Monday, July 31, 2006

Envisioning the Presbyterian Church (USA)

Envisioning the Presbyterian Church (USA):
Presbyterian Outlook (free registration required)
Where there is no vision, the people perish, (Proverbs 29:18a KJV)

“On life-support,” opined a minister when asked about the state of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). “In need of hospice care,” said another. These opinions envision the Church on its deathbed awaiting palliative drugs and last rites. I would argue that such a vision is neither faithful to God’s promises nor consistent with the PC(USA)’s present realities.

This article is my alternative to prophecies of the PC(USA)’s imminent death. Following a summary of my perspective, it identifies God-given resources available to the PC(USA). It then focuses on major challenges confronting the PC(USA) and concludes with my personal vision statement.
John Williams, the Synod Executive for the Synod of Mid America writes in the Presbyterian Outlook about the challenges facing the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the hope he has that we can meet those challenges.

What he has to say on cultural disestablishment is interesting. Even though the Constitution prohibited Congress from establishing religion or preventing the free excercise wherof, the Church enjoyed a long period of cultural establishment that seems now to have come to an end. How we choose to live within this reality is going to affect our future as a denomination.

From my perspective, this "cultural disestablishment" is not a bad thing. We are not called to be indistinguishable from the surrounding culture. On the contrary, we are called to follow the Lord and to be a transformed and tranforming example to the world. Can we do that effectively if we are molded by the various worldviews around us?

Williams' scriptural quote that leads off his article summarizes succinctly what we need -- Where there is no vision, the people perish -- and that vision is clearly laid out for us in Scripture.

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Friday, July 28, 2006

Sysadmin Appreciation Day

Beau Weston, over at the Gruntled Center had an interesting posting on Sysadmin Appreciation Day as it relates to some arcane sociological concept. Arcane, at least to me.

A friend send me an email pointing this high holy day to me, and I basked in the thought that there are some people who appreciate the behind-the-scenes things we do to keep the packets flowing.

At 9:03 pm I received a phone call from the data center -- there had been a University-wide power outage and the UPS systems had kicked in as they should have. The only problem was the backup generator did not, and the UPSes drained after a few minutes, and the data center went dark. I met the two other sysadmins for our group, and we managed to get everything going in a little under an hour.

I guess this was an appropriate day to get called in after hours. It really doesn't happen that often, but when it does, it's a doozy.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Getting Psyched For Vacation

In a little over a week, my wife, son, and I will get into the car and start heading west with the intention of being at the Lizard Creek Campground of Grand Teton National Park in time to select our home for the next 6 nights. Personally, I am hoping for good shade, and a view of the Northern shore of Jackson Lake.

We'll use this location as a base for day trips into the Yellowstone National Park and the surrounding areas. The entry fee is good for both parks, and we may just pick up a Golden Eagle Passport that will pay the entry fees at most US fee areas.

Cameras and walking staffs will be an important part of our week, and I have perrmission to take some time for fly fishing. Mixing fishing and family vacation is a dicey proposition, and some anglers of my acquaintance just don't do it. Fly fishing is pretty much a solitary activity, and family vacations are, well, a family activity...

The Wyoming non-resident angling fees are, to my Missourian sensibilties, pretty outrageous at $11/day, but fishing in Yellowstone requires only a Yellowstone permit at $20/week. Of course, I am looking at one or two days of fishing, tops, so I may try out the Grand Tetons one day and Yellowstone another day.

I took stock of my flyboxes and I am pretty well fixed for flies, although I plan to tie up a few more before I go.

Missouri flies tend to be pretty sparse with the materials:
This fly has no name, but is tied with javelina bristles and grizzly hackle.

Western flies tend to be large and fuzzy:

Here is my version of large and fuzzy:

Adams Wulff

And if the caddis flies are out and about, here is a pretty simple, yet effective fly:

CDC Caddis

CDC stands for cul de canard and refers to the feathers around a duck's preen gland. These are naturally water-resistant, thus these flies float nicely.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Should I stay or should I go?

