Thursday, August 29, 2002

I'm swamped today getting ready to go away for the long weekend (so no more posts until next week). We'll be visiting family and trying to relax a bit--life has been crazy recently with sick kids and heavy work schedules. Maybe we'll even talk about how we can get our lives back to a level of sanity and more centered on Christ.

Let's all pray for travelers this weekend.

Wednesday, August 28, 2002

As Verus Ratio points out, today is the day the Church celebrates St. Augustine. To say that Augustine is one of the most important Church Fathers is to underestimate his influence. He is one of the great philosophers in world history: You'd be hard pressed to find an equally original and systematic thinker and author between Aristotle and Descartes. Long before I became a Christian, Augustine was one of my intellectual heros. I remember one semester in graduate school where I happened to be reading linguistics and Augustine at the same time, and for the life of me I couldn't see that linguistics had gotten beyond--or really even caught up wit--Augustine in over 1500 years.*

It's also worth noting that Augustine was from northern Africa, which means he is also probably the most influential thinker "of color" (to use the politically correct term) that the West (at least) has ever known. My pastor has asked me to lead a class on Augustine next February as part of "African History Month." I'm not sure what I'm going to teach yet, but I was thinking of taking the major heresies that Augustine attacked (as mentioned in the link above) and discussing how those heresies are still present today and what Augustine can continue to teach us about being Christian in a world that doesn't fully live the Gospel of Jesus.

* I realize that Jesus Christ qualifies as an original and systematic thinker "of color," but I rank Augustine this way because his writings survive to us. As far as we know, our savior didn't write. What he left behind in sayings is all that is necessary and sufficient for our salvation, but it clearly isn't all that he knows.

Tuesday, August 27, 2002

I realize that many people don't want to spend all month remember 9/11--or reading the Psalter, for that matter! So, I thought I'd point out the collection of ideas that Christianity Today has developed to help comemmorate the events of 9/11. They even have a few quotations from the Psalms to offer comfort.

As an update, both boys seem better today, though the younger one is still pretty cranky. I was exhausted last night, and thrilled when my wife came home. She'll be working late again tonight because she is taking both boys to a previously scheduled Doctor appointment (supposedly a "well" visit). I'm much more rested today, though, and look forward to spending time with the boys.

Monday, August 26, 2002

Like many people, I've been thinking about how to remember the attacks of September 11. I have so many feelings--some of them apparently conflicting--that for a long time I couldn't decide what to do. I also felt like I needed more than 1 day to explore my feelings, and to pray for victims, survivors and perpetrators (yes, I do plan to pray for those who attacked and want to attack my country). Sometimes, I felt like I needed a month. That is when it came to me: why not take the book that deals most effectively with conflicting feelings--Psalms--and read it during September? With that in mind, I've put together a schedule to read the entire Psalter in 30 days. I invite anyone who might be reading this to join me in commemorating the attacks of September 11 by reading the Psalms (and feel free to revise my schedule as you see fit):

I haven't attempted to impose any order other than making the readings roughly equal in length. I haven't attempted to put a "special" Psalm on 9/11 itself. I think the Psalms speak for themselves, and I hope you'll join me in letting them speak to us in September.
We thought we were out of the woods, but this virus is more persistent than we thought. On Sunday, my oldest son began running a fairly high temperature (around 103), and then that evening it peaked at 105. We called the doctor's service, and they had us get him into a cool bath to bring the temperature. We switched from acetominophen to ibuprofen, and after a few doses, his temperature was normal. It had crept back up to 100 early this afternoon, but we're keeping it down today. In the meantime, younger brother started back with the fever, and we're keeping a close eye on him to keep it from spiking. So we've got both kids home today. My wife kept them this morning and I went to work for half a day; now I'm with them and she'll probably be working late tonight (though if she's as tired as I am, she won't be working too late).

If there is any bonus to keeping kids home while they are sick, it's that I have a bit more time to read. I finished both Streams of Living Water by Richard Foster and Vertigo by W.G. Sebald. I highly recommend Foster's book for those who haven't read it. I like Foster's divisions of various traditions, and the book helped me to see where my strengths are and what areas I can work on as a Christian. I see myself mostly in the contemplative tradition (as Foster defines it), with some definite leanings in the social justice tradition. I need to work on incorporating the other 4 traditions more clearly in my life. However, I don't want to ignore my strengths either. Foster's book has a great appendix of brief biographies of various people who exemplify the traditions, and I've made a list of all the people he considers good examples of the contemplative tradition. That will give me a good reading list in spiritual development for years to come.

Sebald's book is unlike anything else I've ever read. I found it more humorous than I expected, but I'm still digesting just how I feel about it overall. Still, it's clear that his death late last year deprived the literary world of a unique and creative voice. Next up on my reading list: Operation Wandering Soul by Richard Powers and Calling and Character by William Willimon.

