Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Social acceptance is what makes something a fact.

Bet you didn't know that. I sure didn't. But here it is, written by a professor of Computer Science at Georgia Tech, who also says that "an idea is not much of a fact if only one lonely person believes it." (ibid.)


Perhaps you remember Semmelweis. He was the lonely person who believed doctors should wash their hands between Pathology and Obstetrics. His detractors destroyed his career (Semmelweis died destitute); worse, their literally dirty hands transmitted pathogens to pregnant women, killing many of them by septic shock.

I say Semmelweis was factually correct even though nobody else believed it. It has always been a fact that unwashed hands can spread pathogens from cadavers to living patients.

We recently heard at church that in some countries, men believe that AIDS can be cured by having sex with a (female) virgin. This idea is socially accepted, but it is no fact.

In these cases, women paid (and still pay) with their lives.

Ironic that the Georgia Tech prof is also a woman.

Conversation with two Teenagers

Late one evening, two teen-aged girls (who shall remain nameless herein) were heard to discuss this topic: Did Gandhi go to heaven? Here are some remarks, reported without attribution (it's more fun that way):

I think Lewis would say he did. (In The Last Battle, Aslan, the Christ figure, says that His will, even when done in another's name, is taken as worship of Him.)

Does "children of God" mean you go to heaven? Because Gandhi was certainly a peacemaker (Matthew 5.3-10)

But the Bible also says that the work of God is this: to believe in the one he sent.

"He who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and does not go into judgment."

But in the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25), the question is only what you did for the poor, the sick, the naked - not what you believed.

You need some theology to decide how to classify these writings.

Can you change your mind after you die?

In the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, there is supposedly a great gulf between heaven and hell, and you can't cross it.

But in that parable, there's nothing about faith - only whether you were rich or poor, and whether you helped the needy.

It's a parable, intended to make one point -- you can't take everything from it. Even allegories have their limits.

In Lewis's The Great Divorce, he says he thinks people have a chance, but that they mostly don't want to leave Hell.

How to Overcome Anger

So a friend and I were discussing the Anger chapter from The Man in the Mirror, when he said, "This guy identifies the problem, but he doesn't say how to solve it."

The problem is, well, you could have a short fuse (get angry too frequently) or hold a grudge, or whatever it is. The book also says that you can be a nice guy at work, but it's how you are at home, in the interior of your "castle", that says who you really are.

So how do you overcome anger? Here's what I said.

First, we have to understand we are talking about a BIG problem; it's not something like a hangnail we're talking about here. When you read a verse like "Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger," notice that it's a command. As one of our missionary friends says, "It's a command because it doesn't come naturally." It's also a command (rather than a suggestion) because it's hard.

Second, a lot of books and a lot of curricula and church programs and stuff seem to imply that the solutions to life's problems are based on getting skills. What a crock! The problem with anger isn't that you or I lack skills -- it's that we're selfish and impatient. What's the cure for that? It ain't skills.

Third, and this is a corollary really, I could give you some steps, but they wouldn't work. I made some up for him on the spot:
  1. Consider what Jesus Christ suffered unjustly at the hands of unrighteous sinners
  2. Compare your sufferings against his and notice that you deserve at least some of your suffering, whereas he deserved none of his. Also notice that your suffering is much less than his.
  3. Now be patient and altruistic
A fine set of steps, but they don't work.

OK, so here's something that really will work. But it is not easy, and it takes a really long time.
  1. I got this one from our pastor (maybe somewhere else too), but to become more patient, you have to practice. At the grocery store, bookstore, video rental place or whatever... pick the longest cash-register line. On the freeway, drive in the lane that looks slower. Let other people in when you're on surface streets.
  2. Pray, and get other people to pray for you Colossians 1.9-12, and this is probably a paraphrase, that God would fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may live a life worthy fo the Lord and please him in every way, bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and joyfully giving thanks to the Father....

    Read the Bible constantly -- that'll help make this happen

  3. Keep that up for 20-30 years.
  4. Repeat as needed
I probably missed something, but that should give some idea. It was easy to tell you about that -- a lot harder to actually do it.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Found my notes about Abraham

I mentioned the other day that I lost my notes from the Rev. Dr. Scott Dudley's talk about Abraham, who followed God well but imperfectly.

