Thursday, June 27, 2013

Deathwatch: Google Reader has four days left!

     Three months ago, Google announced it was shutting down Google Reader, arguably the best RSS feed service on the web for collecting news from various sources that interest you. 

What is an RSS feeder and why should you care?

RSS feed button
     Most websites and blogs have this funny little orange button that links you to their RSS feed.  It’s basically a separate webpage that lists all their articles and a brief summary of each.  You can copy the shortcut to that page, enter it in an RSS feeder, such as Google Reader, and all your various sources are in one place.  You can put them in categories such as news, entertainment, computer, church, or anything you can think of.  You can have your daily news from a number of sources, and at the same time have a whole separate section that brings in articles about your favorite hobby.  This allows you to skim through a vast amount of material, focusing only on articles of interest.

Have you planned your escape? 

     The first step is to download your feeds so you can import them into another service.  Click here to find out how: “How can I download my Reader data?”   The next step is to find an alternative (See my reviews of other services and recommendations below.)

Why you need to set up an RSS feeder:

     Well-educated people used to have subscriptions to two
or maybe three newspapers and a handful of magazines, but with an RSS feeder like Google Reader, it is nothing for me, over my morning coffee, to scroll through news from the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, my beloved Washington Post, and what is charitably called a newspaper in my hometown Reno, Nevada.  I actually think it keeps you better informed because I can read an article about an event from the New York Times point of view, and then compare it to how other sources see it — I get a more well-rounded opinion.  Since we all have areas of specific interest, you can also tailor your feed to bring you news in specific areas.  Naturally, as a priest, I have an entire section that pulls from the religious columns in major newspapers, private blogs, magazines like Christian Century, and schools of divinity such as the one at Duke University — you just can’t collect that kind of broad information in any other way.

Why did Google murder Google Reader?

      There is the reason they’re giving, and what I believe to be the real reason.  Publicly they’re saying that they want to focus their resources, and that most people get their news through social media.  They want you to migrate to Google+ and get all your news there all jumbled together with your friends’ postings of the latest five hundred pictures of their cats.  While I will often discover an article because a friend recommended it on Facebook, it’s a pretty inefficient way to gather the kind of information I want to read.  My personal belief is the real reason they have ended Google Reader is they haven’t been able to monetize it — when you get to select articles from various sources, over which Google has no control, it’s tough to push ads.

So what are the alternatives out there?

     In my post in March, I surveyed the landscape of what was available immediately after Google’s announcement.  My recommendation was to hold tight — with Google Reader going out of business, it was likely other companies would step forward.  That has turned out to be the case.  Unfortunately, I would have to say the majority of the RSS feeders out there have simply stepped up their advertising without making any significant changes to their product.  The majority of them either are available only on a few platforms (Mac, but not PC; Mac and PC, but not on your smart phone; on your smart phone, but not Mac or PC, etc.) or they try to make money off you by limiting the number of feeds you can have, and then charging you a monthly fee.

My recommendation: Feedly

Feedly Android Menu
Feedly wins!
     As much as I hate going with the crowd, Feedly has been the front runner everyone has recommended all along.  Initially, I was put off by it because it was not a separate program, but an extension to the Firefox browser.  Now I have no objections to Firefox, but I didn’t want to go into a completely separate browser to read my news.  The other concern was Feedly was directly linked to Google Reader, and everyone wondered what would happen once Google Reader was shuttered.  They have corrected both these concerns just this last week by putting Feedly on the web for everyone.  You can find it here:  It also has a fantastic app for my Android phone that syncs seamlessly and apparently immediately between the web and my phone. My requirements for a replacement to Google Reader were it had to be available both on my PC and my smart phone… and, oh yeah, I wanted it for free.  I have not tested Feedly on an iPhone, but it has good reviews — perhaps someone with an iPhone who uses Feedly can post in the comments how it works for them.