Saturday, August 24, 2002

Today is St. Bartholomew's Day, the day the chuch celebrates one of the least-known of the original disciples. So little is known of him, in fact, that there is some speculation that Bartholomew and Nathaniel are the same person.

Regardless of how poorly known one of Jesus' original followers is, the day celebrating him is well-remembered, though as one of the most infamous days in the history of the church. It was today, in 1572, that hundreds of protestants were killed by Catholics throughout France. Known as the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre (even though the assault lasted for several weeks), this sad event may have done as much to permanently split the Catholic and protestant causes as any other event except Martin Luther's 95 theses. On this sad day, I think we should all pray for God to aid all Christians who face persecution throughout the world, regardless of what denomination they follow.

A couple of side notes on today's short post. First, I have cited Catholic sources for the history of St. Bartholomew's day because I don't want this post to seem like it is bashing the Catholic faith. I am myself a protestant, but look on that event as a sad day in the Church's history, not just in the history of Catholocism. Secondly, I'd like to say my son is feeling better today. Praise God!

Friday, August 23, 2002

Day two at home with a sick child. His temperature is lower today, but still not quite normal. I'm sure he'll be better this weekend, as his appetite has already improved. The only down side is now I'm behind at work.

Depending on how much he sleeps today, I'll be spending some time with the letters of Peter. After all, if I'm going to seriously consider my call, I need to know the tough times as well as the rewards. If I have time, I'll post some thoughts on Peter's letters later today.

Thursday, August 22, 2002

I'm home with a sick child today. Actually, I made it into work and had to turn around and come back. He woke up feeling a bit feverish, but my wife thought he was feeling better, so she drove him to daycare. On the way there, he started vomiting. She has a very busy day, so I came home to relieve her. He's napping now, and I hope the worst is over.

I've taken the opportunity during his nap to spend some time meditating on my Lord. One of my favorite techniques is to close my eyes, slow my breathing, and then recite the Lord's Prayer by saying one word with each breath. As I say the word and breath slowly, I focus on it's meaning in the prayer and I try to picture that meaning in my mind. I find that it is a wonderful way to relax and slough off daily concerns and focus on God. I try to hear Jesus' voice as he taught the prayer to his disciples during my recitation, and just as importantly, I try to hear what the Spirit is telling me in between the words of the prayer.

Today, I think I hear him calling me more and more into ministry. I'm not sure what God sees in me that is cut out for ministry--or perhaps more accurately, I am not sure how God can overlook the obvious (to me) faults that should disqualify me from ministry. He knows better than I, though, and so in my meditation, I sought out the guidance of the spirit on how my gifts and my faults can combine into a successful life in ministry. I clearly don't have all the answers yet. I'm becoming more comfortable of recognizing my gifts as a teacher, with the strengths I have in patience, leadership, calmness and intellect. I think I am called to help lead people to a closer relationship with Jesus, through the classic disciplines and a deeper spirituality. Of course, that means I have to improve my own spiritual relationship with Christ, but that is something I will continue doing throughout my life, regardless of whether or not I am a member of the clergy. I still worry about all the sins I battle. I find particularly troublesome the "bodily" sins of the famous "deadly seven:" gluttony, sloth and (to a lesser extent) lustfulness often keep me from focussing fully on my Lord. I will continue praying for insight into how I can lessen my attachment to these sins and lead a life that is more conducive to successful ministry.

Anyway, that is a summary of the conversation I had with the Holy Spirit today in my meditation and prayer. If you've never tried this particular technique (I think I got it from Richard Foster), I highly recommend it. The first few times you try it, don't be surprised if you lose your place or forget the words of the Lord's Prayer! So much of our memorization is tied to the rhythm in which we say the prayer, that this method often disorients a newcomer to the technique. In truth, that is one of its strengths. The other pitfall to try to avoid is saying each syllable with a breath rather than each word. When you break up the syllables, it becomes harder to focus on the prayer. It's not a "mantra," rather it is a sincere prayer that we ask of God and take the time to focus on what it means and what the response to our prayer is.

Wednesday, August 21, 2002

Psalm 120 doesn't seem to get much respect, or even to be read much today. It is one of those psalms with vivid and violent imagery that make us uncomfortable. It's a shame to lose the psalm because of one verse, though, because it closes with one of my favorite couplets in the entire psalter:
Too long have I had my dwelling among those who hate peace.

I am for peace; but when I speak, they are for war!
Christian pacifists should find solace in these words, particularly in these days of the "war on terrorism."

