly admitted the government's inadequacy in the area of conservation, I answered. The man didn't really respond. It seems his desire to criticize was greater than his desire to think. And if Sonny, by some feat of divination, got a premonition about the drought before it happened and enacted measures to prevent it, I'm sure that these same sort of folks would be questioning his use of spiritual sources.

My second defense of Sonny was a bit less entertaining. Someone challenged his handling of the drought, and I simply pointed out that the governor is receiving the brunt of the criticism because the crisis is happening under his watch. Unpreparedness is a team effort where government is concerned.

To end, I just have one question and its candid answer:

Did you invite representatives from various faiths to petition the Lord for rain, and then receive a lot of crap about it?

Sonny did.

For one of my newest articles on the governor and a great picture of Sonny at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, go to www.globalatlanta.com.



Sunday, November 11, 2007

Astonishing

Some of you have really enjoyed the Osteen posts, so I thought I'd oblige you with a quick related thought I had while sitting through an incredible sermon at All Souls Fellowship in Decatur this morning.

The pastor was talking about the book of Genesis, when God came to Abraham and told him that Sarah would give birth to a son in her old age, long after it was physiologically possible for her to do so. Sarah, who heard this as she was sitting near the entrance to the tent, laughed to herself, as if God couldn't really make it come to pass. God responded: Why did you laugh? Is anything too hard for the Lord?

Using a bit of Hebrew translation, the pastor went on to explain that the word for "hard" in Hebrew doesn't necessarily just mean "difficult." It has a connotation of wonder and astonishment, like the feat in question is so unlikely to occur that utter surprise and amazement would be the only fitting response if it were accomplished. The pastor repeated the question in a different way: Is anything too wonderful or astonishing for the Lord?

Using the question as a springboard, he urged the congregation to raise its expectation of God's faithfulness and to look at our own salvation as a testimony to the God's miraculous power and his ability to break into normalcy and bend our reality to make implausible things become truth. As Paul put it, he uses the weak things of the world to shame the wise, and in doing so he displays astonishing power and control. The pastor said that if we are not taken aback by the absurdity of the work of God in bringing sinners like us unto himself and entrusting to us the keys of his Kingdom, then we think too highly of ourselves.

As I sat there, I thought about how diametrically opposed that line of reasoning is to Osteen's idea that since we are "children of the king," we're entitled to privileged treatment. Joel's image of the believer is that of a prince raised in a pristine household, never knowing the squalor outside the castle walls and never acknowledging how fortunate he is to be inside the gates. This is the image of the prodigal's brother, who sensed entitlement because he was faithful in duty, but whose heart in the end was farther away than the one who had just returned from squandering his inheritance and wallowing in the pig sty (Luke 15).

The image of a man in relationship with God in scripture is that of an adopted son, a beggar with no royal lineage and no strength to offer. Look at Israel, God's chosen people. He picked them not because they were the strongest, but because he would be shown strong through their weakness. Our adoption is the utmost privilege, one we should not belittle by using it as a means to gain petty, earthly advantages. Unlike the native son, the pompous prince, we are aliens looking for a grain of mercy. When allowed to feast, we know what it is to be spiritually hungry and thirsty. We have been saved, rescued, retrieved from the pound. And like a dog given a new home, we are eternally grateful. We deserve nothing, but through grace we've gained everything.

Osteen's image of our relationship with God is conducive to thinking too highly of ourselves. Of course we should not let humility become a stronghold of the enemy, who wants to tell us that we're not worth anything because we're so sinful. And I think Joel is strongest in his ability to get people thinking about the fact that God is on their side and has our good at heart. But we should not be so arrogant to think that we can claim interest on a loan we can't afford; we should be astonished and amazed each day he allows us to wake up with breath in our lungs, and even moreso on the days when he chooses to make use of us.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Killed by Committee

My heart was not made for C-Span. No offense to you raging politicos who love a good filibuster, but there's something that just bothers me about bureaucratic bodies, whether they represent national legislatures or just misguided Christian organizations (see last post). I think what unnerves me so much is the Committee. Not any one in particular, but the Committee as a concept, as a way to domesticate a world that is otherwise beautiful, poetic and downright disorganized.

Think about it. No kid ever grows up wanting to be the chairperson of a committee, but as we grow older, it seems that involvement in them is unavoidable if we want to advance. And we all fall into their trap. Eventually, though we may despise them, we come to see committees as a necessary part of life. And as we've accepted them, they've begun to take over. They're rampant in the church, and as I've learned in my life as an international business reporter, they pretty much make the world go 'round.

This is strange because committees, with all their rigid structure and pompous groundedness, really don't actually do anything. They might talk for awhile, and individuals might raise their hands to vote, but the rubber usually meets the road outside the boardroom where the decision is made. For instance, a missions committee might decide which trip to support financially, but the committee members themselves aren't doing the sharing. Congress can vote to declare war, but they won't be the ones dodging enemy bullets.