Other services available:

Old Reader

     Since Google’s announcement of the end of Google Reader, there been a lot of services angling for the attention of the public.  Here are my reviews of other services I did in March with updates where appropriate:
  • Fever: Apple only; $30 for service.
  • Netvibes: This is the initial service I recommended.  I take it back… I really take it back… I repent of this recommendation in dust and ashes!  I used the service for months, putting up with it freezing constantly on my PC when I scrolled too quickly through articles, not working, not updating, or simply crashing on my smart phone.  It really doesn’t have an app for Android or iPhone, it’s just a really clunky webpage.  Don’t waste your time.
  • Newsblur: Only 12 feeds allowed, then you pay (Only 12 feeds? Really?!)
  • The Old Reader: Supposedly like Google Reader, but no Android app.  I eventually got this working, but it was slow as molasses both on the web and on my phone.  I eventually dumped it.
  • Pulse: Useless — Controlled from Android app; you can't import on the web or your PC; ten feeds fills up a category; I have more than that under almost every subject.
  • Taptu: Only allows up to 100 feeds from Google Reader.
      You too can become a more informed, well-rounded, and organized consumer of information by using an RSS feed service.  Now, I have to go to the hospital to give Google Reader last rites.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013


    Wow!  DOMA ruled unconstitutional and the Prop 8 appeal dismissed.  I have to say, I'm a bit surprised after yesterday's ruling on voting rights.  Perhaps we are beginning, in our own time, to understand what it means in our baptismal vows to "... respect the dignity of every human being."

     Now, let's take that same understanding and extend it to feeding the poor, housing the homeless, educating our children, and providing health care to everyone.  May this awaken compassion for all who are marginalized in our society.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Demons

Jesus then asked him, ‘What is your name?’ He said, ‘Legion’; for many demons had entered him.  — Luke 8
     In today's Gospel, Jesus heals the man possessed by many demons, and they are given permission to go into the herd of pigs, which then rush down into the sea and are drowned.  As one commentator has said, this is the first instance of what we have come to know as… “deviled ham."  Sorry, I had to say it.

     We can joke about it because all this talk about demons sounds like it belongs in another era, not in our modern time where we understand more about mental illness, and the biology of the brain, and psychotherapy.
     And yet, you have to think about how awful it was for the man who lost his mind and the community in which he lived.  He had a family, and a mom and dad, and one day life became too much for him.  Maybe he had lost his job.  Maybe he had lost someone he loved.  Maybe just the weight of the world had finally gotten too much for him, and he snapped.  He lost his mind.  To keep him from hurting himself or others, they'd even tried binding him with chains, but his insanity gave him freakish strength to break them, and so he haunted the cemetery, as it says in one of the parallel Gospels, a living ghost — cutting himself and crying out in anguish.  In their time, they had no words for this kind of thing, so the general explanation was it had to be demons.

     So why was Jesus even on this side of Galilee, among Gentiles, completely across the lake from his hometown of Capernaum?  No one knows.  Maybe Jesus and his followers needed to get away from Capernaum and the villages of Galilee for a rest.  This story follows the one of Jesus calming the storm, so maybe they had been driven off course by the storm.
     Then they arrive after a harrowing night, only to be met by this crazy guy.  The afflicted man obviously had enough of a "healthy self" left to be able to come to Jesus despite the voices in his head telling him to run away and hurt himself.  He was afraid Jesus had come out there to torment him, as his own mind had done, and as others in his community had done.  Maybe this happens also in our own experience.  We're reluctant to seek the help we need. Maybe it's from skepticism or from an unwillingness to acknowledge the need in the first place — so we ask to be left alone.  But instead, Jesus reacts with love and compassion.  The demons bargain with Jesus, and are permitted to go into the herd of pigs, but even pigs couldn't stand that kind of crazy, and they rushed headlong off a cliff into the sea.  And the man is healed. 

     The pig thing makes a great story, but maybe they're not the whole point of the story.  Maybe the point also isn't what exactly was wrong with the man.  So often in our society, folks who deal with depression, or bipolar disease, or any of a host of mental illnesses we now understand better, are still shamed and stigmatized.  Maybe we do that because we recognize that we ourselves get a little crazy sometimes. The weight of the world gets to be too much.  We get depressed.  We feel like we're losing our minds, and so we're scared of that in others.   Maybe the most important point is that Jesus didn't just have compassion on people who were physically sick or dying; Jesus understood and had compassion on people who struggled with any kind of terrible burden in their lives, including mental illness.
     While we can't know exactly what afflicted the poor man, we can learn something about the nature of evil.  We tend to spend most of our time talking about "good" in church. We don't like to label things as "evil" in our modern day.  But, evil is something that has some distinct characteristics:

     First, it is something that destroys your spirit, as it did for that man.
     Second, it is something that destroys community and compassion for others — he was forced out to the margins of his society.