He's told "Leave your country and go to the land I'll show you." He has no map, no schedule, and no idea whether things will turn out OK. So the first lesson is:

We're only given one step's worth; we don't get a roadmap. Why?
  • to spare us from fear
  • so we won't forget about God
This reminds me of the Israelites in the desert for 40 years.

The next thing is, we follow God and take a step, but that doesn't guarantee a smooth, wrinkle-free life. Abraham meets a famine (Genesis 12.10) and other problems. But we do have these guarantees:
  • God will be with me and strengthen me
  • He will use every bad thing to make me better. There's that story from Zorba the Greek about a butterfly emerging from a cocoon -- it must struggle and suffer to build the strength it needs to survive; "helping" it out actually will kill it. "Pain is weakness leaving your body."
The next lesson is: failure is directional, not fatal. Abraham made a mistake with Hagar (in my view, anyone could have made this mistake). But this mistake helped him see what to do (or not do) next.

And the last lesson that the Rev. Dr. Scott Dudley had for us from the life of Abraham was: There are always blessings, though there may be hardships. Abraham had a hard life but a great one.

So what shall this man do?

Three things.
  1. Read the Bible constantly; it's all about what God thinks
  2. Get counsel from trusted friends. An abundance of counselors brings victory (Proverbs 11.14) and the pleasantness of a friend comes from his earnest counsel? (Pr 27.9)
  3. Solitude and prayer. Scott suggests 2-10 hours alone when trying to make a major decision. Read the Bible, listen, tell God about everything. "Worrying in his presence" is a form of prayer -- then wait to hear something.
We want a map of the future, but a guide is what, or rather who we get.


The lovely Carol went to Chuck's Donuts this morning. (I no longer eat donuts, but our athletic teen-agers do.) So when the girls came out this morning, they were greeted by a glazed old-fashioned, a couple of glazed cake donuts with sprinkles, and a chocolate one.

Sheri came to the table. "Oooh, doughnuts!" she cried.

I cocked an eyebrow. "They aren't all for you, you know."

Sheri looked at me sideways and tossed her head. "WHAT!?" she said, folding her arms and turning her back on me.

About 500 milliseconds later, we both burst out laughing.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

If I Do God's Will, Will Life Go Well?

We Christians often talk about walking with God, and walking by faith. But what does that mean? What might it look like?

A few weeks ago, at the MPPC men's retreat, we got a great illustration from Genesis: the life of Abraham. The following is only loosely based on what was presented there, 'cause I don't have my notes with me.

OK, here goes.

The Lord had said to Abram, "Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you." (Genesis 12.1)

There's a bold move -- no map, no schedule, no destination -- but an astonishing promise of blessing.

So what happens when he gets there? "Now there was a famine in the land" (12.10). Great -- he's got a promise of blessing, but on his way there, he hits a famine and moves to Egypt.

What must Abraham have thought? He left civilization as he knew it for the promise of something great, but he meets with famine and apparently takes a detour -- a detour to Egypt. He tells his wife, "Say you are my sister, so... my life will be spared because of you." (12.13). Famine, then moral failure.

He gets rich, but family problems develop. "And quarreling arose between Abram's herdsmen and the herdsmen of (Abe's nephew) Lot" (13.7), so they split up.

Next up: war! "The four kings ... carried off Abram's nephew Lot and his possessions." (14.11-12) Kidnapping, too.

God promised him descendants like the sand on the seashore, but at age 85, there are still no children. He does what seems like the normal thing to do, given what God told him: "He slept with (his wife's maidservant) Hagar, and she conceived." (16.4). In due course she bears a son, but he finds out from God that this isn't the heir of the promise.

The scriptures list several other events, including the command to sacrifice his son Isaac, that in my life would have caused a real spiritual crisis. But I think we have enough here to make a point:

Following God's will does not mean things will go well -- even for Abraham! When God introduces himself to Moses, he calls himself "the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob" (Exodus 3.18); Abraham is called "God's friend" (James 2.23). Can you imagine that -- having a biblical author call you "God's friend", or having God identify himself as "the God of <your name here>, Isaac, and Jacob"?

