Monday, September 30, 2002

In my August 26 post, I set as a goal to read the entire book of Psalms during the month of September, and I included a schedule. This goal was my way of commemorating the events of 9/11--a way that I thought would make the event less media-focussed and more God-focussed and that would help me deal with all the emotions I felt after that day. This morning, as I sipped my cup of coffee, I finished Psalm 150 and completed my goal.

I have to say that living with and praying the Psalms like this has been a wonderful experience. At first, I found some of them overwhelming. There seemed to be so much focus on the psalmist's enemies--and perhaps paired with the 9/11 thoughts that were always in the back of my mind--that I almost gave up. But then God started helping me hear how much praise and happiness there is in the Psalms. Even the ones about suffering setbacks and attack often have a tone of confidence and happiness. I also began to realize how much a normal day was like a series of Psalms. In any given day, there are ups and downs, setbacks and advances, good times and annoying times. Most days, of course, just balance out--they are neither horrific (like 9/11) nor wonderful (like the day I got married). The psalms, though, help me to see how a life of constant prayer could be lived. Instead of anger at the person who is trying to dictate my priorities without knowing my other tasks, I can seek God's solace and comfort. Thus rather than stewing and eventually deciding to "get over it," I can praise God's hand in my life and ask for his help in forgiving. Similarly, instead of patting myself on the back for jobs well done, or gloating over some situation where I was proved correct, I can praise God for his aid in my life and offer up to him the kudos I receive for my work. This month, the Psalms were transformed for me from being only poems about extraordinary times in our lives to also being prayers that help us through everyday struggles.

Reading the entire Psalter in a month is an easy goal. If you're considering it, feel free to use the schedule I linked to above. It takes less than 30 minutes a day, but I bet you'll notice the effects for much longer.

On a completely unrelated note, I'm disgusted by this article which happens to be set in my hometown (though it could occur anywhere). What is the world coming to when we now have a category of foods known as "extreme junk foods"?

Sunday, September 29, 2002

I made a major change today on my page, but my guess is that most people won't see it. It isn't a change in design, or in focus, or in style. But down on the lower left portion of the screen where I list my current reading, I changed one character. I went from Kenneth Latourette's History of Christianity, Vol. 1 to Vol. 2. That may seem minor to many, but that single-character change marks months of reading. I've been nibbling at Latourette's history, reading just 3 or 4 pages a day during breakfast. After several months of breakfasts--and six hundred and some odd pages--I find myself on the verge of the Protestant Reformation. Obviously, I wouldn't have kept this up if I didn't enjoy it, and I find Latourette very readable, and his approach to such a large-scale history to be interesting and helpful. His rough division of the history of Christianity into periods of vigorous growth and periods of torpor or even decline are quite interesting. I've also learned quite a bit about the Orthodox churches or the East, which Latourette does not ignore or undervalue. I'm looking forward to breakfast tomorrow to start in on the era of Reform.

Saturday, September 28, 2002

Earlier this week, a mistake I made led me to some genuine blessed moments. Let me explain. I am an avid reader, so much so that if I'm not doing something else, I'm probably reading. It doesn't matter if it's a novel of the ingredients listed on a shampoo container, I'll read it if it is visible. But one day this week, in my hurry to get out of the house and on to work, I left without my briefcase. I could survive the day without some work papers, and my lunch would be good for the next day, but what, I wondered, was I going to read? I spend about 35 minutes on the Metro...how could I possibly go that long with nothing to read?!

I thought about my options: I could turn around and go home to get my stuff, and be an hour late for work; I could scrounge up 25 cents among the debris under my car seats and buy a paper; I could read over someone's shoulder surreptitiously. Then it came to me. I could spend that 35 minutes in prayer and meditation. So that's what I did. I recited the Lord's Prayer, saying one word per breath, as I focussed on Jesus and his work in my life. I gave thanks to God and sought his guidance. Most of the time, though, I tried to sit quietly and invite the Holy Spirit to come into me and fill me with God's love and mission. My mind wandered often, and I was disturbed by the announcements on the loudspeaker, conversations from other passengers, and the general bustle of the morning commute. But 3 times during that commute, for a few seconds, I felt entirely filled by the Holy Spirit. A smile passed onto my lips, the hair on my neck stood up, and I felt completely at peace. I knew during those few seconds that God was with me always, and that he would not abandon me or leave me without gifts in the calling that he has ordained for me. As we pulled into my station, I praised God for the Holy Spirit's visit and asked that he continue to help me hear his call. I also asked that I could continue developing my spiritual life to an extent where I could feel the Holy Spirit's presence within me for several minutes (or even longer!) before my distracted nature focussed on some piece of ephemera.

