Friday, February 28, 2003

Never let it be said that I cannot take a hint.

As I've mentioned before, I'm part of a "mutual accountabilty" group that is often know by the name "covenant discipleship" in the Methodist church. We have a covenant with a series of clauses by which we try to live our lives each week. One of those clauses is that we will seek to take Communion more often than the monthly schedule of our church.

During the first part of this week, I was in Chicago on business. My hotel was 6 blocks from my office: 3 blocks north and 3 blocks east. Anyone familiar with a city grid system knows that there are myriad paths I could take to get to the office in the morning. My general plan was to walk west until I came to a "do not walk" sign at an intersection, then turn south and thus generally wind my way to the office. Wednesday was my last day in the city, so that morning I left the hotel with my briefcase over my shoulder, my bag in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other.

As I wended my way to the office, I found myself approaching the Chicago Temple, which is the home of the First United Methodist Church of Chicago. Out front they had a sign "Come take Communion on Wednesday mornings from 7:30 a.m. - 9:00 a.m." I checked my watch and it was 8:45 a.m. So I went in.

In new situations like this, my introversion really takes over. If I'm with someone else, I rarely have a problem, but alone I begin to worry that I'll do the wrong thing. It sounds silly even writing about it. But I went into the Narthex and looked into the sanctuary. A minister sat down front at the communion rail. Two people sat in the pews: one was clearly asleep; the other appeared to be praying, but it wasn't obvious from my angle. I wasn't sure what to do. I felt certain the Holy Spirit had led me to this church to take Communion and yet I had almost talked myself into leaving. Just then, another person entered the narthex, walked into the sanctuary and went right up to the communion rail.

That was the push I needed. Now I knew "what to do." I went in, set down my bags and my coffee (carefully) and went to the rail and knelt beside my unknown guide. The pastor gave us the bread and the cup, and then she shared a prayer with us. Afterwards, she passed the peace to each of us, and we left. I never spoke to the woman who came in and showed me "the way," and she'll probably never know how the Spirit used her that day to help me. But I have been blessing her in my prayers ever since.

Monday, February 24, 2003

In the Anglican/Episocpal church (and maybe others) today is the day we remember and celebrate Matthias, the apostle who replaced Judas. The Collect from The Book of Common Prayer reads:
Almighty God, who in the place of Judas chose your faithful servant Matthias to be numbered among the Twelve: Grant that your Church, being delivered from false apostles, may always be guided and governed by faithful and true pastors; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
I have often wondered about Matthias and how we are similar to him. Like Matthias, we are called to fill the ranks of the apostles, not only where another has failed or stumbled, but also to increase the ranks of the faithful. Matthias had long been a follower of Jesus, but after the Lord's death and resurrection, he was called to go further, to commit himself more deeply, and to become one of the leading examples of Christ on Earth. I think there is something for all of us in the story of Matthias: we can all commit ourselves more deeply to Jesus.

Friday, February 21, 2003

Earlier this week, I finished Kenneth Boa and Robert Bowman's Faith has its Reasons. It bills itself as a handbook of apologetics, and at times it seems like a textbook. In the end, though, I think the authors would agree that it is (to use a word from the book) a metapologetic: it is about apologetics rather than an example or even a summary of apologetics.

The authors divide apologetics into 4 broad classes: The classical (which uses deductive logic); the Evidential (which uses inductive proofs); the Reformed (which relies on Transcendental arguments; and the Fideist (which uses indirect arguments and may not be an apologetic at all). The authors are quick to point out that few people fit neatly into any one category. In the final section of the book, they attempt to move toward an integrated approach that capitalizes on the strength of each model.

I would have gotten more out of the book if they had given more thorough examples of how these various apologetic systems work. How do evidentialists use history to argue for the probability of Christ's Resurrection? How do writers like Van Til avoid logic in making the Transcendental argument? These are questions that aren't addressed directly in the book. This isn't a criticism, but I make the point in case others are looking for a more descriptive approach to various apologetic systems.

To my mind, the end of the book is the weakest part. The attempt to integrate the approaches is interesting, and I agree that different apologetics will resonate better with different people. However, I think the authors go too far in trying to pinpoint which method--even which Gospel account--will best apply to certain types of people. I was surprised to discover the NFs (in the famous personality test) respond better to Mark's Gospel--I'm an NF, and I find Mark the account that resonates least with me. Maybe I'm an unusual NF, or maybe the authors were just pushing their theories a bit too far. I think it's probably the latter.