And so we see that the mission of a committee is to organize the world, to avoid the chaos that comes with indecision or disagreement, to keep the gears turning. In essence, to be totally useful. But that cold, detached utility is just the thing that makes committees so hard to stomach. With a vote to cast, everything becomes black and white, and its hard to get above the crowd to see the human implications of a boardroom decision.

I may be overdramatizing my hatred for committees. In fact, I think that you could call them something else and I wouldn't mind them at all. But I think there's something in every heart that can condemn them as an assault on spontaneity and passion even as we realize their necessity in making a broken world function properly.

So as you sit through that board meeting, don't be afraid to look out the window and daydream a bit. A committee without dreamers is disconnected from its constituency: people who have spirits, who are substance, not just form, who have hopes and fears and dreams and who will feel the impact of the committee's decisions. Through all your endeavors to become a mover and a shaker, don't forget to stay human.

Loving the System

Individual trustees must refrain from public criticism of Board approved actions . . . trustees are to speak in positive and supportive terms as they interpret and report on actions by the Board, regardless of whether they personally support the action.
While this might look like it came straight from the National People's Congress in China or some other Communist organization, it ironically came straight from the top of one of the most well-funded and influential Christian missions councils in the world.

While I don't have the time, willpower or desire to give a full account of these events, the Pasty Quail, an Athens-based blog, recently cited the censuring of a Southern Baptist crusader who, however gracefully and tactfully, violated the above guidelines in blog posts that "reflected poorly" on his fellow trustees.

Wade Burleson, a pastor in Oklahoma who himself is a member of the Board of Trustees of the International Mission Board, has become known throughout Southern Baptist circles for his "Robinhood" style of blogging: With delicate words, he takes esoteric knowledge from the rich, the Board of Trustees, and he passes it on to the poor, the common Southern Baptist who attends church every Sunday but knows nothing of the highly bureaucratic entity that oversees his denomination's overseas ministry.

Basically, the story goes that Mr. Burleson was censured at a recent convention for failing to retract comments that he made on his blog. Instead of focusing on positives--like the fact that the IMB budgeted $305 million this year to reach the lost abroad--issues surrounding Mr. Burleson were put on display at the convention. What's more, the censure (which I'm pretty sure is like a rhetorical slap on the wrist) was done in private, behind closed doors, after Mr. Burleson was under the impression that an agreement had been reached.

You can read the full story (at least Mr. Burleson's side) on his blog if you want, but it will suffice to say that this type of mess is what keeps the Church from reaching its full potential as an institution, and it brings up the question: Why has the church become so institutionalized? For me, someone who grew up giving to Lottie Moon and Annie Armstrong, the Christmas and Easter missions campaigns of the Southern Baptist Convention such news is particularly disheartening. And the worst part about it is the negative press coverage it brings. While Jesus said that we'll be known for our love, it seems that Christians in America attract attention for too many other reasons.

Just as a bad tree bears bad fruit, sinful people, though washed in the blood, can never make a perfect institution. Though I'm sure many are motivated by their desire to see God's renown increase in this world, it seems that form has replaced substance and reverence for certain rules or traditions has supplanted the desire for relevance in a changing and lost world.

The key to keep from going insane as a Christian in this context, as a Baptist pastor once told me, is to recognize the flaws in the system without becoming blind to its potential. We must identify those who believe in the system and are working to please God in it. Concentrate our energies there, and we can see spiritual returns on our investments.

I still have many friends who are serving as missionaries in the System. Like Americans who are patriotic despite their distrust of the government, these warriors continue to fight for the cause of Christ though their leadership betrays them with petty and sometimes unbiblical regulations. Let's pray that the SBC, despite its flaws, can be used miraculously for the glory of God. When bickering ceases and the trumpet sounds, he'll be the one issuing the censures.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Bear Hollow's Poor Cousin


video

When I lived in Athens, Katy and I enjoyed going to a small zoo called Bear Hollow Wildlife Trail. Tucked away on a small street called Gran Ellen drive in a residential area behind Milledge Avenue Baptist Church, Bear Hollow shares acreage with two other great Athens pit stops: Memorial Park and the Birchmore Trail, a winding, two-mile jaunt I hiked throughout college when I started to feel the indoors closing in on me.

Bear Hollow, a family-friendly attraction, was built to provide homes for all types of creatures native to Georgia that could no longer take care of themselves in the wild. It is a place where the outcasts of Georgia's animal world become ambassadors, preaching the merits of conservation with their cuteness and proximity. Just by lazing around, they capture the imagination of the zoo's visitors. Although these animals are native to Georgia, most people will never see them in the wild: owls, otters, hawks, golden eagles, bald eagles, bobcats, deer, turkeys, groundhogs, alligators and the signature black bears that gave the zoo its name.