If you have yet to experience the Holy Spirit in this way, I invite you to pray to God about helping you along this path. It was one of the most fulfilling experiences I can recall.

Friday, September 27, 2002

As I've noted here before, I'm part of a team that will be teaching the High School age Sunday School class at my church this year. Our materials were backordered, but they came in last week. So this week we start our class "officially." We're beginning a 4 week session on Covenant, and our porition of scripture is right from the beginning: Adam and Eve. We'll be asking our students to look at the story analogically and asking questions like "what situation in your life is like this story? Who or what were the Adam, the Eve, the Serpent and the Apple?" I'll be interested to see how such questions work...I'm not sure yet how I'll answer in my own life.

We'll also be walking in a Leukemia Society Light the Night march in our area this weekend. The youth in our church our sponsoring this as well, so it will be a weekend of service focussed on the wonderful young people in our church. Now, I just hope the forecasters are correct and the weather clears up in time.

Wednesday, September 25, 2002

"Does it count as patience if I just restrain myself from anger?"

My wife asked this question (or words to this effect) last night as our three-year old protested going to bed. I've been thinking about them ever since. There's the old cliche, "patience is a virtue," but are patience and self-restraint the same thing? On the one hand, Galatians 5:22-23 lists them as separate fruits of the spirit. On the other hand, Paul seems to equate God's patience with the restraint of his anger in Romans 9:22-24. Does anyone have any guidance on the difference between patience and self control?

There is so much to pray about today, but for any who didn't hear, seven Christians working at the Peace and Justice institute in Pakistan were murdered yesterday. Please pray for their families and friends, and please pray for an end to religious violence in that area of the world.

And if you haven't read this entry on Sainteros, please do. It's a very thoughtful and thought-provoking meditation on "affection."

Tuesday, September 24, 2002

O God, You Who are the Truth, make me one with You in love everlasting. I am often worried by the many things I hear and read, but in You is all that I long for. Let the learned be still, let all creatures be silent before You. You alone speak to me.
--The Imitation of Christ

I need to be more silent--both in my head and in my mouth--and to listen more carefully to the Lord.

Monday, September 23, 2002

All that time I spent in the kitchen on Saturday paid off...I took home First Prize in my Church's Young Adult group-sponsored Chili Cookoff. We had 12 entries--the most we've ever had--and there were some very good ones in the group. I'm pleased to have one, but I'm even more pleased that we raised quite a bit of money and collected quite a bit off goods for the Arlington Food Assistance Center. Like many food banks, need is up and donations are down, and I'm proud of the Young Adults in my church for helping out this worthy cause.

Saturday, September 21, 2002

Whew! Yesterday was one of those days at work that make me wonder why I just don't try subsistence farming. Exhausting. But I was revitalized a bit by a church dinner last night, where I discovered a friend is also interested in pursuing ministry. I'm excited to have someone to share and discuss this process with who is going through a similar feeling of the Lord's calling.

Today, I'll be spending some time cooking up a batch of chili for my church's Young Adult Chili Cookoff tomorrow, and I need to pull out the chainsaw to cut some large limbs that fell in our yard yesterday. And, of course, I'll be playing with my boys. We have already blown bubbles and played soccer on this lovely, end-of-summer day.

Thursday, September 19, 2002

Yesterday, I finished reading Richard Powers' Operation Wandering Soul. The more I read of Powers' work, the more I believe that he is a writer people will be studying a century from now. While I don't think this novel is quite as good as Plowing the Dark, it is still better than most contemporary novels I read by several orders of magnitude.