In any case, I think this is a good book, but it's probably more useful to people who have some background in apologetic thought than to beginners.

Thursday, February 20, 2003

Do you remember when you first learned to read silently? For many people, it is a milestone in their education. No longer do you have to speak every word--sound out every syllable--to understand the text. You can take in entire words--later even phrases--and understand what they mean. More than speed, though, reading silently teaches you to inhabit an interior space created by words on a page. Some people begin to crave silence as a way to usher them into this imaginative space more fully.

Being able to inhabit this interior space is an important part of the devotional reading I talked about yesterday. When we enter a space created by words that were inspired by the Holy Spirit, we enter a kind of temple: a wondrous, infinitely variable, temple where each word creates space that is carved out of Divine Love. It is a temple where we can come to know and to worship our Lord. Silence reigns in this temple, but sometimes as we wander around it, marvelling at its beauties and truths, we can hear the "still, small voice" of the Living Lord. To hear Him, though, we must be comfortable with silence. If we read scripture and yet let our mind wander over today's troubles and concerns, we make a cacophany in the temple that drowns out anything the Spirit may wish to say to us. If, however, we leave those worries outside--after all, they will wait for us--we may be blessed with a message or insight from the Spirit.

One of the ways we can enter this temple and prepare to hear the Spirit is through the ancient practice of Lectio Divina. This discipline has long been practiced in the monastic traditions, but it is something every Christian can do. A useful introduction to this method can be found here. As I've tried to indicate, the act of reading is only part of the process. We must learn to love, to embrace and to crave the silence and solitude that will allow us to hear our Lord. In my mind, there are two great Disciples of Silence that are regular bloggers: Kurt and Owen. I hope you learn as much from them as I have.

Wednesday, February 19, 2003

I've been thinking quite a bit recently about the distinction between study reading and devotional reading. Throughout our years of education, we are trained to read for study. We learn to read for ideas, for facts, for information. We learn what kind of books have the information we need so we can look it up later. We learn to pick out key passages, sentences and phrases and commit them to memory. We learn to recall what we have read and use it: how do I get around this programming problem? I read it somewhere... How am I supposed to act in this situation? Paul writes... Obviously this is an important and useful skill that enables us to live, to work, to remember and even to forget efficiently. Through study, we become experts.

For some people, though, this is the only kind of reading they ever master. They are taught it in school and it is reinforced in work. "Reading" and "Studying" become synonymous. There are a lucky group of people--I count myself among them--who learn (or never forget) to read for pleasure. We are able to put aside the data-crunching side of our brain and become part of a series of words. We allow those words to build a world for us that we inhabit--or at least in which we become voyeurs--for a time before returning to the "real" quotidian world of our lives.

But then, in Christian circles, you often hear people speak of "devotional" reading. What is it? The term "devotional" comes from the root "devote," which means to vow or to consecrate. It is therefore closely related to worship, but whereas worship has a public or corporal focus, devotion is focussed on the individual. Vows apply to individuals, even if they are taken as a group, and so the devotional reading is the reading that one vows to do. At the same time, it is a type of reading that is consecrated (through the vow) by God as holy and so becomes an act of worship.

How, then, do we read devotionally? Do we teach Christians how this is done? Or do we (as I suspect) expect Christians to pick up the habit of reading the Bible on a regular basis and call that devotional? There is nothing inherently wrong with a person reading the Bible regularly and reading in the only way they know how--as study--but I don't think it's the same thing as reading devotionally. Neither do I believe that reading devotionally is the same as reading for pleasure. It has elements of both, and it is something beyond them as well. To my mind, reading devotionally incorporates study to the extent that it helps us learn to live our lives. It incorporates pleasure reading in that we need to read sympathetically and imaginatively to see how words written millenia ago apply to our lives today.

More than either of these, though, reading devotionally is how we come to know God as he exists in the living Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit. Devotional reading opens us to the guidance and promptings of the Spirit. Through the Spirit we come to know Jesus Christ in a personal, individual, unique way. And as we come to know the Son, we also come to knowledge of the Father. Devotional reading needs an attitude of worshipfulness to open us to these wonders. It is not meant to replace study of the Scripture or reading the Scripture for pleasure, but as a separate and supplemental discipline that enables us to know in our hearts that we are sons and daughters of the Lord.