Should I stay or should I go?:
Presbyterian Outlook (free registration required)
by Fairlight Collins-Jones

"It had been one week since the gavel was laid down at the General Assembly in Birmingham, Ala. My energy level had rebounded—it can be tough work as an “observer.” But, I was finding it more difficult to bounce back emotionally and vocationally from GA. After hours of debates in committee, debates on the floor, asking whether or not the minority should become the majority report, trying to figure out LES (the electronic report system) and hearing countless people refer to the decline of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and threats of leaving, I was left wondering isn’t there more to life than this? Is there a place to start over fresh? Is staying in this denomination worth it? ..."
Collins-Jones has written a thoughful piece on why she is planning to stay with the PC(USA). As a self-identified "catholic, evangelical, Reformed, feminist, missional, genX, liturgical, charismatic, female person", she often feels out of place, but she is willing and eager to be a part of a church that has its problems, but also has a clear mission in the world.

There has much talk of schism, with the attendant finger-pointing. Frankly, I do not understand why so many people who identifiy themselves with renewal are so ready to act in a way that is counter to renewal.

Beau Weston feels that the movement will fizzle out, based on history. I sincerely hope he is correct.

From my perspective, I see a debate going on, egged on by people within and without the PC(USA), that potentally has the same damaging effects as the perennial debates on sexuality. There is so much more that unites us than divides us, and our failure to work with our inherent unity is a blight on not only the PC(USA), but the Church as a whole. Surely we can do better.

The Reverend Collins-Jones closes with this:
"...I am staying because the Spirit of the Lord still rests on the PC(USA). I am not taking my ball and going to another game. Frankly, I am not leaving until I get kicked out! Perhaps there will come a day when I will have to refuse to bow down to any idol that the PC(USA) has begun to worship and in turn, I get the boot. But I have hope that the church will create a new presence in the world, that a revival and renewal is headed our way. Lord, don’t let us miss it! But, thanks be to God that ultimately our hope is not in a denomination, but in the Head of the Church, Jesus Christ."

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Sunday, July 23, 2006

God, Under a Microscope

God, Under a Microscope:
Washington Post (free registration required)

by Richard Ostling, AP
"... Francis S. Collins led the international Human Genome Project that mapped the 3.1 billion chemical base pairs in humanity's DNA. He now directs the U.S. government program on applying that information to medical treatments.

He has also emerged as an advocate for faith and its compatibility with science.

The 56-year-old Collins discussed the clash of science and religion last weekend during a conference at Williams College sponsored by the C.S. Lewis Foundation. The writings of the English literature scholar were instrumental in Collins's conversion. ..."
It is good to see scientists who are willing to go beyond the traditional realm of the scientific method, and realize that there is more than one way to understand reality. I was especially interested to note that it was his reading of C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity that led to Francis Collins' conversion from atheism to Christianity.

Like Richard Dawkins, Collins is at or near the top of his field, having earned the respect of the scientific community. Unlike Dawkins, Collins did not see religion and science as being mutually exclusive, nor did Collins approach religion with the antipathy that Dawkins seems to have.

Collins does not enjoy complete acceptance for his views, as he believes the evidence for evolution to be overwhelming. His view on both creationism and intelligent design is that they undermine the credibility of faith. Creationism is fundamentally flawed, as it is based wholly on untestable assertions, and intelligent design makes assumptions about gaps in our knowledge that can be studied, and filled in by science.

This reminds me of a statement in my freshman biology textbook from Fall 1970 -- to allow one's faith to stand or fall on any aspect of the physical universe that can be observed or tested, risks having science destroy that faith.

Collins' new book The Language Of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence For Belief, was published on July 11, 2006, and is available from

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Friday, July 21, 2006

Constitutional Lawyer: Churches CAN Speak to Moral Issues in the Public Square

Constitutional Lawyer: Churches CAN Speak to Moral Issues in the Public Square:
"RAPID CITY - With plenty of misinformation and misunderstanding going around this election season, the South Dakota Family Policy Council believed it was important for churches and their pastors to know just what they were permitted to do and what they were not permitted to do within the parameters that govern their tax exempt status. To help with this, they invited Gary McCaleb, the Senior Vice President of the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) to speak to South Dakota pastors. ..."