While hiking around on Arabia Mountain the other day, Evan and I discovered a similar wildlife rescue effort, although on a smaller scale. As we followed the trail, it emptied into a parking lot that led up to what looked like a small log house. A circular sign told us that this was home base for A.W.A.R.E., the Atlanta Wildlife Awareness Rescue Effort. Unlike Bear Hollow, its older, flashier cousin, the AWARE center was nowhere near ready for a full-scale visitor assault. AWARE has been in the fund-raising stages since 2005 and needs lots of work to catch up with Bear Hollow.

As you'll see in the above video, cages forged of various types of wire led up a hill and back behind the house. Curious, we advanced into the labyrinth of fence, wire and strewn lumber, not knowing what we would find. Workers eyed us indifferently from inside the house. As we climbed farther into the maze, the creatures became more exotic. I'll let you watch the video to figure out what happened...


Dekalbi Arabia

A state park that defies stereotypes about Dekalb as one of metro Atlanta's most heavily populated and urban counties.

Today was the epitome of fall in Georgia--blazing colors in the trees and weather cool enough to wear a jacket but warm enough to take it off after you've hiked a few miles, which is what I spent a few hours doing on Sunday. My best friend Evan had a few minutes in Atlanta on the way back to Augusta, and he decided to stop by. I had planned on sitting in front of the computer for a few hours before I got his call. I had the door open and a soft wind rustled through the trees behind our terrace level apartment. With Evan on his way, Katy at work and nothing else to do, I decided it was the perfect time to get outdoors.

We had planned for Stone Mountain, but as I searched the Internet for the park's hours and fees, I noticed how frilly its Web site had become. Attractions filled up the whole homepage, and colorful, gimmicky ads promised visitors the time of their lives. I was already beginning to have my doubts when the clincher came: $8 per car to get into the park. I assume this is to cover the added amenities Stone Mountain offers, stuff like light shows and huge granite reliefs of confederate soldiers. You know, touristy luxuries for families to enjoy, the things that lonely hikers like to avoid.

When Evan arrived, we searched the Internet for a better trail, limiting the parameters to Dekalb County. Georgiatrails.com turned up another trail that, like Stone Mountain, travels over a granite outcropping rising above the Georgia forests. No one knows where Arabia Mountain got its name. Even the moderators of the area's Web site are looking for information. But what's for sure is that the place offers a great hike: a great workout (I think we did about 3.5 miles over varying elevations), good views of the sunset, interesting geological structures and low crowds even on the weekend. Also, Arabia Mountain is free and has a name that is hands-down way more interesting and exotic than Stone Mountain. Nobody's scratching their heads about that one.

As is the case with most trips Evan and I undertake, there was adventure by the bucketload. During one of our off-trail ventures, we found a chicken farm, and we trespassed on some people's driveways as we thrashed through the trees, trying to find our way back to the road through the encroaching darkness. Although we could see the tips of skyscrapers peeking over the distant trees to the West and Delta planes swooped into the airport like red-tailed hawks, this was Southeast Dekalb, and Atlanta's cityscape was the farthest thing from our minds. (One of our most exciting discoveries was an animal rescue facility, which I'll post about later.)

After almost two hours of breathing afresh, we dodged a brake-slamming, tire-squealing near-collision on the interstate and made it back to civilization in time to pick Katy up from work. Although it's more than 20 minutes away, Dekalbi Arabia is my new place to roam.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Osteen's a-comin'

When it rains, it pours. I've spent the last week refereeing (and leveling) criticisms at Osteen on my blog, and now all my Google ads on the right side of the screen are trying to sell his books--an ironic testament to why computers lack the basic reasoning skills needed to take over the world. Also, while I was searching the Businesswire for stories for GlobalAtlanta, I found one announcing that Osteen will be at a Books-A-Million in Peachtree City this week. I thought about going and talking to him, since I've been somewhat talking behind his back on this blog, but I somehow don't feel like a book signing would be the right place for confrontation. And I really don't think he'd want to have a heart-to-heart right there in the store. But, if you're in Georgia and you'd like to meet the smiling preacher, here's your chance:

ATLANTA--(BUSINESS WIRE)--Books-A-Million, Inc. (NASDAQ:BAMM):
Who: Joel Osteen is the Pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston and


the author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Your Best Life


Now. His weekly sermon is viewed by seven million Americans


each week and is seen in almost 100 nations around the world.


In Become a Better You, Joel Osteen reveals seven simple yet


profound principles that when taken to heart will help you


become all that God has created you to be.
What:
Pastor Osteen signs his newest book, "Become a Better You"
When:
Monday, November 5th from Noon-1:30pm Eastern
Where:
Books-A-Million


The Avenue of Peachtree City


Peachtree City, GA 30269


(770) 632-1296
Why:
Customers will have the opportunity to personally meet Pastor


Osteen and get copies of Become a Better You signed.