Devotional reading takes practice and it takes patience. Instead of talking about "devotional reading" and offering free copies of booklets like those available from The Upper Room in the narthex, I believe churches need to be teachng parishioners--and particularly the youth--how to read devotionally. If we can help people learn to read as an act of Worship, if we can help them open themselves to the Spirit, then we can help them to a deeper and more loving knowledge of God. There are few greater gifts our churches could offer.

Tuesday, February 18, 2003

My MIL's flight has been cancelled, so we'll pray for safe travel soon.
We are still pretty much paralyzed here in the DC area. My MIL is scheduled to fly out early this afternoon, so please pray for her safety. My office is closed today, but I'm sure we'll be back to normal--or at least close--by Wednesday. I expect there will be snow left from this snow at the end of March, though, as high as some of the banks are.

Sunday, February 16, 2003

It's blizzarding.
Since beginning my Covenant Discipleship group, I've been keeping a prayer list. It's a list of prayers and causes that I would like to pray for or for which I've been asked to pray. But now I'm wondering how and when one removes an item from a prayer list. Some items are clear--if a person is sick and they get well, or looking for a job and they find one, then they can come off the list. Of course many of the items that I've been asked to pray for are not ones I have direct knowledge of, so I may never know if the condition changes. And then there are some things I could pray about for years...and maybe I am called to do that. This isn't a problem that keeps me up at night, but for those of you who keep prayer lists, how do you keep them from becoming unmanageably long?

Friday, February 14, 2003

My city is apparently surrounded with anti-aircraft weaponry;
We are on high alert for a terrorist attack;
It is going to snow, sleet and ice all weekend;
My youngest has his 5th ear infection in 5 months;
And my mother-in-law is in town.

Actually, my MIL is a lovely woman and it's great to have her visiting. I sometimes forget how different the world was when she grew up. After dinner last night, she took the remaing 5-6 green beans and put them into the refrigerator. Then she turned to my 3 1/2 year old and asked, "do you drink bean juice?"

My son thought she was joking.

Wednesday, February 12, 2003

Because it is a grasping, religion is the contradiction to revelation, the concentrated expression of human unbelief, i.e., an attitude and activity which is directly opposed to faith. It is a feeble but defiant, an arrogant but hopeless, attempt to create something which man could do, but now cannot do, or can do only because and if God Himself created it for him: the knowledge of the truth, the knowledge of God. We cannot, therefore, interpret the attempt as a harmonious co-operating of man with the revelation of God, as though religion were a kind of outstretched hand which is filled by God in His revelation. Again, we cannot say of the evident religious capacity of man that it is, so to speak, the general form of human knowledge, which acquires its true and proper content in the shape of revelation. On the contrary, we have here an exclusive contradiction. In religion man bolts and bars himself against revelation by providing a substitute, by taking away in advance the very thing which has to be given by God.
--Karl Barth

Monday, February 10, 2003

Last evening, my wife took our children to Wendy's while I was at my Covenant Discipleship group meeting. This is not normally the sort of thing I would brag about, but this wasn't just a typical fast-food trip. My son's had gotten Wendy's Gift Certificates from some family members for Christmas. The Wendy's in Arlington, VA is across the street from a homeless shelter. A man approached them and asked for some money to buy a meal. My 3 1/2 year old said, "I will give him some of my Wendy's money," and so my wife handed the man $6 in Wendy's gift certificates--all my son had left after his meal. The man bought a dinner and then came back to their table to say thank you.

I know that at 3 1/2, my son doesn't realize all the repercussions of his actions. Next week, he might very well ask to go to Wendy's with the rest of his "Wendy's money." But I am proud of him nonetheless. I am proud of his generosity and his innocence. So many lessons come to mind from his actions, but it's Isaiah 11:6 that is echoing in my head this morning: "and a little child shall lead them."