"...Gary McCaleb intends to reassure churches and pastors that they can and must speak to the relevant moral issues in our society, and that they can do so without any fear of jeopardizing their status with the IRS. ..."
As long as that is ALL the churches do, there should be no problem, but too many congregations on the right and the left side of the political spectrum seem to abuse the system. And neither the right nor the left seems to think it is THEIR problem; it's always the other side.

Years evenly divisible by 2 are always a problem when it comes to the truth, and when the year is also evenly divisible by 4, the amount of truth-telling drops to quadrennial lows.

I keep hoping the rhetoric will improve, but thus far have been disappointed every election cycle.

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Thursday, July 20, 2006

Why I will stay Presbyterian

Why I will stay Presbyterian:
(Presbyterian Outlook, free registration required)
by Marj Carpenter

"Many of you have heard me preach that I am “sinfully proud of being a Presbyterian.” After each General Assembly I ask myself “Are you still?” And the answer is always yes—even after attending 27 straight.

I never agree with all the decisions made, but I still come away Presbyterian. I’ve always been proud of our historic heritage in forming the United States. I know the break-aways always try to claim this “as well” but they can’t quite pull it off.

And all of you who have heard me know there is one thing I consider the most important of all – mission, mission, mission.

In our history we have been the Protestant denomination that opened the most mission fields. And we’re still doing it. We don’t always have the most missionaries out there but we go in first when it’s really tough. I only wish we could concentrate on that—taking the gospel into all the world, to all nations, including our own.

Many churches we have started around the world have a difficult time understanding some of the decisions we come up with at our Assemblies. That’s all right. I have a difficult time understanding them as well. But I am still Presbyterian and nobody will run me out of my church, which I firmly believe is still taking the message of Jesus Christ into the world. ..."
As usual, Marj Carpenter speaks her mind -- and she has earned the right to express her opinions.

She is one of two recent moderators who have distinguished themselves by their clear and effective support of Mission (the other is the immediate past moderator, Rick Ufford-Chase). While the two do not always agree on other issues, they are united in their advocacy for getting out in the world and following Christ. And I think both would agree that our effectiveness is adversely affected by all the things that divert us from mission.

Thank-you, Marj, for calling us back to our duties.

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Tuesday, July 18, 2006

On the day after adjournment

On the day after adjournment:
Presbyterian Outlook (free registration required)
"...Calvin goes on to argue that the quality of life of one’s fellow church members should not be the basis on which one decides whether to stay or leave the church. Speaking of those who would leave the church in offense over the behavior of others, he points to the Apostle Paul’s remarks in I Corinthians 5 and 11. He comments that “in thinking it a sacrilege to partake of the Lord’s bread with the wicked, they are much more rigid than Paul. For when Paul urges us to a holy and pure partaking of it, he does not require that one examine another, or everyone in the whole church, but that each individual examine himself.” (IV, I, 15). The theme of sections 17-22 of this chapter of Book IV is summarized as “The imperfect holiness of the church does not justify schism, but affords the occasion for the exercise within it of forgiveness of sins.” (Book IV, Section I). ..."
Joan Gray, moderator of the 217th General Assembly has posted a reflection on the aftermath of this year's meeting in Birmingham. In this short excerpt from the middle of her article, she calls on John Calvin to offer a suggestion on how to approach al this talk of apostasy and schism.

Reading this triggered some memories of my reading the Book of Confessions several years ago, and I went back to the Second Helvetic Confession, Chapter XVII, and located this:

WE MUST NOT JUDGE RASHLY OR PREMATURELY. Hence we must be very careful not to judge before the time, nor undertake to exclude, reject or cut off those whom the Lord does not want to have excluded or rejected, and those whom we cannot eliminate without loss to the Church. On the other hand, we must be vigilant lest while the pious snore the wicked gain ground and do harm to the Church. -- Book of Confessions 5.140
The section preceding the above quote likens the Church to a net that catches all kinds of fish (Matthew 13:47) or a field in which both wheat and tares are found (Matthew 13:24).