These verses, though, are about more than pacifism. I cannot even count the number of times I've stepped into a situation hoping to be an arbiter, but only to be dragged into the battle. Even worse, there have been times that my efforts to make peace has only exacerbated the battle: when I have spoken, they have become even more committed to war.

I took my first role in my church's council this year as chair of the Outreach committee. I thought that there, of all places, would be a place where all could focus on doing the Lord's work for those in need without rancor or backbiting. We have certainly had some success this year, but we've also had our share of battles! One issue in particular has been particularly contentious. Our pastor feels he has a calling from God to lead our church into mission work in Antigua. He has made some contacts there and raised money to help build a new church for a young congregation. It's a project that combines a sense of calling, leadership, evangelism and outreach, so what could be controversial, right?

As it turns out, just about everything. Shouldn't we focus our efforts on local needs? Why Antigua? Why not another island? Another country? Another continent? Why not increase our support for the Algerian missionaries with whom we already have a relationship? What's the pastor's motive? Who is paying for all his trips down there? The list of questions is endless.

As chair, I think it is my responsibility to provide leadership on projects, but before we get to that point, to arbitrate between the many different good projects we could support. Sometimes, though, in trying to find that "middle way," people take any attempt to reach a compromise as an affront against the project they support. Usually we find some sort happy medium, but it feels like a fragile peace between meetings. I find that I wonder most about any ministerial calling I have when I am in council or committee meetings. How much do I want to be a voice for peace amid voices for war? I'm realizing that's part of the calling, and I think it's one of the reasons I find God's call so frightening.

Tuesday, August 20, 2002

As I was reading in John 5 today, a couple verses really jumped out at me:
"You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me; yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. " (5:39-40)
I think these verses caught my attention so much because they reminded me of something Richard Foster says in Streams of Living Water (which I've recently been reading). He makes the point that some people become so focussed on the Bible that they lose site of Jesus; they take the very good discipline of Bible study to such an extreme that they begin to worthip the Book instead of the Lord.

I've met a few people like this, and it appears to be a very difficult spiritual hurdle to overcome. These people aren't just literalists--though in my experience they always are among those who claim to "read the Bible literally"--they are people for whom the Bible has become the incarnation of God on earth. Rather than using the Bible to find Jesus (as the angels told Augustine), they use the Bible only to know the Bible. The Bible becomes an enclosed world upon which the "real world" as we know it cannot impinge or comment. These people seem to become more and more disconnected from the world even as they struggle to become more involved with it. What is sad, to me, is that they seem to lose connection with the Living Word as well. They think if they "believe" the Bible, they'll have eternal life instead of realizing that the Bible is only a sign pointing them to a greater belief--belief in the grace and saving power of Jesus Christ.

Monday, August 19, 2002

How do you develop a deeper prayer life? How can you grow closer to God through prayer as my friend L has done? Obviously, this is an ongoing issue for me, if not for every Christian, so any ideas I have are necessarily preliminary.

First, of course, it is important to pray. That should go without saying, but it is so easy to let prayer time slip by that I could go days if I didn't focus on making prayer a part of my day. For me, I use my commute time in the car as prayer time. That way, at least twice a day, five days a week, I know I'll be talking with God. I try to have other prayer time during the week and a different set of prayer times on the weekend, but my goal is to talk with God at least a couple times a day.

Second, we need something to pray about. For some people, what to pray about seems obvious, but I think L's story (from 8/18/02) shows us that even when the topic may be clear, the best method of praying is sometimes a bit more opaque. Sometimes, we may feel we have nothing to say to God or don't want to bother him with petty things. I think both of these reactions are wrong, but it is something I know that I face, and friends have told me the same thing. So how do I pray? I usually follow a method taught to me by the Pastor who baptized me. It's known by the acronym ACTS. Prayer is broken down into 4 sections:

This is a great format for praying because it not only helps me to remember the various parts to include in a prayer, but it also helps me to have something to say. Even more importantly, I think it helps me look at the world in a new way. Since I know I'll be singling out something in creation for praise, I look at the world and seek those parts of creation that I think are particularly praiseworthy. Since I know I'll be confessing my actions to God, I often think twice (or more often) about an action I'm considering. In this way, I feel like I'm closing to living a prayer rather than just reciting it.

I am trying not to let the form get too rigid. Some prayers may not need all the parts, and sometimes I may want to be in more of a conversation with God. In those cases, I let the form slide, but I at least try to remember that all the parts are important to building a relationship with God.

I end the prayer by reciting the Lord's Prayer. I do this for several reasons. First, Jesus gave it to us as an example of good prayer. Second, this keeps me from focussing solely on the Father in my prayers. In fact, I try to include the entire trinity when praying, but I think it is particularly important to include Jesus in my prayers. After all, many religions pray to a "god;" it's the fact that the Son of God came to earth to save us that sets Christians apart.