Saturday, February 08, 2003

I finished de Queiroz's The Sin of Father Amaro yesterday, and it is an astonishing book. Perhaps what is most astonishing is that it isn't more well-known. It introduced the naturalist school into Portuguese literature, so it is in the vein of Dreiser and Zola. IMO, though, it is superior to anything the former has written (Zola is still on my list of novelists to read).

de Queiroz presents a decadent, sick society that still has a facade of deep religion. Amaro, the protagonist, begins as a somewhat naive and well-meaning youth, but quickly gives in to his baser desires. Everywhere he looks for examples--other religious figures, leaders in the city, successful businessmen--all he finds are people who follow their appetites. Amaro, sensing that happiness lies in that direction, does the same thing. Of course, he does not find happiness through his many "sins;" he finds instead that he needs and wants to sin more. de Quieroz presents the way that sinfulness and base sensuality can take over a person with great clarity.

On the other hand, the novel isn't one that holds up traditional morality as the way people should live. In the sense that there is a moral center at all in this novel, it is through the voices of the scientific people, particularly Dr. Gouvea. He advocates a similar morality to what Amaro follows, but without the illusion that one is leaving a "moral" life. For the Doctor., we are pure animals and should act that way. Of course, this is ironically undercut by the doctor's manner of living--his use of a coach for travel, e.g.--but he is given a long monologue at the end of the novel to put forth his ideals. Whether this is de Queiroz's belief is debatable, for the novel is heavily ironic and often satirical in tone. What is so wonderful about this novel is his ability to make his character's real while maintaining a disdain toward them.

As you can tell, I highly recommend this novel. As far as I can tell, though, it is (sadly) out of print in English (Update: it is to be released this spring under the title The Crime of Father Amaro). If you are easily offended--particularly in the current climate--by stories of priests committing sins, then skip this book (I understand it was recently made into a rather tawdry movie in Mexico, which it's probably better to skip altogether).

Friday, February 07, 2003

I am hoping some of you can give me some help. I'm looking for Biblical commentary on the idea that it is a Christian's duty to protect the innocent, the weak, etc. I was in a discussion with someone on this topic, and neither of us could think of verses dealing with this obligation--or specifically stating it isn't an obligation. So I've come to the great wisdom of those who happen by my blog. Any passages you think I should read that might apply to this topic? Much obliged for any responses.

Wednesday, February 05, 2003

I finished Jackstraws yesterday. Apart from a few poems in places like The New Yorker and The TLS, I hadn't read much of Charles Simic's work. The poems in Jackstraws are, for the most part, very short. Some a just a few lines long (the opening poem is a couplet) and most are under 20 lines. While I typically like well-honed poems, I felt that most of these had been shaved so closely that they became almost completely abstract. The longer poems--and the final 3 poems in particular--are much more successful in my opinion. Simic keeps his signature humor ("I've heard I've been made the offical match vendor // Of the great dark night of the soul?") and concrete detail ("A burst of laughter at the memory of the two of us / Buttoning ourselves, running drenched / Past the state prison with its armed guards / Silhouetted in their towers against the sky"), but the poems have a much clearer subject and are more generous in what they allow the reader to know. What I didn't expect is how much Simic is consumed with the idea of the religious and particularly the mystic in his poetry, and I may read more just to see how his thought has developed in that area.

Tuesday, February 04, 2003

Like many people in the U.S. and around the world, I have been spending time in prayer for the family, friends and co-workers of the astronauts who died in the shuttle accident this weekend. Fellow Christian blogger, Cody Clark works in the space program and has written movingly about the experiences people like him are going through. My prayers keep focussing back on the children. Perhaps it's because I have young children of my own, but I now imagine these kids having to live through a much longer and more difficult grieving process than the rest of us will experience. Not unlike the children who lost parents in the attacks of 9/11, these kids are subject to a barrage of media coverage and ready availibility of images that are witness to the astronauts' final moments. They will be subject to painstaking investigations that will try to piece together what went wrong, and while I know this is a necessary process, I can only imagine how often the wounds will be picked open by media reports and investigative discoveries.

One of the things that became apparent after the 1986 shuttle accident is that the government does not have programs to help small groups of survivors (like astronauts' families) work through the many problems they will face over the years. A fund was started to help the children of those astronauts, and it is being revived to help the children of the most recent accident. I heard on NPR this morning that a great majority of the money raised by the last fund was donated by individuals and small groups, not corporations. I hope you will prayerfully consider making a donation or leading a program that will help these children.

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