I sincerely hope and pray that the PC(USA) will not split over the PUP report, especially since so much that was good came out of GA 217.

We are not called to ignore problems in the name of "unity", but neither are we called to go through the field uprooting the weeds we see. We are to be vigilant and, as Calvin suggests, examine ourselves first, realizing that imperfection in the Church is not neccesarily grounds for schism.

Nearly 450 years ago there was near schism in the newly reformed Church, and the Second Helvetic Confession was a response to the charges and countercharges of heresy being hurled back and forth in the mid-1500s. The Church survived then, and the Church can survive today.

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Monday, July 17, 2006

Mainline denominations losing impact on nation

Mainline denominations losing impact on nation:
By Steve Levin, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The foot soldiers in some of America's greatest battles carried neither guns nor swords. Instead, armed with Bibles and faith in God's mercy, they prayed and marched and fought to end slavery, improve social welfare and establish civil rights.

Members of those churches, some of which became known as mainline denominations, were society's vanguard, shaping the country's culture and refining debate.

But those times are long past. Today, the opposite is occurring as secular culture defines mainline churches' dialogue on everything from social issues to politics and morality, tellingly shown this summer at the emotional and acrimonious national gatherings of the Presbyterian Church USA and the Episcopal Church.
Steve Levin has written a somewhat lengthy analysis of how the so-called mainline denominations have gone from being leaders in social change to allowing social pressures to define how they believe.

Ironically, the denominations that led the move toward the abolition of slavery and addressing other social justice issues did so out of a strong sense of where God was leading them. They could be described in today's terms as "evangelicals", although I suspect they would have considered themselves nothing more or less than followers of Christ.

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Sunday, July 16, 2006

Experiencing Life at the Margins - Christianity Today Magazine

Experiencing Life at the Margins - Christianity Today Magazine:
As a longtime friend and partner of North American Christians, what have you noticed about us?

One of the gravest threats to the North American church is the deception of power—the deception of being at the center. Those at the center tend to think, "The future belongs to us. We are the shapers of tomorrow. The process of gospel transmission, the process of mission—all of it is on our terms, because we are powerful, because we are established. We have a track record of success, after all."

Yet recently the Lord led me to an amazing passage, the encounter between Jesus and Nathaniel in John 1. Nathaniel has decided Jesus is a non-entity. Jesus comes from Nazareth, after all.

Nathaniel's skepticism comes from being in power, being at the center. Those at the center decide that anyone not with us is—not against us—[but] just irrelevant. "Can anything good come from Nazareth?" It doesn't warrant our time. But the Messiah is from Nazareth.

Surprise, Nathaniel!
This interview with the Rt. Rev. Dr. David Zac Niringiye, assistant bishop of Kampala in the Church of Uganda is an eye-opener, and a string reminder that Western Christianity is not necessarily where the Church is thriving.

In the early 1970s I recal hearing about missionaries from Third World countries coming to the United States to serve us. My reaction then was one of astonishment followed by condescension -- like seeing a child try to take on the mannerisms of an adult.

By the late 1980s and 1990s, I had grown sufficiently to be highly embarrassed when an Anglican prelate from one of the developed countries responded to an action of the 1998 Lambeth Conference (led mainly by Third World bishops) by saying that these were children in the faith, and that when their faith matured they would be more in line with their European and American counterparts. The particular issue, by-the-way, is still threatening schism in the worldwide Anglican Communion.

One particularly interesting part of this interview is the Rt. Rev. Dr. David Zac Niringiye's shifting of emphasis from the "Great Commission" (go into the world...) to the "Great Invitation" (come, follow me...).

Christianity is growing at its margins, and that may explain a lot about why the Church seems to stagnate where it has been established for a long time. It also is caution that what are now the margins may eventually become the stagnant center. Here is where the "Great Invitation" needs to be heard again and responded to -- and we can be thankful to our fellow Christians at the margins for calling us to follow Christ.