The plot follows a doctor named Kraft who is in rotations and serving as a surgeon in a children's ward in a poor section of Los Angeles. Most of the action concerns him and his interactions with Linda--a physical therapist and his love interest--and several patients, including mostly Joy Stepaneevong, a refugee on whom he operates. Kraft is as mentally wounded as his patients are physically, and is near a breakdown through most of the novel. His psychological situation is partly explained by his surroundings and partly by extended flashbacks into his childhood. He was raised in several different countries where his father was apparently part of raising instabilities for the U.S. government. As a result, Kraft has almost no sense of connectedness to anything. Amid all this, Powers weaves allusions to virtually every story involving children--from historical events like the Children's Crusade and the evacuation of London to fictional works like Peter Pan and the Pied Piper of Hamelin.

Stylistically, Powers writes lush, vivid prose. If your ideal prose writer is Hemingway, with his spare and well-honed sentences, then Powers isn't for you. He is more like John Barth or even Sir Philip Sidney than plain style authors. Here's a representative passage, in which Powers describes Kraft and how someone who likes post-modern fiction has latched on to him:
Something about him must emanate this Mr. Potato Head plasticity. Chief of Surgery Burgess, dying a slow, half-century death in this city where reading span is sorely stretched by the instructions on microwave popcorn, instantly imagines that in Kraft he has found a kindred literate spirit, a simile son. Dr. Purgative, as Plummer rechristens him, keeps farming out these convoluted, epistemological novels by Kraft's obscure, young contemporaries. Plow through and report on, over sherry this afternoon, a postmodernist mystery thicker than the Index Medicus where the butler kills the author and kidnaps the narration. Damn thing includes its own explanatory Cliffs Notes halfway through, although the gloss is even more opaque than the story...

That combination of stylistic virtuosity and dead-on humor is Powers' signature, and to my mind he writes this brand of fiction as well or better than anyone writing today.

Tuesday, September 17, 2002

Continuing from yesterday and last week, I'm going to discuss another paper available at Pulpit & Pew. Today's provocative article, "Market and Mission: Competing Visions for Transforming Ministry'"
takes the following as its thesis:
The most pervasive logic or vision for ministry today is shaped by the market and the values of consumerism rather than by the gospel of Jesus Christ. The global market economy has become the dominant god of the modern world, not the vulnerable, liberating and suffering God of the Exodus and of the Cross. The myths, rituals, and methods of the consumerist driven market have now invaded the church, been baptized by the church, ritualized by the church until the message of the gospel is so filtered through the consumerism of the global market that the Gospel of Jesus Christ itself has become another commodity to be exchanged for self-fulfillment, personal success, institutional advancement, and now even national security.

Bishop Kenneth Carder opens this paper with trumpets blaring, and he doesn't let up. I strongly encourage you to read the entire paper (it's only 9 pages long) to get his argument in detail.

Briefly, Carder points out how the church has gone astray. One way he does this is by distinguishing between the assumptions of the market as opposed to those of the Gospel. Take this gem, for example: "The market logic presumes scarcity while the gospel presumes abundance when the righteousness of God is present." How often do we say, "we can't" because of a market mentality instead of saying "let's try" with a heart and mind centered in the gospel? To Carder, the church that embraces the market over the gospel gives into the quick-fix, entertainment as salvation, commodified culture instead of being a light on the hill that draws people out of such a pit of despair.

Carder then describes what a church with a gospel-centered ministry would look like. As he rightly points out, that we even have to ask this question shows how far we have strayed. For him, "the church with a future is the church that knows who Jesus is, takes with utter seriousness what Jesus says, goes where Jesus goes, does what Jesus does, and loves those whom Jesus loves." Thus, instead of building spacious, lovely churches in the suburbs, we should be reclaiming the delapidated churches of the poor cities among the people with whom Christ would walk. Instead of measuring success by market devices--membership levels, salary, career goals--we shoud strive to be servants as Jesus was a servant.