And yet he meets famine, his own moral failure, family strife, war and kidnapping, and a major mistake in understanding God's will.

If these things happen to God's friend when he follows God's will, why do we think things should go well for us?

And when things don't go well, why do we think it wasn't God's will? Well, I guess we could wonder, but famine, war, kidnapping [etc] don't prove I'm not following God's will.

Which reminds me of someone's history that I read about. (I don't know this guy personally, so if I know you, this isn't about you.)
He met her at Bible school. They fell in love, and after much prayer and consultation with parents, friends, and [other] spiritual advisers (pastors, etc.), decided to get married. Ten or fifteen years later, their marriage is feeling a little rocky, and one day she tells him she's actually a lesbian. She leaves him and their children, and moves in with her lover. Within a few months, she kills herself. Now the kids are basket cases and so is this man.
Suppose this guy asks, "Was it really God's will that we get married?"

On one hand, I can see why he'd ask -- I mean, I would. And yet, even that unimaginable amount of suffering does not necessarily imply that he was out of God's will.
But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body. ... Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
2 Corinthians 4.7-11,16-18
In other words, "Not necessarily."

A couple of hours on my novel

Heard at the dinner table:

the lovely Carol: I didn't get two hours editing my novel today, so I'll do that after dinner.

the teen Jenny: I didn't get two hours editing my novel either, so I'll have to do that after dinner too. Uh, I mean reading my novel.

[raucous laughter]

Monday, April 17, 2006

Things that made my head explode this past week

The lovely Carol didn't understand what I meant by "made my head explode"; you can read it as "made my head spin" if you prefer.

Anyway, here they are, in no particular order:BTW I haven't figured out how to get money from amazon.com for all the links I make to their pages. But I'm not sure I really want to, either. If you'd rather have me put links to some other bookseller, let me know and I might change my linking paradigm...

Monday, April 10, 2006

What I said Friday night

Friday night, our church had an international fellowship evening. This is for internationals who come to our church, and for Americans who want to meet them. We have dinner and some presentations. In February, the lovely Carol talked about Valentine's Day and about God's love. Friday, Johan talked about April Fool's Day, and in contrast to that, about the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Vip presented the Jesus Institute website and told us about an upcoming short course. And I had a chance to talk about what the resurrection means to me, and how I came to that. In case you're interested, the following is basically what I said that evening.

Before describing what the resurrection means to me, I'll share a bit about my background. I was raised in a church-going household, but I didn't believe in God, Bible, resurrection, etc.

I had an encounter with the concept of the resurrection on a very special Easter -- I was about 21, and I had been talking with some friends about the whole concept -- of this Jesus, so full of love that he would die for me. How good it felt to think someone could love me that much! "I only wish I could believe it," I said.

What stopped me from believing it? It was not a lack of evidence. There was plenty of evidence. Johan mentioned some of it earlier, and it seems whenever someone tries to write a book disproving the resurrection, he ends up believing in it instead!

So it wasn't a lack of evidence; rather, at the bottom of it was my stubbornness. I wanted to think I alone was master of my life. I did not like to think that there was someone that could judge me. It was bad enough that God had the power to judge me; he also had the right to judge me. And I didn't like to think that. Therefore, since I didn't want to believe it, I convinced myself that I couldn't believe it.

But one day, maybe a year after that, I somehow saw that I really didn't have a sound logical reason to reject Jesus Christ.

Here's how it happened. I was driving to see some friends, some christians who were wanting me to believe in Jesus and all that stuff. I remember looking at my gas gauge and thinking I should get some gas, but then deciding I was in a hurry and I'd get it on the way back. Yet when I got to the corner, I forgot that decision and turned toward the gas station. As a result of that, I went to a different freeway entrance than I normally would have, and there was a hitch-hiker. I usually don't pick up hitch-hikers, but for some reason I didn't know, I picked this one up. We were both going to Santa Cruz, so that was great, and on the way there, he asked me if I had a relationship with Jesus Christ. I didn't, so he said, "I really hope you come to know Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior."