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Saturday, July 15, 2006

PC(USA) - News Service - Altogether in one place

PC(USA) - News Service - Altogether in one place:
"GULFPORT, MS — “It was visual Christianity in action,” said a team member describing her experience at Orange Grove Volunteer Village here. “It’s awesome how God has brought us together — Presbyterians from east and west to respond to real need.”

Orange Grove is one of six innovative volunteer villages launched by Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) in response to devastation left by category 5 Hurricane Katrina, along with Wilma and Rita, which followed close on her tail. ..."
Here is a timely reminder from Presbyterian News Service that even though we are in the midst of the 2006 hurricane season, that the work is not done with respect to the devastation of 2005.

Congregations, mission committees, and presbyteries need to keep thinking about disaster relief, even when no immediate disasters are looming, and keep sending work teams and dollars to assist in the Katrina/Rita cleanup efforts.

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Thursday, July 13, 2006

Blogging the Bible - Proof that God loves bald men! By David Plotz

Blogging the Bible - Proof that God loves bald men! By David Plotz:
"Some skeptical readers doubted that my Bible reading would last past Exodus. Oh, it's all thrills and giggles when you're dealing with the Ten Plagues and the Tower of Babel—but wait till you get to Leviticus! They mentioned "Leviticus" in the same hushed, terrified way that mariners mutter "Bermuda Triangle," or Hollywood executives whisper "Ishtar." Leviticus, I was warned, makes even learned rabbis weep with boredom, turns promising young Talmudic scholars into babbling US Weekly subscribers. What would it do to an amateur like me? ..."
Follow the link above, and find out why it can be inferred from Leviticus that God appreciated baldness...

David Plotz who is, in his own words, "a proud Jew, but never a terribly observant one.", picked up a Torah during a particularly boring bat mitzvah, and started reading the story of Dinah and her brothers. This convinced him that he was woefully ignorant of the foundation of his own faith, and resolved to do something about it. This series is the result. Plotz's May 16th post describes in greater detail what it was he set out to do, and why.

His style is witty, and he seems to have much less of an axe to grind than many Christian biblical scholars. Ordinarily I would not take any spiritual direction from someone who does not proceed from belief, but David Plotz has taken an interesting approach. He deliberately avoids commentaries, preferring to read it with fresh eyes and going with the plain meaning of the words he is reading (in many cases, for the first time). Like many who read the Bible, he is perplexed by many passages, amused by others, and suprised by what he has found.

I look forward to seeing his future postings.

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Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Advisory Opinion on PUP released

Quotidian Grace has a posting concerning the release Saturday of an advisory opinion from the State Clerk of our denomination

The opinion confirms that the outcome is subject to review, but goes on to ask that we give deference to the deliberations of ordaining bodies. What it ultimately boils down to is whether PJCs have the moral courage to do their jobs.

Does it clarify things? No. It leaves things pretty much where they have been. We have a long history of paying lip service to connectionalism, but only when we get our way.

Can we live with it? Why not? We have been living with it for many years. Sessions and presbyteries that have found connectionalism inconvenient will continue to ignore the constitution, regardless of the outcome of the PUP report. Permanent Judicial Commissions that have been disinclined to uphold the Book of Order will continue to be so. But the Church goes on -- and there are many PC(USA) congregations and presbyteries that provide a welcome for those with orthodox beliefs.

On a personal note, I have already made it clear that my threshhold for "peaceably withdrawing" is nowhere near being reached, and if that even became an issue for me there is one thing that would make it very difficult -- I cannot be a part of a denomination that tells women that their gifts for teaching, preaching, and leadership are not wanted. And, sad to say, in the Presbyterian tradition outside the PC(USA), women's gifts are denied with few exceptions. The Evangelical Presbyterian Church has local option, but the one in my community chooses not to excercise the option. We have no Cumberland Presbyterian Church where I live. So my choice is to stay.

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Tuesday, July 11, 2006

The Lure of Theocracy - Christianity Today Magazine

The Lure of Theocracy - Christianity Today Magazine:
As we flee decadence, we must watch where we step.
by Philip Yancey

"I recently attended a gathering called Sounds of Hope, which brought together Christian leaders from predominantly Muslim countries such as Egypt, Lebanon, and Jordan. Listening to their reports of life as a beleaguered minority in a turbulent region got me thinking about the interface between Christianity and Islam.