     Third, it is out of touch with reality — he couldn't even deal with the reality of basic needs like wearing clothes for protection.
     Fourth, it is self-destructive — the guy lived among the tombs, and cut himself.

     And finally, it is something that requires God to step in and fill up a person's life, so all of the darkness can be driven out. God's love and compassion leaves no room for this kind of self-destruction, and destruction of others and our communities in our lives.
     So do we need to start looking over our shoulder, watching for a guy in a red suit with horns and a pitchfork?  Do we need to watch that movie The Exorcist again to get some tips on how to deal with this kind of evil?  Do we need to call our priest at home at two in the morning to come with holy water and exorcise a poltergeist out of our homes?  <<< Please, do not do that. >>>  No, while we all love a good scare, and this is very entertaining in a movie, the real truth is much more frightening.

     There is a country-western song by Garth Brooks that has a few lines in it that have always stuck in my head.  They go like this:
Driving by the graveyard on a wicked winter's eve, and you're wondering why a man of faith is whistling nervously.
Then you stop the car and you hold your heart  'cause you finally realize — The devil ain't in the darkness, he's wrapped around inside.  And with folded hands you truly start to pray...
     The more frightening truth is this capacity for destruction of the spirit, lack of compassion for others and destruction of community, and our capacity to be self-destructive is inside of each of us.  Even Mother Theresa once said, "I know that there is a Hitler inside of me."
     But that's not the Gospel. Here's the Gospel. Here's the Good News!  Two weeks ago, we heard about Jesus’ power to restore life as he raised the widow’s only son from the dead.  Death does not win.

     Just last week we watched Jesus’ power to forgive sins and free a woman while others judged and labeled her.  Jesus’ power of forgiveness, compassion, love, and mercy is greater than our power to condemn, label, and judge each other.

     Right before today’s Gospel reading, Jesus has power with a word to hush the winds and calm the storms in our lives.  Even natural disasters whether of nature, or the storms that sometimes rage in our own souls, cannot defeat us.

     Today, Jesus shows his power can set us free from whatever has shackled us, whatever has destroyed our community, whatever self-destructive impulses bind our souls.
     As the Apostle Paul said in Romans 8, nothing can separate us from the love and power of the risen Christ: Nothing we encounter in life or death, nothing in your past or in your life now, nothing that might happen in your future — no exceptions — everything we fear crumbles before the power of Jesus. The power to restore life, to forgive, to love, to heal, to create community, and to carry us through times we honestly didn’t think we could bear.  In Christ, the chains are broken, and all those personal demons that haunt us, are powerless.

     The Good News is that, even though that capacity for evil is within all of us, we are also born to goodness, we are born to love, we are born to show compassion.  And that when we cannot do it all on our own… and we rarely can… God is not far away. God's not hiding.  God is searching for each and every one of us.  We think God is far off because we are so immersed in our own fear and troubles.  But, God says to you and to me in the words of Isaiah 65: “Here I am, here I am”  Our loving God is not just the great I AM. Our loving God is also the great "HERE I AM!"
     Friday, June 20, we had the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. The day on which we had the most sunlight!  In Reno we had about fifteen hours of daylight!  But I wonder, how many of us were trapped in our own worries and problems, fighting our own personal demons, and we didn't even notice.

     We had a phenomenon known as the super Moon last night, and we'll have it again tonight. This full moon is not only the closest and largest full moon of the year. It is also the moon’s closest encounter with Earth for all of 2013. The moon will not be so close again until August 2014. In other words, it’s not just a Supermoon. It’s the closest Supermoon of the year!  But how many of us will forget to look up into the night sky to see this miracle. this wonder of our natural world?
     The great American writer Henry David Thoreau described this well when he said, "We linger in winter when it is already spring."

     Just so, in our lives, we forget that God's love and light is all around us, not just 15 hours, but 24 hours a day. And if we'll just look up from our own troubles and care for each other, we’ll see miracles.  The chains are broken, our fears are banished, and we are free.