Finally, Carder offers a brief blue print for how to turn from a market-oriented church to a gospel-oriented one. He sees a need for a serious critiquie of current church practices and habits, including such things as the compensation model for clergy, the design of worship services, building programs, etc. Without this critique, Carder does not see how we can return to a gospel-focussed, missionary church. To me, the alternative--staying a market church--leads only to obsolescence. After all, the market is designed to replace the old with the new continuously. We need to take steps to prevent Christianity from becoming last year's fad.

Monday, September 16, 2002

Today, I thought I'd reflect briefly on another paper available at Pulpit & Pew. This one is entitled "Wesley's Prescription for Making Disciples of Jesus Christ: Insights for the 21st Century Church." As you can guess from the title, the author argues that Wesley's ideas in 18th century England and America apply well in the problems facing the church today. One of Wesley's major concerns is that while there were many "nominal" Christians, there were very few "real" Christians in his day. Does that sound familiar?

Without re-hashing the entire argument, Randy Maddox (the author) argues that for Wesley, making disciples of Jesus Christ involves three major emphases, and he saw all of them lacking in the church around him:

Wesley saw these steps as a process that each individual must go through to become a disciple of Jesus. First, each person must learn sound doctrine. Wesley does not say that they must learn those doctrines in a traditional church setting--after all, he preached in the fields--but he does see as lacking qualified teachers of sound doctrine. Of course, what Wesley means by "sound doctrine" is also important: he does not mean the kind of advanced theological questions that divide many congregations (e.g., transubstantiation); rather he refers to the ecumenical beliefs that most if not all Christian churches believe. To become a disciple of Christ, one must learn and accept those doctrines.

The second item, "regular participation in the means of Grace" is an interesting one. For Wesley, we are saved only through God's prevenient grace working in us. However, Wesley believed that it was each person's responsibility to work with grace in order to find salvation. For Wesley, a sinner cannot save himself, but he can damn himself through refusal to work with God's grace. So, Wesley finds it important for discipleship that every Christian take part in the means of grace. This includes the sacraments, habits often associated with the "spiritual disciplines" (fasting, etc.), and what many would call "good works." For Wesley, good works are more than a mandate from the Lord to serve the needy. For Wesley, performing good works is good for us, as it makes us vessels of God's grace.

The last item, self-denial, is one Wesley saw as almost non-existent among Christians in his day, and things haven't gotten much better in the almost 3 centuries since then. For Wesley, a disciple of Christ must deny himself because failure to do that is to become part of this world rather than part of the Kingdom of God. Wesley did not believe that salvation was something that only happened after death; a true disciple of Christ lives a sanctified life now, in the present, and thus is already (at least partially) in God's kingdom.

From these three points, then, Maddox argues that churches need to teach sound doctrine and then strongly encourage parishioners to partake of the means of grace and encourage self-denial. These may not be the popular messages to send, but I think they are the ones that need to be told.

Sunday, September 15, 2002

I had my first "solo" class with my Sunday school class. My partner was out of town this weekend, so I handled the class by myself. We had nine high school kids show up--and we only had 3 last week! It was a great turn out. And I think we had a good discussion. We talked about getting closer--or moving away--from God. Our texts were Mark 14:17-31 and John 21:15-19. These verses recount Peter's denial of Christ and Jesus' repeted question to him "Do you love me?" We looked at Peter's feelings and then how Jesus sought out Peter to bring him back into the fold. I think they saw that, and then at the end I tried to turn the discussion to how we need to focus all our activities on God, to show our love of Christ in all that we do, and to realize that even when we fail, Jesus will be there to draw us back to him. All we need to do is let him.

Thursday, September 12, 2002

Yesterday I was home half a day with a sick child, and during his morning nap I finished reading William Willimon's Calling and Character. It's a book about clergy ethics, but Willimon does not take the normal path of ethical discussion, trying to determine right and wrong actions, setting up situations and discussing the ethical choices involved. Instead, for Willimon, ethics in general and clergy ethics in particular are all about one's relationship with the Lord. Rather than asking "what should I do?" in a given situation, Willimon argues that we need to ask "Who am I to be?" This doesn't seem like an earth-shatteringly original thesis, but in the legalistic world in which we live, it's refreshing to see someone focussing on the Big Picture rather than on the quotidian minutiae of finely split hairs.