Several years ago a Muslim man said to me, "I find no guidance in the Qur'an on how Muslims should live as a minority in a society and no guidance in the New Testament on how Christians should live as a majority." He put his finger on a central difference between the two faiths. One, born at Pentecost, tends to thrive cross-culturally and even counterculturally, often coexisting with oppressive governments. The other, geographically anchored in Mecca, was founded simultaneously as a religion and a state. ..."
Here is a thoughtful piece on some of the historical differences in how Christianity and Islam developed, and why their approach to loving society seems so different.

This is a strong caution to those Christians who long for a society where the law enforces a single standard on all, and where dissent is not tolerated.

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Monday, July 10, 2006

Stunning unity … ambivalence

Stunning unity … ambivalence:

The Presbyterian Outlook (free registration required)
Three votes. Three stunning votes. A fourth stunning vote, too.

After months of relentlessly intensifying drumbeats pounding the threat of an impending split about to befall the PC(USA), 91% of this GA’s commissioners voted to stay together.

After two years of pitched conflict over the Presbyterian Church’s relationship with and advocacy toward Israel and Palestine, this GA proposed a new approach, and 94% of the commissioners voted their support.

After 30 years of wresting over ordination standards, after vote upon vote being adopted by narrow, sometimes paper-thin margins, the 217th General Assembly rejected an attempt to eliminate the fidelity-chastity ordination requirement with 81% support.

Those nearly unanimous vote counts were stunning.

One other vote, the most anticipated vote of the Assembly, stunned the Assembly by its close margin.
Jack Haberer, editor of The Presbyterian Outlook, has weighed in with some comments regarding the Peace, Unity and Purity Task Force report. As a member of the Task Force, he felt it necessary to avoid commenting in it in the Outlook while it was before the General Assembly, but such constraints are no longer in force.

His comments today are, as usual, worth reading.

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Sunday, July 09, 2006

Cyber-Savvy Pastors Blog When the Spirit Moves Them

Cyber-Savvy Pastors Blog When the Spirit Moves Them:

"Pastor Ben Arment spends several hours each week carefully preparing his Sunday sermon for the 100 members of History Church in Oak Hill. In contrast, he takes just minutes to jot down a few thoughts on faith for his blog; within 24 hours, his message has reached about 300 people. ..."
This is not the first out there, but the Washington Post has taken note of what is proving to be a significant and effective tool in getting the word out.

I suspect that with our recent experience with General Assembly blogging, as well as the many pastors and members who have some kind of presence in the blogosphere, that we are on the exponential leg of the curve. I sure hope the blog servers can keep up with the demand...

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Saturday, July 08, 2006

I'm Baaaack!

I returned home about 12:30pm today, and slept for four hours. Didn't check the blog. Didn't check email. Was out of cell tower range for nearly the entire 10 days. I didn't even listen to my mp3 player. Talk about a technology-free vacation...

Monday my son sat on my glasses, and I had to have my spare pair sent with a leader who was coming out the next day. What is the Boy Scout Motto? Be Prepared? At least I had a spare pair at home...

Today my son shut the car door while my thumb was in the door frame. My right thumb is a lovely shade of purple, but seems otherwise OK. It'll feel better once it stops hurting.

Liam felt awful. His words were "I did it again" (spoken in an anguished tone), but neither occurence was his fault. It was my carelessness, but at least it's nice that he was concerned.

I will be teaching Sunday School tomorrow and I brought my materials with me to camp, and actually had some time to deal with it. The topic is "Elvish Theology", based on The Silmarillion, Morgoth's Ring (Volume 10 of the 12 volume History of Middle Earth, edited by Christopher Tolkien) and two other books written by other authors. The History of Middle Earth is for hard-core Tolkien fans (or fanatics). It's a bit of a change of pace, but I hope it will be fun.

Well, it's off to dinner, and maybe a trip to Barnes and Noble.