I thought this an odd coincidence. I made a "wrong" turn, got on the "wrong" on-ramp, and on the way to visit some christians, picked up a hitch-hiker who turned out to be a rabid evangelical! That weekend, one of my friends asked me why I didn't believe in God, pointing out the resurrection as a key supporting fact. Since I didn't believe in God, though, I thought the resurrection impossible.

Circular reasoning! I assumed there was no God, so I was sure there was no resurrection, so that justified my disbelief in God. I had been relying on that circular reasoning for many years, but hadn't seen it until I was in my 20s.

Something else occurred to me. When I took physics, we measured the length of a pendulum and timed its period. Behind all this was the assumption that there were laws of physics. The pendulum didn't just "happen" to have a period that matched a certain formula; there was something underlying the way the measurements lined up.

I was able to see that apparent "coincidences" in the laboratory of life weren't coincidences. Rather, they were indications that something, or Some One, was influencing the events in my particular history. (By the way, there were more apparent "coincidences" that I don't have time to tell you about tonight.)

So at that point, I was so to speak at the crossroads. I saw Jesus standing at the corner, indicating he wanted to go the way of life with me. The requirement, and the sticking point for me, was that he would do the driving. And so I stalled.

Then I got involved with a woman, and I did not want to think about God for several weeks. Eventually I came to my senses. Today, I believe God was pursuing me, and that he opened my eyes, and that, not my own intelligence, was what let me see what was really going on.

So what does the resurrection mean to me today? I have two answers.
  1. Before I describe the first one, I would like to recount something from the history of Israel. Some of you know the events I'm thinking of -- the children of Israel were slaves in Egypt for 400 years. When the time was right, God delivered them from slavery and sent them into the desert, where he led them for 40 years with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. He miraculously provided them with food and water.

    For the first few days, maybe the first few weeks, the Israelites were probably astonished and amazed to see these signs of God's presence with them. But after a few years, after a few decades, these miraculous signs became commonplace. They were constant, integral parts of their environment. For some Israelites, they became ordinary. But whenever they stopped to think about their deliverance, about God's provision of food and water in the desert, about the guidance in that miraculous way, I think they must have had a sense of wonder.

    The resurrection is like that for me. Whenever I think about my failings (and I have failings every day), whenever I open my Bible or pray or go to church, the resurrection is there, lending power and meaning and authority to all these things.

    But often, if I don't think about it, the resurrection seems ordinary, no more miraculous than the sunrise. Which come to think of it is pretty exciting in itself.

  2. The resurrection is the anchor for my faith. I didn't come here by facts and logic, but they help me to keep my faith alive. Here's what I mean.

    Jesus Christ said a lot of things. Even skeptical historians agree that the gospels provide a reasonable representation of what Jesus said and did. So we see Jesus saying he would be killed and would rise from the dead. This really happened. So everything else he said was probably true, too.

    Of course there are a lot of details missing but that's basically how the resurrection connects to my faith, particularly in times when I'm in doubt.
Thinking about my own history, it seemed to me that evidence was never the problem. There was evidence enough if I had been open-minded, but since I was closed-minded, all the evidence in the world wasn't enough. I suspect that I am like most people in this way -- that if they are analygical and want to know, they can find out, but if they don't want to know, they can't be told.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Fervency. Absence. Sacrament.

I saw Carlos at church today, and he evidently read yesterday's posting before I cleaned it up. He noted a correlation between the fervency of my blog entries and the absence of the lovely Carol, and I think he's right. She's away at a conference for another couple of days, and the kids are in Mexico on a short-term mission project. So Duke and I are holding down the fort.

I learned a new word...

...from this morning's sermon. Well, maybe it's not a new word (I have heard it before) but I don't think I'd heard the definition. A sacrament is when Jesus somehow comes through to us in ordinary things. In the sacrament of Communion, we believe that the bread stays bread, and the grape juice stays grape juice, but through those ordinary things, somehow Jesus comes through.