For Willimon, an ethical life comes from habits of biblical study, submission to the will of God and the church, living in community with one's flock and one's colleagues, bearing the crosses of ministry faithfully and patiently, and developing a humble sense of humor in one's ministry. This last one is interesting, because he isn't calling on ministers to be entertaining (though that might come through the use of humor); instead he encourages ministers to develop a sense of irony and satire that serves the counter-cultural calling of the church. In other words, we should develop a sense of humor like Jesus'. After all, if the Church cannot highlight the foibles and follies of modern life, then what institution can?

It was in reading this book a few nights ago that I had my first "dark night of the soul" on my ministry inquiry quest. In reading about all the failures and temptations to which ministers are subject--none of which were new to me--I found myself severly doubting my ability to answer God's call. Can I live up to these standards? Can I possible not fail? Then I realized--after a night's sleep--that God would not call me into a quest if he were not going to equip me for it as well. Of course I know that I will fall short--perhaps often--but I also know that a loving and forgiving God will be there to help me move beyond those failures. I also know that his will cannot be thwarted, and so despite my failures, God's will will be done.

Wednesday, September 11, 2002

I know many people in the Christian Blogging community today are on a media fast. I am not on a specific media fast--obviously, since I'm posting today--but I'm also not a media hound, and it wouldn't be out of the ordinary if I never turned on the TV anyway. Also, I'm home at least 1/2 of today with a sick child (again), so if the TV were to come on, it would not be a channel carrying images of crumbling buildings. Like most people, I can replay those images in my head whenever I want (and sometimes when I don't want). I am on a more traditional fast today instead, and I'll be spending as much time as I can in prayer and reflection.

I was reminded yesterday that suffering doesn't pause or have a quota or limit. As most of the country--perhaps even the world--is focussing on the events of a year ago, a co-worker of mine is fighting for her life. She is in intensive care, suffering from a brain anyeurism. Across the world, families and individuals are suffering through their own pain that is completely separate from the attacks of 9/11/01. I pray for them as well as for the families of victims of last year's attacks.


Monday, September 09, 2002

Though this doesn't qualify as "breaking news," I wanted to talk about some papers I found at Pulpit and Pew. There are a series of interesting articles on Pastoral leadership at their site, and I thought over the next few days or so I'd highlight some of the findings or arguments in those papers.

The first paper involves a survey of over 3000 U.S.religious leader. While the results are just preliminary, there were a few interesting--and perhaps surprising--results:

Satisfaction with Ministry

Given all the talk of dissatisfaction and burnout among American clergy, I'm surprised at these numbers.

Aspects of ministry that are satisfying and unsatisfying

The list of what is unsatisfying contains a few obvious items and a couple surprises. In this context, "unsatisfying" means fewer than 50% of the respondents said they were satisfied with this part of their ministry.

It is these last two items that really surprise me. From my vantage point, if a member of the ministry is dissatisfied with his/her spiritual life, then they are neglecting one of the most important aspects of ministry! I cannot see how one can be an effective minister without feeling a closeness with God, a satisfaction with one's life of prayer, and (at least from a Christian perspective) without feeling the assurance of God's saving Grace.

Perhaps it is this lack of spiritual satisfaction which leads ministers to doubt their overall effectiveness. The authors cite the fact that (among Christians), about 70% think that reaching people with the Gospel of Christ is the biggest challenge they face (well, Christ told us that would be the case). In any case, does anyone else see a disconnect between most clergy being overall happy in their calling while less than half feel effective?

Much food for thought, here. It will be interesting when all the results are tabulated and reported.

Sunday, September 08, 2002

Praise the Lord!

I just feel great this morning. I've returned from Church where I met (some) of my Sunday School students, and where my oldest son attended the first Sunday School class of his young life. In my class, only 3 high school students made it (and there were 4 of us teachers!). We talked about Psalm 5 and talked about morning devotions. Not surprisingly, none of our students took any time in the morning to praise God or even to spend time with Him. We got them to make a resolution to try to spend a couple minutes each morning in prayer. Even if it is just while they are brushing their teeth, we want them to spend a moment acknowledging and speaking with the Lord. They agreed, and then after class, they ran into a few of their friends and gave them a hard time for not coming. We told a few about the plan for the week, so I hope by next Sunday, we'll have a few more people and talk about how the week went. We'll also (I hope) have our materials: we are using Bible Quest Bookmarks.