Sunday, August 18, 2002

Last night, as a surprise, C got a baby sitter for our kids and reserved a hotel room for us a few miles away. We went and had a room service dinner and just enjoyed each others company (not to mention a good night's sleep). Nights like that are such a blessing, because they reaffirm how important our relationship is and help us to nurture our love for each other. After all, our kids will only be living with us for twenty or so years, but we'll be living together the rest of our lives. It's a bit sad to think of our kids moving away--though that is many years off--but contemplating my future with C brings me nothing but happiness.

At church this morning, a member of the congregation (I'll call her L) got up to tell a story about her son. The story was not new to me, as L had been in a Bible study class with me, but the story moved me nonetheless. She started by telling us how her greatest fear was that she would outlive one of her children. She had managed to raise all her children to adulthood, but then last year her 25 year old son began feeling exhausted. Sometimes he would nap before driving 15 minutes to his parents' house for dinner, then fall asleep before dinner was over. After many tests, the doctors determined that he had a rare blood disorder where his red blood cells formed abnormally and died quickly. The prognosis was not good, as the desease is ultimately fatal. He went on medicine--Prednizone, I think she said--but had side-effects that were almost as bad as the disease.

Amid all this, L felt (quite understandably) a crisis in her faith. In particular, she felt that she was not getting anywhere with her prayer life. She kept asking God to help her son with his disease, to cure him, to help him feel better. She felt, though, that her words were bouncing off a brick wall. She called her sisters and asked them to pray, hoping that they would be more successful. Of course, she wouldn't have been speaking to the congregation if she hadn't made a breakthrough, and two things helped her make progress in her prayer life. The first was out minister, who prayed with her during communion and reminded her that Mary too had to sacrifice her son before his time. L knew that she, as Mary, would need to carry on with her life and her faith after her son passed away.

The second event, though, was an intervention directly from God. While praying, L heard a voice saying to her, "Why do you pray for a disease? Pray for your son instead." All of a sudden, L felt as though her words flew past that brick wall and directly to God. She began to pray for her son's spiritual life, and almost immediately she began to notice a change in him. He went off his medicine and was able to manage the symptoms with changes in lifestyle. More importantly, he became a more whole and more holy person. She described him as a better son, a better brother and a better friend than he had ever been. He still has the disease, but he has not let it defeat him. Ultimately, it will probably kill him, but he won't let it change the person he is.

I had tears in my eyes and a bulge in my throat the entire time she spoke. One side of it, of course, was my own fear about losing one of my children. But the other side was the emotion I felt at witnessing L's great faith. To hear her speak so openly of her relationship with the Lord, and how she prayed to him, made me realize how often I neglect my own prayer life. During our Bible class together, I regularly prayed for L and her family, but I let that slide since she left the class. I also know how often I let prayer be somewhat rote rather than speaking directly to God from my heart. I need to keep in mind L's example of how to persevere in prayer and how to cultivate a relationship with God where you can tell when God is directing your prayers.

Saturday, August 17, 2002

When Jesus met the Samaritan woman by the well, he did something completely unexpected: He spoke to her--and what is more--he asked her for something. He reversed the haughtiness that was inherent in Jewish-Samaritan relations and put himself in a position akin to indebtedness. Of course, he also offered something in return for the water she would draw him from the well--he offered her living water of eternal life and fulfillment in God. In response, the woman returns to her family and reports that she has met the Messiah.

I think of this story often in terms of my own calling. Jesus' call to the woman is to believe, to serve those in need, and the natural outcome of this call is for her to report what she has found to others. Why, then, is it so difficult for us, for me, to tell others about Jesus' love for us? Having tasted of the living water, why do I find it hard to give others directions to the well?

Friday, August 16, 2002

Have you ever tried to listen for that still, small voice in the wilderness?
Have you ever awakened in the middle of the night and wonder if someone just called your name?
Do you sometimes think you see, out of the corner of your eye, a bush engulfed in a non-consuming flame?

If so, then we have something in common. We are trying to hear God's call to us amid the tumult of everyday life. The process is called "discernment," and it is the attempt to ascertain God's will as it pertains directly to us...and then to respond and obey. It's a process that I have been struggling with since I became a Christian almost 2 years ago at age 33.

That's right, just as Jesus was finishing his life's ministry, I was entering into mine; at the same age that Christ died on the cross, I was reborn into the spirit. My conversion was not a "born-again" experience in the way that term is usually employed, but there is no question that I am yet a spiritual "babe in the woods." This journal is an attempt to listen more carefully in the wilderness, to contemplate and work through what I think he is telling me, and to follow the path he points out. If you are reading this, maybe we can help each other find our proper paths.

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