That's the word I was looking for to describe last weekend's activities. In case you weren't there, we had a big event where members of our church assembled 7500 kits for AIDS caregivers. Each kit was enclosed in a plastic "sweater box", maybe 15x30x40cm, and consisted of very ordinary items like notebooks, latex gloves, cotton balls, antifungal cream, petroleum jelly. And each kit had a 3x5" card with a message for the caregiver -- "Thank you for all you do" or "May the Lord give you strength as you serve him by helping those in need" or "You're the best! God bless you!" -- something like that. Most of the supplies came from World Vision (who also specified the kits' contents). The kits were taped shut, stacked on pallets, and shrinkwrapped, 96 per pallet. About 7500 of them were thus loaded onto two trucks, which arrived in Denver on Tuesday. In a few weeks they'll be on ships bound for eight African countries.

I didn't assemble a single kit, but I stood behind the tables handing out notebooks and pens Saturday morning; on Sunday morning I helped keep other supplies flowing smoothly. All this was what you might call "mindless" work, and didn't feel very special or spiritual. But when I walked outside and saw them stacked on pallets, and thought about the impact each kit might have, and the messages of encouragement on the cards, and the prayers ascending to heaven... well, that was a moving experience. I thought about ordinary mechanical "mindless" work done by ordinary people with ordinary things (I mean, notebooks and cotton balls -- how much more ordinary can you get?) -- and yet somehow through these acts of service, we were all part of something holy.

In other words, we participated in a sacrament. And I didn't know what to call it 'til today.
...whoever gives you a cup of water to drink in my name... verily I say unto you, he shall not lose his reward - Mark 9.41

And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward. - Matthew 10.42
Ordinary people, ordinary things -- even just a cup of cold water -- can be a sacrament. I guess that's what I'd like my life to be, is a sacrament.

Why is it important to think about...?

The other evening, I read to my girls from Philippians 4. Rejoice in the Lord always... Let your gentleness be evident to all... Be anxious for nothing.... Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute -- if anything is excellent or worthy of praise -- think about these things.

And so the older teen asked why it was important to think about them. I should have asked her what she thought, but instead I started answering...

If we think about these things, it is harder to be ungrateful, bitter, envious, or resentful.

If we think about these things, our speech and actions will tend to reflect them. Some years back, I noticed in 1 Timothy 6 that slaves "should consider their masters worthy of full respect, so that God's name and our teaching may not be slandered." (NIV) It says "should consider their masters worthy of respect"; it doesn't say "should treat them with respect". Because if I don't consider you worthy of respect, my disrespect will leak out. As Jesus said, "out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaketh" (Luke 6:46). And Micah tells us that those who scheme iniquity at night carry it out in the morning (2:1).

So this morning, as I walked the dog, I made a little mental list
  • Adequate, Able, Available -- God is able to accomplish what concerns me today, he's always available, he's adequate to carry me through whatever I might face
  • Benevolent, Bold -- He blesses the world, and he doesn't take a piecemeal approach
  • Care - He cares for you and me. And he cares about our joys and sorrows
  • Delight - He delights in us and wants us to delight in him, and he will give us the desires of our hearts
  • ... you get the idea
As I thought of these things, it also occurred to me that I don't always remember to remember these; that my life does not (yet) reflect many of these; that I do not always do what I know. What do I delight in? What do I care about? Who do I care about? What are my priorities?

These questions in themselves provide an answer to...

Another question

When I was very young, I looked up "think" (or "thought"?) in the encyclopedia, and it said that people think when they have a problem. If I come into the house, thirsty on a hot day, and there's a cold drink for me on the table, I don't have to think; I just drink. But if there's nothing on the table and nothing in the 'fridge, if there are no cups within reach, then I have a problem and I have to think about it.

So when we are told to "think about these things", or when the psalmist says the law "is my meditation all the day," or when the songwriter says, "I think of my blessed redeemer / I think of him all the day long," what is the problem they are dealing with? Or was the encyclopedia wrong?

Maybe it was wrong, maybe it wasn't. But one problem is what I wrote a couple of paragraphs back -- I am not like him; I am not as I would be. And we do not yet see him fully -- we don't understand everything he does. "Now we see through a glass, darkly"

But we know that when he (Jesus) appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him (whose hope is fixed on him) purifies him/herself, just as he is pure.