Friday, September 06, 2002

I had a great conversation with my pastor last night. First, he seemed to validate my sense of calling, saying that in his experience the persistence and longevity of a sense of calling is often a sign of authenticity. Second, he really allayed my fears about lifestyle issues, particularly raising a family as a pastor. I don't think he "sugar-coated" a pastoral life, but he helped me to realize that God would not ordain a calling that was contrary to family life, since family life is the model on which our salvation is built. He gave me some steps to follow, so the ball is still in my court. Now, I can run with it.

The dinner with the Sunday School teachers was good too--well, the food was delicious, actually. The meeting itself helped to energize me, though I have a feeling that my team is not quite as organized as some of the others. Still, I think we'll have a good time getting to know the teenagers and helping them come to a better understanding of God's Word. Please pray for us, and for all Sunday Schools, as we start a new year this Sunday.

Oh, yeah, Go 'Skins!

Thursday, September 05, 2002

I'm not quite so far behind on my Psalm reading, but I'm still not quite where I thought I'd be by now. Still, I am so grateful to God for the words of encouragement and hope that fill the Psalms that even if it takes me more than a month, I won't chastize myself too harshly. Just living with these words during this difficult month is a blessing. Take, for example the closing of Psalm 10:
Thou dost see; yea, thou dost note trouble and vexation, that thou mayest take it into thy hands; the hapless commits himself to thee; thou hast been the helper of the fatherless. Break thou the arm of the wicked and evildoer; seek out his wickedness till thou find none. The LORD is king for ever and ever; the nations shall perish from his land. O LORD, thou wilt hear the desire of the meek; thou wilt strengthen their heart, thou wilt incline thy ear to do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed, so that man who is of the earth may strike terror no more.
It may have taken 9/11 to convince us, but aren't we all among the hapless? We can give ourselves so little protection against the "man of the earth" who wants to fill us with terror, but with God strengthening our hearts, justice is guaranteed! Praise the Lord, King for ever and ever!

Wednesday, September 04, 2002

Finally back from our long weekend with family. We had a wonderful time: the weather was perfect, there were no family squabbles, and we even managed to relax.

Until we tried to go home, anyway.

Our flight was scheduled for Monday afternoon (on an airline that will remain nameless), but just before boarding, they determined that a lighbulb on one wing had burnt out. Apparently, to change a lightbulb one has to send for a mechanic from the other side of the city, so 30 minutes later, work begins on the offending lightbulb. Upon opening up the panel, the mechanic "saw something else that concerned him" (said the ticket agent), and so after another hour of considering, they cancelled the flight. I shouldn't complain too much--if God kept us off a plane with mechanical problems, then praise be to Him--but I am very cynical when it comes to the airlines.

So, the airline put us up for the night in a hotel. Unfortunately, our oldest son had started coughing that afternoon, and had a full-blown cold by evening. I don't think my wife and I slept a total of two hours that night--to say nothing of my sick son--but I am thankful that babies tend to sleep heavily: our one-year-old made nary a peep all night long.

Once we got to the airport the next morning, we found out the flight was delayed again...this time because of a delay in Baltimore. So instead of leaving at 11:00 and getting in at a reasonable lunch time, we left at 12:30 and skipped lunch entirely. We didn't get home until 2:30...about 24 hours after we left. It would have been faster to drive.

All things considered, though, it was still a great trip, and I'm glad we went. Of course, I'm already behind on my psalm reading schedule, but I'll catch up sometime during this busy week. Maybe a bit tonight and tomorrow morning. Tomorrow evening will be busy...I'm finally talking to my pastor about my call into ministry, and then I have a dinner with the Sunday School teaching staff. I've volunteered to help with the High School class, so I'll be working out schedules and plans with my co-teachers tomorrow night. I'd appreciate any prayers for my conversation with my pastor and for God's guidance in Sunday School this year.

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