May this be so in my life. And also in yours.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Our society is rotting, and it's up to us

as christians to be salt and light to slow down the decay. Are we up to it?

By "rotting" I mean that our society is showing the effects of too much focus on material wealth. This extends from operators of franchises (ibid.) to drug pushers to adware/spyware, intellectual property law (DMCA, the copyright extension act, etc.), and yes, individual career choices made by people like you and me.
Let me rant a bit about copyright and the DMCA. I won't even talk about the folly of software patents, or even worse, "business method" patents. Gaaaa!

It doesn't take much research (or googling) to determine that the original objective of the intellectual property laws was to encourage creativity by granting the inventor (or author) exclusive use of an idea (for patents) or expression (for copyrights), for a limited time. Tht "exclusive use" was so that "content creators" (I can't believe I'm using that phrase) could get paid for their efforts, and the "limited time" was so that society could exploit and extend the invention or expression. The effect of "limited time" is that after some years, patents and copyrights expire, and "content" goes into the public domain. When a chamber group plays a Bach trio sonata, no royalties or license fees are due, because Bach's music is in the public domain. When the Walt Disney Company recorded music from "Steamboat Bill" in the opening scene of the cartoon feature "Steamboat Willie", no royalties were due because that music was in the public domain.

I am no Disney fan, but I've seen parts of "Steamboat Willie" and it is entertaining. It is a Good Thing that the music was available for them to use freely, so that we could enjoy it.

And it is a Good Thing that Disney can make money from movies for some period of time, because if people could legally copy them all day long, Disney wouldn't be able to afford to make as many movies as it does. (Note to self - this is a bad example, as many Disney movies shouldn't ever have been made.)

What is Bad, though, is that the balance of public interest versus private profit has tilted, no, has completely fallen over to the benefit of "private profit." Mickey Mouse was set to go into the public domain in 2004, until Congress (the congresscritter is your friend, and I have a bridge to sell you) decided to extend copyright terms by twenty years. I'm sorry, but this is greed and corruption. It's unjust and unreasonable. The creators of the "Steamboat Willie" cartoon feature were sufficiently compensated long ago! I don't think they would have been more motivated to know that their work would be "protected" long after their deaths. You can be sure that the corporation wouldn't pay them any more because of that!

It's not just the length of the copyright terms, though. Consider that a great documentary film on the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. cannot be legally shown today in the United States. Why not? There is a scene in the film -- King's birthday -- when a copyrighted song is sung. You know it... "Happy Birthday". The film's producers couldn't afford to pay for the rights to "perform" that song (by showing the film) in perpetuity. Of course there are other copyright holders who would have standing to sue anybody showing the film. If you make a movie showing a day in the life (your favorite city here), and a song is heard in the background, you can be sure that the RIAA, BMI and/or ASCAP will want their share. This is explained much more eloquently, and in more detail, in Bound by Law (you can buy it too).

And about the DMCA -- try searching on "dmca felten intimidation" (no quotes). The DMCA is a very very bad law, but money spoke and our congress listened.

My point isn't that money has become powerful. It's always been powerful -- "You cannot serve both God and Mammon." What seems to be changing is the extent to which money informs decision-making in both the public and the private sector. "We have the best Government money can buy" used to be funny, sorta. It isn't any more.

And how about me? Or you? How important is money to us? Is it more important than it should be? If you're reading this, you probably have more material resources available to you than 95% or more of anyone who ever lived on this planet.

Why am I in my line of work? Because I enjoy coding and solving problems, and because I'm well paid. Is that a good enough reason? We want to send the kids where they want to go for college. Health coverage, including access to counseling, is really nice to have. And let's face it, the family has got used to having a certain amount of money available -- as have I.

So what must we do? Society is decaying, the government is like a shell corporation. What is salt here? What is light?

I suppose light might include investigative reporting. Researching and publishing results of such research -- exposing some of what's going on.

But salt... is it as simple as helping the poor, giving time and effort to activities that produce no economic advantage for myself?

Or is this all just idle speculation, a cheap way to avoid installing those lights in the front yard?

I'll let you know if I figure it out. Meanwhile: "Brethren, pray for us." Thanks!

Saturday, April 01, 2006

What should this leader do?

The lovely Carol told me I should write up a conversation I had the other day, so if you like this or find it helpful, you have her to thank.

"Doug" (not his real name) told me about his cell group, wherein a particular sister (I'll call her "Ursula") takes control of the prayer time by going into a long monologue. She dominates other parts of the meeting, too, and the leader seemed powerless to stop her. Ursula apparently had some troubles in the past, and never used to say anything at all. Now the pendulum has swung -- right through the proverbial wall! People are even leaving this cell group because Ursula so dominates the meetings.

Doug asked what I thought the leader ought to do. Or, since Ursula seems willing to open up with Doug's wife, what she might say. Doug and I were looking at the chapter on "Pride" in The Man in the Mirror, and he wondered if someone ought to talk to Ursula about pride. He also wondered if there was a Bible verse about prayer, and Ecclesiastes 5.2 came to mind (Never... let your heart be quick to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven, and you upon earth; therefore let your words be few).

I sympathized with the difficulty of the situation, but I didn't think either of these was a particularly good approach. Yes, there may be a pride issue. Yes, it is good to let others pray in a prayer meeting, especially when that's the clear teaching of their local church (which it is: they even had a demonstration in one of their services to show how prayer meetings should be done in their cell groups).

But rather than quoting Ecclesiastes 5 or Matthew 6 (about making long prayers), my suggestion was that the leader introduce the prayer time with a "prelude to prayer", something like this:
Brothers and sisters, before we go to our prayer groups, I would like to remind us about the principles that Pastor Scott (or whoever) shared with us about praying -- that in our cell group prayer meetings, each person should just say a short sentence and then leave space for another person to agree, or to share their own concerns. Some of you might remember the demonstration that Chris, Robin and Dana did in our service a few weeks ago? Since we all forget from time to time, I would like us to help each other with these, because we want all the brothers and sisters to be able to pray. So if someone next to you goes on for more than 15 seconds or so, please tap that brother or sister on the shoulder, or give a gentle poke with your elbow, or say "Pssst! Too much!" There is no shame here; we all forget from time to time. I'm counting on every one of you, in both the brothers' prayer groups and the sisters' prayer groups, to make your prayer circle a time when everyone can lift their heart's concerns to the Lord.
Doug said the leader was worried about hurting Ursula's feelings. Doug's wife was worried about the same thing. My view is that if the leader prays, seeks counsel, and speaks the truth in love, then Ursula's response is Ursula's responsibility. But if the group leader does nothing about this, then he is placing his own comfort or timidity at a higher priority than the health of the group. In effect he would be saying:
I would rather prefer to watch Ursula destroy this group, than to experience the discomfort that would come from confronting her behavior.
Note that the "confronting" could be as non-confrontational as the "prelude to prayer" above. I think the whole thing should be bathed in prayer: the leader should pray for Ursula to have a soft and open heart; Doug and his wife should pray for that too, and also for the leader; the leader should pray for wisdom to see the best course, and for the health of the group.

And things might go well. Ursula might remember with that reminder, or she might forget and get an elbow in the ribs or whatever and respond with contrition. Then all would praise the Lord, and pray that it would go well the next week -- when the "prelude to prayer" might be shorter.

Things might not go well, though. Ursula might be defiant. Maybe loudly defiant (ignoring the shoulder taps and raising her voice) or softly defiant (giving everyone the cold shoulder thereafter). That is when the leader would have to exercise some leadership. Prayer would be needed for this too!

But whether things go well or poorly, it is part of the leader's job to deal with the situation rather than close his eyes to it.

Now I also hope that the leader has people he can turn to, to get counsel for situations like this, and to be held accountable.

I don't know what Ursula's issue is, but I mentioned to Doug that there are people who feel hurt as a way to control others around them -- a way to protect themselves from growing. I don't think they do it with "malice aforethought" necessarily. I mean they might, but they might not. We don't have to know, but we do have to pray, because in either case it is a spiritual issue; it is not simply a management or group-dynamics issue we are dealing with here.

Finally, I shared with Doug that "It's easy for me to say all this" because I'm not the one having to do it!